Category Archives: Wrestling History

Kentucky’s Own Hillbilly Jim

I had no idea Hillbilly Jim had a book until I stumbled across a copy at Half Price Books. It’s a light read, one I completed in a day, and I’ll be honest: it’s got flaws. It stars on page one when the author (not Hillbilly Jim himself) attributes the phrase “Pencil Neck Geek” to Jerry Lawler instead of Freddie Blassie. He later refers to Memphis wrestling as the AWA, and he credits Antonio Rocca – not Gorgeous George – as being the wrestler who made people want to buy a television in the 1950s.

Clearly, Hillbilly Jim’s biographer isn’t in tune with wrestling or wrestling history. But he does have a good yarn to tell, and if you can get past the factual issues (most of which have nothing to do with Hillbilly Jim’s story), you’ll enjoy reading the tale of the poor Kentucky boy who rose to become the #2 babyface in the Hulkamania era of the WWF.

Hillbilly Jim is the star here, and he comes across the way you remember him. There’s no dirt, no scandal, no tell-all reveals to be found here. Just a simple story about a Kentucky boy who grew up playing basketball and ended up becoming a major professional wrestling star.

The Amazon reviews are largely negative on this one, and if you’re a stickler for getting the facts right, it will get under your skin. J. Michael Kenyon would have pulled his hair out over some of the errors. But if you grew up watching wrestling in the 80s and remember the infectious grin and positivity of Hillbilly Jim, it’s a trip down memory lane worth taking.

Praise for “Louisville’s Greatest Show” from a Fan Who Remembers

When you work on a book about events from 60-80 years ago, there’s always a nagging worry in the back of your mind you’ve got it wrong. In writing the book Louisville’s Greatest Show, all I really had to go on were the newspaper clippings I found online and a few scattered memories left by fans. I was fortunate enough to get in touch with Dr. Allen McDonogh, son of Louisville promoter Francis “Mac” McDonogh, and get his perspective on the golden age of Louisville wrestling, but I never was able to find anyone who was there in the seats, just as a fan.

Today, one of those fans found me. His name is Jim Oetkins, and out of the blue, he called to give me a pat on the back and an “Atta boy” for bringing back some of the greatest memories of his adolescence.

Now 79 years of age, Jim was thirteen years old when he experienced wrestling at the Columbia Gym in 1951. His father got tickets to the Tuesday night shows through a connection at work, and wrestling became an almost weekly ritual.

“I remember seeing it live, and watching on TV with Jimmy Finegan calling the action. I remember all the ads you put in the book from the weekly papers. I worked as a paper boy for the Courier-Journal back then, and if I missed a week, the first thing I’d do Wednesday morning when I got my stack of papers was flip to the sports section to see who won the night before.

Jim shared a funny story about two men sitting in front of him one night during a bout between the hated German Hans Hermann and long-time Louisville stalwart “Wild Bill” Longson.

“One guy turns to the other and says, ‘Hermann’s gonna destroy your guy Longson!’ The other says, ‘You wanna make a bet on it?’ He pulled out his wallet and started flashing twenty dollar bills. The other guy leaned in and whispered, ‘You know it’s all fake, right? They aren’t really wrestling for real!’ But his friend wouldn’t have any of it. He kept pushing his pal to put some money on the line!”

Jim thanked me again for the trip down memory lane, promising to put the book in a prominent place on his bookshelf. I thanked him for one of the greatest compliments I could ever receive on a book like this one. It was my honor and pleasure to tell the story of this long-lost history.

Louisville’s Greatest Show is available in paperback and on Kindle. Go to Amazon.com to order your copy today.

Dan Gable: A Wrestling Life

Before I left Iowa last week, I picked up a signed copy of Dan Gable’s book, A Wrestling Life. This is not simply one of the very best wrestling books I have ever read, it’s one of the most motivational and inspiring books I’ve ever read.

