S: Ben Sherman
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The “Alaskan wild cat” played a small but important part in British wrestling history. Why? Because when he came to Britain in the late 1920s he began training at the Ashdown Club in London. Heritage friend and historian, the late Allan Best, wrote, “It was at the Ashdown that 'All In' had its birth in this country when Bulldog Bill Garnon met American Benny Sherman in a shooting match and although Sherman was only a middleweight he soundly trounced the heavier Welshman." A subsequent meeting with Atholl Oakeley, and (we are led to believe by Atholl) a tussle on the lawn one Sunday afternoon led to Oakeley and Garnon turning professional.
Without the intervention of Sherman and Irslinger the new Americanised style of wrestling may well have been delayed by months, or even years. Ben’s activity in British rings was fairly limited, but he brought youth and skill at a time that domestic talent was in limited supply. Unlike most of the 1930s overseas visitors his career was on the ascendancy and he was neither a novice starting out or a veteran extending an already over-long career.
A full perspective of Ben Sherman’s life and career can be found in Ron Historyo’s excellent On The Trail of Ben Sherman leaving us to focus on his time in the United Kingdom.
Ben arrived in Britain in the autumn of 1930 when newspapers reported that he was training three British wrestlers, Assirati, Oakeley and Garnon, and had applied for a work permit to wrestle on Jeff Dickson’s inaugural wrestling programme at the Royal Albert Hall on 31st October. When that event was cancelled Ben left for South Africa at the end of November, two weeks before the All-In style was belatedly introduced to British audiences.
By the time he returned to Britain in 1932 Ben had established himself as one of the world’s top middleweights and had held the world middleweight championship for a short time in 1931. Ben returned to Britain in April 1932 and offered a £500 challenge to any wrestler who could defeat him or any boxer who could last 30 minutes with him.
Legend tells us that Sherman was one of the world's great shoot wrestlers. Nevertheless, he certainly seemed to appreciate what professional wrestling was all about. This may account for him dutifully going down to the likes of Carver Doone and Norman the Butcher, both creations of his friend and promoter, Atholl Oakeley. Admittedly Doone was much heavier than Sherman, who never seemed to go above 14 stones, as were many of his opponents. There seemed little attempt by promoters to build up Ben's invincible persona in the 1932 visit. Maybe this was a consequence of him having no long term commitment to wrestling in Britain.
A lamb to the slaughter was the matching of Ben with British heavyweight champion claimant Douglas Clark, one of the most powerful men in Britain. The venue was Belle Vue in Manchester and the date was 24th June, 1932. The report tells of a peculiar match in which Sherman was challenged to throw Clark twice within the 60 minute no rounds time limit. The report states that Clark remained on the defensive, lying on his stomach and knees whilst Ben's attempts to overcome him proved futile. We do wonder that without the challenge stipulation the fans may well have been treated to a more enjoyable contest.
Another gimmick contest was found in August, 1932 when Ben faced a West African boxer of limited ability known as Joo Joo. At Blackpool Stadium Ben beat Joo Joo twice, on points in a three round boxing match and in the first round of a wrestling contest.
It wasn't all like that. Sherman was a good wrestler and there are many reports of fine contests. Ben Sherman's victory over Norman The Butcher at the Ring, Blackfriars, was reportedly one of the best exhibitions of wrestling for years, with Sherman demonstrating one of the cleverest exhibitions of wrestling.
In a match with Huddersfield's Harry Brooks in 1933 the Nottingham press reported, “The American's display in the second round got the crowd wild with excitement. He was like a hurricane … a series of clever holds that kept Brooks fully occupied.”
Ben seemingly remained in Britain throughout 1932 and 1933, apart from visits to Paris where he wrestled for British promoter Jeff Dickson. In addition to those listed above other notable opponents included Jack Pye, The Black Tiger, Karl Reginsky, and Sam Rabin. The pool of opponents, from an admittedly limited sample, does seem very small, with matches against Pye, Norman the Butcher and Black Tiger repeated time and again.
Wrestler Vic Coleman told Chris Owen of the Wrestling Furnace website, "Somebody had the bright idea of billing, top of the bill, Bert Assirati and Benny Sherman and I watched it because I was keen to see it. But it didn’t really live up to expectations because Benny Sherman was so quick every time Bert tried to grab hold of him, and Benny knew that if he did really hold him he would never get away. It was called in the end, and the crowd were booing, they were just facing each other and mauling each other around and it was declared a no contest."
Newspapers reported that as early as 1933 Sherman was becoming disenchanted about the way the revised sport was developing in Britain. He disliked the disregard of the rules and unscrupulous ways of some promoters. Sherman called, with others for the formation of a genuine Board of Control. Some chance. This may be why he spent the last three months of 1933 in France before returning to South Africa. Or it may just be that here was a man with wanderlust following the money.
September 1938 seems to be the next time Ben Sherman arrived in Britain. We have adverts, but no confirmed reports. This time he is billed as World Light Heavyweight Champion and made defences against Herbie Parkes and Milo Popocoplis.
Ben was certainly in Britain during much of 1939, still defending his world light heavyweight title. A surprise came for Liverpool fans on 14th July, 1939. Jack McLaughlin drew with a masked wrestler known as The Black Mask. Although he had not been beaten the masked man removed the hood to reveal the face of Ben Sherman. This cleared the way for McLaughlin to challenge Sherman for his world title. The match was arranged at Liverpool Stadium for just two weeks later, 28th July. It took ten rounds until McLaughlin took the deciding fall and the championship.
So, an unmasking and a title loss within a fortnight. All very convenient with the beat of war drums ringing out Ben returned to America in August.
Ben Sherman, born 4th July, 1908; died 3rd April, 1981.