THE NEW WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) Papers No. 91-2001
JOBBERS TODAY ARE HUMAN CRASH TEST DUMMIES
(Wrestling: Then & Now, October, 1995)
By Robin Young
Joe Turco, where are you? In my wildest dreams I never thought I’d ever be asking that question. And mean it! Good old Joe Turco. The "Baron." I fondly recall his ring entrance. Tall and lanky, with long flowing black hair, he looked not unlike Tiny Tim. Albeit meaner. As he made his way to the squared circle, he invariably unleashed a torrent of verbal abuse aimed at the nearest spectators. Not to mention the occasional gesture signifying his serious doubts pertaining to said fan’s parentage.
Once safely in the ring, he would awat the arrival of his opponent by leaping around, twirling his moustache, and in general acting like a silent screen baddie about to tie the heroine to the railroad tracks. He proved to be a valiant and noble warrior whose offense consisted of myriad scientific maneuvers, i.e., biting, gouging, kicking, and choking.
His defense consisted of but one: begging for mercy. His overall aura was more than slightly disreputable, which made the "Baron" tag all the more amusing. And therein lies my point. When was the last time you were amused and entertained by a jobber? When was the last time you smiled as you saw a jobber, because you anticipated an entertaining "smash"? Does anybody actually know who the jobbers are these days? They were once an integral part of the "art form." They fulfilled a function much like the old movie character actors. They made the stars look their best. And they were great in their own right, too.
The old jobbers each had a distinctive look, style and personality. And, as a result, they worked differently with every star "face" or "heel" they put over. Which kept the matches from all looking the same. As they do now.
Today the jobbers are all interchangeable. You can’t tell one from the next. And most importantly, they don’t really work at all. They just sell the finisher. They get slapped around, and then do a 360 over a clothesline and that’s that! They’re human crash test dummies! Brave as hell, sure. Lots of broken necks and backs. But why? Today’s jobbers are generic. No individuality at all. I can’t name two!
Twenty-five years ago, watching WWWF, I knew all the "stock company." And I remember them well to this day. To wit: Tomas Marin was a face jobber, an everyman worker that the guy in the street could identify with. Chuck "Popeye" Richards (from Cartaret, N.J.) was a tough, lantern-jawed, tattooed ex-sailor who looked like he would be the last guy left standing after a bar brawl. Lee "Cat" Wong was a short, pudgy Oriental who came to the ring in a get-up like Prof. Tanaka’s. There the resemblance ended. His karate chops were so slow, and landed so softly, they wouldn’t have passed muster at a shiatzu massage class.
Vincente "Bull" Pometti was a big man, near 300 pounds. He came to the ring with curly black hair, a bushy moustache, and "authentic" Argentinian bolos which he would usually swing at the ref for good measure.
"Maniac" Mike Conrad was a rookie jobber, blond and stocky. A good lifter, as "Chilly Billy" Cardille would frequently inform us. Frank "Spaceman" Hickey was an old campaigner with a crazy, full-body spacesuit. Sort of a predecessor to "Max Moon." Only more fun!
Manny Soto was a mid-card face jobber with a strong following in the East Coast. A well built and talented flyer who frequently tagged with stars like Rivera and Morales. Perhaps the best wrestler among them was Angelo Savoldi. He had been a main-event star years before, and was then (circa 1970) finishing out his career as a jobber. He could have tied most stars today in knots! There were others, too, but the aforementioned were the best. They all made for a good card because they provided us so much diversity.
And even though there was never any doubt who would win, the matches didn’t seem to be as one-sided as they do now. Times have changed. Unfortunately.
Come back, Joe Turco, come back.
(Evan Ginzburg continues to churn out Wresling:
Now & Then on a regular basis, plus caps each year with a big, fat annual.
The 136th issue of the longest lived, old-style wrestling ‘zine
just came out, featuring The Fabulous Freebirds on the cover. If you’d like to
subscribe, or learn more, e-mail Evan at email@example.com
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INDEPENDENTS PROVIDE ENTERTAINING LOOK INSIDE
(Winchester IN Star, October 25, 1999)
By Brian C. Brehm
Most fund-raisers involve baked goods, car washes, or raffle tickets. But the one held Saturday night at the National Guard Armory in Winchester involved a lot of pain.
Or so it seemed, at least.
The independent National Wrestling League (NWL) brought its road show to Winchester to benefit the Family Support Group of the Winchester unit of the Virginia National Guard. Proceeds from the evening will pay for a Christmas party for local guard members.
About 350 wrestling fans of all ages poured into the armory to scream, clap, and make hand gestures (many of which were of the rude variety) as the wrestlers tumbled about the ring.
Either these fans hadn’t heard, or they just didn’t care:
Professional wrestling is fake.
For decades, the authenticity of professional wrestling remained an oft-debated mystery. Even now, years after the revelation that wrestling is entertainment and not sport, some wrestlers are still unwilling to openly discuss the fact that wrestling isn’t real.
John Rambo and Headshrinker Samu are two exceptions.
Prior to their bouts Saturday night, Rambo and Samu agreed to talk about the spectacle that Rambo refers to as "athletic acting."
Rambo, 38, of Bethlehem, Pa., won’t reveal his real name, but that’s about the only secret he keeps. In fact, he is so committed to debunking the myths about professional wrestling, he has set up a web site (www.nwlwrestling.com) that reveals the careful planning and scripting involved in wrestling matches.
"I never had a big dream of becoming a professional wrestler," Rambo said.
"My dream was to become a professional football player. But I got hurt playing ball in college. I just lucked into wrestling.
"I started late, when I was 26 or 27 years old. But I hit it off real big," Rambo said. "The last 11 years, I’ve been traveling around the world."
Samu, 35, whose real name is Samu Anoai, said he was practically born into the business.
"I’m a second-generation wrestler. My father has a wrestling school in Hazelton, Pa. I’ve been doing it since I was 15 years old. It’s all I’ve ever done," Samu said.
"History keeps going. My 15-year-old brother is a junior heavyweight champion. And my 7-year-old son is already doing splashes from the top rope," Samu said.
Samu, who lives in Allentown, Pa., is recognizable to most fans of professional wrestling. A few years ago, when he teamed with his cousin, Yokozuma, in the Samoan Swat Team, he was a two-time WWF tag team champion and was featured prominently on the WWF’s nationally televised matches.
Samu said he left the lucrative world of the WWF because it became "a headache. I was just having my kids at the time, and the schedule was hectic. It was 17 days on, three days off. And I fractured my hip, which kind of slowed me down."
Samu’s fame makes it possible for him to earn a solid income from professional wrestling. But Rambo said most other pro wrestlers on the independent circuit, including those in the NWL, have to work full-time, 9-to-5 jobs to fund their "expensive hobby."
For example, when Rambo isn’t wrestling, he’s operating a training school for aspiring professional wrestlers in Hagerstown, Md.
"If I didn’t have the wrestling school, I’d be out working a 40-hour-a-week job."
One reason the pay is low in the independent wrestling leagues is because most bouts, such as Saturday’s match in Winchester, are small, non-televised events. Plus, the wrestlers must provide their own gear and transportation.
"The reason why we do it is because we love doing it," Rambo said. "Whether it’s in front of 100 people or 100,000 people, you still get that same feeling. Even if you just have a couple of fans clapping and cheering for you, it makes you feel good."
"It helps me become closer to the fans and come to places where the WWF or WCW will never get to," Samu said about his fondness for independent wrestling leagues.
Rambo said most wrestlers in the small, independent leagues will never make it to the big time. But many, including him, still keep their eyes on the national spotlight.
"I’ve had offers from the WWF and WCW for the past 10 years. But for my own personal reasons, I’ve decided to take another route. It’s something I will end up doing eventually, because I’ve got a lot of years left and a lot to offer. But right now, I’m making the NWL what it is, what it’s becoming. It’s one of the top independent wrestling leagues in the world."
Rambo and Samu said they are bothered by the current televised wrestling matches of the WCW and WWF, which often push the limits of decency.
"Everyone’s going borderline now. We were yelled at if we even attempted to go as far as they go today," Samu said about his prior career in the WWF.
"They need to realize that little kids are watching, too. I’m just waiting for somebody to say, ‘Enough’s enough.’ "
"What you see on TV, all the T&A and all that stuff, we keep that away from here. Our shows are clean, with none of the gestures or foul language. It’s a show that’s designed for the whole family," Rambo said.
Perhaps the key to professional wrestling is the fact it is, as Rambo said, "designed."
"Professional wrestling is not a legitimate sport where two people go out and compete against each other. What you see out there is entertainment. We know what we’re doing, and we know what the outcomes will be. Your better professional athletes will make it look realistic," Rambo said.
"I don’t know how ‘scripted’ it is," Samu joked. "Somebody’s beating the hell out of me."
Rambo added the referees are also in on the act. "Together, they combine to put on a stage show for the audience to sit there and enjoy."
Despite the pre-planning, accidents happen, and wrestlers sometimes get hurt. Rambo said a missed cue or false step with their opponent can lead to trouble.
"I’ve had my face shattered in eight places, I’ve had broken ribs, I’ve had a busted tailbone, I’ve had a chipped elbow and fractured kneecap. You get hurt constantly," Rambo said. "But 99 percent of the time, the injuries are your own fault because you took an unnecessary risk to impress the crowd."
"I wouldn’t recommend (wrestling) for just anybody to go try in their backyard, like some of these kids do," Samu said.
Rambo said the wrestlers in the NWL are a tight-knit group. In fact, prior to Saturday night’s matches, all the wrestlers were joking together in the dressing room at the National Guard Armory, watching an episode of "Seinfeld."
But the warm feeling of camaraderie seemed to vanish when Rambo, the reigning NWL heavyweight champion, climbed into the ring to defend his title against Slickyboy.
The two men bashed at each other, sometimes hitting their opponent with a wooden ladder or metal folding chair.
However, on closer examination, you could tell the punches were restrained, and any contact made with the other wrestler was done in a way that would not inflict serious pain or physical damage.
So, who won the match?
Rambo, of course.
Because it was in the script.
THE NEW WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) Papers No. 92-2001
CASEY O’DALE WINS FROM RUDY WARNER
(The Oregonian, Portland OR, October 26, 1927
Casey O’Dale, Irish matman of Cedar Rapids, Ia., slammed Rudy Warner, Omaha grappler, to the padded canvas for a clean knockout in their match last night at the Heilig Theater. The limb-locking tussle, one of the most spectacular ever seen here, ended right then and there, with the Irish lad declared a winner, for Warner was unable to come back after a 15-minute rest.
Warner may have forgotten more of the fine art of wrestling than O’Dale will ever know but, on the other hand, there are a few things about the act of manhandling that evidently the Omaha man didn’t know.
Warner, as tricky a grappler has ever stepped on a Portland mat, was no match for O’Dale when it came down to a test of strength.
The Omaha grappler took the first fall after 45 minutes 45 seconds of serious leg pulling. The match ended after 14 minutes of battle in the second fall. O’Dale forced Varner to the mat with a side headlock. When the latter returned to his feet, the Irishman grabbed him with a crotch and body hold and slammed him again for the knockout.
Oscar Vance, who refereed, was forced to caution both men several times for rough work, but he kept the exhibition well in hand at all times.
Tonight’s preliminary was a match between Chet Wiles and William Johnson. There were no falls. Wiles took the decision with a strong finish, making good on a series of head holds and leg splits.
It was announced that Mike Romano, who defeated O’Dale here in the first match of the season, would meet Ira Dern by the Heilig next Wednesday night.
DERN AND ROMANO TO WRESTLE TONIGHT
(The Oregonian, Portland OR, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 1927)
Football has its Red Granges and baseball its Ty Cobbs, boxing its Dempseys and wrestling also boasts of some colorful athletes, pre-eminent among whom is Ira Dern, Salt Lake sheik, who meets Mike Romano in a muscle-grinding tilt at the Heilig Theater tonight. Of comparatively slight build for a heavyweight, the vivid Utahan is catlike, his every movement and his face shines with a deadly battle light when he is on the mat. He is rough and strong and extremely popular with Portland fans. Dern has appeared here in more sell-out engagements than any other visiting wrestler.
In the past two years he has won from such nationally known mat stars as Ted Thye, Al Karasick, Pinky Gardner, Heinie Engel, Mike Yokel, Billy Edwards, John Kilonis and Louis Pergandas. He lost twice in that time, in hairline decisions, to Clarence Eklund and Ted Thye.
One of the most spectacular holds in the mat sport – indeed, the most spectacular – was first used by Dern and has been highly perfected. It is called the airplane spin, in which the wrestler lifts his opponent over his head and whirls the luckless grappler around until he becomes dizzy, then slams him on the canvas. Few victims of this punishing fall ever go back on the mat the same night.
Romano, in his first appearance on a Portland stage, won from Casey O’Dale, herculean Irishman. Romano, who claims the Italian championship of Chicago, has wrestled all the leading heavyweight stars, including Strangler Lewis, Joe Stecher, Earl Caddock, Max Orlando, the Swedish champion; Stan Zbyszko, Gobar the Hindu, Toots Mondt and Howard Cantonwine. He wrestles barefooted.
The bout starts at 9 o’clock. There will be a heavyweight preliminary. Chet Wiles, Portland traffic cop, will referee.
DERN WINS ON FOUL FROM MIKE ROMANO
(The Oregonian, Portland OR, November 3, 1927)
Ira Dern, the handsome Salt Lake City matman, won from Mike Romano, Chicago Italian, on a foul in their wrestling match at the Heilig Theater last night. The match ended when, after each man had taken a fall, Romano gave Dern the knee in the pit of the stomach. That was too much for referee Chet Wiles who, up to that time, had been overlooking considerable more rough stuff than the wrestling law allows. He stepped in while Dern was still writhing on the mat from the effects of the kick and awarded the match to the Salt Lake City grappler.
Romano, from start to finish, tried to turn the bout into a miniature Chicago gang war to the extent of slugging, kicking, biting and gouging. The only thing he didn’t take into the ring with him was a machine gun.
In what little actual wrestling took place Dern had it over his opponent in every department. He started out in the first period by all but twisting Romano’s head off his shoulders with a varied headlock attack in which he slapped on head holds from every position. He also worked a short arm scissors with telling effect. The hold which brought him the first fall in 16 minutes 52 seconds was a wicked leg split.
Romano spent most of the time of the first fall in trying to land a sleep producer on Dern and in making wild gestures at the spectators when warned to cut out the rough stuff by referee Wiles.
The second fall was clocked in 10 minutes 3 seconds by timekeeper George Adams. It was ten minutes of fast and rough work on the part of both men. Dern tried just once to work his famous airplane spin but when he failed to pull it off successfully switched to another headlock attack. After Romano had been treated to a half dozen flying headlocks, the Italian looked as if he was about ready to call it a night but he crossed everybody up by putting Dern down for the fall.
