If I was a pre-Copernican, I would believe that the Earth was at the centre of the universe. More specifically, I would imagine that Tameside was at the heart of everything. Of course it isn’t, but it did once boast a Mr Universe.
John Lees was born in Stalybridge and was crowned the Overall Winner of the Mr Universe competition in 1957, having taken part in the competition since 1950.
Mr Universe was a bodybuilding competition, of course, but with overtones of Crufts and the slave market as this excerpt from the Muscle Builder in 1956 illustrates:
Competitors are judged for how they look in a natural, unposed stance as well as for their appearance in muscle poses. The condition of the skin, hair, eyes, teeth are all taken into consideration. How they walk, how they stand, their overall appearance and stage presence are taken into account.
Getting your body into the sort of shape to win the title obviously took a great deal of dedication and in an article published afterwards, John Lees said: “…the sweat and toil had been worthwhile, the unshaking confidence had been justified.”
Born in 1930, the son of a builder, Lees had always been big, indeed he believed he was the biggest baby born in Stalybridge. “Even as a child I thought if I was bound to be big I might as well be as big as I could get.”
His father introduced him to free exercising and at the age of 15, Lees invested in a Charles Atlas course. He had carried the advert around for three weeks before taking the plunge, realising what the ‘investment’ would do to his three shillings a week pocket money.
“It meant that all my precious pocket money I had saved had to be sent to Mr Atlas, but I thought with a chest like that he deserved it, even if it meant making a pauper of me for the next six month!”
After winning Mr Universe, Lees turned to wrestling as a career, a popular ‘sport’ on Saturday afternoon television, Wrestling Heritage recalling commentator Kent Walton drooling over his muscular frame.
Although a skilled wrestler, he lacked the flair to take him to the top of his chosen profession at a time when there were colourful characters like Jackie Pallo, Mick McManus and Les Kellett.
Later in life he opened the Casablanca gym in his home town of Stalybridge and I was a member there for a few years. He was very much a loud and larger than life character and though in his 50s, he hadn’t gone to seed and still had the physique of a bodybuilder.
Casablanca was destroyed in a fire in February 2005. All that remains is the sign in the centre of the photo above.
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