When greatest television wrestling stars came to town for Kenyans to watch live

We are living in an entirely different reality.

Kenneth Matiba, then Kenya’s Minister for Culture and Social Services with legendary boxer Mohammed Ali when he visited Kenya in 1980. PHOTO | FILE |  NATION MEDIA GROUP

IN SUMMARY

  • Many stars came calling. Back in the day, Kenya was in a state of mind where we could actually think of staging a Muhammad Ali fight and nobody thought that ridiculous. It was all so normal. Premiership and Bundesliga sides toured here routinely and the world’s best rally drivers were with us here every Easter holiday.

There used to be a Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) television show called “You Asked For It”. It ran in the early 1980s. In it, viewers sent requests of something they wanted to see on television. Some of the requests were outrageous, like a man wrestling with a crocodile. The show always ended with the catchy punchline: “You got it because…you asked for it!”

I can’t think of a better phrase to define an era, even as that era was deep into stoppage time. The whistle blew on it on August 1, 1982. From then on, Kenya changed. Before that, as sports lovers, it appeared as if whatever we asked for, we got it! Consider this audacious introduction by Daily Nation feature writer Wade Huie in July 1978:

“So what if Muhammad Ali, Leon Spinks or Larry Holmes won’t be coming? Kenya is to have a professional championship bout anyway. This earth-shaking event came about Wednesday night at the Kenyatta Conference Centre when “Gold-Belt” Maxine was goaded into putting his British middleweight championship belt on the line this Sunday against Mick McMichael, after McMichael handed Maxine – according to promoters – his first loss in seven years.”

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The country was in a state of mind where we could actually think of staging a Muhammad Ali fight and nobody thought that ridiculous. It was all so normal.

If English Premiership and German Bundesliga sides toured here routinely and the world’s best rally drivers were with us every Easter holiday and the King of Football, Pele, also came to inspire our teenagers, why not Muhammad Ali? Anyway, he still did come, although not on the kind of mission we would have preferred.

That was the reality then. I won’t be surprised if in today’s era of alternative facts and reality, I read a survey showing that Kenya has the fifth best stadiums in the world and that it is one of two African countries most likely to host the Fifa World Cup and the Olympic Games within the next 15 years. I won’t be surprised if that report is based on the city’s smooth public transport system, its garbage-free neighbourhoods, clean rivers and bustling malls.

DIFFERENT REALITY

We are living in an entirely different reality. The difference between then and now is that then, we just did it and moved on to the next project. Today, we tweet and blog about what we imagine we are capable of doing and move on to the next fantasy. And while at it, we flood God with an avalanche of prayers to save our country because we are not sure we can hold it together anymore.

Wade Huie was writing about the goings on at the KICC when the world’s greatest wrestling stars came calling. It was one of two tours and it seemed as if whatever we fancied after watching it on television, we could get it in flesh and bones. I was a cub reporter then and found myself thrown in the deep end of the pool for being assigned to report to Kenyans on the performances of so imminent a cast of celebrities.

I had more personal interactions with the wrestlers during the second tour than the first. It was headlined by the return of a man whose girth made you think of a baobab tree. He was the wildly popular “Honey Boy” Zimba from Trinidad and Tobago. He was nicknamed “The African Hercules” because of his hulking size and had a way of winning his bouts that made me cringe: he head-butted his opponents like a champion ram.

British wrestler Mick McMichael (right) fights his opponent Tally Ho Kaye in this undated screengrab. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

When I was a little boy, I loved to watch rams fight. After every reverse movement to gather momentum followed by a sprint that ended in the sound of a dull thud as the two animals collided head on, I always wondered whose head would split first. None ever did. The loser signalled his acceptance by simply walking away and leaving the tougher boy standing in readiness for the next round. In the wrestling at KICC that those of us who witnessed will never forget, “Honey Boy” Zimba almost always was the tougher boy.

Because of the din in the arena, I never got to hear the thud of the head butt that sent his opponents sprawling on the canvas. But I could tell by the look on their faces that they had just taken something like the round of a mortar shell. It was over. But by that time, I had outgrown my fascination with fighting rams and all that remained was a terror about getting my head hit. That is why “Honey Boy” Zimba’s winning ways made me cringe.

