Exotic Adrian Street is a former professional wrestler and incomparable icon of style, famous for his flamboyant ring antics and provocative fashion sense years before everyone wore capes and/or makeup. Born in Great Britain in 1940, Street ran away from home (and the coal mines of Wales) to find his fortune when he was just 15 years old. He has since wrestled professionally in each of the last seven decades, and even won the NWA Alabama Heavyweight Championship as late as 2010. But now, plagued by various injuries and illnesses (including the time a doctor diagnosed him with "two very militant types of throat cancer"), he says he's through.
Street has authored five chronologically arranged memoirs—My Pink Gas Mask, I Only Laugh When It Hurts, So Many Ways to Hurt You, Sadist in Sequins, and Imagine What I Could Do to You—and continues to create custom wrestling apparel in Gulf Breeze, Fla., where he lives with his wife and former valet, Miss Linda. Here, he reflects on his life story in his own words, culled from an interview with Deadspin's own Rob Trucks.
The first thing I ever wanted to be when I grew up, when I was a very young kid, was a red Indian. I used to go sort of hunting in the Welsh hills, looking for a tribe of Welsh Cherokee Indians. I knew that Indians lived in the hills and the woods and everything like that, and so that's where I had to go looking for them. I'd come racing home on my imaginary horse, and my mother'd come out and say, Come and get indoors and wash behind your ears. You've been listening for bloody buffalo and Indians again, haven't you? I thought red Indians lived in Wales when I was a kid.
I've always had an eye for costumes, as you can well imagine, and the red Indian costumes, like the feathered headdresses and the fringe and the warpaint on their faces, caught my imagination the most when I was a kid.
My older brother went to a bodybuilding contest in Cardiff, and he bought all the programs and stuff like that. And when he came home, he gave me the programs and some of the magazines that he'd bought. I mean, I was hooked on bodybuilding. That's all I thought about.
I had a friend, Peter Inge, who was into wrestling, and I used to talk to him about bodybuilding, and he used to talk to me about wrestling. And it sort of went over my head, because Steve Reeves and Spencer Churchill and top bodybuilders like that were my heroes at the time. But I happened to be in a neighboring town looking for bodybuilding magazines, and I noticed an American boxing and wrestling magazine that I bought for my friend Peter. And I read it on the bus going back home, and I was hooked. I mean, Nature Boy Buddy Rogers, Don Leo Jonathan, and all the rest of them. And it's funny, because when I was bodybuilding and stuff like that, my mother said to me, When you get all your muscles, what are you going to do with them? And I said, I guess look after them. But the next time she says, When you get all your muscles, what are you going to do with them? I said, Become the best professional wrestler in the world.
I never got along with my father at all. I mean, from the first time I ever met him. I didn't meet him until I was almost five, because he was a prisoner of war with the Japanese at the time. He never liked me, for whatever reason. He had me out of school working in the coal mines when I was 15 years of age. He had me digging rocks out of the garden well before that, so I knew which end of the shovel to use when I went to work in the pit. And I never wanted to go down in the pit in the first place. I didn't like it.
I didn't like my father, so I ran away from home with the idea of becoming a professional wrestler in London. And I almost starved to death there. I boxed on a fairground booth, and I'm not a boxer. I can't box. I was boxing anywhere between four and seven times in one day, and getting one pound a fight.
I'd been trying right from day one to wrestle for the big-time promotions like Dale Martins, and they kept on saying, Oh, go away. You're too small. You're too young. Come back when you're bigger, older, and an amateur champion.
But eventually I met a guy called Chic Osmond. He had just got an offer from Martins, and he asked me if I would step in for him in for some of the independents. He didn't want to leave them hanging and what have you, and would I go wrestle for him? I couldn't believe my luck. I didn't even know there were any independents.
I thought I knew everything about wrestling. I mean, I was a really cocky little upstart of a kid, and I thought I knew all about it. The first match I ever had was a main event against a guy called Gentleman Geoff Moran. And when I went in they said, Do seven rounds, and I didn't know what they were talking about. My opponent was saying, like, I'll do this to you in this round. I'll do that to you in that round. And I was saying, Yeah, I've been playing the intimidation game myself since the day after I learned to talk, you know. I mean, he's telling me what he's going to do, so that I'd know what he was going to do. I thought he was saying like, Well, I'm going to do this to you and that to you, you know, like Cassius Clay: I'll knock him out in the fifth and that kind of stuff. I thought the guy was telling me that.
