By David F. Gentle, Internationally Acclaimed PC Historian & Author
Assirati – Every Wrestler’s Nightmare!
In a world of make believe, legends, myths, and dreams BERT ASSIRATI, was every wrestler’s nightmare. Almost ignoring the sacred rules of “kayfabe”, when Bert put on a submission hold and his victim tapped out, Bert was in the habit of not releasing his opponent until he had added a few extra squeezes to impress
Few wrestlers ever demanded a rematch and indeed many then turning up at an event and discovering they were scheduled to be matched with the beast from Islington, developed a sudden mysterious illness or injury playing up, allowing them an early ride home to escape the torturous pain likely to have been inflicted upon them.
left Bert Assirati, that’s muscle not fat. – Photo courtesy of David Gentle.
For Bert unless the incentive was there, there was rarely a chance he would cooperate with a “working match”. To him most bouts were a “shoot out” and for us oldies lucky enough to have seen him (I watched him in Southampton late 40s, early 50s at the Dell, Town Hall, and The Royal Pier. Via Dale Martin and Athol Oakeley promotions) it was a privilege to watch this amazing block of muscle, resembling the elusive “Brick out-house” Lucky indeed as he was soon to take tour of pastures new, having earlier toured the USA, he then left us for the far east, where he continued to spread his awesome reputation and add a few more coins to the coiffures, guarded by this wife Marjorie.
Of Italian descent and the son of garage proprietor Daniel Assirati, Bartolemeo, Busandri, “Bert” Assirati was born in Richmond Avenue, Islington, London, on the 9th July 1908 (IB 583 Somerset House records.) He excelled at sports especially gymnastics and cycling. When just 16 with his father, he attended a physical show to witness the famous physical culture trainer, Alan Mead demonstrating with a chest expander and Mead pulled a set of strands with what he said was a world record. Bert, jumped stage and made fifteen reps with the same poundage, impressing Mead, who later gave him his first set of weights.
He developed his weightlifting prowess at the Clarence Physical Culture Club in Islington. Encouraged by his cousin Joe a great all-round lifter in his own right, and his father. Already an all-round athlete, cyclist, swimmer, gymnast, he began training with weights from his early teens.
Despite his physical unathletic body type, after leaving school, he became a part (being the bearer) of an acrobatic duo, named Mello and Nello, Bert being Nello, (does anyone know who Mello was?) performing advanced acrobatic stunts to a wide audience. They toured the UK and most of Europe. This early acrobatic experience enhanced his wrestling career and later, he regularly performed a standing back flip after winning a match.
Like the later herculean hand balancer, Reub Martin, Bert could make a pull over at arm’s length with 200lbs, at his time setting a British record in 1938. Reub Martin, used the similar power to pull over his hand balancing partner into a balance as part of their regular act. Another feat of unusual power for a man of his endomorph body type was his ability to perform a one handstand, and demonstrate the tough balancing act of the Iron Cross.
Historian Mike Hallinan tells us a rare known fact that during 1932, Whilst working for Apollo, the strongman William Bankier, he for just the one time, wrestled under the name of John Swan at the Edinburgh Carnival. During the same year he embarked on the Cunard liner Berengaria to New York for an American tour and despite tales to the contrary although winning many bouts, did also suffer defeats, see later.
A common myth is during his tour of the States, he had 65 bouts winning all but two, later also winning those on a rematch, whereas better research suggests he actually had about 120 matches, many of which were working matches. Bert, began his weightlifting, acrobatics and wrestling at the Clarence Physical Culture Club in Islington, encouraged by his cousin Joe and father. Noting he had great potential as a wrestler and with training from the likes of George McKenzie and Peter Gotz at the Ashdown Wrestling club and Wigan Wrestling schools, he followed the advice of William Bankier, The Scottish Apollo and he first turned to pro wrestling at the age of just 20 years, in October 1928 beating (90 White Lion Street, Islington), Ashdown Club member Robert Cook, trained at period by top mat man (Sir) Atholl Oakeley who taught him most of the tricks of the trade. ( see Atholl’s book “Blue Blood on the Mat”) All-in Wrestling had just been introduced in the UK. (December 1930) Alongside his wrestling tuition, he continued to train with weights to become one of wrestling’s strongest men as the following listing will demonstrate. Remember also that with tougher competition many of these lifts would not have been his ultimate best or potential, this rule applies to all old timers’ feats when once they exceeded the world’s best by a huge margin, without competition, why exert yourself and attempt more?
His measurements are listed often with variations as follows. Height 5ft, 6 ins, bodyweight 17 stone or 110kgs. Getting even heavier as time went on. No one appears to have measured his width, which to be honest looked the same as his height. Perhaps they ran out of tape. He soon became infamous for his apparent delight in inflicting pain, so few requested a rematch. Mostly performed around the year 1938, some examples of Bert’s power include.
Feats of Strength and Agility
- Could squat with 800lbs, then an unofficial World record.
