An Interview with William Regal
“Make everything you do mean something, otherwise don’t bother.”
- The Career of Wrestling Last Great Journeymen William Regal
Those were the fateful words uttered by “Matt Magician” Pete Roberts to an 18 year old William Regal, moments after their match on a cool British winter’s night in November 1986.
William Regal has been a fixture in wrestling rings all around the world in the 30 years since that memorable night. He was kind enough to take some time out recently to talk to me about the inspiration that led him to pursue a career in the squared circle and his formative days wrestling around the UK in the late 80s and early 90s.
“Give every move and counter move a reason. Try to make sense of the things we just do as wrestlers”
“I do still believe it's the best advice I was given,” Regal reflects some 30 years later. “It makes you analyse why and what you do so that the detail is as good as possible. Give every move and counter move a reason. Try to make sense of the things we just do as wrestlers and add a bit of logic and you should perform the detail of the move better.”
William Regal was born into a working class family in the British midlands township of Codsall Wood in the late 1960s. His father was a builder by trade and no doubt hoped and expected that one day his son would take over the family business. Despite his father’s urging, a young William Regal knew from a very early age that the wrestling life was what lay ahead of him.
“I was only interested in wrestling and variety as a child so that's what I watched. I used to marvel at how acts (comedians and wrestlers) could make people react. My earliest memories were watching wrestling on ITV (the British TV network responsible for broadcasting World of Sport) with my Grandad who lived in a cottage my dad was born in and I was born in. My dad built a house 50 yards away so I was always with my grandad. He used to talk of wrestling, boxing, fighting and traveling around England in the ‘20s. The tales from him and the characters I saw on the wrestling captivated me. I decided that that was the life for me.”
Regal’s first steps into the world of wrestling began at the age of 16 practising in a makeshift ring of timber and blankets in his parents’ backyard while also putting up the ring at local wrestling shows in towns like Wolverhampton.
The late 1970s and early 1980s were a golden age for wrestling in the UK with ‘attraction’ wrestlers like Giant Haystacks and ‘Big Daddy’ Shirley Crabtree sharing the same ring with legendary grapplers like ‘The Yorkshire Strongman’ Alan Dennison, Dave ‘Fit’ Finlay, Cyanide Sid Cooper, Marty Jones, a young Dynamite Kid, Satoru Sayama (AKA the original Tigermask AKA Sammy Lee) and his nemesis Mark “Rollerball” Rocco (who would wrestle some time in Japan as the original Black Tiger).
Despite being recognised by many as one of the greatest grapplers to grace the squared circle Regal always remains modest about his in-ring prowess.
“I had no athletic ability and when I started. I just wanted to work at the Pleasure Beach and basically have a job. I tried to make up for my lack of skill by always having decent flashy ring gear and the longer hair.
All I ever had was a never give up attitude. I was fortunate enough to be born in the right year when you could still be a full-time wrestler. I got to wrestle and train with the older, better pro’s who had a skill level in a different league. That taught me slowly but surely. Without those things, along with being 6’3”, I would never have got to where I have. I never forget that”
Regal credits the mentorship and influence of legendary British grapplers like Marty Jones, Cyanide Sid Cooper and Fit Finlay for helping him develop his ring craft.
“All I ever had was a never give up attitude”
“It wasn't until training with Marty that I thought I may possibly get decent at the job. Then I set my mind on being a traveling heavyweight as I was getting taller and heavier. I used to see Pete Roberts and Dave Taylor occasionally or hear that they were in different parts of the world and thought that sounded like the ideal life. I knew I could never move with the speed and grace of Tommy [Dynamite Kid Tom Billington], Mark or Marty. Sid was my favourite as a child because of the way he could play with my emotions. It wasn't till I was in my early teens that I realised how great of a wrestler he was.”
Despite the modern era of the WWE Network, various streaming services and YouTube it’s easy to have a blind spot for the role that British wrestling and British wrestlers played in shaping the type of hard-hitting and fast-paced action which is a foundation of contemporary wrestling. World of Sport showcased wrestling to the British public every weekend for 20 years from the mid-60s to the mid-80s making it an institution for many British families and households. I asked Regal about the legacy of the great British wrestlers of that era compared to more well-known wrestlers like Tigermask, the Dynamite Kid or Jushin Thunder Lyger.
“There's no doubt that Marty [Jones] and [Mark] Rocco pioneered that [fast-paced technical] style. Watch their match from '78 on YouTube. That was the first time that style was seen by the public.
[ed: stop what you’re doing right now and make half an hour for yourself to watch that Marty Jones Mark Rocco match, or any of their other matches from the late 70s. Contested under World of Sport Rules (8 x 5 minute rounds with the victor decided by 2 pinfalls, 2 submissions or a knock out) it’s a masterclass in pacing and psychology, combining strikes, chain wrestling, grappling and high flying in such a way that will make it hard to believe you’re watching a 40 year old. In fact, make a day of it; find a quiet space, make yourself a cup of hot tea and just immerse yourself in the World of Sport Classics featuring the likes of Jones, Rocco, Les Kellet, Alan Dennison and a very young Dynamite Kid.]
