March 1, 1981
Lord Athol looks back
By JERRY GLADMAN -- Toronto Sun
They called him the Lord of the Ring and he played the part beautifully. All six-foot-five, 260 pounds, posturing at centre ring in his purple coronation robes, white cape and ermine tails, bowing with disdain to all four corners. He even kept the packed Tokyo hall waiting by insisting on his usual spot of tea in the dressing room before entering the area.
But it wasn't in the cards. Right role, wrong country.
"My intention was to make my mark as a villain by kicking some of those Japanese fellows around," says Lord Athol Laton, looking back almost a quarter of a century on a successful wrestling career that is still remembered fondly around these parts. "But it didn't matter what I did. I had forgotten their great love of pageantry. They loved the robe and tails. And when I bowed to the four corners, they looked upon me as a gentleman."
He came as a villain and left three months later as a hero. And it reinforced a lesson he learned years earlier when he arrived in Canada from his native Australia to try his skill against some of the popular North American grapplers. Success in the ring was more often determined by who you fought rather than what you did.
When promoter Frank Tunney secured his services in 1950, Layton reasoned that his ring attire and hoity-toity manners would fit in nicely with Canada's ties to Britain and the Commonwealth. But he didn't figure on a fella named Whipper Billy Watson, the goodest of the good guys.
"I was doing fine here until I wrestled Watson," he says with a bit of a chuckle. "He made me a villain. After a bit, I realized I wasn't only fighting Watson, I was fighting all of Toronto. I couldn't win."
The message became even clearer when his eight-year-old son informed him his reputation was garnering untold battles in the schoolyard. Most of the kids belonged to the popular Whipper Watson Safety Club and they didn't take kindly to the offspring of a baddy trying to trounce their idol.
"He asked me if it might be possible for me to join forces with Watson and become a tag team. Things would be more comfortable for him at school. So after five years as a villain by virtue of opposing the Whipper all over Ontario, I became a hero."
Like his partner, Lord Layton wore the mantle well. Week after week, for the next 20 years, he drew the cheers of the frenzied Maple Leaf Gardens rassle fanatics by rendering unconscious such wretched foes as The Shiek, Hans Schmidt, Bulldog Brower and the despicable Love Brothers. His trademark was the judo chop, but more than one villain fell victim to the crippling English Octopus or the old Australian Surfboard lock.
And even though he hasn't worked a hold professionally in five years, since the night in Grand Rapids, Mich., when the hated Sheik detached the retina in his right eye, Athol Layton still reigns as the Lord of the Ring down on Carlton Street.
"Apart from the occasional visit to the Gardens, I don't have much contact with wrestling these days," says the incredibly fit 60-year-old, who confines his grappling to promotional duties for Bacardi rum. "I had 30 years of it and I enjoyed it immensely. But I've given up the ring for rum."
And none too soon because the grunt-and-groan game has fallen a long way since the days when I full nelson meant something and a flying mule kick was what a kick should be. Layton will be the first to tell you that the punching and booting administered by today's heroes are a far cry from the exhibition of skill and science for which he and the Whip were revered.
"The real problem is that there is a scarcity of characters. In my day, they were all characters. People like Gorgeous George, Yukon Eric and Killer Kowalski. Apart from Angelo Mosca, most of the younger crop are clones. They look alike and they perform alike.
"There's less wrestling today. When I first entered, it was 75% wrestling and 25% show. Today it's the reverse. It sells because people have been conditioned to the style by TV, whcih really dictates the type of entertainment we watch."
When Layton first began wrestling, there was only skill. A strappling 6-foot-three at age 16, he was among the top amateur wrestlers in his native Sydney. He also had a 10-year career as an amateur boxer and ruled as the Australian heavyweight champion in 1944-45. He continued both sports during five years in the Australian Army and then decided to turn to pro wrestling.
"What I really wanted to do was entertain. That was my fantasy. I even tried acting in Australia, but my size limited me to roles as a heavy. I made up my mind to travel so I turned to pro wrestling."
Influenced by fellow Australian Fred Atkins, Layton hooked into the pro circuit controlled by North American promoters. He spent 10 months in Singapore where he picked up valuable experience and then accepted an offer from Toronto's Tunney to journey to Canada. He had a name, an image and a big future.
"Once I arrived here, I realized there was a radical change in the style of wrestling. There was much more emphasis on entertainment. But I enjoyed it because I was able to fulfill my fantasy of being an entertainer. I played the part of a wrestler and the arena was my stage."
The name Athol, which caused him nothing but grief as a school kid, was parlayed -- along with the robes and manners -- into a top ring gimmick. Touring the U.S., the fans loved to hate him.
"They hated an Englishman passionately if he got out of line. I played on that. They used to do interviews in the dressing room before the bouts and I would take my time drinking my tea and working up the crowd.
"I certainly saw my share of hostile crowds in those days. You had to pass irate fans and run through gauntlets and we were always getting attacked physically. There were times that the same fellows you wrestled had to come to your rescue."
And then Lord Layton made the wise decision. He became a good guy.
Being a white knight had other rewards to go with the cheers. With TV wrestling cropping up on most channels, a fellow with Layton's suave good looks, articulate speech and genial manners was more than suitable for the role of commentator. He had a program for three years in Cleveland, another for 15 years in Detroit and spent five years on CFTO [Toronto] in the 60s.
When the calibre of wrestling began to deteriorate rapidly, Layton gave up the mike. "I wasn't sorry to do so because it reached the stage where there was insufficient wrestling to describe. There's a limit to how much you can talk about punching and kicking."
Inevitably, when talking to any wrestling personality, the discussion get around to the question of the game being phoney. Although Layton admits to there being less skill and science than theatrics, he believes the people got what they paid to see.
"Wrestling is presented as therapy. You must have good against evil to maintain attendance. I believe that a true wrestling fan casts a deaf ear to any suggestion wrestling is phoney. And that is simply because he is interested only in being entertained."
Layton has 30 years of fond memories, particularly his tag-team days with Watson. Their partnership continued outside the ring with both gentle giants spending much of their time helping handicapped children. Layton is a past Imperial Potentate of the Shrine and was a director of St. Alban's Boys and Girls Club. He and Watson also sit on the Advisory Council for the Handicapped.
"There's so much to do for these wonderful children. I find great satisfaction with the charities. I was treated so well by the profession. I feel the work I do is putting a little back in."
Can't argue with the main. And who'd want to?