Iconic grappler Adrian Street is the star of a new documentary on the WWE Network titled ‘Imagine What I Could Do to You’.
Arriving early at Cardiff’s MotorPoint Arena alongside WWE UK’s busy PR team, I hope to get a photo with British wrestling legend.
He’s now 83 years of age, but when I find the great man himself sitting in the catering area, it’s clear that this retired mat veteran is still in fine fettle.
Adrian’s lovely wife and long-time wrestling valet, Linda, or Miss Linda as she was known during her ring career, offers me her chair and tells me to sit down, so I can chat with the most famous wrestler to come out of Wales.
It’s a humbling experience, and a warm conversation with Adrian follows, much like the one we’d enjoyed during an initial phone interview just one day prior. Adrian and I shoot the breeze and discuss our mutual love for Florida, where the couple lived and operated a wrestling school for decades, before settling back home in Wales.
“There’s no mountains in Florida, and we like to walk”, jokes Adrian.
I ask Linda how the two wrestling icons first came to meet. “I was working in a tropical fish shop,” she says. “Adrian came in to buy some fish.”
I mention there’s a striking similarity between their courtship, and that in the movie Rocky, when the ‘Italian Stallion’ (also called Adrian) meets his love interest and future wife in a pet store.
Sylvester Stallone’s character made frequent trips back to the shop in order to win the admiration of the shy but beautiful sales girl. In real life, Adrian bought a lot of fish in the hopes of gaining Linda’s affection in just the same way. The plan worked a treat and they’ve been together ever since.
There’s a bustle backstage as producers and wrestlers eat, dress, and get ready for the big show that is moments away from the first bell. No longer grappling or being flung around the canvas, Adrian won’t be wrestling in Cardiff, but he’s more than happy to be part of the gang.
In an event broadcast all around the world on WWE Network, ‘Exotic’ Adrian Street will be the special guest of honour at NXT UK TakeOver: Cardiff.
Adrian is serving as an ambassador for WWE, and has brought a trademark outfit especially for the appearance. He suggests that we wait and get our photo taken together later on, when he’s “dressed properly”.
Ever the perfectionist, Adrian understands the importance of presentation as much as any legendary rock singer. The trail that he blazed in the 1970s and 1980s still influences popular culture to this day.
He was perhaps the originator of flamboyant outfits in the grapple game, introducing a camp and outrageous persona in the previously serious world of pro wrestling.
His carefully cultivated image was so creative that he’s often credited for inspiring the movement of glam rock, he even designed clothes for the singer Adam Ant.
“In an interview, they asked Marc Bolan of T-Rex where he got his ideas for his makeup and his costumes, and he said from watching Adrian Street on television”, he says proudly.
Adrian’s fashion designs were so sought after, that even Elton John once tried to buy one of his suits.
“[Tonight] I’m going to be wearing a suit that I designed for myself, 50 years ago in (the famous boutique) Granny Takes a Trip on the Kings Road in Chelsea.
At the time, I was going on a tour to Africa, and I wanted to take the suit with me, but it wasn’t ready. While I was out of the country, Elton John went in there. It was completed by that time and Elton John tried to buy it.
“Elton John knew who I was because there was a club called the Cromwellian that he used to go to, and it actually belonged to professional wrestlers, and I’d see Elton there with Long John Baldry and Rod Stewart. So, he knew better than to wear one of my suits!”
Laughing, he adds: “He got himself a suit done along similar lines, but with musical notes.”
Born in the town of Brynmawr, South Wales in 1940, the future wrestling superstar was brought up to have little aspiration. He was the son of a no-nonsense miner, and was told that his destiny would be that of a hardworking life down the pit.
This didn’t sit well with the free-spirited Adrian, and he ran away to spread his wings at just 16 years of age. Throughout a storied wrestling career Adrian found himself competing all around the UK, in Canada, the USA, and Mexico.
“My dad had me out of school working in the coalmine when I was 15 and I didn’t like that too much. You know, it’s dark down there and I needed a spotlight, because I was made to be seen”, he chuckles.
Adrian was an avid bodybuilder from the age of 11, but friends and family would tell him that he was too small in stature to harbour hopes of making it as fighter.
After leaving home he found proper gyms to train in, and he also dabbled with boxing, although he didn’t like the sport as much as he thought he would. But in pro wrestling, Adrian found an enduring passion.
He made his pro wrestling debut in 1957, just 16 at the time, setting up home in London and eventually moving on to the United States, where headlocks could offer a full time living.
“It’s funny because in the first match I ever had for a small-time promotion, I was the main event,” recalls Adrian.
“I went in the ring and I didn’t understand the business at all, and I annihilated my opponent, who was the biggest draw at the time. His name was Gentleman Geoff Moran.
“I dislocated his shoulder and put him in hospital two minutes into the first round. I strolled back into the dressing room and wanted to know when they were going to give me my first championship match, but management wasn’t happy.
“They asked if I thought people would pay good money to see a two-minute championship match. They told me to go to a wrestling school down near the Old Kent Road.
“Some of the other wrestlers told me I should be a jockey, but I intended on living my dream. Believe me, I’ve lived my dream and I’m still living it.”
The young student honed his skills to become a talented technical wrestler and as such was largely unimpressed by Britain’s pantomime based pro wrestling product, or its cartoonish stars of the 80s.
“They started bringing people in like Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. I mean, quite honestly, if you put Big Daddy on his backside, he’d rock himself to sleep trying to get up”, mocks Adrian.
“And the other guy [Giant Haystacks], if he was to be hung for being a professional wrestler, he would die innocent,” he jokes.
