THE MAN WITH THE IRON GRIP
In the early 1990’s, as WWF Wrestling stars like THE ROCK
and HULK HOGAN first began achieving massive media celebrity,
a new Grunt ‘n’ Grapple Superstar suddenly appeared on the scene –
‘JOHNNY COUGAR: THE MAN WITH THE IRON GRIP’.
But hadn’t we seen this Redskin Grappler somewhere before?
ANDREW DARLINGTON traces the eventful career of
a unique comic-strip sporting hero...
‘It was the moment that the world of wrestling has been waiting
for – the return to the ring of Johnny Cougar…’
(‘Tiger & Hurricane’ 21 August 1965)
Devotees of the World Wrestling Federation’s Grunt ‘n Grapple extravaganzas of 1992 couldn’t help but have noticed the arrival of Johnny Cougar. He seemed to appear out of nowhere as the newest superstar in the gaudy media hoopla of the slam-ring. He was a Seminole Native American wrestler – ‘The Man with the Iron Grip’. ‘Wrestling heap popular’ grunts Johnny in an early issue of the monthly strip-magazine that bears his name. And although he’s a grappler of limited vocabulary, with a ‘HOKAHEY’ war-cry, and full Indian head-dress, he appears fully in context as an outrageously larger-than-life character. And one exactly attuned to the heroic exaggerations of Hulk Hogan and his muscle-bound ilk, the new wrestling elite who were by then dominating the SKY-Sports channel and the video racks of your local rental retailer.
Yet the genesis of ‘The Man With The Most Powerful Hands In Wrestling’ goes way back to those gentler days of the far-off mid-1960’s, with Johnny Cougar vying for audience’s attention with Jackie ‘Mr TV’ Pallo’s candy-striped shorts, wrestlers like the mighty Mick McManus (‘The Man You Love To Hate’) and ‘Camp Crusader’ Adrian Street. At a time when black-and-white Saturday afternoon TV was not complete without hectic bouts between such theatrical giants as Les Kellett (profiled in ‘Tiger’ as ‘Yorkshire’s Iron Man of the Ring’ 8 February 1964) and Mohawk Billy Two-Rivers who ‘still lives in the Caughnawaga Indian Reservation nine miles from the City of Quebec’ (as profiled by Charles Mascall in the 11 January 1964 issue).
The then-newly inaugurated ITV ‘Associated Redifusion’ had begun broadcasting TV wrestling on Wednesday, 9 November 1955, at 9pm, with a bout between Jackie Pallo and Cliff Beaumont. And soon, with each contest garnished in smoothly reassuring voice-overs from somnolent commentator Kent Walton, it became a Saturday afternoon ratings fixture, head-to-head with BBC-TV’s ‘Grandstand’. ‘Every Saturday millions of fans gather round their television screens to watch the latest edition of ‘Grandstand’, the BBC’s all-action sports programme’ gushes a photo-illustrated feature in the ‘Tiger Annual 1967’. But where the BBC wound up its weekly sports marathon with a round-up of the latest results, ITV’s ‘World Of Sport’ provided all-in wrestling. And it was around this time that Johnny Cougar began, as a single-page picture serial in ‘Tiger’ – that now long extinct, but fondly remembered boy’s adventure comic. In the issue dated 31 March 1962...!
The 1992 monthly editions directly reprint many of those early bouts. ‘I, of course, am a great fan of Johnny Cougar’ explained editor Barrie Tomlinson to me at the time of the monthly’s launch, while he was simultaneously doubling as editor of ‘Eagle Monthly’. ‘While I was working on the next issue of ‘Johnny Cougar’s Wrestling Monthly’, I was reading through the picture-strips again, and I was very pleased with them! I think Johnny’s character comes across really well, and John Gillatt’s artwork is brilliant.’
Unswervingly loyal to his friends – like manager Bill MacLean. He can be dignified and serious – to the point of the humourlessly dour, even when faced with the cutely comic antics of Splash Gorton’s pet penguin Waddle-Feet. And when he fights, ‘pouncing with the speed of a panther’, he wins fair and above-board, even when his opponents resort to all manner of devious and underhand strategies. But it’s here, with the villains – shifty, devious, vacuous, spiteful, that Gillatt gets to develop his humorously insightful observations of character to the max. He takes these mean-spirited low-life’s to the very brink of caricature, but always leaves them identifiably this side of the flesh-real.
I was a boy with spaceships in my head. I never dreamed of being centre-forward for Melchester Rovers, or scoring the winning goal at Wembley. In fact, I had little interest in sport at all. But I never missed a single weekly instalment of Johnny Cougar...