There wasn’t any wrestling science used by Romano in taking the fall. He was behind Dern at the time, with both men on their feet. Romano had his arms locked around Dern’s middle when suddenlyhe brought his locked fists sharply against the Salt Lake City man’s midsection. The force of the blow was enough to knock the wind out of Dern and he flopped to the canvas. Before he could recover Romano had pounced on him and pinned him for the fall.
The third period lasted 6 minutes 2 seconds. It was a repetition of the rough work of the first two periods until Romano, after rushing Dern to the ropes, brought up his knee to the latter’s groin.
In the 30-minute preliminary, Walter Johnson took one fall and a decision from Oscar Olson.
FROM BAD TO WORSE FOR JERRY LAWLER
(Charleston Post and Courier, August 26, 2001)
It's been a bad year for The King.
Several months ago Jerry Lawler got the word prior to a Smackdown taping that his wife, Stacy Carter (The Kat), was being fired in the middle of a storyline, and that he had to be the one to tell her.
Taking the high road, he decided to stand up for his new bride, pack his bags along with hers, and leave behind a high-profile spot as Raw color commentator as well as more than a quarter of a million dollar salary.
Lawler then mounted an Internet campaign to rally support for Stacy, a move that backfired when he posted the e-mail addresses of members of the WWF writing team that reportedly wanted her out.
Following a cooling off period, several attempts to bring Lawler back into the fold aborted at the last minute when it became apparent that the company would welcome Lawler, but not his wife, back into the fold. At the time Lawler said he was puzzled and confused by the fact that the company didn't want Stacy, yet nobody would give him a good reason why she had been fired.
Despite securing a number of weekend independent gigs for the couple, it wasn't the WWF and it wasn't like being in the national spotlight every week.
"Sure, it's all taken a toll, and this has affected us and put a lot of pressure on Stacy and me," Lawler said weeks after leaving the company.
But little did he know that just months after walking out with her, she would walk out on him, asking for a divorce and the end of their one-year marriage and 12-year relationship.
Lawler, 52, says the breakup came out of left field, and that there were no signs that would have led him to believe she was considering such a move.
Stacy, now 29, wasn't out of her teens when the two met at a softball game in Memphis. It was love at first sight, Lawler says, and the two enjoyed a great relationship -- until now.
Last month Stacy went alone to their Florida condo, and when she returned to Memphis, broke the news that she wasn't happy anymore.
"It's not you. I feel the need to be myself," she told Lawler.
"It was a big shocker to me," Lawler said Thursday. "Had I known this was going to happen, I certainly wouldn't have left the WWF. But hindsight's 20-20. I had no way of knowing."
Lawler, whose color spot was taken over by Paul Heyman, saw another member of his family booted when his son, Brian ("Grandmaster Sexay" Brian Christopher), was fired by the WWF in May after being stopped at the Canadian border with illegal drugs.
To add to The King's woes, his cousin, Wayne Ferris, better known in wrestling circles as The Honky Tonk Man, has launched an Internet campaign smearing Lawler's name.
Lawler said Ferris approached him several months ago about staging an Internet "feud," and Lawler told him he wasn't interested. Unfortunately, said Lawler, "that seems to be the only way he can draw attention to himself.
"He's just trying to work an angle on the Internet," Lawler added. "He wrote me an e-mail saying it was just a work. 'Write me back, we can really work these marks with this thing,' is what he said. He gave me his telephone number, but I wasn't even going to acknowledge it."
In recent weeks Ferris has threatened to sue Lawler over what he claims are unpaid video royalties owed to him and others who worked for Lawler's Memphis-based promotion years ago.
"When I read where one promoter says he showered his girlfriend with cars, furs and diamonds, I want to puke," Ferris wrote on his Web site. "I know that is money stolen from the wrestlers. This guy is still selling videos of us and has a weekly TV show where he is making a profit off showing the tapes on TV. I didn't sign a release. Did you? Does he own your work product? No. Is there a statute of limitations? Not if he is currently selling the videos or marketing any tapes."
"Does he think every wrestler can go back and sue everybody they ever wrestled for in the past? I don't even pay any attention to him," said Lawler. "I just ignore him. I haven't even seen one thing that he's written."
Lawler is still appearing on independent shows
and recently added a valet named Donna to his King's Court.
THE NEW WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) Papers No. 93-2001
ANOTHER MAT BOOK IN THE SPOTLIGHT
(St. Petersburg Times, September 10, 2001)
By Jim Varsallone
B. Brian Blair, who rose to prominence as one-half of the Killer Bees tagteam in the WWF, wrote the bookSmarten Up! Say It Right, published by Kayfabe Publishing Co. in St. Petersburg.
"I decided to write this book after Gordon Solie, Jack Brisco and I were at one of our many lunches together, as Jack and I still have a bi-monthly lunch with guests like Buddy Colt, Wade Boggs, Coach Wayne Fonts, Lou Thesz, Don and Dotty Curtis and others," Blair said.
"I had been getting bombarded with questions I've answered in the book: i.e., 'How do you speak carny?'; 'What's a heel or a babyface?' etc., terms used by the announcers and wrestlers on TV that they assumed the fans knew. 'How can I keep up with the day-to-day news about wrestling?'; 'Where can I learn to wrestle?' etc.
"So, I asked Gordon and Jack what they thought about me writing this book, since we were from such a Kayfabe background. Their reply was 'There is no such thing as Kayfabe anymore, Brian. We like the concept'. So I started the writing process."
Drawing from his knowledge, friends and first-hand experiences, Blair's written work is a reference for wrestling fans and wrestler wannabees, providing an inside look at the behind-the-scenes of the biz. The book also serves as a dictionary and encyclopedia of information and wrestling jargon.
"I enjoyed working for almost everyone that I mentioned in the book," he said, "because I was always trying to learn, as I still am today. That's in part where I came up with the saying: You're a product of who told you, who taught you, what you comprehended and how you put it into action."
Blair, who has lived in Tampa for 33 years, wrestled in the WWF during the high-profile, Hulk Hogan era. He also wrestled internationally and spent several years competing for Championship Wrestling from Florida with announcer Gordon Solie.
"I started writing the book in June 2000," he said, "about a month before Gordon Solie's passing. So it took me about six months total."
The book is more informational than autobiographical. "I did not have a ghost writer," Blair said, "but I had a good editor in Diane Marcou, who helped make my words a little more understanding."
Chapters include: an explanation of the jargon used by announcers and wrestlers; a checklist of attributes a successful wrestler should have; instruction in the secret code called "carny," spoken by members of the wrestling fraternity; a list of Web sites, newsletters and magazines to keep you up-to-date on all the current news, scoops and scandals; a list of wrestling schools throughout the country.
"The easiest thing to write about," Blair said, "was the introduction that talks about what I wanted to be and how I got there. The hardest thing to write about was where 75 percent of the real blood comes from."
The book also contains a humorous audio carny lesson. Blair self-published the book through his attorney, Brad Wood. Also 50 cents from the sale of each book will go to the CAC (Cauliflower Alley Club) for the benefit of retired wrestlers in need.
"I reside in Tampa with my wife of 15 years, Toni, along with our two 'Killer Bees', Brett, 9, and Bradley, 6. I also manage Bradley's baseball team and have helped coach Brett four years. I stay very active in the community, speaking at schools for the FCA and doing as many charity functions as I can."
At age 10, Blair's family moved to Tampa. He graduated from Tampa Bay Tech High School before entering the University of Louisville on a football scholarship. He has lived on his own since his 16th birthday. "My parents were divorced when I was 12," he said. "I am the eldest of four siblings. This in itself is a long story. We moved to Florida when I was 10, and I'm glad we did. I truly love our community and am always doing what I can to participate in community functions. Gary, Ind., was a tough place to live the first 10 years of my life."
Recovering from injuries, Blair competes on the indie wrestling scene in St. Petersburg and Tampa. He had an old school feud with veteran grappler Steve "Gator" Keirn, and the cover photo of the book shows Keirn biting a bloody Blair in a photo by the IPW's Shannon Rose. If you are interested in purchasing the book, or for more information, go to www.smartenupnow.com
WRESTLINGOBSERVER.COM INTERVIEWS KOWALSKI
(www.wrestlingobserver.com, September 12, 2001)
By Alex Marvez, firstname.lastname@example.org
Wladek "Killer" Kowalski already had done it all in the wrestling business. Wrestle more than 8,000 matches in 26 years as a headliner around the world. Train such World Wrestling Federation stars as Triple H, Chyna, Albert and Perry Saturn. Ink a pro wrestling column for the Boston Herald. And now, Kowalski has officially made his mark as a photographer. Killer Pics is a 112-page book of images (wrestling and non-wrestling) captured in his world travels. In the following interview, the 75-year-old Kowalski discusses his photography, his view on today's industry and some colorful anecdotes from his wrestling days. Ordering information for Kowalski's book and accompanying video are below.
Q: How did this photo project get going?
Kowalski: "I had a hobby as photographer. As I got to do more photography, I got pretty good. I would carry the camera with me around the world and start taking pictures here and everywhere. When I would go to New York, I used to surprise some people. I would go to the roof of one tall building and take pictures down Broadway ... I had a big imagination, too, with the photos I took of some of the wrestlers. Chief Jay Strongbow I had sit like a real chief. He had never had his picture taken like that before. George Steele I helped make famous with the picture I had taken. I had an idea, so I found a broken-off piece of wood under the grandstands. George put some of the wood on his tongue and held the rest of it like he was about to chop somebody. That photo was published nationally by (the Associated Press), but I never got credit or paid for it."
Q: Did you ever think your photos would be published?
Kowalski: "No, I didn't. There was this one fellow, Jeff Archer, who was doing a book (Theater in a Squared Circle). He asked if I had any pictures. I sent him some pictures and he said he was amazed. He contacted some people in Colorado who were publishing the book and they said they wanted to see some more stuff I did. They were amazed what I was able to do in my day. They contacted me and wanted to pick up all the negatives. Over the years, I had traveled so much and taken so many pictures and had so much film that a lot of it I put aside and couldn't find when it came right down to it. After 35 years of travel, you’re going to lose some of them. I never kept a lot of junk. I was single and owould travel and leave stuff here and there. Unfortunately, some guy is going to find some of my stuff in their basement some day."
Q: Do you have a favorite photo?
Kowalski: "Not really. I thought they all were pretty good. Some I had taken in the dressing room of different arenas. The poses were my idea. I would use my imagination so I was able to take some very fine pictures."
Q: What are your thoughts on the state of wrestling today?
Kowalski: "I do not watch wrestling at all. I just don't. When I did, I saw a three-minute match and talking for half an hour. In my day, it wasn’t about talking. It was about your performance in the ring. You had to have tremendous conditioning … One time I was touring California, and I was going to retire in a couple of years. There was a big bodybuilder who I was going to wrestle. I walked out of the dressing room first and people started booing me because they knew me and I was hunched down like an old geezer. He started walking over with his big muscles and people start cheering for him. Four minutes into the match, he was breathing hard. Ten minutes in he said, ‘I quit.’ The referee told me and I said, ‘Screw him. I’m not even warmed up yet.’ I kept up on him. After 15 minutes, he was crawling on his hands and knees and went under the ring to throw up twice on the floor. I kept going on him. I pulled him up by his ankles so people could see. Finally, the referee said, ‘Walter, he’s turning blue and dying.’ They brought him back to the dressing room."
Q: Can you talk about some of the big-name wrestlers you have trained?
Kowalski: "I’m proud of the fact I was able to convey to them what I knew and how I knew it. Perry Saturn came to me in 1991. He said he had heard about a big Pollock who ran a big wrestling school. He picked things up very well. Triple H came down and started. He was a trainer in a big gym in New Hampshire. He picked things up real quick."
Q: You also used to write a wrestling column for the Boston Herald, right?
Kowalski: "Yes, for a year-and-a-half or two years until a new editor came in who hated wrestling and dropped it altogether. People complained and wrote letters to the Herald about Killer’s column being the only reason they bought the paper. Do you want to hear a good story?"
Kowalski: "I was on an airplane with Haystack Calhoun in 1963. Eight of us were flying to Tokyo. It was guys from Toronto and Mexico and we all met in L.A. At that time, the airplanes didn't have the range they did today. You had to refuel in Hawaii. When we got there, we had one hour before the plane took off again. When we were ready to re-board, Haystacks said, ‘I could live here forever. I drank a quart of papaya juice, a quart of pineapple juice and a quart of guava juice.’ I was like, ‘Holy mackerel.’ I was on the plane sitting and reading magazines when the stewardess runs by in panic and goes into the cockpit. She came running back again. Haystacks had got sick as shit. He got stuck (in the restroom). What I saw was one wrestler standing on a seat on one side of the aisle with a blanket held up and another holding a blanket up blocking the entrance to the galley. What a stink! When they dropped the blanket, my goodness, there was Haystack nude standing over a mailbag. Someone asked me what was going to happen to the mailbag. I said, ‘I think he should mail it back to the wrestling office.’
"Here’s another one. I was wrestling in Austin one night and the next morning left for Corpus Christi. I always arrived early, and when I got there, I saw a big poster for the matches. It was Killer Kowalski vs. Johnny Valentine in the main event. But there also was a special handicap match involving two guys and Ivan Putski vs. a 600-pound bear. I walked in the room with the wrestlers and had a jar of honey because I would take a tablespoon before my matches because it energizes your body. I closed my wrestling bag when everyone walked in. I told the promoter I needed a favor because the bear slobbers in the ring and sheds hair. I asked if he could put the bear on last after my match. He said that would be no problem. When I finished my match, there was an intermission and they got the bear out. He was in the ring slouched down with his paws in front and his head bowed down and he was slobbering. He was hungry. Any animal after you feed them are going to take a nap. It’s the same with the bear. He knows that if he performs well he’s gonna get fed after. Ivan let the two others go in the ring first. While they were standing in corner shaking because they were frightened of the bear, I took the top off the jar of honey, scooped my hand into it, wiped some on his ass and told him to go get ’em. The bear could smell the honey two blocks away. While Ivan was walking down the hallway flexing his muscles, the bear had reared up on his hind legs and started clawing at the air in Putski’s direction. When he was going into the ring with one leg over the second rope, the bear lunges straight out and grabbed him by the leg. He turned him on his stomach and started licking him with his with tongue. The other two guys were frightened to death because they thought the bear was tasting him before he ate him. They ran out of the building. Putski finally got away. The people were cheering for it all. Putski came back to the dressing room and said, ‘He (The Bear) loves me!’"
Q: Are you still training wrestlers personally?
