I: Henry Irslinger

Henry Irslinger

Few people are more worthy of the label of Pioneer  than Henry Irslinger. Following British wrestling's twenty years in the wilderness it was Irslinger, along with Atholl Oakeley and Ben Sherman, who introduced All-In wrestling to Britain in 1930. Irslinger partnered Oakeley in promoting wrestling in the 1930s and wrestled on the occasion of the debut of the All-In rules, defeating George Modrich at Olympia on 30th December, 1930. 

By then Henry was a veteran of some two decades with a pedigree going back to wrestling at The Alhambra in London in the early days of the twentieth century. When Henry met the Japanese martial arts expert Maeda Mitsuyo in March, 1908, the contest was described in Health and Strength magazine as, “...one of the squarest, straightest wrestling matches seen in England for many years.” Other matches at the Alhambra included Henry against Peter Gotz and Bob Berry

Henry was born on 23rd March, 1888 in Vienna, Austria. In the early twentieth century he wrestled in Britain, winning a middleweight tournament at the Alhambra in 1908, and travelled to Lancashire for a match with local man Bob Berry in Wigan's Central Park, a man who had defeated him at the Alhambra. On arrival in Britain the Sporting Life reported that Henry had won the championship of Austria-Hungary in Vienna in 1903 and an open competition in Budapest.

Following in the footsteps of Hackenschmidt he sailed to America in 1909,and is reported to have fought a number of matches in Chicago during the summer, returning to Britain some time later. Henry was set to return to America for a much longer stay. On 20th November, 1912, Henry embarked from Southampton on board the St Louis, bound for New York. At the time Henry was billed as European middleweight champion often taking on much heavier opponents. He returned to Europe only to cross the Atlantic once again and take up American citizenship. The El Paso Herald of 21st February, 1913, reported, “George Bothner, of America, and Henry Irslinger, of Europe, met in an international middleweight wrestling match at Brown’s gymnasium last night and wrestled three hours and 40 minutes without a fall, the referee, John O’Brien, of the New York A. C., declaring the bout a draw.” For some time Henry disputed the claim of Mike Yokel to the world middleweight title before gaining widespread recognition as champion in 1927.

In 1929 Henry wrestled in Australia and introduced the American style of wrestling to South Africa. The following year he returned to Britain with the American wrestler Benny Sherman. Sherman and Irslinger were introduced to amateur wrestler Atholl Oakeley by the Welshman Bill Garnon. Allan Best tells the story, “It was at the Ashdown that All-In wrestling had its birth in this country when Bulldog Bill Garnon met Benny Sherman in a shooting match, and although Sherman was only a middleweight he soundly trounced the Welsh heavyweight using a submission hold to gain the fall. On that evidence Oakeley declared for the new wrestling and together with Henry Irslinger went ahead with promoting what was to be British wrestling phenomenally successful years.” Oakeley turned professional and he and Henry Irslinger formed the British Wrestling Association. Two weeks later Henry faced Bert Assirati at Belle Vue, Manchester, losing to the Londoner by two falls to one. George Boganski, Atholl Oakeley, King Curtis and Bulldog Bill Garnon also numbered in his opponents.

Henry returned to America in 1931 but wrestled in Britain on and off throughout the 1930s, billed as Light Heavyweight Champion of the World. He was certainly a highly skilled wrestler, with a very fast and effective aeroplane spin specialty, but was past his peak as the 1930s went on. Throughout the 1930's Henry seemed to be everywhere – Europe, North America and Africa. For 25 years he continued promoting around the world in England, Canada and South Africa. Henry continued to promote in South Africa until his death, from cancer, on 1st October 1954.

Reviewed 16/03/2022