C: Douglas Clark

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Douglas Clark

Following a year of deliberation Wrestling Heritage named Douglas Clark, the "John Bull in Trunks," as the Top Wrestler of the 1930s. Not a name as readily recalled as other 1930s greats Jack Pye, Norman the Butcher, Bert Assirati or Francis St Clair Gregory, the decision was of no surprise to regular readers of Wrestling Heritage. Our Years of Wrestling series of the development of professional wrestling in the 1930s repeatedly referred to the exploits of Douglas Clark, one of the real wrestlers of the decade.

Assirati was of the same mould, but he was a novice in the 1930s; Pye was a terrific showman who broke the mould and changed the face of wrestling before the war and beyond but he was not in the same class; Garnon was a good amateur who made a success as a pro but never quite made it to the first division; Oakeley created his own niche; Riley had tenacity and skill but lacked a national presence; Gill and George Clark were powerful men and real wrestlers but never seemed to quite match Douglas.

The emergence of wrestling as a spectator sport demanded a ready supply of participants. This demand was met by veterans from a previous age like Johanfesson and Henry Irslinger, good amateurs like Harold Angus and Bill Garnon, world class exponents like Benny Sherman and Karl Pojello, and novices from overseas like Whipper Watson and Billy Bartush.

Douglas Clark was different. Born in Ellenborough, a suburb of Maryport in Cumbria, on 2nd May, 1891 Douglas was forty years old at the start of Britain's wrestling revival. A veteran of the First World War he had fought on the front line in France. Wartime experience alone signifies the extraordinary powers of the man. In France he was wounded by shrapnel from a bomb and badly gassed at Passchendale. Douglas was discharged in a wheelchair, but returned to his unit less than a month later. In 1918 he was discharged with a 95% Disability Certificate and awarded the Military Medal for valour during combat. He was told to take things easy in civilian life, and responded by going on to become one of the greatest rugby players of all time.

He married Jennie Gate, also from Maryport, in 1922, and won the Grasmere Cup in Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling the same year. By 1930 Douglas was a mature man who had experienced enormous success in the sporting world, though not as a professional wrestler. He had played professional rugby league (for Huddersfield) from 1909 - 27 and had played in both the England and Great Britain teams between 1911 and 1925.

It was this maturity and experience, along with agility, strength, prowess as a Cumberland and Westmorland style wrestler, and a natural ability that Douglas brought to All -In wrestling. As a three times holder of the Cumberland and Westmorland style championship he must have held one of the few undisputed titles in wrestling!

Douglas was a natural in the professional ring, the "John Bull in Trunks". In March 1931, shortly after turning professional, he won a knock-out tournament for the British heavyweight championship at the London Sports Club defeating Joe Robinson of Newcastle in the semi final and Atholl Oakeley in the championship final. It was a victory that was to be dismissed by Oakeley in the years that followed.

In June of the same year (1931) he faced Bert Assirati in a catch-as-catch-can style contest at Wakefield Opera House. Despite being the aggressor for much of the contest Douglas was held to a draw by the younger Assirati. He immediately challenged Assirati to a return contest, which was arranged for the Belle Vue Football Ground, Wakefield, on 20th June. It was reported that 3,000 fans saw Douglas defeat Assirati, who was said to be Clark's toughest challenger to date. It was an unfortunate ending for Assirati who went over the ropes onto the hard ground below in the fifth of six ten minute rounds. Assirati was declared injured and unable to continue.

Douglas was incensed in August, 1933, on receipt of an invitation from the International Wrestling Syndicate of the London Sports Club (Lanes Club) to enter an open tournament to find a challenger for Atholl Oakeley who they referred to as the "indisputable All-In Champion." Clark questioned the legitimacy of the International Wrestling Syndicate and stated he would never wrestle at the London Sports Club again. He offered to wrestle Oakeley according to All-In rules, not only putting his British and World championships up for grabs but also offering a sidestake of his £500 against Oakeley's £100. His challenge was not accepted.

