It’s 40 years since Lancashire’s Martin Ruane, forever known as Giant Haystacks, clashed with Big Daddy at Wembley. Both men have passed but while a lot is known about Big Daddy, much less has been discovered about the Giant. Mark Slattery meets his son Stephen Ruane, and finds out what the world’s biggest wrestler was like.
Even today, 40 years after their solo head-to-head bout on ITV World of Sport in front of an audience of 16 million people, everybody knows the names of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. You could see why they – quite literally – stood out.
Daddy weighed some 24 stones and stood 6’3”. Haystacks, at one point, was almost 50 stones and stood 6’11”.
Daddy’s life was well-known and tabloid tittle-tattle. He appeared on This is Your Life, almost had his own TV show, was often on kids’ TV programme Tiswas, and was as much in demand outside the ring as in it. His brother Max Crabtree was the dominant promoter so Shirley –Daddy’s real name – always had an advantage.
Far less is known about Giant Haystacks, who lived in Salford from the age of three, who was often referred to as Luke McMasters, a misnomer because his real name was Martin Ruane.
In the ring, he was clad in a colossal fur jacket worn atop farm-or prison-issue scrubs and sporting a ragged beard. It was not unusual for him to grab the microphone in a rage and bellow angrily, “bring me men, not boys!” Haystacks was disqualified as often for his bad behaviour as he won with his terrifying splash or back-elbow which would incapacitate any opponent unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end.
The real Martin Ruane, however, could not have been more different. “I remember all the screaming and booing when Dad was wrestling. It never fazed him. He loved being the bad guy. My mum and my brothers sat in the audience and cheered him, we were the only ones that did! He’d always know where we were and look over to see us.”
That’s Ruane’s second son of three, Stephen Ruane, now a senior manager for construction giant, BAM. Stephen specialises in sorting out the teething problems large buildings have – some of the biggest and most impressive in the UK. He’s worked on buildings like Manchester’s new commercial icon Spinningfields. His older brother Martin and younger brother Noel were often with him when his dad wrestled.
“Dad drove thousands of miles and often took us with him. “He was nothing like his ring persona. He doted on us. He refused to work on Sundays because he always went to Church.
“He was a big family man. He didn’t go to pubs. He just wanted to be home with us all the time. He loved nothing more than telling stories about his travels and watching old western movies.
“His favourite was The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. He loved all those Clint Eastwood movies. Sometimes he’d whistle that theme walking into the ring.
“He never once raised his voice or a hand. That all came from mum[Rita]; she could be quite fiery! ”
Although his fierce persona was for show, and wrestling involved as much theatre as it did genuine physical athleticism, (“We had a gym in our basement and dad used this for lifting weights; the machine he used was bolted to the wall but it did not take him long to pull it off!”) there’s no doubt it was a tough business.
“Some fights got very heavy. A wrestler called Andre the Giant was being too rough with dad in one fight and taking liberties. Dad would never deliberately hurt people more than the fight required, but that day he injured Andre so that he had to take timeout to recover afterwards.”
“Dad had real injuries too: headcuts, broken fingers, broken ribs. But he was unbelievably strong. At the flick of a switch, he could lift a car.”
All three of Martin Ruane’s sons work in construction, a job which was one of many occupations their father tried before he discovered wrestling.
“Noel founded his own construction company and now works in London a lot, building luxury apartments. Martin works with him. I trained as a joiner and worked with him too for a while, but like dad, I prefer being nearer to my family so I found a job that allows me to do that.
“My dad worked on construction sites with my grandad who did groundworks. He drove lorries and was a doorman, but it was quite a notorious time in Manchester then. ”
Stephen, aged 53 now lives in Rochdale with his wife Ashleigh and their grown-up family. His own construction work has involved creating some of Lancashire’s most impressive new buildings such as the new Ivy restaurant, and Runcorn’s latest industrial premises for chemical giant Inovyn, among others.
He remembers one of their father’s few luxuries was a nice car.
“Dad turned up to school one dayand picked us up driving a brand-new Cherokee Jeep. It was massive. It was so big he couldn’t park it in our road, let alone on the driveway! He had to park it around the corner. There was a bit of jealousy. People where we lived didn’t have new cars in those days.
“He had to drive thousands of miles to wrestle. When I was 17, I’d drive him to bouts myself. I had my first experience driving on a motorway finding the civic hall in Wolverhampton.”
Having a father so well-known could have been difficult for young lads. Did they inherit their dad’s stature?
“Only to an extent. Mum was five-foot-tall, so she evened it out, and while all of us are big men, we don’t have dad’s huge size.
“I’m 19 stone and six-foot-two; my brothers are similar. Noel was into weight lifting and all three of us boxed. Dad taught us a few movestoo – he used to box but couldn’t find many opponents. It looks like his genes simply skipped a generation because my daughter is six foot one, and Noel’s son is six-four.”
Ruane took his young family off on road trips during the summers.
“We’d stop off and eat and go to places like Blackpool Tower, it was a great atmosphere.”
Martin Ruane’s fame in the wrestling ring was worldwide; he’d once wrestled in front of 100,000 people in India. Zimbabwe made him an honourary citizen. It brought him some alternative career opportunities.
He ran his own debt collection business, based mainly on the principle that nobody wanted the publicity of Giant Haystacks turning up on their doorstep demanding money. There was a play, Big Daddy v Giant Haystacks, by Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon which toured British theatres. Ruane even sang three singles, including It’s OK for Santa, featuring a children’s chorus. The best sideline, however, was acting.
“Paul McCartney cast my Dad as a villain in the film Give My Regards to Broadway, and they became lifelong friends.
“When he was filming, he’d spend a few weeks at a time with Paul at Elstree. This was before Linda passed away. They were both very down to earth and just hit it off. Paul had a guitar specially made for my Dad. After Dad died, Paul sent flowers to mum for years.”
Martin Ruane was just 52 when he died. He was buried at Agecroft Cemetery in Salford.
“He’d been asked to tour America which would have been very popular with their audiences but he was diagnosed with lymphoma. It was a massive shock. My dad died in November, 1998. My daughter was born in February that year. She was so tiny, he used to put her in his pocket, and she used to fall asleep on his chest.
“It was devastating when he died. We were all very, very close. Dad was my hero – our hero. He was very caring, very loving, honest and hard working. If there’s one thing we inherited from him, it’s his patience.
“They came from all over the world for dad’s funeral. It shows the respect they had for one another. The same priest who married my parents was there too. ”
Subsequently, Stephen has met Big Daddy’s daughter, Jane Wade.
“Her dad had passed away the year before, and we met Jane at one of the annual reunions. Dad went to a few informal gatherings before they became official. She was very nice and we got on well. I met Big Daddy a couple of times at the venues and he was such a nice man out of the ring.
“I had no idea, when they fought at Wembley in 1981, that Dad was going to lose. He didn’t tell us.” Stephen says that the man known to millions as the wrestling ‘heel’, Giant Haystacks, would have been as proud of his family now as he was then.
“Noel has become a minister at a church in Todmorden. Martin goes to St Sebastian’s. My family goes to St Joseph’s. Mum was very religious too.
“All the kids, eventually, have realised who their granddad was, and have really taken an interest. Noel’s youngest even wants to be a wrestler, and my daughter, who is at University now, is really proud. She says when people find out who her grandad was it sets them buzzing!”