Five Matches

Someone on Facebook recently posed an interesting question: if you had a wrestling time machine and could go back to see any wrestling match, what would you go back to see?

I didn’t have to think about my answer. As a hug fan of the Black Panther, I’d want to go back to the night he is most famous for: the night he and Gorgeous George incited a riot at the Olympic Auditorium. Then I got to thinking, what other matches would I want to see if I could return to any night in wrestling history?

Here are my top five, in order:

August 24, 1949, Los Angeles. Gorgeous George vs. The Black Panther Jim Mitchell at the Olympic. George was one of the biggest heels of his day, and the Panther was a beloved star. On a hot summer night, George went too far. He tossed Mitchell from the ring and refused to let him back in. One fan jumped in the ring to give George some payback, and George leveled him. In an instant the entire crowd was on its feet, and a riot raged on for hours. Mitchell and George escaped to the back, but several people had to be hospitalized. One woman even sued George and Mitchell for her injuries. I have the program from that night and a letter summoning Mitchell to answer for his part in the riot that evening. They are the prizes of my wrestling memorabilia collection.

February 1, 1944, Louisville. Mildred Burke vs. Elvira Snodgrass at the Columbia Gym. If Mitchell is my all time favorite grappler, Elvira is a close second. I’d love to see the greatest women’s champion of all time against the toughest, meanest, scrappiest heel she ever faced in front of a hot Louisville crowd. This wasn’t the only time they faced one another in Louisville or the biggest crowd in Louisville to see them do battle, but it was the night they were the main event attraction. How incredible would it be to see Heywood Allen chomping on his cigar, overseeing the action in the Columbia Gym?

Jerry Lawler vs. Andy Kaufman in Memphis. The Kaufman/Lawler feud is one of the most fascinating stories in wrestling history, both for the in-ring action and the behind the scenes machinations. It’s the greatest work of the modern era and a blueprint for how to do kayfabe in an era when kayfabe is supposedly dead. Some how, some way, I’d have to have a ringside seat so I could see the back and forth after the match with Danny Davis telling Jerry that Andy will pay for the ambulance.

The Road Warriors vs. The Midnight Express, Night of the Skywalkers. Cornette has been a friend and a great asset in my research of Louisville wrestling history. The scaffold match was far from the best work either of these legendary tag teams did, but just to see it all unfold and watch poor Jimmy slip through the arms of Big Bubba (RIP) would be priceless.

When Hero Met Punk, IWA Mid-South, Clarksville, Indiana 2003. Before Punk made it to WWE or even Ring of Honor, he had some of the greatest battles in the modern indy era with Chris Hero, now NXT’s Kassius Ohno, in front of one of the most passionate crowds in wrestling today. Matches like these are the reason CM Punk said his ideal place for Wrestlemania would be the old warehouse in Charlestown, Indiana, where many of their brawls took place. This particular match went almost 93 minutes, and for the last 15-20 minutes, the entire crowd was on their feet. Watch this, their Tables and Ladders duel, or their 60 minute brawl, and join me in hoping that when Kassius Ohio reaches the main roster, WWE will make amends with CM Punk and give these two one last battle – at Wrestlemania.

Honorable Mention: The 1951 Derby Eve Show, Jefferson County Armory, Louisville. I’m going to cheat here, but this has to be one of the greatest cards ever presented in Louisville. Francis McDonogh, who took over the Allen Club from Heywood Allen in 1947, made the annual Derby Eve Show and the Police Benefit Show that took its place a monster even every year. Have a look at the card and tell me you wouldn’t want to be one of the 8000 in attendance that night:

Wild Bill Longson vs. Dutch Heffner
Bill Longson, Fred Davis (of the Chicago Bears), and Freddie Blassie vs. Ivan Rasputin, Stu Gibson, and Dutch Heffner
Mildred Burke vs. Mae Young
Lou Thesz vs. Green Dragon

 

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!

Louisville Gardens – then and now

Early in my research on Louisville’s pro wrestling history, I found this photo in the U of L archives:

This week, my friend Herschel Zahnd took this photo of the same building with his drone:

This was the house that played host to Strangler Lewis, Lou Thesz, Orville Brown, Bill Longson, Buddy Rogers, Mildred Burke, Johnny Valentine, Gorgeous George, Freddie Blassie, and Mae Young. It also played host to the legends of Memphis Wrestling and OVW as well as Elvis, Sinatra, and even Martin Luther King, Jr.

Both photos will appear in Louisville’s Greatest Show, coming in March!

And yes, Herschel is for hire. If you need a drone pilot in the Louisville area, get in touch with me and I’ll connect you.

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.

The_Courier_Journal_Fri__May_4__1951_

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).

February 18, 1947: Heywood Allen Says Goodbye

1941 thesz allen1941 thesz allen1941 thesz allenSixty-eight years ago this week, Heywood Allen promoted his last show in Louisville, Kentucky.

On February 9, 1947, The Courier-Journal reported that Allen had sold his interest in the Allen Athletic Club to co-owner Francis A. McDonough, Jr., and a farewell show was scheduled for February 18.

A crowd of 5000 people packed the Armory for Allen’s last show. World champion Bill Longson was on hand, defeating Felix Miquet (whose brother Francois would become famous as Corsica Joe) in two out of three falls. Babe Sharkey and Ed Meske won victories over Miguel Torres and Ralph Garibaldi, respectively, and Mickey Gold drew with Joe Millich.

Governor Simeon S. Willis received an invitation for the special event, along with a group of men referred to in the paper as the “Ole Gang of Allen’s.” The gang included McDonough, Charley Schullman, George Lewis, Paul Neal, Pat Murphy, Clarence Brenzel, Kid Scotty Williams, Ray McDonough, and Billy Love. Other regional promoters and NWA dignitaries also came to pay tribute to Allen.

McDonough sent word out to the community hoping to find Allen’s oldest living fan. The honor went to a man named Robert T. Brown, who recalled one of Allen’s first matches as a bout between William Demetral and Jack Stone during Demetral’s first trip to town in 1912.

Allen worked matches in Louisville for 42 years. He bore witness to the birth of Ed “Strangler” Lewis, held court over the first golden age with Stecker, Caddock, and Zbyszko, weathered two world wars, the National Wrestling Association, the birth of the National Wrestling Alliance, and the rise of perhaps the greatest champ of all, Lou Thesz. The fire Allen ignited in Louisville sports fans would far outlive his career and his life, and the fruits of his labor can be seen today.

Read more about Heywood Allen and Louisville’s wrestling history in Bluegrass Brawlers.