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When Wrestling Was in Tiny Bars – Louisville Edition

Much ado has been made about a comment from a certain wrestling executive about how wrestling only took place in tiny bars before the WWF came along. Today I decided to share a few programs I have from one of those tiny bars: The Jefferson County Armory, now known as Louisville Gardens.

The first program is from way back in 1952. This tiny bar program saw World Champion Lou Thesz defend his title against Enrique Torres with former champ Ed “Strangler” Lewis in Thesz’s corner. Ray Eckert, Stu Gibson, Ethel Johnson, and Bill Longson were also on the card held in front of a meager 9281 fans in this tiny bar.

A year later, the same bar wrestling promotion, the Allen Athletic Club, presented this card:

Baron Leone was the victor in the main event that night, defeating Gentleman Jim Doby. Other stars included the Great Zorro (pictured), Mae Young, Bill Longson, Stu Gibson, and Gloria Barratini. The bar was really packed that night, with a new record attendance of 9384 reported in the newspaper.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited to see some of the changes this innovative WWE executive is already bringing to television. But if we’re really going to go all the way, perhaps we should drop the company line that pro wrestling was irrelevant before WWF at the same time we drop the word Superstar in favor of Wrestler.

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School’s Out: The Evolution of OVW

In a last minute turn of events, I made my way to Ohio Valley Wrestling tonight for the live broadcast of television episode 1199. I’ve witnessed many TV tapings in Davis Arena since my first visit twenty years ago, and I saw some terrific action tonight. What struck me the most, however, is how different this OVW is from the OVW I used to know.

I still have a program from the first night I ever visited OVW. Kurt Angle was in the main event, and a number of WWE stars like Batista, Shelton Benjamin, Rob Conway, and The Bashams, were on the card. Outside of Angle, however, none of the above were Superstars at the time. They were students, wrestling on a televised program from a wrestling school. Yes, these were the Superstars of Tomorrow Today, but it still had the feel of a wrestling school program.

I don’t get that feeling in Davis Arena these days. OVW continues to evolve under new management, and it no longer feels like you’re watching wrestling in a wrestling school. Everything about OVW screams “territory.”

First of all, there’s the arena itself. From the lighting rigs above to the seating arrangements to the presentation itself, nothing screams “wrestling school.” It looks and feels like any other professional promotion. I take that back; it feels a cut above most wrestling promotions, including some others that are televised. This is Professional wrestling with a capital P.

Second, take a look in the ring. Can you identify the students? Are they the young ones in the ring? Or maybe the newer faces? Perhaps the officials, or maybe the television crew? Every OVW card is stacked with talented men and women including long-time independent stalwarts (Hi, Cash Flo!) and faces you’ve seen not just on wrestling TV but reality TV. (I see you, Jesse Godderdz!)

The matches do not feel like students vs. students. The storylines do not smell of amateur booking. Once again, OVW  presents Professional wrestling with a capital P.

Now truth be told, everyone backstage at OVW, save for one, is a student of OVW. From the wrestlers to the refs to the production team to the announcers, every man and woman has come to sit under the learning tree of Al Snow. Even Doug Basham, who made a cameo during tonight’s pull apart between Amazing Maria and her daughter Haley J, is a student here. Yes, he’s a former WWE Tag Team Champion. Yes, he’s now teaching the advanced class. But he will tell you how much he has learned from resident “Mr. Miyagi.”

Al Snow is a born teacher. His stated goal is that everyone who works for OVW will take what they learn and use it to reach their goals in pro wrestling. The testimony to Al’s genius is how very professional, how very “non-wrestling school” his burgeoning territory looks in person. OVW is run like a territory. The people working OVW are taught to perform as professionals. Every time I attend a show, OVW moves further and further away from their wrestling school roots.

OVW tours like a territory. They’ve been all over the state this summer, putting on house shows in big towns and small. They’re across the river in New Albany tomorrow night (August 5), and they’re back at Davis Arena Saturday (August 6) for a stellar card that includes a casket match, the return to action by Amazing Maria, and a special appearance by Scotty 2 Hotty.