Anyway, when we came to grips in the ring I took an arm bar on him, threw my legs up in the air and smashed his face into the ground. And he said, Fuck you! and went into submission. And that was the end of my first match. [Laughs.]
I walked back into the dressing room like Julius Caesar after he'd conquered Gaul. You know, like, When am I going to get my first championship match? And the promoter said, What the fuck were you doing out there, you fucking idiot? [Laughs.] My opponent's wife came charging into the dressing room calling me every name under the sun, and then I got my first wages cut by 20 percent. But the fact that I knocked that guy out, the promoter had to put a different tone of voice on. He had to beg me, more or less. He said, Listen. Since you fucked up Geoff Moran, you're going to have to do me a favor, kid. In those days, I was wrestling as Kid Tarzan Jonathan, after Don Leo Jonathan who was one of my favorite wrestlers. He said, You're going to have to do me a favor, kid. He said, You fucked up my main event. You're going to have to stand in for him, like all the matches and everything, until the guy gets out of hospital and he can wrestle again.
They say you learn by your mistakes. I think that's why I'm so knowledgeable. If there's a mistake to be made in my life, I've made it. But there you go. That's the way you learn.
Working in the coal mine was such a horrible, nasty, filthy, dangerous job. You know, even though I was starving to death in London—it was a long time before I saw any success—it was just the thought of people saying to me, You won't make it. You're too small. You won't make it in London. You'll be back.
I remember the other coal miners—I was standing on the bottom of the pit for the last time—all making fun of me: You'll never make a wrestler, a little runt like you. You'll come running back. You'll never make it in London.
And my father was standing at the bottom of the pit, like waiting for the hooter to blow, and they asked my father, What do you think? Do you think he'll make it, Emrys? And for some strange reason, I was actually interested in his opinion. I guess he didn't want to go against proper opinion and everything like that at the time. I would assume that my father would've known better than anybody that if I make my mind up to do something, I'll do it, and if I make my mind up I won't, I won't. But he said, Nah, he'll be back. He likes his mother's cooking too much.
And the funny thing is, that cinched the deal. As far as I was concerned, I would've died trying to get where I was going to get rather than go home and give any of those people satisfaction.
Anyway, a number of years later I won the middleweight European title, and the newspapers got a hold of it, and they made a big fuss, and they wanted to take photographs of me wearing the belt, like how I'd won it for Britain and all that.
Where do you want to have the photograph taken? they said. And I said, I want to have the photograph taken in the coal mine I ran away from when I was 15. And I want to time it so that my father and the other coal miners are coming out of the pit, coming up in the cage and everything like that. I want to be standing there all dressed up in my finery, and you can take a photograph of that.
I proved them wrong, but as far as I was concerned, that was just another step in the direction I intended to go in.
I respond well to positivity. If a friend or someone like that sort of pats me on the back and says like, Yeah, you can do it, you can do it, I find that encouraging. There's only one thing I find more encouraging than that, and that's somebody, especially somebody like my father, saying, like, You can't do that. You'll fail. There's no way you can manage that, you know. There's only one thing that sort of fires my engine more than positivity, and that's negativity.
You tell me I can't do something I want to do? Well, you just bloody stand back and watch me.
My original dream was to become a full-time professional wrestler, and there was no such animal in Britain at the time. And my Uncle Fred knew a bit about it, and he said to me, OK, you can go to London. You can be a professional wrestler. But what are you going to do for a job? And I said, Nothing. I'm going to be a full-time professional wrestler. He said, There's no such thing, but I would not accept that. But the thing is, he was right.
I remember going to the YMCA and getting the absolute shit beaten out of me by two wrestlers, one after the other. I went there with the idea of like, Wait until London gets a load of me. I'd seen that movie Somebody Up There Likes Me, with Paul Newman, and that scene always stuck in my mind where Rocky [Graziano] is AWOL. He wants only to box. He goes into a gym. They stick him in the ring with some contender that's sort of up and coming and all the rest of it, and he makes a few bucks sparring with him. Then the guy gets a bit rough with him, smacks him in the face one too many times, and Rocky lays him out, gets the attention of all the trainers and promoters and everything like that. I thought that movie was wonderful. And that's the way I saw myself when I hit London. Then I got on the mat with two grizzled old amateurs, and they turned me inside out and upside down.
