M: Norman Morrell

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Norman Morrell

A Multi Faceted Talent

Norman Morrell's wrestling credentials are without question, and his amateur record demonstrates that here was a man whose skill equalled anyone and excelled most. 

Norman Morrell was born in the Yorkshire town of Bradford on 17th July, 1912. During his teenage years he established himself as one of the country's finest  amateur wrestlers, excelling in both the Greco Roman and Freestyle disciplines. 

We were told by those who witnessed him wrestle that he had a combative style rarely seen amongst British amateurs and more akin to the Continental wrestlers. A fearless fighter Norman Morrell was not a man who was easily intimidated, irrespective of his opponent's reputation.  That description should not disguise the fact that he was an exceptionally skilful wrestler,  demonstrated not just on the mat but also in his written tutorials.

For four consecutive years, from 1933 to 1936, Morrell won the British featherweight championship. The achievement was unprecedented at the time and it was inevitable that the Yorkshireman was chosen as the British representative in the 1936 Olympic Games.  His technical ability and aggressive style made him a good prospect for winning a medal.

Norman Morrrell, Arthur Thompson of York, Raymond Cazaux of Liverpool and  1934 Commonwealth Games silver medallist William Fox of Manchester were the  British representatives in what were to become the last games prior to the outbreak of World War 2, hosted by Berlin in August, 1936.

Norman wrestled in the featherweight class, competing in both the Greco Roman  and Freestyle codes. On 2nd August he faced Munich's Josef Bock in the opening round of the freestyle competition, winning the match convincingly and taking the points decision of all three judges. The following day his opponent was Frank Millard, a mill worker from North Adams,  Massachusetts in the United States.

Incredibly Millard was an entirely self-taught wrestler. Norman wrestled with his usual vigour and fortitude but it was not to be his day, and after eight minutes and thirty-six seconds he conceded the fall. Millard went on to win the silver medal.  In the third round Norman wrestled the Italian Marco Gavelli. Gavelli proved too much for Norman and was awarded the match by all three judges, resulting in Norman's elimination  from the competition. Incidentally, Gavelli was destined to return, aged 33, to the first post war Olympic Games, in London, some twelve years later.

The Greco Roman competition commenced two days later on 6th August. There followed further disappointment for Norman, with losses to the Frenchman Eugene Kracher (on points), and the next day losing to the European Champion Sebastian Hering by conceding a fall. 

Following the Olympic Games the inevitable decision had to be made whether his future remained in the amateur ranks or a move to the professional side. The answer we all know, and the advance of Norman Morrell in the professional ranks began shortly before the outbreak of war. Norman was wrestling amongst the professionals by January, 1939

It was an impressive transformation, and even the legendary Harold Angus was overcome by Morrell as he established himself as a top professional. Other opponents well known to Wrestling Heritage readers included Carlton Smith, Cyril Knowles  and Joe Reid. Reid was himself a former Olympics competitor, having represented Great Britain in Los Angeles in 1932. Joe had won the British bantamweight championship every year from 1931 to 1935, turning professional shortly afterwards. 

Norman continued to wrestle during the war years, but retired in the mid 1940's, save for a few challenge matches some years later.  

Professional experience afforded him a valuable insight into the workings of the wrestling business, and there was much about the business that Norman  disliked. To his mind wrestling was a pure sport, and there was little pure about the professional side of the game. By the outbreak of war an influx of some unreliable promoters had discredited the wrestling business.  With a mind as sharp as his reflexes Norman was quick to seize the opportunities and began promoting his own shows in the early 1940s.

Consequently it is neither Morrell’s outstanding amateur records nor his professional career for which he is remembered. His greatest contribution was as an architect of post war wrestling.

