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The Legend of Wild Bill Cantrell

If you’re a fan of racing on the road or the water, the name Wild Bill Cantrell might sound familiar. Cantrell’s wrestling career was not a long one, lasting not even a decade if we go by newspaper dates, but Cantrell is duly enshrined in the Motorsports Hall of Fame for another sport: Unlimited Hydroplane Racing.

Not much is known about Cantrell’s early days. He was born in West Point, Kentucky in 1908, and by his account, his family lived in “dire poverty.” Despite his early disadvantages, Cantrell was an ambitious young man, competing in his first boat race in 1924.

Cantrell was piloting an Outboard motor in a race on the Ohio River early in his career when he lost control of his boat and crashed through anchor chains and moored spectator vessels. The incident earned him the nickname “Wild Bill,” one he proudly wore in all of his sporting endeavors. Cantrell scored his first major boat victory in 1927. Only 19 at the time, Cantrell won the Ohio Valley Championship for Class B Outboards.

Cantrell took up wrestling in the early 1930s at the Savoy Club, where he first got to know matchmaker Heywood Allen. Cantrell was one of many who followed Allen when he went into business for himself. He appeared on the inaugural card for the Allen Club in 1935, appearing as the Louisville representative in a “Louisville vs. Kentucky” match against Billy Fruechtenicht. Cantrell lost the match.

Cantrell once squared off with one of the greatest heels in wrestling history, though a the time, the heel had yet to come into his truest form. On September 28, 1937, he defeated a dark-haired Californian named George Wagner, who was a few years away from becoming the legendary heel Gorgeous George. In 1939 he wrestled “Sailor” Bully Curry as well as Lon Chaney – who it turns out was no relation at all to the iconic horror movie family.

Cantrell was a regular for the Savoy and later Allen Clubs who came out on the winning side more often than not, but Cantrell’s first love remained racing. He continued to compete in boat races throughout the 1930s, and he may likely have dabbled in other sporting arenas as well. A July 1935 article about the Allen Club lists Cantrell, then 27, as the Deputy Game and Fish Commission warden.
Cantrell’s last match was at the May 17, 1939 show at the Sports Arena. Cantrell scored one last victory over Pasha Biram Bey and bid the ring farewell.

For the next decade, Cantrell divided his time between auto racing and boat racing. He set track records all over Indiana in 1940 and 1941, but his career nearly ended early when he broke his neck in a crash in Evansville during 1941. Cantrell recovered and resumed his pursuit of speed.

In 1948 Cantrell ran in his first Indianapolis 500, running 161 laps in the fabled race. He returned a year later and only managed 95 laps in his second go-round.

Despite a disappointing finish in the Indy 500, 1949 proved to be a break out year for Cantrell. He won five of six major championships in Unlimited Hydroplane racing that season, including the coveted Gold Cup in Detroit. George Davis, a friend who was dockside for the victory, recalls Cantrell’s reaction when he won the top prize in his sport. “When he came in by the judge’s stand, Bill got out of the cockpit and kissed the deck of the boat! Then he pulled his old dollar watch out to see what time it was.”

Cantrell survived another brush with death in 1952 when his boat exploded during a race. A rescue pulled his unconscious body from the wreck as the boat burned to the waterline. Cantrell spend 46 days in the hospital that time.

Cantrell continued racing for two decades more, winning the National High Point Championship again in 1963. He was the back-up driver for a race in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho in 1968 when he officially competed for the last time. At the age of 60, Cantrell boarded the boat dubbed Roostertail for one final ride. “Cantrell’s last appearance in competition was at the 1968 Diamond Cup in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, at age 60 as a relief driver for Jerry Schoenith in GALE’S ROOSTERTAIL.

“When I came up for the start, I wasn’t afraid to go fast,” he said, “But I didn’t want to go fast.”
Wild Bill finished in second place in Heat 2-A. Right after the race, he told a radio interviewer, “This is my last race.” Wild Bill’s amazing ride was finally at an end.

