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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.

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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.

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Louisville’s Own Sgt. Buck Moore

Not every star who appeared on a card for the Allen Athletic Club was a national star. Heywood Allen and Francis McDonough brought many of the country’s biggest names to Louisville during the promotion’s 22 years, but they created many local legends along the way.

In January of 1949 Francis McDonough introduced Marvin Moore to the Tuesday night faithful at the Jefferson County Armory. Melvin “Buck” Moore was an eight year veteran of the Louisville Police Department. He was born December 2, 1916 in Lambert, OK and graduated from Louisville Male High School.

Moore served 33 years with the Louisville police department. He rode a motorcycle as a member of the traffic detail and also served as a detective. In later years Moore trained new recruits in skills such as hand-to-hand combat, and his students included OVW announcer Dean Hill as well as former Louisville Police Chief Doug Hamilton, who recalls that many of the moves taught by Moore bore a striking similarity to professional wrestling maneuvers.

Moore was instrumental in the founding of Louisville’s Fraternal Order of Police in 1960. He was also a cartoonist, and for twenty years he entertained his fellow officers with a series of cartoon strips.

Moore’s wrestling career spanned two decades. He was a fixture at the annual Police Benefit Shows in the 1950s, and he faced numerous opponents including Blacksmith Pedigo, Cherry Vallina, Freddie Blassie, Chris Zaharias, Frankie Bockwinkel, Bobby Bruns, Joe Millich, and fellow Louisville natives Stu Gibson and Mel Meiners.

Moore retired from the police force in 1974, when he put his artistic gifts to work as a sign painter.

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The Brief History of the Columbia Wrestling Club

IMG_1740The Allen Athletic Club was the premiere wrestling promotion in Louisville for 22 years. Founder Heywood Allen and Francis McDonough had the contacts to bring in the best talent and a strong sense of what kept the fans coming. Week after week, Allen and then McDonough filled the Columbia Gym on Tuesday nights with fans eager to see their favorite local and national stars do battle.

In the fall of 1948 McDonough moved the Allen Club from the friendly confines of the Columbia Gym down the street to the Jefferson County Armory, now known as Louisville Gardens. McDonough ran every other week in the Armory, trading the weekly pay day for a chance to draw larger crowds, but the move left a vacancy and an opportunity for a new challenger.

In March of 1949, Kentucky Athletic Commissioner George S. Wetherby issued a one year license to the Columbia Wrestling Club, a new wrestling promotion that would fill the vacancy in the Columbia Gym. The man behind the Columbia Club was D.A. “Red” Fassas, a native of Lexington who had run the Lexington Athletic Club for three years.

Fassas promised fans that he would “the best heavyweights and junior-heavyweights in the business to Louisville.” He delivered on his very first show on March 25 with a main event featuring NWA champion Orville Brown and a show-stealing bout between Don Evans and Tug Carlson.

Fassas ran a handful of shows that spring featuring the likes of Don Eagle, Karol Krauser, Martino Angelo, and “Big Jim Wright” before announcing that the Columbia Wrestling Club would go on hiatus for the summer, citing the heat and lack of air conditioning in the Columbia Gym. There were promises of more shows in the early fall and even rumors of a merger with the Allen Club, but the Columbia Wrestling Club never resumed operations.

It appears Fassas did stick around Louisville in some capacity though not as a promoter. He applied for and received a liquor license for the Columbia Wrestling Club in May of 1949, but in 1953, he was indicted for selling liquor to minors. He was fined $30, and his license was suspended.

The Allen Club returned to the Columbia Gym in the fall of 1949. In 1950 they were not only running weekly shows but broadcasting live on WHAS-TV every Tuesday. When the Allen Club reached its fifteenth anniversary in the summer of 1950, Courier-Journal sports editor Earl Ruby noted hat the promotion had welcomed more than 800,000 fans and outlasted seven other wrestling promotions since its inception. As successful as they had been the first fifteen years, the glory days were still ahead for the Allen Club.

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Last Match at the Columbia Gym

When I shared last night’s post about the Columbia Gym on Facebook, I got a response from Joe Wheeler, long time official at OVW and USWA. It seems the Allen Athletic Club was not the last promotion to run a show in the fabled gymnasium.

