The Forgotten Kiwis — Big Stars In Europe, Unknown In Their Own Country

Kiwi Kingston in action in England

In the early days of New Zealand wrestling, it was virtually impossible to break into the sport here. Walter Miller, the American promoter and booker, liked to bring a team of American's over to meet Lofty Blomfield and later Ken Kenneth. But New Zealand talent was just not used.

Some boys went overseas and did extremely well, but were just unknown in their own land.

Kiwi in action in Germany

In the 1930's some New Zealand boys ventured to Australia and did well over there, and towards the end of the 30's, a big strong rugby player, boxer, and wrestler, did some service in the air force and ended up in Britain. He was an Anton Koolman pupil in Wellington in the late 30's, and it is sad that he was almost unknown in his own country. I refer to big Ernie Kingston, who ended up a huge name in Britain and all over Europe. He became known as "Kiwi" Kingston, a big rough diamond from Banks Penninsular.

Ernie Kingston

As an amateur boxer in New Zealand Ernie had been runner-up in the heavyweight division at the N.Z. champs in 1938. He was also a top rugby player and general all round sportsman. He became an outstanding wrestler and one of the best heavyweight's in Europe. His matches with the legendary Bert Assirati are often talked about, and in Germany he used to ride his horse up to the ring and dismount on the ring apron.

He was also an outstanding horseman. His show horses were known all over Great Britain.

Ernie Kingston with his favourite show pony

As a wrestler, the tall gangling Kiwi could put on the rocking chair splits hold, equally as well as the great Canadian Earl McCready. I saw him on many occasions in Great Britain, and his hold was always a match winner. He would roll his opponents round the ring half a dozen times and then pin their shoulders to the mat. I'm not sure what became of Ernie. We heard he died in Germany but it was never confirmed. He was one of my all-time favourites and a gentleman as well. We loved meeting up with him around the wrestling halls, and he always wanted to know what was happening in New Zealand. His ambition was to drive a car across Europe, down through India, and across Australia to New Zealand. But to the best of my knowledge he never got back to his native land.

Ray Clarke

The other Kiwi's who took to Europe in 1949 were tall Tuakau farmer Ray Clarke, who was a good amateur and a heavyweight prospect. He created quite a name for himself in U.K. and met Bert Assirati on three occasions. Ray was also a musician, and always the life and soul of the party. He spent some years in Europe and met the best they had to offer, including matches with Ray St. Bernard, Ernie Kingston, Ernest Baldwin, and Jack Pye. Before he returned to New Zealand Ray spent some time in Mexico, a hotbed of wrestling, where colourful masks were all the fashion, and then in Canada, where he was highly regarded. As I previously said it was nigh on impossible to break into the New Zealand circuit, even for a big six-footer like Ray. Ray came home in 1953 and tried his best for a couple of seasons. Walter Miller did give him a chance because he had fought all the leading heavyweights in Europe. However the style here was very much American style, and in 1954 he was having trouble getting bookings. He ended up joining the Police force and for many years was the resident policeman on The "Wanganella" at Deep Cove.

Russ Bishop

A couple of smaller boys left Auckland in 1949 with Ray Clarke. They were Bob Russell, a Maori boy from TePuke, and Russ Bishop a middleweight from Auckland. Bishop, a tow-headed hairy-chested amateur caused a sensation in Britain, and was claimed by the wrestling press as the "find" of the year. The British press had the following to say about Russ. "With superb physique and a dazzling style, the former bushman has attracted attention by the smooth collection of holds which he uses.

To Bishop goes credit for the New Zealand "crab-hold" and the "frog scissors," both brand new to wrestlers and patrons, and he has mastered these two holds to perfection.

Bob Russell found the path to the top difficult to traverse, particularly for the lighter-weighted wrestlers. Finding English promoters rather disinterested in Bob Russell, from New Zealand, the dark, pleasant looking Kiwi adopted an alias and became Prince Banu. He soon made the grade with this new name and was in big demand all over Europe.

These boys worked the British and European circuits for some years, and as the smaller boys were in favour in Europe, they did very well and got heaps of bookings.

On their way home they spent some time in Mexico, where they proved the smaller boys could be great drawcards.

Of course, we in New Zealand were brought up on the American Heavyweights, but for sheer skill and all action wrestling the smaller boys were amazing. The American style was not in favour in Europe. They preferred more style, skilful wrestling, with lots of holds and counters.

Today Russ Bishop and Bob Russell are retired, but sadly we lost Ray Clarke a few years back.

Kiwi as a wrestler
Kiwi as a heavyweight boxer in New Zealand

Article written by Dave Cameron

Dave has been hanging around the dressing rooms for 60 years.

Dave was an amateur wrestler and part time pro in U.K. He boxed in New Zealand Services Champ's 1954, Hobsonville, Auckland. He started writing for Magazines 1949.