- Originally published on the Bartitsu.org site on Saturday, 10th November 2018
Still popular today in Mexican and Japanese pro-wrestling circles, the “masked wrestler” gimmick originated in Paris during the year 1867. The original “Lutteur Masqué” was rumoured to be an athletic aristocrat who kept his identity secret so as not to bring shame upon his family.
The same story and gimmick was reported to have re-appeared about ten years later in Bucharest. In that instance, the masked circus wrestler was rumoured to be none other than “Prince Stourdja of Moldavia”, grappling incognito; it was also reported that a riot nearly ensued when a careless circus employee let slip the masked man’s real identity as a humble, but muscular, clown and roustabout.
Although the mask gimmick remained a rarity, it entered the zeitgeist to the extent that a masked wrestler character appeared in a 1903 English stage melodrama titled The Village Blacksmith, a play that would remain popular on the provincial circuit for some years to come.
In March of 1909, dramatic newspaper announcements heralded the arrival of a new “Masked Man” (M.M.) who intended to challenge former Bartitsu Club instructor Yukio Tani to a match under jiujitsu rules. The allegedly Continental grappler was speculated to be a disguised Aleksander Aberg, Frank Gotch or even the great Hackenschmidt himself, and was said to have previously challenged the famed Stanislaus Zbyszko.
At this point it’s worth noting that very limited credence can be given to anonymous newspaper reports about the activities of masked wrestlers, perhaps especially when they coincide with tours of a popular melodrama likewise featuring a M.M. That said, The Sporting Life did its due diligence in covering the M.M./Tani challenge, especially after the two parties met at the Sporting Life office to discuss terms for the match.
Noting as usual that the term “Jap” was not used pejoratively during the very early 20th century, here follows the Sporting Life report on that meeting, from their March 26th, 1909 issue:
“A man of good family, who is traveling all over Europe for the sake of ‘taking down’ some of those wrestlers who think so much of themselves,” is the character of the notorious Man with the Mask, who has struggled with Zybysko in Vienna, and who has been mistaken for Hackenschmidt, Gotch and Aberg. This description was given to us by Herr Neiman, the M.M.’s manager, who according to promise came to the St. Bride Street office of the Sporting Life yesterday afternoon, .
Mr. J Harrison, Tani’s manager, and Mr. Adam King had already arrived, and Herr Neiman was at once asked what he had to propose. Herr Neiman said he was in London with the M.M. for the purpose of wrestling and beating Tani, and he would deposit with the Sporting Life now £100 or £200 as a side stake in a match with Tani. The M.M. had some holds that Tani had never even dreamed of, and with these he would best the Jap.
The editor of the Sporting Life said that he hoped that no attempt would be made to play this hoary Continental trick on the long-suffering supporters of wrestling in England. The Sporting Life would not accept any money for a match in the mountebank style of wrestling, and it would strongly advise Tani, who had a good reputation in England, to steer clear of any trickery such as a man in a mask suggested. The Sporting life hoped that the man would take off his mask and tackle Tani, and only because of that hope had it allowed the man to meet in St. Bride Street.
Mr. Harrison said he could say nothing of (illegible), except that Tani would very willingly wrestle the M.M. on the ordinary terms – £20 if he stood for 15 minutes and £100 if he beat Tani, but the wrestler must be without a mask.
Herr Neiman then declared threateningly that if Tani not make a match the M.M. would find out where he was and follow him all over the country.
Mr. Harrison, amused, said he would give Herr Neiman Tani’s address, and he was further assured that a bluff of that kind would avail him nothing.
Herr Neiman said the man would not take off his mask for a million pounds, and someone suggested that it would not be safe to offer 10. Mr. Harrison said that if this man wanted to wrestle Tani with a sack over his head, Tani would wrestle him with a hammer in his hand.
We suggested that if the man would not take off his mask, he should as promised wrestle in private, but Herr Neiman declared that the M.M. had never yet wrestled in private and he did not want to start.
Wherefore we are forced to the conclusion that he is after a “gate”.
There being no prospect of unmasking this wonderful wrestler, the meeting was abortive and we shall hear the next news of the masked man from the provinces, where Tani will be performing next week.
All that we were able to glean of the wrestler who affects the mask was that he is a white man , stands about 5’8″ or 5’9″ and weighs between 13 1/2 stone and 14 stone . He wrestles (his manager says) as a hobby and he comes from so good a family that he does not want anyone to know him.
