Born and raised in Islington, England, Bartolomeo Esserati's father was a naturally strong man and his older brother, Tony, was a leading bodybuilding expert in Britain. It would only be natural that he would follow the same way as his family members. Bartolomeo started lifting weights as young as twelve years old.
By the age of fourteen he was already an impressive specimen; it's said that he could lift the end of his father's taxi at this age. By the age of sixteen he had been attending the gym with his dad for over two years and was learned in gymnastics and hand balancing. Charles A. Smith, who corresponded with Assirati for a period of eighteen months, has recalled this story of Bartolomeo's sixteenth birthday:
"This athlete, whose name I have forgotten, eventually broke the world’s record on the ‘front chest pull.’ Throwing the expander down on the stage, he challenged any member of the audience to duplicate the feat of strength. Bert, with a little prompting from Pop, jumped up on the stage, and performed 15 repetitions with the ‘world’s record.’ The audience called loudly for Bert to strip off; just as our audiences do with the physique champions. Bert did and Alan P. Mead, standing to one side, was so amazed at the development of this youthful Samson that he took him to one side and asked him searching questions regarding his weight training. Five days later, a 225-lb. barbell and dumbell set arrived at Bert’s house, with a note attached from Mead containing a training schedule and his assurance that if he, Bert, trained along the right lines, he would become one of the strongest men in the world. "
What would be the natural course of action for someone so impressive with his strength? Well, for Bartolomeo Esserati, it was to join a stage act. The act consisted of various comedic acrobatics and feats of strength involving his partner as they would go by the name of Mello and Nello. It would be during his stage act he would pick up all the astounding moves he would later do as 'Party Tricks,' such as the one-handed-handstand and front and back flips. Together, they traveled the world and proved to be a very successful act, quite a feat for a man who was only seventeen at the time.
Bartolomeo had also relayed to Smith that whilst training under legendary strongman Bill Bankier, also known as Apollo the Scottish Hercules, as a twenty-two year old man he was approached by Georg Hackenschmidt. The Russian Lion was an old friend of Bankier's and told the young weight lifter who was at this time just getting into wrestling to, "Forget about it." He told him to stick to weight lifting as he could be the strongest man in the world and declined to give the young man advice on how to further his career as a professional wrestler.
Smith went on to say this in his 1948 released article on him:
"To see Bert perform a single arm hand stand, a back somersault or a roman ring crucifix is to be as amazed as if one saw a bull perform the most intricate ballet routine. One simply can not understand how a person of such muscular bulk can be so light on the feet and so supple. Bert Assirati is perhaps he heaviest man to perform a crucifix on the roman rings."
Thus concludes the portion of his life pre-wrestling. Already it is clear we are dealing with one extraordinary individual, yet he is nearly forgotten from the annuals of professional wrestling and British wrestling. People may have heard the name, but it's rare anyone knows anything about him; at most they remember that he was a disliked individual who liked to hurt people.
At the age of 20 he'd already accomplished all of the above and he was still not happy; it was time to enter into the world of professional wrestling. Already possessing a good base in Greco-Roman and Amateur styles he made the transition smoothly following being spotted by Atholl Oakley, a very influential man in British wrestling.
Training at the Ashdown Wrestling club under extremely well equipped wrestlers Guido Ronga, George McKennzie, and Peter Gotz, he couldn't have asked for a better tutorial. Everyone saw the potential in the short but ridiculously powerfully built and agile youngster. Promoter William Bankier quickly snapped up Assirati and took him under his wing.
It is noted that the first professional encounter of Bert was in October 1928 where defeated Robert Cook. He continued to train and test his skills for the next two years. It was in 1930 that whole landscape of British wrestling started to change with the implementation of All-In rules wrestling.
With the changing of the game, Assirati flourished, becoming one of the top competitors in all of Britain, even defeating Atholl Oakley, the man who originally spotted him. Also noted is that he would travel up to Scotland where he wrestled under the assumed name of John Swan.
1932 would see Bert spread his wings and travel over to the North of America. It was this period of time that is often brought up as both evidence that Assirati was a legitimate tough guy and also to prove that he was an average-at-best competitor.
"He was so feared in the wrestling ring that it was difficult to find him opponents in the US, and most of his matches ended in win or loss by injury- either he'd break his opponents' bones or they'd dislocate something on him. Known as a ‘ripper’ and a ‘pain freak’(which apparently means he was both a sadist and a masochist in the ring), Assirati was pretty much despised by his opponents who often ended up in the hospital."
This is just one example of many wild tales told of his time. The truth is that tale is about as factual as Saint George slaying the ol’ dragon. Records show that Assirati was a middle of the road kind of guy who piled up many defeats. He would manage to face some bigger names such as Renato Gardini and Ray Steele, but names like that were few and far between.