Kowalski: "I go down four days a week. At my age, I don't demonstrate the holds any more. The other guys help me. But the other day, I thought of a new move. One guy was pinning another guy when I said, ‘Stop and do this.’ I told him that when he was pinned to put a claw on his pectoral and squeeze. The other guy jumped off and screamed, ‘You can't do that in the ring.’"
Q: Would you say the Yukon Eric story will mark your wrestling legacy?
Kowalski: "He had a very bad cauliflower ear. I tied his leg over the second rope and I was going to jump down across his chest with my shin. He saw me coming but the referee had gotten underneath me trying to untie his leg. He saw me coming and tried to turn away. That’s how that happened. That was on a Wednesday. Every Friday we would get paid. The promoter told me to go to the hospital to apologize. I’ve never apologized for anything but this thing was different. I went into the doorway and saw him and start laughing before walking out. In the papers the next day, it said, "Wladek Kowalski comes to the hospital and laughs at Yukon Eric.
"We wrestled in return matches all over the country. One time, I wrestled him in Illinois at an outdoor show. He walked out and said we had a lousy house. I said, ‘You know what then? We’re gonna have to cut off your other ear.’"
Killer Pics costs $47.50 and can be ordered by telephone at 1-800-382-7922 or the internet at http://www.White-Boucke.com/kpics.html. An accompanying 50-minute video is available for $19.95 at the same telephone number or at http://www.White-Boucke.com/video.html.
Alex Marvez's weekly pro wrestling column can be found in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Denver Rocky Mountain News, Biloxi Sun-Herald and a host of other newspapers that subscribe to the Scripps-Howard News Service.
THE NEW WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) Papers No. 94-2001
MAN MOUNTAIN DEAN, 63, DIES OF HEART ATTACK
(United Press, May 29, 1953)
NORCROSS, Ga. – Frank S. Leavitt, huge, colorful, onetime wrestler known as "Man Mountain Dean," died at his Georgia country home today of a heart attack. He was 63.
The bearded giant who pioneered the current vaudeville type of wrestling had not been ill. His wife, Doris, was with him when he died.
The Man Mountain came out of New York’s lower East Side to enjoy a long and never dull career as a football player, wrestler, soldier, bodyguard, sergeant-at-arms, movie actor, and, finally, politician.
He wrestled 6,783 matches and in his heyday commanded between $500 and $1,500 for each mat performance. He was a longtime darling of Hollywood where his thick beard was one of the first gaudy trademarks of showman wrestling.
He began wrestling in New York in 1916 and the late Damon Runyon dubbed him the "Hell’s Kitchen Hillbilly."
Leavitt began his hillbilly role and came south for his fights. Sportswriter Ed Danforth of Atlanta gave him a new nickname, Stone Mountain Leavitt, after the big rock near here.
Leavitt then went abroad where Stone Mountain became Man Mountain and he took on Dean as a last name. He was Man Mountain Dean from then on.
Leavitt played professional football against some of the greatest performers, including Jim Thorpe. He was a member of Charley Brickley’s New York Giants’ pro football team in 1919-20.
He often bragged that he played football for five colleges and never went to a class. Yet, he graduated from the Atlanta division of the University of Georgia school of journalism at the age of 60.
At 61 he ran for Georgia congressman but was defeated. He also ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature.
MANSLAUGHTER FOR MAN WHO KILLED MIDGET WRESTLER?
(United Press International, February 14, 1981)
BUFFALO, N.Y. – A jury is expected to begin deliberating a manslaughter charge next week against a 210-pound man who claims he accidentally shot and killed a midget wrestler because he was afraid the 80-pound victim would kill him.
Testimony in the Erie County Court trial of Noe Diaz Rodriguez ended Friday, with the 6-foot-1 Rodriguez telling the jury he was waving a .38 caliber revolver at 4-foot Juan "Chico" Morales when the gun accidentally fired.
Rodriguez, 26, former owner of the Puerto Rican Athletic Club, testified that he feared the 45-year-old Morales – who he alleged had a reputation of "abusing people" – was going to climb over the club’s bar and kill him.
Rodriguez said he had acquired the weapon only hours before the Sept. 7, 1980 killing, and did not know how it went off.
Rodriguez also claimed Morales – once a participant in midget wrestling matches – had stabbed a man in the Hudson Street club two weeks before the shooting, and had been thrown out of the club the day he was killed for exposing himself to customers.
The defendant testified that he drank 36 7-ounce bottles of beer and eight mixed drinks during the 10 hours before the shooting.
Police said Rodriguez fled the shooting scene and was later arrested in Atlanta, where authorities intercepted him on a flight to Puerto Rico.
Rodriguez originally was charged with murder in the case.
Prosecutor Paul McCarthy said about two dozen people were in the club when the shooting occurred, but no one has admitted seeing it.
BRAZIL SOCKING IT TO TRADITIONAL MARTIAL ARTS
(Washington Post, Saturday, September 8, 2001)
By Anthony Faiola
ITAIPAVA, Brazil -- Standing on the veranda of his vast ranch in a fighting kimono and black belt, Helio Gracie, 89, looked like Yoda meets Bruce Lee. "Strangle me!" he commanded. "Go on, take your best shot."
His guest politely declined, but Gracie would not take no for an answer. Not for nothing has he earned renown from Rio to Tokyo as the grandfather of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Even in Brazil, Latin America's largest nation and the most important martial arts center outside Asia, Gracie's skill is still rivaled by few, and his persistence by fewer.
"What? You think I'm fragile, eh?" barked the father of six black belts. "Don't make me laugh."
Reluctant hands enclosed the aged flesh of his throat, quickly tightening as the old man scoffed. But in a flash, he employed the trademark moves he first used more than 70 years ago when creating Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Planting his feet solidly on the floor, Gracie surged his bony hands upward with all the force of his balanced weight, breaking the grip on his throat and twisting back his attacker's arms with ease.
Such moves have allowed the Napoleon-size old master to overwhelm men twice his size through leverage and balance. They amount to a reinvention of the Japanese martial art.
"The Asians are famous for taking electronics and car designs and making them better," he said, laughing. "Well, we pulled the same trick. The Brazilians took their ancient martial arts and perfected them."
His is not idle bragging. In the martial arts, Brazil has become the new kid to knock your block off, thanks in large part to the Gracie clan. Here and abroad, Gracie's Brazilian jiu-jitsu has turned him and his sons into legends with their own line of posters, a monthly magazine and even trading cards.
Mechanics at gas stations who once lined their walls with pinups now sport action shots of the Gracies. In the United States, where three of Gracie's six sons have opened jiu-jitsu academies, Gracie's progeny are teaching their father's techniques to actors Nicolas Cage and Jim Carrey and to director Guy Ritchie, Madonna's husband. Over the past decade, the Pentagon, the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement agencies, including Maryland's Howard County Police Department, have contracted with Gracie's sons for courses in Brazilian-style combat and self-defense.
Martial arts experts say this nation of 170 million people has emerged as a world leader in the evolution of controlled hand-to-hand combat. Brazil, unlike most other nations in the Western Hemisphere, has a history steeped in the martial arts. Capoeira -- the only New World martial art -- was created by Brazil's African slaves in the 16th century and is now practiced professionally in at least 16 nations. Brazil is also a powerhouse in traditional Asian martial arts, having won various gold, silver and bronze medals in judo during the last three Olympic Games.
But the Brazilians, renowned for fusing foreign music with their own to create new sounds such as bossa nova in the 1960s, have done the same with Asian fighting styles. They did it by removing much of the spirituality and strict rules used in Asia, substituting technical innovations and a dose of hot-blooded aggression.
The "Brazilian School" has given rise to the controversially violent "no rules" fighting tournaments so popular here and now en vogue on U.S. pay-per-view channels. At the same time, the international success of local black belts has popularized Brazilian martial arts institutes in cities such as Boston, Madrid, London and Buenos Aires.
"The martial arts have become like music and soccer in Brazil," said Bernardo Conde, anthropologist and martial arts specialist at Rio de Janeiro's City College. "As Brazilians have innovated the martial arts, they've become one of our most successful cultural exports."
Since Brazilians tend to be slight of build, many have embraced the martial arts for personal safety and bragging rights in a nation with harsh urban violence, a Wild West-like frontier and a strong tradition of machismo. Many Brazilians, especially men, boast a swaggering mentality, admiring things big, dominant and extreme. Toss in a Los Angeles-like obsession with health and fitness, and martial arts fit the bill.
"If another man looks at your wife in the United States, you go and file a lawsuit, but in Brazil, you go and get in that guy's face," said Rorion Gracie, Helio Gracie's eldest son, who runs a Gracie Academy near Los Angeles. "If you're the smaller guy, you better know a martial art."
The popularity of martial arts here is evident along the streets of major cities. In Sao Paulo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, karate and judo schools have become ubiquitous. Afro-Brazilians with rippled abdomens practicing Capoeira, a highly acrobatic martial art that combines elements of African dance and music with combat, dot the white sandy beaches in the northeastern city of Salvador. More than 40,000 Rio residents practice Brazilian jiu-jitsu, sports authorities here say.
But what began as self-defense, critics say, has morphed into what some call a social menace. In Rio, for instance, a subculture of young, upper-class jiu-jitsu experts -- called "Pit Boys" for their aggression -- has become notorious in the local media for acts of violence, especially against gay men.
"Brazilian jiu-jitsu is not about self-defense. It is about the practice of violence," said Eugenio Ibiapino, a board member of Rio's Center Against Homosexual Discrimination. In one high-profile incident last year, one of Helio Gracie's great-nephews was involved in a jiu-jitsu attack against transvestites.
Brazilian gay rights leaders say that at least one in 10 incidents of gay-bashing in Rio, a city of 12 million, is related to jiu-jitsu fighters. "Anyone who says the Gracie family are sports heroes couldn't be further from the truth," Ibiapino said.
At Rio's 7,000-member Gracie Academy, Royler Gracie, one of Helio Gracie's jiu-jitsu champion sons, insisted that his family members are opposed to using their techniques in street attacks. They try, he said, to root out "bad seeds." But bad and goods seeds still sprout. And for better or worse, they were planted by Helio Gracie.
Born in Belem at the mouth of the Amazon in 1912, the son of a foreign service officer, Gracie grew into a slight and sickly teenager. But then Maeda Koma came into his life.
The Japanese immigrant who had sought his fortune in an Amazon gold rush ended up teaching Japanese jiu-jitsu. Gracie signed up and practiced nonstop, but he could not beat his larger opponents. Gradually he formulated a new theory.
Asian jiu-jitsu has always included leverage, but at more advanced levels, power and physical prowess also became important. Martial arts experts say Gracie changed that by perfecting new ways to balance himself and employing new forms of leverage that further reduced jiu-jitsu's reliance on size and strength.
Discovering strategic spots on his body -- on his feet, hands, knees -- he braced himself in ways that allowed him to generate greater force. He quickly began winning prizefights and incorporating other martial arts moves into what would become Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He rose to massive fame, particularly after winning what is widely considered the world's first "no rules" fighting tournament in Rio de Janeiro in 1932.
His sons followed in his footsteps, earning the clan greater acclaim. His sons do most of the fighting these days, but eager students are still willing to pay the old master more than $100 an hour for private classes. Gracie teaches now and then, but mostly he enjoys watching his black-belted boys.
"I've rendered a lot of men unconscious in my day," said Gracie, reminiscing at his ranch here west of Rio. "And I am proud when I see my sons do the same today."
THE NEW WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) Papers No. 95-2001
HARVEST TIME IN THE THICK-NECK FIELDS OF MONGOLIA
(New York World-Telegram, Wednesday, July 8, 1931)
By A.J. Liebling
Mr. Jack Pfefer admits he is an outstanding example of mind over matter.
Mr. Pfefer weighs 130 pounds when carrying the ivory-headed cane presented to him by Ghafoor Khan, and he is in the business of capturing, importing, instructing and browbeating wrestlers who run about six to the ton. Run they do, when Mr. Pfefer rages.
"They got it here," he admits, tapping his negligible biceps. "But," he adds coyly, stroking his lank raven locks, "I got it here. They need me, but I don’t need them. I know where they grow."
The brain over brawn man, who is an unsilent but unpublicized associate of Jack Curley, does not blush as he admits responsibility for the Bonecrushing Bohemians, the Mighty Magyards, Stupendous Syrians and Colossal Cossacks who make night hideous with their grunts and groans on mats all over the eastern United States.
His blushing faculties have been atrophied for years – to be exact – since the period when he dined in public with Ivan (the Terrible) Poddubny, his first wrestler.
Besides, he is a Robin Hood. His chief interest is music, and the money which he wrings from defenseless Mankilling Mouzhiks he advances to stranded Russian opera singers. As there has been a bear market on Russian opera singers for a long time, Mr. Pfefer must soon make another trip to the Old World in search of eighteen-inch necks and ears like electric light bulbs.
His method in these expeditions he set forth today between telephone calls to one of his wrestlers to get ready to go to Boston, and calls to the Boston promoter (with reversed charges, of course) to explain he couldn’t find the wrestler and didn’t want the match anyway unless there was more money in it.
The explorer sets out for the barrel chest country by the small boats of the Hamburg-Packet-Aktien-Gesellschaft or one of its competitors, and penetrates into the interior in the litters of the Compagnie des Wagons-lits.
Establishing himself behind a stockade of beer glass pads in some kraal such as Praha, Lodz or Nishni-Novgorod he awaits reports from native beaters. When he receives tidings of a huge bull wrestler tearing up the lamp posts in an adjoining sanjak, he hastens to the scene equipped with a derby hat and a picture of Mae West.
According to Mr. Pfefer no wrestler can resist the combined appeal of sartorial elegance and the big blonde style of beauty. Once Mr. Pfefer gets the derby tightly over the wrestler’s ears, preventing a belated development of the embryo brain, he holds the picture in front of the captive’s nose and walks rapidly until he gets to the boat, and the wrestler follows him with docility.
"Then comes the hard part," he relates bitterly. "Me, a rabbi’s son and a musician, I get to study such a bum’s sickness. Every wrestler has a sickness. One has a sickness for a woman, one has a sickness for prune brandy, one" – a note of horror crept into his voice – "wants all the time money, but nearly all they got a sickness for eating. When you understand the sickness, you can manage. Keep him happy and he will wrestle like a contented cow.
"Only sometimes the overhead is terrible," he reflected bitterly. "Kalmikoff, for instance, the Siberian I got now, with the whiskers. When it began to be hot weather, I thought he would not maybe eat so much. But he eats every day two watermelons on top of the seven meals, and what they charge you for watermelons in Pullman diners I hate to think of it.
"And Poddubny, my first wrestler, a great drawing card but nobody could afford to feed him. Hackenschmidt would never wrestle with him. He was too terrible. He was the most terrible man in the world.
"Three words English he knew, ‘ham and eggs.’ I took him to a restaurant in Chicago. For ten hours he said ‘ham and eggs.’ When I told him in Russian we could not pay, he wanted to hit me, a little boy like me. So I had to give an I.O.U. and he ate all night.
