There's the old saying about those that remember the sixties having never really been there. For those wrestling fans who don't just remember the 1960s, but remember the sixties and were actually there, stand out a handful of bouts that made us stop and think, "This is all for real."
We all had the knowledgeable uncles and guiding fathers who would try to put us right, but fifty years and more ago none of us knew whether or not our evening's wrestling contests had been planned in advance. One of those momentous bouts that defied the all-knowledgeable elders was a heavyweight match between the British champion at the time, Billy Joyce, and the high flying contender Dennis Mitchell.
It was a bout of to-ing and fro-ing between two men of differing styles: technical wizardry against agility, tenacity against athleticism, the man who never seemed to have been young against the eternal youth. Joyce displayed his full repertoire of guile relentlessly punishing the Yorkshireman with successive submission holds, only for Dennis to persistently reverse his fortune with a display of his immense power. The end came suddenly, Joyce displaying a streak of ruthlessness we didn't normally associate with him, gaining two quick submissions to take the contest by two falls to one. It was a rare defeat for Dennis Mitchell, but one which only deepened the admiration and affection of the fans.
Dennis Mitchell was one of wrestling's first golden boys. Barely out of his teens Dennis made his professional debut. looking very young; as he still did when we were watching him a decade and half later, and much the same when we followed him on the independents in the early 1970s. Here was an eternal youth who captured the hearts of wrestling fans up and down the country.
The trademark white trunks, white boots and boyish smile were a clear sign to even the least knowledgeable of fans that the hero of the night was entering the ring.
Born on 11th August, 1929, Dennis' early teens coincided with the second world war. Times were hard, as they were for most, and Dennis would supplement his income taking on all comers in the fairground boxing booths of northern England. In search of stability Dennis joined the Royal Marines in 1946, shortly after his sixteenth birthday. Wrestling at the time didn't figure in Dennis's plans for the future. He'd met wrestlers in the fairground but his sports were boxing and swimming.
Bradford wrestler Norman Morrell had written the Lord Mountevans Rules of wrestling in 1946 and was at the time one of a group of men attempting to re-vitalise professional wrestling in Britain. The war years had taken their toll, and with many former wrestlers too old to return to the ring after a six year break, Morrell was on the look out for recruits. A meeting with Dennis didn't take Norman long to realise that here was a perfect athlete for his new wrestling circuit.
Dennis had the athleticism, the looks, and a longing for success (with a new wife to support); and Norman had the facilities to turn him into a wrestler. Dennis was enrolled at Morrell's gymnasium and was soon learning to wrestle alongside the likes of George Kidd, Eric Taylor and Les Kellett. He possessed the charisma, natural athleticism, and the required strength duly acquired working as a miner and in Bradford market. All that was needed was for Dennis to be taught to wrestle.
Shortly after leaving the marines Morrell gave the youngster his chance, and he snatched it. Dennis was an immediate hit, with his boyish good looks grabbing the hearts of the fans as he faced experienced campaigners such as Cordite Conroy, Val Cerino, Flash Barker and Doulas the Turk. Those early 1950s matches were mainly in the north east, interspersed with fairly frequent jaunts into Scotland and as far south as Birmingham. Wins over Jack Beaumont, Eric Taylor and Norman Walsh, with a drawn verdict against the unbeaten masked man Count Bartelli at the beginning of 1952 were surely a sign that the boy was going places.
Heritage member Bernard Hughes is one who remembers Dennis from those earliest of days: "I first saw him as a middle to light heavy weight back in 1949.The first time he came to St.James's Hall in Newcastle was in March 1949, versus Martin Conroy, who was a middleweight then. Dennis was a regular visitor to Newcastle and always very popular. He gradually put on more weight and his skill was apparent even from the early days. You could see that progress was being made and his first top of the bill bout was against Jim Anderson for the British Light heavyweight title, which he won by two falls to one. This was on 16th August, 1952."
Beancounter added: "Wherever he wrestled he almost invariably topped the bill and with his great skills augmented by a fine physique and good looks, he proved a very popular crowd puller. I recall him wrestling Billy Joyce in a televised bout at Preston in 1964. The match was faded out for the TV viewers at 5 00pm but those of us there were able to witness the remainder of an absolutely brilliant contest culminating in a 1 - 1 draw over eight rounds."
With only four or five years experience Dennis decided to broaden his horizons, making regular trips to the Continent and taking part in the big German and Austrian tournaments held in cities around the two countries. The tournament advantage was the elimination of travelling as bouts were staged in the same city for the duration of the tournament, but this could be offset by a gruelling schedule of wrestling night after night for up to a month at a time. The visits to Germany and Austria brought Dennis into combat with top European heavyweights such as Rudi Saturski, Horst Hoffman and Rene Lasartesse.
The overseas experience went a long way to establishing Dennis as one of Britain's top heavyweights.1956 was a Leap Year. It's just as well that extra day was inserted because on 29th February Dennis won the Royal Albert Hall Heavyweight Trophy. Taking part alongside Dennis were Americans Gene Murphy and Ray Apollon, Turkey's Ali Bey, German Alex Wenzl, Spain's Jim Olivera, and Britain's Black Butcher Johnson and Judo Al Hayes. Dennis defeated Wenzl and Hayes by the only fall required before going on to defeat Olivera by two falls to one in the final.
The Royal Albert Hall victory confirmed Dennis's status as one of Britain's top heavyweights. All that remained was for television to make him famous in every corner of Britain. It certainly did, with Dennis about to enter the nation's living rooms wrestling Mike Marino, Ray Apollon, Mihalyi Kuti and a young Billy Robinson, with whom he had formed a close friendship in Germany. Over the next fifteen years he was to become one of the most popular of British heavyweights. Always a top contender for championship honours Dennis did relinquish Billy Joyce's hold on the belt for a short time in 1959.
Dennis Mitchell was arguably the perfect heavyweight, more rounded in his performance than contemporaries Joyce, Elrington, Campbell, Veidor and the like. Some were individually more skilful, others more aggressive, or stronger, or faster; but few, if any, could combine all the qualities of a professional heavyweight wrestler to the extent of Dennis Mitchell.
In the late 1960s Dennis left Joint Promotions and moved across to the independents, promoting shows with his long time friend Eric Taylor. Outside interests, including a catering business managed with his wife, took up an increasing amount of Dennis's time and his wrestling commitments decreased radically to the point he declared himself retired. In 1974 Dennis returned to Joint Promotions, initially as masked man Kilmeister, but within a year unmasked and appeared as himself once again.
Dennis returned to Germany, as popular as ever, in 1974 and 1975, and Japan; both trips with his son John as his tag partner. It was as though the magic had never gone away. Well, for the fans at least. For Dennis the management he respected, the likes of Norman Morrell and Ted Beresford were no more. Wrestling was changing, and Dennis didn't like what he saw. He decided for a second time that it was time to call it a day.
Retirement from the ring didn't necessarily mean a quieter life for Dennis. He worked as a film extra, publican of the Fairweather Green public house, security manager, and even a local councillor, representing Odsal ward in Bradford. Dennis began suffering heart problems in 1994, forcing him into retirement.
Dennis Mitchell died on 29th October, 1997, aged just 68. The family tradition continued through Dennis's three sons, Karl, John and Steven.