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The Man Who Never Gave Up by David F. Gentle

The story of one of Britain’s greatest bodybuilders, John Lees, who later became a successful wrestler.

David F. Gentle

John Lees was born in Stalybridge, his father was a master builder, and his grandfather was a noted wrestler who at one period was giving exhibition bouts with the world famous Russian Lion, George Hackenschmidt. He was quite a large lad when he was born, and at school was an all-round sportsman, especially good at boxing, football and wrestling. Despite his size, John was also very agile, a skill highly useful in his later life as a professional wrestler.

When still at school, one day he was helping his father and happened to dig up a clay pipe inscribed with the name Sam Hurst Stalybridge Champion of England, Hurst being a bare knuckle fighter. For some reason this inspired John, who had the idea he too would like to become a champion. Despite his size, when 15 years old, he decided to build up his muscles even more. So like thousands of others in his era (the 50s) he took notice of a Charles Atlas advert and enrolled as a pupil. By working out daily, he actually made good results, showing muscle definition and strength, especially able to perform many floor dips, a stable exercise of the Atlas course.

Encouraged by results, he next noticed a physical culture magazine, with the great John Grimek on the cover. Finding out from the articles that nearly all muscle men used weights, John set out to obtain some barbells and dumbbells, ending up with a set of weights weighing 200lbs. Cost, 15 shillings or 75p. The only problem is John had to collect, so he walked the 4 miles to pick them up on a hand truck, wheeled them home, and then realised he had to return the truck, so all in all he had quite a journey and plenty of exercise even before he had started a workout with the weights.

In the early years, he trained with Ken Baxendale at the Gateway to Health club. At first he trained light, lots of sets and repetitions but later switched to lower reps and heavier weights, a system with which he remained.

A sample routine consisted then of:

  1. Seated triceps stretch 4 x 5 using 70lb dumbbells in the fashion we called “French presses”.
  2. Using the same weight, he would then do alternate dumbbell curls 4 x 6 reps.
  3. More triceps work, this time dumb bell presses with 65lbs or more weights. He did at times work up to using a total of 230lbs total weight of dumb bells.
  4. Next exercise was Press behind neck, with a barbell, 5 x 6 x 220lbs.
  5. Squats followed 4 x 10 x 300lbs.
  6. For chest he did either dumbbell bench presses with 2 x 120lbs dumb bells or using a barbell, sets and reps with 320lbs. John also did high repetitions of sit ups and calf raises. He could power clean 300lbs and came close to cleaning and jerking with dumbbells 275lbs a record in its day.

John trained usually 4 times a week, still having to attend night school for his building master’s apprenticeship. He used strict style, no cheating or sloppy movements. Unlike most other bodybuilders, John also included plenty of road work, i.e. running not laying tarmac.

At near 6ft 2 inches, he weighed 215lbs with a huge chest expanded of 54 inches. I remember a mate of mine who met John in the Army, saying he had never seen such a massive chest on a soldier, and indeed the Army had to make special jackets for John, going against the military usual rule. “If it fits, bring it back and we will change it.” John never lost that huge chest, still looking impressive last time I saw him at the O.H.F. Hall of Fame Awards in London on March 18th 2006. John remained big most of his bodybuilding and wrestling career. His arms were easily well over 18 inches, thighs 27 inches and calves over 18 inches.

In spite of his size, he remained agile able to do the splits anytime, a skill that helped his wrestling career later in life.

The first contest he entered was the Mr. Britain in 1949. Unfortunately for John, it was his bad luck to be around at the same time as a young Reg Park was making his mark on the P.C. scene. Reg won, Paul Newington from the Channel Isles second and John made 3rd, all amateur.

Making an impression to the judges, the editor of Health and Strength in those days, a Mr. Johnson, tagged John as “The Stalybridge Steve Reeves” a title, that John and most others hated, taking him years to be recognized in his own right.

John then like his contemporaries, had to join the National Service, in his case ending up with the Royal Horse Artillery, stationed in the main in Germany. The good news was, the army recognized his physical potential, and John became a coach, introducing weight training to every camp he was posted

On being demobbed, he returned to serious training, his ultimate aim to win the then highest award in muscledom, the Universe title.

John, who didn’t know the meaning of quitting, took over 10 years to finally win Mr Universe. He entered a total of seven times. The date of his final success was October 19th 1957 when he won the Mr Universe outright and overall at the London Coliseum.

As with many bodybuilders a natural progression, i.e. one that pays money, was to join the ranks of the professional wrestlers. Apart from occasional building work, not a master builder, he led a highly acclaimed life from then on wrestling, visiting and travelling to most venues not only in UK but also around the world. Places included Africa, West Indies, Japan, Turkey, Germany and many others. Over this period, he must have had literally thousands of bouts, mixing with many immortals of the ring, and making his own fine reputation along the way. He was always approachable to his wrestling and bodybuilding fans, and on looking back, said he would not have changed anything.

Herewith follows a list of the major bodybuilding titles he won:
• 1949 Mr. Britain 3rd.
• 1950 Mr. Britain 3rd, Mr. Universe 1st medium/tall class.
• 1952 Mr. Universe tall class runner up.
• 1953, a good year for John, he won Mr. Superman in Fleetwood, Mecca Perfect Man Mr. Britain, Mr. Europe 4th, Mr. Universe tall class again second.
• 1954 Mr. Universe again 2nd in tall class.
• 1955 Mr. Universe 3rd tall class, in the Mr. World NABBA he didn’t place.
• 1956 Mr. Universe, guess what, that’s right, 2nd tall class. Then the finale,
• 1957 At last John Lees makes Mr. Universe both in his tall class and also as overall winner. That year he was also T.V Adonis of Great Britain. Never before or since has a man so deserved the title. John being cheered to the roof by an appreciative crowd who recognized not only his fine physique, but also his sheer guts and determination, a lesson to all.

Wrestling then stopped his further advances in the bodybuilding contest world, but recognised by his peers for his longevity in inspiring others to take up bodybuilding and even wrestling, he was honoured at the O.H.F. Hall of Fame Awards in London in 2006, which was for me the last time I met the great John Lees from Stalybridge.

©John Lees, The Man Who Never Gave Up by David Gentle

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