By virtue of his defeat of just about all the main European contenders he was matched with the Belgian Laurent Gertsmanns at the Headingley Rugby League Ground in Leeds on July 3rd in a contest billed as the World Heavyweight Championship. On a hot summers evening a crowd of 10,000 witnessed an evenly matched contest drawn over six ten minute rounds. Clark was undeniably the more skilful of the two men, and it was only the three stones weight advantage of Gerstmann that enabled him to hold on for a draw following sixty minutes of wrestling without a fall. One week later agreement was reached for a return contest at Fartown, Huddersfield, on 24th July, with 7,000 fans passing through the turnstile. The return was a more ferocious and shorter contest, with Clark knocking out the Belgian to win the title after six minutes and fifteen seconds of the fourth round. Douglas Clark was proclaimed World Heavyweight Champion.

Although Oakeley did not publicly acknowledge Douglas's British championship claim his successor as champion, Bill Garnon, defended his title against Douglas on November 2nd, 1934. Garnon was billed as champion whilst Clark had to settle for challenger status. The match began quietly enough but events heated up in the fifth round with both men out of the ring. Clark gained the first fall in the fifth round, after 49 gruelling minutes, and a second in the following round, winning by two falls to nil.

Ron Historyo continues the story of  our 1930's wrestling ambassador to Australia

Time waits for no man and it is many years since Douglas Clark was seen in our rings. People talk of Oakeley because he told his own tale, and people talk of Assiratti because his career peaked much later. Yes those two went to America, but their tours were not on the same scale as Douglas Clark.  Let me say this. Assirati was twice Crabtree's age when the legend of his fear was spawned. Assirati at the peak of his powers, took all of his strength into his forties and even fifties. No wonder  a young Blond Adonis had fear.

In the case of Douglas Clark, we are talking of a man much older than Bert Assirati, an immensely powerful man, even stated as so by Oakeley in “Blue Blood on the Mat.” As far as we know Clark was never beaten by either man or anyone else for that matter in Britain, until at a very late stage in his career he fell to Jack Sherry in 1938. Clark beat them all, Assirati, Oakeley Garnon, Gregory, Armstrong, Pye, Irslinger and George Clark.

In the 1930's a man of six feet was a very tall man. Doug was not that, by some two and a half inches, but still a very big man. It is more than height, it is build. Doug was the mentor of a genuine six footer in Mitchel Gill, who he felt had a superb physique and in the 1930s' they went on their travels, overlapping but not together.

Born in 1891, Clark had already been a Rugby league international and toured Australia twice and through the  1920's was Westmorland Style champion.  Professional wrestling went into the ring as a worked entertainment in late 1930 and it was shortly after that Clark won a tournament to be declared our first champ. He beat Oakeley.

Oakeley went to America and tried to wipe out the first period of history on his return, by pretending that the first few months had only been “Catch” and had not been properly enacted like “all in” stating that he was unbeaten at “all in”. To justify this he arranged a tournament that he did not compete in himself until the winner, Len Franklin won the right to face Oakeley “The Champion.” Clark was having none of it, he would not appear. Clark enhanced his own standing by being anything he wanted to be, European champ , Commonwealth Champ and even World Champ.

Oakeley faded and Assirati came after Clark circa 1942 as the new champ.

The above gives a flavour as to what kind of draw Douglas Clark went out to Australia to be. He did not go out there to fight jobbers most nights and build himself up. He went as our champion,  to share the limelight with Australia's best, and some very good men they had.

On 18th January 1936 Clark set sail from London on the Orion to Sydney and toured until mid September that year and then returned home. The plan was about 30 fights, not all of which I have been able to find in the papers.  At this time the Australian heavyweight championship had been held by Billy Meeske and also Tom Lurich. Soon after Fred Atkins would also be their champion. And also George Pencheff was champion. That is only four very good champions in ten years. See below for the Australian championship record.

There is plenty to read about these guys and also footage of at least some. And if you think the wrestling was not like the Golden Years in Britain, you should look at Lurich fighting Mitchell Gill (as Mike McGill). Sadly the only footage I know of featuring  Clark thus far is stored away, a Huddersfield outdoor championship match with Johanfesson.. 

The information fed to the Australian press seems about right to me.  He won the British Championship in 1931 by beating Oakeley, beat Gertsmans in 1933 for the European championship and beat Froehner, the German champ, and Burnett the Canadian champ.