- Could squat with one leg with a 200lb barbell on his shoulder (as could the premier Mr. Universe, John C Grimek)
- He was also able to lift off the ground his father’s taxi from the rear.
- This was the period he did his 200lbs pull over at arm’s length with a 200lbs barbell setting a British record, his bodyweight was 240lbs. Decades later as a skinny 140lbs lifter I made a Southern counties record in same lift with just 120lbs, so can appreciate the power it must have taken.
- He could squat continuously for half an hour with a 235lbs barbell. The barbell was formerly owned by the famous Eugen Sandow.
- Bert despite his bodyweight, could perform three one arm pull ups, and jump into a one arm handstand.
- He could do the gymnastic test of a crucifix on the rings when weighing 266lbs.
- Even when age 72, Bert was able to “walk” up and down the stairs on his hands via the handstand position.
- He could one arm military press 160lbs with one arm in 1938. Later I recall Bill Kazmaier did similar as the World’s Strongest Man.
- Still on his gymnastic skills, Bert is reputed as able to perform a back somersault while holding a 56lb block weight in each arm. Many old timers have been credited with similar with “historians” coming along and doubting the veracity of such a lift, saying “The weights must have been 35lbs” Personally due to Assirati’s power and ability, I have no doubts the quoted poundage is correct, as 56lb blocks were in common use by many day to day tradesmen, e.g., coal merchants, only Mike Hallinan (see later for credits) would know better?
- Bert also was able to perform back somersaults or flip flaps, while weighing 266lbs, he often after winning a match would finish of the bout with a performance of back flips.
- I am not sure if he was musical like his cousin Joe, but Bert was able to carry a normal size piano for quite a distance on his back, as he was also able to do same with a regular telegraph pole.
- For a party trick, also demonstrated by the strong man Mac Batchelor in the Weider mags, Bert would place regular metal beer top caps in between his fingers of both hands, then squeeze and crush them completely. No shaking hands with him then…
- Back to the mat game, with many wrestling matches now under his belt. Writer Mark Gould wrote at one period Bert had an un-beaten record of 540 wins in a row. Bert soon achieved a reputation for his almost sadistic attitude and his inflexibility to accept the recognised “pre- determined” or working, set of matches, which meant promoters were reluctant to slot him in their schedules. Also, many professional wrestlers began to become reluctant to fight him aware of the dangers of the “fight” turning into a shooting match. One particular match included a genuine shooting match with one of the USA’s toughest wrestlers Ray Steele with Steele coming out the winner, meeting twice more for a draw and then a win for Assirati. Others who could claim a victory over Bert, were Black Butcher Johnson, Alf Rawlings, Francis St Clair, Bill Garnon, Athol Oakeley Ernie and others, with also numerous draws and questionable matches.
Amongst the top international wrestlers, especially American who had long practiced the then “all in style” and claims were made that Assirati had challenged Lou Thesz, who most people recognised as world champion, with Thesz refusing. Later in his book Thesz tells exactly the opposite. Many were indeed working matches, although Bert, if he knew he was scheduled to lose according to the promoter’s card, would usually give up the fight in the first round not bothering to make a show just for the sake of entertainment. Demanding up to five times the usual payment for agreeing to roll over for his opponent. He was definitely a hard act to put on the cards, at one time being suspended by the Maryland Boxing Commission for fighting the referee. Throughout his career, he continued to be unwilling to co-operate with promoters.
Listing his titles is a nightmare of myths and facts, he won official British World Championship in 1945 and two years later the British Empire and European version, eventually claiming the unofficial Heavyweight Champion of the World. Running out of victims and continually uncooperative with promoters, he left the UK in 1950 (after my being lucky enough to see some of his fights in Southampton at the Dell football ground under Dale Martin/Atholl Oakeley promotions) and travelled to the Far East, including India, where in 1954 he wrestled in front of huge audiences variously quoted as anything from 5,000 to 100,000, so who’s counting,? But his absence from the scene meant the British authorities stripped him of his title. Bert however soon returned and in 1952 regained his European title, with matches that included beating big names such as the French Angel, Maurice Tillet. (Tillet briefly stayed in Southampton with Judo Jimmy Noice, who co indecently gave me judo lessons) Tillet died in 1954 in the USA)
Restless as ever, Bert returned to India, first to Singapore using the cruise as a honeymoon with Marjorie who he had married in 1952 where they had a five month stay, during which beat the giant King Kong Czaka, The Angel and Kurt Zehe a huge man, finalising with a win over the 7ft 7inch German Gargantua by a submission, winning yet another bag of jewels for his wife Marjorie’s collection, again giving up his title only to recover it later via a match with Ernie Baldwin. (Source 9 part series by Charles Mascall in Dale Martin programs) For fans interest, all of Bert’s cups and trophies are at times put on show at the British Wrestlers Reunion at the Bridges public house.