On my way home on the bus, I happened to be passing a dance hall, and there, standing at the door, working as a bouncers, was an amateur wrestler called Ken Richmond. I think he won a bronze medal in 1952 or something like that. And standing right next to him was Bert Assirati, the biggest name in professional wrestling. And not only was he the biggest name in professional wrestling—everybody in the world was shit scared of him—his wife was a wrestling promoter. And I looked and I said to myself, Well, damn, you know, if Bert Assirati has to go to work as a bouncer to subsidize his wrestling wages and he's the biggest name ever in Europe, what chance does a shrimp like me have?
But you know something? In the back of my mind, I said, I will succeed. I will become a full-time professional wrestler. I wouldn't accept any evidence with my own eyes. That's how determined I was. And it was just after that that wrestling went onto television. All of a sudden, it exploded. With television, it got so popular that it went from 700 shows a year to 4,500 shows a year. And I got my break. I got my break not because I was a marvelous wrestler or anything like that. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. They needed bodies to put in the ring, somebody who actually knew how to lace their boots up.
I grew up on American professional wrestling. I could've told you every professional wrestler of note way back in those days. There wasn't a wrestler that was alive or dead that I wasn't aware of in America. At the same time, I could not have told you the name of one single British wrestler.
It wasn't on TV in those days. I think I was 15 years of age the first time I ever saw a professional wrestling match, and a year later I was wrestling professionally myself.
There was one thing I was disappointed in when I first started watching British wrestling, and that was a lack of flamboyant characters and gaudy, flashy costumes and stuff like that. I mean, they all dressed the same back then: woolly trunks up to their waist. And they didn't have like big, tall boots like the Americans wore.
The wrestling was good. I mean, I really enjoyed the wrestling, but the actual showmanship and what have you, the costumes and that sort of thing, was really lacking compared with the Americans. But as far as actual wrestling was concerned, the wrestlers in Britain in the Golden Age were better than anything I've ever seen and far better than any wrestling they've had in the States. But the flamboyant and showy wrestlers that they had in the States back then really captured my imagination. People like Nature Boy Buddy Rogers. I mean, they had it all. That's where I got a lot of my inspiration from. I've got the American wrestlers' flamboyance and the way it caught my imagination to thank for my success in professional wrestling. Because the thing is, even if it sounds like I'm blowing my own trumpet, I was a very good wrestler. I was a very good wrestler, but I was a very good wrestler in a land of great wrestlers. And I wanted something that set me apart.
They said, You're not big enough, and you're not famous enough. And I was upset about that. And I said, Well, why am I not famous? I'm a hell of a wrestler and everything like that. What have some of these big stars got that I haven't got? I said to myself, I need the look. Now where do I get the look? And I got that in one Nature Boy Buddy Rogers.
It was the fact that I was willing to spend money on costumes. I got myself a pair of powder-blue boots. Nobody ever wore blue boots, like pale blue boots. I got trunks and a velvet jacket with a silver lamé lining to match. I designed the whole thing myself. Bleached my hair blond to look more like Buddy Rogers. I was looking for a reaction and expecting a reaction, like, Oh, wow! Look at Adrian Street! What a metamorphosis! Oh, what a transformation! Doesn't he look great? But it was like, Ooh, Mary! Oh, I was so pissed off. All the other wrestlers were saying, You're not going in the ring looking like that, are you? I mean, the other wrestlers were more like the coal miners who used to take the piss all those years ago, because there's an awful lot of jealousy in our business, and they love to see you fall flat on your face.
Quite honestly, I felt so deflated going into the ring with all the people going, Oh, give us a kiss, Mary. Oh, isn't she cute? I felt so bloody deflated and everything like that, but I wasn't going to admit I fell flat on my face. So, instead of that, I thought, I'll turn it back on them. So instead of my Buddy Rogers strut to the ring, it turned into like a little skip and everything like that. And I started blowing kisses at them, and I threw it back in their faces and marched back in the dressing room like, There you are. Look at the reaction I got. But it was just to deflect ridicule from the other wrestlers. I pretended that's what I was looking for, but it wasn't.
But that reaction stuck in my mind. I said, Well, that wasn't what I was looking for, but, shit, I've never had a reaction like that before. And neither had anybody else on the card. So I said, Well, if that's what you want, that's what you're going to bloody get.
I was believer in pushing the envelope, pushing the envelope, pushing the envelope.
