Ian Campbell

The Grizzly Enigma

Ian Campbell

Ian Campbell was a rumbustious character.

Mean, moody, boisterous and unruly. We loved him.

Grizzly? Definitely.

But what an enigma.

A dastardly villain in the ring, booed and jeered by fans who struggled to reconcile his rowdiness in the ring with the frequent stories we heard of a compassionate man who was dedicated to raising money for the less fortunate. Standing triumphant, arm raised and foot resting on the chest of a fallen foe on one page of the Wrestler magazine, dressed as Father Christmas on another.

We interviewed him in 1970. Asked his main dislike he replied "Man's inhumanity to man," before attempting to remove the head from the shoulders of his next opponent.

A discussion in the Talk Wrestling forum demonstrated just how fond are the memories of the big Scot some forty years after we watched him in action.  Dreadedpickles, who has many memories of wrestling at venues around London going back to 1963:

"I well remember Ian Campbell as one of the genuinely terrifying few wrestlers that used to have us children running for cover at West Ham Baths around 1964."

Ron Historyo was another fan. He remembers watching Ian as a child whilst visiting his grandparents, and asking "Why is that man wearing a skirt?":

"Ian Campbell was to me a most impressive man who I remember on television in the very early 1960's. In those days I believe he was as big as anyone on British T.V."

Ron's research has uncovered much previously unknown knowledge to add to the memories. When Ian was seen in that West Ham ring in 1964 he had been known to British fans for about four years. He was unleashed on the British public in November, 1959, wrestling mostly in northern England and Scotland, and later making a big impression in the capital when he faced Mike Marino at the Royal Albert Hall in March, 1960.

Russell Plummer, ringside reporter for The Wrestler remembers a return match the following month, it was a no rounds fight to the finish with ringside seats sold on the black market at forty times face value.  Ian took the lead with a submission after eleven minutes of wrestling. Marino equalised four minutes later, going on to win when Ian was injured and the referee stopped the contest.

Mind you, that was far from the beginning of the Ian Campbell story. Many will remember reading long ago that Ian Campbell had worked in America at the beginning of his years, stories of him being befriended and tutored by Buddy Rogers. Well, whether or not there is any truth in the Buddy Rogers link we have no idea, but we now do know a great deal thanks to the research of Ron Historyo.

Ron has uncovered records of Ian wrestling as an amateur.  In April, 1953, Ian was the  overall winner in the Dunfermline Carnegie Physical Training and Athletics Club  Heavyweight Championship. The following year, 1954, when he was  thirty years old the Scot travelled across the Atlantic to Canada and was wrestling in Hamilton, Ontario.

His path does not seem to have crossed with Britain's other Trans Atlantic Ambassador, Alan Garfield who was wrestling in Georgia at the time. 

We then lose track of Ian for a while until he crops up in April, 1956, in Ontario before going on to Texas for the summer and later Ohio and Pennsylvania. By 1957 Ian had returned to Ontario, and was to go on to travel all around Canada during the following two years. In a few short months he featured in Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Regina , Brandon , Lethbridge and Medicine Hat; no fewer than four states: Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.

1958 was a very busy year for Ian. Not only wrestling here, there and all over the place. The Foothills Athletics Club in Calgary invited Ian to promote weekly wrestling shows in Lethbridge, about 150 miles south of Calgary, at the Lethbridge Arena. Not just a wrestler and promoter, Ian was also seen officiating as referee and MC.

All this before British fans had even heard of him!

Ian's shows were high profile tournaments with a typical crowd of around 1200. He featured women wrestlers, midgets and many wrestlers well known to British fans: Whipper Watson , Al Korman, Tiger Tasker , Lou Thesz, and some we were yet to discover: Peter Maivia and Luther Lindsay. His World Championship matching of Dick Hutton and Whipper Watson was referee by Jersey Joe Walcott. Occasionally there were problems at Lethbridge with the no show of the odd star wrestler leading Campbell to paying the audience their money back. A grand gesture but costly. Further shows were promoted at Raymond and Medicine Hat where attendances were lower, typically 350.

In August 1958 Ian made a quick visit to America and can be found on 12th August fighting Dutch Schultz at Tucson Sports centre , Arizona, and also dropping a match to Phil Melby on the 20th. In October Ian wrestled in Indiana, a bill topped by a match between Lou Thesz and Gene Kiniski.

All this and running self defence courses at the Police Headquarters!