Launched on 11 September 1954 as part of Fleetway Publication’s two-handed retaliation to the phenomenal success of Hulton’s ‘Eagle’, ‘Tiger’ was designed from the start to be a sports-centred companion-paper to the more general boys-adventure weekly ‘Lion’, and it scored early with the success of blonde striker ‘Roy Of The Rovers’, the cover star centre-forward of Melchester Rovers created by the amazingly prolific Frank S Pepper (under his alias ‘Stewart Colwyn’). With a circulation soon peaking at a weekly 350,000, it did venture into non-sports strips such as Western hero ‘Buffalo Bill’, the highly-rated Science Fiction-strip ‘Jet-Ace Logan’ – at its best, uniquely produced by the team of Frank Pepper and John Gillatt, the ‘Rockfist Rogan’ World War II Flying-Ace text-stories, and ‘Olac The Gladiator’ set in ancient Rome – unless Gladiatorial contests could quality as sporting events?, yet ‘Tiger’ continued to heavily feature sports strips through-out its long and eventful career as a staple of the newsagent’s counter. Indeed, it persisted in doing so right up to its eventual incorporation with its some-time rival ‘Eagle’ on the 6th April 1985.
But ‘Johnny Cougar’ was to be one of its finest creations. Frame one, episode one, of ‘The Man with the Iron Grip’ begins as ‘two men were sweating under the harsh lights. The fans packing the hall in Atlanta USA were screaming for the kill. To them, it was just another heavy-weight match in the tough world of all-in wrestling. But, for one man, it was almost the end of the trail...’ Mat-man Bill MacLean’s days as champion are over. So ruthless promoter Ed Spiro needs a new fighter to manage. And as that first episode progresses he discovers his bizarre future champ by chance, while taking a holiday break in the Florida Everglades, ‘a tropical wilderness of savage beauty’. Johnny himself doesn’t even appear until the final picture, and then only as a silent observer of the action. Spiro, with trainer Lou Rossi, scrambles ashore by a clump of mangroves – only to be attacked by a ferocious real cougar. Emerging from the jungle in the nick of time, as episode two open, the tall redskin appears and wrestles the big cat effortlessly into submission.
‘Johnny Cougar has arrived!’ Spiro coincidentally discovers that the Seminole tribe have ‘never actually signed a peace treaty, and so are officially still at war with the USA.’ He uses this as a gimmick to promote his new fighter’s debut bout – a grudge-match against ‘Smasher’ Sloan whose ‘Old Granpappy was scalped by Seminoles in 1875’ and ‘I’m gonna get revenge’. The ‘Nevada Sun’ (dated 28 April 1962) headlines ‘JOHNNY COUGAR DECLARES WAR ON AMERICA’, and his popularity soars, ‘blazing a triumphant wrestling warpath across America’ until Spiro’s ‘merciless scheming’ contract cheats the naïve and illiterate Seminole out of his winnings.
Eventually, ‘Johnny is shocked to learn that his defeat by ‘Cowboy’ Ken Ritchie, the World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion, was deliberately planned by his own manager, Ed Spiro. Johnny also discovers that he’s been tricked into signing a contract under which all the money he’s won from previous fights also goes to Spiro.’ So, freeing himself from Spiro’s corrupt control, he’s rescued by, and teams up with, fallen champion Bill MacLean (in the 18 August 1962 issue) who translates his fighting skills and ring expertise into a management role for the long come-back trail. And Johnny Cougar goes on to a dazzling sequence of strange adventures.
But Johnny never forgets his ethnic Seminole roots. ‘The ancient spirit of his forefathers’ spurs him on when Johnny uses his ceremonial tribal Hunting Knife snake-bite style – ‘an old Seminole trick’, to suck out the poison from ‘a tiny dart coated with a muscle-numbing drug’ fired from a powerful air-pistol mid-bout into his left arm by Carl Sanchez – hired by Ed Spiro to ensure that Johnny loses the important fight. Needless to say, despite such unsportsmanlike behaviour, and ‘weakened by the residue of the drug’, Johnny does not lose.
‘The ancient fighting spirit of his race’ also ‘stirred in Johnny’s blood’ when Chief Nahzav sends a message ‘come quickly, a demon walks our land!’, and he finds himself facing the threat of the Kah-Na-Tac – a ghost warrior of the Great Spirit Manitou. But although he becomes involved in all manner of hair-raising plots with Racketeers, Gangsters (like bad guy Al Katraz!), crooked Promoters and increasingly outlandish opponents with names like ‘The Executioner’, ‘Hammerhead’, ‘The Clown’ – a disaster-prone wrestling joker with a talent for ventriloquism, or the fanged ‘Cave-Man’, each episode never fails to climax in the graphic violence of grip ‘n’ grapple with Drop-Kicks, Fore-Arm Smashes, Arm-Locks, Monkey-Climbs, Head-Locks, Flying Body-Scissors, Pin-Falls, Whirlybirds and Full-Nelsons in the square ring. And he never forgets those who have shown him loyalty. ‘Bill... without your help and guidance I would not be here now’ he confesses, ‘you have taught me everything you know. If I let you down...?’ ‘You won’t let me down’ retorts Bill brusquely, and confidently. His confidence is not misplaced.
