Madison Square Garden. The Mid-South Coliseum. Korakuen Hall. Arena Mexico. These are the legendary venues made famous by professional wrestling. The undisputed homes of the sport in New York, Memphis, Tokyo, and Mexico City, their history is intertwined with the sport in a way that few other sports or entertainments can match, and while the heyday of all of them may have passed, the legends live on.
For British wrestlers, their Dallas Sportatorium, their Cow Palace, their Cobo Hall, was the Royal Albert Hall in London’s Kensington district. It wasn’t the biggest arena in the country but it was the place to be, and the place with the biggest pay-offs, both monetarily and in the prestige gained from working there.
The genesis of the Royal Albert Hall lay in the Great Exhibition of 1851. Prince Albert so enjoyed the gala that he proposed the creation of permanent exhibition buildings, in an area which came to be called Albertopolis. The grounds of Gore House were deemed appropriate for the creation of a concert hall but progress was slow and the Prince died without seeing it come to fruition.
In his memory, however, a great hall was created and named for him. The Royal Albert Hall was opened on March 29th 1871 by Edward, Prince of Wales, on behalf of his mother, Queen Victoria, who was too overcome by grief to attend. A concert was held afterwards and, fitting for its troubled birth, the hall was found to have a profound echo.
The echo remained until the late 1960s, when an acoustic diffusing system was suspended beneath the ceiling, but it did not stop the Royal Albert Hall from becoming the beloved “Nation’s Village Hall”, scene of the Last Night Of The Proms since 1985.
The first wrestling show held at the Hall saw George Hackenschmidt, the legendary Estonian recognised as the undisputed European champion, take on Tom Jenkins, who had recently held the American heavyweight title. The bout, in July 1904, was won by Hackenschmidt in two straight falls, reportedly for a purse equivalent to a quarter of a million pounds in today’s money.
After the second world war, Joint Promotions – through Dale Martin – began running the Hall monthly, their first show headlined by Bert Royal versus Charro Montez. From then on the Royal Albert Hall became the place to be seen, both in the ring and out of it.
Legendary performers like Lou Thesz, Dara Singh, and Andre The Giant all appeared in the famous arena, and celebrity fans included Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip, who were such big fans that Bernard Ingram, Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary wrote of seeing the Queen explain a hold she’d seen to a visiting African dignitary.
The monthly shows came to an end in the mid-1980s, with wrestling suffering one of its periodic downswings. The last show, in 1985, was main-evented by Big Daddy and Greg Valentine taking on Bull Pratt and “Cynaide” Sid Cooper.
Two years later, as a response to the loosening of regulations banning women’s wrestling in London, Mitzi Mueller and Rusty Blair took on Klondyke Kate and Micky Monroe. This was the last British wrestling show held at the famous arena, and a return for homegrown grapplers looks unlikely.
That’s not to say that wrestling has been completely erased from the venue’s events calendar. In the 1990s there were semi-regular visits from the WWF – the British Bulldog can legitimately claim to be the last British wrestler to work there – and WCW, and the first sumo wrestling tournament held outside Japan was also staged at the Royal Albert Hall in 1991. The only grappling action since the 1990s, however, has been UFC 38 – subtitled The Brawl At The Hall – when Matt Hughes defended his Welterweight title against Carlos Newton, in front of 3,800 fans.
That all changes on Saturday July 11th, however, when ¡Cómo No! present Lucha Future, the first genuine professional wresting event to be held at the home of British wrestling in twenty-one years.
Although what’s an offer at the Royal Albert Hall is pretty far from the wrestling you’d find in any hall in Britain, either then or now, it’s fitting that something with such a long and proud history as lucha libre has landed at the front door of the famous old hall.
Coming from Mexico are some of top performers from the AAA promotion, currently the number one promotion in the country, and with more than a few who have also made appearances on the critically-acclaimed Lucha Underground show in the US.
Along with The Greatest Spectacle Of Lucha Libre, taking place at Bethnal Green’s York Hall between July 9th and 11th, London is being spoiled for lucha libre fun, fittingly in London’s Year Of Mexico, and the line-up at the Royal Albert Hall is stronger than any lucha libre card has ever been in the UK.
As well as former AAA Mega Heavyweight champion Texano Jr, current AAA Cruiserweight champion el Hijo del Fantasma, and AAA Tag-Team champion Pentagón Jr, the legendary Blue Demon Jr and Villano IV are making the trip over, and are joined by Lucha Underground standouts Fénix, Drago and Sexy Star, the larger-than-life Psycho Clown and La Parka, and a selection of the tiny, mini luchadors, led by former champions Mini Abismo Negro and Octagoncito.
To say I’m excited by seeing the stars of one of my favourite wrestling TV shows – and if you haven’t seen Lucha Underground yet, why not?!? – as well as the principals of the strangely-watchable (but entirely en Español) AAA Sin Limite TV show, found on YouTube if you’re looking, is a gross understatement.
On July 11th I’ll be watching all-out action with a few cervezas at one of the crowning jewels in British cultural and wrestling history. Knowing all that, it would seem silly not join me, yes?
Information on Lucha Future can be found at luchafuture.com
(Additional information for this article was kindly supplied by John Lister)