While combing through the many programs in the Jim Mitchell collection, I came across a 1947 Christmas edition of Pacific Athletic News (PAN) that featured Christmas greetings from more than four dozen wrestlers, promoters, and other wrestling personalities. These photos and the accompanying messages were so fun, I decided to compile them into a book.
Season’s Beatings is a photos book bearing holiday wishes from some of Southern California’s biggest stars. Photos in the book include Gorgeous George, Ed “Strangler” Lewis, “The Black Panther” Jim Mitchell, Sandor Szabo, Enrique Torres, the Duseks, Karl and Wee Willie Davis, Bobby Bruns, Danny McShain, Mike Mazurki, Ed Don George, Hans Schnabel, Jan Blears, Yvon Robert, Morris Siegel, Angelo Savoldi, and Bronko Nagurski.
Season’s Beatings is a perfect gift for a wrestling fan or yourself. It’s guaranteed to become a yuletide tradition. If someone on your list prefers head locks and body slams to visions of sugar plums, order your copy today on Amazon, only $9.99.
Louisville’s Greatest show is a labor of love that is truly four years in the making. When I started digging deep into Louisville’s rich wrestling history for Bluegrass Brawlers, I had no trouble finding stories about the OVW and Memphis years, but it was the “golden age” from 1935-1957 that fascinated me most. While I barely scratched the surface when I wrote Bluegrass Brawlers, Louisville’s Greatest Show will give you a year by year account of the Allen Athletic Club – the wrestlers, the shows, and the city that hosted them both.
In addition to the year by year account of the promotion and owners Heywood Allen and Francis S. McDonogh, Louisville’s Greatest Show also features more than twenty profiles of local and national wrestling stars, including:
Indiana University wrestling coach Billy Thom
Lord Patrick Lansdowne
Hall of Fame Hydroplane racer Wild Bill Cantrell
Kid Scotty Williams
Kentucky Athletic Commissioner Johnson S. Mattingly
The legendary Wild Bill Longson
“Cousin Alviry” Elvira Snodgrass
Fred Blassie, before he was “classy”
Promoter’s wife Betty McDonogh
Chicago Bears star Fred Davis
Sgt. Buck Moore of the Louisville Police
Colonel Stu Gibson
WHAS sports director Jimmy Finegan
Ed “Strangler” Lewis
“The Black Panther” Jim Mitchell
Louisville police detective and ref Ellis Joseph
Ring announcer George Lewis
Wee Willie Davis
Louisville’s Greatest Show is the story of a city that loved wrestling and the men and women who made wrestling a Tuesday night tradition. The book is filled with never-before-published photos and stories you won’t find anywhere else.
Louisville’s Greatest Show will be available on Amazon.com and other online retailers this weekend!
No, don’t get your hopes up. There’s no Hall of Fame in the works by me, or anyone else I know of. Just a little hypothetical question:
If there were a Louisville Wrestling Hall of Fame, who would you want to see in it?
I have a long list of suggestions. In no particular order, they are:
Ed “Strangler” Lewis – A first ballot entry for sure, the Strangler got his famous name in Louisville after showing up two weeks late for a booking under his real name.
Heywood Allen – A referee turned promoter who was involved in the Louisville wrestling scene from the early 1900s until 1947.
Francis S. McDonogh – Allen’s successor, who took the Allen Athletic Club into its hey day in the 1950s, pioneering wrestling on Louisville television and drawing record crowds at the Armory.
Betty McDonogh – Wife of Francis and the business manager for Allen and her husband. She gets credit for helping to popularize wrestling with a female audience in the 1940s, when the promotion drew more ladies every week for a time than men.
Wild Bill Longson – The only man to win a world championship in Louisville. Longson was a fixture for the Allen Athletic Club throughout the 40s and 50s and even worked as a booker for the promotion.
“The Black Panther” Jim Mitchell – A true pioneer, Mitchell was an African American wrestler before, during, and after the “color barrier” was put in place. He was also a mentor to the legendary Bobo Brazil.
Col. Stu Gibson – A New Albany native and former football hero who became a huge heel in Louisville and San Antonio.
Wee Willie Davis – A wrestler and movie star who moved to Louisville and ran a few promotions during the late 50s and 60s.
Jerry Jarrett – Wrestler and promoter who brought Louisville into the Memphis territory in 1970.
Jerry Lawler – The King of Memphis could lay equal claim to royalty in Louisville with all the legendary nights he had at the Gardens.
