The King of Charisma
With a sparkling smile that could light up even the dimmest corner of the darkest wrestling arena in the country, Masambula headlined bills throughout his entire career, right from his 1952 debut through to the tragic televised climax in 1975. When Masambula was on the bill there was no doubt who fans would be talking about as they left the hall. Talking with smiles on their faces. The full length leopardskin, the huge grin, the celebratory headstand on the corner post, the straggly limbs that seemed unconnected, the large rolling eyes with the hint of voodoo magic, the ready quips; Masambula gave us much to talk about.
Whether in single combat or as one of the Black Knights alongside Honey Boy Zimba, Jumping Jim Moser or Alan Bardouille, the improvised humour of wrestling’s African Witchdoctor made him stand out from other comedy wrestlers whose tried and trusted routines were trotted out on a regular basis down the years. We enjoyed the madness of Billy Torontos, the guile of Les Kellett and the set pieces of Catweazle, but only when Masambula was wrestling were we truly unsure as to what to expect.
His potential was clearly identified very early on, and as a full-blown fifties heavyweight he took on, and in many cases defeated, all the great names of that golden era including Alf Cadman, Martin Conroy, Norman Walsh and Eric Taylor. He had in fact a remarkable undefeated streak that was only terminated in the early sixties by the at the time undefeated masked icon, Count Bartelli. In the early days Masambula appeared in a tribal grass skirt, but after this had been set on fire by misguided fans, and having shed several stones through illness, the Masambula of later years entered the ring clad in a full-length leopard skin, one of wrestling’s truly magnificent sights indeed. Bernard Hughes told us: “The first time that Masambula came to Newcastle, he was driven by Norman Morrell in ( I think it was) a Lincoln convertible, colour, Pearl green, with a huge boot. Out of the huge boot came a tea chest which I was told contained a tribal headdress. It was like a carnival Big Head. That was worn into the ring together with the leopard skin leotard. The Big Head was rapidly dropped because of the smaller boot space in British cars."
What a prolific traveller he was, topping bills the length and breadth of the UK, to such an extent that it wasn’t immediately clear that he actually lived in Yorkshire. His weight settled down to about 13 stone 4 pounds, scarcely filling out his wiry frame, but making him a suitable opponent for box office middleweights as light as McManus, Pallo and Street as well as his very regular heavier adversaries such as Lee Sharron, Johnny Yearsley, Buster Martin and, most particularly a wrestler he seemed to face with extraordinary regularity, Untouchable Bobby Graham.
Unlike the other black wrestlers of his era, Masambula chose really to ham up the Witchdoctor part. While Zimba could barely manage the least intimidating little war dance imaginable, and Kwango remained more Cockney than a pearly king, Masambula rolled those eyes, seemingly to threaten his opponents that they were for the pot. A lithe and agile athlete who displayed true technical ability and an extensive unorthodox repertoire of off-the-cuff antics.
In 1968, Russell Plummer very tellingly described Masambula as "one of the more proficient top-of-the-bill personalities of modern wrestling in Britain."
The love and respect we shared for the great entertainer was made all the more emotional that fateful 19th February 1975, when, in the Preston Guild Hall, and in front of television cameras, he took from Judo Pete Roberts a posting of the kind he had taken thousands of times through his illustrious career. But the corner padding was not secured properly and the crunch of the impact reflected the collapsing of his spine, exacerbated only by the follow up slam. As Mas lay motionless on the canvas, we imagined he was up to his old tricks, wasn’t he always? But the referee’s slowing count could do nothing but eventually and reluctantly reach the unplanned ten and the sounding of the bell which called time prematurely and uninvitedly on this youthful veteran’s glittering 23 years at the top. The momentary commotion as the ubiquitous St John’s men were called urgently was followed by a strange quietness. It probably only lasted a few seconds, but there was a communal sense of something being terribly wrong. Although no one knew how serious the injury was the rest of the night was more subdued than usual. Later in the show there was an announcement that he had been admitted to hospital.
Newspaper coverage allowed us to follow his struggle for compensation through the courts from those responsible for that Preston equipment. After six years he was finally awarded £20,000, but, with a family to feed and wheelchair bound, this was scarcely sufficient.
Nowadays, the golden age gone by of pro wrestling seems to be more and more of interest to fans both old enough to recall it and young enough not even to have been born when Masambula wrestled his last, and reunions and books abound. Sadly lacking is much mention of this inspirational, clever and above all highly entertaining performer. That he should have had to struggle so for assistance from a sport to which he dedicated his working life so reliably and that he should then have been completely and totally excluded from the promoters’ publicity machines when, quite the reverse, adulation and support were due, remains one of the darker secrets of professional wrestling to this day.
The Wrestling Heritage site was born (in April 2007) at the time of the sad death of Masambula, and we dedicated our launch to all the fun he brought to millions of wrestling fans in a career that directly paralelled British wrestling's heyday.