‘ANOTHER FEAST OF GRIP AND
GRAPPLE THRILLS SOON, PALS!’
Johnny Cougar continued to flourish throughout the ups and downs of the sports’ genuine media-profile. He was rapidly promoted to double-page spread status, and even briefly to the front-page, in colour. And his war-path soon spans the world. Fleetway’s 1974 ‘Tiger Annual’ runs a blend of new and reprint ‘Johnny Cougar’ strips alongside a lavish wrestling photo-feature with Les Kellett and Mick McManus. But he’s also there through the era of Sumo-esque mega-weights Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy (the real-life Shirley Crabtree in a leotard). And he’s there alongside Billy Two-Rivers (real-life father of ‘Red or Dead’ label founder and TV fashion guru Wayne Hemingway) whose speciality, not surprisingly, was the Tomahawk Chop. He’s even there as terrestrial TV channels quietly drop wrestling from its schedules amid cat-calls and ridicule over game-fixing, choreographed bouts and widespread corruption. Johnny lived on. He was well-scripted, just like his real-life counterparts!
He even survived the extinction of ‘Tiger’ itself, switching to fellow sports star ‘Roy Of The Rovers’ weekly comic. And then finally – if briefly, returning spectacularly into the new TV take-off of the American Gladiators of WWF wrestling in the 1990’s, with his own headlining title.
So why does the ‘Man With The Iron Grip’ succeed where so many others have failed? Sports stars have never been exactly uncommon in boy’s comics, even from the genre’s most heady of early days. Just possibly the greatest of all the comic-strip sportsmen, the gritty ‘bloomin Ada’ ‘Alf Tupper’ – star of ‘Tough Of The Track’, can trace his origins back to a text series featured in ‘Rover’ as early as 1949, through picture strips in ‘Victor’ from 1962. His eventual termination even provoked press eulogies from such unlikely fan-bases as ‘The Daily Mail’ and ‘The Guardian’. While the ubiquitous Geoff Campion, who illustrates the Cougar strips from 31 March 1962 to 28 September 1963, was simultaneously working on ‘Kid Gloves’, a Boxing rival-strip featuring the ‘hard-hitting, soft-hearted Heavyweight’ for ‘Valiant’. And of course, ‘Roy Of The Rovers’ was – and remains, a national institution.
But even among such contemporaries, Johnny Cougar was – and is, unique. A typically evocative frame shows a formula 1960’s family unit sitting in front of the TV watching an on-screen Johnny Cougar contest, Mum is knitting, and ‘look at that!’ yells Dad excitedly, ‘the Injun’s done it again!’. ‘What a Mat-Man’ adds his awe-struck hero-worshipping son.
|John Gillatt artwork|
While neglecting to point out that the highly successful Gillatt/ Tomlinson team did, in point of fact, continue into the long-running tabloid ‘Mirror’ football strip ‘Scorer’. Launched in August 1989 on a modest three-frames-a-day black-&-white basis, the adventures of David Storry – Premiership and England World Cup squad striker, with his Scottish manager Jack Hocherty, and Swedish girlfriend Ulrika (their on/off romance decided by a reader’s telephone poll in April 2001), soon expands to six frames, and colour with the addition of David Pugh to the team (formerly artist for ‘Dan Dare’ and a contributor to Games’ Workshop’s ‘Inferno’ magazine).
So Johnny Cougar retired again, after winning yet another hard-fought bout. HOKAHEY! But perhaps it’s still not too late for yet another return…?
‘IN OTHER WORDS…
WILL STRIKE AGAIN…!!!’