Jim Cornette – Arguably the most famous Louisville native in the pro wrestling business. Considered one of the greatest managers of all time. With the Rock N Roll Express going into the WWE Hall of Fame, one can only hope Jim and the Midnight Express will be next.
Danny Davis – Wrestler and manager during the Memphis era who moved to Louisville and founded OVW.
Ian Rotten – Former ECW wrestler who founded IWA Mid-South, a promotion that has lasted just as many years as the more mainstream OVW.
Kenny “Starmaker” Bolin – Louisville native and life-long nemesis of Cornette, Bolin helped launch the WWE careers of more than 4 dozen wrestlers who once belonged to Bolin Services.
John Cena – OVW’s most famous son.
CM Punk – IWA Mid-South’s most famous son.
The “OVW Four” aka Rob Conway, Nick Dinsmore, The Damaja, and Doug Basham – Four Southern Indiana natives, two (Conway and Dinsmore) from right across the river, who made it to the WWE after starting in the OVW beginner class. Basham and Damaja were a tag team in the E. Dinsmore became the surprisingly popular U-Gene. Conway is the only Louisville native to win the WWE Tag Title and went on to become a two-time NWA World Champion.
Dean Hill – Current “owner” of OVW, Hill was a ring announcer at the Louisville Gardens before becoming the voice of Louisville wrestling as OVW’s TV announcer.
Okay, Louisville fans, let’s hear it. Who would you put in a Louisville Wrestling Hall of Fame?
Heywood Allen ran his first show under his own banner in Swiss Park on June 4, 1935. They drew 1000 people that night, 822 of them paid, for a gate of $485. Allen was already there established face of Louisville wrestling, having been part of the city’s fight tradition for nearly 30 years, but at history first show, Allen chose a man whose pro wrestling legend has largely been overshadowed by his accomplishments in traditional wrestling.
Billy Thom was billed as the Junior Welterweight Championship that night, and he successfully defended his title against Alexander “Cyclone” Burns. Thom, who also wrestled in Indianapolis and other towns across the Midwest, was a fixture for the Allen Club from 1935 to 1940. He wrestled Louisville stalwart Blacksmith Pedigo, the groundbreaking Lord Patrick Lansdowne, and University of Kentucky legend Billy Love.
Thom’s rivalry with Love was fitting because outside the squared circle, Thom was the head wrestling coach at Indiana University. He began his coaching career at Wabash High School before moving up to IU in 1927. Thom built the IU wrestling program into a powerhouse, winning eight Big Ten titles and the 1932 NCAA championship during his tenure.
Thom’s proudest moment came in 1936, when he traveled to Berlin to coach the United States wrestling team in the Olympics. Three of Thom’s Indiana students made the squad that summer Charley McDaniel and Willard Duffy were named alternates, while Dick Voliva competed against the world’s best.
Voliva was a native of Bloomington, a two-time state champion, and a member of Thom’s 1932 national championship team. He won an NCAA title of his own in 1934, and after graduating with his bachelor’s degree, he continued to train with Thom while working on his Master’s degree.
Voliva made it all the way to the gold medal round, where he finally tasted defeat. He took home the silver, becoming the only Indiana University grad to medal in wrestling.
Thom was thrilled for his student, a young man he had watched over for nearly a decade. “A boy I had seen grow up in Bloomington, had coached to a Big Ten Championship, an NCAA championship, a National AAU championship, and then the Olympic team… if I were to pick one incident as my greatest thrill, that would be it.”
Thom’s success at the Olympics enabled him to continue recruiting the top wrestlers from across the state, including a state champion from Hammond, Indiana known best to today’s fans as Dory Funk, Sr. He left Indiana University in 1945 but returned to work for the Allen Club in both 1945 and 1946 as a wrestler. He made one final appearance for the club in 1951, when he acted as special guest referee for a match between Lou Thesz and a masked menace named Green Dragon. Ed “Strangler” Lewis was also at ringside for the event in Thesz’s corner.
Thom is a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, the Indiana University Athletics Hall of Fame, and the Indiana Wrestling Hall of Fame. Voliva became an outstanding coach in his own right and joined his mentor in the IU and Indiana Hall of Fame. The Indiana Hall continues to honor Thom today, presenting the Billy Thom award annually to an individual who has made significant contributions to amateur wrestling in Indiana.