Many people consider the early 80s feud in Japan between the Dynamite Kid Tom Billington and the original Tigermask Satoru Sayama to be pivotal in shaping the face of the modern art of wrestling but if you ask William Regal he will tell you the story actually begins years earlier, when Sayama was wrestling in the UK under the name of Sammy Lee.
“You saw that Tommy had a very British style. His faster paced, hard-hitting style didn’t start until he started seeing Marty and Mark doing it. He may not see if that way but if you watch what was going on it’s impossible that they didn’t influence him.
Sammy Lee (Tigermask) didn’t do that style when he first came to England. He had to up his game to keep up with Rocco when he worked with him. As far as the technical style that people like, it was just a British mainstay and people were doing it long before any of the names mentioned. That’s where those mentioned learned it, from older pro’s. They made it their own to a degree and because they were the fellas on TV then they were credited with it.
It doesn't matter who people credit with it as long as it's done and seen but Marty and Rocco were the originators and grandfathers of the modern style.”
One of the hallmarks of Regal’s style over the years has been his amazing versatility; an ability to blend hard hitting strikes, lightning fast chain wrestling and amazing comedy and character work both in and out of the ring. Regal points to wrestlers like Cyanide Cooper as the inspiration for this style. Sid Cooper was one of the great heels of the World of Sport era who, much like Regal, was famous for his villainous antics and facial expressions.
“Adding common sense and a fighter’s logic to the things I did in non "entertaining" bouts made the stuff more credible”
“There used be a little sentence under your name. My favourite was Cyanide Sid Cooper. Sid’s was ‘Rotten to the core. A face that could curdle milk.’ All I ever wanted to ever do was be a wrestler or an entertainer and I loved the people who combined both such as Sid Cooper. My style really developed because of the people who were good enough to teach me. Secondly, because I worked in nightclubs as a doorman, I worked with and knew a lot of proper fighting men who would laugh at some of the things they saw wrestlers doing. I agreed with them for the most part. So I decided that I would try to learn how to do things that weren't typical wrestler things and make my stuff look as good as possible with as little see through things as possible. The idea that a fight scene in a movie is what it is but I don't want to see the missed punches. Also adding common sense and a fighter’s logic to the things I did in non "entertaining" bouts made the stuff more credible I thought.”
I asked Regal about his versatility as a wrestler and an entertainer with an almost unique ability to convey both comedy and drama. He responded in a typically humble fashion.
“you should come through the curtains never assuming anyone knows you.”
“It makes me laugh when people say I’m a good actor. Being a good actor in the wrestling business is like being the best looking fella in prison. Doesn’t mean much!”
Regal’s early days wrestling along the legendary Blackpool seaside are well documented. As well as giving him the chance to wrestle regularly and hone his craft it also allowed the young Regal the opportunity to indulge his love of comedy including such greats as Tommy Cooper and Lenny Henry.
“Moving to Blackpool was fantastic as there were shows galore. I would see the best entertainers up close over and over because of the long summer season.
“I was also told at the same time that every night you should come through the curtains never assuming anyone knows you and you will always have to feel and look that you belong. You will show why people should care or hate you because you always do that when trying to make a first impression.”
If you watched more than a handful of William Regal matches, his commitment to nuance and detail is evident in everything he does; from the way he wipes his boots when he enters the ring, to the way he applies a wrist lock, to the painful contortions of his face when he’s being stretched.
“I always worked on a 1% idea. If 1% of the audience picked up on the detail and I did enough little things I thought it would affect a lot of people in different ways. Some people don't have to think like that and will make a connection with the crowd anyway. I didn't. I'm just normal and so I thought I had to make myself as extraordinary as possible. I think it's important for everyone to think like that and not just take their current skill level, even if high, for granted. They may get to a point where they can't fly or be as dynamic as they once could and then that's when your detail will carry you. If you have a special look or skill set then the in-between stuff doesn't matter as much.”
Much has been said about Regal’s amazing power to emote and project a character and an emotion to an audience, either in the stadium or on the other side of a camera. Regal attributes this to one key feature.
“The most important things you have to make you connect with an audience is your eyes. If you believe in yourself and your persona it will be in your eyes. If you want to be a successful character then you should know what that character was doing on its third birthday. That means know every detail of what that character is about. Always back to the detail, I know, but the more you know the more you'll believe and the better you'll portray.”
“I never tried to think that people weren’t dedicated to the job, just that they did different stuff.”
I followed up by asking Regal whether it was frustrating wrestling against an opponent who didn’t share the same passion and commitment to technique and detail as he did.
“I’m not a competitive person, which is probably something that’s essential to being a top person in our job. I have no interest in knocking anyone. I never got frustrated with people as I just wouldn’t waste my time with anyone that bothered me.