By now Joint Promotions became the governing body, who after problems with Bert’s injuries awarded top spot to ex guardsman Shirley Crabtree, later as he gained massive bodyweight, named “Big Daddy”. Bert Assirati’s last fight was with Joe Cornelius in Brighton. His last promoter was his wife Marjorie with “Asta promotions” which ran from 1958 to 1960.
With the “All in” wrestling rules now in place in 1930 Bert began building up his record, defeating many big names of the era, including Bill Garnon, and Atholl Oakeley himself amongst others.
A unique fact disclosed by the ultimate Assirati historian Mike Lambert was that whilst working for Apollo, in 1932, he wrestled in the Edinburgh Carnival under the name of John Swan and remained un-defeated.
It was during this year, 1932, that Bert first set sail for America on the Cunard liner Berengaria, under the ship’s passenger logs, he is listed as occupation, Wrestler. It is here the myths begin, but the truth, again acknowledging Mike Hallinan’s research, is that contrary to the popular legend, Bert did not win every match, with a study of the reference books recording many “defeats” to mid card opponents. His manager Gardini however was impressed, and Bert in one account, is credited with winning his first 35 matches, some causing near riots we are told when his Italian fans, did not agree with the current referee’s decisions. In the short time he was in the States, over seven months, one account says, he took on sixty-five matches, winning most and those he “lost” he soon regained.
The two he had to regain were over the tough Ray Steele and Hans Steinke. This is the period the infamous “Boston Crab” began to unfold as Bert’s signature hold. Bert certainly put genuine fear into his opponents, excelling at locks and submission holds, all shooter moves.
The list of top men Bert did overcome in USA, included top names like Ernie Dusex, Joe Stetcher of the scissors hold fame, Wladlek Zbyszko, Baron Leone, a draw with Frank Sexton and more and many others of their ilk, running out of his USA time he returned to the UK visiting George Hackenschmidt (seen left – Assiratis’ early mentor.) with his father Daniel. Finally recognised as the champion of Southern UK after beating George Gregory.
He beat the French Angel at Tottenham Hotspurs football ground in 1946 before a huge crowd with various estimates of the attendance 12,000 being the average figure quoted. It is estimated he had anything from 6 to 7000 bouts including the massive 340lbs King Kong Czaya in Mala. After returning from his three year of the Far East, Bert came home to a huge tax bill, and no longer working with the top Joint Promotions ad to work for the independents. He even formed his own promotions with Jack Taylor forming ASTA (ran by Marjorie from 1958 to 1960 putting on shows all over the UK with many tough matches. It appears he had not lost his blood lust as famous wrestler Prince Kumali aka Gordon Petri tells of his match with Bert, in which he had submitted, for Bert to continue to fail to unlock a hurtful head lock, cause Kumali serious injury lasting over a year such was its intensity.
By now in 1960 The British Wrestling Federation withdrew their recognition of Assirati’s title claim, with Bert finally giving his final appearance in 1963. Retiring from the mat game, Bert took up work as a bouncer in Epsom Surrey, during the era of the “Swinging Sixties”. I just wonder how Bert actually got through the door himself. In late life, he eventually suffered eye problems leading to near blindness as well as various injuries caused by his lifetime of tough fighting on the mat. He was then living at Wooding Dean
He died of bladder cancer on 31st of August 1990, cremated at Downs Crematorium, and his ashes are scattered at the grounds of The Bridges Pub” in Essex, later followed by those of his wife Marjorie. Where fans can make an annual pilgrimage to the British Wrestlers Reunion held every August.
A few miscellaneous facts or myths about Bert are.
- Bert started Karl Gotch’s career in USA
- All Capone infamous gangster asked Bert to be his bodyguard Bert wisely refused.
- On one occasion, Bert met the famous Ed Strangler Lewis in a gym. Ed put on his famous headlock and squeezed hard Bert just put his hands behind Ed’s thighs, supplexed him over backwards leaving Lewis concussed on the mat.
- He once wrestled at the world most famous venue, Madison Square Gardens.
SINCERE THANKS TO SOURCES
I would like to acknowledge thanks primarily to Mike Hallinan for his exhaustive study of Bert. It is said a man has to turn over a library to write a book. Every book or article I studied in my quest to discover the truth about this legendary wrestler, I find has been already studied by Mike. Many other writers often simply continue with the old myths, not Mike.
The many books I have poured over include Barnam’s of Bounce, From Milo to Londos, The Pictorial History of Wrestling and literally dozens of articles from various wrestling magazines, including those of Fred Unwin, who incidentally coached Mick McManus, Wrestling Heritage, John Shelvey, Ron History, The British Wrestlers Reunion, and Frank Rimer. I also had many personal conversations with his cousin Joe Assirati, Chas Smith, and former Hall of Fame, pro wrestler Bob Kirkwood. The number of people, of those I owe a debt to is too long to list, so I offer a general thank you to all who contributed to my attempt to find something of Bert Assirati’s life.
With grateful acknowledgments to my many sources.
© David F. Gentle