"Then I made him buy his food in a grocery store. Every morning he would bring back to our room sacks, bundles, like an army. Only such a strong man could carry such bundles. Before lunch he would have to go and buy some more.
"He would make a salad of fifteen heads of cabbage and twelve hard boiled eggs. Such a terrible man. I got him a ticket to Russia, and they have been starving ever since.
"But this year I am planning to go to a country where nobody has gone for wrestlers." The mobile countenance of the sporting Hagenbeck flashed new animation.
"It is a very ancient, a very historical country, between China and Russia and Japan. It is called Mongolia, and there they have men 8, 9 feet tall. Four hundred pounds there is considered a welterweight.
"I will take with me an interpreter and a derby that was made for Harry Richman, and in the fall I will bring back a Mongol Mastodon. Such a big fellow I won’t even need to teach wrestling. He will pick up Hans Steinke like a tiny baby."
"But, won’t he eat twice as much as the other wrestlers?" asked a visitor.
"Ha," said the genius of import trade. "Sure he will eat a lot. But only rice, which it is so cheap that maybe if he throws Jim Londos early in the winter I could even afford to buy him another derby."
COX IS PINNED BY CLIFF OLSEN IN ROUGH MATCH
(Washington Post, Friday, October 22, 1937)
The creation of a new grip won the feature match for Cliff (Swede) Olson last night at Joe Turner’s weekly wrestling show when he hurled Kansas Joe Cox from the ring with such force that his leg was trapped in a folding stationary seat of Turner’s Arena.
Olson was awarded the match when Cox was disqualified after being counted out of the ring for 10 seconds. And at the conclusion of the count it took several policemen to break the vice-like hold upon Cox’s leg. Spectators seeking a better view crowded into the ring expecting to see Cox, apparently suffering excruciating pain, destroyed. It took five minutes to free the villain.
Clara Mortensen, women’s champion, successfully defended her title by disposing of Maria Gardina in two out of three falls of a return match. Clara won with a series of spins and a body press after five minutes of the third fall.
Chief Thunderbird, Vancouver, took his usual beating, then went into his war dance and pinned Jack Hader, Kansas, in 5 ½ minutes with a Japanese arm lock, and Hans Steinke, Germany, threw Jake Patterson, Syracuse, with a crotch hold in 14 ½ minutes.
In the opening bouts, Karl Davis won from Walter Podolak in 15 minutes with a Japanese lgeg lock and Leo Mortensen, Clara’s brother, won in his debut from Jim Morris, Chattanooga, in 15 minutes with a body press.
(Minneapolis Morning Tribune, Thursday, March 20, 1952)
By Dick Cullum
The phone here has been buzzing with hot words from wrestling fans who went to the auditorium Tuesday night.
A few have been contending they are entitled to get their money back because of what happened.
Here is the story. Referee Kostas Davelis interceded when Bronko Nagurski was giving Fred Von Schacht some rough rope-butts, an illegal maneuver. Nagurski, facing the referee, and gesturing freely, was attempting to justify his actions.
Von Schacht sneaked up behind the Nag, struck him and barreled into him in such a way that the Nag’s gesturing fist hit the referee in the face.
Upon arising, the referee disqualified Nagurski on the grounds that it calls for automatic disqualification when a contestant strikes a referee.
Davelis, being a little fellow and entirely screened off by Nagurski, did not know that Von Schacht, and not Nagurski, had furnished the momentum for the knockdown blow.
What’ll they think of next?
But about this money-back business – I dunno.
If a precedent were set by which the fans could get their money back whenever a referee, umpire or judge made a mistake there would be long lines at the box office after every boxing, basketball, baseball, football or wrestling contest in the country.
I guess bad officiating is just one of the things you are entitled to for the price of admission.
FOR THE RECORD
(Bergen NJ Record, Monday, October 18, 1960)
By Al Del Greco
Willie (the Beard) Gilzenberg retired a year or so ago to Miami Beach but he’s not lolling under palm trees.
"The action’s up here," said Willie, "and I’ve got to hustle for the buck. How else can I keep my wife Lil in the style to which she is accustomed and my partner, Babe Culnan, with enough scratch to throw away on the gee-gees?"
The firm of Gilzenberg and Culnan, with Fort Lee’s Charlie Hoffman sharing in some of the shows, is mighty busy in the wrestling dodge. If it weren’t for them, the New Jersey State Athletic Commission would be out of business.
Week after week, various hamlets and cities in New Jersey get a view of such assorted characters as Bearcat Wright, Nature Boy, Killer Kowalski, Mike Mazurki, Antonino Rocca, Eddie Graham, Mr. America, the Kangaroos, etc.
"The fans really go for it," said Gilzenberg. "For awhile it slumped, then business picked up. Unlike some of the other sports, TV helps our business. The fans see Kowalski maul some guy in Chicago and they batter down the doors when we book him.
"The newspapers help us out grudgingly. We can book the best attraction in the business and if we don’t put in paid ads to let the fans know about it, we’re sunk. These same papers, mind you, would go all the way with us if we were promoting a lousy fight.
"Something always pops up to help the gate," continued Gilzenberg. "First, there was Mr. America and a run of peroxide-blonde boys. Then Antonino Rocca came in from the Argentine and did great business because he is really and truly a great athlete. He had his run and just when things were falling off a bit, Perez came from Puerto Rico and you never saw such wild fans. Now we’ve got a big boy by the name of Bearcat Wright from Kingston, Jamaica, a hot attraction for the Negro fans.
"When and if Wright and Rocca get together, they’ll break box office records all over the country. There has been talk that they’ll go outdoors in New York. And this isn’t just silly gossip, believe me."
There’s no question about wrestling’s being a bigger draw than boxing. Every time the grunters and groaners get a Madison Square Garden date, the S.R.O. sign goes up early.
The sports draw from entirely different crowds. The shenanigans of a wrestler would dismay the boxing fan, who, more often than not, suspects a thrilling prize fight of being a fake.
Staging wrestling bouts is a soft snap for a promoter. You see one man: the syndicate head. You argue with him about what you rate a good drawing card. To stage boxing bouts, you must see a dozen managers who each know exactly the type of opponent their man should meet.
The mat thespians, meaning the wrestlers, have found a home in New Jersey. They’ve been going for years now. Here’s the immediate schedule for people with amnesia: Sparta, tomorrow night; Jersey City, Saturday; Union City, October 29; Paterson, November 5; Somerville, November 12, and Teaneck Armory, November 19.
MAT PROMOTER QUINN DEAD
(United Press International, December 15, 1965)
NORTHHAMPTON, N.H. – Edmund R. (Eddie) Quinn, 58, who promoted wrestling and boxing in Montreal for a quarter of a century, died yesterday of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Quinn was fatally stricken in the Hobb Nursing Home, which he and his wife, Gertrude, had purchased last June when he retired from the Montreal sporting world. He was born in Waltham, Mass.
When he started promoting matches in Waltham featuring the young Montreal wrestler Yvon Robert, he became interested in Montreal and moved there about 25 years ago.
THE NEW WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) Papers No. 96-2001
LITTLE WOLF MEETS LUTZE IN MAT BOUT
(San Francisco Chronicle, Monday, June 3, 1935)
Chief Little Wolf, the Navajo Indian wrestler, is set for a tough struggle tomorrow night when he locks grips with Nick Lutze, fast and scientific "grunter" from Venice, Cal., in the final event on Jack Ganson’s program at the Dreamland Auditorium.
Ed (Strangler) Lewis, who has been wrestling for over 30 years and has engaged in over 5,000 matches, keeps on working. Tomorrow night, the four-time holder of the world’s heavyweight title takes on Milo Steinborn, the German strongboy, in a one-hour, one-fall contest. Steinborn has never lost a bout at Dreamland.
Three other tussles over the 30-minute, one-fall journey follow: "King Kong" Cox vs. "Iron Mike" Mazurki; Count Cassie De Collelmo vs. Ted Christy; Vincent Lopez vs. Hans Schroeder.
INDIAN CHIEF BEATS LUTZE
(San Francisco Chronicle, June 5, 1935)
Chief Little Wolf won two of three falls from Nick Lutze last night at Dreamland, winning the first in 15 minutes with a toe hold and the deciding tumble in 8 minutes with a tackle. Lutze won the second fall in 1 minute with an anchor bar.
Strangler Lewis put hip locks and a body press on Milo Steinborn to win in seven minutes.
Vincent Lopez beat Hans Schroeder with a sock in the jaw in nine. King Kong Cox outroughed Mike Mazurki in nine, and Count de Collelmo downed Ted Christy in eight with a reverse slam.
GEORGE WILSON: THE MAN THEY FORGOT
(ED. NOTE: Before professional wrestling had Jumping Joe Savoldi, or Bronko Nagurski, or any other All-American football backfield star, it had George (Wildcat) Wilson, also variously known as "The Bone Crusher." The following is about what happened to Wilson and, also, what happened to the author as he searched for details of the grid star-turned-grappler’s death.)
By J Michael Kenyon
As has been mentioned previously in one of these reports, I’m up to my ears in an effort to write the definitive encyclopedia about pro wrestling history in North America since 1876. So, as part of that effort, I’ve been trying to pull together a lot of biographical info and trying to check pertinent details for their accuracy.
Somewhere on the Internet I saw a list of deceased wrestlers that included a date for the death of George Wilson, the onetime University of Washington All-American football halfback and 1926 Rose Bowl hero. Wilson then played four seasons of pro football before turning to pro wrestling in 1930. He wrestled for many major promotions around the U.S. and Canada until World War II.
More than 35 years after his collegiate football career, Wilson was still thought of by many to be the hardest-hitting runner in West Coast football history. He played in two Rose Bowl games, in 1924 and 1926. In the 1924 game, Washington tied Navy, 14-14, and Wilson scored the first Husky touchdown on a 23-yard run.
In the 1926 game, he passed for one touchdown and was the star of the game although Alabama beat Washington, 20-19. Wilson was injured in the second quarter and missed the third quarter, in which Alabama scored all its points.
Then came a year of touring with Wilson’s Wildcats, a team nominally based in Los Angeles but, in reality, a traveling foil for the teams in a short-lived league built around the sensational Red Grange. Wilson closed out his pro career with three seasons in the National Football League with the Providence Steamrollers. Two of his teammates with that club were John Spellman, a gold-medal winner for heavyweight wrestling in the 1924 Olympic Games, and Gus Sonnenberg, destined to become world heavyweight wrestling champion in 1929.
I don’t know this for sure, but I would suspect that Spellman and Sonnenberg may have influenced the rugged Wilson to become a pro wrestler. One or the other, or perhaps both, may have trained him, too. I suspect a leg injury night have hastened the conversion from footballer to matman. The money was better, too, as so many other Depression-era gridders discovered upon donning wrestling tights.
Fast forward ahead 34 years, to Friday, December 27, 1963, when Wilson fell over on the docks in San Francisco, dead of a heart attack at age 62. Curiously, I discovered when looking for information on the Wilson death, the papers in the cities where Wilson gained extraordinary football fame, Everett and Seattle, Wash., almost completely ignored his demise.
After WWII – I’m not sure what he did during the war years – Wilson worked at the Washington Athletic Club as a doorman and greeter. This was something of a sinecure, arranged by friends and admirers who knew that, by this time, Wilson was wrestling with a severe drinking problem.
In 1951, he is said to have left Everett, 30 miles north of Seattle and where he had first vaulted to prominence on a "national championship" high school squad that matriculated, almost in mass, to the University of Washington. The ex-Husky went to the Bay Area, where he lived the remainder of his life. At the time of his death, he lived alone in a hotel room at 640 Eddy Street and had been working for the State Steamship Co. as a cargo checker for some five years.
He was measuring cargo on Pier 15 when he was stricken about 3:25 p.m. in mid-afternoon of the 27th. He was taken to the Harbor Emergency Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
I expected tributes galore in the Seattle and Everett papers. Alas, that year’s version of the University of Washington was in the Rose Bowl, luring most of the principal sportswriters away to sunny Southern California while Wilson’s body was shipped from San Francisco back to his hometown, Everett, for burial.
The obituaries of George Schly Wilson say that he was born in Draughton, Arkansas, on Sept. 6, 1901, although National Football League records say he was born in Everett.
He was survived by four brothers: Abe Y. Wilson, Everett; Bonner A. Wilson, Seattle; Phillip B. Wilson, Edmonds, Wash., and Edwin C. Wilson, Alaska. There were also two surviving sisters: Mrs. Howard Barton, Pasadena, Calif., and Mrs. Lucy Keplinger, Fullerton, Calif. Abe had played pro football on the same teams as his brother, George.
The most prestigious name in Pacific Northwest sportswriter, longtime Seattle Post-Intelligencer sports editor Royal Brougham, was among those in California to cover the Rose Bowl. Not until his return, and nine days after Wilson’s death, did he mention the fact, and then only as part of a roundup of sports stars who that week had either died or been stricken with serious diseases:
"George Wilson was quietly buried in Everett this past week. The splendidly gifted All-American died just before the Rose Bowl game, an event in which he had distinguished himself so brilliantly as a Washington halfback 40 years ago. Another man of steel, his heart suddenly stopped ticking as he worked on the San Francisco docks."
Nothing about wrestling. Royal Brougham was no friend of the mat game. He editorialized against it for decades.
Not only were there no appropriate tributes, but by the time the story was a day old, the Seattle papers were referring to Wilson as 63, instead of 62, for reasons inexplicable.
As far as I could tell, by searching through a couple of weeks’ papers after the Wilson death, there was not a single mention in the Seattle-area papers of his having been a professional wrestler for more than a decade. And a pretty good one, at that, good enough to earn main-event bookings from San Francisco to Montreal during a journeyman career on the mat.
I don’t know whether Wilson ever got his drinking problems under control. From the sound of his job, though, one would guess that he had. But, maybe, not in time.
BEGINNING: RATNW INTERVIEW WITH PAMPERO FIRPO
(ED. NOTE – The following, which will conclude in the next issue of The New WAWLI Papers, is an interview which appeared in the latest Ring Around the Northwest, a longtime regional wrestling publication published by Mike Rogers in the Portland, Ore., area. His subject, of course, has been one of the "hits" of the past two Cauliflower Alley Club reunions in Las Vegas and is one of the game’s most splendid fellows.)
RATNW : Tell a little about how you became interested in becoming a wrestler.
