C: Shirley Crabtree, Max Crabtree, Shirley Crabtree Sr, Greg Valentine, Scott Valentine

Shirley, the Big Daddy

Max ... Brian ... Shirley Sr ... Scott ... Greg

Shirley Crabtree

The Big Easy, Easy, Easy

No British wrestler continues to arouse such emotional responses more than twenty years after his death as Shirley Crabtree. The mere mention of his name invariably results in disparate opinions that range from the man who rejuvenated British wrestling to the man who single handedly destroyed the business. Reality, of course, was nothing so dramatic, though no one could argue that Crabtree was one of the most influential wrestlers of the Twentieth Century.  In the 1970s Shirley Crabtree attracted thousands of new fans to the wrestling halls whilst driving  away the more purist fans who expected their wrestlers to at least look like sportsmen.

Shirley Crabtree was born on 14th November, 1929, the son of a rugby player and occasional wrestler also with the unfortunate name of Shirley. Shirley Junior also played rugby, for Bradford Northern, and worked in a textile factory. A strong swimmer he also worked as a lifeguard in Blackpool. In August, 1956 Shirley swam 200 yards out to sea to rescue semi-conscious 16 year old Barbara Smith who had got into difficulties whilst swimming.

During the 1970s and 1980s Shirley was the biggest name in wrestling, and some would say the biggest of all time. For the younger fans of the seventies and eighties he eclipsed the likes of McManus, Pallo and Kellett.  It pains us to acknowledge the sad reality that when talking today to those who remember traditional British wrestling  the name that most often crops up is Big Daddy, the Mum's and Dad's Favourite persona of Shirley Crabtree.

There was no one quite like Big Daddy. He was everyone’s favourite. Well, everyone apart from the diehard fans of an earlier age who took exception to his omnipresence in the rings of Britain where he defeated all those placed before him.

Not that Big Daddy had always been everyone’s favourite. Known in the 1950s and early 1960s under a variety of names that included Shirley Crabtree, The Blond Adonis, Mr Universe and The Battling Guardsman he was a villain of British wrestling.

Heritage member WilliamR told us of a visit to his friend Gerry Hoggarth: "Gerry Hoggarth is fairly sure that Shirley Crabtree made his debut in a bout against him at Fleetwood in 1952. He recalls being told to 'go easy on the lad'. He tells me Crabtree had a magnificent physique in those days and was very disappointed to see his reappearance as Big Daddy and hardly employing any wrestling moves in his new guise. Gerry's wife, Vera, told me it was the only time ever she accompanied Gerry to a bout and on seeing the billboard outside the venue on arrival that afternoon insisted Gerry went inside to confirm for her that Shirley wasn't a woman wrestler!"    We did find Shirley working two weeks earlier, against Sandy Orford at Newcastle, on 14th June, 1952.

Bernard Hughes, who watched Shirley in Newcastle agreed with Gerry, "Crabtree at that time (1952) did have a very good physique and obviously had done work in the gym, but his wrestling skills were only average. At least at that time he looked as if he was able and agile enough to pick up those skills. How sad to see how he finished up."

Apart from Gerry Hoggarth other opponents in his first few months of wrestling, at that time for the newly formed Joint Promotions, included top heavyweights Ernest Baldwin, Alf Rawlings and Sandy Orford.  In the 1950s and first half of the 1960s Shirley was a well known figure but never considered one of the best heavyweights. Many of his early matches were for Bradford promoter Norman Morrell, a man known not to suffer fools. He also worked for brother Max Crabtree, for both  Joint Promotions when Max was working in conjunction with the syndicate and for the independents when Max started promoting independently in 1957.

He was also recognized as British heavyweight champion by a group of independents calling themselves the British Wrestling Federation. He was gifted the title when champion Bert Assirati fell out of favour with the promoters. The oft quoted story that Assirati followed and harassed Crabtree out of wrestling is the 1960s is now considered apocryphal.
This state of affairs continued until the mid sixties when Shirley's profile declined as he reduced his appearances and worked occasionally for the independent promoters. He didn't retire completely as has been said but did work only occasionally for independent promoters Cyril Knowles, Jack Taylor, Dominic Pye and brother Max.

All this changed  in 1972 when Shirley was brought back into higher profile wrestling by Norman Morrell and Ted Beresford. Ron Historyo: "By 1972 we were well in decline and with Kendo in Canada , there was a small window when this huge Guardsman actually looked bigger than anything I had seen. They spoilt this somewhat by having him squash mid heavies like Leon Arras and it was to my huge disappointment that Albert Wall had to sell to him at Belle Vue, delivering the flying headbutt but then hurt his back trying to pick up and slam Shirley for the finish. "

In September, 1972, Shirley surprised television fans when he destroyed the popular Pat Curry in less than a round. Within weeks he was back on television with his destructive force quickly eliminating Pete Roberts and Steve Haggetty. The spectacle was repeated night after night in halls around the country, until the immovable object met the irresistible force, Kendo Nagasaki. In those days Crabtree, was a villain, and remained so for two more years after adopting the name Big Daddy in 1974. When Shirley transformed into Big Daddy on television in July 1975 it was as an out and out baddie partnering Giant Haystacks. David Mantell remembers Shirley as Big Daddy Crabtree; "He already had his bodycheck, posting and splash, but he also liked to stomp opponents on the mat, viciously boot them in the head while they were slumped in the corner or crush them in the corner with his shoulder. He also had some submssions - a necklift (holding an opponent up in the chokeslam position) and an over the shoulder backbreaker."

