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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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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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Finding the Columbia Gym

1941 thesz allenRumors of the demise of the fabled Columbia Gym have been… somewhat exaggerated.

In Bluegrass Brawlers I noted that the building that once hosted the Allen Athletic Club’s weekly wrestling shows was gone, replaced by an outdoor basketball court. It seems that the source I consulted (and I’m sorry to say I don’t recall said source) was dead wrong.

The Columbia Gym is in fact gone. The room that not only saw the likes of Lou Thesz, Gorgeous George, Buddy Rogers, and countless other legends pass through its doors no longer exists. But, the building that housed the gym as well as the stairway that led down to the gym itself, still stand.

I happened upon the building last Friday after meeting in East Louisville with the folks at Corn Island Archaeology in Jeffersontown. We were discussing some of the long on venues where promoter Heywood Allen once hosted wrestling including Swiss Park, the Savoy Theater, an outdoor Sports Arena between Preston and Burnett, and of course the Columbia Gym.

The Gym was often referenced as being at the corner of 4th Street and Burnett, putting it right in the vicinity of the Louisville Free Public Library – my next stop for the day. After dropping off a copy of Bluegrass Brawlers at the front desk for the library director, I walked out of the building and around the block to the corner of 4th and York.

The library stands on the northeastern corner of that intersection. A car lot is on the northwest corner. A high rise apartment building is on the southwestern corner, and a Unitarian church sits on the southeastern corner. I stood there for a few moments, wondering which of these buildings could possibly have taken the place of the fabled Columbia Gym, but then, my gaze drifted further down the block, away from York.

Behind the apartments stood a parking garage, and just beyond that was a building that looked incredibly familiar. I had found a few drawings and photos of the exterior of the Columbia Gym, and the building just beyond the garage sure looked like what I remembered. I got as close as I could from across the block and snapped the photo below.

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A quick Google search over the weekend confirmed my suspicions: the building that housed the Columbia Gym still stands! It belongs to Spalding University now, and in 2015 – a year AFTER my book was released – WHAS did a very nice story about the building’s history. They don’t mention wrestling of course, because someone else very famous made his name learning to box in the same gym, a man whose name towers over every other in the world of sports. You can click this link to read his story and more about the gym.

You can bet I’ll be back to the building later this year. I don’t know if there’s anything inside that tells more of the Heywood Allen story, but if not, I will certainly be glad to share some of his story with those willing to hear.

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New Book Announcement: Lord Leslie Carlton

lord carlton cover-3Time to announce the release my next book project, coming in March!

From 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 will be available in paperback this March on Amazon.com.

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Gorgeous George Returns

Gorgeous George is one of the most influential wrestlers of all time. If there were no Gorgeous George, one could argue there would be no Buddy Rogers, Ric Flair, Randy Savage, Superstar Billy Graham, Jesse The Body Ventura, Adrian Adonis, Rick Rude, Tyler Breese, or even Tracy Smothers. Yes, I said Tracy Smothers. Watch Gorgeous George in action, and then go see Tracy “Don’t Pull My Hair!” Smothers in action.

I’m happy to say you can now see Gorgeous George in all his resplendent glory on the INC channel. Two NEW episodes of Eat Sleep Wrestle are no available to view on the Roku channel INC, and one of them features a nice, long look at Gorgeous George himself.

And just as a follow up to my recent post about George Wagner (George’s pre-gorgeous ring persona) appearing for Louisville’s Allen Athletic Club in 1930s… it turns out the Human Orchid returned in 1955 to wrestle for the Allen Club as Gorgeous George. Feast your eyes on the evidence below. Then download the free INC channel to your Roku device and enjoy!

The_Courier_Journal_Sun__Nov_13__1955_-2

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(Not Yet Gorgeous) George in Louisville

I’ve written about Lord Patrick Lansdowne before. He’s the farm boy from Ohio who became a British aristocrat in wrestling trunks. Lansdowne was the first to don a cape and monocle and look down his nose at the unwashed masses who came to the matches. He was also the inspiration for Lord Leslie Carlton and Gorgeous George.

According to most biographies on Gorgeous George, George Wagner read about Lansdowne in Variety and found the inspiration for the character that would make him famous, but it now appears George Wagner had a much closer look at Lord Lansdowne than previously reported.

On August 31, 1937, George Wagner made his debut for the Allen Athletic Club in Louisville, Kentucky. Wagner defeated Dutch Schultz in one of the warm up matches while Lord Lansdowne (billed as Lord Finnegan; promoter Heywood Allen had a Vince McMahon-like thing for changing people’s names!) won the main event against Bert Rubi. Two months later the two appeared at the Columbia Gym a second time; Lansdowne defeated Bobby Bruns, and Wagner lost to Turpentine Grimes.

There are no photos in the Louisville Courier-Journal archives to show definitively that George Wagner from Atlantic City (as he was billed) was the man who became Gorgeous George, but Wrestlingdata.com shows that Wagner was working in Lexington, KY and Columbus Ohio in September of 1937 with many of the same wrestlers used by the Allen Club at the time.

Wagner worked a few more dates for Allen in September of 1937, and he likely crossed paths with the Ohio native a few more times. Whatever interactions they had in the locker room have been lost to history, but character Lansdowne created and George perfected continues to inspire wrestlers to this day.

 

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Return to the Golden Age!

Eat Sleep Wrestle: The Golden Age is a new wrestling program available only on the INC Channel on Roku featuring some of the greatest stars in the history of wrestling. ESW is the place to see Hall of famers and legends like Gorgeous George, The Shiek, Bobo Brazil, Mildred Burke, Cora Combs, Fritz Von Erich, Thunderbolt Patterson, and Warren Bockwinkel.

Produced by wrestling historian John Cosper, each episode of ESW features part or all of a match not seen on television in generations. Host Roni Jonah opens the show with a biographical sketch on the stars featured in each episode.

Eat Sleep Wrestle: The Golden Age can only be seen on INC, the Independent Network Channel, on Roku. INC features the best of obscure, out of print b-movies across all genres as well as current independent films from directors like Jerry Williams, Claude D. Miles, and George Bonilla. INC plans to offer more wrestling related in the future including the films of Mexican wrestler El Santo.

John Cosper is a writer and wrestling historian. His published works include Bluegrass Brawlers: The Story of Professional Wrestling in Louisville, Eat Sleep Wrestle, and I Probably Screwed You Too: The Mostly True Stories of Kenny Starmaker Bolin.

Roni Jonah is a professional wrestler turned actress and film director. Her wrestling resume includes Ohio Valley Wrestling and Women’s Extreme Wrestling.

Follow INC Channel on Facebook.

While you’re there, be sure to check out “Frank Jordan: Evil Snowman” by John Cosper, available on INC Story Time.

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Jim Mitchell vs. Gorgeous George

12019762_10205121748430414_4640876728029337564_nHere’s a great little piece of history, courtesy of Tom Burke. This is the newspaper article about the riot that began after Gorgeous George got “The Black Panther” Jim Mitchell disqualified during an August 24 match in Los Angeles. Not sure why Jim Mitchell is listed as Billy Mitchell, as I have no record of him working under that name, but I will be looking into it.

Jim Mitchell was a native of Louisville, Kentucky. He was an African American who helped to break the color barrier in wrestling. In fact Mitchell was wrestling before there even was a color barrier.

I’ve paused my work on Mitchell’s biography to work on the bio of Lord Leslie Carlton with his lordship’s daughter, but I am hoping to get back at it later this year in hopes of a 2016 release. If you have any stories, or know someone who does, about this forgotten legend, please pass the word.