Wild Bill Cantrell stayed active in the sport, even though his racing days were over. He moved to Madison, Indiana, home of the Madison Regatta, and he worked as a consultant for the Cooper Express team among others.

Cantrell was known to be a fan of the fairer sex, but he never married, saying his first love would always be the boats. He was enshrined in the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1992 and remained one of the sport’s most beloved and revered ambassadors.

Wild Bill Cantrell passed away in 1996. Six months later the people of Madison honored him by naming the Governor’s Cup Race Course at the annual Regatta the Wild Bill Cantrell Memorial Race Course. His ashes were scattered out in the waters, the same water Wild Bill first raced over in 1929 in a hydroplane named Falls City Baby.

Wrestling was just a lark to Wild Bill Cantrell, a way to make a few extra bucks when he wasn’t racing. Nevertheless, Cantrell played a vital role in keeping wrestling alive through turbulent times. His colorful personal, groomed in the ring, carried over to the race course, and hydroplane fans still cherish the memory of Wild Bill to this day.

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Arizona Wrestling Historian Gives Thumbs Up to Lord Carlton

lord carlton cover-3Dale Pierce, author of the Ohio wrestling history “Wrestling in Akron,” is now blogging about the history of pro wrestling in Arizona. He’s got a great website, filled with wonderful stories, and he was kind enough to do a review of Lord Carlton, which you can read here.

Hate that we were unable to capture the Phil Melby feud he mentions in the book, but the beautiful thing about self-publishing is… you can always go back and revise one day.

Happy to say Dale enjoyed the book and gave it his endorsement. I’m equally happy to recommend that if you’re a fan of wrestling and want to know the rich history of the sport, Dale’s blog is a must read.

Bookmark the Arizona Pro Wresting History blog, and enjoy!

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Brother’s Keepers

13321899_10204634102251031_7530363067376011121_nIf you don’t know, the two men in the photo at left are Hy Zaya and Shane Mercer, two of the very best wrestlers in the Midwest.

These two men have been bitter rivals. They have fought, they have bled, they have waged war with one another.

They have also shared locker rooms, cars, and hotel rooms with one another. They have traveled the country side by side in pursuit of a dream they share in common.

Are they rivals? Of course they are. But they are also brothers in the truest sense of the word.

“Sure we’ve discussed racial overtones as a topic,” says mercer, “But I don’t think we honestly thought much of color when it came to each other and sharing the road life. Life’s about so much more than color.
Enjoy it man.”

This is the way it has always been in wrestling, at least among “the boys.” While the seats and the card out front may have divided along color, the boys rarely were. They shared locker rooms. They shared rides. They shared tables at dinner. They shared hotel rooms – even if that meant one sneaking the other in when the manager wasn’t looking.

When the opportunity finally came, many white wrestlers were happy to put black wrestlers over. Even the great Lou Thesz, who would never, ever allow Buddy Rogers to go over him in the ring, put the legendary Seelie Samara over when given the chance.

Why didn’t these men see color? For one thing, they shared a common enemy. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, they were all united against the unscrupulous promoters who didn’t want to pay any of them fair compensation. But that wasn’t the only reason for the difference.

Wrestlers judge other wrestlers on just one thing – how you work in the ring. If you know your craft, if you treat others with respect, if you give as well as you take, you are welcome. It’s the color of your character, not your skin, that matters most.

Whatever you think of pro wrestling inside the ring, we can all take a lesson from how they do business outside the arena. It’s time to look past what’s on the outside. We all need to overcome our prejudices and look a little deeper.

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Gorgeous George in “Alias the Champ”

In the early days of broadcasting, two stars did more to put televisions into homes than anyone else: Milton Berle and Gorgeous George. Born George Wagner, the gorgeous one began his wrestling career as just another brunette babyface in black trunks. Hoping to make himself stand out, Wagner found inspiration in a fellow wrestler named Lord Patrick Lansdowne. Lansdowne was a farm boy from Ohio, but a fancy wardrobe and a butler named Jeeves transformed him into one of the most hated men in wrestling.

