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Billy Two Rivers versus Belfast Cowboy as wrestler sues over Van Morrison album artwork


The contentious album cover

The contentious album cover

Billy Two Rivers

Billy Two Rivers


The contentious album cover

Retired native American professional wrestler Billy Two Rivers is threatening to fight 'Belfast Cowboy' Van Morrison… in the courtroom.

The colourfully-named Two Rivers - who often topped the bill of wrestling bouts in Belfast's Ulster Hall 50 years ago - has thrown his hat into the legal ring by launching proceedings against the millionaire musician and his record company Universal.

The row is over a photograph on the cover of an upcoming album from Morrison, who was nicknamed the Belfast Cowboy by fellow musicians in the US in the 1970s.

The picture, on the sleeve of Roll With The Punches, shows Two Rivers, who boasted a trademark Mohawk hairstyle, grappling with an unnamed wrestler.

But according to Two Rivers' lawyer Michael R Graif, the picture has been used without his client's knowledge or consent.

Two Rivers was one of the biggest names on the circuit around the world in the 1950s and 1960s and frequently took centre stage on ITV World Of Sport's legendary coverage of clashes on Saturday afternoons.

Other stars of the time were Jackie Pallo and Mick McManus, but Two Rivers riled the crowds by wearing a feathered head-dress and performing a war dance before many of his fights.

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After quitting the ring Two Rivers, who's now 82, went on to become the chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake in Quebec, Canada, and led a high profile protest against the expansion of a golf course on to land belonging to the tribe.

But now newspapers and media outlets in North America have been reporting that Two Rivers has launched legal proceedings after hearing that his picture was being featured on Morrison's 37th studio album, which is due to be released next month.

The ex-wrestler's lawyer, who is regarded as one of the top intellectual property attorneys in New York, is quoted in the Montreal Gazette as saying: "This is a pretty simple case. It's an iconic photo of Billy wrestling.

"It's being used on an album titled Roll With The Punches, so I can definitely see why they would want to use that photo, but they're sophisticated parties and they certainly knew, or should have known, that they needed to seek Billy Two Rivers' consent."

Graif filed a lawsuit last week in a New York court claiming, among a number of things, that Two Rivers' right of publicity was violated.

None of the claims have been proved and there's been no response from the Universal Music Group. But one source close to the music industry who knows Morrison and his people said it would be a surprise if they hadn't observed all the licensing regulations in relation to photographs for the album.

"They're usually sticklers for detail," he said. "It would amaze me if they hadn't got clearance for that photograph."

It's not clear who took the picture of Two Rivers, or if the copyright for the image belongs to them.

Two Rivers, who's currently in hospital in Canada, turned to acting in later life and he appeared in a number of movies including Pochahontas: The Legend.

He had a role in the film Black Robe written by Belfast-born author Brian Moore, who adapted the screenplay from his novel of the same name about the tensions between Europeans and native Americans in the 17th century.

He also had a small part in a TV series called Mohawk Girls.

Two Rivers is seeking an unspecified amount of compensation over the photograph on the album cover, as well as punitive and exemplary damages, and legal fees.

Graif told CBC's Daybreak programme that he hoped the case could be settled without a long court process, but he added: "That's something that is not up to me."

Last night Roll With The Punches was still being promoted heavily on Morrison's official website and Twitter account.

One Twitter user, John Connolly, posted tongue in cheek: "Billy Two Rivers v the Belfast Cowboy. Can't the two of them just sort this out in the ring?"

The new album features Morrison singing his own versions of old blues and soul classics along with five new songs he has written himself.

Other musicians on Roll With The Punches include 1960s icons Jeff Beck, Paul Jones, Chris Farlowe and Georgie Fame.

After the album is released Morrison will be playing a number of gigs in America before returning for shows in Scotland and England, and two in Belfast's Europa Hotel in December.

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