FIRPO: This message is to the Rings of the Northwest, to anybody who knows, I was (up) there in 1964 … a brief story about Pampero Firpo, the Wild Bull of the Pampas. I practically was born om a stadium. My father was a promoter after he quit boxing. He was a great amateur boxer, under the division of featherweight, and then lightweight. In fact, he was pointing to the Olympics in 1936. But, somehow, he had to forfeit the trip because he got married and all these things happened. Anyway, he became a promoter and opened a stadium. I grew up in the stadium. When I was six years old, my father said, ‘Okay, you can start timing the guys now.’ I timed them skipping rope and sparring. Then, after that, I was practically saying to myself, ‘I have to make a name for myself,’ and I went into track and field in 1944 when I was in college. At an early age, I was in college. My first diploma was in 1943 at Piedmont Academy … when I was 13 years old. A year later, I was doing very good in track and field, running 80 and 100 meters. Then I tried a little boxing. I fought ten matches and won nine by knockout and the other on points. So, after that, I said, ‘Wait a minute. There has to be a better way to make a living.’ By then, the army was calling me to do my duty in Argentina. So I went into the army. Somebody took me for another big name, Armenian name. I am originally Armenian. My name is Karach Manion. The man who was wrestling over there, in America, was Karadigian.
I was in excellent physical condition. One day, I said, ‘Well, I might try because of the mistaken identity.’ In the army, a lieutenant said, ‘I think I saw your name in the paper.’ I said, ‘No, that was someone else.’ Yes, no, yes, no. Then I finally said, ‘Well, you take me to the matches and you will see someone else.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you go over there and see what is going on?’ There was a man who, from 1933 to 1940, in the eastern part of the United States, was a big name under the promotion of Rudy Dusek (Vanka Zelesniak). He went with a touring group to Argentina, along with another guy named Bobby Bruns, and some other people. He was so much of a success that he liked the country and stayed. I went to see him. He was an excellent man and very professional. He said to me, "Hey, soldier!’ I went with my unit. Two or three months prior, I had been given a medal for saving several elderly people and the army recognized me and put the whole troop in front of me and saluted. You know, things like this happen when you are young.
So, Zelesniak saw my medals and he said, ‘What do you know, we have a hero here.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not much of a hero. I did what was supposed to be done.’ He asked if I was a wrestler. I told him no, I was a fighter, a track and fielder runner and I was also good at calisthenics and I was good at soccer. I was good because of my speed. I was faster than the ball.
I said I could try to wrestle and I saw one guy wink to another. They knew they had a mark in me. It is no fun to be a mark. I trained for half an hour (during which time he took a bad physical beating) and went back to the army base and collapsed. I went to the hospital, and I was there three months. After that I asked the lieutenant if I could train as a wrestler in the army for a month. He let me do that and, a month later, I went to Luna Park, the big stadium in Buenos Aires. The wrestlers were still there, practicing. They asked, ‘What took you so long to come back?’ I told them that, in the army, you cannot control the timing, the timing controls you. I said I would like to train a little bit with that one over there. So, the old man, Zelesniak, knew something was coming.
‘Nobody interfere,’ he told the others. ‘This is just between us.’
Never in my life, before, had I tried to use force. I always believed it was important to try and convince people without force – but sometimes you have to speak soft and carry the hard stick.
He knew what was coming, but I threw my hook and a left jab, and then a right. Then he went onto the floor. When he went down, I tried to kick his head because I was so upset. I missed, though, and fell on my own butt. I got up and he said, ‘Time. That’s it.’ So the old man said he would like to talk with me. ‘How much do you weigh?’ he asked. I told him, 198 pounds. ‘Do you like wrestling?’ he asked. I said I loved it. He said, ‘Okay, come Tuesdays and Thursdays when no one is here and I will teach you.’ So he taught me, even teaching me to how to shoot a little. I hate that term because, shoot, I am the shoot of a shooter.
But he said this will be a good passport for you wherever you go, when someone tries to take advantage of you. Let them know you are not a jabroni. I say, ‘Well, okay, now that you say it that way, I will try because I do not believe in violence.’ But, when the time comes and circumstances push you, you have to do it. Anyway, to me, that term (shoot) doesn’t exist. From the chin up always will prevail more than the chin down. Wisdom is stronger than muscles. It took me three years, but after that they told me they could not teach me anymore. ‘You know everything,’ they said. ‘You know self defense. You know how to protect yourself. Here is your passport to any part of the world. You have a trade now. You are extremely smart, very witty, very fast and very conscious of what’s happening.’"
(to be continued in The New WAWLI Papers 97-2001)
THE NEW WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) Papers No. 97-2001
CONTINUED: RATNW INTERVIEW WITH PAMPERO FIRPO
(from Mike Rogers’ Ring Around the Northwest, part of the www.geocities.com/pnwrestlingnews web site)
FIRPO: When I began wrestling, from day one, whereever I went and saw a wrestling fan, I said ‘thank you’ to myself. The fans are my provider. I always have that heavy respect for the wrestling fan. Even if I make them upset, even if I make them angry, even if I make them applaud, because psychology is so important. I can cause a riot and I can cause peace to break out. Make it that way, you become a headliner. Now, in wrestling, you have four positions – preliminary, semi, special attraction, and then the main event. Above that, you have the Box Office Attraction. I will tell you without hesitation and not any bragging that I believe I was the top one, the Box Office Attraction. Whereever I went, I always was headlining.
Now, in Oregon, it was a different story. I don’t like to talk about it. I came there, on the spur of the moment, only to stay a while, let my hair and beard grow out. Once I got there, I saw a young man with a great future. His name was Dean Silverstone (now a director of the Cauliflower Alley Club and, previously, a noted independent promoter). He’s a great man. He was a very macho, very ambitious young man with places to go in journalism. I liked the kid. He was young and, in life, it’s like a ladder: when you go up don’t forget to look down and help someone to come up, because later on you will go down and no one will give the time of day to you.
So I say, ‘What are you doing here, kid?’ Silverstone says he’d like to interview me. I said sure, why not? I went to his place and we spent a lot of time and we did a good interview for him and he was very happy. I believe he sold that interview to one of the magazines, something about the ‘Tough Traveler from Argentina.’
Wrestling for me, from day one, was a blessing. It fulfilled my dreams to come to the United States, which was the biggest dream of my life, and from there to bring my family here – my mother and father, my two sisters, my two cousins, my nieces and nephews, they all came and had families and grew up here, with more kids. Some of them went on to Harvard with high honors. Another went to Berkeley and with high honors. Then San Jose State with high honors. Tony, from Harvard, is working next to the mayor for San Francisco. Another works as a chemical engineer in NASA. One of my kids is a school teacher, another one is a child recreation therapist and the other was no genius but he was up there in computers.
RATNW: When did you come to the U.S.?
FIRPO: August 9, 1957. I came to Texas first, via Mexico, through Brownsville. I couldn’t speak one word of English. The Houston promoter, Morris Sigel, said, ‘Tell the kid if he wins tonight he can stay; if he loses, he has to go back to Mexico and Argentina.’ God keep the soul of Morris Sigel, a great, great man, with a good heart, a real human being. Of course, he is a promoter, too. Tell this gentleman, I told the interpreter, with all my respect, the only way he can send me back to those two countries he mentioned was in a pine box. My opponent this night was Don Leo Jonathan. Excellent man, tremendous physical condition, 325 pounds, about 25 years old, six feet, six inches tall. He came from the top rope, I had to come from the bottom. It looked like the highest up on him I could reach was his pectorals. It was a very important, interesting match. He is a good friend of mine. But, somehow, on August 30, 1957, in Houston, I won the Texas heavyweight championship. From there on, everything was peaches. They sent me to St. Louis, Missouri, and from there I went to Chicago. I started hitting the big leagues. I became the champion of the state of Nebraska.
From there, it was on to New York. I conquered the Big Apple. I believe everyone knows what I did over there in New York. I had tremendous success with a very, very good supporting card. Each individual could have been a main eventer, including Johnny Valentine, Buddy Rogers and all of them. But I was on top of them with Argentina Rocca, a fellow countryman. He was born in Italy but he grew up in Rosario, Argentina. He was one of my idols when I was a kid. I was 14 and he was 24. When he wrestled me the first time in Omaha, Nebraska, in a tag team match with Yukon Eric, against Dick the Bruiser and myself, he told me, ‘Your place is in New York, not here.’ So I went there and he and I did great business for eight months.
I told the promotion I had to go to Argentina to see how my people were doing. In the meantime, I was sending money home. They had built the best home in town, 12 bedrooms, four or five bathrooms. Plus the office in the front of the house for my sister who was going to graduate as a school teacher. I bought her a car, a Fiat. My other sister had a little nephew. I saw my mom with all those appliances, which was a big deal. In the U.S. it was around $40,000, but in Argentina it could have been four or five hundred thousand dollars. So, even the toughest man on earth can show emotion. A tear rolled down my cheek. I say, ‘The place for you is America. Come to America, see the country. If you love it, you stay, if not you can come back.’ My father said, ‘Although I cannot speak the language, I am 75 percent English.’ He was brought up under an English flag. He was in the orphanage in Greece. Those same orphans were saved by
Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, in the mid-1930s (when he was an Apostolic Delegate to Greece). My father always called him the ‘Good Pope.’
Everywhere you go, there are politics. I don’t want to get deeper into this because I love and bless this country every day. Wherever I went, I had dual citizenship. I was born in Argentina, and, by choice, I live in the United States. By origin, I am Armenian. I always put the three cultures on the same level. No better, no worse. My folks came to the U.S. twice, and then they decided to come back via Mexico. Then my whole family came here.
I traveled to five different continents, 21 foreign countries, all 50 states. I had 6,881 matches. My last match was October 17, 1986 …
Step by step, professional wrestling is like an art, an unfinished theme for you to give to the people. In some places, I was hated. In other places, they were loving me, like Honolulu, Hawaii. I went by the name of the Missing Link. I was at the beach, Waikiki, and someone said, ‘Hey, Link! Missing Link!’ It was hard for the natives to say ‘Pampero.’ When I was in Honolulu, a big name there was Luther Lindsey. Great wrestler, great person, great human being. He also was in Australia with me. I asked him, ‘Where are headed next, Luther?’ Oregon, he said, but first Hawaii. The promoter in Hawaii is a protégé of Don Owen in Oregon. Ed Francis, a good man, too. I said, while you’re there, put in a good word for me. Tell them if I don’t take the island by storm in two weeks, I will leave. So I went to Honolulu and took the island by storm. I got hurt pretty bad, though.
They pronounced me dead and then they brought me back with electirc shock. When I woke up, after 13 hours, my chest was in tremendous pain. I said to the doctor, James William Cherry, ‘What did you do to me, doc?’ He said, ‘I saved your life, son.’ Part of my intestine was perforated. They had to remove a foot of it, with a new technique. There was an intern there, by the name of Ricardo LaBak. He was from Rosario, Argentina, the same place as Rocca. It probably helped that I was in good condition. They said I looked more like a kid of 18, than the 36 I was. That showed you how I took care of my life. No drink, no smoke, no drugs, no other thing. I was hospitalized for 56 days, during which I gained 56 pounds. I pulled through and got back to the mainland in time to see my mother and father come to the U.S. My sister already was here.
Back in Hawaii, there was a big demand to see a rematch between my opponent and myself. I went to wrestle with an opening almost two inches wide on my tummy. I was still bleeding but the doctor put something in when I went to wrestle. My opponent somehow put his finger inside of that when he put on the claw hold and he busted everything again. My doctor was there and when he saw me, he put his hands over his face and said, ‘Oh, my!’
RATNW: Can you remember your opponent?
FIRPO: My opponent was Johnny Barend. He put his finger in my tummy. That was his specialty hold. The patches were just paper, so they had to take me back to the doctor and put in more stitches. The doctor said, ‘Why don’t you stop?’ I said, ‘We will see.’
RATNW: You had a chance to work with Lou Thesz.
FIRPO: I met him in 1964 in Salem, Oregon. I went to him and we talked. I was worried he would test me. We were fine. As good as I was, Lou Thesz was ten times better. That shows you what kind of class he had. Along the way, I saw him in 1965 in Texas and we wrestled against each other again. I said, ‘Lou, you don’t have to put the same on me again here, do you? ‘No,’ he said, ‘it is too hard.’ I said, ‘Good.’ (ED. NOTE – Firpo’s memory is keen. He first wrestled Thesz on July 30, 1964, in Salem, Ore., and, indeed, he came up against him again, Nov. 19, 1965, in Odessa, Tex.)
I saw Thesz again in Honolulu when he came from Japan. He said to me, ‘Hey, Mister Firpo: Please hold this for me, $600,000 cash (!). I said, ‘Okay, no problem.’ Then, he invited me to come with himself and Charlie, his wife. We went to Sammy Steamboat’s father’s place in Honolulu and we had a nice meal. It was their anniversary. In Hawaii, after the governor, I was the most popular man. When I was dying in Hawaii, Sammy Steamboat came to see me. There was a sign that said ‘don’t bother this man.’ So he left a note. He was a very quiet, typical native man. Polite, humble.
Back to Lou Thesz: I will say few men in the profession could carry the belt with as much dignity. In and out of the ring, he was a gentleman, always handling himself with class.
Another friend is Bobby Managoff, another great wrestler and great gentleman. A great wartime champion, too. Another great professional is Don Leo Jonathan, yet another is Maurice Vachon. Vachon, I will say, is not is the biggest size, physically, but his heart is bigger than the sky. His integrity is bigger than anything else. I have nothing but high respect for him. He is a real product of the school of the streets. Good man, gutsy, witty and lots of wisdom. When you mention witty and wisdom, I cannot ignore Bobby Heenan. Bobby Heenan is something else. He is a walking, living encyclopedia. He is always there to give you the finest talk in a short time.
Nick Bockwinkel is a great professional. Angelo Poffo, too. I’m talking about the top guys. You ignore the bad and the ugly and only mention the good ones. Long life to wrestling and long life to the wrestlers and even more to the wrestling fans. I am very grateful for my profession. I started out facing the sun and I left facing the sun. That means clear, cleancut, mind and body. I am 71 years old now. I was born April 6, 1930. Wherever I go, people say I don’t look my age. They say, we never knew you were so handsome. I say, well, that is your opinion, ladies – Penny Banner and those others at the CAC. Those compliments will add to my ego.
RATNW: How did your catch phrase, ‘OHHHHHHHH YEAHHHHHH!!’ come about?
FIRPO: This was something else that I created in Honolulu. Wherever I went, people were always yelling, ‘OHHHHHHH YEAHHHH!’ So, one day, I am in the gas station and this lady comes running up to me and says, ‘Missing Link, Missing Link! This is my son, Gary, he is three years old. Look, listen here, Gary, who is this man? He was a Japanese kid. What did he do? He said, ‘OHHHHHHH YEAHHHH!’ It had become an institution.