George took Lansdowne’s idea several steps further. He grew out his hair, dyed it blonde, and commissioned a distinctive hairstyle known as the marcel. He began wearing purple trunks and had a series of lavish, expensive robes made to fit his 210 pound frame. Gorgeous George was hated by men by adored by women, who made up half the wrestling audience in the 40s and 50s. Wrestling from Hollywood became a television hit, and George became one of the most sought after guest stars. He even worked a celebrity wrestling match for charity against Burt Lancaster, with Bob Hope filling in as his own personal assistant Jeffrey.

Alias the Champ would be just another B-movie from the 1950s if it were not for Gorgeous George. The plot centers on a New York mob trying to muscle in on the California wrestling scene, and while George isn’t the focal point of the story, but judging from the posters and ads put out for the film, it’s clear Republic Pictures was counting on him to be the draw. Keep an eye out for some other wrestlers in the film as well, including Sammy Menacker and Tor Johnson, who became a cult favorite when he appeared in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Gorgeous George changed the face of television and professional wrestling. His charismatic personality gave rise to future wrestling stars like Ric Flair, Adrian Adonis, and Tyler Breeze. His influence can also be seen outside wrestling in the careers of James Brown, Bob Dylan, and Muhammed Ali.

“Alias the Champ” is now available to view free on INC – The Independent Network Channel. The INC channel is available for free only on ROKU.

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Louisville’s Jim Mitchell on Film

The Black Panther Jim MitchellThis is the best clip I’ve found of “The Black Panther” yet.

Jim Mitchell was a native of Louisville, Kentucky. Born in 1909, Mitchell was a football player who, under the advice of a high school coach, took up wrestling to fend off some bullies. He rode his bike between towns in Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio in the 1920s when there was no color barrier because there were no other African American wrestlers working. Mitchell traveled the world, including Europe and Australia, and rose to become one of the top stars of his day.

You can read more about Mitchell here, and also in the book Bluegrass Brawlers.

Much more story to tell of this amazing man. The research continues!

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Lord Carlton: Now available on Amazon

lord carlton cover-3From the author of Bluegrass Brawlers: The Story of Professional Wrestling in Louisville and the woman who co-founded Kranken Welpen, the world’s only heavy metal polka band, comes the story of a budding young athlete who went from sailor to royalty to artist by way of the wrestling ring.

Lord Carlton: Wrestler, Artist, My Father tells the story of Leo Whippern, a promising young artist from California who became one of the top stars of the golden age of wrestling. Whippern made a name for himself during the 1940s as Sailor Tug Carlson, but when he realized he was just another strapping young war veteran in black trunks, he traded in his sailor’s cap for a monocle.

Inspired by Lord Lansdowne, the same man whose gimmick inspired Gorgeous George, Whippern transformed himself into the British heel Lord Leslie Carlton. His new heel persona made him a rich man as he created drama in and out of the ring, but his family life after wrestling proved to be even wilder than any wrestling storyline.

Lord Leslie Carlton’s tale is a story of triumph and heartbreak. It’s the story of a stellar athlete and a talented artist, an eclectic migrant family, a tragic murder, a vengeful wife, and the daughter who somehow found the God her father never believed in.

Lord Carlton: Wrestler, Artist, My Father is available now in paperback on Amazon.com.

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Ali vs. Inoki

A year or so ago, I wrote the following story for a book project I have since set aside. In honor of the recent passing of Muhammed Ali, I thought it would be fitting to share this.

He was the greatest fighter of all time. He was the undisputed sportsman of the 20th century. He appeared on more Sports Illustrated covers than anyone, including Michael Jordan. In a span of twenty one years, he won a gold medal, three world championships, and a total of 53 matches with only five losses. He survived a three and a half year exile enforced on him by his own government and returned in even greater form than before.

If you walk through the Ali Center in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, you’ll learn about his early life. You’ll learn about the prejudice he faced as a child. You’ll learn about his conversion to Islam. You’ll learn about his many accomplishments as a fighter and as a champion for peace around the world. You can even sit and watch many of his most famous bouts in their entirety.

