First Favorite Wrestler – Why I Blame Mark Rocco For My Love Of Wrestling
When I look back, I think it was all Marc Rocco’s fault. I’d grown up with British wrestling in the background. At around the age of five, I saw Big Daddy easily throwing around some masked wrestler and was in awe of what a great dominant fighter he was. I’d rushed to tell my mum about this incredible sporting display I’d just witnessed, only to be told by my mum “you know it’s all rigged don’t you?”
(This would have been late 70’s so while veterans may have you believe otherwise, the general public always knew).
While I used to watch bouts from time to time on a Saturday afternoon (right before the football results came through) and later on the midday slot, it was really January 1987 that I caught “the bug” and wrestling became a fixture of my life. It was the first show of the new year and it felt like something had changed with wrestling. I didn’t know it at the time, but there had been an upheaval in the way British Wrestling was going to be promoted on the television.
Joint Promotions (the home of Big Daddy), which had owned the ITV wrestling slot for decades, had lost its exclusivity and the TV would now alternate between their shows and those from All Star Wrestling. A couple of times a year, there was even to be a special WWF episode and the first show from Madison Square Gardens featuring a lumberjack match between Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage and a Hart Foundation
vs British Bulldogs match that absolutely blew my mind.
My interest in All Star’s first broadcast show had been piqued thanks to of all things, a comedy match that had aired on the lunchtime football show where pundit Jimmy Greaves had tried to unmask British great
Kendo Nagasaki. Enticed, I sat down to watch and even as a novice wrestling fan I could tell a difference from what I’d seen before. All Star matches were faster paced, the wrestlers were more athletic, had more
colourful personalities, and as weeks went on, I’d notice a subtle touch of razzmatazz and creativity in the episodes where All Star would decorate the ring posts. There even seemed to be subtle storylines building week by week.
In this exciting new fandom I was adventuring into, one wrestler stood out; one who for the next few years would act as my guide on a tour of everything that pro wrestling had the potential to be. His name was
Mark “Rollerball” Rocco. Mark Rocco was on the very first show of this new era and his dominating performance against Chic Cullen mesmerized me. As he came to the ring, he was like an action figure come to life, wearing a red and blue shiny jacket (sometimes he’d wear a silver jacket), a kamikaze style headband and a dangerous looking bulky black leather glove lined with studs. Combined with his flamboyant Americana styled stars and stripes ring gear, he wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Marvel comics I had just started reading.
The insanity of his appearance was intensified by the wild manner in which he yelled and screamed at the always vocal working class crowd. In the ring, Rocco wrestled at a blistering pace and was like the Tasmanian devil. Although one of the smallest wrestlers I’d seen at that point, everything he did looked deadly. There was an intense, violent snap to every punch, body slam, headlock or armbar he delivered and often accompanied by a loud roar that made the impact to even these simple moves seem all the more devastating. Rocco also delivered moves I’d never seen before, having an arsenal that included a swift, crisp tombstone pile driver and a range of high flying maneuvers; coming off the top rope with flying knees, elbows, and dropkicks.
Rocco’s mouth was just as active as his wrestling. Constantly berating his opponent, arguing with the referee, or yelling abuse at the crowd and bragging at commentator Kent Walton even while cranking on a headlock, Rocco came across as total nutcase and completely insane. He was also one of the few British wrestlers who seemed comfortable cutting promos. Amongst British grapplers who often drawled their way through through clumsily delivered lines while never saying much of interest, Rocco would scream and rant on the mic, either proclaiming his superiority or threatening revenge. He was never a touch on what I would come to see when I had access to American Wrestling, yet when building up a match with Marty Jones, he ranted that he going to tear his opponent apart and mail a piece of Jones to each and everyone of his fans. I thought it was the greatest interview I’d ever seen.
Throughout 1987 I was getting a taste for who the good wrestlers were such as Clive Myers, Johnny Saint, and Marty Jones and I’d get excited when Rocco would be matched against one of them. Despite the fact that Rocco was clearly a bad guy, I found myself going against the storyline and rooting for him, which was quite satisfying as Rocco always seemed to win.
However there was another wrestler who’d also appeared on that first January All Star show who I was enjoying watching; a Japanese wrestler who more than matched Rocco’s speed and creativity in high
flying skills going by the name of Fuji Yamada who one day would be one the greatest in the world, donning the mask of Jushin Thunder Liger. Like Rocco, Yamada had been winning on television and with the announcement at the end of a show that next week’s main event would pit the two against each other I now had my very first dream match up to look forward to.
Innocent as I was to the way wrestling worked, I was unaware that Rocco and Yamada had already been feuding up and down the country, swapping the “World Heavy Middleweight” title back and forth. Finally getting to have the match on television, it was Yamada going in as champion (in the illustrious setting of the Lewisham theatre in Catford). There was a genuine buzz of anticipation from the crowd with Rocco going even more berserk than normal as they waited for the first bell to ring; a big match aura was in the air.
The match was astounding, especially on television with the aid of Kent Walton’s professional style of commentary. The two battled back and forth for twenty minutes, thrilling the crowd with grappling, brawling and saving their high flying until late into the contest before Rocco finally put Yamada away with a pile driver. As an annoyed audience expressed their disapproval, Rocco characteristically got on the mic and repeatedly hurled abuse at Yamada, of all things accusing the Japanese wrestler of failing to keep the title belt clean while being champion.
