Masked wrestlers have always been the subject
of much speculation and rumour...
One of the first promotional pictures of Kendo Nagasaki,
as used immediately after he first appeared.
Over the years, international wrestling rings have thrilled to the sight of enormous gladiators who covered their identities in public, and the list of masked greats is long: Doctor Death, The Ghoul, The Zebra Kid... Wrestling fans could indeed name many such heroes. Only two men though in British wrestling have ever become legends in their own time, household names who would comprehensively capture the imagination of the people of Britain.
The first of these was Count Bartelli; from the late 1940’s, this truly great masked star dominated both home and international wrestling rings with his incredible strength and agility. For many people inside and outside wrestling Bartelli was the master, a man without equal who took on and defeated the top names of the day, packing halls throughout the land, and when ITV started their coverage of wrestling in the mid 50’s, Bartelli would go on to become one of the nation’s best loved mat stars.
All this would change with the arrival of a newcomer on the scene, a man whose name would be etched as a landmark in Bartelli’s own spectacular career: Kendo Nagasaki. Standing 6 feet and 2 inches tall, weighing in at around 16 stones, the Samurai-influenced warrior was indeed a striking figure. Sporting red eyes and distinguished by a left hand with half an index finger missing, Nagasaki entered the ring in full Kendo fighting gear with a samurai sword close at hand. It has long been rumoured that Bartelli had a hand in training Nagasaki for the ring, the master and the pupil. Nobody seemed to know of Nagasaki’s origins, it is claimed that this ambitious young man was a heavyweight judo champion by the time he set foot in a professional wrestling ring. ...
Whatever the truth, when Kendo Nagasaki first appeared in British rings in 1964 he started making waves immediately. He succeeded in defeating some of the greatest heavyweight stars of the day, and this made promoters and fans sit up and recognise that here was a major force to be reckoned with, a spirit who was destined for wrestling greatness. Nagasaki and Bartelli teamed up for a number of tag team clashes, two masked marvels unleashed from the same corner. The results were always wildly entertaining and extremely successful - simply nobody could stand in their way.
Slowly a worrying trait started to gnaw at Bartelli: he was a gentleman of the ring, only resorting to brawling when an opponent had pushed him to the very limit, but Nagasaki had a habit of taking the law into his own hands, getting illegal moves in behind the referee’s back, and generally disregarding the rules whenever the mood took him. Following one particular tag match in 1966, all this would come to a head... Kendo refused to take his turn in the ring, and Bartelli’s temper snapped; he demanded a showdown with Nagasaki, the loser to unmask in public.
The match was set for Saturday 5th March 1966 at the Victoria Hall, Hanley, Stoke On Trent. On the big day, the hall was packed to capacity, people queuing around the block but unable to get in - the word on the street was that this match was going to be greatest test of Bartelli’s career. As referee Stan Rylands stood in the ring with the two masked gladiators ready to pounce, the excitement among the packed audience threatened to blow the roof off the Victoria Hall.
The match was packed with incident - as expected, Kendo tried every blind-side move he could muster whilst Bartelli countered with strength holds that even the younger man couldn’t answer. The match seemed very even, then Bartelli, having got the upper hand, lined Kendo up for a posting, and at the last moment pulled him back in a mighty arm wrench. Nagasaki went down clutching his arm; the Count had used this move to great effect in many contests before and it had nearly always given him a victory...
Turning his back on Kendo Nagasaki was the worst move that Count Bartelli ever made: thinking the match was well and truly over, Bartelli could hear the referee counting behind him as he saluted the crowd, but he had catastrophically underestimated his opponent... As he turned around, Nagasaki was already up onto one knee, and the Count, wanting to make sure of his victory, launched himself off the ropes in a flying tackle. But Nagasaki proved even more cunning, rolling out of the way so that Bartelli went straight over the ropes, landing in front of the ringside seats. The fall was a bad one, and as referee Stan Rylands started to count Bartelli out, the crowd sensed that their hero was in real trouble.
Just as the count reached it’s maximum ten, Bartelli made it to the ring canvas, but just a fraction too late - the timekeeper’s bell sounded the end of an era: the most famous masked wrestler ever seen in British rings up until that time had finally been defeated.
Bartelli’s mask was wet with sweat and blood, and as Nagasaki collected the winner’s cheque of £1000, Rylands untied the strings of Bartelli's mask, and off it came to reveal the face of the legendary Count Bartelli, alias Geoff Condliffe of Crewe. If this really was the master and the pupil, then the pupil had certainly managed to get the upper hand when it really mattered.
Shock waves echoed around the country, many fans simply couldn’t believe that after 20 years their hero had been unmasked by this vicious newcomer. However, Count Bartelli’s career was far from over and he went on to win many more titles, but he never again achieved the same successes following his unmasking. Heavyweights throughout Britain now respected Kendo Nagasaki, and for many the ultimate challenge was to beat Kendo, each contender wanting to claim they had beaten the man who had beaten Bartelli. It wasn’t to be though, as Kendo would out-wit and out-wrestle each of them in turn; when the giant Jean Ferre toured the UK prior to becoming better known as the WWF’s star turn Andre The Giant, the gargantuan 7-foot-tall Frenchman fared no better than a more modest sized heavyweight. In characteristic style, Kendo used his martial arts expertise to ensure that this massive invader was sent packing.
As the years went by and the sixties became the seventies, Nagasaki fought his way to the top of the tree as Britain’s number one heavyweight, but, as the rules for the British Heavyweight Championship meant that only British citizens could hold the title, since Nagasaki refused to confirm his identity, he was therefore ineligible to challenge for the title. It would be a sore point with Kendo for many years, having beaten many of the current title-holders over and over again. That Kendo never spoke was also a hindrance to his efforts to put forward fresh challenges, so it was time for him to find an extrovert mouthpiece to complement the silent warrior behind the mask...