Still, there’s one match missing from this museum, one match that the champ and his people would like everyone to forget. It’s a match that everyone wanted to see but no one wants to remember, a match that reflected some of the great inter-fight matches of the past and foreshadowed the rise of MMA fighting some twenty years later. The match that took place in Japan in 1976 pitted the Greatest, Muhammed Ali, against a legendary Japanese fighter, Antonio Inoki.

Inoki was not a boxer. He was a professional wrestler. He stood 6’3” and weighted 240 pounds in his prime. Inoki trained with legends like Karl Gotch and Rikidozan. He began his fighting career in 1960, the same year young Cassius Clay (later Muhammed Ali) rose to national prominence in the United States. After eleven years fighting for the established Japanese promotions, Inoki struck out on his own to found his own promotion, New Japan Pro Wrestling.

Inoki was a professional wrestler and Ali a professional boxer. In days long past, the two disciplines went hand in hand, in the ring and out. In the late 19th century, William Muldoon faced off in the ring with his good friend, boxing champion John L. Sullivan. Wrestling champion “Strangler” Lewis had a close friendship with his contemporary, boxing champ Jack Dempsey. Lou Thesz was never shy about his friendship with African American boxing champion Joe Louis. By the 1970s, however, the two sports had long been divided. Boxing promoters refused to be categorized along side the sideshow of professional wrestling, while wrestling promoters doggedly insisted their sport was no less real than boxing.

A match between Ali and Inoki might never have happened if Ali hadn’t made the boast that, after beating men from nearly every other country in the world, he was looking for a champion from Japan. In an April 1975 meeting with Ichiro Hatta, the president of the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Association, Ali laid out the challenge. “Isn’t there any Oriental fighter who will challenge me? I’ll give him one million dollars if he wins.”

Inoki, as savvy a businessman as he was a grappler, saw an opportunity, and he challenged Ali to a fight. Inoki had already engaged in some mixed fighting competitions, most notably the 1972 Munich Olympics judo gold medalist Wilhelm Ruska. Inoki wanted to be viewed as a legitimate fighter, but there were some in the press who refused to be convinced the Ruska bout was not staged. Inoki saw an opportunity to be legitimized in the eyes of the press and the world, so when Ali made the challenge, Inoki answered him, offering Ali a pay day of six million dollars.

The money was a big factor in getting Ali to agree to the match, but Ali’s childhood attraction to the sport of professional wrestling likely played a role as well. Ali learned to fight at the Columbia Gym in downtown Louisville, where Heywood Allen and the Allen Athletic Club held wrestling exhibitions every Tuesday night. Young Cassius Clay might easily have seen Lou Thesz, Buddy Rogers, Baron Leone, “Classy” Freddie Blassie, “Wild Bill” Longson, and his hero Gorgeous George competing in the same building where he trained.

Ali was also well aware that professional wrestling as a work with pre-arranged finishes designed to tell a good story. What Ali didn’t know was that in his case, Inoki had no intentions of working Muhammed Ali. As far as Inoki was concerned, Ali’s boast as an insult to his country and his people. Inoki was a professional wrestler, but he was also a shooter, and he had every intention on humbling the Heavyweight Champion of the World.

Promoter Bob Arum, who also masterminded the Snake River Canyon jump of Evil Knievel, was brought in to help promote the fight that was broadcast on closed circuit TV in the United States. A pair of wrestling promoters from New York got involved and paired it with another boxer-vs-wrestler match to take place the same day at Shea Stadium between Chuck Wepner and Andre the Giant. The promoters were Vincent J. McMahon and his son, Vincent K. McMahon.

Arum was just as much in the dark about Inoki’s plan as Ali’s people. In fact he reassured worried members of Ali’s camp that they had nothing to worry about. “Professional wrestlers are performers. The thing is a fraud.”