Now, I hear the governor wants to see me in the palace. So I went over there to pay him a visit. We had pictures and everything. He says he is glad to finally meet the Missing Link. My grandchildren are making me crazy. I ask him if he can give me something for them. So we posed for an autographed picture. We chatted and had coffee. He said he
appreciated very much, in the name of our country, what I had done for our people in Vietnam. I was visiting the hospital almost every day. To the Red Cross to the Crippled Childrens Hospital. I was making 75 to 100 personal appearances a year. I will tell you this. I see how life is to be appreciated the way I do now, always.
I went to one hospital and saw one sign that said, ‘Special: Do Not Disturb.’ It was a special case, 19 years old, just brought in the week before. I said I’d like to see him even if I couldn’t talk. They opened the door for ten seconds. He was a kid with no arms and no legs. From Iowa. I said, ‘Son, how do you feel?’ He said, ‘Sir, I feel fine now.’
You should have seen when they brought me there. Now, you have to imagine a tough guy, 19-year-old kid with no future, practically speaking. He said thanks to the lord that he was okay now. Sir. I said, ‘God bless you, son.’ I wanted to hug him and give all my feelings but I just walked away. I said to myself, ‘What do you know?’ I had been complaining that I didn’t have any shoes and I saw my fellow
man with no feet. After that you become so small …
I was lucky to speak different languages and I was lucky to communicate with different groups. When I was away, I had to learn a new language, Samoan. I said, okay, and learned 50 words in Samoan. They came to me like a man. You talk about adopted son. I was one of them. They gave me the emblem of an honorary chief …
I saw Muhammad Ali when I was over there in Australia. They asked me what he was saying. I said it is important for free expression and everybody is equal. I make a promise to myself to fulfill my dreams, put 80 percent in the bank and keep 20 percent to live the best I can. So my best friends were always libraries, movies, training in the gym and going to wrestle every day. Nothing else, no smoke, no drink. Sometimes people would say, ‘What are you? A bishop?’ I say, ‘No, you do your life, I do mine.’
There was a wrestler who went and bought a bottle of champagne for $260. I asked him why he paid so much for it. I said you could guy a bottle for $4.95 around the corner. He said he liked to see how it feels to have gold inside your body. So, how can you change people’s minds? Let everybody live their own lives.
RATNW: Did you prefer to wrestle as a heel or a babyface?
FIRPO: Well, I will tell you one thing, in my situation, I had to be a bad guy … for my style and my vocabulary, I think as a heel I was to be hated more than anyone else. When I switched to babyface the fans didn’t know what to do. That is when you have the complete control of two different personalities. Not too many people have that gift. I am not praising myself, just saying things I feel are true. When you are bad and we are good and you raise your hands and they raise up and the people stand up from the chair and when you put them down they sit down, then you have complete control of the crowd.
RATNW: You spent a lot of time in Detroit. Anything to say about The Sheik?
FIRPO: The Sheik, in my opinion, was 101 percent professional. Always for the wrestling game. He was a man who took the opportunity to take the Motor City by storm. He came to Honolulu and said, ‘Please, I need you in my place.’ I saw him the first time in 1957 in Chicago. He was commuting between Detroit and Chicago. Family man, respectable. I never saw him doing any wrong thing, you know what I mean. I condemn adultery. I mean, I condemn adultery to myself. Anybody else can do what they want. He took on the responsibility to take care of some of his nephews because one of his sisters died very young and he was from a large family.
In my opinion, he had good intentions. Then, in the profession, money is the root of all devils. Unfortunately, you can be derailed sometimes. Deep down, he was better than many people in the profession. As a wrestler, he was very colorful. As a promoter, he was very successful. I told him I believed in him, whatever he wanted to do with me. I went over and took the Motor City by storm. I don’t need to tell you that, you know better than men. I will say, my success may have clashed a little with his position. Unfortunately, I have seen in the past you cannot be a promoter and a wrestler at the same time. When you succeed, well, don’t forget one thing: success is very insolent and arrogant. You have to be tremendously diplomatic. Success means envy and jealousy. This is worse than an empty stomach, because it is spiritual emptiness. I will not go any deeper, I believe you are smart enough to understand. I cannot condemn the man as a promoter and I cannot condemn the man as a man. I say only good things about him. Let’s leave it that way.
RATNW: What are your hobbies and how do you spend your time?
FIRPO: Reading, movies – but movies from the past. Movies from the past, I will find one or two sequences that will be a symbol. I had the opportunity and privilege, one day, to meet Mr. James Cagney. I was in Chicago and ready to take a taxi and it was raining. Typical winter in Chicago. The driver said, ‘Do you mind if we take Mr. Cagney with us?’ Sure, I said, why not? I said, ‘Please, sir, may I have the opportunity of having you in my car?’ He said, ‘Oh, okay. Thank you.’ I asked him where he was going. He said the Palmer House. I said I was going there, too. Now this is what you would call a down-to-earth man, what a gentleman he was. Polite, well mannered, accepted around the world as a great artist. He said, ‘What do you do for a living?’ I said I was a wrestler. He said, ‘Ohhhhh. I know many of the wrestlers. I know Lou Thesz, and Argentina Rocca from New York.’
We had a nice conversation and arrived at the Palmer House … We shook hands and I never saw him again. If it wasn’t for wrestling, I wouldn’t have had that chance.
RATNW: Any final thoughts, final stories?
FIRPO: Only one thing I have to say, that goes for the future of wrestlers in that profession. I believe there is a future regardless of the negative information we get in the news about the air pollution, water pollution, or that the planet will explode. Everyone must be owner of their own destiny. Not a toy for someone else. For that, you must be smart enough to stay away. Don’t smoke, drink or use drugs. Try and eat the food that you need to eat. Today, we are pointing to our own self-destruction by salt and by sweet. Since I was six years old my grandma said, ‘Now is the time to do home chores. Because some day when you marry and the lady is sick, you can take care of your children.’ Only one thing, my grandma didn’t push me to sew, knit or iron because that is for sissy people. I will learn how to wash the dishes and cook and take care of my sisters. So, I was lucky. I know how to cook. There is a future all set up for each individual. But you have to remain strong because temptations are always around.
You have to be smart because the best credit card to succeed in life is your health. I believe in longevity. I believe in long life. There are four words I carry around: Faith, Love, Peace and God. That is my side of the discipline in the sporting life. On the man’s side, I would say loyalty, courage, dignity and above all of them honesty. You prevail in every place. Never got after the dollar because in the final stage of your life, the dollar remains here.
A promoter one time told me, ‘Hey, Firp, you know something? I already made two million dollars.’ I told him I hoped he could make ten million. He said, ‘You know, you are the only person ever to wish me to be richer.’ I said, ‘Do me a favor, if you don’t get the message, next time I come to your promotion, ask me again and I will give it to you.’ Two years later he came to Chicago and I told him I hoped he would make 25 million. He said, ‘Why? When you leave this world, you need to leave with one eye open. Why? So you can see who is spending your money.’
When my son was six years old, I brought this big bunch of sticks. I asked if he could break a stick. He said that would be easy. He broke it. I gave him two sticks and he broke them. Then he broke three sticks. I gave him four sticks and, by now, it was harder. By the fifth stick, he couldn’t do it.
The first stick is your mother, the second stick is your father, then you and then your two sisters. Because they are unified, you cannot break them. Unity makes strength.
THE NEW WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) Papers No. 98-2001
(ED. NOTE – In wrestling’s halcyon era, some 60 years ago, newspapermen regularly received envelopes full of U.S. currency from wrestling and boxing promoters, among many other entrepeneurs eager to get more than their share of advance publicity for upcoming ring shows. The hired hands of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, from the looks of the ample sampling of pre-bout clips for a Nagurski-Thesz title match, were among the recipients of largesse.)
NAGURSKI REGAINS TITLE
(St. Paul Pioneer Press, Wednesday, March 12, 1941)
Bronko Nagurski, International Falls, Minn., dethroned Ray Steele, Lincoln, Neb., as holder of the National Wrestling Association’s heavyweight championship before 8,000 fans in the Minneapolis Armory Tuesday night.
It took Nagurski 57 minutes and 17 seconds to subdue Steele and capture the title for the third time in just a year to the week after he lost the crown to his opponent. But, in that 57 minutes, the former Minnesota All-American was the master of the situation.
Finally, after beating Steele around the ring, he cracked the St. Louis grappler three times with bone-breaking flying tackles followed by one shoulder block after another against the ropes and when Steele was out on his feet he picked him up with a backflip.
Steele was unable to move during the fatal three-second count.
Nagurski, the favorite of the crowd, gave as neat an exhibition of making and breaking holds as has ever been seen here. He actually threw the wrestling book at Steele with toe holds, full nelsons, hammerlocks, flying tackles and blocks, scissors and aeroplane spins.
Once, after 15 minutes of wrestling in which the Bronko had the upper hand, Steele came up with a toe hold that took the much stronger Nagurski almost four minutes to break. Another time, after 25 minutes, one of Nagurski’s famous flying tackles went wrong and Steele fell on him for a one count.
TO HEADLINE BENEFIT CARD HERE MARCH 21
(St. Paul Pioneer Press, Friday, March 14, 1941)
Bronko Nagurski, who regained his world’s heavyweight wrestling championship by defeating Ray Steele in Minneapolis Tuesday night, will headline the annual St. Paul Amateur Aid Fund mat show.
Hardly had the Bronko regained his crown than he told promoter Tony Stecher he wanted to defend his title on the Amateur Fund card which he has headlined each season since the benefit program was instituted three years ago.
"I’m willing to meet any one you can find for me," Nagurski told Stecher. "I’d even just as soon wrestle Steele again, because I’ve promised to give him a return match in 60 days anyway."
Stecher had several opponents in mind for Bronko today, including Wladislaw Talun, the Polish giant; Hans Kaempfer, German-American strong man, and Ray Villmer, St. Louis youngster who is rising fast in the mat business. He said, however, that he was not limiting Nagurski’s opposition to this trio and would consider any one who could give the former Minnesota football star the best match.
STEELE BOWS OUT AS FOE FOR NAGURSKI
(St. Paul Pioneer Press, Saturday, March 15, 1941)
Ray Steele, dethroned by Bronko Nagurski Tuesday night, isn’t ready for another session right now so was eliminated by matchmaker Tony Stecher as a possible opponent for Bronko on the Dispatch-Pioneer Press Amateur Aid fund show next Friday night.
Steele said the strain of a year-long campaign as titleholder tolled heavily on him in his losing stand against Bronko and that all he wants for the next few weeks is plenty of rest.
From another quarter, however, came a challenge this morning to which Stecher will have to give consideration.
Lou Thesz, former world’s champion and the man from whom Bronko won the NWA crown in June, 1939, wants another shot at it.
After beating Bronko a fall at Houston in a two out of three falls match. Thesz caught one of Nagurski’s flying tackles amidships, hit the concrete floor outside and suffered a broken kneecap after which he was an easy victim.
The Hungarian grappler is back in stride, however, and feels Nagurski owes him another chance, now that the Bronk is back on top.
Stecher says he wants to talk it over with Nagurski before reaching any decision on the Thesz challenge. He wants to be sure Bronko is ready again, after such a grueling match with Steele, to square off with a man of Thesz’ caliber.
THESZ TO GET SHOT AT NAGURSKI’S MAT TITLE
(St. Paul Pioneer Press, Sunday, March 16, 1941)
Former world’s champion Lou Thesz is going to get his long delayed crack at the National Wrestling Association title. Tony Stecher announced Saturday the St. Louis Hungarian grappler ha been signed as Bronko Nagurski’s opponent at the St. Paul Auditorium Friday night.
The title bout, a one-fall, one-hour time limit match, heads the card sponsored by the Dispatch-Pioneer Press to aid underprivileged amateur athletes in St. Paul.
And once again Stecher, who bears the reputation of being the Middle West’s best matchmaker, has come up with an attraction for the benefit card that would grace any arena in the country, including Madison Square Garden.
Thesz is one of the most popular figures in the mat world and is rated 1-2-3 among the leading contenders. He is 26 years old but has already held the NWA title on two occasions. His last term as titleholder was from February, 1939, when he defeated Everett Marshall, to June that same year when he was defeated by Nagurski in Houston, Texas.
And had that match been a one-fall affair such as Friday’s bout will be, Thesz would have retained the title inasmuch as he beat the big Bronk in a spectacular first fall, picking him right out of the air afte rBronko had loosed one of his famous tackles and turning it into an airplane spin of his own to win the fall.
MAT ACES STIR PROMOTERS’ FEUD
(St. Paul Pioneer Press, Thursday, March 20, 1941)
Another chapter in the feud between two rival mat factions will be written at the St. Paul Auditorium tomorrow night when Bronko Nagurski, the world’s champion, and Lou Thesz, one of his leading challengers, clash on the Amateur Aid Fund card.
Nagurski is Tony Stecher’s man and Thesz is managed by Tom Packs, veteran St. Louis promoter. Tony and Tom have battled it out for years, not only for the best attractions but with men they’ve handled.
Packs was in Ed (Strangler) Lewis’ corner that night in St. Louis when big Ed beat Joe Stecher for the world’s title and that was Round No. 1 for Tom.
It was Tony’s fate to wait more than a decade to get even and that was when Bronko belted Thesz out of the ring in Houston in June 1939 to win the NWA title.
One of them figures to move ahead Friday night. It’s Bronko’s first defense of the title he regained from Steele little over a week ago and nothing would please Packs any more than to have Thesz push the big Nag right off the throne before he even gets through receiving congratulations.
Rudy Strongberg has a little matter to even up with Jim Wright in the semi-windup, too. Wright beat the popular German in Minneapolis on the Nagurski-Steele card, but Rudy says he can’t do it again.
Other bouts send Ralph Garibaldi against Walter Podolak and Stan Myslajek against Steve Brody.
NAGURSKI RISKS CROWN IN AID FUND BOUT
(St. Paul Pioneer Press, Friday, March 21, 1941)
Who will benefit most from the Dispatch-Pioneer Press’ fourth annual Amateur Aid Fund wrestling show in the theater section of the St. Paul Auditorium tonight?
Certainly, deserving amateur athletes will come in for a big share since all proceeds after expenses go into the Aid Fund "kitty."
And certainly the several thousand fans and lovers of amateur sports who so willingly pitch in each year to make the event a success.
For the championship bout between Bronko Nagurski and Lou Thesz, St. Louis challenger, which tops the bill promises to be one of the most spectacular mat battles witnessed here if it approaches in any way their meeting at Houston two years ago in which Nagurski first came into possession of the NWA title.
From there on it’s up to the wrestler to see who benefits most.
Nagurski has a chance to rid himself of a young, troublesome challenger while he is at the same peak of condition that enabled him to outlast Ray Steele and regain the title last week.
Thesz is out to regain the title while Bronko is still receiving congratulations on his own return to the throne.
In the St. Louis grapplers’ favor are youth and speed which Bronko hopes to offset with his battering ram tactics, superior strength and a slight pull in the weights.