If the name Dan Gable is not familiar to you, I’ll bring you up to speed. Gable was an NCAA champion at Iowa State University and an Olympic gold medalist at the 1972 Winter Games. After winning gold, Gable retired from wrestling and went into coaching. He won fifteen NCAA team titles for the Iowa Hawkeyes, including an astonishing nine in a row during the 1980s. He is considered not only one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, but one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century.

Gable never stepped into world of pro wrestling, but that shouldn’t deter anyone – wrestling fan or no – from reading this book. A Wrestling Life is less an autobiography and more a collection of stories about Gable’s life. He discusses everything from losing his last match in college to winning gold to the shocking murder of his sister when he was only a teenager.

Gable is raw and honest at all turns, and his enthusiasm for wrestling and teaching shines through every chapter. Gable’s relentless drive to be the best at what he did will have you examining your own life and seeking the same kind of motivation to fulfill your own dreams.

A Wrestling Life was a quick and inspiring read, one I will probably revisit again soon. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

You can find A Wrestling Life by Dan Gable on Amazon.com, but may I strongly suggest you bypass Amazon and support the Dan Gable Museum and National Wrestling Hall of Fame by purchasing through their website instead.

Why You Need to Visit the National Wrestling Hall of Fame

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.

Talkin’ the Business and Rasslin’ Memories

Whether you’re a fan of wrestling past or wrestling present, there are some amazing podcasts out there to please every wrestling fan. In the last few weeks, I had the privilege of visiting two of them.

Rasslin’ Memories was the first podcast that hosted me when I released Bluegrass Brawlers. Glen Braget and George Schire do a fantastic job chronicling the golden age of wrestling, and it as a pleasure to visit with Glen to talk about Louisville’s Greatest Show. Rasslin’ Memories has had a terrific run as of late, featuring guests like Pretty Boy Doug Sommers and Bob Backlund as well as authors Richard Vicek (Dick the Bruiser‘s biographer) and Dan Murphy (Sisterhood of the Squared Circle).

You can download Rasslin’ Memories from their website on Pioneer 90.1 Radio.

On the other end of the spectrum is Talkin’ the Business with KC and Dave, a podcast that thrives on telling the stories of today’s independent wrestlers. Kevin and Dave begin each show with some solid commentary on WWE, and they have had some terrific guests as of late including two of my favorites, Mr. Grim and Mickie Knuckles. This week Kevin and I talk a little recent Louisville history discussing the 20+ year legacy of OVW and IWA Mid-South. You can also get to know a young Ohio-based wrestler named Alex Daniels on this week’s show. Also known as “The Real Ben Affleck,” Daniels is a rising star with a bright future.

Talkin’ the Business can be downloaded on iTunes and PodBean.

Another Great Review!

Wrestle Book Review recently gave Louisville’s Greatest Show: The Story of the Allen Athletic Club. Guess what? They loved it!

If you haven’t taken a look at Louisville’s Greatest Show, you’re missing out on the true golden age of wrestling in the River City. Decades before OVW, IWA Mid-South, and even Memphis lit the city on fire, the Allen Athletic Club was a Tuesday night tradition, feeding wrestling fans a steady diet of world champions, tag teams, ladies matches, midgets, bears, and more.

This is the era of Lou Thesz, Wild Bill Longson, Mildred Burke, Johnny Valentine. and Gorgeous George. It’s also the story of many long-forgotten Louisville heroes including Stu Gibson, “The Black Panther” Jim Mitchell, Sgt. Buck Moore of the LPD, and Mel Meiners.

You can read the review by clicking here.

Louisville’s Greatest Show is available on Amazon in paperback and for Kindle.

Louisville’s Greatest Show on Rasslin’ Memories

A few years ago when I release Bluegrass Brawlers, the first podcast to invite me on and talk about the book was Rasslin’ Memories, hosted by Glen Braget and George Schire. It was my great pleasure to catch up with Glen a few weeks ago and record a new episode of the program, this time in support of Louisville’s Greatest Show!

