Tagged in: heywood allen

The First First Lady of Louisville Wrestling

Louisville, Kentucky is unique among wrestling cities because it is one of the few cities to have a female promoter. Teeny Jarrett never served as the booker for Memphis Wrestling, but there was no doubt she was the boss. She kept the fans happy, the wrestlers in line, and the Kentucky Athletic Commissioner at bay for more than two decades. She even gave breaks to a few of Louisville’s most famous wrestling faces, including a Louisville police officer named Dean Hill and a a young teenage photographer named Jim Cornette.

It’s unusual for a city to have one woman serving such a powerful role in a wrestling promotion, but Jarrett wasn’t the first woman to do so. Thirty five years before Teeny’s son Jerry began running at the Louisville Gardens, a pretty young Kindergarten teacher signed her name on the dotted line, becoming a partner and owner of a professional wrestling promotion.

When Heywood Allen went into business for himself, forming the Allen Athletic Club in 1935, a Betty McDonogh made a pretty big leap of her own. The newlywed bride of Allen’s press secretary, former Louisville Sports writer Francis “Mac” McDonogh, left her chosen vocation to become the ticket office manager for the new wrestling promotion. It was a huge risk for her and her husband, but it was a risk that paid dividends for the McDonoghs and the Allen Athletic Club.

Miss Betty, as she was known by the fans, was a remarkable woman with a keen nose for business and marketing. Over the years Betty created and maintained a massive card file of the regular wrestling patrons. She not only had names, addresses, and telephone numbers, she knew where they preferred to sit, what type of matches they enjoyed most, and other details that helped her sell more tickets and keep everyone happy.

Betty kept a relentless schedule, managing a family at home as well as running the business of the promotion. In the late 1940s she gave an interview to the Courier-Journal and outlined a typical day:

7:15 AM – Prepare breakfast.

8:30 – Drop her son Allen at school, return home for house cleaning.

9:15 – Leave home and head to the ticket office.

11:40 – Pick up Allen at school and take him home for lunch. After lunch, drop Allen with his grandmother and return to the office.

1:30 – Back in the office.

5:30 – Leave the office and head home to prepare dinner, unless it’s a show night.

On show nights, Betty was there before the fans to run the ticket table. She greeted everyone personally, many by name, and after the last patron was admitted, it was her job to count the gate. Betty usually stayed until 12:30 or 1 AM to finish up Club business before returning to the McDonogh apartment in Shawnee Park, only to get up at 7 AM the next day and start again.

Betty loved her job, and even as business grew, she refused to cede her responsibilities to anyone – save for a brief hiatus in 1942, when she became a mother to Allen, who was named after Heywood. Betty rarely got to see any of the matches, but she met everyone who worked for the Club and enjoyed their company, describing them as “always very courteous and intelligent nowadays since most are college graduates.”

Fans were often surprised to learn that it was Betty, not Mac, whose name was listed as one of the owners of the Allen Club. From the very beginning, the McDonoghs held a stake in the promotion, and Mac made sure their ownership was in Betty’s name. Betty more than earned her keep as a valued member of the team, especially in the late 1930s.

When business took a dive in 1938, it was Betty, along with Allen’s wife Mabel, who pointed out the lack of females in the crowd. Betty and Mabel believed that the Club could do more to attract female patrons to the matches, and with Mr. Allen’s blessing, they went to work.

Betty suggested giveaways for the ladies including flowers, candy, and other free gifts. They also instituted a “Ladies Night,” when women were admitted free. They also convinced Allen to begin tossing out the rowdier fans who made female patrons uncomfortable. Allen admitted that he often felt the shows were no place for a lady, especially when the fans got out of hand, and he consented to policing the crowd and removing offenders.

Betty’s efforts began to pay off slowly but surely. Beginning in 1939 and continuing through the war (when many of the male patrons were overseas fighting), attendance began to rise. By the mid 1940s the Allen Club was drawing 55% women on Tuesday nights. Louisville was one of the hottest towns in the country, drawing 4000 to 6000 fans for special events at the Armory. Betty was exceedingly proud of her accomplishments.

In 1947 Betty and her husband took another risk, buying out Heywood Allen when he chose to retire from the fight game. It was a calculated risk for Mac because he knew he had a solid business partner by his side. While Mac remained the public face of the Allen Club, Betty continued to manage the box office and handle the money on show nights. The McDonoghs were active in the Louisville community, supporting numerous local charities and events. They frequently hosted wrestlers in their home, and top stars like Baron Leone were their guests at the Kentucky Derby.

Betty took time away only twice: to give birth to their son Gary, and to care for her ailing husband when Mac was diagnosed with cancer in 1946. When Mac passed away in May of 1947, Betty sold the Allen Athletic Club to former Louisville baseball player Al LeCompte. The combination of the ownership change and a forced change of venue brought the promotion to a swift end.

