The Perfect Foil
Here is another of those great professional wrestlers who had a career that spanned the Golden Heritage Years that we discuss on this site, and who also had experience of wrestling in a variety of settings and against the full range of opponents. The very fact that his name remains little known outside wrestling circles is in itself a definition of both what this site stands for, and the relatively unnoticed but essential role played by so many long-term professional wrestlers down the years, particularly in enabling the bigger names to shine brightly.
The Portsmouth Hercules Bob Kirkwood was a mid-heavyweight blue-eye who entered the paid ranks in 1960, working for an array of promoters including Tony de Marto, Frankie Price, George Kidd and Ken Joyce. In 1962 Kirkwood was introduced to Paul Lincoln Promotions by fellow Pompey pro Big Bruno Elrington.
Lincoln had a Batmanesque stable of larger-than-life-villains including Ski Hi Lee, Crusher Verdu, The Wildman of Borneo, Gori Ed Mangotich, Docker Don Steadman and, of course, Doctor Death. Bob Kirkwood was perfectly weighted and styled to take them all on and keep the crowds coming back for more.
Lincoln and Judo Al Hayes had strong links with the Parisian wrestling scene, having imported such stars as Quasimodo and Les Blousons Noirs. In return, Lincoln stablemates Hayes and Kirkwood wrestled frequently in Paris: Kirkwood also tagged in Paris with Wayne Bridges as Les Incorruptables, feeding off the huge popularity of the 1960s television series, The Untouchables. And though he had no amateur wrestling background, Kirkwood picked up enough ringcraft along his travels to mix it even with the undisputed European Heavyweight Champion, West Germanys Horst Hoffmann on foreign soil. Other destinations included Austria, Spain and Kenya.
In another tag guise, a masked Bob Kirkwood wrestled alongside Judo Al Hayes as The White Angels, and when Hayes's White Angel was unmasked by Doctor Death, Dave Larsen took over as partner. Bob recalls Al Hayes' professionalism with the fondest respect: "Alfie could make a broomstick look good!"
When Paul Lincoln Promotions merged with Dale Martins, Bob Kirkwood was centrally involved in the famous televised ring invasion of New Year's Day 1966, when a dozen Lincoln wrestlers climbed into the ring to challenge the Dale Martin mob. Kirkwood, in his gloriously flexible and understated utility role was immediately in great demand.
His television debut was in his favoured role, enabling a visiting Russian villain to arouse maximum hatred. This was Nikita Mulkovich and they appeared from Hemel Hempstead in February 1967. In his later televised appearances, Bob would face other big name villains including Jackie Pallo and Beautiful Bobby Barnes, the classy stylists such as Mike Marino and Steve Viedor, and also his regular opponents in supporting bouts, like Tug Holton. This versatility of style led to sufficient televised bouts to place Bob Kirkwood in the top 100 of all time television wrestlers, as compiled on this site here.
In 1968, Bob featured on wrestling's Royal Night of Nights at the Royal Albert Hall and in the opening bout wrestled clown prince, Les Kellett. This was the second time HRH the Duke of Edinburgh had attended a wrestling presentation.
After all the stories written about Les Kellett, some for quick financial gain, as in 'The Wrestling' by author Simon Garfield, Wrestling Heritage writers prefer to move ahead slowly but accurately in piecing together a clear and correct picture of the in-and-out-of-ring Les Kellett. Who better to ask than this regular opponent of his. Bob recalls:
"Oh, yes, I wrestled Les many, many times. Even though I wasn't a rule-bender Les was able to entertain the crowd perfectly well with all his tricks and my only problem was keeping a straight face as he was genuinely funny and spontaneous. On one occasion before the bout Les explained that he had gout in his toe and to avoid all contact with it during the bout. For some reason I managed deliberately to tread on the toe and had to await my dressing room fate afterwards. But Les was fine about it. He was a very well read man and if he had an enemy there was usually some reason for it."
Other greats that Bob especially rated amongst his opponents were Black Butcher Johnson, Billy Joyce, Gorilla Reg Ray, Don Mendoza, The Professor Cyril Knowles, and Swiss giant Rene Lasartesse. His hardest opponent, however, he rated as The Outlaw.
On many occasions he wrestled Heritage favourite Alan Garfield and Bob vividly remembers a couple of journeys home late at night in the Dale Martin van:
"The one time he nearly had promoter Jackie Dale arrested when the police stopped the van. It was a random check, but Sir Alan scribbled on a scrap of paper 'These men have kidnapped me, help!' and pushed the paper through the window to see it flutter into one of the constables' hands. There was an almighty commotion but we managed to keep Jack out of prison. Another time at Christmas we were stopped as the police said there had been turkey rustling in the area. We all made fervent denials and just wanted to get home ? until from the back of the van Sir Alan started making gobbling sounds!?"
At a 'competitive' level, possibly the highlight of Bob's career was emerging victorious in an 8-man knockout tournament in Maidstone featuring big namers Goldbelt Maxine, Butcher Bond and Beautiful Bobby Barnes. He also faced dynamic seventies superstars Jon Guil Don and Mark Rocco, and lists Guil Don also as one of his occasional tag partners along with Johnny Kwango and Ivan Penzecoff. However, his victory over Dulwich Destroyer Mick McManus also rates highly.
A pinnacle performance we have mentioned elsewhere on this site was in 1974 when the masked Exorcist made his first televised appearance. Kirkwood was the perfect foil and generously sold every move the hooded wrestler had to give, ensuring he was sent on his masked bill-topping way around the country.
Elsewhere on this site in Armchair Corner in the article entitled "Smiles Without Frontiers" you can read our detailed review of Bob Kirkwood versus Johnny Czeslaw. The pair wrestled many many times. Other very frequent opponents for Bob were Tug Holton, Robby Baron, Tornado Torontos and Catweazle.
Out of the ring, Bob enjoyed horse riding and tinkering with car engines - no wonder Mick McManus took him on as driver when Young Robby had moved on from the role.
Bob Kirkwood's final professional contest was against Belfast's Dave Fit Finlay, around the time when Mike Marino was doing the booking for Dale Martin. Bob went into the bout with a stiff neck, came out with it even stiffer, and decided there and then to hang up his boots and he has since dedicated his professional life to his great loves of physical culture and fitness centre management.
Thanks to Bob Kirkwood and his ilk, professional wrestling thrived in an entertainingly believable way throughout the sixties and seventies.