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Louisville Legends

BluegrassBrawlers-coverI’m working on a new project that will dive deeper into the golden age of wrestling in Louisville, 1935-1957, when the Allen Athletic Club was the hottest ticket in town. Louisville hosted the top starts of the day – Lou Thesz, Orville Brown, Bill Longson, Buddy Rogers, Mildred Burke, June Byers, The Sheik, Gorgeous George – but they also had a number of local favorites. I’m hoping I can scare up some descendants of some of these folks or fans from those long gone days who have stories to share.

Here are a few names I am looking for:

Blacksmith Pedigo – Wrestler and later referee.

Kid Scotty Williams – Wrestler, referee, and later promoter in Owensboro.

Wild Bill Cantrell – Wrestler in the 30s.

Billy Love – University of Kentucky athlete and wrestler.

Fred Davis – Louisville native, played football at Alabama and then for the Chicago Bears, wrestler.

Stu Gibson – New Albany HS grad, U of L grad, wrestler.

Sgt. Buck Moore – Louisville Police Department, artist, and wrestler.

Mel Meiners – Wrestler, aka The Schnitzelburg Giant.

Paul Karem – Louisville native, 1935

Leo Walleck – Wrestler

Railroad Routt – Wrestler

Frank Sgroi – Wrestler

Leo Logsdon – Wrestler

Spurge Nelson – New Albany native, Louisville police officer, wrestler

Officer Tom Moberly – African American wrestler and Louisville police officer

Claude Reed – African American wrestle

Charley Schullman – Long time timekeeper for the Savoy Club and Allen Club.

George Lewis – Legendary ring announcer for boxing and wrestling in Louisville.

Francis and Betty McDonough – Francis owned the Allen Club from 1947-1957. Betty was his wife and worked in the ticket office.

If you have heard any of these names and know stories, please get in touch!

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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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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.