Like many of the great wrestlers to come out of England, Les Thornton earned his stripes at the Snake Pit in Wigan, a legendary training facility that produced such exceptional grapplers as Billy Robinson, Billy Joyce and Karl Gotch.
Thornton was among a group of men known as real wrestlers, or shooters, who learned catch wrestling at the fabled gym.
A master in submission wrestling and a student of Robinson, Thornton went on to become one of the most respected workers in the business. A multiple-time world junior heavyweight champion, Thornton passed away on Feb. 1 at the age of 84.
In a pro career that spanned 33 years, most of which was spent in the United States and Canada, the well-traveled Thornton captured an assortment of titles. But it was his impeccable work on the mat that spoke most loudly to his peers, although his European-based style often conflicted with American promoters who preferred more action and less wrestling.
“A serious wrestler and solid worker who always gave you a hell of a match,” veteran mat star and trainer Les Thatcher said of Thornton.
“One of the best true wrestlers around,” echoed Hector Guerrero of the famous Guerrero wrestling family.
Even current-day superstars revered the Manchester, England, native.
“He did all this cool British mat wrestling, but within an American context,” said WWE champ Daniel Bryan. “That stocky build lends an air of credibility to somebody.”
The 5-9, 225-pound Thornton was known as a respected hand who was willing to elevate up-and-coming stars. One of those was Terry Taylor, who told the SLAM Wrestling website of Thornton’s generosity.
“Les had been around for a while — he was in his fifties when I worked with him — and this was the first run I had with him. He could have really resented the 25-year-old kid across the ring from him, and probably had every reason to resent me, but he didn’t. Les treated me with respect and taught me a lot.”
Thornton was such a master of his craft, said Taylor, that he made a young rookie with only six months of experience look good at his own expense.
“He worked the English style which back in 1980 was completely foreign (no pun intended) to not only the fans, but to me as well,” recalled Taylor. “There was so much for me to learn. I very easily could have stunk the joint out and a lesser veteran might have even enjoyed that, but Les wasn’t that kind of man. Les did such a good job leading me through quality matches that he would put himself in holds and submissions. All I had to do was hang on.”
Taylor added that Thornton even made music during his matches.
“Les didn’t call ‘spots’ or moves in the ring — he sang them. Les sang the entire match. I tried to cover his mouth, or tried to make noise, or do something to cover up his singing. I just knew the audience could hear him and that horrified me. Here we are beating the crap out of each other and in the middle of this life and death struggle, Les is calmly singing. It took me a while to get over that, but when I did, good things happened.”
Thornton broke into the wrestling business in 1957 at the age of 23. After toiling for 13 years on the British wrestling scene and throughout Europe, at one time holding the British Empire Commonwealth heavyweight title, the former professional rugby player and boxer in the British Navy made his move to the United States. Finding it difficult to land a prime spot in this country, Thornton found Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling promotion north of the border more to his liking. With Hart a fan of Thornton’s no-nonsense style of submission wrestling, it was in the Calgary-based territory where Thornton would win his first major title in 1974. It would also be where Thornton would claim his last major title in 1986, and where he would eventually retire.
In between, though, the stocky Brit established himself as one of the top junior heavyweights in North America, at one time simultaneously holding both the WWF and NWA world junior heavyweight titles. He claimed versions of the junior heavyweight crown five times between 1980 and 1983, trading the title with Terry Taylor, Jerry Brisco, Jerry Stubbs, Joe Lightfoot and Tiger Mask (Satoru Sayama).
“When working with Les, you had to bring your ‘A’ game each time you stepped into the ring,” recalled Brisco. “He was a master of just about any style you wanted to go. Les could hang with anybody you put in the ring with him, no matter size or experience, but he made you a better performer in the ring. I truly enjoyed sharing the ring with Les.”
No matter what his position on the show, Thornton never failed to provide a quality match. Known for his European uppercuts, over-the-knee backbreakers, and perfectly executed suplexes, Thornton was smooth as silk in the ring. His technical undercard matches with Wales native Tony Charles, who served as both a partner and rival at times, often stole the shows they were on.
Alongside Charles, the duo captured the Georgia tag-team championship in December 1975 by dethroning Jerry Brisco and Bob Backlund.
Thornton and Charles, who passed away at the age of 74 in 2015, would win the Texas-based World Class tag-team title in 1977 from Jose Lothario and Rocky Johnson before dropping them later that year.
Although Thornton made his mark in the junior heavyweight division, he also battled the top heavyweight champions of the day, including such greats as Dory Funk Jr., Harley Race, Pedro Morales, and his trainer, Billy Robinson.