And of course, OVW broadcasts not only locally, but internationally through Fite TV. OVW’s wrestlers and announcers receive fan mail (and email) from around the world. Every week, more and more eyes are on the long-running Louisville promotion, one that marks its 1200th episode in seven days. Tonight’s episode is worth catching on Fite and included some great tag team action with Jesse Godderdz and Tony Gunn, a hard-hitting eight man match at the very end, and some fun video segments with Freya the Slaya and my old pal from the Three Blind Refs video, Aaron Grider.

OVW may not be in the same conversation as AEW, WWE, Impact, or New Japan, but the students of Al Snow have transformed what was once the nation’s top wrestling school into an honest-to-goodness, 21st century territory. Great things continue to happen at Davis Arena, and greater things are on the horizon for the students: in and out of Davis Arena.

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Bluegrass Brawlers: My Horse for a Wrestling Ticket!

Who would you say is Louisville’s biggest wrestling fan?

I know more than one person who would say it was their grandma. Not grandpa, but grandma. That’s no accident. As far back as the 1940s women were as frequent a site in the stands as men, thanks in part to the efforts of Betty McDonogh in the Allen Athletic Club ticket office. Even in the 80s, many old ladies never missed wrestling at the Louisville Gardens or the chance to tell their least favorite wrestler too kiss their wrinkled butts.

You could also make a case the biggest fan ever was Jim Oetkins. Jim reached out to me after I published Louisville’s Greatest Show and asked if we could meet. He brought along a spiral notebook he kept in the 1950s, recording the results from every week at the Columbia Gym on 4th Street. All those records I pulled off the Internet, he’d kept them in real time as a boy!

And let’s not forget the woman who went into labor one Tuesday night at the Gardens. She was on a gurney, ready to be rushed down the street to give birth, but she refused to leave. Teeny Jarrett pleaded with her, promising to let her know who won the main event, but the woman wanted to see for herself!

And then there’s the man who tried to get a wrestling ticket in exchange for a horse.

The incident took place on March 9, 1933 out in front of the Savoy Theater, now long-vanished from Market Street downtown. In the midst of The Great Depression, the Savoy Theater’s manager C.B. Blake (pictured below) announced that for one night only, the theater would accept “scrip, certified checks, promissory notes, merchandise, or pawn on valuables as par values.” Cash was, of course, still accepted for those who had it.

The Savoy wrestling show was the hot ticket in 1933, and many fans took them up on the offer. According to The Courier-Journal, the box office accepted a variety of items in lieu of money for tickets that night:  oats, sauerkraut, sauerkraut juice, razor blades, a sewing machine, coffee, malt, cheese, socks, canned milk, canned chile, a card table, rings, lavaliers, watches, $3 in Courier-Journal scrip, crackers, flour, soft drinks, tomatoes, peas, corn, IOUs from four barbers, a ham, fifteen dozen eggs, and five chickens. Attendance that night was 1567, and the box office collected $809.75 cash in addition to the $90 worth of merchandise.

There was one offer refused by Blake and company. A man rode up shortly before bell time and asked if he could get a wrestling ticket in exchange for a horse. There’s nothing to indicate if the horse was in fine condition of a swaybacked nag, but the offer was refused.

You can hardly blame the guy for trying. Jack Reynolds was on the card that night, along with former Kentucky Wildcat Billy Love and speed boat racer “Wild Bill” Cantrell. Everyone wanted tickets to the Savoy!

The tale of the Savoy Theater is a fascinating saga that was missed when I first published Bluegrass Brawlers. Blake and his booker would fend off multiple challenges from rival promoters (including Abe Finberg down the street at the Gayety Theater) as well as two different incarnations of the Kentucky State Athletic Commission. They were the top draw in Louisville for many years – until Blake’s booker, Heywood Allen, decided to part company and start his own wrestling promotion.

You can read the story of C.B. Blake and the Savoy Theater in the 10th anniversary edition of Bluegrass Brawlers. Click here to order your signed copy today.

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Bluegrass Brawler: Steve Callaway

The first edition of Bluegrass Brawlers shined a spotlight on The Black Panther Jim Mitchell. An African American born in Louisville, Mitchell became a superstar and main event draw first in the Midwest and then around the world. His feud with Gorgeous George in 1949 led to a riot that sent three fans to the hospital and spawned a few lawsuits. Mitchell blazed a trail for future stars like Bobo Brazil and left an incredible legacy I later chronicled in full in The Original Black Panther.