The wrestling business had fallen into disrepute prior to the hostilities and many wrestlers and promoters had left the business during the war years. Whilst the outbreak of peace changed little it did provide an opportunity to break with the past. Morrell was certainly not the only one to realise that peace brought opportunities and challenges, but of all those in the business he was the one of whom it could most be said that he took the opportunity to seize the moment.  He realised a dramatic break with the past was necessary for the sport to gain credibility. Wrestling outside the ring, bloodshed and gimmicks such as mud wrestling had brought the sport into disrepute. In practical terms that dramatic break with the past  meant a new set of rules to replace those adapted from the American style and introduced into Britain in 1930.  

The new rules were a clear indication that wrestling had changed and that the bad old days of wrestling had been left behind.   Norman Morrell penned the new rules of post war wrestling that were to form the basis  of our wrestling entertainment for the following fifty years. He realised, however,  that as well as the new rules a very public statement was necessary if fans were going to take note. Nowadays we would call it a defining moment. Morrell may not have thought in such terms, but he did realise that some sort of grand gesture was necessary  for wrestling fans to be able to look back and say that this was the moment of change. Enter Lord Mountevans, KCB DSO, a former Antarctic explorer who had been created a Baron in 1946. Mountevans was persuaded to put his name to the new set of rules, thus enabling  Mountevans champions, forever an echo of the coveted Lonsdale belt in boxing. Furthermore, Committee Rooms in the Houses of Parliament were hired for some of the deliberations to take place prior to Morrell creating the final set of rules. 

Bernard Hughes told us, "Norman Morrell was probably the most forward thinking and influential of all of the wrestling promoters in the 1950's. He was not a tall man, about 5ft.8ins., not a big built man,probably about 11.5 stone but wiry. He was always very neat and tidy, generally with a dark double breasted suit , collar and tie. In winter he wore a camel hair overcoat. He had dark hair, with possibly a bit of mediteranean or middle eastern look about him. Always seemed to be very alert and clued into what was happening, but polite at the same time . I liked him and he did a lot for the progress of wrestling."

Morrell is remembered as a leading member of the Joint Promotions organisation. We take no credit away from the other members of the organisation, they each held together the often tension ridden partnership which ruled British wrestling for forty years. Each of the Joint Promotions members not only presented wrestling tournaments they also developed new talent. We present, therefore, another facet of Norman Morrell, as that of trainer at his Bradford gymnasium. George Kidd went to Bradford to train with Morrell in 1947 and later said it was the hardest eighteen months of his life. 

Morrell robustly defended the professional sport, risking his personal reputation and finances to protect the business he loved. 

When Sir Athol Oakeley made derogatory comments about post war wrestling in “Blue Bood on the Mat” Norman Morrell went on the offensive and vigorously defended the sport. Oakeley had not named Morrell in his accusations, and the show to which he referred could have been that of any number of promoters. Morrell risked his own money and began legal proceedings against Oakley which were eventually settled out of court with Oakeley making a humiliating, public apology in wrestling publications around the country  

“Sir Atholl does feel that Mr. Morrell is entitled to a full apology and that it was incorrect to say that the rules of Lord Mountevans were copied from the 1930 new rules. Likewise the Author wishes to assure Mr. Morrell that it is quite incorrect for anyone to assume that he was the Promoter referred to on Page 148 nor can he understand how anyone could assume this was so.There was no such intention and Sir Atholl trusts that Mr. Morrell will accept these assurances and apology in the spirit in which they are given.”

On another occasion referee Don Branch was behind an expose of professional wrestling in the national press. This must have been a moment of personal sadness for Morrell, who had employed Branch as wrestler and referee. Again Morrell aggressively rebutted the claims and issued a public challenge to Branch to face any wrestler in the ring. Whilst such a challenge was pure theatre the ploy worked perfectly. Throughout the country the impression was created that not only had Branch made outrageous claims for personal gain but that he had failed to back up his words and subsequently fled the country.

At a time when the judgement and intelligence of wrestling fans was forever under scrutiny it was immensely important to them to see a man such as Morrell defending not only his own integrity, but theirs also.

Norman Morrell died, in his home town of Bradford, on 21st December 2000.