January the 31st, 1982, was the first time I ever set foot in the States. And it was then like, You're too small and you're too old. [Laughs.] At the beginning of my career, it was like, You're too small and you're too young. Now it's like, You're too small and you're too old.
Those bloody Americans are monsters. They'll bloody gobble you up and all the rest of it, but the thing is, I actually had great success in the States. I've actually wrestled for longer in the States than I ever wrestled in Britain, in spite of the fact that I was only 16 when I started. And quite honestly, even though this will sound arrogant—but then, again, I am [laughs]—I've actually given the Americans lessons in flamboyance.
I can't remember exactly when it was, '76 maybe, something like that, I broke my Achilles tendon right in half. I mean, my foot's just flopping. It was almost like it was hanging off. And there were lots of places for the next couple of weeks where the promoter had said, "Guaranteed appearance by Adrian Street." So instead of going to hospital, I'm limping about on crutches with my foot flopping around and my Achilles tendon broken right in half.
The operation was done in St. Thomas' Hospital in London, and when I was in bed, recovering from the surgery, the surgeon came around. I was watching old black-and-white Flash Gordon on television at the time. So he said, "What are you going to do now?" I said, "Lie here and be miserable, I guess." He said, "No. Let me rephrase that." He said: "You used to be a professional wrestler. What are you going to do now?" And he told me I would never, ever wrestle again.
And I felt like he had just said, "You're going to die here in the next week." But I said to myself, Well, I wanted to be a wrestler. I am a wrestler, and I'm not going to give this up. So I did all the therapy and everything like that. It was all very painful. I said I was going to come back. I came back, and it's never bothered me since. Since then I've had my kneecap ripped off. I mean, my actual kneecap ended up in my thigh. I think I was about 50 then.
I've got a cauliflower ear on the left, and sometimes, if I press the phone too hard, my ear actually turns it off [laughs].
I had three doctors—there was one for radiation and one for the chemo and that sort of thing—but the main doctor that diagnosed it in the first place, I can't say he had a marvelous bedside manner, but when he got the results, he says, "Well, Mr. Street, you've got two very militant types of throat cancer." He said, "There's a tumor in there as big as a golf ball." He said, "I suggest you go home and put your affairs in order, because you're not going to make it out of this one." And I said to him, "I ain't dying yet, mate. There's too many people in the world I haven't pissed off yet."
I must admit, though, it did make me very sick. I lost 46 pounds. I mean, compared to where I am now, I was like a bloody skeleton. And I do remember sitting in the garden and thinking to myself—you know, we had a beautiful garden at the time, there were flowers everywhere, and we had some butterflies and insects creeping about and everything like that—I was sitting in the garden looking around, and I thought to myself, Shit, I'm going to miss this if I do kick off. But at the same time, I couldn't imagine dying.
Linda and I met in 1969, and we've been together just about 24/7 ever since. We love each other, and if she goes shopping without me, I can't wait until she gets back home again. I get lonely if she's in the other room.
A few years ago, back in 2005, I'd been made an honoree of the Cauliflower Alley Club. And that's sort of elite company, you know. People like Kirk Douglas and James Cagney and people who've played boxers and everything like that. Jack Palance and what have you.
Anyway, I'm going out there, and I hit on an idea. I didn't know if Lin would go for it or not, but we went there, they called me up onstage, talked about different things, and I told them how much it all meant to me. And when I was up there, I said, "It doesn't get any better than this." Then I said, "Well, here's one thing that would be better than this," and I called Linda up to the stage and I proposed, and she said yes. The guy who married us is a county official, but he used to wrestle professionally as the Wolfman. And all the years that I had idolized Don Leo Jonathan, I'd never met him. I'd never met him before in my life. But he was there, and he was my best man.
We got married in the Penthouse in the Riviera Hotel and Casino.
The injuries are really catching up with me. I've got bone spurs in my neck, and sometimes if they're in the wrong place, I can't even speak, so I think it'd be a bit foolhardy to go in the ring now and have some young 300-pounder hanging on my head. I think I would live to be sorry if I went in the ring and damaged myself to that extent. If it wasn't for my neck, I don't think I'd hesitate. But, you know, my neck does give me a lot of bother. It makes me dizzy sometimes if I put it in the wrong position. And a while ago I couldn't even talk. It just wasn't there, you know.