Clark fought in an array of top stadiums only against quality opposition. I can find three losses, but the ones to Lurich are counter balanced with wins and draws.

Strange that a quick trip over to Auckland saw Clark lose 2-0 to American Cowboy Rebel Russell. Influenza was cited by Clark who lost to two slam and body presses in the 2nd and 4th rounds, and there is doubt that the match with Sam Leather  five days later went ahead. The Cowboy Russel match was described by the press as a match between a young early thirties man and a man of mid forties looking past his best. The New Zealand press correctly reported that Clark had fought Lurich seven times on his tour.

Wrestling Heritage is not normally for stats, an encyclopaedia yes, and a forum and galleries and memories, but it is about preservation and pride in our men. Hence I list the matches that I have been able to find.

Set Sail on Orion 18th January 1936
March 15th Sydney 1-1 draw with Tom Lurich
March 22nd Sydney beat George Pencheff on a DQ
April 11th Sydney beat Tom Lurich on a DQ
April 25th Sidney beat Con Grivas 2-1
April29th Brisbane beat Tom Lurich on a DQ
May 2nd Newcastle beat Jack Britton on a DQ
May 6th Brisbane beat Tom Lurich on Points
May 12th Brisbane beat Jack Rocky Britton 1-0
May20 Brisbane drew with Tom Lurich 1-1
May 23rd Brisbane drew with Fred Atkins 1-1
May 30th Sidney lost to Lurich  2-1 for British Empire Title
June 13th Brisbane beat Wong. Buck Cheung  on a DQ
June 27th Sidney drew with Haban Singh
July 18th Sidney lost to Lurich  on points for Title
August 3rd Auckland NZ lost to Cowboy Rebel Russell  2-0
August 8th Auckland NZ fought Sam Leathers result unknown
August !!!! Auckland papers record that NZ Champ George Walker beat Clark
August 22nd Adelaide beat Hori Tiki on points
August 29th Adelaide drew with  Jack Higgins 1-1
September 12th Adelaide drew with Billy Meeske 1-1 …........end of 1936 tour.

A tour to be proud of.

We must remember that Clark was 44 years of age and I must point out that on the 1937 tour he was not as prominent. However at 45 one could suggest he was looking for payday's and also of course, it is all about the pecking order. This is wrestling, if the money is right, does the result matter. Yes, 1937 saw a mystifying amount of losses but again the opposition was top notch.

Set sail on Mooltan 6th April 1937
May12th Adelaide Billy Meeske retained Empire title looks to have been 1-1
May 22nd Adelaide lost on points to Hori Tiki
June 2nd  Melbourne billed to fight  Billy Meeske result unknown.
June 5th Adelaide drew with Fred Atkins 1-1
June 9th Brisbane billed to fight Billy Meeske result unknown
June 16th Melbourne lost to Fred Atkins 1-0
July 10th Adelaide lost to Billy Meeske 3-2
July 17th Broken Hill lost to Billy Meeske  2-1 to retain Empire Title
July 31st Brisbane lost to Meeske  2-1
August 14th Brisbane beat Tony Lamaro on a DQ
August 18th Brisbane drew with Ted Pickrang
August 21st Brisbane lost to Edmund von Kraemmer 1-0..........Home on the Narkunda 1937

Clark v  Lurich Affairs must have been practiced to perfection. They were so rough and so even that the police were called more than once, with matches spilling into drawn brawls and disqualifications.

On his return to Britain in 1938 the years were catching up on Douglas, going down twice to Jack Sherry in one of his last big pay days. Did he care? One last big pay day. Even at that age the reporter of the Daily Express noted that in their first match Douglas was the cleverer of the two wrestlers and  that he entered the ring with the slight cut which opened up and led to the referee stopping the fight in the seventh round. In the return match Douglas was disqualified for using his knee in the seventh round.

He was a man who had done it all.

There was to be no post Second World War revival for Douglas Clark; he left that to lesser men. As a wrestler he was a man of his decade. But what a decade. What a man. The number one wrestler of the 1930s.

19/09/2021: Ron Historyo section added from wrestlingheritage.com