As a side issue, Nagurski and Thesz will be perpetuqating a managerial feud that has existed for 15 years between Tony Stecher and Tom Packs, St. Louis promoter and Thesz’ manager.
A strong supporting card has Rudy Strongberg clashing with Jim Wright in the semiwindup, Ralph Garibaldi debuting against Walter Podolak in the second prelim and Stan Myslajek meeting Steve Brody in the opener at 8:30 p.m.
Although a heavy advance sale forecasts the top mat crowd of the year there seems little possibility of a complete sellout and many good reserved seats are still available.
LOU THESZ GRAPPLES TO DRAW BUT BRONKO STILL CHAMP
(St. Paul Pioneer Press, Saturday, March 22, 1941)
Bronko Nagurski is still the National Wrestling Association champion. In the defense of his title against Lou Thesz of St. Louis, at the St. Paul Auditorium theater, Friday night, he wrestled to a one-hour draw. Only a defeat could have stripped him of his championship.
A small but enthusiastic crowd saw Nagurski and Thesz in an hour of grappling that held the spectators on the edge of their seats, with Nagurski apparently on the edge of being pinned at least a half dozen times.
The smallest turnout of fans in the four-year record of the St. Paul Athletics Aid Fund, for which the card was held, will result in a payment of only $207.63 to the Aid Fund.
The semiwindup of the card also went to a draw, with hero Rudy Strongberg of Philadelphia and villain Jim Wright of San Antonio failing to reach a decision in their allotted 30 minutes.
Villainy triumphed over heroism in one of the 30-minute preliminaries when Ralph Garibaldi of St. Louis pinned Walter Podolak of Minneapolis in 16 minutes of a scheduled, 30-minute bout. Garibaldi made Podolak quit by a toehold.
Stanley Myslajek of Minneapolis defeated Charles Haraben of Doraville, Ga., in nine minutes of the scheduled 30-minute opener.
(ED. NOTE – It happens that, as I put the above stories into the computer, I’ve just attended a new movie, "Hearts in Atlantis," starring Sir Anthony Hopkins. The fulcrum around which the Stephen King tale turns is a story about Nagurski, when – after six years away from the pro football field – he returned to action with the 1943 wartime Chicago Bears, taking a place on the bench as a third-stringer, until forced into action in the final regular-season game of the season against the crosstown rival Chicago Cardinals. The Hopkins character does a mesmerizing job of telling the tale, of how Nagurski came on in the second half with the winless Cards threatening to upset the Bears (who had the best record in the league). The Bronk came through, too, gaining 84 yards on 16 carries and scoring one of the three touchdowns the Bears rolled up in the late stages to stave off the defeat and earn their way into the NFL title game, which they won from Washington. Hopkins never mentions that the reason Nagurski quit pro football, at the end of the 1937 season, was to become a fulltime professional wrestler -and multi-time world heavyweight championship holder. And I was reminded, again, of my dislike for Nagurski, since he went out of his way in later life to knock professional wrestling at every opportunity, never saying a kind word about the profession which earned him a small fortune and in which he performed over a 25-year period. If a guy ever had a reason for not being ashamed of his work in the ring, it should have been Nagurski – but, whenever asked to recount his wrestling experiences, he’d screw up his nose and sneer. All he would talk about were the good old days on the gridiron and that’s what he wanted to be remembered for, even if "Papa Bear" George Halas wouldn’t give him a raise to $6,500 in 1938. It looks as if Nagurski is getting his way, too, with Hopkins going on at length in "Hearts in Atlantis" about his legendary football prowess and not mentioning a word of all the years he spent touring from coast to coast in the mat game.)
THE NEW WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) Papers No. 99-2001
(ED. NOTE – Billy Wicks sent a clip of the following to Scott Teal who, in turn, notified the Wrestling Legends mailing list. And, to continue with the Billy Wicks theme, the item which leads off New WAWLI issue number 100 – dedicated to the AT Show veterans (like Wicks and Red Bastien) – was mailed by Billy to Red a few weeks ago. "Dear Red," an attached note said, "A good friend of mine wrote this out of respect for carny wrestlers. I’m sure you can relate. Love you, Willie Bicks")
GUS SONNENBERG: FOOTBALL STAR, CHAMPION OF THE WORLD
(Marquette MI Monthly, October, 2000)
By Joan Oberthaler
The score, "Marquette 211 - Opponents 7," is written proudly on the picture of the Marquette (Mich.) High School football team, of which Gus Sonnenberg was a member. The year was 1915, and the team was declared the U.P. (Upper Peninsula) champions.
An Associated Press dispatch from Boston reads:
"‘Dynamite Gus' Sonnenberg, Dartmouth tackle in 1920, taking up professional wrestling, disposed of his first three opponents in a total time of four minutes and twenty seconds."
"Sonnenberg Gets Another Chance at Lewis' Title," a 1928 headline declares.
"Gus Sonnenberg Still Unconscious in Hospital" is another headline of one of the hundreds of newspaper articles saved in a scrapbook by my aunt, Mrs. Minnie Koepp, of Marquette, now deceased, about my great uncle, Gus Sonnenberg, who became heavyweight wrestling champion of the world in 1929.
Gustav Sonnenberg, the oldest son of Fred and
Caroline Sonnenberg, was raised on a farm in Green Garden, Michigan, went to a
little country school, and later went to live with an older sister to attend
Marquette High School.
Gus's football career began at Marquette High in 1912. That year he played right guard on the gridiron and the following season, he held down the same position.
Then came 1914, when E.D. Cushman came here to become Marquette High's first full-time physical education instructor. "Cush" promptly switched Gus to tackle, a change that paid dividends immediately.
In 1915, with Sonnenberg's work at tackle a big factor, Marquette High won its first U.P. Championship, undefeated for the first time in history. They won six games, scoring 211 points to their opponents' 7.
Aside from his accomplishments on the football field, Gus also starred in basketball and was a member of Marquette's first U.P. Championship team during the 1915-1916 season.
After his graduation in 1916, Gus was offered scholarships at the University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota, but he decided on Dartmouth.
He arrived in September. It was said that he came clumping into Dartmouth college with a battered violin case under one arm, a book of Browning's poems under the other, a cap perched on his scalp, and wearing a pair of pants that looked like the back legs of an elephant. Just a few weeks later, the news came that for the first time in five years, the freshman class was victorious in the traditional football rush, which takes place between the freshman and sophomore classes at Dartmouth.
At the crack of the gun, Captain Gerrish, of the
varsity, tossed a football into the two awaiting classes, and the fight for
possession of the ball was on. After forty-five minutes of mad scrambling,
Sonnenberg, a candidate for a tackle position on the freshman football team,
succeeded in ascending the Webster Hall steps and presenting the ball to Captain
That was only the beginning of Sonnenberg's rise to fame at Dartmouth. He won not only a regular tackle position on the freshman team, but also a place on the Eastern All-Frosh team.
As the football season started in 1917, Gus was back in Marquette, holding down the fullback spot for the Northern State Teachers College squad. That year, under coach L.B. Gant, Northern had a successful season, losing just one game.
Gus also played on the Teachers’ 1917-1918 basketball team, and in his spare time, coached the Normal high school team.
On January 1, 1919, Sonnenberg accepted a position as coach of Escanaba High School.
The 1919-1920 season found Gus back at Dartmouth holding down a regular tackle position.
In 1920 the sports writers association of the East picked Sonnenberg and George Gipp of Calumet for that group's All-America Team. It was the first time a Marquette athlete was chosen on any All-America team and also the first time two U.P. players were chosen on the same squad.
Gus transferred from Dartmouth to the University of Detroit where he starred during the 1921-1922 seasons. He graduated with a law degree.
During his college days, he had some rather remarkable experiences. One year he blocked nine punts and all of them, except one, would have been good for touchdowns. Once in a game at Franklin Field, Philadelphia, he booted the ball eighty yards in the air for the longest kick ever made at the University of Pennsylvania's field.
Sonnenberg played in the infamous Coaldale, Pennsylvania game. Sonnenberg explained, "There was great spirit in Coaldale. The local gamblers were backing the team to the last penny, betting even their homes and shirts. Why, I saw $60,000 in cash on a blanket on the sidelines. Well, we beat them 10 to 7. It was a terrible game. After it was over, the crowd mobbed us. They threw stones at us as we ran for our special train. We got on the train and dropped to the floor to escape the rocks that smashed nearly every window. As the train of thirteen cars pulled out of the town, they commenced to shoot at the cars. Of course, we were all on the floor, but one fellow was wounded in the eye by a shot.
"Another game, in Shenendoah, found the gamblers losing and they came on to the field in a rush and refused to get off the field so the game was postponed and all bets were off."
Following his graduation, he was sought by many
pro teams, including the Green Bay Packers. He signed with the Columbus, Ohio
Tigers. Later he played with the Detroit Panthers and Providence, Rhode Island
Gus was picked as "all-professional" tackle by the managers and owners of the league. One night he went with a newspaper man to see a wrestling match. The newspaper man said, "Why don't you get into this game? It's as easy as pro football anyway, and there is more money." Gus, just recovering from two broken ribs, thought nothing could happen to him on the mat like the riot that followed the clash in Coaldale.
Before long, "Dynamite" was the nickname given to him as a new wrestler. He was described as five foot seven inches tall, weighing 200 pounds, possessing extra large feet, the chest, arms and shoulders of a bull gorilla, not very much neck, and a round face.
Other descriptions said he looked just as good in his green trunks as he did in a tuxedo. He used excellent English, speaking in a deep baritone, danced well and played a great game of bridge.
In his wrestling matches, Gus let his head hit his wrestling opponent with great force, and as the man went down, he would nail him in the stomach with another head-on smash. As for Sonnenberg's "flying tackle" and the rule book, inasmuch as he used his hands as well as his head, it couldn't be barred under "butting." Sonnenberg's constant habit of playing football without a helmet had been great training for his wrestling game.
It was not long before Paul Bowser, the Boston wrestling trainer, got in touch with Sonnenberg. A match with Wayne Munn was scheduled, and if Gus won that match, he would give up professional football for a career in wrestling.
Sonnenberg was seventy pounds lighter than Munn, and nearly one foot shorter. Gus threw his huge opponent twice, once in a minute and nineteen seconds, and again in twenty-five seconds. This was the twenty-eighth consecutive match Sonnenberg had won, having not been defeated since he started his new career on the mat.
Gus Sonnenberg had the heavyweight wrestling championship of the world in the palm of his hand when an unexpected and disastrous accident sent him to the hospital. On June 29, 1928, he had tossed the champion, Ed "Strangler" Lewis for the first fall with his famous flying tackle. His head butted Lewis in the stomach, and the champion was lifted from his feet with the flying tackle and slammed to the mat. The time of the fall was thirty-seven minutes, thirty seconds. Lewis was out for five minutes.
The crowd of 10,000 fans went wild at the Boston Arena. Gus was sure to win. Never had such a wrestling match been staged. Sonnenberg had sailed into Strangler's stomach with his bullet-like head so many times that many thought Lewis would not be able to re-enter for the second fall.
When Lewis, still all but helpless from the battering he had received, returned to the ring for a second round, Sonnenberg, amid cheers that rocked the arena, started out for a second fall. With blood in his eyes, he butted Lewis around and it looked like sure victory for Gus. Suddenly Gus went sailing into a whistling flying tackle, missed his target, and shot like a bullet at least fifteen feet through the ropes, beyond the row of reporters, landing on his head on the concrete floor of the arena. He was picked up unconscious. The crowd was thunderstruck! He was given fifteen minutes to return to the ring and continue the match, but at the end of that time he was still unconscious and Lewis was given the fall and the match.
Sonnenberg was examined by physicians and found to be suffering from a concussion. He was taken to Trumbull Hospital.
Sonnenberg had been a great drawing card, attracting immense crowds every time he had battled. Sonnenberg received $7,500 for his work and Lewis $15,000, the highest sum every paid a champion matman.
The story of Gus Sonnenberg, however, is more than one of human strength, and speed. He brought to wrestling the color and dash of American football. He promoted his first show in Boston at the old Grand Opera House. The gate was $85. On January 4, 1929, 20,000 people jammed the Boston Garden and paid $75,000 to see the "Strangler" Lewis vs. "Dynamite" Gus Sonnenberg show.
Another article states.... "Two of the most surprising things about Sonnenberg were his strength and speed. He launched his tackle at the most unexpected moments and from almost any angle and position." The tackle which really cost Lewis his crown came as a bolt from the blue. The Strangler had brought his locked arms up under Gus's chin, not only snapping the challenger's head back but lifting him off his feet and dumping him heavily on all fours near the ropes. Strangler leaped forward to clamp on the finishing headlock.
But from this seemingly defenseless posture, Sonnenberg instantly uncoiled and shot from the floor, hitting the champion squarely a little above the knee. A quick jerk of his powerful arms, the final flying lunge, and the famous Strangler was flat and out.
The second fall and the championship was awarded to Sonnenberg by the referee when Lewis would not, or could not, re-enter the ring after having been repeatedly knocked through the ropes by the butts and tackles and Dynamite Gus.
After Sonnenberg's arm was raised as a gesture of victory, Paul Bowser, promoter of the title bout, came into the ring and presented him with the coveted $10,000 diamond championship belt, and announced, "Gus Sonnenberg... The World Champion Wrestler!"
The championship match was filmed by the Educational Film Exchanges, Inc. It contained 1,000 feet of film and most of the views were closeups…more thrilling action squeezed into those ten or twelve minutes than in any movie ever seen. The manner in which Sonnenberg finished off Lewis tells the story of his name "Dynamite." This thrilling one reel movie was shown at the Delft Theatre in 1929.
Just one year before, Sonnenberg was a professional football player drawing a few thousand dollars per season from the Providence Steam Rollers. He didn't know anything about wrestling and now he was the heavyweight wrestling champion of the world with $90,000 in the bank.
His mother had pictures of him all around her living room. On a sideboard a picture of him in a football uniform, another in the uniform of a member of the Student Army Training Corps, another of him showing him wearing the $10,000 diamond studded belt, symbolic of the heavyweight wrestling championship, and in a corner one of his violins, waiting for his return home. She said, "Every time he writes, he sends money home."
His mother, at age 67, drove to Milwaukee with her other son Carl, to see her first wrestling match, and last. She was in agony and couldn't bear to watch. When finally opening her eyes, she said, "Mein Gott, he'll kill him!" She buried her face again and was shaking all over. "My heart,"she said, a hand at her throat, "It's right here." Finally, when it was over, she picked up her hat, a shapeless pulp from her worried hands, and said, "My boy Gus, I knew he'd get him. But for all the money in the world, I wish Gus wouldn't wrestle."