An appearance at the Calgary Stampede in July, 1959, (Pat O'Connor, Whipper Watson, Lou Thesz and the Vachon brothers were on the same bill), but Ian's thoughts were turning towards home, and the place our story began. Ron unearthed an appearance in Indiana on 24th October, 1959, and just two weeks later Ian began a hectic schedule in Britain.

Back in Britain Ian played a prominent part on the bills from the start; Joe Cornelius, Al Hayes, Billy Joyce, Dave Armstrong, Tibor Szakacs, Kiwi Kingston, Geoff Portz, Jim Hussey, Gwyn Davies, Mike Marino, and that was just the first month or so.

With the aforementioned Royal Albert Hall matches  in 1960 and television bringing national exposure Ian Campbell caught the imagination of the public and found his niche in British wrestling. The kilt, the bagpipes, the temperament and the physical presence; he was a star.

Welsh Davey recalls one night in Cardiff when referee Tiny Carr disqualified Ian for refusing to break an illegal hold on Mike Marino:

"The crowd was in absolute uproar with stewards desperately holding concerned, angry people back from the ring. This however just seemed to goad Campbell further, for he built himself into even more rage, spewing a storm of Scottish spittle, bile and wildness. He looked and sounded every inch a wild pained, powerful Scottish mammoth waiting to devour his now helpless prey."

The appearance of Ian Campbell made him a natural villain, and it was a role he relished when he was inside the ring. Outside the ring was another matter, with much of his spare time devoted to charitable events, particularly for children and the elderly. Ian was a frequent visitor to schools, talking to children about his life and countries visited, he organised parties and film shows (another hobby was photography) for older people.

Dave Sutherland remembers an encounter at the St James Hall, Newcastle:

"After work at St James one Saturday night I was upstairs just outside the dressing rooms when he came out and took a seat at the stair head; grasping the opportunity I requested his autograph. As he handed my book back he asked my age and when I told him that I was sixteen he gave me a right old telling off for smoking a cigarette outlining the damage that I would be doing to myself. I told him that I was starting to smoke a pipe and would that be any better? Undeterred he insisted that I'd be better off spending the money on a pound of chocolates."

In The Wrestler magazine Ian said that his most memorable match was against The Outlaw in Edinburgh. Papa Ernie witnessed the contest:

"My favourite memory of an Ian Campbell bout took place in the now sadly demolished Eldorado Stadium in Edinburgh. This was a long drawn out knock down and drag out bout between Ian and Gordon Nelson in his Outlaw persona. The match ended with Gordon fleeing the ring and haring off down Leith Walk with an enraged Ian in hot pursuit. This story is true. I know for I was there."

Some years later, in 1972, when we asked Ian the same question he said that his most memorable match was his encounter with Ogden the Terrible in Coronation Street. Wetherfield's Stan was brought in as a last minute substitute when Zulu chief Prince Umpala had injured himself with scalding fat in his Accrington chip shop.

"It was something different, and now I feel very proud to name the Coronation Street cast amongst my friends."

Amongst other film and screen credits are an appearance in the comedy series Nearest and Dearest and the 1973 film mystery "The Wicker Man."

A surprise from both replies was the omission of a contest on 22nd May, 1963. Ian Campbell was one of a select band chosen to wrestle at the Royal Albert Hall in the presence of His Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. It was the first time a modern day royal had attended such an event, officially at any rate. Bill Robinson, the selected opponent, was not at the time the champion he was to become, but he was tipped as a future champion. Campbell went ahead in the second of the ten minute rounds with Robinson drawing level in the fourth and final round.

Ian is remembered by many fans for the speeches he made following his contests. This was likely something he'd picked up in North America because it was virtually unheard of in Britain in the 1960s. Dave Sutherland remembers, following a match against Earl Maynard, Ian making a speech against racial segregation. Following a match against Josef Zaranoff he praised the USSR for producing a postage stamp in commemoration of Robert Burns.

For a dozen years Ian Campbell was to remain one of the top British heavyweights, a main eventer up and down the country from the humblest of Corn Exchanges to the magnificence of the Royal Albert Hall. At other times, and there were many of them, Ian was away from our shows with wanderlust taking him to most continents and just about every country in which wrestling was promoted. Many readers of Heritage will recall The Wrestler reporting Ian's exploits across Europe, the Middle East and the Far East. 

In August, 1972, he disappeared from our rings. Like so many other greats his departure went unnoticed until, suddenly, the fans began to ask where he had gone. To this day Ian's departure remains a mystery to us (maybe a reader can help) but by then he was nearing fifty years of age and simply felt it was time to hang up his boots.

It's a shame we didn't have the chance to say goodbye.

Ian Campbell died in 1993.

Reviewed 31/03/2022