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.
I met Mike Rodgers three years ago in Las Vegas when he was given the James Melby Award at the Cauliflower Alley Club Reunion. Mike has been chronicling wrestling history far longer than I have, and it’s been an honor to act as his publisher.
John asked me to write a little bit on his blog and I thought that would be fun. I will introduce myself and talk a little about my projects.
I started a bulletin in 1983 called Ring Around The Northwest. It was 3 pages, 50 cents and I sent it out to about 50 people, and a few of them even paid.
Jump ahead a few years and computers came into being and I increased the bulletin to 10 pages and started doing interviews. I was fortunate to have a number of interviews with people who had wrestled in the Northwest including Lou Thesz, Don Leo Jonathan, Bryan Danielson, Mad Dog Vachon, John Tolos, Rick Martel and a number of others.
The bulletin continued for 30 years until 2013, upon which time increased costs and the internet pretty much put print bulletins out of their misery.
At times several people had visited with me about producing a book, both on these interviews and a history of Portland Wrestling. Lack of time forced these people to back off any involvement.
When I discovered Portland Wrestling at the age of 8, I also discovered that the lineups and results were in the Portland papers. At age 8 my family moved out of the Northwest. I made my grandma save the sports sections so when I returned I could look at the wrestling results and catch up on the entire year that I had missed.
When I became aware of wrestling, I always felt like I had walked in halfway thru a movie. I wanted to know what had happened before.
When I returned to the NW in 1972 and started watching wrestling, I started recording everything that happened in a notebook. I recorded the matches, any special moves, the finishes. What each wrestler talked about on their interviews. Every aspect of Portland Wrestling. That notebook proved to be so valuable as I wrote Katie Bar The Door.
When I was in college I discovered the library had microfilm of the Portland papers. I spent hours going thru roll and roll of microfilm recording wrestling results from years prior.
Now we are up to this past summer (2021). I was having lunch with Frank Culbertson and he revisited the book idea. He said, “You should write a book.” I laughed and agreed. Then he said, YOU SHOULD WRITE A BOOK and I can help.
So we started rounding up these interviews and we started gathering up photos and doing the preparations to get it ready. Finally we had a title, a cover and the layout and we had edited it. We sent it to John. I had no idea what the timeline might be at that point. I figured a month or so until the first book hit the light of day. The next morning I noticed our book is available on Amazon. That was the moment I became a BIG John Cosper fan.
The second volume of Excitement in the Air. We had a interview with Buddy Wayne who has passed and we got an update from his son Nick. Nick is 16 but traveling every weekend and working all over the country. We grabbed a photo of a match Nick had on a Saturday night. The following Wednesday the book was ready and available on Amazon. I find that turnaround amazing.
The latest book that has just come out this week is a culmination of a lifetime passion. There are over 500 photos that have come from my collection, photos I have taken and 2 photographers will really help make this book special. There are many photos by Ken Hamblin who has been my friend for over 40 years. Also Lloyd Phillips has some amazing photos from the early 70’s. His photos are in black and white and are so clear and sharp. I told Lloyd years ago that if a Portland Wrestling book ever came to be, it had to have his photos included!
Whenever the action really got going, the TV announcer would always shout Katie Bar the Door. That meant that the the wrestling was going to be fantastic.
I hope this book can bring the flavor of what a tradition that Portland Wrestling was.
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.
I got a small taste of the Pacific Northwest’s wrestling history when I co-authored Princess Victoria’s autobiography. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to convince me the territory had a rich and wonderful story. Now, thanks to Mike Rodgers, fans like me can get an even bigger sampling of that story.
Mike Rodgers has been chronicling the history of the Northwest territory for a long time. He’s a Cauliflower Alley Club honoree, having received the Jim Melby Award, and he’s just written his first book.
“Just written” is actually a misnomer. This is a book many years in the making, a compilation of interviews with the people who lived the story: Don Owen, Dutch Savage, Bryan Danielson, Lou Thesz, Tim Brooks, Ed Moretti, Nick Kozak, Don Leo Jonathan, Stan Stasiak, Red Bastien, Pamperi Firpo, and so many more. Even this is just a small sampling of the treasure trove Mike collected over the years, and if it does well, there will be more to come.
