Notorious wrestler now lives quiet life after health scares and hurricanes

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He could pass for any ordinary retiree cutting his grass on some anonymous suburban housing estate.

That is until you notice the tight, brightly-coloured spandex outfit and a muscular physique which, as Aussie chat show host Clive James once famously described Arnold Schwarzenegger, best resembles "a condom stuffed with walnuts".

Meet Adrian Street – aka The Merchant of Menace – who was once the wrestling world's most notorious bad boy and is now mowing his lawn into submission and putting unruly weeds in a headlock.

Now 81, but still impossibly buff for his age, he explained how injury, cancer and hurricanes all contributed to him bidding farewell to his physically-punishing lifestyle in the States for some well deserved down-time back home in the UK.

"I knew that one day I'd have had enough, and I dreaded it like death itself," said the grandad and dad-of-three.

"Then, one day, I was driving 400 miles across country to a show and watching the white lines in the middle of the road whizz past. I just realised, 'That's it, no more'.

"After more than 50 years and about 15,000 bouts I was done.

"I retired undefeated in 2010 after having just won the NWA Alabama heavyweight title at 70. So I'd bowed out under my own terms, which is how I do everything."

And by that point he'd already suffered numerous potentially career-ending scrapes, such as a torn Achilles' tendon – not to mention a life-threatening illness.

"I was diagnosed with cancer in 2001 after I kept coughing up blood," he added from his home in Cwmbran, South Wales – roughly 16 miles from where he grew up in the small Valleys town of Brynmawr.

"The doctor said 'I'm going to give it to you straight – you're not going to make it through his one. You better go home and put your affairs in order'.

"I just told him I wasn't going anywhere because there were still people in the world I'd not p****d off yet. I don't think he appreciated me saying that."

Inhaling secondhand smoke while on the road was thought to be the cause.

It was the same backstage and in the auditoriums too – a thick blue haze would hang under the lights and lit cigarettes would punctuate the darkness like tiny red polka dots.

"So, to this day, I get really offended if anyone lights up around me. In fact, were you to walk in here smoking I'm afraid I'd be forced to make a comeback," Street growled, driving a fist into his palm.

As to why he returned to Wales, he explained Florida was "too hot" and his log cabin was "destroyed twice" by hurricanes.

His wrestling school was also demolished, with "only the ring left standing".

Street – who had a documentary made about his life in 2020, entitled You May Be Pretty, But I Am Beautiful – also recalled how his difficult childhood in the 1940s fuelled his desire to get away and become somebody.

He said his dad, a Japanese POW, was cruel to him but would be "fine to my older brother and sister".

Taken out of school and dragged down the mines at the age of 15 by his pit-worker father – "I hated it, too dark down there, I was born for the spotlight" – the wrestling-obsessed teen ran away to London.

He then worked down the mines at just 15 years old, something he "hated" as it was "too dark" when he was "born for the spotlight".

It was then he ran off to London, before marching into a local promoter's office.

"They took one look at me and decided I was too young, too small at 5ft 6in and too fresh," he said. "They told me to get some amateur wrestling experience under my belt first."

Taking various odd jobs just about kept him afloat, while he lifted weights at the nearby YMCA and watched the local wrestlers sparring from afar.

"Eventually I tried joining in, thinking I was a bit special, but they turned me inside out and upside down," Street laughed.

"I got some rough lessons there. Oh boy.

"I remember the actor Roger Moore, who used to play handball at the same venue, come up to me after watching me get one of my first hidings.

"This was just before he starred in The Saint, and he leaned over and asked me if I was alright.

"To this day I wonder if he meant physically or mentally, because I definitely must have had a screw loose putting myself through all that."

Nevertheless, Street turned out to be in the right place at the right time – the sport of wresting was taking off with TV viewers, meaning wannabe grapplers like him were suddenly much in demand.

"I kidded myself that it was because of my talent, but the truth was they just needed bodies to put in the ring. So, provided you knew how to lace your boots, you were in."

Originally known as Kid Tarzan Jonathan – a throwback from his earlier guise as a boxer – it was then suggested he change his name to Adrian Stewart. Not a good move.

"I told them 'I'm not Scottish – I'm Welsh and proud', so I decided to go by my real name instead," said Street, who decided to emulate the blond, bronzed Adonis look of his American idol, 'Nature Boy' Buddy Rogers.

"I dyed my hair peroxide and bought some powder blue boots which came way up to the knee – not that I could afford them – along with some blue velvet and silver lamé and took them to this seamstress I knew in Brixton to knock me up a fancy outfit.

"I had a 48" chest and a 27" waist and thought, 'Wait 'til they get a load of me'. But all the other wrestlers in the dressing room just laughed and made jokes.

"And the crowds were just as bad – I'd have cat-calls, whistles and people jeering, 'Yoo-hoo Mary, give us a kiss!'

"So I was like, 'Right, if that’s what the silly buggers want then that’s what I’ll give them' and I made my character all the more extreme, skipping around the ring and planting big lip-stick smackers on my opponents’ faces .

"Okay, I didn't get the reaction I wanted but it was still more of a response than anyone else got that night, so I just pushed the envelope further and further."

Once he'd found notoriety, he was quick to return to Wales to rub his doubters' noses in it.

A Sunday newspaper ran a story on him which featured a 1973 photo that became famous. Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller dubbed it "the most important post-war picture ever taken", as it showed a seismic shift in Walesfrom a hub of heavy industry to a significant player in the entertainment age.

Street would eventually leave for the US in 1981 after becoming disenchanted by the state of UK wrestling.

"A promoter called Max Crabtree brought his big horrible, fat, flabby brother – Shirley Crabtree, AKA Big Daddy – out of retirement. Urggh," huffed Street, rolling his eyes.

"Push him on his backside and he'd rock himself to sleep trying to get back up. And don't talk to me about Giant Haystacks either – suddenly I was surrounded by bad actors, not athletes.

"It wasn't like that in America though and I started to rediscover what had made me proud about wrestling in the first place."

A stint in Mexico under the billing Adrian El Exotico gave him the 'Exotic' Adrian Street monicker with which he'd later become known, while he and Linda also started up a successful costume-making business, The Bizarre Bazaar.

Settling on the Florida coast, he created outfits for himself – as well as for a clientele as diverse as WWE legend Mick Foley and Hollywood star Mickey Rourke, who was about to star in his 2008 comeback movie The Wrestler – thereby reconciling with another childhood hobby.

He is now a prolific painter, regularly selling prints of oil portraits online, as well as autographed action figures of himself and other merchandise from back in his heyday. He's also a firm favourite at international fan conventions, the next being WrestleFest in Cardiff this September.

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