Whether A Dastardly Heel Or A Beloved Babyface, “Lord” Athol Layton Won Titles And Filled Arenas

At 6’5” and 265 pounds, “Lord” Athol Layton cut quite the imposing figure in 1948, the year he became a professional wrestler. Born in Surrey, England in 1921, Layton moved to Australia with his parents at the age of 13. After high school, he served in the Australian Imperial Forces during World War II, where he took up boxing and was the Australian Heavyweight Amateur Champion for two years.

In 1942, Layton married Leah and his son was born later that year. He had known Leah since they were teens, meeting each other for long hikes and picnics. “Athol paid our fares to and from the hiking grounds and my job was to supply the food,” said Leah. “Feeding Athol then was like provisioning a horse. It took all my money, every week.”

After leaving the military, he ran a hotel and bar for several years before stumbling across professional wrestling after a group of boxers and wrestlers came through town and piqued his interest. Included in the carnival with which the men traveled was an attraction where a local man was offered £10 if he could survive either 3 rounds or 10 minutes between the ropes with one of the fighters. After seeing Athol, the promoter of the carnival paid him to not fight, plus an additional £5. A few weeks later, the very same promoter wired Layton to see if he had any interest in joining his group of fighters.

“What I really wanted to do was entertain,” said Layton years later. “That was my fantasy. I even tried acting in Australia, but my size limited me to roles as a heavy. I made up my mind to travel so I turned to pro wrestling.”

Man With Two Hearts

Athol spent the next year boxing while simultaneously training to be a wrestler, fighting all over Malaya and Indonesia before returning home to announce he was headed off to England. While there he was offered a job working for Canadian wrestling promoter Frank Tunney in Toronto. “From London he wrote that the wrestling industry wasn’t thriving too well there and he was thinking of skipping across to America,” said Leah. “The next thing we knew he was in Toronto and—much to our delight and [my] mother’s amazement—we were en route to join him.”

Layton wasted no time in making a name for himself, initially as a babyface. When he set his sights on “Whipper” Billy Watson and his British Empire Championship, everything changed. “I was doing fine [as a babyface] until I wrestled Watson,” chuckled Layton in an interview with the Toronto Sun. “He made me a villain. After a bit, I realized I wasn’t only fighting Watson, I was fighting all of Toronto. I couldn’t win.” So hated did Layton become, the vitriol carried over into his real life, even reaching his son, John.

As Leah Layton tells it, “while Athol was feuding with Bill Watson, our son John was frequently being taunted into schoolyard fights. Those torn shirts and black eyes had me puzzled, for John was a quiet boy who’d always gotten along well at school in Australia. The explanation turned out to be simple enough—all his classmates were militant members of the Whipper Watson Safety Club. My heart ached for John and I wanted to go out each day and walk him home from school. Athol, of course, wouldn’t hear of it. ‘It’s hard,’ he said, ‘but the boy must learn to fend for himself.’”

Though Layton won none of his three championship matches against Watson, his status as a despised heel was secured. Men would throw lit cigarettes at him; elderly women would swing their umbrellas at him as he made his way to the ring. When his wife, Leah would attend the matches, she was routinely pelted with peanuts and doused in beverages.

“That first year in Toronto,” said Leah, “was really my sudden induction into life as a wrestler’s wife, for almost all of Athol’s previous work in the ring had been done a safe distance away.”

High Wire

Over the next few years, Layton would build his name throughout the territories, working for Tunney in Canada,  Sam Muchnick in St. Louis, Fred Kohler in Chicago (where he won the NWA Chicago Tag Team Championship with “Lord” James Blears) and Joe Malcewicz in San Francisco. In late-’53, Layton wrestled the NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion Lou Thesz before a capacity crowd at the Maple Leaf Gardens. Though he would lose the match via disqualification, “Lord” Athol Layton’s star continued to rise.