The Allen Club’s final show ran on June 25, 1957, shortly after the death of then owner Francis McDonough. Barney “Chest” Bernard defeated Ian Campbell, Nell Stewart defeated Elaine Ellis, New Albany and U of L legend Stu Gibson defeated Lou Plummer, and Bobby Managoff defeated long time Allen Club stalwart “Wild Bill” Longson via disqualification. The Allen Club was sold to former Louisville Colonels baseball player Al LeComte, who moved shows to Freedom Hall because U of L had taken over the gym. Four months later, the Allen Club shut down for good.

Nearly forty years later, Wheeler arranged one final show in the building. “When they did some renovations to the Louisville Gardens back in the 90s, I made arrangements with the Columbia Gym, which was then part of Catherine Spalding College, to move the USWA there for the time they were to be out of the Gardens. The first week there they had a ladies match where the only way to lose was to be stripped down to your bra and panties. The nuns were terribly upset, so the first weeks return to the old Columbia Gym was also the last week.”

Wheeler’s story seems to indicate the nuns didn’t dismantle the old gym as quickly as WHAS stated. What’s more, a search of Pinterest turned up this card promoted by Phil Golden and sponsored by the WWA. The plot thickens.

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And On the Second Day, WHAS Gave Us Rasslin’

The_Courier_Journal_Tue__Jul_25__1950_In 1949 professional wrestling was struggling. Fan interest was waning, box offices were down, and the business appeared to be on the ropes. A year later, 18,000 people packed Madison Square Garden, bringing in $52,000 in just once night.

What caused the dramatic turn around? Television.

So goes the March 12, 1950 article from the Louisville Courier-Journal, announcing that wrestling was coming to the local air waves. From New York to Chicago to Memphis, wrestling had become the number one program on television and the number one reason many folks were buying their first TV set. Twenty years before Memphis Wrestling took the city by storm, WHAS struck a deal with Francis McDonough and the Allen Athletic Club to broadcast wrestling live every Tuesday night.

The Allen Club was in its fifteenth year, and McDonough was in his third as the man in charge. Founded by Heywood Allen, Sr., the promotion ran wrestling shows almost every Tuesday night, usually at the Columbia Gym.

By contract, WHAS had not yet signed on the air when the announcement was made, but the station was doing test runs with their camera crew and broadcast equipment in the Columbia Gym well in advance. “The WHAS-TV cameras will have you right at ringside – in your own living room. You’ll get a closer look at what’s what an who’s who than the fans in the front row. You’ll see every moment of action in the ring… whereas the fan is confined to his seat, the camera can roam to every nook and corner.”

Wrestling was tailor-made for television, with all the action taking place in a well-lit, stationary ring, making it much easier to broadcast than sports like football and baseball. WHAS-TV had a two camera set up for the broadcast. Both were in the balcony, stationed at different angles. The cameramen were selected for their intimate knowledge of wrestling, and the camera feeds went outside to a remote broadcast truck, “a specially-designed remote truck, containing what appears to be a Television station all its own.”

The_Courier_Journal_Tue__Mar_28__1950_WHAS went live on March 27, 1950, and the Allen Club appeared on television for the first time on Tuesday night, March 28. Fred Davis, a Louisville native who also played for the Chicago Bears, appeared in the main event that night against “Jumpin’ Joe” Savoldi. Fear Brewing Company became the first program sponsor.

Television proved to be a boon for the Allen Club just as it was in every city where promoters were willing to give TV a chance. Despite initial fears that TV would cut into their ticket sales, the live broadcasts actually increased awareness and interest in the sport. McDonough brought the biggest names in the sport to town for the Tuesday shows, including the biggest television star of them all, Gorgeous George. Just a few short years later, McDonough would be hosting the largest crowds ever seen in Louisville for wrestling at the Jefferson County Armory (later the Louisville Gardens).

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Mud Slingin’ in Louisville

The_Courier_Journal_Wed__Dec_15__1937_Wrestling promotions are always slinging mud. Here in Southern Indiana there are a half dozen promotions running at any given time, and not a day goes by some fan, wrestler, or promoter doesn’t pitch a little mud on Facebook. In December of 1937, the feud between the Allen Athletic Club and the Kentucky Athletic Club turned to actual mud slinging when the two hosted a series of mud matches.

