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?
Found this rare an amazing clip on Chris Parsons’ Youtube channel: Dick the Bruiser cutting a promo for an upcoming match in Louisville. This is dated November 1965, which would have been the era when Wee Willie Davis was the promoter in Louisville working in conjunction with Bruiser.
If you haven’t read Bruiser’s biography, it’s worth picking up. You can buy it direct from Crowbar Press.
What do you do after winning a huge prize on a game show? For “Wee Willie” Davis, the $24,000 answer was, “You open a wrestling promotion.”
Allegedly standing at 6’6” and weighing 285 pounds, “Wee Willie” Davis was a graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute with a degree in horticulture and a masters in mechanical engineering. Davis applied his engineering skills when he and fellow wrestler Prince Ilaki Ibn Ali Hassan invented the Glowmeter, an early version of a “heads up display” that projected a car’s speed on the windshield – this all the way back in 1950.
A football player and track and field athlete in college, Davis made a smooth transition to professional wrestling. He was often paired with Frank Jares, either as a tag team or as rivals, and he is credited with giving former boxer Primo Carnera his first cauliflower eat.
Having moved to the West Coast after college, Davis parlayed his success as a wrestler into a successful film career. His film credits include Reap the Wild Wind, Mighty Joe Young, Samson and Delilah, Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion, The Asphalt Jungle, Son of Paleface, and To Catch a Thief.
Davis only made a handful of appearances for the Allen Athletic Club in the 1940s and 1950s, but it was after a pair of game show spots that Davis made his biggest mark on Louisville wrestling. Davis won $16,000 on The $64,000 Question and another $8000 on The $64,000 Challenge. An avid gardener, Davis appeared on the former show as an expert on horticulture, surprising many viewers who only knew him from his movie roles and wrestling persona.
Davis relocated to Louisville with a plan to invest his game show winnings. Less than a year after the Allen Athletic Club closed for good, he partnered with Francis McDonough’s widow Betty to open the Golden Rod Club, a new wrestling promotion licensed in Louisville.
Golden Rod was not the only show in town when they opened shop in 1958. A promoter named Kara George already held a license for the so-called Louisville Athletic Club, but George’s inability to secure a venue opened the door for Davis and McDonough. They held their first show on March 11 at the Armory featuring names like Freddie Blassie, Wilbur Snyder, and Bill Longson.
Golden Rod struggled to find an audience, and early on, Davis found himself contemplating closing the promotion. Golden Rod only lasted a few short years.
Davis found a number of ways to keep himself in the news while living in Louisville. In 1959 Davis was in attendance at a playoff hockey game between the Louisville Rebels of the International Hockey League and the Troy (OH) Bruins. During the third period, a fight broke out in the penalty box between a Louisville player and a Troy player.
Hoping to “do a good deed,” Davis intervened in the melee. He never saw the Troy goalie, John “Plumber” Craig coming as he skated in and whacked Davis across the head.
When order was finally restored, Davis and a Louisville player were taken to Kentucky Baptist Hospital. Davis required 35 stitches to close the gash in his head, and a few days later, he appeared in a newspaper photo sporting a bandage covering his head and holding the goalie’s stick. Davis sued the Louisville and Troy hockey clubs as well as the company that booked the Armory for $12,500.
Davis was the first to admit he made a mistake, telling the Courier-Journal, “I shoulda kept my nose out.” Davis likely had taught a few fans a hard lesson about staying out of the ring in his many years as a wrestler. Hockey players fight, and just like in wrestling, if you step into their ring, you’re going to pay a penalty.
“I don’t blame the guys who hit me,” he said. “I was mad at the time, but actually I had no business there.”
Davis made the front page again in October of that same hear right as the U.S. House of Representatives prepared to open hearings on the legitimacy of television game shows. In the wake of the scandal involving the quiz show Twenty One among others, Davis came forward to claim he had received “no help” in preparing to be on The $64,000 Question. “They wouldn’t even loan me a book,” he said, referring to the reference book question writers used to prepare for his appearance on the show.
In 1961 Davis reorganized under the name Wilemar Athletic Club. As Wilemar, Davis partnered with the Indianapolis wrestling office, which would soon come under control of Wilbur Snyder and his partner, Indiana’s favorite wrestling legend Dick the Bruiser.
In Bobby Heenan’s autobiography, Heenan recalls seeing just how tough Davis could be as a promoter. Heenan was sitting in the locker room back stage at the Armory when Johnny Valentine burst in and locked the door behind him. Valentine had gotten into an altercation in the arena, punching a fan and a police officer, and Valentine was not keen to go to jail. The police pounded on the door, while the teenage Heenan watched a desperate Valentine from a bench, too scared to move.
It was “Wee Willie” Davis, not the Louisville police, who ended the stand off with Valentine. Davis grabbed a fighting stick, went into the dressing room, and beat Valentine over the head until he hit the ground. The cops got the cuffs on Valentine and escorted him from the building.
Davis found himself in custody in September of 1963 following an incident with a masked man at the Armory. “The Masked Terror” had just left the ring and was walking back to the locker room when he decided to take a swing at a fan. The fan turned out to be an off-duty policeman, who was taken to the hospital for treatment.
The Masked Terror escaped out the back door, and the police demanded answers. Davis refused to break kayfabe and tell police who the Masked Terror was or where he might be. Davis was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.
“Wee Willie” Davis would spend more time in the Jefferson County jail during the 1970s, but on the other side of the bars. Davis became a sheriff and worked as a guard at the jail for a few years before retiring.
Davis kept wrestling alive during a transitional era in Louisville. He never had the box office success of the Allen Club before him nor Memphis wrestling after, but Davis filled a void for the fans who had not lost their passion for wrestling in the wake of Francis McDonough’s death.
“Wee Willie” Davis passed away on April 9, 1981 at the age of 74 in his adopted home town of Louisville.