The newest edition of Bluegrass Brawlers sheds a light on more African American grapplers in Louisville, including a local folk hero whose time came and went before The Black Panther was born.

Steve Callaway resided at 421 Conrad Street, and in the spring of 1904, he developed a reputation as a grappler who could not be beat.For three months, Callaway took on challengers and vanquished every one. By midsummer, there were few men left in the city willing to challenge him.

On July 15, a man named Silas Adams walked into Jones at Williams Saloon at 102 East Green Street. He spotted Callaway, and he observed that the “champ” looked somewhat worn out and haggard. Sensing an opportunity, Adams challenged Callaway to a match. Callaway accepted, and the two men wrestled on the saloon floor until Callaway had once again been proved unbeatable. He was receiving back slaps and congratulations from friends and onlookers when suddenly, Callaway collapsed to the floor.

Callaway passed away within a matter of minutes. After a quick examination, the coroner determined that the champ, Louisville’s first black wrestling hero, had died from “a stroke of apoplexy due to overexertion.”

I wish I could tell you more about Callaway, but the story of his last match is the only time his name even appeared in the Courier-Journal. His rose to prominence took place nearly a decade before wrestling would become a regular attraction at one of the downtown theaters. His bouts were never scheduled, and no tickets were ever sold. He took on all comers, wrestling challengers any time and anywhere while bystanders placed their bets.

Callaway’s story is one of many you’ll read in the new edition of Bluegrass Brawlers. Click here to order your signed copy, and use the coupon code “esw” to save 10%.

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Bluegrass Brawlers Returns

It’s back, and better than ever.

The second edition of Bluegrass Brawlers is now available on Amazon, and for all you signed book lovers, it’s available to pre-order here as well. Revisiting my first wrestling book has been on my agenda for years. There were a few facts that needed to be corrected (like the demise of the Columbia Gym), and there were far too many stories left out of the original. The omissions weren’t intentional; the information just wasn’t as accessible as it is today.

Bluegrass Brawlers now includes almost 50% more text: filling in time gaps, expanding on stories that were all too brief, and covering the many changes that happened since 2014.

Just to give you a preview, here are some of the new stories included:

Steve Callaway, a long forgotten African American wrestling hero from the turn of the 20th century.

Promoter Abe Finberg, who booked wrestling at the Gayety Theater and later created a heavyweight wrestling promotion.

Promoter C.B. Blake and the Savoy Theater.

The feud between Blake, booker Heywood Allen, and the Kentucky State Board of Athletic Control, the first state institution that attempted to regulate wrestling.

Louisville fan favorite Jack Reynolds.

Gorgeous George comes to Louisville – and to dinner.

Wahoo McDaniel in Louisville in the early 1960s.

Phil Golden’s All Star Wrestling.

New Albany native Jeff Van Camp, better known in the ring as Lord Humongous.

A hilarious fan story about Flex Kavana, aka Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, courtesy of Michael Ewing from The Seated Senton.

Tales of the first class at Ohio Valley Wrestling.

The sale of OVW to Al Snow.

The rise of the Legacy of Brutality.

The growth of the indie scene in Southern Indiana.

Crazy Mary Dobson becomes Sarah Logan in the WWE.

The rise of women’s wrestling in Louisville and beyond.

I also conducted a number of interviews for the new edition, including “Lord Humongous” Jeff Van Camp, Al Snow, Billie Starkz, Bryan Kennison, Charlene McAnally, Hy Zaya, Cash Flo, Josh Ashcraft, Judi-Rae Hendrix, Rebecca Ann Bridget, Maria James, Haley J, Ryan Howe, Sierra, Doug Basham, Flash Flanagan, Sarah (Logan) Rowe, and Rico Costantino.

The book is also jammed with more photos, from Matty Matsuda to Billie Starkz, who you may notice is also on the cover.

Fans who can’t wait to grab a copy can click here to order on Amazon.

And fans who want to get a signed copy can click here to pre-order.

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The Saga of the 1941 Derby Eve Show

Derby Eve belonged to the wrestlers. At least it did in the beginning. The first Derby Eve wrestling show at the Armory (now Louisville Gardens) took place more than a hundred years ago. It became a huge attraction for local fans and out-of-towners in for the Derby. Naturally, the success of the event caught the attention of other promoters, and by the 1930s, the Kentucky Athletic Commission made it an annual bidding war between the wrestling promotions and the boxing promotions.