For a few years now, if somebody's called me up and they said, We'll give you a thousand dollars, I've said, No. Make it two and a half and I'll think about it. I'll ask them for sort of a ludicrous amount, and if they're silly enough to pay it, I'll do it, you know what I mean?
I was actually asked to wrestle up in some show near Birmingham either yesterday or the day before. And I said, No thanks. I don't want to do it. And that was just maybe yesterday or the day before. I told him, No thanks.
You know, it's funny, because I felt all through my life, from the first time I started, I might be standing in the ring and I'd think to myself, One day I'm going to be doing this for the last time. And that was like a kick from a bloody mule in the guts, because I said to myself, I can't imagine life without it. Not at all. It was like sort of contemplating death itself, that one day I'd be standing in the ring and aware that this is the last time I'm ever going to do this.
It's been a nightmare all through my life. And now I don't get it.
For years, I was wrestling every night. Occasionally I was even wrestling two and three times in one day. What made us slow down wasn't me as a wrestler; it was the promotions. The promotions sort of slowed down, and a lot of the promotions went under.
When I first came to the States, you could wrestle in an area as long as you wanted. When you felt like a change, you'd pick up the phone, especially if you were the kind of quality wrestler that I was. If I wanted to go anywhere, I'd just pick up the phone and say, Oh, I was thinking of coming into your territory, and all that kind of stuff, and you just go. You can't do anything like that anymore. It's like the independents used to be back in Britain before you could be a full-time professional wrestler. It's come a full circle.
Really and truly, I think I've had a charmed life, because, like I said, there was no such thing as a full-time professional wrestler in Britain when I wanted to be one. But by the time I prepared enough so I could actually go into the ring and give a good account of myself, that's when the big bubble burst, and it became really popular, and I got my break. And when I got my break was not a day before and not a day after I was prepared and ready for it. Now I'm prepared to say, Fuck it. That's the end of that.
Wrestling's done a full circle, and if I wanted to be a full-time professional wrestler, and I was as fit as I've ever been in my life, unless I wanted to work for a goofy bastard like Vince McMahon, I could forget about it, because the thing is, you can't be a full-time professional wrestler anymore. And it's not me as a wrestler; it's wrestling.
The thing is, wrestling met its demise a long time before I did.
I didn't know what was going to come next and everything like that. It's just a niche that opened, really, because I was making my own costumes. In the past I was asked, Can you make this for me? Can you make that for me? And I'd say, No. There's only one Cinderella. There's only one pair of glass slippers and they only come in my size. I'm not going to make nice clothes for other people and create rivals and things like that. Go and do it yourself. I'm not going to help you.
The thing is, I don't care about the rivals and stuff like that anymore. You know, Vince McMahon has sent people to me to sort of help them to be me. Except that there's only one way to really be me, and that's to go back in time and be born the 5th of December, 1940, during the war in Britain. That's the only way you can really be me.
I would consider myself to be the innovator, the one that blazed that sort of trail. I'm not taking anything away from Buddy Rogers or Gorgeous George or people like that at all. I had my own niche, my own sort of way of doing it. But at the same time, if wrestling was more popular and wrestling was more like wrestling instead of like absolute theatrics, then I think that the gimmick or the image I had is too good to waste. I wouldn't resent anybody at all doing it. And, you know, I'd wish them the success that I had. I'm not a selfish person that way at all.
But the thing is, a number of years ago, when there was Goldust doing it, there were reporters from different magazines and everything like that. I mean, my phone never stopped ringing. What do you think of this? What do you think of Goldust doing that sort of thing? And everybody's expecting me to be hostile and sort of bad-mannered and all the rest of it, and I said then, Well, for one thing I think it's too good an image to waste, and he's got more use for it now than I have. And not only that, but look what he's caused. You guys haven't bothered me for years. Now all of a sudden you're all calling me wanting to know what's what. I said, Don't you think he's drawn a lot of attention to me? He's given me another 15 minutes.
I've never met anybody with more passion about professional wrestling than I had.
Rob Trucks interviews people. He was last seen on this site asking questions of Olympic gold medalist and former ABA MVP Spencer Haywood. Before that, he spoke with numerous former NFL players now suing the league over concussions and other head injuries, and residents of Alabama about late Big Star singer Alex Chilton's time in Tuscaloosa. Several of his oral histories with 49-year-old Americans can be found at McSweeney's, and you can follow him on Twitter, @eyeglassesofky.
Top photo by Dennis Hutchinson.