Dory Funk Sr.
The Manchester, England, native performed on many memorable cards and enjoyed many highlights during his career, but sadly was part of a tragic footnote in wrestling history.
Wrestling in the Amarillo territory in 1973, Thornton befriended and gained the respect of Dory Funk Sr., a legendary wrestler and promoter in that area, as well as the father of Dory Funk Jr., who had held the NWA world title, and future NWA champ Terry Funk.
Thornton and other area wrestlers were at the Funk ranch in Umbarger, Texas, when the elder Funk was stricken with a fatal heart attack while tussling with Thornton in the family kitchen.
Terry Funk recalled in his autobiography, “Terry Funk: More Than Just Hardcore,” that his father would often debate the virtues of “shooting” with fellow wrestlers. On this occasion, the debate moved to the next step when someone said, “OK, let’s move the furniture and let’s wrestle.”
It would be an impromptu amateur wrestling match between Thornton and Funk Sr.
“The deal this night was Les Thornton challenging my dad, saying, ‘Bet you can’t hold me in a front facelock,’” recounted Funk. “My dad put the hold on, and Les struggled to free himself, but ended up passing out after a few minutes. My dad let go and sat on a bench in the kitchen next to me and said, ‘Not bad for an old man.’”
Just minutes later, when everyone had gone, Dory Sr. announced that he was experiencing a possible heart attack.
His sons rushed him to a nearby clinic in Canyon, Texas, that was closest to the ranch, but with an old EKG machine and two doctors who had to be called from home, the prognosis was grim. Funk had suffered a massive heart attack, and it was an hour and a half between the attack and the time he was transported to a larger hospital in Amarillo.
“By the time we pulled in, he was already gone,” wrote Funk. Dory Funk Sr. was only 54 years old.
End of career
A legitimate tough guy who could handle himself in the ring, no matter the opponent, Thornton made a name for himself in NWA territories throughout the country. But the old school veteran had never tested the waters of the expanding WWF until near the end of his career.
Following Vince McMahon’s takeover of the Saturday night slot on WTBS from Georgia Championship Wrestling, and the subsequent purchase of that company, Thornton found a new home in the expanding Northeastern-based WWF. While the WWF (now WWE) was big on colorful and over-the-top acts, Thornton’s style was seen by some as being dull and outdated. He soon found himself working lower on the card, mainly as an enhancement talent at house shows to put the bigger stars over, and was eventually put in charge of coordinating WWF’s international house shows in the Middle East, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
While Thornton applied his vast experience in his new job, it was a far cry from the days of his standout matches as world junior heavyweight champion. One of his WWF matches, though, was more memorable for his tag-team partner.
Future WWE great Mick Foley, then billed as Jack Foley, would team with Thornton in his first bout in a WWF ring and only the second of his career, losing a squash match to The British Bulldogs on Sept. 13, 1986.
“Very sorry to learn of the passing of former NWA world junior heavyweight champion Les Thornton,” Foley posted last week on social media. “I was honored to team with Les in 1986 against The British Bulldogs in the second match of my career.”
With the exception of occasional appearances, Thornton retired in 1990 and had been living in Canada running a gym.
Wife Terry was at his side when he “peacefully took his leave” at 11:15 a.m. Feb. 1.
Old School Wrestling
John Morrison, regarded as one of the top workers on today’s wrestling scene, will make his Old School Championship Wrestling debut when he meets Francisco Ciatso in one of the featured bouts on Feb. 24 at the Hanahan Rec Complex.
Morrison has held a slew of major titles during his 16 years in the business, including WWE’s Intercontinental title three times, the WWE tag-team title four times, the world tag-team title, ECW world championship, the Lucha Underground championship and the TNA world title.
Also making his OSCW debut will be TNA Impact star Suicide. The high-risk masked performer will lock horns with Tracer X in a No. 1 contender for the OSCW title match.
OSCW will also hold its first women’s tournament to determine the No. 1 contender for the OSCW women’s crown. The highly regarded Taya Valkyrie will make her OSCW debut against Samantha Starr, while the heralded Cheerleader Melissa will battle Stormie Lee. The winners will face off against each other later in the show to determine who will get a title shot with current champion Savannah Evans in April. Evans also will be competing in a Divas challenge match.
OSCW favorite John Skyler will return with his BWC Challenge.
Others scheduled to appear include OSCW champion Brandon Paradise, Tracer X, Dustin Bozworth, Effy and more.
Bell time is 5 p.m. Doors open at 4:30.
Adult admission (cash at door) is $12; kids (12 and under) $7.
For more information, call 843-743-4800 or visit www.oscwonline.com.