How Jack Carkeek Helped Create Pro Wrestling In The UK


Hamish Woodward

One of the most important figures in British wrestling history was an American wrestler named Jack Carkeek.

Carkeek helped to create a spectator sport that has lived on other a hundred years. His influence helped create Europe’s first big wrestling star, and turned a fairly bland sport into a huge industry.

Who Was Jack Carkeek?

Jack Carkeek was born in Michigan, in the United States on January 22, 1861.

You may find it odd that an American is so instrumental in the formation of wrestling in Britain. However, his backstory makes it make a lot more sense.

While professional wrestling is as American as burgers, jeans and Chinese-built railways, Carkeek’s roots were actually in the UK.

He grew up in America, Carkeek’s roots came from Cornwall. Details about his parents are sparse. However, it is assumed that they, or his grandparents, migrated from Cornwall to the UK in the 1880s.

This is because he was often referred to as a Cornishman, and was a world champion in Cornish wrestling. Michigan was also a hotspot for people migrating from Cornwall during this, making it even more likely that his family were fairly new to the states.

Jack Carkeek worked as a miner in Michigan, the state in the US he grew up in. He worked in the iron and copper mines as a youngster, but began to learn the art of Cornish wrestling at the age of 16. There was huge emigration from Cornwall to the United States in the 1800s. This was due to the decline in the mining industrying Cornwall at that time.

It led to an influx of Cornish Americans in the area, with 20% of the Cornish population fleeing the country during this time.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described Carkeek as “Standing a little over six feet, he was a magnificently built athlete and very powerful”. This paints a vivid picture of the kind of athlete he was, especially during the days when the economy was much weaker than today.

Carkeek Sailed To The UK And Helped Create Professional Wrestling

After becoming a top-level wrestler, Carkeek sailed to the United Kingdom in May 1887 to test his grit against the very best. He defeated numerous wrestlers in amateur competitions, but it is his contribution to professional wrestling which we are interested in.

Legendary British wrestler Mick McManus, who studied the history of the sport, spoke at length about Carkeek. In the Simon Garfield book “The Wrestling”, McManus spoke about how Carkeek helped make wrestling the biggest sport in the UK, after he came over from the US and gave wrestling exhibitions during strongman competitions.

“1900-1914 was the golden age of wrestling. It became the major sport of the English-speaking world” McManus said. “In the years 1899-1900 the British music halls had strongman acts with Sandow and Sampson – these were very popular, but after a while the interest waned.”

“Jack Carkeek, a Canadian Cornishman (as he mistakenly called him), travelld the music halls giving wrestling exhibitions, and made a steady living.”

This was the start of professional wresting in Great Britain. These fights weren’t fixed at first – he used his real-life wrestling skills to defeat his opponents – but they soon brought in plants to occasionally beat Carkeek, winning the money on offer for the fight.

Carkeek added flair and showmanship of what was normally a fairly middle-of-the-road and simple sport. He became a personality rather than a sportsman, and he helped wrestling grow into the most popular sport in the UK.

The sport later grew, and grew. It moved from the stage into the ring, with the punters no longer involved in the fights. Soon, fights between champions across the country were booked, with the winners pocketing the lion’s share of the purse, even though both men were in on it that night.

However, there was one last real fight in wrestling that Carkeek refused to be a part of.

Carkeek Eventually Lost To Europe’s First Big Wrestling Star

While Jack Carkeek was heavily influential in bringing pro-wrestling, in one form, to the UK, his biggest contribution was arguably his last big one.

Carkeek easily won most of his bouts in the various theatres and carnivals he would appear at. His training as a world-class wrestler allowed him to easily beat the punters who dared challenge him. He seemed unstoppable in the ring.

That is until one day, an Estonian strongman stepped up and took on his challenge.

And Carkeek backed out of the fight.

Now, one would think a Cornish wrestling champion would be unbeatable, and would take on all comers. But he never picked a man he knew he couldn’t beat. Carkeek recognised the man who challenged him as Georg Hackenschmidt, the Estonian weightlifter who had made a name for himself as the top grappler in Europe.

Carkeek kept changing the rules to deter Hackenschmidt, but he continued to accept the challenge. In the end, Carkeek refused to fight. The world never saw Georg Hackenschmidt vs Jack Carkeek, and a new star was built in British wrestling without even lifting a finger.

This match was said to have occurred in March of 1902, although specific dates of the story are hard to come by.

Once again, Mick McManus spoke about this incident in “The Wrestler” (which is a wonderful book by Simon Garfield that we recommend you pick up on Amazon).

“At the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square he was challenged by Georges Hackenscmidt, the Russian Lion. A very impressive wrestler, and a strongman. For whatever reason, Carkeek refused the challenge. But CB Cochran, an impresario, was impressed by the Russian lion and became his manager”.

This made Hackenschmidt a star immediately, and set the wheels in motion for the “Match of the Century” just six years later.

Carkeek helped create wrestling in the UK. Him turning the Cornish Wrestling style into a fixed theatrical experience was the predecessor to modern pro-wrestling.


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