Eat Sleep Wrestle is proud to partner with Mike on the release of Excitement in the Air: The Voices of NW Wrestling, Volume 1. It’s available now on Amazon in paperback, and it’s a must read.
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.
Someone on Facebook recently posed an interesting question: if you had a wrestling time machine and could go back to see any wrestling match, what would you go back to see?
I didn’t have to think about my answer. As a hug fan of the Black Panther, I’d want to go back to the night he is most famous for: the night he and Gorgeous George incited a riot at the Olympic Auditorium. Then I got to thinking, what other matches would I want to see if I could return to any night in wrestling history?
Here are my top five, in order:
August 24, 1949, Los Angeles. Gorgeous George vs. The Black Panther Jim Mitchell at the Olympic. George was one of the biggest heels of his day, and the Panther was a beloved star. On a hot summer night, George went too far. He tossed Mitchell from the ring and refused to let him back in. One fan jumped in the ring to give George some payback, and George leveled him. In an instant the entire crowd was on its feet, and a riot raged on for hours. Mitchell and George escaped to the back, but several people had to be hospitalized. One woman even sued George and Mitchell for her injuries. I have the program from that night and a letter summoning Mitchell to answer for his part in the riot that evening. They are the prizes of my wrestling memorabilia collection.
February 1, 1944, Louisville. Mildred Burke vs. Elvira Snodgrass at the Columbia Gym. If Mitchell is my all time favorite grappler, Elvira is a close second. I’d love to see the greatest women’s champion of all time against the toughest, meanest, scrappiest heel she ever faced in front of a hot Louisville crowd. This wasn’t the only time they faced one another in Louisville or the biggest crowd in Louisville to see them do battle, but it was the night they were the main event attraction. How incredible would it be to see Heywood Allen chomping on his cigar, overseeing the action in the Columbia Gym?
Jerry Lawler vs. Andy Kaufman in Memphis. The Kaufman/Lawler feud is one of the most fascinating stories in wrestling history, both for the in-ring action and the behind the scenes machinations. It’s the greatest work of the modern era and a blueprint for how to do kayfabe in an era when kayfabe is supposedly dead. Some how, some way, I’d have to have a ringside seat so I could see the back and forth after the match with Danny Davis telling Jerry that Andy will pay for the ambulance.
The Road Warriors vs. The Midnight Express, Night of the Skywalkers. Cornette has been a friend and a great asset in my research of Louisville wrestling history. The scaffold match was far from the best work either of these legendary tag teams did, but just to see it all unfold and watch poor Jimmy slip through the arms of Big Bubba (RIP) would be priceless.
When Hero Met Punk, IWA Mid-South, Clarksville, Indiana 2003. Before Punk made it to WWE or even Ring of Honor, he had some of the greatest battles in the modern indy era with Chris Hero, now NXT’s Kassius Ohno, in front of one of the most passionate crowds in wrestling today. Matches like these are the reason CM Punk said his ideal place for Wrestlemania would be the old warehouse in Charlestown, Indiana, where many of their brawls took place. This particular match went almost 93 minutes, and for the last 15-20 minutes, the entire crowd was on their feet. Watch this, their Tables and Ladders duel, or their 60 minute brawl, and join me in hoping that when Kassius Ohio reaches the main roster, WWE will make amends with CM Punk and give these two one last battle – at Wrestlemania.
Honorable Mention: The 1951 Derby Eve Show, Jefferson County Armory, Louisville. I’m going to cheat here, but this has to be one of the greatest cards ever presented in Louisville. Francis McDonogh, who took over the Allen Club from Heywood Allen in 1947, made the annual Derby Eve Show and the Police Benefit Show that took its place a monster even every year. Have a look at the card and tell me you wouldn’t want to be one of the 8000 in attendance that night:
Wild Bill Longson vs. Dutch Heffner
Bill Longson, Fred Davis (of the Chicago Bears), and Freddie Blassie vs. Ivan Rasputin, Stu Gibson, and Dutch Heffner
Mildred Burke vs. Mae Young
Lou Thesz vs. Green Dragon
The Champ vs. the Human Orchid… it happened in Louisville. Thesz and George met on November 27, 1954 at the Jefferson County Armory (now the Louisville Gardens).