The following year, his second son, Christopher, was born. Layton and his family spent most of the year in Los Angeles. Again teaming with Blears, the duo dominated the L.A. tag team scene for the better part of a year before Layton, once again, found himself on the move, this time to Buffalo, New York to wrestle for NWA Upstate. Prior to that, Layton also made the decision to fade some of the heat he’d unintentionally put on his family by being such a dastardly heel. “Athol and a colleague, a Lord Blears,” said Leah, “provoked such international ill will thereabouts that a British consular official actually asked them to ease up!” 

The moment that truly sold Layton on the change, however, occurred during his oldest son’s swim meet. “Like all the other parents we cheered each winner lustily,” said Leah. “But when John won a race, Athol and I found we were the only ones applauding. The rest stared darkly at us. John crawled out of the pool and came over to us. ‘Well, Dad, it looks like I’m a heel too.’”

“I certainly saw my share of hostile crowds in those days,” recounted Layton years later. “You had to pass irate fans and run through gauntlets and we were always getting attacked physically. There were times that the same fellows you wrestled had to come to your rescue.”

Down By The Sea

By the summer of ‘56, Layton had found his way to Minnesota, again renewing his feud with Billy Watson. Though Layton would challenge for Watson’s NWA World’s Heavyweight Title, he would come up short, facilitating his next big move, a prolonged stay in Hawaii, or, as his wife called it, “ten idyllic months on the beach of Waikiki.” While there, Layton would team with Tom Rice to win the NWA Hawaii Tag Team Titles.

By late-’58, however, his run in Hawaii was coming to an end and both he and Leah wanted to finally put down roots somewhere, once and for all. Returning to Toronto, the Layton’s bought a home and settled down. With his home base established, “Lord” Athol wrestled primarily throughout Canada, the Maritimes and Detroit for the remainder of his career. He had big runs in Detroit against Dick the Bruiser and The Sheik in ‘62 and ‘63, winning the first of his two NWA United States Titles from The Bruiser.

When he wasn’t wrestling (and due in no small part to his extensive vocabulary) he worked as an announcer for the matches, working for both Frank Tunney and Ed Farhat (the aforementioned Sheik). This would prove out as foreshadowing a career change that would allow him to stay in the wrestling business long after his in-ring days were done. Long before such a change, however, Athol began tagging with Bobo Brazil in ‘66, setting off bloody feuds with the likes of The Sheik, “Killer” Karl Kox and “Sailor” Art Thomas. Brazil and Layton would team for years, winning the NWA World Tag Team Titles from The Texas Outlaws (Dick Murdoch and Dusty Rhodes) in August of ‘70. They would hold the titles for over four months. From there, Layton again picked up where he’d previously left off with The Sheik, defeating the hated heel and winning the NWA U.S. Title for the second time before 7,300 fans at Cobo Hall in Detroit on December 19th, 1970. The Sheik would prove to be the biggest foil of Layton’s career, as from ‘63-’75, the two men would war hundreds of times, packing houses all over the Midwest and Canada.

Settle Down My Boy

In 1976, an eye injury forced “Lord” Layton to step away from the ring, but he remained a highly sought after color commentator, working in Toronto, Detroit and Cleveland in such a capacity for several years. 

In 1983, Layton was awarded the Ontario Medal for Good Citizenship for his many years of volunteer work on behalf of disabled and underprivileged children. In addition to his work as Imperial Potentate of the Shrine and director of St. Alban’s Boys and Girls Club, he also found a way to set aside his difference with longtime rival, “Whipper” Billy Watson, co-chairing on the Advisory Council for the Handicapped with the former NWA World’s Champion. “There’s so much to do for these wonderful children,” said Layton. “I find great satisfaction with the charities. I was treated so well by the profession. I feel the work I do is putting a little back in.”

“Lord” Athol Layton passed away on January 18th, 1984 at the age of 62 after a life well-lived.

Wrestling Classics Volume 1

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Wrestling Classics Vol 12 Tag Team Special

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