When brother Max took over the running of most Joint Promotions shows the character of Big Daddy underwent a dramatic transformation. In the autumn of 1976 the transformation to the people’s favourite began. The dressing gown was swapped in favour of the a glittery cape, later to be followed by the trademark top hat and union jack jacket. David Mantell remembers: "At some point in '76, Daddy traded in his purple dressing gown for a spangly cape. Throughout late '76 and into '77, Daddy was a tweener, sometimes going to war against Kendo (with Haystacks or with other partners) other times still the old heel, and on one occasion in February '77 actually teaming with Kendo to beat Mike Marino & Count Bartelli! Some time in mid '77 he became the people's champion."

Big Daddy would stand centre ring clapping to the fans’ chants of “Easy, easy,” which it invariably was as his signature “Big Splash” move brought about another ko win over his unfortunate opponent.

As brother Max reinvigorated the British wrestling scene in the late 1970s Big Daddy became an instrumental part of that revival. Fans around the country would pack the halls to witness the destruction of his next victim. His popularity spread far beyond the wrestling world with children’s tv appearances and even the opening of the famous red book in his honour in “This Is Your Life.”

Fans soon became divided between those who loved the Yorkshireman and those who abhored his winning, yet increasingly unconvincing style. Similarly wrestlers divided between those who saw Big Daddy removing the credibility for the business and those who realised his drawing power meant extra work for all.   

High profile matches at Wembley Arena against John Quinn in 1979 and Haystacks in 1981 ended with speedy, unbelievable wins for Shirley and hastened the decline in British wrestling's credibilty and popularity. In the 1980s as Shirley's mobility deteriorated an increasing number of his bouts were tag contests, following a pattern of Daddy’s lightweight opponent receiving a beating only for Daddy to enter the ring, quickly take control and end the contest with one of those famous belly splashes. It all seemed so easy. Easy easy. It was to make him simultaneously the most loved and loathed wrestler in the country.

A divisive character his career was to amble on into 1993. He died on 2nd December, 1997. A philosophical Ron Historyo brings our tribute to a close: "Like it or not Shirley has made British wrestling History. It is what it is."

Max Crabtree
Max Crabtree is generally reckoned to have been the best of the three Crabtree brothers when it came to wrestling ability. The less than generous may well retort that that's not saying much but we do have it on good authority that Max was a very competent light heavyweight of his day.

It was his wrestling ability, blond hair and looks that made him a very popular wrestler in the 1960s.  Shirley was already  established as BWF heavyweight champion  when Max made his debut towards the end of the  the 1950s, working initially for the independent promoters against men such as Black Butcher Johnson, Doctor Death, Quasimodo and Leo Demetral.

In the late 1950s Max began to promote wrestling and established himself as one of the most successful of the independent promoters. Success was based on Max's inventiveness and his ability to create and develop new wrestling stars.  In the early 1970s as wrestling audiences went into steep decline Max was appointed manager of most of the Joint Promotions circuit. New faces, creative matchmaking and the higher profile of championship matches resulted in renewed interest amongst the fans. The reprieve was short lived and by the mid eighties audiences were at an all time low with Max continuing to promote until 1994. A controversial figure Max Crabtree was undoubtedly one of the most influential people in British wrestling.

Brian Crabtree
Another of the famous and controversial Halifax wrestling family whose not so glorious career came to a premature end following a 1966 injury. Brian swapped the wrestling gear for colourful shirts and continued as a referee, working mainly in Scotland for his brother Max.  When Max was appointed manager of the northern Joint Promotion members Brian and his shirts came to national prominence as his number one referee. His style was not to everyone's liking, a colourful character who appeared to prefer the limelight on himself rather than the wrestlers. As  age continued to catch up with him he bought a black and red spangly jacket and became a Master of Ceremonies who again divided opinions.
Shirley Crabtree Sr
One of the most enduring names of professional wrestling is that of Shirley Crabtree, latterly known as Big Daddy. Yet Big Shirley was not the first Crabtree to wrestle, and not even the first Shirley.  His father, Shirley Crabtree Sr was born on 27th May, 1906. As a schoolboy he took up amateur boxing but went on to play professional rugby for Halifax in the early 1930s, transferred to York in 1932 and Dewsbury in 1937.   He also had what seems to have been a short dabble with professional wrestling.  Shirley Crabtree  Sr made his own wrestling debut at Doncaster in March 1938. Crabtree took the first fall over Stanislaus Karishelski in round two. In the third round Crabtree was injured following a submission and was forced to retire. It was declared Crabtree had given a good account of himself and showed promise.

In 1939, by which time he was parted from Shirley’s mother, his occupation was listed as a hewer in a colliery. Shirley Crabtree Sr died in 1975, at the time living in Grimsby.

Greg Valentine (Also known as Greg Gable)

Way back in the 1960s we wrestling fans bought three month old American wrestling magazines where we read of the likes of Freddie Blassie, Bruno Sammartino and Greg Valentine. 

Promoter Max Crabtree made use of the latter's name when his son Steve, having already been billed as Greg Gable, turned into Greg Valentine. 

Greg worked around the country in the 1980s and 1990s, often seem as tag partner of his famous uncle, Shirley "Big Daddy" Crabtree, and more fittingly with Danny Collins as “The Young Ones.”.

Tall, slim, blond haired, and agile Greg was popular with female fans. Highlights included winning television’s Golden Grappler Trophy and appearing at the Royal Albert Hall. Greg did have the physique, looks and ability to have established himself without the family credentials.

But any of us expecting to see Greg the Hammer would have been bitterly disappointed. 

Scott Valentine

Another of the Crabtree clan and son of Max Crabtree. Spencer Crabtree  joined brother Greg in the wrestling world and, unsurprisingly found himself a  frequent tag partner of uncle Shirley, the Big Daddy.

Page added 01/12/2019