His strength was not physical, but political, for behind the scenes he was the matchmaker for Dale Martin, the firm that controlled the business across the south of England.
By night McManus performed in halls around the country, but by day he worked from an office in Brixton, south London, determining the lineups – and results – for as many as eight shows a night. These decisions were not taken lightly: crowd favourites had to win often enough to maintain their appeal, but if villains tasted defeat too frequently, crowds would have little incentive to return to future shows.
Though McManus went for more than 20 years without a decisive loss on television, he was involved in one of the small screen's rare genuine fights. At a 1967 show at the Lime Grove baths hall in west London, McManus was scheduled to win, but his opponent Peter Preston, a legitimately skilled but less charismatic grappler, had other ideas. Apparently incited by a northern rival promoter, Preston simply stopped reacting to McManus's "offensive blows". Rather than pursue a legitimate contest, McManus began throwing blatant punches to give the referee an excuse to disqualify him, leaving Preston unable to claim a clear-cut victory.
Fortunately most opponents recognised the value of doing business the traditional way, none more so than McManus's most famous rival, Jackie "Mr TV" Pallo. The two welterweight villains clashed verbally on the Eamonn Andrews show, then battled in matches broadcast before the 1962 and 1963 FA Cup Finals. The feud continued with countless rematches around the country, including a string of main events at the Royal Albert Hall, one of which saw ticket prices raised to three times usual levels.
Before ITV launched televised wrestling in 1955, it was rare for anyone other than heavyweights to headline major bills. But the small screen did not discriminate on size, and McManus became a regular by projecting the unusual image of a snivelling cheat who still appeared legitimately tough, particularly when backed by his cohort Steve "Iron Man" Logan. So passionate were some spectators that after a match in Chatham, Kent, where he characteristically cheated to win, the audience were invited to submit formal witness statements to a supposed official hearing into the bout.
The televised matches of McManus and company became so popular that for many years they were broadcast twice a week, on Saturday afternoons and Wednesday evenings. In 1963 the shopkeepers' union unsuccessfully appealed for ITV to move the broadcasts from the Saturday slot, complaining that women were staying home to watch the bouts rather than go shopping.
The power of television allowed McManus to mix in circles previously closed to members of a traditionally working-class profession. He was photographed with the likes of Prince Philip, Harold Wilson, Raquel Welch and the Rolling Stones. Decades before musclebound American grapplers became fashionable in Britain, fans could buy the "McManus Preparation 30" vitamin pill. A parliamentary debate about estate agents saw one MP compare their reputation to that of McManus. And in 2002 he even appeared as a character in a video game aimed at an audience born long after the peak of his fame.
Born in Camberwell, south London, McManus left school at the age of 16 and worked for a drawing office before taking an apprenticeship at a Holborn printing firm; he would later use these skills to run a sideline business producing programmes, posters and tickets for his wrestling employers. He was introduced to wrestling through friends and began amateur training at the John Ruskin club in Southwark.
As a wartime physical trainer he taught the legitimate version of the sport to RAF personnel, with his first professional performance coming on a posting to Australia in 1945, in the Leichhardt stadium, Sydney. His British debut was less glamorous: a year later, he faced "Chopper" Howlett at Greenwich baths.
Following his retirement in 1982, McManus served as a technical adviser to London Weekend Television until wrestling was taken off-air in 1988. He later worked in a public relations role for a wiring manufacturer, owned a pub in Guildford, Surrey, and devoted his free time to his love of antiques, becoming an authority on porcelain. He retained close links to the wrestling business, lending his name to several new promotions and appearing at reunions for retired grapplers.
His wife, Barbara, died in January 2013, and his is survived by a son, Tony.
• Mick McManus, professional wrestler, born 11 January 1920; died 22 May 2013
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