I had a long conversation with Gill “Tiger” Singh. It took place in the office of the tour promoter, a gregarious man called Chagger Singh. “Gill comes from the Valley of the Tigers,” was the headline of the story I wrote for The Nairobi Times.

It was taken from what Gill had told me. He was a native of Bengal in India, a place where tigers roamed the forests. From an early age, he showed a courage to match the ferocious cats and so when he took up professional wrestling, it was natural that fans nicknamed him “Tiger.”

Yet when you met him, you found a surprisingly gentle giant. Although his towering height, great bulk and rough hands never made you forget in whose company you were, his voice, his eyes and his body language were full of assurance: he was your friend.

“Gill,” I asked him, “some people say wrestling is all made up; that it is just entertainment. They say those blows are not for real. Tell me the truth.”
Gill paused and took in a little breath and lifted his eyes from the floor. Then with barely controlled emotion, he said to me: “The last thing I do before I go into the ring is to pray that I don’t get killed. Praying is my first move before I make contact with my opponent. I ask God to allow me to leave the ring as I walked into it. The people who say those things don’t know what they are talking about. Wrestling is a fighting sport. You can get hurt.”

If “Honey Boy” Zimba was loved by the crowds, “Bad Boy” Tally-Ho Kaye was loathed to the ends of the earth. When looking for bio data on the visiting wrestlers, this is what I saw: “Tally-Ho Kaye. He is a top British bad-boy of the wrestling ring. He is hated by the fans for his illegal tactics.

He goes into action right from the first bell at an all-out speed and is determined to win at all costs. Outside the ring, he is a farmer who breeds horses. His specialty is throwing his opponent out of the ring.”

At the KICC, “Bad Boy” Tally-Ho Kaye did not disappoint – or rather, he disappointed as expected and so comprehensively that those who keep sane by hating got a new lease of life.

Wade Huie wrote for Nation Sport: “In earlier matches, “Little Prince” Mohammed Alam, spurred on by his relatives and the rest of the cheering crowd, overwhelmed Tally-Ho Kaye, who showed the wear and tear of his fright the previous night.

“Little Prince” was in command all the way, at times having Tally-Ho Kaye cringing on the ropes or on his knees begging for mercy. When none was forthcoming, Tally-Ho Kaye resorted to a kick on the groin forcing referee Peter Szakacs to award the rightly deserved victory to Alam earlier than expected.”
Boxing gave the English language the phrase “hitting below the belt” to define aggressive action in the area where it hurts a man the most.

In time, the phrase came to mean doing something unfair to somebody else. In the world of “Bad Boy” Tally-Ho Kaye, going for that zone was fair game. It earned him so much hatred you almost felt as if the men in the crowd were actually feeling the pain he had inflicted on his opponent, including the curiously nick-named Syd “Cry Baby” Cooper.

The chairman of the Kenya Amateur Wrestling Association at the time all this was happening was a man called Ndirangu. I tried hard to get him to have his take on what was going on because it seemed all of Nairobi was talking about wrestling.

There were no mobile phones then and I was almost giving up when by happenstance I bumped into him near the law courts on City Hall Way. I asked him whether he had watched the wrestling at KICC and what he thought about the tour. I am sure I detected a hint of annoyance in his demeanour which he was wrestling to contain.

Then he told me: “I wish you could stop writing about these foreigners and concentrate on our people. This is not wrestling. This is entertainment. You newspaper people should try to be more patriotic.”

I was right, he was angry. Now he was openly showing it. I tried to nudge him to at least say something on the world television stars enthralling Kenyans “live” but he could only say with evident impatience: “Ask me about our people and we can talk. But I have nothing to tell you about foreign entertainers.”
Okay, thanks, I said and we went our separate ways.

But there were no hard feelings, just business. When next I wanted to write about local wrestling, Ndirangu was more than forthcoming. But before that, I had plenty of writing to do about the foreigners he didn’t want anything to do with.

Do you remember any of these names: Johnny Saint, John Naylor, Ray “Thunder” Glen-Denning, Ray Steele, “Gold-Belt” Maxine, Billy “Tornado” Torontos, “Billy Boy” Muia and Mick McMichael? I watched them all in Nairobi and not in some European city.

We asked for them and…we got them!

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