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Wrestling Gets a Grip on the British

The British taste for rowdy comedy, coursing crazily from Jack Falstaff through the Beatles, is finding new satisfaction in an unabashed mania for professional wrestling. This peculiar art form has caught on like nothing since the Black Bottom.

It is a bonanza that can persuade as many as 14 million men, women and children, more than a fifth of the population, to sit and watch a television broadcast of a wrestling tournament. Shakespearean tragedy or comic opera cannot compare in pulling power with the barrel-chested battalion of wild men from Borneo, masked devils, evil phantoms, tricky counts and plainer men whose attraction may just be that they really wrestle rather well.

Professional wrestling is currently coining some $6 million a year in Britain. Such success intrigues sociologists, who wonder what the country is coming to; psychologists, who perceive murky Freudian depths in it all; and the arithmetical wizards of The Financial Times, who gravely tot up the figures. Even more extraordinary is that professional wrestlers have reached a point where they are sometimes suspected of honestly wrestling to win.

At the top of the heap is an organization known as Dale Martin Promotions, whose position in the game could be fairly compared to that once enjoyed by Barnum & Bailey in circus. Started soon after the war, in one small London room with no phone, it is run by Les Martin, who was originally a commercial artist and yearns to go back to his painting, and three Dale brothers, one of whom was once the middleweight champion of Britain. Dale Martin runs sometimes as many as 10 shows a night and 45 shows a week. It prints all its own programs (21,000 weekly), tickets, posters and handbills, builds special bodies on trucks to transport its equipment around the country and constructs its own rings. It has also achieved the mark of every prosperous enterprise, an executive suite, which, in the case of Dale Martin, is fitted out with black and gray armchairs, a gray and white carpet, wallpaper of abstract design, subdued lighting and a nice line in cocktails.

Such gentility is a change from the early days, when wrestling promoters used methods that bordered on gang warfare. They stole each other's wrestlers, uttered nasty threats and often carried them out. Then, in a typical British compromise, the main promoters gathered in a group called Joint Promotions, cut up the country among themselves, started wearing sober suits and putting on shows for charity.

Of the business done by Joint Promotions, Dale Martin is reckoned to have better than half. Two million people annually attend its shows, which are spread over the whole of southern England and Wales. The season never ends. In the summer all the promoters do is follow their insatiable customers to the coastal resorts, garden parties and fetes.

Often more than 500 wrestlers are employed. Some have large fan clubs. A few outstanding wrestlers are estimated to earn up to $45,000 a year, though the average among the top men is probably more like half this or a bit less. It is good money for a career that can stretch well beyond the age of 40. Jack (Dirty) Pye, a wrestling miner who recently retired at 58, reckoned he made more than a quarter of a million dollars in his time. Billy Two Rivers, billed as a Canadian Red Indian, is among the big money-makers; so is Ricki Starr, who calls himself an American ballet dancer and does pirouettes in the ring between throws. A newer contender is Harold Toshiyuki Sakata, the actor who plays Oddjob, the valet in the movie Goldfinger.

The script usually is the same one used in the U.S.: the bad men fall to the good ones. But sometimes a match will have a sad ending, like an adult western. The nice chap loses. The fans come from all walks of life. The arenas are crammed by beautiful women sighing deeply for their favorites, elegant men strutting in the latest fashion, actors, comedians, film stars, retired colonels (lots of them), women with heavily laden handbags to bounce over wrestlers' sconces, and men who lay claim darkly to a knowledge of everything from a stepover toehold to an Indian death lock.

Doubts about whether wrestling is on the level persist. One promoter says candidly: "We don't kid ourselves; it's entertainment. Telling somebody it's a sport is like telling him he's a moron."