Said Ali’s doctor Ferdie Pacheco, “Ali’s fight in Tokyo was basically a Bob Arum thought-up scam that was going to be ‘ha-ha, ho-ho. We’re going to go over there. It’s going to be orchestrated. It’s going to be a lot of fun and it’s just a joke.’ Well, when we got over there, we found out no one was laughing.”

Ali’s managers had reasons to be worried. The 1975 “Thrilla in Manilla” versus Joe Frazier had taken a huge toll on Ali’s body. In total, Ali had taken punishment from seven Hall of Fame fighters in his career. Doctors began advising the champ in 1975 that he needed to hang up the gloves sooner rather than later, citing severe damage to brain and kidney tissue as their chief concerns. Ali would continue to ignore this advice for another five years, facing one more Hall of Famer, Larry Holmes, on his way out.

With Arum’s reassurances that the champ would suffer no real damage, Ali made his way to Japan in the summer of 1976 for what he believed would be a fun and easy pay day. Ali even brought a special guest along to be his ringside manager, another of his childhood wrestling heroes, “Classy” Freddie Blassie.

Ali arrived on June 16, and the two competitors met for the first time at a lunch party for the media. Ali gave one of his trademark speeches, telling the world what he would do to Inoki at Nippon Budokan Arena. He nicknamed Inoki “The Pelican” because of Inoki’s “Big bullseye chin.” Inoki responded, “When your fist connects with my chin, take care that your fist is not damaged.” Inoki also handed Ali a gift, a wooden crutch to use after Inoki threw him from the ring.

There are conflicting stories as to how and when it was decided the match would be a shoot. Some in Ali’s camp claim that they were sold on the match being a work, but that Ali balked at the plan when he was told that Inoki expected him to lose. Fight journalist Jim Murphy says the finish called for Ali to accidentally knock out the ref. Ali would then check on the ref’s condition, allowing Inoki to get the quick roll up for a pin. Inoki would get the victory, but Ali would save face by being the good guy, concerned for the safety of the ref.

Inoki’s camp insisted the match was always intended to be a work. Ali only learned of this when he went to see Inoki train.

“OK, so when do we do the rehearsal?” Ali asked.

“No, no. This isn’t an exhibition,” replied Inoki. “It’s a real fight.”

However the decision/revelation took place, Ali’s team went to work renegotiating the rules of the fight. Ali, being the bigger name, had the upper hand in these negotiations, and the rules came out very one sided. Inoki would not be allowed to duplex Ali. He could not head-butt Ali, knee him below the belt knee blows, use open hands, or kick Ali over the belt.

Inoki was disappointed. Essentially, Ali’s people wanted him to go into the ring and be a punching bag. Inoki decided to take the matter lying down – literally. The result was one of the most memorable and boring and embarrassing bouts in fight history.

As soon as the bell rang, Inoki slid on his back and started to kick Ali. Inoki stayed there for most of the firs round, keeping Ali and his deadly fists at bay by kicking wildly at the champ’s legs.

The awkward battle continued round after round, with Inoki staying low and aiming for Ali’s legs, his only viable means of offense. In the sixth, Ali tried to grab Inoki’s leg. Inoki brought his other leg up tripped Ali to the mat, and sat on his chest.

Ali didn’t even throw a punch until the seventh round. He continued to dodge Inoki’s feet, waving his arms and yelling at Inoki to “fight like a man.” Inoki knew better and stayed flat on the mat.

In the eighth, Ali’s manager Angelo Dundee asked that the boots on Inoki’s feet be taped. The shoe laces had cut Ali’s legs, and it was clear Ali’s legs were taking a brutal beating.

The match went to the fifteen round time limit and was declared a draw. Inoki would have actually won the match it not for losing three points on a foul. Angry fans in the Budokan chanted for their money back. The two men collected their pay day, and the sports press of the world left the match shaking their collective heads over the fiasco.