Still, despite his dedication to the craft, Adrian knew that talent alone would not take him to the top. To make it in the larger than life world of pro wrestling, first in Britain and then across the pond, the Welshman would need to stand out from the crowd.
“The guys in the states were like mammoths”, remembers Adrian.
At just 5ft 7in tall, he devised one of the most flamboyant and influential characters ever to walk to the ring, manipulating homophobic members of the audience just to stir up a reaction.
He adorned himself with feathers and pigtails to appear bigger in size. The ‘Exotic’ character was so effective that Adrian suffered greatly for his art.
“My left ear is cauliflowered, which doesn’t help my hearing too much. My right ear isn’t cauliflowered, but I was sort of smashed right across my face one time and it wasn’t by my opponent… some guy jumped onto the ring apron while I was actually wrestling and hit me with the handle of a very heavy umbrella.
“The impact spread my ear all over my face. I put my hand up to my ear and it wasn’t there. I had a lot to contend with. I really knew how to judge other people’s emotions, you know.”
His character was camp, over the top, and he would often kiss opponents to draw repulsion and anger from the fans at ringside.
Adrian’s persona was a template that has since been used time and time again in modern pro wrestling. Think Dustin Runnels portrayal of Goldust in WWE during the Attitude Era of the 1990s.
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Despite the verbal and physical abuse, his ‘Exotic’ persona was good for business, and Adrian soon found himself wrestling on television to huge audiences.
Alongside his future wife, ‘Miss Linda’, a respected pro wrestler in her own right, the mystery of Adrian Street became even more difficult for fans to decode. Was this guy straight or gay? How could he dress in leather and wear makeup and yet be escorted to the ring by an attractive woman?
The more people wondered about ‘Exotic’ Adrian, the more emotionally invested those audiences became in his wrestling matches. Unlike with Big Daddy, behind this character was an exceptionally talented pro wrestler and ring psychologist to boot.
Adrian won many championships throughout his pro wrestling career. As European Champion, the UK press had clambered to get a picture of Adrian back in Beynon’s Colliery in Blaina, with his father still at the coalface. Ever the perfectionist, Adrian accepted on condition that he must wear his full wrestling garb.
The resulting photographs of the exotic one in full makeup, all decked out in his glam-rock ring gear and standing next to his sooty dad, serves as a great illustration of how Adrian broke the shackles of family expectations in order to follow his own path.
The image – one of the most famous in British wrestling history – also shines a light on Britain’s continued struggle to deal with issues around masculinity.
It’s no surprise then, that all these years later, Adrian wanted to be dressed appropriately for our photograph. With a documentary focusing on his life and career now added to WWE Network, Adrian is reaching a new generation of fans, and he’s still very much the professional showman. Why wouldn’t he want to look his best?
WWE is in town because the company’s NXT UK division is highlighting talent this side of the pond. While Adrian was forced to travel to the States to chase the spotlight, the opposite is happening tonight.
Wrestlers from all over the world are descending on Cardiff. In the run-up to the show, Adrian was given a tour of WWE’s UK training facility near St Albans, and he gave the coaches his seal of approval.
“They’ve got Johnny Saint, Steven Regal and Dave Taylor. Those guys are real wrestlers. I was so thrilled to see them again. They are teaching the new talent, so it couldn’t be in better hands”, Adrian enthuses.
For modern day pro wrestlers like Cardiff-born Mark Andrews, Adrian couldn’t have been more of an inspiration.
“The only Welsh wrestler, when I started out, that anyone had ever really heard of was Adrian Street,” says Mark, now an NXT UK Tag Team champion.
Mark’s tag partner, Flash Morgan Webster, who like Adrian is also from Brynmawr, shares the same sentiment.
“I came from the exact same town as Adrian. As a young boy that grew up in a quite deprived area, where nobody really did follow their dreams, to hear about this wrestler who went off and conquered the world… I’ve said it before, but it really was a beacon of hope.”
WWE is seriously branching out from its base in the United States, and is now heavily invested in the growth of localised pro wrestling divisions like NXT UK. As such, the leading brand in pro wrestling is keen to find the next big star. In doing so, the group has filled its roster with young talent from around the world.
Still, for Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque, WWE’s executive vice president of talent, live events and creative, these fledgling stars can learn a lot from old school veterans like Adrian Street.
“Adrian was ahead of his time, kind of a game changer. I think that his character and his persona really took it to another level. I think he exemplifies everything that NXT UK is today”, says Paul, talking exclusively with Mirror Sport.
“There’s a lot of old school, European, British wrestling tradition [in NXT UK now]. That scientific, grappling skill, the joint manipulation. There’s a little bit of a hybrid in everything and Adrian exemplified that.
“He could do just about everything. He could brawl and he could bring the most scientific grappling to the table. We talk about the ‘then, now, forever’ in WWE and Adrian is a perfect example of that”, he adds.
So, as the evening’s action finally gets underway in Cardiff, Adrian waves to the thousands in attendance and looks dapper in his black suit, complete with sequined sleeves.
Attempting to wade through a sea of pro wrestling fans for our much-discussed picture, I never did manage to make it happen.
I may not have gotten that photograph, but instead I got a feel for Adrian’s warmth, charisma and intelligence up close. I got to immerse myself in the personality of a man whose influence is still being felt in popular culture to this day.
“The thing is, I had a 57-year wrestling career, but now that I’ve started working with WWE, I can say that now it’s a 62-year wrestling career”, says Adrian.
If there is anything to decode from the myth of the legendary Adrian Street, it’s the message that any aspiring British wrestler would be wise to study his well-earned and lengthy success story.
WWE Network’s new documentary, ‘Imagine What I Could Do to You’, is available to watch on-demand now.
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