The Kentucky Athletic Club hurled the first clod of mud when they announced a match between local favorite Blacksmith Pedigo and mud wrestling expert Prince Omar of Persia. The K.A.C. ran shows downtown at the Savoy Theater, and the match held on December 2 was a smash. A standing room only crowd of 1563 packed the Theater to see the local favorite defeat his Persian foe.

Fans of the Allen Athletic Club begged promoter Heywood Allen to put on a mud match of his own. Allen, who was the booker for the K.A.C. when it was still known as the Savoy Club, was reluctant to get into the mud with his former boss, but on December 7 at the Columbia Gym, Allen cut a promo against the K.A.C. and his former and future ally Blacksmith Pedigo when he announced a mud match for the following week between Shinuchi Shikima and Nanjo Singh. Never one to be outdone, Allen told his fans that the Allen Club mud match would be completely encased in cellophane so that no one in the crowd would get muddy.

Allen did a lot of things right in his career, and it wasn’t long after this that he was the only promoter in town, but the mud match proved to be a total nightmare. It took the ring crew 75 minutes to set up the ring. The mud was the easy part; it was the cellophane wrapper that proved to be a nuisance. The thin material would no cooperate and kept falling and tearing. Allen paced the Gym floor, smoking cigarettes and fuming as he watched and waited for the main event he never wanted in the first place to get off the ground.

“You all wanted to see a real mud match, and here it is,” said Allen once all was set for the main event. “As far as I’m concerned, phooey on mud matches!”

The match itself proved to be just as much of a muddle as the set up. Referee Heywood Allen, Jr., lost his mud boots within the first minute of the bout and ended up barefoot along with the competitors. Singh got mud in his eyes early in the bout, and when the southern wall of cellophane collapsed, fans went scrambling for cover from the flying mud. It took only twenty minutes for a muddy Shikima to score two straight falls and claim victory.

Despite the technical problems, not a single fan left early. A solid crowd of 2386 stuck it out and stayed until 11:30 PM on a winter’s night to see how things would turn out.

Allen was done with mud wrestling, but the K.A.C. came back a week later with another mud bout on December 23 between Kentuckian Billy Love and another so-called mud wrestling impresario, Biriam Bey. Love won in two straight falls in what would turn out to be the final mud match in Louisville.

It was the Kentucky Athletic Commission who finally put an end to the mess. Commissioner Johnson S. Mattingly, who watched over both promotions like a hawk, announced at the December 23 Savoy show that he would no longer sanction mud matches in Kentucky. It was a brief and thrilling run for the fans, but in January of 1938 the wrestling promoters went back to slinging mud with words instead of slop.

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One year later… top ten posts

It’s been a year since I started this blog experiment, and it’s been exciting to see it grow. Here are the top ten posts from the past year:

The Black Panther Jim Mitchell1. The Black Panther Jim Mitchell – Still working on this book, though it’s taking longer than anticipated. Other opportunities and the difficulty of finding solid info on this forgotten trail blazer have made it difficult, but it’s still in the works. Happy to see this was the top post from year one.

2. Help Kenny Bolin Tell His Story – The story is now out and available from Amazon.com, with some help from fans who responded.

3. Everybody Loves Blue Pants – Interview with NXT’s most electric unsigned star. Thanks again to Mad Man Pondo for the hook up.

4. Who is Dean Hill? – Profile on OVW’s legendary announcer.

5. Khloe Belle Turns Hero – “Sista don’t care” in the ring, but outside the ring is another matter.

6. The Outlaw Returns – Profile on wrestler turned actor Ben Wood.

7. Is Shane Goode Enough? – Shane Mercer’s had a tough month, but he got some well deserved attention during the lead up to Tough Enough.

8. Meet the New Owner of HWA – A second life for a beloved promotion in Ohio promotion.

9. A New Hoosier Promotion EMERGEs – Profile on central Indiana’s EMERGE wrestling, available to watch on Roku’s Indie Wrestling Channel.

