T: Les Thornton

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The Frenchish Connection

Henri Pierlot/Les Thornton

We first encountered Les Thornton in the summer of 1966 when we watched an electrifying clash with Hans Streiger at Blackpool Tower.

He was French in those days.

There was no Les Thornton on the bill, The name was Henri Pierlot, the all action star from France. In those days we were too naive to know the promoters would tell us anything to grasp those few shillings from our mits.. Well the French name might have been wrestling codology but the description was not. Les Thornton, the name he used in Britain more than a dozen years later was an accomplished wrestler who could change his style from a skilled technician to a rough and tumble brawler as the occasion demanded. 

The name might have been all French, but the man himself was as Lancashire as they come, born in Salford on April 9th, 1934.  Light heavyweight Les Thornton initially adopted the French name to add a bit of glamour to the already colourful posters of the northern independent promoters when he turned professional in the mid 1950s. Henri Pierlot had entered the professional ranks in 1957 shortly after leaving the Royal Navy.  Not that wrestling was his first choice in sport. He was also interested in boxing and rugby before Bomber John Bates encouraged him to take up wrestling.

For the first five years he worked for the independent promoters, working simultaneously at Salford docks.  Frenchman Pierlot clashed with other independent stars of the time  – Hans Streiger was an on-going feud, a series of matches with Assirati were brutal affairs whilst other respected opponents included The Black Panther, Dwight J. Ingleburgh, Charlie Scott and Milo Popocopolis.

Whilst working for Paul Lincoln Management Henri came to the attention of the big promoters and was signed up by Joint Promotions in October, 1962.  National exposure came his way just a month later, thanks to promoter Norman Morrell, who included him in a  televised show from Preston against Bill Rawlings. Just a month later he was back on the screen, this time facing Roy Bull Davis. More tv appearances followed, firmly establishing Henri Pierlot as he met the best in the business: John Allan, Norman Walsh, and  Georges Gordienko.

Not as high profile as some of contemporaries Les continued to build up his skill and experience during the 1960s, working around European rings, where he made  a big impression in the German tournaments.

In 1969 British heavyweight champion Billy Robinson paved the way to North America and onwards to Japan. Where Robinson went, others followed, and in the autumn of 1970 one of them was Henri Pierlot, though no longer a French man but a no nonsense Brit, Les Thornton. 

In 1970 and 1971 he gained worldwide success  in Japan , North America, Australia and New Zealand. . Now using the name Les Thornton, he won the North American Heavyweight Title by defeating Abdullah the Butcher in Regina, Canada in April 1971. At the time Thornton described this as the toughest and most dangerous match of a career which included heavyweight greats such as Bert Assirati, Bill Robinson, Dara Singh, Bholu Pehalwan  and Dory Funk Junior. 

He returned to Britain in the autumn of 1971, and now British fans saw the name of Les Thornton on the posters. The visit was short lived. Les’s travels didn’t just change his career but changed his life as he was to marry and set up home in Canada.

Travelling once again a series of bouts in 1972 with World Heavyweight Champion Dory Funk Jr established Thornton as one of the world’s top heavyweights.  He regained the North American championship for a second time when he defeated John Quinn in December, 1974. Further international success continued with the taking of the NWA  World Junior Heavyweight Title.

By basing himself in Australia and New Zealand for a couple of years Les was able to establish himself in the Phillipines and Singapore as well as make regular visits to japan, where he was already well known.

Despite returns to his home country Thornton remained largely a great wrestler without honour in his own country.  He was a great wrestling ambassador, more of which can be read in Ambassador of Wrestling – Les Thornton. Ron Historyo summed it up: "It is my own opinion that British Promoters just could not see it, that at five nine and about 16 stones he was some wrestler. I believe that they wanted the champ to be a six footer and a stone or more heavier. But in wrestling they could have got away with Les being Mid heavy and what a champ he could have been. He got his rewards overseas and an odd belt round his waist , but even in North America had to go down to many that there was no need to. Like a true pro he did what was required and I hope he made good money and enjoyed life."

Les Thornton died on 1st February, 2019.

Page added 02/02/2019
Reviewed 30/03/2022