The match was an embarrassment for Ali, but the damage went far deeper than merely hurting his public reputation. Ali’s legs were in terrible condition, and the champ suffered two blood clots from Inoki’s pounding feet. “Ali is bleeding from the legs,” recalled Bob Arum. “He gets an infection in his legs; almost has to have an amputation. Not only the [Ken] Norton fight would’ve been not happening, but Ali could’ve been a cripple for the rest of his life.”

Ali refused to seek immediate medical treatment or to curb his schedule, which included exhibition matches in South Korea and the Philippines. After completing his Asian trip, he spent a few weeks in the hospital back in Los Angeles.

In September, Ali stepped back into the ring with Ken Norton. Although Ali won the match by unanimous decision, it was clear he was not the same man he once was. Ali had lost a step, and he would never again win a match by knockout.

Five years later, Ali hung up the gloves for good. Two decades in the ring took a sad toll on the former champ’s body, but in retirement, Ali continued to use his status as the most popular athlete in the world to fight for justice and world peace.

Ali didn’t shy away from future opportunities to be a part of the wrestling business. Bill Watts brought Ali in to appear at ringside with The Snowman for a match against Jake “The Snake” Roberts at the Superdome in New Orleans. Ali was also a guest at the inaugural Wrestlemania, appearing as the special guest referee in the main event.

Inoki continued to wrestle for another twenty-two years, a luxury afforded him because his sport was a work. In 1986 he managed to convince Leon Spinks, the man who took Ali’s Heavyweight Championship, into a mixed fighting match, a match Inoki won by pin fall. In 1990 Inoki, like Ali before him, converted to Islam. Inoki has also served his country as an elected member of the House of Councillors.

The battle between the world’s greatest boxer and Japan’s greatest wrestler may not have high regard in the memory of sports fans, but it foreshadowed a change in the fighting sports. While boxing has steadily declined in popularity and wrestling has seen its ups and downs, Mixed Martial Arts has become the rage. UFC, Bellator, and other MMA promotions are now making millions by pitting fighters with diverse backgrounds against one another. What was once seen as a novelty is now a weekly ritual for fight fans. MMA has even allowed some professional wrestlers, most notably Brock Lesnar, to show the world that not all professional wrestlers are mere actors.

While the Ali-Inoki match is not not at all acknowledged in Ali’s museum, there’s a very nice epilogue to their story. In 1998 Inoki faced Don Frye in the final of a series of matches dubbed the Final Countdown. In honor of his former opponent, Muhammed Ali flew to Japan to witness his former adversary’s last match. After the match ended, Ali climbed into the ring to hug the man who had become his friend. A representative for Ali read a message from the champ.

“It was 1976 when I fought Antonio Inoki at the Budokan. In the ring, we were tough opponents. After that, we built love and friendship with mutual respect. So, I feel a little less lonely now that Antonio has retired. It is my honor to be standing on the ring with my good friend after 22 years. Our future is bright and has a clear vision. Antonio Inoki and I put our best efforts into making world peace through sports, to prove there is only one mankind beyond the sexual, ethnical or cultural differences. It is my pleasure to come here today.”

While Ali vs. Inoki is looked upon by some fight fans with the same “reverence” Star Wars fans have for the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special, it’s a credit to both men that the fight did not tarnish their reputations. Ali and Inoki are both Hall of Fame talents, two of the greatest who ever lived, and the impact they had on their respective sports will be felt for years to come. Some even argue that their confrontation helped to launch a fighting style that would challenge boxing and wrestling for supremacy forty years later, Mixed Martial Arts.

Ali vs. Inoki is a unique match in the annals of both sports. It deserves to be remembered for its novelty and its legacy, but like the aforementioned Star Wars travesty, it’s best not to look at it too long.

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The Derby Eve Rasslin’ Show

Last week, Ohio Valley Wrestling presented their second Run for the Ropes program as part of the Kentucky Derby Fest-a-Ville. The riverfront wrestling program is a welcome addition to the Kentucky Derby tradition. Not only is OVW a proud Louisville institution 20 years running, but wrestling was one of the earliest Derby traditions, going back 102 years.

