In my youth, the BBC’s Grandstand and ITV’s World of Sport, presented by the flamboyantly moustached Dickie Davies, competed for weekend dominance of the airwaves.
Back then the Beeb had the rights to most major sporting events, and World of Sport…well, it took what was left. One old joke was that the BBC had paid for all the sports they wanted in alphabetical order and had run out of money before they got to wrestling.
However, the joke backfired because the ‘rasslin became a huge working class hit and, for a young boy growing up in the 70s and 80s, it was sacred viewing.
This was British wrestling, a distant relative of the much gaudier and showier American version later popularised by the WWE. While it was easy to appreciate the skills and athleticism of Danny ‘Boy’ Collins and Dave ‘Fit’ Finlay, the sinister menace of Kendo Nagasaki or the brawling honestly of ‘Bomber’ Pat Roach, the real attraction for a young boy was obvious. What we wanted to see was Big Daddy fighting Giant Haystacks.
Of course, such precious gifts were shared sparingly. Despite a rivalry which lasted for many years, the two behemoths rarely clashed directly in the ring, their encounters usually being tag team matches where Haystacks would beat up on Daddy’s weaker partner and then flee the ring when Daddy charged him. Most of my memories of their engagements involve Haystacks standing outside the ring, pouting angrily and waving his finger while Daddy stood inside, clapping his hands and shouting ‘Easy! Easy! Easy!’
Haystacks was the perfect cartoon baddie. Standing close to seven feet tall and weighing not far shy of 50 stone, the bearded giant wore a permanent scowl and sweated menace. I had no concept then that he was playing a role or that the fights were scripted. I thought this was what he was really like. In truth, I’m not sure anything in life has ever scared me quite as much as Giant Haystacks.
In the early 1980s something remarkable happened. Wrestling came to Ballycastle (which was the town closest to where I grew up), and Giant Haystacks was to top the bill. To a contemporary audience this might not seem like such a big deal, but back then it was earth shattering. Nobody ever came to Ballycastle. Ever. Also, to my juvenile perspective, Haystacks was one of the most famous men in the world.
To give a modern equivalent I would describe the shock as something akin to hearing that the Dalai Lama and Lady Gaga were to team up to open a shoe-shining business in Armoy. It just didn’t seem possible.
So, of course, I begged my da to get tickets. I was more than excited when he agreed. But, as the event came closer my anticipation became diluted with apprehension. I struggled to sleep the night before the show. Watching Haystacks on TV was one thing, but the thought of breathing the same air was disturbing.
What happened if the monster decided to run amok in the crowd, scattering old ladies like skittles and eating children?
My anxiety was still there as I took my seat in the hall of the Sheskburn Recreation Centre where a ring had been erected. There were other matches, although I don’t remember them (I was probably six or seven at the time).
Haystacks took part in a tag team match where he knocked one opponent unconscious (supposedly) by landing on top of him with a belly flop. He then threw his other opponent out of the ring before being disqualified and leaving the ring to a chorus of boos.
At the end of the show, my brother and I, along with some of the other boys from our school, dashed to the dressing room to try and get some autographs. I cowered in the corner as Haystacks scribbled on a couple of pieces of paper before closing his door.
We hung around, unwilling to let go of our brief brush with celebrity quite so quickly. Some of the boys, who were bolder than me, started banging on Haystacks’ door and hurling immature insults.
I fully admit that my retelling of what happened next may not be reliable; this was all a long time ago and I have rehashed the story so many times that the details have possibly been coloured over the years.
What I remember is this. Haystacks’ door was flung open and the giant appeared. He made some sort of sound, a low growl which grew into a roar, before taking a step in our direction. We turned and fled. I have never run so fast in my life.
My da, who was waiting at the end of the corridor for us, is a more reliable narrator for what happened next and he delights in recounting the tale. A group of small boys came dashing past him in a blur. I was frantically yelling: ‘Giant Haystacks is after us! RUN!!!!’
I have told the story several times to my own son. I have also shown him the old Youtube battles between Haystacks and Big Daddy that I grew up with. For years, when we’ve had our play wrestling bouts on the bed, these are the roles we adopt.
My son plays Big Daddy and is beating me until the imaginary referee gets injured. Then I attack him from behind when he goes to check on the ref’s condition and kick him around the ring. Eventually he recovers and ends the fight by knocking me off the bed with a belly charge.
But recently it all changed. Friends have introduced my boy to the WWE and, as we were limbering up for the bout, he dropped the bombshell.
‘I don’t want to be Big Daddy this time daddy, I want to be The Rock instead.’
He stared hard at me and seemed to be trying to raise one of his eyebrows.
Then, with a flourish, he yelled: ‘Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?’
I became confused as he tried out some fancy new moves and pinned me within two minutes.
I smiled and played along, although I felt inside that a small part of me had died.
* Jonny McCambridge’s new book, Afraid of the Dark, published by Dalzell Press, is available now on Amazon.
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