You can download the latest episode of Rasslin’ Memories and hear more about the new book on Soundcloud. Click here to download now!

A Tale of Two Photos

In 1950 Louisville wrestling promoter Francis McDonogh signed an agreement with WHAS TV to broadcast live professional wrestling in Louisville from the Columbia Gym on Fourth Street. McDonogh had been offered television a few years earlier, but he was reluctant to sign on fearing (as many promoters did) that television would cut into the live audience.

TV did not hurt the live crowds in Louisville any more than it had elsewhere in the country. Not only did TV bring more fans to the live events, wrestling proved to be the catalyst for many in the Louisville area to purchase their first television.

The two photos below were taken when McDonogh signed the deal with WHAS TV. The first photo appeared in the February 12, 1950 edition of the Courier-Journal when the TV deal was announced.

The photo below came from the personal collection of Dr. Gary McDonogh, Francis’s son. Same location, same faces. A fun “behind the scenes” look at this solemn and seminal moment in Louisville sports history.

WHAS carried live wrestling from the Columbia Gym sponsored by Fehr’s Beer for an hour every Tuesday night for more than three years, ending the run in the fall of 1953. Sadly no tape exists of this show because WHAS did not tape anything until just a few years later.

Read the full story of the Allen Athletic Club and the WHAS TV run in Louisville’s Greatest Show, now in print on Amazon.com.

Thank you, JMK

J. Michael Kenyon refused to read my last book.

After reading Bluegrass Brawlers and Lord Carlton, JMK refused to read Louisville’s Greatest Show. He got a few pages in before he gave up and emailed me back. The draft I thought I had proofread fairly well was not nearly up to his standards. The legendary Seattle sports writer is a stickler for proper grammar, punctuation, spelling, the words, and he would have found it nearly impossible to read the manuscript for historical errors with all those distractions in the way.

Two weeks later I emailed him again, this time with a thoroughly proofed and edited version of the same book. Thankfully, this draft passed muster, and he was able to get out of the introduction and into the meat of the book. Of course he found a handful of historical errors that needed correcting, but that’s why I sent it to him. The man was a walking encyclopedia of wrestling history. His instant recall of events, people, places, etc. was second to none. As I understand it, he had both physical and electronic files far more extensive than any other wrestling writer. Having seen the stacks of files and documents at Castle Cornette in Louisville, I can only imagine what a treasure trove he amassed.

I never met JMK in person. My first encounter with him was online, when he responded to a post I placed on the Wrestling Classics message board looking for information about the Black Panther Jim Mitchell. JMK decided to check me out first, so he bought a copy of Bluegrass Brawlers on Amazon. He sent me quite a few notes and corrections on the book, starting with my audacious claim that at one time, wrestling was more the American past time than baseball! In spite of those errors, I think he saw enough potential in me to share what he had about Mitchell.

We traded emails several times over the last few years. He was always happy to answer questions, and he always gave you more than you ask. When Lord Carlton’s book was ready, he happily read it over for factual errors as well.

One of the rare non-wrestling subjects that we discussed was the murder of actress Thelma Todd, one of the greatest mysteries of Old Hollywood. It was an obsession for him, so much so that he had even walked the site where she was killed for himself. He shared his own theory about whodunnit and why. I never got the chance to tell him this, but I incorporated that theory into a science fiction project I am working on for future release.

JMK never minced words. He left no detail unchecked in making sure I got every story right. He had a charming curmudgeon-like way about him in his emails, but his critiques made his praise mean all that much more.

I will forever be grateful for the brief time I had to interact with him. Everyone needs mentors to help them become the best they can be, and J. Michael Kenyon pushed me to be the best wrestling writer I could be. He demanded excellence, and while I have a long way to go, I am where i am because of his generosity and wisdom.

The wrestling world has lost its greatest historian. RIP, JMK, and thank you for everything.

Louisville Wrestling Talk on the 6:05 Superpodcast!

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

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