The well-traveled Les Thornton, former NWA World junior heavyweight champion, has died. He was 84 years old. His wife, Terry, posted the news Facebook: “It is with great sadness we share that Les Thornton peacefully took his leave on February 1, 2019 at 11:15 am, with his devoted wife, Terry at his side.”
The post continued with immediate plans: “In honour of Les’ wishes there will be no funeral service. Instead, those wishing to pay respects are invited to make a donation to the Calgary Humane Society.”
Much of Thornton’s life was detailed in a 2005 SLAM! Wrestling story, Les Thornton: A life on the road. He had moved on from Calgary in the interim, settling in Kelowna, BC, for a time.
Born in Salford, England, Thornton put in 34 years into the pro wrestling business.
“I broke in the business in 1957 and I didn’t come to the States until 1970,” he told this writer in 2004. Previous to that, he played professional rugby for 12 years. A few other colleagues went from rugby to wrestling, including Pete Viller, who worked as Pat Curry, and Tommy “Time Bomb” Murthy.
Billy Robinson was a pioneer of sorts for British wrestlers making it in North America, and he helped Thornton along the way. “I helped them all at one time or another,” recalled Robinson in 2011. “Geoff Portz went around North America with me as my tag team partner. Angus was my tag team partner in Japan. I started Les Thornton when he first started in England.”
Indeed, Thornton learned submission and amateur wrestling in Wigan at the Snake Pit, and really enjoyed the push-pull of English wrestling compared to the action-based style expected overseas.
“All that bumping and banging shit,” said Thornton. “The first 10 years of my life, we didn’t do that. It was all ground wrestling, so in other words, you didn’t take any of those goofy bangs and bumps. In England, you could do that.”
That English style required an adjustment, wrote Terry Taylor in a guest column at SLAM! Wrestling, Les Thornton – What you DIDN’T know!.
“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. 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. 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,” wrote Taylor. “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!”
Compared to his British contemporaries, like Robinson, Thornton really stood out, said veteran photographer Howard Baum. “His style incorporated everything that I liked in a pure wrestling match — a style based on leverage, strength, and technique, like an actual contest,” said Baum. “Thornton had a diverse repertoire, working American-style with a spark of UK flash that made him unique. Chain wrestling, an array of suplexes, submission work, and strong-looking offense featuring the obligatory British uppercut. Matter-of-fact interviews with a cool British accent belied his understated, well-earned confidence as someone who could take care of themselves in any situation.”
At 5-foot-9, and 215 to 225 pounds, Thornton was decidedly a junior heavyweight, but was always in tip-top shape (he did admit to drug use — “I was powerlifting, I was on the steroids and all that shit”). At one point, he was the World Junior heavyweight champion in both the NWA and the WWWF. He also helped similar titles in Florida and Southwest Championship Wrestling. In the Calgary, Alberta-based Stampede Wrestling, he held the promotion’s top title the North American Heavyweight belt, on two occasions, in 1971 and 1974.
In a 2005 interview, Thornton said there was a stigma against British wrestlers in general in North America, Calgary being an exception. “They won’t push the English boys here, there’s some reason,” he said.
Yet there aren’t many major names that Thornton didn’t tangle with at some point. He shared thoughts on a few of the greats:
On Dory Funk Jr.: “He was great to work with, and he looked real, and he was a hell of a draw.”
On Gene Kiniski: “That was a different sort altogether. That was just fly, bang, bash. It didn’t mean a lot.”
On Terry Funk: “That was the start of the goofy champions.”
On Harley Race: “That was a bloody fight. Harley was a good worker and safe.”
On Johnny Valentine: “He was a great worker, was John. He was just a bit goofy in the end, wasn’t he?”
In a tag team situation, Thornton worked the longest with Tony Charles. “They kept me and Tony together for about five years, messing around,” he said. Charles was from Wales. “Tony was a great worker, great wrestler. There’s a fellow, he boxed and wrestler in the Commonwealth Games.” They held tag titles in Georgia. “We flew into Alabama a couple of times just to put somebody over on TV because we were coming off Georgia TV. And we went tag team into Amarillo, and into Texas. In fact, we were the tag team champions there in Amarillo … and in Georgia. Then we split up. I went single all around and he lived in Florida.” Thornton was also a Pacific Northwest tag champ with Moondog Mayne.
Through the years, Thornton developed a justified reputation as a shooter, someone who could handle himself in true grappling situations. One of the people who liked to tussle was Dory Funk Sr. “Les Thornton used to shoot with old man Funk in old man Funk’s kitchen,” once said Killer Karl Kox. In fact, Thornton was Funk Sr.’s last-ever opponent, though not in the ring. He told the story in a feature on SLAM! Wrestling: Dory Funk Sr.’s last day.
The final years of his in-ring career were spent in the WWF, where he was not used as a feature performer on television, but was often a key player on international tours that he helped the company set up. “We went to Saudi Arabia, and it was a seven-week tour in Saudi Arabia in ’84 or ’85,” said Thornton. “Actually, I ran the shows in Saudi Arabia and Australia and in Kuwait and Cairo for the WWF. I wrestled and ran the shows for them.”
Thornton’s last match was in 1990, and he ran a gym in Calgary — where his second wife, Terry, was originally from. He had six children.
- 2005 story: Les Thornton: A life on the road
- Terry Taylor column: Les Thornton – What you DIDN’T know!