Unravelling The Strings of the Mask
The concept of a masked mystery man has for many, many years been a mainstay of professional wrestling, indeed a feature known only, legitimately, in this walk of life. It is not difficult for wrestling fans to identify that small group of career hooded wrestlers who assiduously guarded the mystique of the tradition, letting it be known that they would unmask if ever beaten and never allowing themselves to be seen without their masks on, declining most interviews. We think of The Black Mask, Count Bartelli, Doctor Death, The Zebra Kid. We acknowledge the professionalism of the shorter lived reigns of The Outlaw and The Exorcist and The White Angel. And we give a nod to European greats, L’Ange Blanc and Le Bourreau de Béthune.
Arguably, however, the biggest name of them all remains paradoxically one of the wrestlers we know most about. Kendo Nagasaki.
His 30+ years of activity can be broken down quite neatly into clearly defined eras. A somewhat unheralded start at the end of 1964 saw him gaining experience in supporting heavyweight bouts and tagging alongside Count Bartelli. Perhaps the peak of his fame was achieved a year and a half later, when, after publicly falling out with Bartelli in a tag match against Tibor Szakacs and Henri Pierlot, a challenge match was arranged between the two mystery characters.
Count Bartelli may well have been relieved finally to dispense with his mask after 26 years behind it, but youthful Nagasaki was still growing in stature and the claiming of such a notable scalp helped him on his way. Below they are seen during the preliminaries of that momentous 1966 bout.
The late sixties saw Kendo Nagasaki appearing regularly all over the UK, debuting at the Royal Albert Hall, but, like Bartelli before him, still denied any television coverage. The Outlaw and the Zebra Kid did appear on television so we have to look elsewhere for a reason why Nagasaki didn't. The Second World War was still fresh in the minds of many and perhaps a stereotypical Japanese sword bearer, clad in samurai garb and menacingly wielding Japanese steel was one chance too many to take for the authorities and the cautious promoters. Remember that even the genteel Dad's Army was considered potentially disrespectful before its first 1968 showing.
But there was another respect in which Nagasaki was overlooked. The annual Royal Albert Hall Heavyweight Trophy was the pinnacle of the year, a great honour to participate in and an annual grouping of 8 great wrestlers. Tibor Szakacs and Gordon Nelson spring to mind as international stars who were able claim honours in the UK thanks to the open nature of the event. But Nagasaki never got a look in. Surely this would have been an ideal platform for him to gain greater notoriety?
On the other hand, he had such a breathtakingly innovative gimmick that no further honours were necessary, and he did enjoy the not inconsiderable benefit of being required to remain unmasked against all the great heavyweight opposition of the day, including four 1969 victories over Jean Ferre.
The authorities finally relented and on Cup Final Day 1971 the nation caught its first televised sighting of Kendo Nagasaki, though the sword ceremony was deemed too frightening and we only caught the final few rounds of a quiet victory over Wayne Bridges. Still, the horizontally barred mask was enough to establish the curiosity of the television public, even though the terror of what we had already been witnessing at our local halls for many years now lay ahead.
1971 was a key year indeed. Now Nagasaki had his tv breakthrough, he was determined to make the most of it, and the opportunity didn’t slip from his grasp. After a couple of follow up bouts within World of Sport, a sensational match was aired from Catterick Bridge against Bristol’s Billy Howes and in which the strangely shaven and tattooed head of Kendo Nagasaki was seen for the first time. Controversy reigned – had Nagasaki been beaten? Who was in fact disqualified? Had he unmasked voluntarily? No matter, Nagasaki’s days in main supporting bouts were now over and he toured the land, his evil and mysterious reputation greatly enhanced.
