F: Tony Francis
Tony Francis told us of times spent walking around his home town of Blackpool on those days when the sun disguises a blustery wind that makes the weather preferable on the indoors, with echoes of the good old days of British wrestling ringing in his ears. As he passed the Pleasure Beach, The Tower, The South and Central Piers, and a dozen more wrestling venues the memories came flooding back. Here was a man with stories to tell about masks and marvels, grovits and grapevines, and, of course, the grannies with their handbags.
Although associated with the last two decades of that golden era, it takes very little delving to connect the heavyweight of seventies and eighties television fame to a more evocative time, back to the days when Atholl Oakeley and Henri Irslinger introduced All-In wrestling to the British public. It is a heritage of which Tony was immensely proud. We always feel there is something of "the fan" in most wrestlers, after all it is a business entered for love rather than money. That was certainly true of Tony, as demonstrated when asked to name his own favourites, the list being longer than most paying punters, "Hans Streiger master of villainy; Geoff Kaye my favourite referee; Jack Cassidy a proper bleeder! Pedro the Gypsy was genuinely funny, Pete Roberts a gent; Wild Angus who made me look wonderful, Mucky Mal a gentle giant; Steve Regal for his determination; Crusher Mason, Roy Bull Davis, Abe Ginsberg, Rex Strong, Ezra Francis, Mad Dog Wilson, Bobby Barron, Alan Miquet, and, of course Jack Pye. These are the ones that readily spring to mind, I'm sure there are dozens more."
In the early 1930s appeared a young Doncaster miner named Jack Pye; a man seeking an escape route from the mines and who was destined to become one of the greatest names of modern day professional wrestling. Although it was many years before his birth it was that same Jack Pye that played an influential part in the professional life of Tony Francis. Fate played its part in the mid 1950s as Jack and the family moved from their home in Stainforth to Blackpool, where he made friends with the father of a young Tony Francis.
A teenager at the time Tony went with his father to watch their friend, by now known as the Uncrowned King of the Mat, Dirty Jack Pye, in action. The buzz of excitement as Tony watched the likes of The Zebra Kid, Jim Husssey, Billy Joyce and the Pye family was contagious. It mattered little to Tony that his friend was booed and jeered by everyone else in the hall. As Jack Pye paraded the ring, sneering and taunting the crowd, they responded with their predictable insults and jeers, but to Tony Francis he was a hero, and would remain so for ever.
Knowing of the teenager's interest in wrestling Jack Pye asked Tony if he would like to become his second at the Tower. The youngster didn't need asking a second time, and from that time onwards Tony could be seen regularly at the Tower seconding for Jack Pye, and in the late fifties that meant most weeks.
Tony loved the deafening noise and the bright lights, absorbing the jeers of the fans directed at the man he took care of between rounds. He felt himself becoming a part of the wrestling, but understandably Tony wanted greater involvement and the teenagers dream was soon to become a wrestler himself, imagining that one day he would stand where his hero stood now.
Tony went on the offensive, and pestered the life out of Jack to help him become a professional wrestler. Jack and son Dominic did train youngsters, but Jack knew that if the youngster was serious, and he obviously believed he was, then he would have to prove himself and learn the trade in the best place possible.
“Maybe Jack thought I'll cure him. He gave me a letter addressed to Billy Riey and directions to the gymnasium in Wigan. The nightmare began.”
Like so many before him Tony related the story of leaving Riley's Snakepit battered, bruised and hurting in every part of his body. That is battered, bruised, hurting, but ready to return for more of the same. The test was to find out if youngsters had the dedication and guts to return, and return again. Tony passed the test. He did return to Wigan, and returned again and again. Only after the first few sessions, when a youngster had proven they were serious about their learning, did the Wigan wrestlers begin to impart their knowledge. It was then that disappointment struck. Tony returned from Wigan one night to be told by his father that the family were moving away, and he was soon left with only the good memories, (the painful ones fade with time) of his Sunday afternoons in Wigan.
Tony was quick to acknowledge the help of others who turned his ambition into reality. Abe Ginsberg was "A dear friend and a superb showman,and also an extremely skilled technical wrestler," dear Bobby Barron "His nickname was Dodgy, but a straighter man I never met, and Max Crabtree.
It was in 1969 that Tony's dream of joining the professional ranks became a reality. “Another nightmare,” related Tony, as he recalled his opponent, Bob Bell, being less than gentle with him. Shortly afterwards Tony was given the opportunity by promoter Bobby Barron to face his idol Jack Pye, who made a short lived comeback in 1970. It was a poignant moment for Tony, vividly recalled to this day, as he stood across the ring from his old friend, who was by then well past his prime.
