If you Google ‘Big Daddy’, chances are you’ll be directed to the 1999 Adam Sandler movie. If you ask wrestling fans who they associate Big Daddy with you may hear Big Daddy Cool (Diesel), Big Daddy V (Viscera), or from younger European fans Big Daddy Walter (WWE’s WALTER). If you ask any British person alive in the 1970’s and 1980’s there is only one Big Daddy – real name Shirley Crabtree, the biggest star in British wrestling history.
“You can’t imagine what a superstar Big Daddy was was.” William Regal told Stone Cold Steve Austin on his podcast. “He was a national treasure and superstar. To the working classes this was someone that could be their uncle, their dad or a fella sat in the pub.”
Families, including my own, would gather around the television and millions tuned in every Saturday afternoon to watch the grappling. Usually it was a two out of three falls contest over multiple three minute rounds (adopted by the Heritage Cup in NXT UK). One Saturday afternoon, each year in particular, was guaranteed massive ratings – the FA Cup Final day (football, or if you want to be incorrect, soccer). ITV cleverly put the World of Sport show prior to the start of the Final. For six consecutive years, from 1981 to 1986, Big Daddy was getting a victory in the headline bout and, as a child, I lapped it up.
Wrestling fans were particularly vociferous during this era as they believed in the legitimacy of the action. In America, the heels would incite riots in territories such as Memphis, Ohio, and Puerto Rico. In the UK, opponents of Big Daddy were more likely to be attacked by a granny wielding a handbag or an umbrella.
One of the biggest things that made Daddy a superstar was the presentation. Wearing a top hat to the ring and the Union Jack on his wrestling attire, his entrance music ‘We Shall Not be Moved’ – a folk song that embodied the struggle of the civil rights movement – played to his working class fanbase. Fans would sing along and clap as Daddy sought their adoration on his way to the ring. When in the ring, Daddy would get the fans to chant ‘Easy, Easy, Easy’ as he squared off against his opponent. A simple chant that everyone can join in with, much like the ‘Yes’ chant.
Big Daddy became an icon in British pop culture; he was a regular on entertainment shows and advertised ketchup on TV, plus he had a comic strip in the popular children’s comic Buster. In 1979 Daddy followed in the footsteps of the legendary Jackie Pallo by becoming one of the few wrestlers to appear on This is Your Life – the popular prime time TV show. The episode was a rare greying of kayfabe as some of Daddy’s biggest rivals joined in celebrating his career to date.
In ring, Daddy’s matches were slow paced and ponderous. Daddy often charged at his opponents and used his belly to knock them down before getting the pin following a Big Splash. In an era with top in-ring workers such as Marc ‘Rollerball’ Rocco, Johnny Saint and Marty Jones, it may seem strange that Daddy was the big star. His brother Max running Joint Promotions undoubtedly helped his positioning at the top of the card, but he would not have remained there without his charisma and ability to connect with the crowd.
A top babyface needs a dastardly heel, and Daddy had the biggest heel around in Giant Haystacks (Martin Ruane). One of the few competitors even bigger and heavier than Daddy, they both drew monster audiences. In 1981, almost 18 million watched their singles match on TV from Wembley Arena. Times are very different in 2021, but this would be the equivalent to over 100 million people watching Monday Night Raw in the USA.
Haystacks and Daddy were originally a heel tag team in the 1970’s, before Daddy turned face. For several years he fought with Haystacks in singles and tag bouts, one of the longest feuds in wrestling. For three years they faced each other in tag matches on FA Cup Final day. The last of these was in 1984 which saw Daddy team with Drew McDonald as they faced the team of Haystacks and future WWE star Fit Finlay.
Haystacks ended up in WCW in 1996 under the name Loch Ness and even faced The Giant (Paul Wight) at the Uncensored Pay-Per-View. Daddy, however, never made it to America. He was in his sixties at the time of SummerSlam 1992, but if he had been in his prime we would probably have seen him headlining at Wembley Stadium – such was his ability to draw in the UK.
Tag team matches were a speciality of Daddy. He was often teamed with a much lighter competitor against two heavyweights. The lighter competitor would lose the first fall and Daddy would tag in and lead his team to victory. One of those tag team partners was Young David (Davey Boy Smith). In Simon Garfield’s book “The Wresting”, Smith recalled, “I was Big Daddy’s tag team partner for a while, when I was still at school. I was getting beatings so good that the people were almost crying. Then when I tagged Big Daddy he came in and cleaned up. We were selling out everywhere”. The predictability of these matches did nothing to dampen attendances.
At the time, I remember wondering why Daddy wasn’t heavyweight champion, as he was clearly so much better than everyone else. The truth was, he didn’t need the title to be a draw. Like The Undertaker during periods of his WWE run, there were two main events – the title match and whoever Daddy was facing.
Daddy was the biggest star in British wrestling during the 1970’s and 1980’s, a period that is unlikely to ever be repeated. There are so many wrestlers who were heavily influenced by the World of Sport style but you won’t find many that cite watching Daddy’s matches. There are definitely learnings for aspiring wrestlers to take though; how to know character and your strengths, how to engage a crowd, and how to give fans what they want – which at the time was a Big Splash for the one, two, three.
The Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame is widely regarded as one of the most important. Daddy has been on the ballot since 2009 and has often scored in the mid 40 percent range, a bit short of the 60 percent induction mark. Daddy still has a few more years to try and get sufficient votes to be inducted. To me and generations of fans at the time, he was a larger than life superhero and a British predecessor to Hulk Hogan. He didn’t have five star matches, but during an era when wrestling was at its most popular, he was the wrestler everyone in the country knew and loved.