The Gardini bout in particular has been brought up in favour of Assirati's hooker status, as he defeated Gardini in just 55 seconds. Again, there is no proof this was a legitimate contest. When all of the facts are looked at, the most reasonable suggestion to come up with is that Assirati was competing in worked matches during this time in America.
They were firmly in the era of Slam-Bang Western-Style Wrestling! with the Gold Dust Trio in the 1920's, and the fix was in nationwide. With the changing of the tide in Britain, there also came the worked nature. Not to mention Assirati had only been in the business for four years and assuming that it was all of a worked nature, it makes sense that he was in the middle of the card as a relatively unknown quantity in the States.
1933 saw him return to his homeland and almost immediately he began his rise back to the top of the mountain there. It would appear he was still working matches at this point as he suffered several losses, although he was mostly on the winning end.
By 1935 the All-In style of wrestling was cemented into place, however, the British Heavyweight Championship could not have the same said about it. There were at least three or four different claimants. One of the main ones was Douglas Clark. During 1935 Assirati defeated Clark and laid claim to the British Heavyweight Championship himself. A claim he would retain for the next decade.
With a legitimate claim, even if not recognised by the majority, Assirati continued touring the country and gaining more experience, while drawing a good gate in the areas he was recognised. Not much is known of his time between 1935 - 1945, as records of matches in the United Kingdom were notoriously bad for various reasons.
What is known though is that at some point Assirati returned to Wigan and attended the famous gym ran by Billy Riley, the Snake Pit. Many historians believe it was during this period that Assirati really learned how to hook and took a liking to dishing out the punishment. Riley's gym was infamous for its hard work ethic and brutal torture-like training. His teacher there, Jack Carroll, was a great tutor as well.
The records come back into focus for Assirati in 1945 when after a decade of promoting himself as the British Heavyweight Champion he defeated George Gregory to become the officially recognised champion. His victory took place on January 27. This gave him access to even more areas of Britain, really spreading his name as the greatest wrestler on the isles.
Just two years later, Bert Assirati became the first European who was officially recognised as the World Heavyweight Champion for many years. On February 18, 1947 he defeated Carl Van Wurden, Milo Popocopolis, and Gastov Ghevaert in the first three rounds of a tournament to advance to the final.
Harringay Stadium in London was the location for both events. In the finals Assirati met Ivor Martinsen. In front of 7,000 people Bert managed to topple the Frenchman as he won the tournament and the World Heavyweight Championship (Europe Version).
A massive tour of Britain ensued for Assirati following the victory. Traveling all over the British Isles with his newly won title was a big hit for Bert. The tour culminated on October 13, 1947. Just seven months after he had won the championship, Bert would lose to Paul Martinsen in Paris, France. It's natural to assume that this was prearranged and all part of a work leaving each man with one win in their respective countries.
Assirati still had his British Heavyweight Championship though and continued to defend it in Britain. Not only that with his reputation now known across Europe, it allowed him to travel into Europe more often to face fresh talent. It's during this time Assirati was riding high with momentum and was considered one of the best in the world by Brits, if not the very best.
His win rate went up, but there are still a considerable amount of draws during the rest of the 1940's following his title loss. Not to mention a draw with Primo Carnera, the boxer, in September of 1949. Most people would agree that in a straight up fight a pure wrestler would always defeat a pure boxer due to the extensive arsenal of a wrestler, so it's safe to say that this was a work.
It's listed that sometime within 1949, Bert Assirati won the European Heavyweight Championship. Unfortunately it seems that the history of the title was murky following Jose Tarres' victory over Jake Dale. It's unknown who, if anyone, was defeated by Assirati for it.
He would drop the belt to Felix Miquet on October 27, 1949 in Paris, France. After he lost the championship it again becomes unclear what happened with the belt. By the end of 1949 it was back with Bert Assrati and this time he didn't let go of it so quickly.
1950 saw much of the same as the previous years. On February 11, he met Frank Sexton, future World Heavyweight Champion (Europe Version) in 1952, and the pair went to a time-limit draw in Antwerp, Belgium. The following month he'd meet Ivar Martinsen in Paris,France on the 31st and this time, they went to a time-limit draw.
His time in 1951 again is not well-documented. It is known he continued traveling Europe and Britain during this time, still working for the British Wrestling Association when in his homeland. Germany would be the next country on list to compete in and he did just that in 1952. He toured there extensively, winning most of his matches, but like everywhere else there were a couple of draws and even a loss.
Assirati was just about to bark on the biggest tour of his life though. A mighty journey seeing him go all over Singapore, Milaysia, Ceylon, India, Pakistan, and South Africa. All who were thrown at him were defeated. It is noted in Singapore that he defeated the gargantuan German, Kurt Zehe (The man who had a win over him back in Germany) who reportedly stood 7 foot tall, in the Happy World Stadium. Assirati was only 5'6''.