At the end of the year we were in for a further shock, when, at our local halls, a loquacious side-burned manager appeared with Nagasaki, to present him before each bout. George E. Gillette was a sadistic and arrogant in-ring speaker but proved popular with fans, orchestrating their fascination, distributing photos and making sure that everyone got a coveted autograph. In short, contact, albeit indirect, was now established with the silent one
The two disappeared off to Calgary at the end of the year and met with success and the North American open championship. As far as we can see this was only Nagasaki’s second stint overseas after a short 1968 summer in Japan, where he wrestled under a different name. Six months later and Nagasaki and Gillette were back, and we can safely say that Kendo Nagasaki’s heyday continued for the next couple of years. In this time he faced and sensationally beat on television the hitherto unbeaten and seemingly unbeatable Shirley Crabtree, courtesy of a flying knee to the chin. But his main repertoire of finishers at this time centred around moves brought back from North America: the Rack, The Atomic Chop and the Kamikaze Roll. Another legendary bout was the 40-minute Royal Albert Hall scoreless draw against Bruno Elrington
The first 10 years of Nagasaki, therefore, amounted to a textbook professional approach, travelling widely, carefully preserving the many and varied aspects to his outlandish gimmick, remaining seemingly invincible, and making a great name for himself. Carefully staged promotional interviews and write-ups alluded to oriental training, and interests in Sailing, Chess and The Arts
Quite what led to the events of the following years is not easy to determine, but events there were indeed aplenty. Disaffiliation from Joint Promotions rings started the ball rolling and denied Nagasaki television coverage, but the independent circuit, headed by a promoter in Jackie Pallo who at the time seemed headed for success, offered lucrative alternative bookings. It also allowed the opportunity for Nagasaki to gain titles, such as the WWF World Championship, won against Johnny Kincaid in Hastings in the summer of 1974
When the independent circuit failed to bring the hoped for rewards, Nagasaki fleetingly retired for the first time. By the time he returned to Joint Promotions rings, his status was somewhat lower, a new headlining kid having emerged on the grappling block in the guise of Big Daddy. Nagasaki was now required to make the Halifax giant look good, culminating in a televised unmasking at the Yorkshireman’s hands.
Many fans found not merely distasteful but raher silly the rubishing of the carefully sculpted persona that was the rapid external development in Gillette's effeminate dress and the pair's open in-ring cuddling. By the end of 1977 it had all apparently become too much for Nagasaki and Gillette, and a televised Christmas unmasking of the ceremonial sword bearer was aired from Wolverhampton.
Who knows what their plans were, but just a few months later and Nagasaki was back again, this time wrestling maskless. His first televised bout was against Roger Wells, and we saw a change of style with Nagasaki wrestling cleanly. But this phase of his career was also unsatisfactory and soon fizzled out after initial curiosity value.
A year after this return, Nagasaki had turned his back on wrestling once again, and in a Daily Mirror centre spread was photographed with a rare smile and looking quite normal, alongside an article in which he lifted the lid on some of the tricks of the trade.
After George E. Gillette’s death, Kendo Nagasaki appeared with various managers, but none managed to strike a chord with promoters. The development in these final years of the Kendo Nagasaki wrestling career was more to do with stories of faith healing, largely dismissed as irrelevant by most fans but no doubt designed with a purpose. The red clad combatant appeared increasingly in tag matches where younger partners could share the heat, but the great man was not averse to continued risk-taking in classic encounters with Giant Haystacks, Tony St Clair, Mark Rocco and others.
The one-off curriculum was an invitation for imposters. As well as imitation at home, the Kendo Nagasaki name was at best borrowed in the USA and we bring you this photo of the American version, who wrestled without a mask. However, such was the athletic prowess of the original British version that only the most superficial of fans needed to draw upon the missing index finger for proof of authenticity.
For once we identify a career that did not fizzle out. The persona that is Kendo Nagasaki was so carefully crafted and delivered from its 1964 inception that we can be thankful that a wary marketing eye has guided it through the stages we have described to a present day where a dedicated website keeps the image alive and tv appearances continue right into the 21st century.
Just one key mystery remains, and it centres around 1964. Who on earth dreamt up this outrageously creative gimmick? Who on earth trained this agile youth with the wrestling skills and mature aplomb to implement the gimmick so magnificently right from his 1964 début? Was Count Bartelli a key figure in Nagasaki’s development, or was he just an incidental player in that in 1966 he had decided his days behind the mask were up?
Our insatiable thirst for facts as die-hard fans and respecters of all that is Kendo Nagasaki will ensure that we persevere unstintingly in pursuit of this final unravelling of the threads that secure the Ceremonial Sword Bearer’s barred hood in place to this day.