Heywood Allen had fought for the Derby Eve slot many times. He’d won some and lost some, and in 1941, he was sure he had a winner. The Derby Eve show was supposed to go to the promoter who presented the best card, and Allen’s main event was Everett Marshall versus Lou Thesz.

Of course as you’ve probably guessed, he didn’t get it. Mattingly granted the show to novice boxing promoter named Harry Wolffe. Allen was furious. He went around Mattingly to schedule the Armory for Thursday and Friday, May 1 and 2, offering to let the boxers run the show on the 2nd if he could run his wrestling show on the 1st. He nearly got his way, too, but then on April 15, he got on the microphone at the weekly Allen Club wrestling show and cut a promo on Mattingly. The newspapers didn’t record what Allen said, but it was bad enough that Mattingly revoked Allen’s license to promote.

Allen had shot himself in the foot, and after relinquishing the Armory on May 1-2, he was given his license back. Allen would run shows on Tuesday April 29 and a “Derby Dessert” show on Tuesday May 6, both at his home base in the Columbia Gym.

As for Harry Wolff and the boxing show… well, let’s just say he would have been better letting Allen have his way. He only had a week to sell tickets, and sales were so low, he didn’t even make half of the money he had guaranteed to the boxers! Wolff had tried to back out of the show a few days before, but Mattingly pushed him to go ahead. What’s worse, Mattingly assured boxing managers on Friday afternoon, May 2, that Wolff would pay their full guarantees regardless of the box office.

Harry Wolff was in trouble. He told the boxers he couldn’t pay them what he’d promised and they’d have to take a cut or else. The managers said they’d take or else… as in legal action, if he didn’t pay up!

Allen only drew 2000 fans when he brought Thesz and Marshall in on May 22, but it was just a bump in the road for him. He’d continue on as Louisville’s wrestling impresario for another six years, while Mattingly would eventually leave the commissioner’s office and leave Allen alone.

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Coming Soon: Bluegrass Brawlers, 10th Anniversary Edition

It’s been almost 10 years since I started writing about pro wrestling in December 2012. Okay, so that’s eleven months out, but what’s pro wrestling without a little exaggeration?

The book that started it all, Bluegrass Brawlers (2014), is no longer available on Amazon or Kindle. That’s because I’ve gone back to the beginning to create a new edition, a 10th anniversary edition, if you will.

Bluegrass Brawlers is getting a major overhaul. I spent the last several months compiling every wrestling result from 1880 through 1966, when Louisville went dark before the Memphis era. I also conducted more than a dozen new interviews including Jeff Van Camp, Al Snow, Billie Starkz, Bryan Kennison, Charlene McKenzie, Hy Zaya, Cash Flo, Josh Ashcraft, Judi-Rae Hendrix, Maria James, Haley J, Ryan Howe, and Doug Basham. And I still have a few more to go.

The original book covered four distinct eras: The Pioneers (1880-1920), The Allen Athletic Club (1935-1957), the Memphis era (1970-1997), and the OVW era (1996-2014). All four of those sections have been expanded, some by a little, some by a lot. I also expanded on the Dick the Bruiser era (touched only briefly in the 2014 edition), filled in the time gap between 1920-1935, and told the story of Louisville since 2014.

New stories covered in the new edition include:

Steve Callaway, a long forgotten African American wrestling hero from the turn of the 20th century.

Promoter Abe Finberg, who booked wrestling at the Gayety Theater and later created a heavyweight promotion.

C.B. Blake and the Savoy Theater.

The feud between Blake, booker Heywood Allen, and the Kentucky State Board of Athletic Control, the first state institution that attempted to regulate wrestling.

Louisville fan favorite Jack Reynolds.

Gorgeous George comes to Louisville – and to dinner.

Wahoo McDaniel in Louisville in the early 1960s.

Phil Golden’s All Star Wrestling.

New Albany native Jeff Van Camp, better known in the ring as Lord Humongous.

A hilarious fan story about Flex Kavana, aka Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Tales from the first students at OVW including Doug Basham and Nick Dinsmore.

The sale of OVW to Al Snow.

The rise of the Legacy of Brutality.

The growth of the indie scene in Southern Indiana.

Crazy Mary Dobson becomes Sarah Logan in the WWE.