The_Courier_Journal_Sun__May_2__1915_In 1915 promoter George Beuchel put on the first Derby Eve wrestling program, featuring a title bout between Charley Cutler and Louisville fan favorite Yusiff Hussane. The match lasted three hours and thirty-seven minutes, nearly half an hour longer than an episode of Monday Night Raw. Derby Eve proved to be a very profitable evening for the fights, with sports fans from around the country arriving in town for the horse race, and a new tradition began.

The 1935 edition proved to be a turning point in Louisville’s wrestling history. The Savoy Athletic Club ran a Friday night show at the Jefferson County Armory featuring Jack Reynolds, Lord Patrick Lansdowne, Leroy McGurk, High Nichols, Billy Thom, Cyclone Burns, Billy Love, and Roy Welch. The show grossed $1400, but Club owner C.J. Blake thought the expenses were too high. This led to a split between Blake and his booker, Heywood Allen, Sr., and Allen broke away to form his own promotion, the Allen Athletic Club.

The_Courier_Journal_Sun__Apr_28__1935_

Allen took a number of the Savoy’s signature faces with him, including timekeeper Charley Schullman and the colorful ring announcer Georgie Lewis. The new promotion, based mostly out of the Columbia Gym on 4th Street, would become Louisville’s top wrestling promotion for the next 22 years.

Only a few years after Beuchel started the Derby Eve tradition, the local boxing promoters began jockeying for the Friday night spot. The Kentucky Athletic Commission held final say on who got the Armory and the coveted Friday night slot, based on whomever could present the best card of action, but when Allen took center stage in the wrestling game, he became very vocal about suspected under the table deals between the boxing promotions and Commissioner Johnson S. Mattingly.

In the spring of 1941 Allen became so incensed about losing out the boxers, he cut a promo in the ring at the Columbia Gym one night. Allen railed against Commissioner Mattingly and swore he had proof that the boxers were paying off the Athletic Commission to steal a place he believed was rightfully his. It wasn’t the first time Allen had let his thoughts fly on the matter. Allen and Mattingly had had a similar confrontation in 1938. This time, Mattingly responded to the comments by revoking Allen’s license, and Allen was forced to retract his claims in order to open the doors once more.

Allen and his successor Francis S. McDonough always made the best of Derby season, whether they had the Friday night show or not. In the coming years the Derby show would feature top stars like Lou Thesz, Mildred Burke, Wild Bill Longson, Baron Michele Leone, Johnny Valentine, Freddie Blassie, and Mae Young. The star-studded card below from 1951 featured two world title matches (Burke and Thesz) and a special appearance by a man with a special connection to Louisville, Ed “Strangler” Lewis.

It’s exciting to see OVW carry on the Derby wrestling tradition with a new tradition of their own. Louisville fans have always loved their wrestling, and Danny Davis’s boys are carrying on a heritage now more than a century old.

The_Courier_Journal_Fri__May_4__1951_

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The Great Billy Thom

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.

Read Billy’s story and more in the book Louisville’s Greatest Show: The Story of the Allen Athletic Club now available on Amazon.com.

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Dick the Bruiser Gets His Due

“When I started wrestling, everyone like Gorgeous George had on capes [and] big robes; really gaudy and everything. Then I came along and all I had was pair of trunks and my shoes. I had no gimmick. It was the absence of gimmicks that made me different.”
— Dick the Bruiser

I first heard about this book when I was working on Bluegrass Brawlers from Chris Parsons, who used to run a fabulous website on Indianapolis wrestling called Rasslin Relics. For many people who grew up in Indianapolis, Dick the Bruiser is wrestling, moreso than the WWE will ever be. He was a no nonsense wrestler and a savvy businessman who ran Indiana for decades, helping to launch the careers of hometown boys from Bobby Heenan to David Letterman. He’s the reason promoters in Indiana enjoy more freedom than almost any other state. And now, his story has finally come to print.

Order your copy from Crowbar Press. Grab a cigar and a beer and enjoy the tale of one of wrestling’s true, original bad boys.