During the tour in India there was increasing success for Bert, unless he was facing a home town favourite. When he was facing a fan favorite such as Dara Singh, it always meant defeat for the Brit. The tour lasted three years. Every country he continued his winning ways and was nearly always the top of the billing.
On returning to Britain, once again the wrestling scene had dramatically changed, only this time Assirati wasn't a part of the change and was now on the outside as he returned to the country. It seems at first thQWat Assirati was accepted back into the fold by Joint Promotions, the new promotion founded by Dale Martin.
Just under two years after his return, he defeated Ernie Baldwin to pick up the British Heavyweight Championship (Sometimes known as the Mountevans Heavyweight Championship for this period). What happened next is wide open to speculation.
Around a year after winning the gold, Assirati fell out with Joint Promotions. It's often said that it was because of Assirati growing increasingly difficult to deal with and work with due to his sadistic nature. However, that has never been confirmed by anyone who was actually there at the time. Other have also been known to say that Bert was unhappy with the way wrestling was changing and didn't want to work for them any longer.
Either way, with Joint Promotions monopolizing the British scene much like the National Wrestling Alliance had in America in 1940's, Assirati (although still recognized as champion and therefore having to defend it), would work mainly for independent territories, leaving in 1958. Another trip was in order to India, and this gave Joint Promotions every excuse they needed to officially strip him of the title.
Assirati never acknowledge being stripped and continued to lay claim to the championship. His tour was successful in India again but when he came back in 1959 he was totally out of the loop. Now it was nothing but independents for the aging Assirati. With no choice but to slow down his pace in the ring due to age and the little money available on the independents he finally retired in 1963.
Following his career he reportedly worked as a doorman at a bar in England, before passing on August 31, 1990 of bladder cancer. That's his career but what we need to look at is his reputation. Looking at just the statistics and antics, it's impossible to garner what happened with Assirati and why his name has been buried among the bottom of British wrestling legends.
Naturally, when you take the statistics into consideration, it's perfectly clear to see that he was not always in the bad books of promoters. It's also clear to see that it wasn't until the latter years of his career that things changed. The whole truth will never be established because it's impossible since it took place so long ago and there are no accurate accounts known to us.
With that said though, people who knew Bert all spoke of how talented he was and that he was an impressive specimen. They also say that he liked to wrestle a strong style in the ring. People have recalled how if it didn't look real enough he would tell his opponent to hit him harder and if they didn't, he'd lay into them to make them really pay attention.
That takes us into a whole other debate: Is it wrong now or at any other time period to use an overly stiff style? Well, that depends on the people in the ring. There is no universal answer for that. A lot of wrestlers have got unwarranted heat or bad reputations because they like to have a match that literally feels real.
Whilst people claim that Assirati tortured people with deadly hooks for fun, if he has given the opponent the option to just hit him harder and they'll get on fine, it shows that he is at least willing to take the punishment as well as dishing it, and was just adamant on a realistic match at a time when it was thought realism was the most important part of wrestling.
May-be he did torture some people unnecessarily, may-be he didn't; it's all in the eye of the beholder. As for his dispute with Joint Promotions, there's no doubt that something had happened. Whether it was them trying to bring in new talent with no need for the older, no nonsense, and stiff Assirati, or whether he became difficult first, we will never know.
Bert Assirati's reputation as a human being may very well be ruined for eternity. He will most likely forever been known as a merciless ripper to mainstream fans. Those who knew him well and those who research his career will find the surprising story of an overachiever who seemingly just enjoyed a rough and physical contest to maintain the realism of the story...until something went awry backstage with Joint Promotions.
What we can say for 100% certainty though, that no-one disputes, is that Bert Assirati was one of the most talented performers to ever come out of England. With his astounding acrobatic ability, the strength that earned him the name, “The Hercules of Islington”, mixed in with a lethal knowledge of Catch wrestling, there has probably never been anyone so versatile on the British scene.
Personal Training Records at 266lbs:
Right Hand Military Press – 160 lbs
Left Hand Military Press – 145
Lateral Raise Lying – 160 (Two 80-lb. Dumbells)
Tow arm pullover STRAIGHT Arms – 200
Two Arm Pullover Straight Arms – 140 x 17 Repetitions
Two Arm Curl – 180
Two Arm Curl, Arms Tied to Sides – 160
Two Hands Continental Jerk – 380
Two Hands Clean and Jerk – 360
Two Hands Press – 285
Full Deep Knee Bend – 550 x 10 Repetitions
Deadlift - 800lbs
Non-Stop Squats With Barbell Weighing 235lbs - 30 Minutes
The Charles A. Smith quotes are from ditillo2's online blog.
Unique content strictly for the Professional Wrestling Historical Society.
Biography of Bert Assirati.
Author: Jimmy Wheeler.
Published: July 2014.
Editor: Jimmy Wheeler.