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NZ Wrestling & Boxing with Dave Cameron:
Beat The Scoffers
The scoffers can say what they will but not since the 1930s, when Earl McCready and Lofty Blomfield, plus a crop of 'name' performers with world title backgrounds - Dean Detton, Dave Levin, "Strangler" Lewis, Ed Don George, Vincent Lopez, Ray Steele, "Jumping Joe" Savoldi and the like - won the sport its record following, has wrestling been in such a healthy state.
It's all the result of two factors, one of which is the initiative of Wellington promoter-wrestler Steve Rickard, a one-time CIB policeman and later hotel bar manager, and the other the weekly "On the Mat" television show Rickard has been able to sell to those who build programmes for the visual medium.
The Polynesian community, with their outgoing personalities and love for action and excitement in their sport, also have added to the sport's popularity in the major centres of Wellington and Auckland.
"I am firmly convinced that of all the reasons for the return of wrestling to public popularity, the 'On The Mat' TV feature has been the most vital," says Rickard.
"Auckland alone has had capacity houses for some 20 weeks and most weeks hundreds have been turned away. Now, wrestling has switched from the Town Hall in Auckland to the YMCA, which has a seating capacity of over 400 more, and has firm bookings for this year."
Any survey of the 1976 season must be prefaced by reference to the night early in the season when the big Punjabi, Tiger Jeet Singh, defended his world heavyweight championship in Auckland against Robert Bruce, the classically named Scot who holds the Commonwealth title.
For this bout, an estimated crowd of more than 5000 jammed Queen Street and would-be patrons were milling right across the road trying to get into the hall.
To the best of my knowledge, and with the exception of a brief campaign waged in Wellington by the ageing "King Kong" not long before his death a year or two ago, scenes like this have not been seen since the aforementioned 1930s.
It is hard to separate the top bunch from among those who occupied the stage for varying periods during 1976. King Curtis (sec November Sports Digest), of course, with his unbeaten record, has to be
close to the top, even if the wily old campaigner from Hawaii pulled off many victories which looked far from honest.
But all credit to 'the King' for being mainly responsible for pulling in the vast number of fans throughout the country during the year.
Don Muraco, another from Honolulu, proved a sensational wrestler and one of the greatest fan favourites ever known in the ring here. Surely the young Hawaiian rates as one of the best straight wrestlers in the world?
Having to pick between American Mark Lewin, one of the greatest of modern matmen, and Tiger Jeet Singh, the Australasian version of the world champ, was a task of some immensity.
Lewin has been in the forefront of world wrestling for twenty years and ranks as a genuine great, at least among the moderns. I would, on that score, rate him just slightly ahead of the Indian.
I must stress that there is very little between any of the first six and I personally rate John Da Silva one of today's finest. Our first Olympic wrestler, John as a pro has a wonderful background and goes through more holds in one match than many wrestlers do in ten.
Robert Bruce rates very highly as well and with three victories over 'Big John' needs no further recommendation. The giant Scot has improved significantly since settling in New Zealand and can handle himself in any company.
Big Mulumba, the African with the body of a Greek god, certainly did his part to make an outstanding season of it, while that other dark-skinned paragon, Giant Zulu, while at this stage of his career lacking in experience, could develop into a top-liner.
The friendly negro was always ready and willing to mix with the fans, especially the younger ones, would sign autograph books by the dozen at one sitting, and rated Mr Nice Guy at the box office.
Of the younger fry, Johnny Garcia, with more poundage, and the lively Samoan, Siva Afi Taogaga, look best fitted to develop into big names.
Siva Afi Taogaga
The thing about New Zealand wrestling is that so many of the better-known men on the American circuit are now starting to enquire about campaigns here; indeed, some are anxious to come so that the New Year looms as another important one.
Steve Rickard, who has been New Zealand and/or Commonwealth champion on and off for the past ten or twelve years, did not devote as much time as possibly he would have liked to active wrestling during the year under review.
He spent more time fostering the sport around the country and sharing the host duties with Ernie Leonard for the "On The Mat" show. More power to Steve's promotional elbow!
They were the stars in '76
Mark Lewin (USA)
Giant Zulu (USA)
King Curtis (Hawaii)
Tiger Jeet Singh (India)
Robert Bruce (Scotland)
Big Mulumba (Africa)
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