Escapology & Endurance
Very few wrestlers celebrated on Wrestling Heritage have a fan base covering as many years as Johnny Saint. Younger readers remember the most brilliant lightweight imaginable in the 1980s and 1990's, whilst older ones who were following the game fifty years ago remember the most brilliant lightweight imaginable in the 1960s and 1970s!
We first met Johnny Saint in the 1960s and interviewed him for our very first published piece. Even then he was a class act, though in those days was a well guarded secret of the fans of independent rings, demonstrating once again that some of the best wrestlers could not be seen on the television. Despite his talent, immense popularity with fans, and the optimism of a twenty-something it was apparent that here was a modest young man whose feet, when he wasn't in the wrestling ring, were firmly on the ground. Inside the ring it was another matter as far as those feet were concerned, but we don't need to tell any readers just how fast Johnny Saint could move and of his wide range of acrobatic manoeuvres that defied gravity.
It comes as no surprise whatsoever that Johnny's head was kept out of the clouds when those that were influencing his development are taken into consideration. For starters, Danny Flynn and Fred Woolley (right). Danny and Fred were two well seasoned pros, welterweights of the Colbeck and Dempsey calibre, who had gone into partnership as promoters in the late 1950s. Johnny worked for Fred and Danny, wrestling at night and driving the ring van (it was Johnny's van) and setting up the hall before the show. Danny and Fred recognised the wrestling potential, but to these two old pros that simply meant there was more for him to learn. Fred matched himself alongside Johnny on many of his tournaments, and they made a great match with the wily old pro against the classy sharp moving youngster.
Ask anyone who worked with him and they will tell you that Fred Woolley saw each match as an opportunity to teach his opponent a thing or two. Not in a mean spirited or unkind sense, but in the sense of a master teaching the student. Johnny Saint was a good student, and within a few years of turning professional had enough bookings to work full time for the opposition promoters, seen at his best against the likes of Fred, Danny Flynn, Ian St John, Jimmy Devlin, Jim Lewis and Zoltan Boscik. Driving up and down the country, wrestling most nights of the week and gaining the admiration of fans was certainly preferable to working in the factory he had joined when he left Failsworth Secondary Modern School at fifteen.
Fred and Danny's lessons were only a continuation of the learning curve begun by others. Johnny's first mentor was no less a man than Billy Robinson, though some time before Billy became the great heavyweight we know. It all happened by chance. Johnny's mother met Billy's mother (at the hairdresser's if you're wondering) and mentioned that her teenage son was a keen amateur boxer, a schoolboy champion no less. This chance meeting led to Johnny going along to Billy's gym for boxing training. He was sixteen at the time and a year earlier had started work in the factory that his father worked. Billy's uncle, Alf, gave Johnny boxing lessons, until Johnny's head was turned. There were also wrestlers in the gym. Real wrestlers. Catch wrestlers. Johnny became interested in the wrestling and Billy Robinson began to teach him catch wrestling.
Earning eight pounds a week in the factory the prospect of getting paid to wrestle proved very attractive; Johnny heard that two or three matches a week could match his weekly pay packet. There were wrestling tournaments most nights of the week in Manchester alone, and over a hundred shows around the country each week. Standards were high, but Johnny was determined to get into the business. He had certainly learned how to wrestle from Billy Robinson, but he needed to learn more before anyone would pay him for his efforts. The skills of a professional wrestler, entertaining fans five or six nights a week, are very different from those of a catch wrestler.
To prepare himself for the professional ring he needed more specialised training. That was how Johnny came to enrol at Grant Foderingham's Black Panther gym in Openshaw. Grant (left) was an old pro, one time opponent of Assirati, Bartelli, Marino and other top heavies. There was little he didn't know about pro wrestling and in his basement gym he had prepared many of the best in the business for the ring, amongst them Johnny South, Paul Mitchell, Mike 'Flash' Jordan, Pete Lindberg, Ian Wilson, Jumping Jim Moser, Ken Else, Al Marquette, Pat Curry and Eddie Rose.
Johnny attended Panther's Gym each week, now with the goal of earning a living from wrestling. As the professional career neared realisation there was the question of finding a suitable name. Yes it would have been fortuitous to have been Christened John Saint, but obviously this was not the case. One night he went around to the home of a wrestling friend, Colin McDonald. Johnny, Colin and Colin's wife were sat watching television when the light bulb moment came to Colin's wife and she proclaimed the name, Johnny Saint.
