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.