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!

The Tale of Lord Leslie Carlton

It was my honor to spend a year working with the daughter of Lord Leslie Carlton on his biography. Lord Carlton isn’t as well-remembered as many of his contemporaries, but he was one of the biggest draws in the 1950s.

Born Leo Whippern and descended from Hungarian royalty, Carlton began his wrestling career as “Sailor” Tug Carlson. He rode the roughhouse sailor gimmick as far as it would take him and then transformed himself into a main event star in the 1950s, becoming the English royal Lord Carlton.

Carlton’s legacy has been overshadowed by the great Gorgeous George, who had a similar gimmick, but neither man copied the other. In fact both of them copied off the original wrestling aristocrat, Lord Patrick Lansdowne. Carlton was successful enough in the ring to retire in style. He spent his latter years managing real estate and enjoying his first love, painting. But it was not a happy ever after ending. Carlton’s first wife was murdered by his own son, and he survived multiple attempts on his own life perpetrated by his second wife!

Lord Carlton led an amazing life. He is an icon of a bygone era, a super heel whose story every aspiring modern heel should read. Even if you’re not into all that “rasslin'” talk, you’ll be thrilled to see just how many times he cheated death at the hands of his own bride.

Lord Carlton’s story is available on Amazon.com with a brand new book cover.

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.

(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.