“I never tried to think that people weren’t dedicated to the job, just that they did different stuff. If you haven’t learned certain things, especially in those days when you didn’t have access to tapes or the opportunity to travel to learn different styles, it’s not your fault.”
After wrestling nonstop all around the world from England to India and South Africa to America for nearly 30 years I was keen to learn more about what Regal believes is the cause of his longevity and his continued ability to deliver in the ring to his own high standards.
“I was only really a body guy in my early 20’s but being in great condition was always a key to my longevity. I could always go in the ring for as long as needed with the exception of 97 and 98 when I let myself get involved too much with the drugs. It is very important to be in great shape. As Karl Gotch used to say, ‘conditioning is your best hold’.
There’s a big difference from looking in condition to actually being in condition. You can look like a superhero but if you have no stamina you are useless to today’s industry.”
Regal is the consummate example of a wrestling journeyman, from wrestling to indifferent crowds at Butlins Holiday Camp to makeshift rings floating on top of pools in France to carnival tents and arenas of screaming fans across India and Africa. He had a career defining reign as WCW Television Championship, and teamed with a who’s who of world class grapplers including everyone from a young upstart 20-something Paul Levesque, to “Earl” Robert Eaton, to Lance Storm and the Japanese buzzsaw Tajiri. He’s had 15 title reigns in his WWE career including the Intercontinental, European, Hardcore and Tag Team Championships. Outside the ring he’s had memorable stints as a Goodwill Ambassador and Commissioner in WWE and is the current NXT General Manager and behind the camera Talent Scout for WWE. Frankly, it’s a crying shame that WWE has never compiled a network special or DVD set of the man’s storied career. However, Regal’s body of work speaks for itself and the man himself seemed confident that it will stand the test of time.
“I think people will be able to watch my stuff in many years and constantly pick up on the little things that may have been lost on first viewing. Or that’s what I always thought, anyway. Lots of people’s stuff doesn’t hold up over time but the details of people’s stuff usually does.
The last three Batman movies [the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy] will still be viewed in 100 years as being spot on. Nobody will be watching Transformers! Over time the people who enjoy our job, who look at it as an art form, will always find something interesting about the details. Not so much with the other stuff. That’s all I had so that’s what I worked on as flashy moves and athletic ability weren’t my strong point.
Regal went on to clarify that he in was in no way dismissing the art of science of wrestling that is practiced by the modern grappler.
“The most important things you have to make you connect with an audience is your eyes.”
“I didn’t mean that nobody from this era’s stuff won’t hold up. I mean anyone from any era who has put the detail in will hold up. You very rarely saw a proper wrist lock in the US unless the wrestlers had an English trainer. AWA guys had Bill Robinson, who trained Marty, who retrained me. Dory Funk always trained with the English who came through his father’s company in Texas. I like to think that I was that for vicious knee strikes and palm strikes.
[ed: if you’re in any way considering stepping into the squared circle or have any sort of enthusiasm or interest for the art and science of wrestling we encourage, nay demand you to look up William Regal’s ever-evolving ‘Notes on Becoming a Pro Wrestler/Sports Entertainer’ either through Regal’s twitter or through the number of online lists which collect and curate the advice, insight and wisdom of the greatest minds ever to step into the squared circle.]
For better or worse, WWE is the self-appointed controller, curator and censor of the “official” history of wrestling. Despite this, YouTube makes it easier than ever for new generations of wrestling enthusiasts to watch master technicians like Regal ply their craft. I asked Regal for his thoughts on the future of the art and discipline of wrestling which he learned at the hands of Marty Jones, Sid Cooper and Mark Rocco.
“I think if you go back and watch what I was doing in the early ‘90s you see lot of people doing that style now. Wrestling with hard strikes and lots of detail. Things like the Japanese strangle hold, now termed the straight jacket hold, were not done in the US until I got here and I see them all the time now. It would be an interesting piece to go back and watch all the stuff I did as the TV Champ in ‘93-’96 and see how much it’s used by today’s wrestlers. The people from this age group who want to learn from those styles will always find a way.”
As our conversation drew to a close I asked Regal to reflect on the opening sentiment in his 2005 memoir ‘Walking a Golden Mile’ about being a child and dreaming of one day being a wrestler, a comic or a clown. He was characteristically reflective on the success he has known over his 30 years in the business.
“I’m not sure to what measure but I have done my best to do all three things when given the chance.”
This interview was originally published in The Atomic Elbow, a professional wrestling fanzine with fantastic articles and interviews in every issue. Check out their website here!
If you’d like to learn more about the incredibly talented William Regal, have a listen to our episode #How2Regal, where we discuss his life and career with fellow theatrical entertainer, and Regal’s real-life friend, Mat Ricardo!
On behalf of How2Wrestling we’d like to thank Mr William Regal for taking the time out of his busy schedule to conduct this interview for Atomic Elbow, it was an absolute honour and privilege to speak to you and hear you thoughts on the art of wrestling.