Surprisingly, Betty almost went back into the business a year later. Wee Willie Davis, a wrestler/ movie star/ famous game show winner moved to down and decided to open up a promotion of his own to fill the void. Betty agreed to partner with Davis on his first promotion, and the two applied for a license for what became known as the name Golden Rod Club.

Golden Rod ran for only a few years. When the business closed, Davis went on to open another promotion in conjunction with Dick the Bruiser in Indianapolis. Betty quit the business and went back to teaching, but she remained a member of the ticket sellers union. Gary recalls traveling all over town with her while she sold tickets for this show and that.

Betty made sure her boys got a great education, and both of them made her proud. Dr. Gary McDonogh is a professor of anthropology at Bryn Mawr College, and Dr. Allen McDonogh is a retired professor of political science. Allen and his ex-wife Dr. Karen O’Connor, herself a professor of Political Science at American University, have a daughter named Meghan O’Connor McDonogh who earned her doctorate in Sports Management at the University of Louisville and is now the Associate Athletic Director at the Catholic University of America.

Meghan made her own impact on Louisville’s sports scene as a graduate student at U of L. After founding a club program for women’s lacrosse at the University of Georgia, she began a similar program when she arrived at U of L. Women’s Lacrosse has since become part of the school’s growing Division I athletics program and is growing in popularity among Louisville area high schools.

“I recall a time when my daughter was growing up and she and her friends were caught up with the mega-wrestling,” Allen McDonogh told me. “All were stunned to find I knew anything about wrestling.”

Sadly, neither Karen nor Meghan ever had the opportunity to know Miss Betty. Betty McDonogh passed away in 1971, before Allen and Karen met. She is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Louisville next to her beloved husband.

No doubt Betty McDonogh’s proudest legacy is her family, but the legacy of the Allen Athletic Club owes as much to her as to Allen and Mac. Betty was there from day one as an owner and a partner. She knew the Louisville audience better than anyone, and her tireless efforts kept the Columbia Gym full in good times and bad. If there were a Hall of Fame for Pro Wrestling in Kentucky, Betty would deserve a place of honor alongside her husband and the Allen Club’s namesake. She is, without a doubt, the First First Lady of Louisville Wrestling.

Read more about Francis and Betty McDonogh in Louisville’s Greatest Show: The Story of the Allen Athletic Club.

On Sale Tomorrow!

Louisville’s Greatest show is a labor of love that is truly four years in the making. When I started digging deep into Louisville’s rich wrestling history for Bluegrass Brawlers, I had no trouble finding stories about the OVW and Memphis years, but it was the “golden age” from 1935-1957 that fascinated me most. While I barely scratched the surface when I wrote Bluegrass Brawlers, Louisville’s Greatest Show will give you a year by year account of the Allen Athletic Club – the wrestlers, the shows, and the city that hosted them both.

In addition to the year by year account of the promotion and owners Heywood Allen and Francis S. McDonogh, Louisville’s Greatest Show also features more than twenty profiles of local and national wrestling stars, including:

Indiana University wrestling coach Billy Thom

Lord Patrick Lansdowne

Blacksmith Pedigo

Hall of Fame Hydroplane racer Wild Bill Cantrell

Kid Scotty Williams

Hans Schnabel

Kentucky Athletic Commissioner Johnson S. Mattingly

The legendary Wild Bill Longson

“Cousin Alviry” Elvira Snodgrass

Fred Blassie, before he was “classy”

Promoter’s wife Betty McDonogh

Chicago Bears star Fred Davis

Sgt. Buck Moore of the Louisville Police

Colonel Stu Gibson

WHAS sports director Jimmy Finegan

Ed “Strangler” Lewis

Mel Meiners

“The Black Panther” Jim Mitchell

Louisville police detective and ref Ellis Joseph

Ring announcer George Lewis

Wee Willie Davis

Louisville’s Greatest Show is the story of a city that loved wrestling and the men and women who made wrestling a Tuesday night tradition. The book is filled with never-before-published photos and stories you won’t find anywhere else.

Louisville’s Greatest Show will be available on Amazon.com and other online retailers this weekend!

Louisville’s Greatest Show – Coming Soon!

Coming Soon!!

For 22 years, the Allen Athletic Club’s weekly wrestling show at the Columbia Gym was the place to be on Tuesday night. Promoters Heywood Allen and his successors Francis and Betty McDonogh overcame the Great Depression, the 1937 flood, a World War, and a “crooked” athletic commissioner to bring the best of the golden age of wrestling to Louisville.

Now for the first time, author John Cosper (Bluegrass Brawlers) presents the full story of “That Gang of Allen’s,” the wrestlers, referees, announcers, and others who made Tuesday Louisville’s favorite night of the week. This is the story of the true golden age of wrestling, when men and women wore their Sunday best to see hometown heroes like Blacksmith Pedigo, Kid Scotty Williams, Stu Gibson, Mel Meiners, Sgt. Buck Moore, and “The Black Panther” Jim Mitchell mix it up with Lou Thesz, Gorgeous George, the French Angel, Buddy Rogers, Freddie Blassie, Johnny Valentine, Mildred Burke, Mae Young, Bobo Brazil, and Ginger the Wrestling Bear.