“Listen to them. They still remember me," whispered the Doncaster Panther to the youngster.
"No one will ever forget you,” replied Tony.
For two decades Tony Francis wrestled on both the independent and Joint Promotion circuits; a frequent opponent of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. Yet Tony's career extended far beyond losses to Big Daddy, to a long period wrestling the top heavyweights in British wrestling and overseas, mostly as himself but sometimes alter ego El Diablo.
Tony was invited by Stu Hart to work the Stampede circuit in 1975. Tony remembers travelling the Canadian circuit, remote cities with angry fans, against big names such as Dan Kroffat. The boy must have done well because the following year he was invited back to work for Vince McMahon in California, and by Stu Hart in 1976 and 1977. Tony's youngest daughter was born in Canada in 1977.
Aware of the demands of parenthood Tony got a job with the Canadian Automobile Association where the English accent and the Lancashire charm awarded him the top North American salesman prize.
Wrestling Heritage has benefited from the knowledge and insight of many wrestlers through the years. Some, to whom we will remain eternally grateful, make regular positive contributions to the website in the forum and writing others whilst others stay quietly in the background offering support whenever needed. Tony Francis fell into the latter category. A good friend of the website for many years Tony made the occasional contributions to the forum yet was always available to provide insight into the wrestling business whenever required. Maybe it was humility or shyness that led to him staying in the background until called upon, but we are well aware that illness during the last few years of his life made it increasingly difficult for Tony to maintain regular contact. It was in December, 2009, that Tony told us he had just been treated for kidney failure that had led to treatment for potassium poisoning.
Our frequent urges to Tony to "get on with" his memoirs were always met with good humour and a positive response despite the illness he was battling. His final message to us declared, "You have a unique way of telling someone off, while at the same time giving them a lovely compliment."
Tony was forever grateful to the fans and acknowledged their importance, "Fans are the same all over the world. Without fans there would be no superstars,no legends,no Hall of Famers.Fans play a huge part in the attraction of this weird and wonderful business of ours."
Eddie Rose recalled Tony at the time of his death, "It must be fifty years ago that I met this fine lad and we remained friends through the years. I wrestled in Blackpool, his home town, many times and I usually bumped into Tony, sometimes as an opponent, sometimes socially but always a pleasure to meet and chat. In the ring he was a great opponent because he relied on skill and ring craft and he produced many unexpected, surprising moves that more often than not provoked a giggle between us. We once were matched at what I remember as the worse venue and even worse audience ever: a club off Regent Road in Salford with a start time of 11.30 p.m. - yes nearly midnight in front of a fairly sparse but very drunk audience. We worked away to crude and downright vulgar remarks until Tony decided to get some revenge. He manoeuvred me round and then said 'Aim me over the top rope now!' I obliged and Tony sailed through the air and landed on the loudest, vilest punter in the place, Not only did he land on the target but he emphasised the landing with a simultaneous head butt and a trusty knee to the man's groin. It shut the guy up who lay on the floor gasping and spluttering for the rest of the bout. At the end, the referee announced two falls to one for Tony PLUS one KO. The audience applauded Tony!"
Of his own career, which reached an end in 1989 against the Jamaica Kid George Burgess, Tony selected a couple of highlights, both events of 1981. Unsurprisingly one was his appearance in April of that year against Alan Kilby at the Royal Albert Hall. The second, was the night of 5th December, 1981 on the occasion of the final wrestling show at Belle Vue Manchester, a night recalled in “Blood, Sweat and Speedway.” It wasn't so much his inclusion in the final contest, a tag match in which Tony partnered Mal Kirk, that he recalls with pride, but what happened after the wrestling was over.
Following the conclusion of the night's wrestling there was a parade of many stars who had entertained Belle Vue fans over the years. Each one walked through the auditorium for one last time and entered the ring to the acclaim of the fans. Fans and wrestlers alike then cheered as the spotlight shone on the Doncaster Panther making his way towards the ring. Jack Pye was by then seventy-seven years old and in poor health. He was pushed slowly down the aisle in a wheelchair, the journey made all the more difficult bythe enthusiasm of the crowd wanting to get close to the legend.
Jack Pye could not have made that journey without the help of his young friend. Chosen to push the chair was Tony Francis, and to this day he remembers that moment as a wonderful experience and a great honour.
When they reached the ring Tony helped the veteran as he struggled to climb the steps for the very last time. The crowd rose to their feet, and cheered the Doncaster Panther as enthusiastically and as loudly as on any occasion in the fifty years previous.
For the very last time Jack sent the fans home happy.
No one noticed the tears in the eyes of Tony Francis.
Tony Francis died on 22nd May, 2017.
Page reviewed 28/05/2019