There’s a lot of buzz about the Louisville Gardens and a “hidden treasure” I discovered when working on Bluegrass Brawlers.
The treasure is a Kilgen pipe organ installed just above the stage area inside the Gardens. The pipe organ is also a one man band, with percussion and brass instruments incorporated into its workings. It’s a priceless treasure that, until recently, was in danger of being lost forever due to neglect of the building.
This week, both the Courier-Journal and WFPL radio ran stories about the building, the organ, and an effort to save them both. Click on the hyperlinks to read what they had to say.
Originally built as the Jefferson County Armory, the Louisville Gardens began hosting pro wrestling in 1913. Ed “Strangler” Lewis was one of the very first to main event inside the building. He was followed by a host of world champions and trail blazers including Charlie Cutler, Americus, Stanislaus Zbyszko, Wladek Zbyszko, Joe Stecher, Orville Brown, Bill Longson, Lou Thesz, Mildred Burke, Buddy Rogers, The Sheik, Fritz Von Erich, and Bobo Brazil.
During the Memphis years it was home to Jerry Lawler, Bill Dundee, Dutch Mantell, Handsome Jimmy Valiant, Jimmy Hart, Jim Cornette, and the Fabulous Ones. Louisville Gardens also hosted many of the WWE’s biggest legends before they were stars, some with Memphis and others with OVW. Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, The Undertaker, Kane, Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Rock, John Cena, Batista, Brock Lesnar, and Randy Orton all worked the Gardens on their way to the top.
Andre the Giant wrestled there. Bobby “The Brain” Heenan had his in-ring debut in the building. Bret Hart had his last successful WWF title defense before the Montreal Screwjob in the building. That same show was also Brian Pillman’s final PPV appearance before he passed away.
And yes, believe it or not, Andy Kaufman stepped into the Memphis ring inside Louisville Gardens.
Louisville Gardens is a beautiful building with an incredible history. The building and the organ are treasures that deserve to be preserved and enjoyed for years to come. Here’s hoping the Gardens has not seen the last wrestling match inside those hallowed halls.
I’m very happy to announce I’ll be giving my first live presentation based on Bluegrass Brawlers later this month in Owensboro, Kentucky.
The talk will be held at the Daviess County Library in Owensboro, KY on September 24 at 6 PM Eastern. I had the privilege of visiting the same library a year or so ago for a screening of a short film I wrote called The Telemarketer. It’s a gorgeous place, and they’ve got a full calendar with all sorts of special events and speakers. They even had an acclaimed independent horror film made inside that building.
I’ll be sharing stories about Ida Alb, William Muldoon, Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Heywood Allen, Jerry Lawler, Jim Cornette, Kenny Bolin, and John Cena. Over 130 years of wrestling history in Louisville.
The event is free, and I will have copies of the book available to purchase. If you’re a wrestling fan and in the area, I hope to see you there!
What era of Louisville wrestling do you remember best? Are you one who remembers the good ol’ days with Jerry Lawler, Bill Dundee, Handsome Jimmy Valiant, and the rest of the Memphis crew? Were you one of the few but proud who supported the Poffos back in the early 80s? Or are you one of those already missing the good ol’ days of OVW with Cena, Lesnar, Orton, and Batista?
Louisville’s wrestling goes much deeper and further back than OVW and Memphis. Louisville is the place where:
A female circus wrestler issued an open challenge and took on a local man to prove wrestling was not fake – in 1880!
A Zulu prince wrestled a bull on New Year’s Day in 1909.
Ed “Strangler” Lewis was given his famous moniker when he showed up two weeks late for a booking in 1913.
Orville Brown lost his world title to a surprise masked man in 1941, the only major title change to ever take place in Louisville.
A man wrestled an alligator and got married in the same ring, all in one night back in 1947.
Teenage Bobby Heenan made his in-ring debut and was burned by a fan’s cigar, all for a $5 pay off.
Jeff Jarrett and Dutch Mantell battled in a ring set up inside Whitney Hall at Kentucky Center for the Arts in front of a classical music crowd.
And lest we forget, just a few miles north of Louisville, CM Punk battled for 93 minutes against Chris Hero. This after having a 41 minute tables and ladders match that brought the house down.
Bluegrass Brawlers: The Story of Professional Wrestling in Louisville, tells these stories and so many more. It’s a must for fans of wrestling history and proud Louisville natives who enjoy hearing some great tales of their city’s history.