As well as having the best matches on television, there always seemed to a creative edge that followed Rocco around. Spots and finishes that I’d never seen elsewhere would occur in Rocco matches. A match with Marty Jones for example, ended in a double DQ, as the contest descended in a brawl and both ended up shoving the referee to the ground. A bleeding Rocco grabbed the mic and challenged Jones to continue the match without a referee. Jones obliged and the two brawled back into the dressing room. Nowadays such a conclusion wouldn’t even solicit a second thought (aside from maybe that the fans felt ripped off) but in the 80s and in the UK, this felt wild and groundbreaking.
However my most abiding memory was Rocco introducing me to the possibilities of long term story telling that existed in pro wrestling in his feud with fellow heel Kendo Nagasaki. Another of All Star’s top wrestlers, Nagasaki was a mysterious masked wrestler who I’d again been introduced to on that very first show in a disco ladder match. Yeah I was baffled even then. While masked wrestlers were common back then, Nagasaki had a spooky aura that set him apart, never speaking, allowing his manager George Gillette to talk for him. He would often wrestle in front of large numbers of his fan club, who were some of the weirdest looking fans to be seen at British wrestling shows. And that’s really saying something. Like Rocco, he was kept strong as a heel and rarely lost on television.
Early in 1987 Nagasaki challenged his rivals Clive Myers and Yamada to a tag match against him and a mystery tag partner. That partner was revealed to be Rocco and this dream super heel tag team were victorious. However a year later when the two teamed once again against Myers and Dave Taylor, it was a very different result. At one point, Taylor was attempting to tear off Nagasaki’s mask and as Rocco tried to intervene, he grabbed the mask trying to keep it on his partner’s head. But was dropkicked while still having a hold of the mask, tearing it from Nagasaki’s head as he fell.
(He’d actually been unmasked in the distant past a few times, but for new fans like myself, this was really something, especially as Nagasaki without his mask on was one of the most disturbing sights I’ve ever seen in wrestling).
A distraught Nagasaki ran to the back, returning with his spare black mask and he and Gillette began lambasting Rocco. As simple as it may have been, I was in raptures, having never seen an angle before. I especially was excited when the two declared war on each other, with the prospect of the two bad guys going at it really capturing my imagination, especially as I’d be able to root for Rocco since Nagasaki was still was able to bring out the heel hate in me.
The showdown took place a couple of months later in a tag match as Rocco adopted a more babyface role and teamed with Wayne Bridges, who also had a grudge against the masked man. They faced Nagasaki and “Psycho” Shane Stephens. I was hyped for this grudge match and once again was treated to some creative storytelling. Rocco beat the living daylights out of Stephens, and repeatedly dragged him over to Nagasaki’s corner, daring Nagasaki to tag himself in as he was the one he wanted to settle the score with.
The cowardly heel Nagasaki refused and would only tag into the match if his team had the upper hand. In a world of elaborate wrestling storylines, I actually look back with fondness at the simplicity of this and
how excited and thrilling it seemed to me at the time, inciting a very real desire for Rocco to get his hands on Nagaski. Coming out of this match (Rocco and Bridges won but both falls were against Stephens), I was desperate for a singles match with Rocco and Nagasaki. However it never came, wrestling was not long for UK television and on an emotional day in December 1988 Kent Walton said “Have a good time, for the last
time!” The final bell ringing on what had been a British institution, leaving a sad hollow feeling in fans like me.
While I was denied my weekly date with the British grappling gang, my wrestling fandom only proved to skyrocket first with WWF (after bugging my parents endlessly for a satellite dish) and thanks to the murky world of bootleg tape traders, experimenting with other promotions around the world. There was the odd commercial VHS release of British wrestling shows, yet I was never able to land any Rocco matches, frustrating as the UK live shows had seen a growth in interest after been driven off television and Rocco was continuing his feud with Nagasaki and having what I considered dream matches with heels like Skull Murphy and Fit Finlay.
Rocco even appeared on a WWF card in late 1989 on its first two show tour of the United Kingdom, featuring in a six-man with Fit Finlay and Skull Murphy beating a team of American jobbers. I was told by someone in attendance that Rocco got one of the biggest reactions of the night, and it did start me naively dreaming that maybe Rocco could land a spot in WWF. Naturally, this never happened. In any case Rocco’s career ended a few years later when he collapsed after a match and it was discovered he had a heart condition.
Years later, I would discover that I wasn’t alone in my admiration for Rocco’s work. When new generations of wrestlers would infuse life into the American independent scene, there appeared to be an
admiration for what had been dubbed the “World of Sport” days, and Rocco’s name would be held in high regard. I also learned that years before I started watching wrestling Rocco had been having groundbreaking matches with the likes of Dynamite Kid and Tiger Mask.
For years, the knowledge of these legendary matches enticed and frustrated me as even with the internet, the most diverse tape trading lists would never have them. After years of assuming these matches had become lost forever, gaining mythic status akin to footage of the Grassy Knoll, 2004 in the UK saw the
appearance of the first ever dedicated wresting channel. Though short lived, the channel was a godsend for fans and amongst the treasures it bestowed was archived wrestling from the 70s and 80s World of Sport era, including many, many classic Mark Rocco matches, including those with Dynamite Kid. Even two decades later, these matches stood the test of time with a psychology and hard hitting style that 21st century wrestlers could learn from.
For years, when ever I was asked who my favourite wrestler was, I’d reply either Bret Hart or Ric Flair depending on my mood that day. However when I look back, and think of the joy I got as a young fan tuning into ITV on a Saturday, and years later collecting those wrestling channel matches into my own three volume DVD comps (with lovingly created covers to boot), I realize that no one had a bigger influence on me becoming a fan than Rollerball Mark Rocco.
So, yeah I’ve Rocco to blame.