From mud matches to masked men; from Wild Bill Cantrell to Wild Bill Longson; from live TV to live alligators, the Allen Athletic Club was Louisville’s Greatest Show. This is the story of Louisville’s first great wrestling promotion and the families that made wrestling a vital part of the city they loved.

Louisville’s Greatest Show will be released in March!

A Louisville Wrestling Hall of Fame

No, don’t get your hopes up. There’s no Hall of Fame in the works by me, or anyone else I know of. Just a little hypothetical question:

If there were a Louisville Wrestling Hall of Fame, who would you want to see in it?

I have a long list of suggestions. In no particular order, they are:

Ed “Strangler” Lewis – A first ballot entry for sure, the Strangler got his famous name in Louisville after showing up two weeks late for a booking under his real name.

Heywood Allen – A referee turned promoter who was involved in the Louisville wrestling scene from the early 1900s until 1947.

Francis S. McDonogh – Allen’s successor, who took the Allen Athletic Club into its hey day in the 1950s, pioneering wrestling on Louisville television and drawing record crowds at the Armory.

Betty McDonogh – Wife of Francis and the business manager for Allen and her husband. She gets credit for helping to popularize wrestling with a female audience in the 1940s, when the promotion drew more ladies every week for a time than men.

Wild Bill Longson – The only man to win a world championship in Louisville. Longson was a fixture for the Allen Athletic Club throughout the 40s and 50s and even worked as a booker for the promotion.

“The Black Panther” Jim Mitchell – A true pioneer, Mitchell was an African American wrestler before, during, and after the “color barrier” was put in place. He was also a mentor to the legendary Bobo Brazil.

Col. Stu Gibson – A New Albany native and former football hero who became a huge heel in Louisville and San Antonio.

Wee Willie Davis – A wrestler and movie star who moved to Louisville and ran a few promotions during the late 50s and 60s.

Jerry Jarrett – Wrestler and promoter who brought Louisville into the Memphis territory in 1970.

Jerry Lawler – The King of Memphis could lay equal claim to royalty in Louisville with all the legendary nights he had at the Gardens.

Jim Cornette – Arguably the most famous Louisville native in the pro wrestling business. Considered one of the greatest managers of all time. With the Rock N Roll Express going into the WWE Hall of Fame, one can only hope Jim and the Midnight Express will be next.

Danny Davis – Wrestler and manager during the Memphis era who moved to Louisville and founded OVW.

Ian Rotten – Former ECW wrestler who founded IWA Mid-South, a promotion that has lasted just as many years as the more mainstream OVW.

Kenny “Starmaker” Bolin – Louisville native and life-long nemesis of Cornette, Bolin helped launch the WWE careers of more than 4 dozen wrestlers who once belonged to Bolin Services.

John Cena – OVW’s most famous son.

CM Punk – IWA Mid-South’s most famous son.

The “OVW Four” aka Rob Conway, Nick Dinsmore, The Damaja, and Doug Basham – Four Southern Indiana natives, two (Conway and Dinsmore) from right across the river, who made it to the WWE after starting in the OVW beginner class. Basham and Damaja were a tag team in the E. Dinsmore became the surprisingly popular U-Gene. Conway is the only Louisville native to win the WWE Tag Title and went on to become a two-time NWA World Champion.

Dean Hill – Current “owner” of OVW, Hill was a ring announcer at the Louisville Gardens before becoming the voice of Louisville wrestling as OVW’s TV announcer.

Okay, Louisville fans, let’s hear it. Who would you put in a Louisville Wrestling Hall of Fame?

One Road Ends, Another Begins

One year and a day ago, I sat in a coffee house in New Albany, doing research on the Allen Athletic Club, the wrestling promotion that entertained Louisville for 22 years from 1935-1957. It was there that I finally stumbled upon an article I had searched nearly two years to find: Heywood Allen’s obituary. The article told me that Allen was buried in Jeffersonville, just fifteen minutes away. I raced out in the rain and found the final resting place of the promoter, his wife, and his ill-fated son Heywood, Jr.

Today the story of Allen and his partners Francis S. McDonogh and Betty McDonogh is nearly complete. Louisville’s Greatest Show  is stacked with stories and photos that haven’t been seen in decades from the era of Lou Thesz, Mildred Burke, Gorgeous George, Wild Bill Longson, Bobo Brazil, and Buddy Rodgers, as well as local heroes like Mel Meiners, Wild Bill Cantrell, Stu Gibson, and more. There’s some proofreading and fact checking to do, plus a book cover to finish, but the book will be ready to read in March.

Fifteen minutes ago, sitting in a Dunkin Donuts in Louisville, I opened a new file on my laptop and began work on my next book. There’s a new story to tell, a new autobiography, and this one’s going to be a ton of fun. If you want to know who it is, give the video below a look.

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.

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.

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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.

buck moore cartoon 2

buck moore cartoon 1

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.

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.