Thesz and George split the first two falls, but George refused to come out for the third fall while a “physician” examined George’s injuries. The unidentified medic said he believed George could go on, but George was reluctant. He finally decided to go to the ring, but as he was making his way to the ring, referee (and LPD homicide detective) Ellis Joseph was already raising Thesz’s hand, declaring him the winner.
Earlier in the evening, “The Mask” defeated New Albany native Stu Gibson via DQ, Sonny Meyers drew with Johnny Valentine, and Billy Blassie defeated Sgt. Buck Moore. 4200 attendance.
Below is the Saturday newspaper ad for the big event, plus a page from a notebook kept by then-teenage fan Jim Oetkins, recording the results from the night.
I had the privilege of meeting a man named Jim Oetkins today. Jim was just a kid when the Allen Club was running on Tuesday nights at the Columbia Gym in Louisville, Kentucky, and he still has the scrapbook he used to record the weekly results. It’s an incredible treasure trove of big names and priceless memories. I’m looking forward to reading through it in the next few weeks.
Jim had some great stories about that era, including a road trip he took with two local stars, Mel Meiners and Sgt. Buck Moore of the Louisville Police Department. Mel (the father of WHAS host Terry Meiners) delivered milk to Jim’s home when he was a kid, and one day, Mel stopped to invite Jim on a road trip. “He was going to Owensboro with Buck Moore and some young guy they were training,” says Oetkins. “My father wasn’t too keen on me going, but he knew Mel, and everyone knew Buck. He was as clean-cut, All-American as you can get.”
Jim rode with Meiners, Moore, and the trainee to Owensboro for a show promoted by former wrestler and Louisville favorite, “Kid Scotty” Williams. On their way into town, Meiners decided to have some fun. “He put on a wrestling mask, and he started to mess with the other drivers,” says Oetkins. “He would roll down the windows, get their attention, and grunt at them! I was afraid we’d all be arrested or something.”
Scotty Williams was on hand at the venue when they arrived along with his wife. “They were wonderful people,” Oetkins remembers. “They also had a joke waiting for Buck. Buck had some rather large breasts for a man, so his wife handed him a gift – a huge bra! ‘I thought you might need this tonight,’ she told him.”
Jim was able to confirm several things I had not been able to fully prove in my research. First and foremost was Scotty Williams’ promotion in Owensboro. I found mention that he was planning to move that way in the old newspaper clippings, but a friend in Owensboro was never able to find anything in their local papers to corroborate the story. Jim also confirmed that in the Lou Thesz-Buddy Rogers rivalry, the majority of local fans actually preferred Rogers over the champion Thesz.
Jim told me that Wild Bill Longson was also a big favorite, despite working as heel much of the time. “He was around for so many years, he was the guy to many people.” He also said there was only one true queen of the ring in that era. “There was something about Mildred Burke that stood out. You could tell she was different than the others.”
Jim was a teenager at the time, and he was old enough to know that something was not on the level with the wrestling he enjoyed every Tuesday night. He put the question to Mel while they were in the car. “Is it really fake?”
Mel thought a moment and answered. “Let me put it this way. I’ve got a wife and several kids at home. And most of the guys I work with, they have kids at home. I’m out here doing a job to help put food in their mouths, and so is the guy I’m wrestling. I don’t want to ruin that guys’ chances to provide for his family, and I hope he doesn’t want to do that for mine. We’re out there to wrestle, but we’re also out there to do a job. And we want to keep on doing that job so we can keep taking care of out families. You know what I’m saying?”
“He didn’t need to say any more,” said Jim. “I thought it was a wonderful way to put it.”
If you’d like to know more about Louisville’s golden age of wrestling, the era of Mel Meiners, Buck Moore, Scotty Williams (not to mention Lou Thesz, Buddy Rogers, Bill Longson, Jim Mitchell, and Mildred Burke, you can find it all in Louisville’s Greatest Show: The Story of the Allen Athletic Club, now available in paperback and on Kindle.