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS OF
THE MAN WITH THE IRON GRIP’
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ in ‘TIGER’ (31 March 1962 – 18 April 1970) and in ‘TIGER ANNUAL’ from 1964. Script: Barrie Tomlinson. Art: Geoff Campion, John Gillatt, Barracuda and Sandy James
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ From 31 March 1962. Script: Barrie Tomlinson. Art: Geoff Campion. Start of first single-page story-arc
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ Sept 1962. Johnny and Bill MacLean are working at a lumber-camp ‘trying to raise enough money to continue their trip to California, where the fighting Seminole plans to attempt a grip-&-grapple come-back’ 3 Nov 1962. Altering their plans they arrive in Liverpool, England, wrestling in a Fairground booth, eventually reaching Wembley Stadium by April 1963
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ Aug 1963. ‘The Brotherhood of Death’, Johnny is trapped in the Brazilian Slave Kingdom of Mestoza
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ From 28 Sept 1963. Increased to one-&-a-half pages as the superb John Gillatt assumes artist role during this story. Chief Nahzay summons Johnny back as a ‘demon walks’ the Seminole lands, it turns out to be a crooked scheme by Herman T Cahill – the Mayor of Marshtown, to drive them from their Everglades ancestral home
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ From 9 May 1964. Increased to two-page spread. Manager Maclean tells Johnny ‘we’re going after the biggest prize in wrestling – the Heavyweight Championship of the World’. By way of the Starbuck Rodeo
‘JOHNNY COUGAR vs. THE CLOWN’ 22 Aug 1964 to 6 Feb 1965. Later, in Apr 1967 Johnny will be re- joined by ‘The Clown’ in a sequel pitting them against evil financier Septimus J Sneed
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ 13 Feb 1965 to 20 March 1965. Moves to colour cover-spread for story set at sea with scheming tycoon Calvin Tubbs
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ Now, in ‘TIGER & HURRICANE’ following a merger, from 27 March 1965. Extended to 3-pages for movie stunt-man ‘Life Of A thousand Thrills’ story
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ 21 August 1965 to 30 April 1966. English Toff Lord Hubert Holroyd wagers his Stately Home on the outcomes of Johnny’s ‘Festival of Wrestling’ bouts, and despite villainous cousin Septimus Crabb, Johnny becomes ‘The First Stately Seminole Of Old England’
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ ‘TIGER ANNUAL 1966’. Eight-page story, ‘Buffalo Joe Kane’ plots revenge after Johnny defeats him in the ring in Rocky Mountain pioneer-style town of Black Butte
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ 7 May 1966 to 24 Sept 1966. Two disasters – going home to Florida Johnny not only finds his tribe swindled out of their wealth, but he’s lost John Gillatt’s inspired art too (replaced by Sandy James). So he goes to the Bahamas, foils sinister oriental Doctor Fu, and salvages a submerged bullion plane
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ 1 Oct 1966. A Euro wrestling-tour leads Johnny to the crazy Republic of Rurania, helping poet-prince Nicholas against usurper tyrant Black Boris
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ 31 Dec 1966. A New Year 1967 colour cover-feature shows Johnny in Peace City, Friendship County USA, joining Mr Duncan as Honorary Sheriff in his ‘Declaration of War’ against Gangsters
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ ‘TIGER ANNUAL 1967’. Eight-page story, losing his memory Johnny becomes involved with crook Nick Galdo’s gang who frame him for murder
‘JOHNNY COUGAR vs THE SCORPION’ ‘TIGER ANNUAL 1968’. 8-page full-colour strip, after defeating him in an Istanbul bout Johnny is kidnapped by Sheikh Selim, the ‘Desert Scorpion’
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ To 6 Jan 1968. ‘Only Johnny’s fantastic reflexes could save him’ when he wrestles a full-grown bull into a submission-fall in the San Monez arena during an adventure allying him with rebel Caraga to overthrow the island’s evil Dictator Dr Brand
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ 13 Jan 1968. Seminoles from the reservation wager ‘much money-wampum’ on Johnny’s Goldhill bout against gangster Babyface Nixon in an attempt to retrieve the redskin’s priceless ‘Golden Suit’
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ To 18 April 1970
‘JOHNNY COUGAR vs. MICK McMANUS!’ 25 April 1970 to 9 May 1970
‘JOHNNY COUGAR WITH SPLASH GORTON’ From 14 August 1971, Splash Gorton character introduced into the Johnny Cougar strip, and the merged strip continues from 21 August
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ From 2 August 1983 to April 1984, reprinted series from 1967
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ ‘TIGER ANNUAL 1974’ Two Cougar strips, 8-pages with Splash Gorton, plus 6-&-a-half page reprint of his London come-back story-arc from 1963
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ in ‘ROY OF THE ROVERS’ 28 Sept 1985 to Dec 1985. Weekly IPC comic, uses John Gillatt art reprints from ‘TIGER’
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ (1990 – ‘CLASSIC ACTION HOLIDAY SPECIAL’). Fleetway Publications’ one-off ‘special’ bringing vintage picture-strip stars ‘out if retirement’
‘JOHNNY COUGAR’S WRESTLING MONTHLY’ £1, No.1, Oct 1992 with free badge. No.2 (Nov) with Free Wrestling Tattoos. No.3 (January 1993) ‘It’s Submission Time For The Bandage Man!’. No.4 (Feb) ‘Redskin Mat-man vs Red Dakins’. Six issues until March 1993, 48-pages of reprints from ‘TIGER’ plus ‘Star Photos’
With thanks to Steve Holland for his factual information,
and to John Gillatt, Barrie Tomlinson and
Gil Page for their valuable in-puts