It’s evident, however, that either the colourful wrangling over terms was part of the show, or that actual terms were decided privately, because Tani and the Masked Man did compete in several jiujitsu matches during April of 1909. The first contest took place in Newcastle on Saturday, April 1st, and was duly (and somewhat disapprovingly) described in the next day’s issue of the Sporting Life:
Wrestling has quite suddenly become interesting, if some aspects of it are not particularly edifying. We have some mountebank tricks at Newcastle-upon-Tyne where we find Yukio Tani, notwithstanding the advice we gave him last week, wrestling the man who conceals his identity, and saves his noble family from the disgrace of wrestling, behind a mask. We are astonished that Tani should mix himself up with mountebank business of this kind.
We have been informed that the man in the mask is really an official of a foreign government, and a good amateur, and that those are the reasons why he is literally keeping it dark. We cannot congratulate the continent on its amateurs. This masked man, we are further informed, is wrestling purely for the sport. He must indeed be a keen sportsman if he follows his Zybysko from Vienna to Lodz and from Lodz to St. Petersburg, and, having taken the measures of the (illegible) to England and hurries up to Newcastle- upon-Tyne after Tani, who in private, report says, once brought the mighty Zybysko low.The masked wrestler of continental fame appeared in a match against Yukio Tani, the famous jujitsu wrestler, at the Pavilion Theatre, Newcastle, last night, and stayed at the stipulated 15 minutes against the Japanese with ease. In fact, the unknown forced matters at a terrific pace for practically the whole time, exhibiting tremendous strength and evading Tani’s frequent attempts at leg holds over the neck. The masked man is undoubtedly an accomplished wrestler, though lacking in knowledge of the Japanese style, and is a splendidly developed athlete.
The Sporting Life’s skepticism re. the masked wrestler schtick was undoubtedly justified – among other things, even if the stories about the M.M. pursuing Zybysko all over Europe were true, there would be no practical way of ascertaining whether he was the same M.M. who was currently challenging Yukio Tani. However – assuming that the actual match was a legitimate contest of skill – he must indeed have been a proficient grappler, because few wrestlers were able to last the stipulated time against Tani in his prime.
Their next recorded clash took place in the nearby town of Gateshead on the 10th of April:
On Saturday, at the Metropole Theatre, Gateshead, Yukio Tani, the famous ju-jitsu wrestler, met the “Masked Man” for £lOO a-side, in a contest under ju-jitsu rules. The “Masked Man”, since his first appearance in this country, has excited considerable curiosity, and on this occasion removed his mask for the first time. He had had two previous unfinished contests with the Jap, and the conditions for the third meeting were a wrestle to a finish.
The “Masked Man,” though uncovered, had not had his identity revealed, though it is understood that he is a German, and has achieved considerable distinction as champion wrestler. He scales 14st. 91bs., against the Japanese wrestler’s 9st.
There was a large audience, and the umpire was Mr. Collingridge, of Newcastle. On the last occasion the pair met, the Masked Man was on the aggressive for the most part of the bout, but this time the Jap went on other tactics, and at once led off. He got his man down first, and very soon tried his favourite arm-lock, but he was not strong enough to use it to effect. The first ten minutes of the contest saw Tani doing most of the work, but his heavy opponent was playing a waiting game, and ultimately took a turn at forcing the work.
When the German got his hold he held his light opponent with apparent case, but Tani was much too clever in avoiding awkward holds, and slipped out of them when seemed to be in a bad way. He tried his arm lock as a counter-move to the German, but the latter was always safe in relying upon his strength to get out of trouble. After about 30 minutes of keen wrestling, the Jap looked like giving his opponent the head press, but after several attempts he was unable to muster strength enough to turn his opponent’s body over.
After a breather, on the conclusion of half an hour’s exciting work, Tani assumed the offensive, and got a strangle hold, which he was unable to use, however, to much advantage. The German took up the fighting, and for few minutes forced the pace. Tani, waiting his opportunity, however, got a verdict before most people expected it, for, at the close of nearly eight minutes’ wrestling, he secured a neck lock, which gained him a well-deserved victory. The time of the contest was 37 minutes and 45 seconds. Tani was warmly applauded on the verdict.
Mr. Collingridge, the Newcastle-based umpire, was almost certainly W.H. Collingridge, who was himself a jiujitsu student and then instructor, as well as the author of Tricks of Self Defence (1914).
Despite the journalist’s comment suggesting that this was the third meeting between the M.M. and Tani, there seem to be no records of a bout between the Newcastle match and this one in Gateshead. In any case, the M.M.’s unmasking for this encounter may well have been part of the terms reached between the two promotions.
The mysterious hooded grappler’s actual identity was never publicly confirmed and has now been lost to history.