The Rochdale Pioneers
The Keegan Family
The Rochdale Pioneers we learnt about in school history lessons were the founders of the Co-Operative movement in 1844. Unlike their predecessors our Rochdale Pioneers didn’t change the face of commerce, but they were one of the great wrestling families of the second half of the twentieth century. These three brothers were grafters. Skilled grafters who rarely achieved top of the bill status but could hold their own with just about anyone. The type of unsung heroes that Wrestling Heritage is here to remember and celebrate. The Keegans were Lancashire through and through, living in Rochdale since great grandparents Michael and Mary Keegan had sailed to Britain
Professional wrestling lends itself to families. Secrets have to be kept, trust is vital both inside and outside the ring, it’s a labour of love that needs to be absorbed into the blood, and the working hours take their toll on family life. The Gregory’s, Faulkners, Stewarts, Pyes, Belshaws, the list goes on. As good as any of them all was the Keegan family from Rochdale. Not the most famous or remembered names in British wrestling the Keegan family were skilled professionals who held their own time and again with the Beaumonts, Joyces and Dempseys of the wrestling world.
Denis was the middle of the three wrestling Keegans, born on 30th August, 1925. Like his elder brother Denis gained an interest in the sport from their father who was an army boxing and wrestling champion. The centre photo above shows Denis with his father.
Denis also turned professional shortly after the Second World War when he was in his early twenties. He was soon swapping holds with other Northern hard cases such as Cyril Morris, Jack Beaumont and Jim Holden.
Highlights of his career included wins over British champions Johnny Stead and Eric Taylor. Planning for the future towards the end of his career Denis combined wrestling with that of a landlord at three Lancashire public houses, beginning with Accrington's Commercial Hotel in 1958, and going on to The Griffin's Head at Huncoat and The Thwaites Arms in Oswaldtwistle. Wrestler Mike Agusta remembers, ”I remember very well when Denis Keegan was the landlord of the Commercial Hotel in Accrington, as our gym was just behind it, and we would call in for the odd pint after training. I also met up with him when he ran the Griffin’s Head in Huncoat, which is very near Accrington, when I visited my Auntie.”
Denis also wrestled under the name Carl Stein, wearing a black velvet cape, lined with red velvet. Denis's daughter, Bev, recalls the cape, which was subsequently used to make the black velvet "flares" she wore in the 1970s. Bev also reminded us "It's Denis with one 'n', as dad spent a lifetime telling everyone!"
Denis Keegan died in 2004.
The youngest of the brothers was Joe, born on 22nd January, 1931. We remember watching Joe Keegan when he was up against the indestructible Jack Dempsey. Or at least seemingly indestructible because Joe had us fans on the edge of our seats truly believing that he could pull it off against the British welterweight champion..
Rochdale's Joe was one of those wrestling enigmas, a quiet unassuming man who could ignite the fans with his technical ability. That ability was perfected in nine years amongst the amateur ranks. In his early twenties Joe turned professional. He combined wrestling commitments with his carpentry trade until 1961 when he turned full time professional.
Of the three Keegan brothers Joe was the one to benefit mostly from television exposure. Joe made more than a dozen television appearances against big names that included Johnny Kwango, Les Kellett, Abe Ginsberg and Steve Logan.
Fully committed to his wrestling career Joe established himself as a very accomplished welterweight, not just in Britain but overseas. The photo shows him wrestling in Japan, making him one of the British pioneers in the Far East, long before the visits by Billy Robinson, Dynamite Kid and Mark Rocco.
Wrestling Heritage reader Beancounter remembers "Joe Keegan was a stalwart of the ring in the early to mid 60's and I particularly remember a very good televised bout between Joe and Johnny Kwango. That match was in September 1963, and Joe and Kwango wrestled a draw in a match that and was a follow-up to his narrow loss to Kwango at the illustrious Royal Albert Hall the year before.”
Joe Keegan was in touch with Wrestling Heritage in March, 2011, from his home in Rochdale, just a few months before his sudden death. "He was so fit and healthy and had even played 5 rounds of golf that week," his niece Bev told us.
We thank all members of the Keegan family for helping us keep alive them memories of their wrestling family.