Waterloo, Iowa might just be the center of the wrestling universe. The city lives and breathes wrestling. The President’s Hotel, now an apartment complex, was the birthplace of the National Wrestling Alliance, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg in Waterloo. This city loves wrestling at all stages: high school, college, Olympic, and pro. Waterloo is the hometown of Dan Gable, a man considered by many to be the greatest wrestler of all time and one of the greatest sportsmen of the 20th century. It is also home to the museum that bears Gable’s name: The National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum.
The name is quite a mouthful, but the museum, which doesn’t look all that big from the outside, is just as jam packed as the name it bears. Located just up the street from the old President’s Hotel, the Dan Gable Museum is a shrine to wrestling’s past and present. The museum pays homage to the champions of NCAA wrestling and Olympic wrestling (including Indiana University’s Billy Thom) as well as the legends and icons of professional wrestling. It is dedicated to preserving the past while inspiring wrestlers at all levels for the future.
The pro wrestling wing of the museum features an impressive number of rare artifacts going back to the days of Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt. A trunk belonging to Gotch is on display in the gallery near Lou Thesz’s robe and title belt.
You’ll see robes belonging the multiple generations of the Henning family and the legendary Tiger Man, Joe Pesek. A marble statue with a fascinating backstory that once belonged to Thesz sits in the same gallery as does one of three death masks made of the original French Angel, Maurice Tillet. Modern fans will also find a spinner belt signed by John Cena, the singlet worn by Kurt Angle when he won a gold medal with a “broken freakin’ neck,” and the signature black and pink jacket once worn by Bret Hart.
The Dan Gable Museum has exhibit areas devoted to Olympic wrestling, NCAA wrestling, and the history of wrestling itself, starting with one wall dedicated to the legendary confrontation between Jacob and an angel in the book of Genesis. Other highlights included several posters for the Barnum and Bailey “At Show” wrestling exhibitions, some beautiful original art work paying tribute to the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame inductees, and this unique artifact from Brock Lesnar’s pre-WWE days as an NCAA champion in Minnesota.
The Dan Gable Museum is more than just a place to learn about wrestling. They also host clinics on a weekly basis in the Dan Gable Teaching Center, an area they plan to expand in the coming year. The museum has $1.7 million dollars in planned renovations now starting, including interactive exhibits in the pro wrestling wing. Museum director Kyle Klingman gave me a quick tour of the storage area where even more amazing wrestling artifacts are waiting their turn to be put on display in the galleries above.
If your summer plans are still flexible, here’s another reason to plan a quick trip to Waterloo: the museum is hosting their second annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony in less than two weeks. Special guests for the July 20-22 festivities include Jim Ross, Shelton Benjamin, Chuck Taylor, B. Brian Blair, American Alpha, Sabu, Paul Orndorff, Magnum T.A., Larry Henning, Baron von Raschke, J.J. Dillon, Gerry Briscoe, and the museum’s namesake himself, Dan Gable.
The National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum is located in Waterloo, Iowa, and is open Monday through Friday from 9 AM to 5 PM. For more information visit their website or find them on Facebook.
Yes, it’s off the beaten path. Yes, it’s out of the way. Yes, it’s absolutely worth the effort. I know I’ll be back again soon.
Episode 67 of the 6:05 Superpodcast is now available for download. It was my pleasure to do an interview with The Great Brian Last this week about the lost history of Louisville wrestling covered in the new book, Louisville’s Greatest Show: The Story of the Allen Athletic Club. Brian and I cover everything from promoters Heywood Allen and Francis McDonogh to Lou Thesz, Gorgeous George, Buddy Rogers, Bill Longson, Elvira Snodgrass, and more. We cover tag teams, midgets, masked men, bears, alligators, and even weddings.
The 6:05 Superpodcast is a must-listen for die hards, and Brian Last does a phenomenal job bringing the stories of yesteryear to life through a variety of guests and regular segments. Download the 6:05 Superpodcast on iTunes or visit 605pod.com and listen today.
Louisville’s Greatest Show is now available on Amazon.com