R: Mel Riss
Craft and Class
Whilst fans of the 1970s remember lightweights Johnny Saint, Jim Breaks and Zoltan Boscik as wrestling greats, and rightly so, those with memories stretching back a few years earlier have memories of a lightweight champion who was arguably greater. Melvyn Riss was capable, as wrestling parlance would have it, of both shoot and show, The shooting aspect came from training at one of his local gyms, which just happened to be that of the great Billy Riley. Here he trained alongside the likes of Joe Robinson, Billy Joyce, Jack Dempsey and John Foley, the latter of whom he was closely linked in his early professional life, more of that later.
To begin at the beginning Mel Riss was born on 19th February, 1931, in Scholes, an area of Wigan east of the town centre. The name on the birth certificate was Harold Winstanley, son of Samuel, a colliery worker, and his wife Grace. As a schoolboy soccer and wrestling vied for young Harold’s attention. Aspirations to become a professional footballer seemed a realistic possibility at one time, but it was wrestling that won out in the end with an introduction to Billy Riley and his gym in Whelley in his early teens.
Ray Plunkett recorded a 1950 professional contest at Bury in April 1950, with another at Lime Grove in 1951. By then Mel was learning another trade, that of joiner. It wasn’t until 1952 that the name cropped up with more regularity and our first documented match occurred in April, 1953. We have confidence in the undocumented appearances because the April 1953 match was on a prestigious London tournament at the Royal Albert Hall. Only a wrestler with some experience, and confidence of promoter Atholl Oakeley, would surely have been selected for the Coronation Programme of 16th April, 1953? Not only that, but the contest was said to be a return contest from 5th March tournament and advertised, somewhat dubiously we would add, as a contest for the British welterweight championship. Mel’s opponent was his friend from Riley’s gym, John Foley; a safe pair of hands to be sure, with a folding press from Foley securing the win. Foley appeared to be a regular opponent in those early days, the two of them learning together at Riley’s.
Mel Riss may have left the ring that night without any dubious title honours but he was on his way to success as a professional wrestler and soon to be touted as a future star. From April 1953 onwards matches became more frequent, with travel extending far from his Lancashire home, often to southern England and increasingly working for Dale Martin Promotions. Foley and Riss returned for a fourth London encounter, again for promoter Oakely and this time at Harringay Stadium, on 30th November, 1954, the result a one fall each draw.
In June, 1956, Mel wrestled Stefan Milla on a televised tournament at Cheetham, but whether or not their match was shown in a programme that lasted only thirty minutes we do not know. We do know he was to appear on television a dozen or so times in the 1960s. Opponents were of an increasingly high calibre, George Kidd, Tony Lawrence, Jack Dempsey and Eddie Capelli amongst them. In a return to the Royal Albert Hall in March 1957, now a Dale Martin Promotions venue, Mel was billed as a “Rising Young Star” in the opposite corner to Mick McManus. Another loss, but he was soon to return with a high profile win over the Spaniard Modesto Aledo.
Without official records it is often difficult to pinpoint precise events, and this is the case with Mel Riss winning the British Lightweight Championship. Unofficially the championship win is reported as December, 1958, but the earliest record we have uncovered is May, 1959. By then he was established as champion, going on to win an eight man knock out tournament in June by beating Jackie Pallo in the semi final and Mick McManus in the final.
The loss of the title is well documented. In October, 1963, he put the belt on the line against a young pretender from Bradford, Jim Breaks. In “Send In the Clowns” Eddie Rose recalls the story of the unassuming Mel, wearing his long coat and flat cap was challenged on entry to the arena by an over zealous doorman. An altercation followed with the result, quoting Eddie, “Up came the old shopping bag, followed by Mel’s knee, and down went the ‘spit and polish’ commissionaire.”
All the betting money, if such a thing had existed in professional wrestling, would have been on Mel Riss to keep the belt. It was a magnificent hold and counter-hold contest of which Charles Mascall reported at the time: “….was one of those truly great classics which takes a real ringside wrestling expert to understand the full technical points of our sport.”
Mel edged into the lead with a fourth round folding body press and fall. This meant that the young challenger had to come from behind, taking falls in the seventh and eighth rounds, to win the championship and begin a long and illustrious reign.
For the rest of the decade Mel Riss remained a credible challenger. Fellow wrestler Eddie Rose told us, "Melvyn Riss was one of the very best wrestlers ever. I watched him many times. He could wrestle in the rugged Wigan style and he could enhance a bout with moments of sheer comedy magic. He was so full of energy and drive in the ring that you had to work flat out just to survive with him."
Around 1970 Mel cut back on his wrestling commitments and began working for the independents; In 1974 we found him using the name Al Prince, and around the same time Heritage member and promoter Graham Brook told us, “I billed him as Mighty Mel and he seemed quite happy with that. He wrestled for me against Joe Critchley at the Town Hall, Sandbach, and against Pedro the Gypsy at Halton British Legion in Runcorn.”
Reduced wrestling commitments enabled him to concentrate on another sporting love, golf, at which he also excelled. In 1975 he won the championship of his club, Dean Wood, for the ninth time in twelve years.
For us though, he was to be remembered as one of wrestling’s greats who ranked alongside the more often celebrated Jack Dempsey, Billy Joyce and Ernie Riley.
Mel Riss died in 1983.