When the time came for the professional debut it rather surprisingly wasn't with Panther's Unique Promotions, or the Manchester clubs supremo Jim Lewis, but in Tynemouth. Tynemouth, in the north East of England, seemed to be in another world for the eighteen year old Mancunian, and more than fifty years later Johnny told us of the trepidation of setting out from home for that first match. The opponent on that first night, 29th June, 1959, was Johnny's wrestling friend Colin McDonald. Any reassurance of a friendly face in the opposite corner was swiftly removed as Colin was a very hard wrestler capable of inflicting pain, friend or not.
In the months that followed Johnny started to receive regular bookings from promoters up and down the country. Jim Lewis, who promoted in the Manchester clubs, was able to offer regular work, Grant Foderingham who also promoted around the north, Jerry Jeary in the midlands, Jack Taylor and Danny and Fred's Cape Promotions, nationwide; wherever the youngster appeared he proved popular; though Johnny was at pains to tell us that at the time he did have a great deal to learn. Opponents in the early days included Jim Lewis, Red Callaghan, Mike Mahoney, Zoltan Boscik, Pedro the Gypsy, and Brian Maxine. With experience came the confidence to give up the day job at the factory, which allowed Johnny to extend his activities into Scotland and the south of England.
For the next ten years Johnny honed his skills, gradually developing the style that was to make him one of the country's most popular and successful wrestlers. It was during this period that he worked backstage for Cape Promotions, transporting the ring in his van and getting the hall ready for the start of the show.With contemporaries Zoltan Boscik, Jon Cortez, Alan Sergeant and many others now wrestling on television it was only natural that Johnny's aspirations were to sign up with Joint Promotions.
One of the old professionals advised Johnny to write to Wryton Promotions to ask for a trial. He even dictated word for word what Johnny should write. Johnny did as suggested but was disappointed to find there was no response. He was advised to try again, but the result was the same. Or so it seemed. One night after wrestling Johnny was approached by a man. It was a man he recognised because it was wrestler Abe Ginsberg. Abe had taken on a management role with Wryton Promotions and had come along to watch the young professional.
He liked what he saw, and Johnny was signed up to work for Joint Promotions.
To their credit Wryton did realise the potential of Johnny Saint, not always the case with wrestlers they bring over from the opposition, and matched him with the likes of Vic Faulkner, Bert Royal and Steve Logan. In July, 1969 he made his television debut and was a sensation when he held Vic Faulkner to a draw. Four weeks later he was back on television and defeated Adrian Street, albeit via disqualification. The fans loved him. There was talk around the halls - "Saint has beaten Logan, Saint has beaten Faulkner, Saint has beaten Breaks ..."
Within two months of joining Joint Promotions Johnny Saint was established as one of the top lightweights alongside Jon Cortez, Jim Breaks and George Kidd.
No one with an interest in British wrestling needs us to extol the virtues of Johnny Saint; everyone has their memories. The power of the internet has allowed even the youngest of fans to experience the escapology, the athleticism, the skill, the sheer brilliance of the man who went on to succeed George Kidd as World Lightweight champion. That was in 1973. On 3rd November he defeated one of his greatest rivals Jim Breaks to claim the vacant crown. Johnny was destined to hold the title, on and off, for a quarter of a century. The quality of the lightweight division at the time was outstanding. From time to time Jim Breaks, Bill Ross, Steve Grey, Jon Cortez and Jackie Robinson would get their hands on the belt, but it always returned to the waist of Johnny Saint, no fewer than ten times.
With or without the belt it is Johnny's matches with Jim Breaks that many fans remember so fondly. Saint the classy and clever one always willing to give Breaks his come-uppance. Jim, of course, was far too good to make it a simple tale of good overcoming evil. Ther matches were classics - enough skill for the purist, and enough action and ruggedness for those who preferred a more rumbustious style of wrestling.
By the 1980s over-the-top gimmicks and oversized heavyweights were destroying the legitimate aspects of the sport. Saint, Breaks, Grey and others were the beacons that reminded us of better times. The curtain was drawn and the oxygen of television exposure was dramatically cut. With thirty years experience under his belt most men of Johnny's age would have hung up their boots Not Johnny, he took it as an opportunity to spread his magic even further afield.When we had first interviewed Johnny all those years ago he had recently returned from wrestling in France and Spain. That was only the start, and in the years that followed he was to gain a worldwide following by working throughout the Middle East, Africa, the Far East, most of Western Europe, and in 2009 was eventually recognised as a great technician in the United States.
We last watched Johnny Saint in action in 2010. A bit slower than in years gone by but still a class act. After the match we reminded him we had first seen him wrestle almost fifty years earlier. He smiled. There are few nicer men in wrestling.