WRESTLING HERITAGE

B: Lord James Blears

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Lord James Blears


Birth, death and change are three certainties of life and in the wrestling fraternity we can add a fourth – send a British wrestler to America and nobility will almost certainly be bestowed upon him. Lancastrian James Blears was one of the first to benefit from the American's fascination with Royalty, no less than a Lord.


The son of a former Wigan and Swinton rugby league player James Blears was born on 13th August, 1923, with his birth registered in Leigh, a small town mid way between Manchester and Wigan. This was fertile wrestling country, but for young James Blears it was swimming that was his passion. At 16 he played water polo for the Hauperhey Club in Manchester. In the summer of 1939 he was a life guard and was credited with saving at least one life. Had it not been for the outbreak of war in 1939 it is quite feasible that he would have represented Great Britain in the 1940 Olympic Games. Global events intervened and with the swimming dream having evaporated James turned more of his attention to his second sport, wrestling. He'd already joined the Manchester Y.M.C.A. where he had become friends with the Danish wrestler Carl Van Wurden, who had arrived in Britain from Canada two years earlier and was living in the Victoria Park area of Manchester.


Although there are reports that he turned professional in 1940 the earliest we have found the supposedly Norwegian Jan Blears wrestling was in 1942 against his friend Carl Van Wurden. But by the early 1940s those global events were again getting in the way of sporting aspirations.


Blears enlisted in the Merchant Navy as a wireless officer on the Tjisalak, a Dutch Freighter used by the Allies to transport supplies across the Indian Ocean between Australia and Ceylon. Fortunately his duties allowed him to continue with his wrestling activities in ports visited by the ship, which must have been a tremendous learning opportunity.


It was one event that took place during his wartime service that defined James Blears for life, a few days that eclipsed all his wrestling, surfing and acting accomplishments. Wrestling enthusiast SaxonWolf commented: "Lord Blears story is one of those that could be used as the script for a film, and I think that a lad from a working class background in Greater Manchester, to end up living in Hawaii, and making a ton of money along the way is really uplifting."


The eventful day was 26th March, 1944, a Sunday. The Tjisalak was sailing unescorted and came under fire from a Japanese submarine. Fatefully struck the command was given to abandon ship as the freighter was about to sink. Many perished as the Japanese rounded up the survivors from the sea. This was no rescue mission. What followed was the massacre of the survivors. Taken aboard the submarine the Tjisalak's crew and a handful of passengers were struck with a sledgehammer and beheaded in a war crime that was later reported in the British press. The Sunday Times reported (on 9th September, 1945) that 71 of the 76 crew were rescued and then deliberately murdered by the Japanese. Five men survived by striking out at their attackers, One of the five was radio operator Blears, who was  reported to have used a wrestling trick to trip the Japanese assailant, and jump from the submarine. 


The survivors swam several miles in the direction of the location of their sunken vessel, James reportedly keeping a wounded Dutch officer afloat for one and a half hours until he died. He was awarded the Netherlands Cross of Merit for Courageous Behaviour.  Their hopes were realised and they miraculously found an abandoned lifeboat and even rescued another Dutch soldier from some floating wreckage. They sailed helplessly for three days until spotted by an American ship, the SS James O Wilder. Taken aboard the American vessel the rescued men were given peaches to eat. Janes Blears ate a tin of peaches on the anniversary of 29th March from that year on.


Three months later, in June, Jan Blears was back wrestling in British rings with opponents that included wrestlers well known to Heritage readers – Jim Hussey, Alf Rawlings, Les Kellett and Bert Assirati.


In the summer of 1946 wanderlust struck again and Jan Blears disappeared from our rings. Where to this time? It's a big world and James had already seen much of it. In October, 1947, he cabled his father in Manchester to say he had won the world's light heavyweight championship in Arizona.


The next we heard of Blears was in August 1949. The Manchester Evening News reported that every week a letter embossed with a coat-of-arms arrived at the home of Mr and Mrs Blears in Alfred Street from their titled English son.


Yes the humble Manchester lad had been transformed into a monocle wearing aristocrat who had left behind his English castle and acres of land to take on America's best. All codswallop, of course, but there was a hint of authenticity when he applied to the Los Angeles court and legally adopted "Lord" as his Christian name in November 1949. In the ring Lord James was accompanied by his manager, Captain Holmes, who turned out to be a school pal from their days at Alfred Street School in Tyldesley.


In June 1950 Lord Blears made a short return to Britain. We are fortunate to have a Heritage reader who watched him wrestle at the New St James Hall in Newcastle, "Lord Jan Blears with his long blonde hair (a la Georgeous George) had his little manfriend carrying his comb. The comb was copied later by Gentleman Jim Lewis."


Apart from this short tour Lord James Blears was lost to British fans.


On his return to the United States he moved home to California. The popularity of televised wrestling brought him widespread fame and notoriety, to the extent that one British Sunday newspaper reported this lad from Manchester was bringing shame on his country. Singles success was enhanced with a tag partnership he formed with another self-proclaimed member of the nobility, Lord Athol Layton, still managed by the redoubtable Captain Holmes.


Wrestling took Lord James to Australia and Japan, but it was Hawaii where he made his home and attained everlasting recognition as one of wrestling's greats. He moved to Honolulu in the late 1950s, claiming both singles and tag team Hawaiian titles for short periods, but always a man for whom success was far more than a title.


Graeme Cameron commented: "He was in Australia twice, first in 1957 working for Stadiums Limited and again in 1960, for George Gardiner. His 1957 tour coincided with that of NWA world champion Lou Thesz and Blears twice challenged Thesz unsuccessfully for the title. The only record I can find for his 1960 tour is a drawn match with American Jack Laskin at Sydney Stadium. It can't be stressed enough his importance to wrestling in Hawaii as a promoter and trainer of several wrestler who became big stars, most notably Curtis Iaukea" 


Lord James began to cut back on wrestling commitments around 1965 but remained heavily invloved as a television commentator locally and for ESPN, and booker for  Hawaiian Championship Wrestling.


Lord James Blears dies of natural causes, aged 92, on 5th March, 2016. Wrestling Heritage was privileged to maintain contact in his final years.