K: Johnny Kwango

Wrestling Heritage A - Z

Johnny Kwango
(Also known as Bully Johnson, The South African Angel)

King of the Head Butts

Johnny Kwango was one of a handful of professional wrestlers whose name and appearance extended far beyond the realms of the hard core of wrestling fans. Casual fans, the grandma and the elderly aunt, would switch on the television to watch the Saturday afternoon wrestling when Johnny Kwango made an appearance. A comedic routine, facial expressions and a fast, clean wrestling style made him a firm favourite. Despite his popularity he was paradoxically usually in one of the supporting matches other than when facing his regular Londoner buddies, McManus and Pallo in main events.  

In the opposite corner would be the rule bender, it was invariably a villain, and fans awaited with some anticipation for the inevitable moment Johnny would over-dramatically polish his forehead as a prelude to the head butt about to follow and an opponent rolling around the mat in agony. The alleged hardness of his famous head was “sold” strictly and exaggeratedly down the years by every single opponent as though this were one of the Great Commandments of the game,

Born in London as John Albert Lagey on 20th April, 1920, he was the half brother of wrestler Black Butcher Johnson. Mother Irene also had a wrestling background,  working in Germany as a strong woman and wrestler before fleeing the country at the start of World War 1 (1).

Shortly after leaving school, and quickly tiring of cycling around London as a messenger boy for a cosmetic company, Johnny entered the entertainment world.  He  joined brother Cyril, touring variety halls of Britain as a song and dance act. Elder brother Cyril went on to become a member of the comedy group Sid Millward and His Nitwits.

In 1939, shortly before the outbreak of war, the 1939 Register listed John Lagey living in Rochester Road, Kings Cross, and working as a general labourer.  He had already taken tentative steps into the wrestling ring, making his  professional debut in 1938 at Lane’s London Club in Baker Street (2). We find him at Rushden Windmill Hall wrestling Micky Wood on 15th May, 1939. The name on the posters at that time was not Kwango, but  Bully Johnson, capitalising on the fame of his brother, Butcher. Like his brother Bully Johnson was said to be from Borneo.

With the outbreak of war John was called up and served in The Royal Regiment Of Artillery. He fought in France for two months and was later posted to Orkney  and then Yeovil, where he was promoted to Sergeant as a Physical Training Instructor.

Following the war Johnny’s life could have taken a very different turn. He met a Jamaican dancer, Berto Pasuka. Berto told Johnny of a plan to form a new dance company, Les Ballet Negres.  Johnny was keen to get involved. Les Ballets Negres was the first black ballet troupe in Europe, formed in 1946, a trailblazer for black culture. Yet the style of the dance troupe differed from classical ballet. Co-founder Richie Riley wrote in his history of the company. “Negro ballet is something vital in choreographic art. As conceived by Berto Pasuka, it is essentially an expression of human emotion in dance form, being the complete antithesis of Russian ballet, with its stereotyped entrechats and point work."

John Lagey was a founder member of the group. Following a low key London debut the group went to Paris and appeared in a club on the Champs Elysee.  In 1986 he was reunited with many of the group when he was featured in a documentary about this innovative dance company.

By 1949 the name Kwango was on the wrestling posters. In February, 1949 Bully Johnson and Borneo had disappeared.  He was simply Kwango, “The West African Angel.” By the end of the year he was “The South African Angel.” Introduced to the HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, in 1963 and answered which part of Africa he was from Johnny was stymied. John’s father is believed to have come from Leopoldville (now Kinshasha) in the Belgian Congo, mother was from Barbados.

Publicity in 1949 stated “South African coloured Angel, one of the most sensational and  spectacular wrestlers to enter a ring, noted for his clean scientific tactics.”  

The prefix Black was added to the name in 1950 and it was not uncommon for matches to be advertised as Black v White contests. Reports in 1950 testify to Johnny having added a comedy element to his wrestling routine, which was to remain for the rest of his long career.

A busy worker throughout the 1950s the big time came for Johnny Kwango in 1960. On 15th October he wrestled on television for the first time. His opponent was one of wrestling’s great villains, Iron Man Steve Logan. Logan was the perfect opponent to showcase Johnny’s wrestling skills and comedic talent. A star was born. Johnn Kwango was to wrestle on television at least eighty-four times between October, 1960, and December, 1980. Many more times, in fact, as for years he and  Jackie Pallo featured in  the opening titles of Wednesday night ITV wrestling programme.

Highlight of his career was most probably one night in 1963. On 22nd May Johnny was amongst the wrestlers who appeared at a wrestling tournament at Kensington’s Royal Albert Hall, in the presence of HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip. Although twelve other big name wrestlers appeared on the show it was left to Johnny and Jackie Pallo to provide the laughs for Prince Philip, cricket legend Learie Constantine and Labour M.P. Bessie Braddock.

For Johnny Kwango the 1960s were the golden years.  He continued to wrestle far longer, too long many concluded, finally retiring in 1984, by which time he was well into his sixties.

Johnny Kwango died on 19th January, 1994.

(1) The Stage , 8th  April, 1999

(2) Liverpool Echo, 16th June, 1962.

Page added 01/12/2020