10. Meet Mary Elizabeth Monroe – She’s now going by Kelly Klein in Ring of Honor, and she’s one to watch in 2016.

Given that independent wrestling dominates the top ten, you can expect more of the same in 2016 from this blog. I also have several book projects in the works in addition to the Black Panther. I’ve been working with the daughter of Lord Leslie Carlton on his biography. I just started a book on women’s wrestling. And research continues on a new Louisville book focused on the Allen Athletic Club of the 1930s-1950s.

Thanks for reading.

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More Louisville wrestling history on the way

BluegrassBrawlers-coverHaving just launched the Kenny Bolin autobiography, I’m happy to announce I have a few new projects in the works. Two are biographies, and the third is a more in depth look at once of the most fascinating and overlooked eras in Louisville wrestling.

In 1935 Heywood Allen founded the Allen Athletic Club, a promotion that would bring the biggest stars in the business to town for the next 22 years, including Orville Brown, Bill Longson, Lou Thesz, Mildred Burke, and Buddy Rogers. But Louisville also had a number of local legends with their own unique stories. Here are a few quick hits I’ve uncovered:

Heywood Allen was a circus wrecker before getting into the wrestling business. In addition to being the Allen Club’s founder, he was president of the Midwest Wrestling Association. He took a job selling tickets at Churchill Downs when business was poor in the 1920s and kept it even after the Allen Club took off in the 40s.

Stu Gibson was a home-grown wrestling star. Before wrestling, he was a standout football player at New Albany High School and the University of Louisville. I posted a brief bio on Stu just last week that you can read here. ****

Mel Meiners was a towering Louisville native from the Germantown neighborhood who was nicknamed the Schnitzelburg Giant. He is also the father of WHAS radio personality Terry Meiners.

Francis McDonough worked in the office for Allen before buying him out in 1947. He made national newspapers after someone broke into his car to steal the Allen Club’s ticket money. The thief got 500 unsold tickets and four dollars, and McDonough laughed off the incident.

Blacksmith Pedigo worked as a wrestler and referee for Allen. In 1919 he was arrested at the age of 18 for fraud after taking money from patriotic citizens who believed he was a wounded World War I vet.

Fans of Kenny Bolin will be interested to know that while there has yet to be a confirmed genealogical link, Bolin has already taken to calling Pedigo his long lost cousin.

I’m posting this teaser/update to both share the new project and hopefully stir up some memories of people who may remember a few of these names. If you have information on Allen or anyone who worked Louisville in the 40s and 50s please email me at johncosper@yahoo.com

The Allen Club story is told in part in Bluegrass Brawlers: The Story of Professional Wrestling in Louisville. More to come in 2016!

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Hoosier Hero Stu Gibson

stugibson-sheik When I my family moved to Indiana in 1988, we immersed ourselves in Indiana’s proudest tradition, becoming fans of New Albany High School basketball. One of the players we saw every week during the 88-89 season was a young man who would go on to be a three time WWE tag team champion and two time NWA world champion, Rob Conway.

Rob Conway’s not the only NAHS alum to become a big time professional wrestler. Crybaby Chris Alexander (who was in marching band with me at NAHS) learned to run the ropes at the same as Conway. But long before either man set foot in Ohio Valley Wrestling, there was Stu Gibson.

Stu Gibson was an All-Indiana football player at New Albany High School, graduating in 1943. He played college ball at the University of Louisville. He was even made a Kentucky Colonel after leading the team in scoring in 1947.

Gibson was also a Golden Glove boxer, but after graduating from U of L, he chose to pursue professional wrestling, working first for Francis McDonough and the Allen Athletic Club. Gibson would work mostly as a babyface during his years in Louisville, but he was equally successful as a babyface and a heel, especially down in Texas.

Wrestling historian J. Michael Kenyon recorded one of Gibson’s most memorable stunts from the early 60s. “It was a small card at Victoria TX, where Gibson and Danny McShain hooked up in double count-out. It ended back in the corner of the building, on top of the concession stand, with Gibson spooning mustard into the semi-conscious form of McShain, amid veritable pandemonium.

“Okay, so what — but the kicker was cute: They came back a week later, in a rematch, with McShain refusing to wrestle until ‘all mustard was barred from the building.’ And that turned out to be the actual stip, with the fans forced to eat ‘dry’ hot dogs for a night.”

Gibson passed away in 1988. His story is told in my latest book, Louisville’s Greatest Show: The Story of the Allen Athletic Club.

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