And the rise of women’s wrestling in Louisville and beyond.

The new book includes a lot more photos and 50% (and counting) more written content. Thanks to a more professional layout, it’ll still be around 330 pages.

Last but not least, the book is getting a brand new cover. Artist Adrian Johnson, who did covers for Tracy Smothers and The Black Panther Jim Mitchell, is working on something really special.

The target release month is March. So far, it’s on schedule. I’ll announce more here and on my social media in the coming months!

This new edition has been a long time coming. It’s going to be special.

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Ella Screams Into OVW

Ella was on a hot streak in Girl Fight. She was unpinned in all her appearances, a staggering accomplishment in the promotion. After taking more than a year off, she has begun to make her presence known in new places.

Hollywood Haley J had her hands full with the scream queen this week. And I couldn’t be happier to see one of my favorite young stars back.

Keep an eye on Ella. She’s got the talent to go far. Oh yeah, read her novel too!

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The Black Panther Jim Mitchell Featured in Black History Month

The Black Panther Jim MitchellIt’s Black History Month, and every day I’ve been posting photos, documents, and other memorabilia from the life of The Black Panther Jim Mitchell. If you’re not following me on social media right now, you’re missing out.

The truly amazing part about almost all of this material is that it all came from the Black Panther himself. I have over 900 scans of photos, newspaper articles, magazine articles, wrestling programs, wrestling posters, and legal documents that Jim Mitchell collected and saved. These items were found in the early 2000s when a man named Dave Marciniak bought Mitchell’s house from the bank as a flip after the death of Mitchell’s step-daughter. It’s a miracle that this stuff survived the years, and it’s incredibly fortunate Dave saw potential value in these items. Rather than throwing it all away, he salvaged what he could, thinking it might be worth something one day. After all the time I spent chasing the Black Panther’s story, it was worth more than gold to me.

I’m sharing a few items every day, so if you want to catch up and follow along, here’s where you can find me:

Instagram

Twitter

Facebook

And if you want to pick up the book, you can find it on Amazon or buy a signed copy direct from me.

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The Golden Age for Wrestling Research

Andre the Giant - The Eighth Wonder of the World

The 2020 CAC James Melby Award Winner Greg Oliver just posted a terrific editorial on Slam! Wrestling about the quest to chronicle pro wrestling history. After reading an advance copy of the Andre the Giant biography, Oliver was struck by the incredible depth of research in the spook, especially when compared to an infamous earlier bio on the Eighth Wonder of the World. Oliver suggests we’re living in a golden era for wrestling historians and research, thanks to the resources that are not only now available but being utilized by writers and researchers everywhere.

I share this because I absolutely could not agree more. I have only been at this game for seven years, having taken my first dive into the newspaper microfilms at the Louisville Free Public Library in January of 2013. The access to such archives has improved tremendously in that short time, thanks in large part to archives such as newpapers.com. In 2013 I was hunting and rooting, scrolling through film after film and then scanning the weekly Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and occasionally Friday and Saturday sports pages. Just a few short years later I was finding results much faster from my home office, scanning the same Courier-Journal newspapers but using the advanced search features available online. In less than four months, I had a complete 22 year record of the Allen Athletic Club. Between my work schedule and family life, it would have taken me years to compile the same data at the library.

Every year it seems more wrestling fans and history buffs are jumping in the waters. As a community, we are uncovering, recording, and preserving the history of professional wrestling faster than ever thought possible. This is a golden age for the wrestling historian. It’s also a golden opportunity for fans and especially workers to learn that history for themselves.

This past weekend, when a wrestler at PPW told me about the stack of wrestling books he was reading, I added to it and gave him a copy of the Black Panther book. I always love hearing that a wrestler wants to know the history of the business because that tells me, this is someone who wants to learn from the past. This is someone who appreciates those who came before. This is someone who might just discover something that hasn’t been done in decades and use it (making what is old new again) to become a star.

Whether you’re a wrestler, a referee, a manager, a student, or just a fan, I encourage you to do the same. Read the Andre book. Read Have a Nice Day. Read Lou Thesz’s incredible autobiography Hooker. Read Queen of the Ring. Read Adnan Al-Kaissie’s hard to find/ harder to put down memoir. Your favorite past time has an incredible past. More and more, it’s there waiting for you to discover.