In August 1929, the U.P. hosted a match between Sonnenberg and Stanley Stasiak, the wrestling champion of Poland, at the Palestra in Marquette. The bout between Sonnenberg and Stasiak was listed as a "two falls out of three" finish match for the championship of the world. The match was probably the biggest professional sporting event the U.P. had ever seen, due largely to the fact that Marquette was Sonnenberg's hometown and he wanted to give his hometown backers a real show.
The bout between Sonnenberg and his giant challenger took place before a crowd of nearly 3,000 people. The spectators got an hour and nine minutes of thrilling entertainment as Stasiak fought hard before Sonnenberg finished him with a flying tackle.
Sonnenberg bought the wrestling mat from Ed Butler of Ishpeming after using it for the bout with Stasiak. He said it was one of the best wrestling mats he had ever seen. The mat had been the property of the Ishpeming Theatre for 20 years and now would be used in all of Sonnenberg's matches. Gus had sustained many infections from wrestling on the dirty, blood-stained mats that were usually provided.
Gus had trouble on the matrimonial scene. He married a movie star, known as Judith Allen in 1931, and that marriage only lasted a few months. He later married Mildred Micelli, who left him, Gus says, because she was embarrassed by the "shiners" he got as a wrestler. Gus said, after waiting all evening to introduce her husband to the girls as a hero, he would come limping and lurching in after a wrestling bout, sometimes with one eye painfully swollen and closed, or perhaps both would be that way, or so black and blue as to be ghastly. One arm might be bandaged and in a sling, and he didn't look much like a hero. And so a second divorce came.
Gus died September 9, 1944 at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, of leukemia. He is buried in Park Cemetery in Marquette. He was selected for induction into the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame in 1972.
A champion in a game played by giants, a lover of poetry, an outstanding performer in professional football yet a student of the violin, a squatty winner of wrestling rounds yet a graceful dancer. He wore $150 suits and turned up Panamas, and a big rock on his finger. That was Gus Sonnenberg, heavyweight wrestling champion of the world.
THE NEW WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) Papers No. 100-2001
By Richard (Army) Maguire – "Dedicated to all the AT show fighters I’ve known"
There was once in Americana a contest to beat
This event held almost daily by a most ungracious host
The carnival grounds featured men who would fight
if so dared
With local towns people who were quite often feared
Athletic shows prospered as well as many local
If the fix was in by a patch everyone got his or her piece
On the bally a man shouted, "We take on all
comers, challengers if you like"
"We’re puttin’ up some cash for you to win if you could fight"
Egos were toyed with but never to be broken
Until money changes hands and is taken as a token
The contest would commence once hands had been
And if the stakes were right one could always make book
Many a mark enters the ring thinking this will be
Till he’s looked in the wrestler’s eyes and now feels queasy
Matches start out often with some banter or a
It’s important for the shooter not to end this in a hurry
Now the doomed "Towner" has left
himself in quite a fix
Thinking he can win this by sheer strength or by his tricks
One shoots, maybe sprawls or even tries some
Another gouges or pinches or in other ways he cheats
Once clinched then thrown and now properly ridden
His defeat is so sure it cannot now be hidden
It is now quite apparent what mattered as not
But the man that is winded had no chance of a prize
Unique was the tongue in which Carney wrestlers
But not by the man that now fell at his feet
Locals are enraged now their man’s face down
and counted out
If violent turns this angry mob, next "Hey, Rube" may be the shout
Noses are bloodied many a time and men’s teeth
are often lost
But winning must be all to the showman no matter what the cost
Ears cauliflowered and rotor cuffs are torn
These are the condition of the old battle worn
A neck could be broken, held in the deadly front
A precarious position, like a gun when it’s half cocked
Seizing and then turning a neck so it is fully
Often leaves an opponent with no doubt that he’s been spanked
A double wristlock is often used to disable a
A wrist held tight with a sharp twist, a turn could break him in a moment
Hooking a man could be very vicious or crippling
Most efficient form of combat to be developed in the west
Destroying a man’s body and even possibly his
To some masters of submissions this was all part of a planned goal
Risking all was their job endangering one’s
life or maybe limb
Preparation for these journeys would always start off in a gym
Conditioning was important of both body and the
Their legacy now written clear should stand the test of time
Whether you be a fan, a historian or maybe
possibly a foe
You’d respect any hooker with a motto "he’s good to go"
These men engaged lumberjacks, ironworkers and
They scuffled with longshoremen or Indians who’d fight
They took on the town bully, a farmer or his
They won their matches with both smart and the will that never bends
Catch as catch can wrestlers will go down in the
As the men who submit others with holds known as hooks
Many writers have long forgot or acknowledged to
On the fearless men who risked it all for the sake of combat sport
Men will always have their tales and mixed in
there some truths
But let it be told the really tough made their way in carnival AT show booths
THE WRESTLING LIFE OF BUDDY COLT
Some wrestlers wanted to be loved by the fans. Buddy Colt was more interested in winning matches and holding championships.
Buddy's informal training started while he was
still in the Marines. While he was stationed in Japan he trained in Judo.
When his service was finished with the Marines, he returned to his home in the Washington D.C.-Maryland area and dedicated himself fulltime to bodybuilding. He finished second in the 1960 Mr. Washington D.C. contest. A wrestling fan all of his life, Buddy was thrilled to be in the gym one day when Johnny Valentine and Dick Steinborn came in to work out. Never shy, Buddy introduced himself and was encouraged by Valentine that he should consider getting into professional wrestling.
Buddy moved to Houston where he placed in every bodybuilding contest he entered. He also got involved in Olympic-style powerlifting.
While in Houston he met Joe Mercer, who would later become better known as Killer Karl Krupp. Mercer offered to train Buddy.
"It was the best $400 I ever invested," Buddy said. "I went to the YMCA twice a week for six months to train."
Because of his martial arts background, along with the conditioning and strength he developed, Colt caught on to professional wrestling quickly. He developed faster than other wrestlers in training.
As Buddy became close to ready, Colt started sending his photos to different promoters around the country. Because of his bodybuilding physique, which was unusual in the 60s, he started receiving several requests. However, Mercer advised Colt to start with a smaller territory to develop his skills before moving on to a big promotion.
Colt followed Mercer's advice and went to Nick Gulas' Nashville promotion in June of 1962. Wrestling under a derivative of his real name, Ron Reed had his first match teaming with Jim Boggs against the established stars of the territory, Don and Al Greene in Bowling Green, Ky.
Because of Buddy's obvious potential, other promoters wanted the rookie, and Colt traveled to gain as much experience as possible. He went to Mobile, Ala. to wrestle for the Lee Fields promotion for six weeks. He also traveled to Atlanta, where he would later become a top star.
In December of 1962 it was time to move on and Colt answered the call from Vincent J. McMahon to go to the Capitol Sports Promotion, which would later become the WWWF. Colt's skills had improved where he was elevated to mid-card status. He wrestled as Cowboy Ron Reed.
"I started in New York with some other young guys that would go on to have big careers too," Buddy said, "Tim Woods and (future World junior heavyweight champion) Irish Pat Barrett."
Colt got the biggest break of his career to that point when he had a televised non-title match against NWA World heavyweight champion, Nature Boy Buddy Rogers. Colt lost, but people only remembered that it was a great match.
"Buddy Rogers was a great champion and had a lot of influence on me," Colt said. "After that match people came up to me weeks later and told me 'I saw you on TV. You almost beat the champ.' I learned so much from that experience."
Colt also noticed that being booed enhanced Rogers' marketability, and his payoffs.
In late 1963 Colt accepted a spot in the Phoenix promotion. When he had time off in Phoenix, he accepted bookings in Atlanta, Oklahoma City, and Texas.
While he was in Texas he met up with former world heavyweight champion Pat O'Connor. O'Connor was impressed with Colt, still wrestling under the name Cowboy Ron Reed. O'Connor was part of the office in Kansas City and asked Buddy if he was interested in wrestling for the Central States promotion. If Colt did well, he would be given an opportunity to main event. Colt finished his dates for Phoenix and headed east.
When he arrived in Kansas City he was asked to drop the Cowboy part of his ring name in deference to Cowboy Bob Ellis and simply go by Ron Reed. Buddy agreed, and it didn't make a difference. He was an immediate hit with the fans, and as promised, was moved into his first main events.
In 1965, the popular Ron Reed defeated the great Mike DiBiase for the Central States heavyweight championship.
Buddy had an impressive reign as Central States champ that earned him a title shot against NWA world heavyweight champion Lou Thesz. Buddy held the legendary champion to a 60-minute time limit draw. Perhaps even more impressively, Buddy became one of the few men to ever make Thesz submit when he won the second fall of the three-fall match with a spinning toehold. Buddy earned a rematch that also ended in a draw. It took Thesz three matches before he finally turned back the young challenger.
Buddy was a top draw and one of the most popular wrestlers in the Central States territory for three years with brief tours of Charlotte and Australia. While making a brief stop in Hawaii he knocked of Luther Lindsey for the Hawaiian State heavyweight championship.
While Buddy was enjoying tremendous success as the popular Ron Reed, he wasn't completely comfortable.
"I knew I wanted to be a bad guy," Buddy said. "I felt there was money in it and I felt I was more natural with that style. The only thing was if I changed styles I didn't want to have to prove my self again. I wanted to change my style and still be the main event."
Buddy got his opportunity. During his travels, he got to know a heel named Dandy Jack Donavan. Donavan called Buddy and explained that he was in the Oklahoma territory and needed a tag partner. He asked if Buddy would be willing to bleach his hair and change his style. Buddy agreed immediately.
Buddy's last date for the Central States promotion wrestling in the famous Kiel Auditorium in a tournament for the Missouri State junior heavyweight championship.
"I was in the process of bleaching my hair," Buddy said. "I wrestled that night and my hair was closer to orange than blond."
When Buddy arrived in Oklahoma, he didn't waste any time finding gold. In their first week as a team, Dandy Jack and Handsome Ronnie defeated Chuck Karbo and Chati Yokuchi for the United States tag team championship.
Buddy reveled in being booed and he and Donavan were huge draws. Some of the teams they defended against were Danny Hodge and Lorenzo Parante and a couple of guys that would become intertwined with Buddy's career down the road, Jack and Jerry Brisco.
Buddy also got the opportunity to wrestle the legendary Hodge for the world junior heavyweight championship.
After holding the belts for the better part of nine months, Buddy left the team to go find singles success again. He went to Amarillo in 1967. It was in Amarillo that he came up with the ring name that he would become famous for, Buddy Colt.
"I wanted something catchy, something easy to remember, " Colt said. "Buddy was easy. Colt was an exciting name. You had the Baltimore Colts, Colt pistols, Colt 45s."
Buddy become the main event heel for the promotion. He won the North American heavyweight championship and successfully defended it against the legendary Dory Funk Sr., Pat Patterson, Ricky Romero, Lawman Don Slatton, and the up and coming Funk Brothers. Buddy earned a pinfall over Dory Funk Jr. a month before Funk Jr. would go on to win the World heavyweight title. He also teamed with Gorgeous George Jr. to beat Chatio Yokuchi and Mr. Ito for the Western States tag team title. The fans didn't know who to cheer when they faced another hated combination, the original Infernos (Frankie "Great Mephisto" Cain and Jimmy "Rocky" Smith).
Buddy was a sensation when he toured Japan.
In late 1969, he entered the Atlanta promotion and Georgia wrestling was never the same. He initially teamed with Paul DeMarco and was managed by Homer O'Dell. Colt and O'Dell had a falling out with DeMarco which led to a terrific feud. Eventually, Colt would also drop O'Dell as his manager.
"Paul DeMarco was a great wrestler," Colt said. "He may be one of the most underrated men in wrestling. I have a lot of respect for him."
Buddy Colt won his first Georgia State heavyweight championship in 1970 and dominated the belt for years. Buddy met all the top stars in Georgia including several World title matches against his former Texas foe, Dory Funk Jr. Buddy met El Mongol (Raul Molina), Fred Blassie, a popular Bobby Shane, Bob Armstrong, Bill Dromo, George Scott, Sandy Scott, Crazy Luke Graham, Ray Gunkel, Buddy Fuller, The Torres Brothers, Jimmy Dancing Bear among others. He would occasionally team with the Assassins (Tom Renesto and Jody Hamilton), and Karl Von Stroheim.
Buddy made a defense of the Georgia title against Mr. Wrestling II (Johnny Walker) that set an Omni attendance record that would stand for years.
Louis Tillet was wrestling part-time while working in the Florida promotional office. While taking a few dates in Atlanta, Tillet convinced Colt to bring his brand of mayhem to Florida.
Colt hit the Sunshine State like a hurricane!
He made his mark in Florida by breaking Johnny "Rubberman" Walker's arm. Colt held all the main belts during his Florida "reign of terror". Buddy took turns being the Florida state heavyweight champion and Southern heavyweight champion. He also held the North American heavyweight championship which turned into a tremendous feud with Cowboy Bill Watts. Colt also had great battles with Bob Armstrong.
Buddy had many top matches in Florida with Tim "Mr. Wrestling" Woods, Jack Brisco, Dory Funk Jr., Paul Jones, Big Bad John, Eddie Graham, Mark Lewin, among others. He was a favorite tag team partner of Johnny Valentine.
Buddy was the embodiment of brutal inside the ring. But outside the ring he distinguished himself with an interview style different from other heels. He was confident on the microphone, but he it was a mater-of-fact style rather than boastfulness. Being reserved on the microphone made him appear even more dangerous.
From 1972-1975 Buddy Colt was a main eventer in both Florida and Georgia. His private pilot's license and his ability to draw money gave him opportunities other wrestlers didn't have. When the promotional war started in Atlanta, Colt was one of the first stars called to be asked to come in for the NWA promotion.
He would go on to hold the Georgia state title six times. He also held the Georgia State tag-team championship with Roger Kirby and Harley Race.
By late 1974 he was concentrating on Florida. In addition to holding the state's singles titles, he was also the logical challenger whenever Florida's favorite son, Jack Brisco, came through to defend the World heavyweight championship.
In February, 1975, Buddy was flying from Miami to Tampa after he and Bobby Shane had defeated Dominic DeNucci and Tony Parisi. In the plane was Gary Hart, Mike McCord (Austin Idol), and Shane. As they were over Tampa Bay, the plane hit a sudden line of thunderstorms causing it to crash in Tampa Bay.
The crash took Shane's life and ended Buddy's career as a wrestler. Unable to wrestle, Buddy came back as a manager and later a television commentator. It wasn't long before he retired.
"My heart wasn't in it," Colt said of managing and announcing. "I was a big star. It would be like asking Reggie Jackson to go from playing to being the bat boy."
No one will ever think of Buddy Colt as a bat boy.
He will be remembered as a dominant wrestler and a huge draw.
(Special thanks to David Williamson for his
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