“The Match That Changed It All”
When William Regal speaks, I listen. After conducting a survey of his work, I could see why so many wrestlers refer to Regal as the standard for ring intelligence. But to whom does William Regal refer?
After my recent column on The Dynamite Kid, someone on twitter mentioned Rollerball Rocco as a notable wrestler from the same era. I was certain that William Regal had raved about him in the past, and within minutes, Regal kindly provided links to some of his matches. All hail King Regal! His dedication to wrestling and his outreach on twitter have made a loyal fan out of me.
Mark “Rollerball” Rocco vs. Marty Jones, July 1978
This is the match that William Regal has recommended to many people, online and in his biography (which is on my reading list). In his words, “This match changed it all”. I’m a sucker for superlatives when they mean something, and I could not wait to get educated.
Starting around 1976, Rocco and Jones began to revolutionize wrestling. They blended technical holds and submissions with throws and kicks and the psychology of sports entertainment. They worked with precision, at a pace that was unprecedented. And they did it first.
You may point out, “But Heather, you said that The Dynamite Kid did it first!” Well sometimes it is great to be wrong: Dynamite’s style is no less fantastic, and now we get to learn about the true innovator, Mark “Rollerball” Rocco.
Rocco was born in England in 1951, a fourth generation wrestler. He competed mostly in England for All-Star Wrestling, having tremendous feuds with Marty Jones and The Dynamite Kid. He also enjoyed a successful stint in New Japan Pro Wrestling as the original Black Tiger, and fought legendary battles against the original Tiger Mask.
I first laid eyes on Rocco when I watched this match. He had a unique look, in that he looked like a regular guy. Not tall. Muscular and fit but very natural. A conventional haircut and a mustache that was neither coiffed to be suave nor twirled to be dastardly.
Marty Jones was also an English wrestler who spent time in Japan. He plays just as much a role in this match as Rocco. He does not look the same in the match as in the banner photo; the online archives were not so deep for Mr. Jones.
So Rollerball Rocco wanted Marty Jones to join his heel faction and grow a mustache, but Jones only pretended to, and stole Rocco’s valet named Titsy in the process. In a big reveal, he tore off his fake mustache and left Titsy at the altar, and now Rocco is fighting for Titsy’s honour. Okay, that’s not what happened. I just really wanted to say Titsy a bunch.
The story was that Rocco (at 215lbs) held the British Middle Heavyweight Championship, and Jones (at 198lbs) the British Light Heavyweight Championship. A few weeks prior, they had wrestled a great match that ended in a brawl on the floor, and the promoters saw ratings gold in a re-match. They wrestled well, and everyone wanted more.
Noteworthy: Match Structure
This is a 2 out of 3 falls match with a 40-minute time limit, but in 5-minute rounds, with a short break in between. Every time a man is down on the mat, he has until a (very quick) count of 10 to get back to his feet (so no rest for the wicked, or the babyface). On top of that, I believe the ring is smaller, which also pulls everything more neatly together (not as many steps across to the ropes).
It’s no surprise that William Regal holds this match in high regard: it is a well-executed war of skills and it’s fun. There is a wide variety of holds and counters, with plenty of knees and elbows thrown in for punctuation. If Rocco kicks you four times, it will happen in three different ways. Each time a man is down, that fast ref count really keeps things humming. Both men are quick, but without a hint of sloppiness! It’s hard hitting, without looking cruel. In a word, professional.
Perhaps we’ve been conditioned to expect complex aerial work from smaller, lighter men. I know there are exceptions to that statement, such as Chris Benoit and Daniel Bryan (both of whom I compared to The Dynamite Kid). Rocco and Jones are marvelous because they built a match that pushed the boundaries of what can be done in a wrestling ring. It’s not all high-flying tricks nor naked brutality. What a thrill it must have been for fans in 1978, but it is no less a treat to watch now.
As each round ticks past, the action becomes slightly more theatrical. Rocco begins to bend the rules, enough to raise the crowd’s ire without drawing a disqualification (note the referee does not play the fool here; this is spectacularly proper). First Rocco sneaks in a crude knee from the corner, which really stands out after such a sporting first round. The fans are displeased, and they cheer Jones that much more when he retaliates. Keep watching Rocco in subsequent rounds to see that he is not a gentleman, but an understated and believable heel.
And then come the bigger moves. First a few arm drags (referred to here as an “arm suplesse” from the original French for suplex meaning “flexible”, which is almost poetic). There are more throws and pin attempts, more risks and hence more misses. They’ve got our attention now, increasingly so, with sky-high monkey flips and back body drops.
As the match goes on, the wrestling gets faster; even the babyface Jones receives a warning for throwing Rocco into the corner repeatedly. They are so fast that there’s no chance of “telegraphing their moves” as Gorilla Monsoon would say. The fans don’t know what’s coming next, and it helps us believe that neither do Rocco and Jones. It is a beautiful build, and watch closely for the finish: the pinfalls are not counted in the loud, dramatic manner that we’re used to.
I do not want to spoil how the match ends, nor how the post-match promos extend this great, simple story. There are many other Rocco matches online, but I chose just one in hopes that everyone would have time to enjoy it. I tried to watch without bias, given Regal’s referral, but you can’t fake how a match makes you feel. I would love to read your thoughts in the comments below!
I could not be more pleased that this column will be posted on my birthday! As per tradition, I hope to receive the most recent WrestleMania on DVD. I plan to spend the evening watching the Hall of Fame disc, and shedding tears over the speeches, while my husband shakes his head in disbelief, sitting dutifully beside me because it’s my birthday. My luck is not lost on me.
Here is the match, in three parts. Cheers to William Regal, for his kind evangelism, and to Steve Melo for again crafting the banner of my dreams.