One of the pleasures of Wrestling Heritage is the way it allows the mind to delve to seemingly forgotten memories, often reaching deeper than we ever thought possible to vividly recall events that took place and been misplaced for decades.
Occasionally, though, we find that this exploration of the mind can play tricks on us.
Wrestling Heritage writers first became aware of Bob Sweeney in the mid sixties, around 1965 or 1966. We were amongst fans who discussed the tenacious Yorkshireman in the same breath as master technicians Eric Taylor and Ernie Riley.
We were somewhat surprised, shocked in fact, when Bob told us that he retired from wrestling in 1964, and we realised we could never have seen him in the ring! His reputation was such that it had diminished little at the time we heard frequent reference to him two or three years after his final bout. It is quite feasible that many fans at that time had not realised that Bob had retired from the ring as he unlaced his boots for the last time when he was just thirty years old.
There is no mystery why Bob Sweeney retired at such an early age, just seven years after making his professional debut. Bob had seen many of his colleagues continue long past their prime, and more importantly had witnessed the price paid by former wrestlers in the way of poor health and damaged bodies. It was, therefore, always part of the Sweeney plan to retire at an early age, though good fortune did result in retirement two or three years before he had planned.
Bob’s sporting background lay not in wrestling but in body building. He was something of a keep fit enthusiast who developed his body not just through a rigorous training routine but also through a healthy diet, making him something of an expert on exercise, nutrition and physiology. His ambition, and quite a visionary one half a century ago, was to open a health club that would attract members of the general public and not just physical culturalists or keep-fit fanatics.
Gymnasiums were commonplace in most towns, but they tended to be unwelcoming places that appealed only to those with a fair amount of dedication to keeping themselves in shape. The Sweeney plan was to broaden the concept of the gymnasium to include other aspects of a healthy lifestyle and package it in such a way that people would choose to participate as part of their leisure activities.
He confided his plan in a number of fellow wrestlers, with unsurprisingly mixed reactions. One of the most encouraging was Bradford’s Don Branch, a popular wrestler at the time who was to later go on to become a top class referee. Practical advice came from the mighty George Bolas, the Zebra Kid. George understood Bob’s plans as he had seen similar ventures in America, but he helped the Yorkshireman in developing the concept in a way that was to lead to its huge success and a chain of a dozen or so health centres around the UK. Whilst Bob had got the right idea it was Bolas that convinced him of the need for marketing and promotion. Almost half a century later the benefit of hindsight makes it hard to believe that marketing had hardly been considered by Bob, but the commercial world of the 1960s was a very different place from that of today. Fortunately Bolas’ advice was heeded and the combination of an innovative product and imaginative high-profile marketing led to an almost immediate success for the new venture.
By the time the first club opened Bob had been wrestling for seven years, having turned professional in 1957. He had taken up amateur wrestling in the army when he was completing his National Service. A few months after leaving the army he watched Spencer Churchill, the nationally acclaimed body builder, wrestling at the Drill Hall, Halifax. That was the moment that Bob decided that he too would capitalise on his fitness, strength and amateur wrestling ability and turn professional. A couple of friends at the Halifax gym where he trained were two brothers who went by the names Max and Shirley Crabtree. When the Crabtree brothers decided to start promoting wrestling shows they asked Bob if he would like to turn professional.
That first professional bout, in 1957, was against a young wrestler from Bradford, impressively billed as Young Sandow. He too was destined for national acclaim under another name, Alan Dennison.
After a couple of years working for the independent promoters of the north Bob received an unexpected telephone call from Ted Beresford, asking him to work exclusively, and full time, for Joint Promotions. With a young family to support Bob was reluctant, but Beresford reassured him that he would receive enough work to give up any other jobs. So the decision was made and Bob Sweeney turned full time professional for Joint Promotions.
Beresford was true to his word and Bob remained busy throughout his career, mainly working the North and Scotland, but not infrequently making visits to the South. These southern jaunts usually lasted a week and Bob would stay in London at a bed and breakfast above Martinis restaurant in Brixton. Martinis displayed photographs of their more famous guests on the walls of the restaurant, and shortly after Bob’s photo had been added to the gallery it was spotted by a television producer who invited him to become a television stuntman. It almost didn’t happen, however, as when Bob received the phone call from the producer he initially dismissed it as another wrestler playing a trick on him.
Amongst Bob's new acquaintances in Joint Promotion rings was the powerful Shipley heavyweight Geoff Portz. Portz welcomed the newcomer to Joint Promotion dressing rooms and was destined to become a very positive influence on the novice. Fifty years later Bob is still immensely grateful to his friend Geoff Portz. "He taught me so much," said Bob, "not just ways to improve my wrestling, but every aspect of being a professional sportsman. For Geoff professionalism didn't begin and end when entering and leaving the ring. Professionalism encompassed every aspect of his life, and that is what he tried to instil in me. I cannot emphasise too much the influence of that great man."
Bob quickly established himself on the Joint Promotion circuit, having memorable matches against Ernie Riley, Steve Logan and Les Kellett. Riley put his championship belt on the line half a dozen times but Bob was always narrowly beaten. The first of many overseas visits was arranged when mentor Geoff Portz arranged for Bob to take one of the places in the big German tournaments. "Once again Geoff's experience and professionalism was outstanding. He introduced me to the promoters, and showed me what was expected; some of those German promoters were very demanding."
The Wrestler magazine took note of him in 1962 referring to him as a “young titan” and his zip and zoom style. Frequent television appearances brought national fame and in the early sixties fans fully expected Bob to be one of the top light heavyweights for years to come.
In the meantime the first of the health clubs was doing very well indeed. Within less than a year business commitments forced Bob to cut back on his wrestling, and only a few months later he took the decision to retire completely, The decision was one that he never regretted. The full time commitment to the health clubs soon led to a second, a third and eventually a dozen around the country.