Whoever said “never meet your heroes” had clearly never heard of Mark ‘Rollerball’ Rocco.
Those of us in or around the wrestling business are sadly hardened to hearing about the deaths of our friends, colleagues or inspirations, but this one really hit a lot of us. For there was simply nobody else like Mark Rocco, a man who was literally a generation ahead of his time.
Only a few weeks ago, I was conducting an interview about British wrestling history with someone for their university project and when asked who my favourites were growing up. The first name out of my mouth was that of Rocco.
In an era of methodical, measured manoeuvres, he shone out as a non-stop bundle of frantic, maniacal energy, speeding around at a hundred miles per hour.
As a child, I was immediately drawn to this amazing character who could do equally amazing things in the ring. As someone with a short attention span, there was never a dull moment in a Rocco match.
Many heels would get their heat simply by cheating. But Rocco was different. Yes, he cheated from time to time, but he would generate his heat just through the simplicity of a sneer, the occasional illegality and the fact that he was perpetrating these acts against beloved babyfaces.
He could easily have turned face in the blink of an eye, and in fact did just as the TV cameras had stopped turning up to live wrestling shows, most notably feuding with Kendo Nagasaki.
Rocco, real name Mark Hussey, was a man with sporting genes.
His father was a legendary wrestler in his own right: “Jumping” Jim Hussey, whose party piece in the wrestling ring was to place a handkerchief in the ring, stand on it, execute a standing dropkick and land back where he started, standing on the handkerchief. And Rocco’s son, Jonny Hussey, became a professional boxer in the 2000s with a respectable 15-2 record.
However, Rocco’s father didn’t want his son to follow in his footsteps, and had a career in horse riding set out for his son. Rocco even represented his country in showjumping, according to an unreleased interview I conducted with the man himself back in 2012.
His father had a wrestling gym at their home, but banned his son from training there. However, when his father was away, Rocco would learn from the Liverpool- and Manchester-based pros who trained at the gym regularly, and young Mark made his debut aged 17 as a last minute stand-in for a no-show.
He then had his first official, billed match at Liverpool Stadium. He rose to the top, winning the British Heavy-Middleweight title in 1977, a weight division he would become synonymous with in Britain.
Rocco soon realised that, at a time where, as he put it “most guys would spend three rounds in a headlock”, doing something outrageous would garner a reaction from most people, either positive or negative, but as everyone in wrestling knows, the worst thing is indifference.
As a result, he would often get in trouble with promoters and some of his matches intended for TV broadcast would never see the light of day, however, he was a draw and a promoter would always forgive a wrestler who could put bums on seats.
To this day, I vividly remember attending a show at the Dome in Brighton, where Rocco was the headliner. I forget who his opponent was, but the poor man was thrown out of the ring, had his head bashed into the timekeeper’s table, the timekeeper’s pen jabbed into his eye, and the ring bell smacked over his head, before being dragged off to the wings of the stage that the ring was housed on, having his head rammed into the stone wall and being choked with the cord that wrapped around the stage curtain!
Suffice to say, the young Ayass was enthralled (Mother Ayass not so much) as I exclaimed that you don’t see that on the TV!
But it wasn’t just the wild antics that set him apart. It’s fair to say that Mark Rocco was one of a select few who didn’t just popularise, but invented the junior heavyweight style of wrestling that we know today.
In 1981, New Japan were looking to appeal to a younger audience and created a new character, Tiger Mask, modelled after a manga cartoon character of the same name. They cast Satoru Sayama in the role, after he had just returned from a world tour including a long stay in Britain. But every hero needs a foil, and when New Japan were looking for someone to play Tiger Mask’s arch nemesis, Black Tiger, one man stuck in Sayama’s mind from the incredible matches they had had in the UK: Mark Rocco.
And so, Rocco became Black Tiger, and the two wrestled in matches which are still to this day some of the highest rated matches in Japanese television history. In fact, the feud and the characters proved to be so popular that other incarnations were born in later years, with such luminary figures as Mitsuharu Misawa and Eddie Guerrero playing the roles of Tiger Mask and Black Tiger respectively.
Rocco continued to divide his time between the UK, continental Europe and Japan, with his breakneck, smashmouth style appealing to the Japanese audiences. Rocco just didn’t stop moving, frequently venturing to the top rope, and seemingly climbing from ground level to the top strand in the blink of an eye.
As Black Tiger, he even made a quick stopover for the WWF in 1985, however, in the era of giants, he proved to be too small for Vince McMahon to want to promote seriously. With the WWF not an option, Rocco happily fell into the role of a globetrotting attraction, telling me how he simply wanted to sell out venues and have the best match of the night wherever he went in the world.
In 1986, Rocco unwittingly helped to write the next chapter of junior heavyweight wrestling. Similar to Sayama at the start of the decade, New Japan had sent another promising young wrestler out on a world tour to gain experience. “Flying” Fuji Yamada proved to be a hugely popular visitor to All Star Wrestling shows, and his visit coincided with All Star breaking Joint Promotions’ monopoly of TV wrestling.
In a pair of remarkable televised matches with Yamada, that were very much in the style of NJPW junior heavyweight matches, Rocco lost and then regained his World Heavy-Middleweight Championship. A few years later, Fuji Yamada transformed himself into Jushin “Thunder” Liger, who himself drove forwards junior heavyweight wrestling into another new era in the 1990s.
In 1991, on the south coast in Worthing, Rocco wrestled what would prove to be his final match. After wrestling Dave ‘Fit’ Finlay, he collapsed in the dressing room. He was rushed to hospital where scans showed that his heart was only working at 30% capacity.
He had no other choice but to retire from wrestling immediately, with no fanfare, ceremony or storyline. He soon moved to the Canary Islands, where he did very well for himself, running a number of business interests, including property development.
But his story didn’t end there. In August 2012, while getting out of breath walking up some stairs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, my phone rang.
It was my old pal Simon Rothstein from TNA Wrestling, who I’d worked with on Wrestle Talk on TalkSPORT radio. He told me about a new project that TNA were developing where they’d put some British wrestlers through their paces, with one of them succeeding in winning a TNA contract. They’d got the wrestlers, but now they were after a British wrestling legend to act as a mentor and instructor to them on the show.
I gave Simon a few names of people who I thought would be suitable, but one name stood head and shoulders above them all: Rollerball Rocco. After all, the man was years ahead of his time when he was an active wrestler, so the style of wrestling employed by many these days could trace its descendance directly back to Rocco himself.
As a thank you, Simon very kindly invited me along to watch the filming of part of what became TNA British Bootcamp, in a lock-up in Hackney in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium that had hosted the London Olympics just weeks before.
At one point in the show, Rocco became incensed with the attitude of Rockstar Spud and decided to lace up his boots, get in the ring and show the arrogant youngster a thing or two about wrestling. Standing there at the side, watching Rocco wrestle inside a ring for what proved to be the very last time in his lifetime, was an honour that I will never, ever forget.
They say never meet your heroes, because they’ll only disappoint you. But I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Rocco on two separate occasions, and both times, he was an absolute gentleman, a quietly spoken, polite man, a million miles away from The Maniac, Rollerball Rocco, who had thrilled and enthralled me as a child and had certainly helped to cement my own love of wrestling.
Two generations of junior heavyweight wrestlers, both in Europe and Japan, likely owe their careers to Mark Rocco, who inspired so many to change the face of professional wrestling forever.