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_

Finding the Columbia Gym

1941 thesz allenRumors of the demise of the fabled Columbia Gym have been… somewhat exaggerated.

In Bluegrass Brawlers I noted that the building that once hosted the Allen Athletic Club’s weekly wrestling shows was gone, replaced by an outdoor basketball court. It seems that the source I consulted (and I’m sorry to say I don’t recall said source) was dead wrong.

The Columbia Gym is in fact gone. The room that not only saw the likes of Lou Thesz, Gorgeous George, Buddy Rogers, and countless other legends pass through its doors no longer exists. But, the building that housed the gym as well as the stairway that led down to the gym itself, still stand.

I happened upon the building last Friday after meeting in East Louisville with the folks at Corn Island Archaeology in Jeffersontown. We were discussing some of the long on venues where promoter Heywood Allen once hosted wrestling including Swiss Park, the Savoy Theater, an outdoor Sports Arena between Preston and Burnett, and of course the Columbia Gym.

The Gym was often referenced as being at the corner of 4th Street and Burnett, putting it right in the vicinity of the Louisville Free Public Library – my next stop for the day. After dropping off a copy of Bluegrass Brawlers at the front desk for the library director, I walked out of the building and around the block to the corner of 4th and York.

The library stands on the northeastern corner of that intersection. A car lot is on the northwest corner. A high rise apartment building is on the southwestern corner, and a Unitarian church sits on the southeastern corner. I stood there for a few moments, wondering which of these buildings could possibly have taken the place of the fabled Columbia Gym, but then, my gaze drifted further down the block, away from York.

Behind the apartments stood a parking garage, and just beyond that was a building that looked incredibly familiar. I had found a few drawings and photos of the exterior of the Columbia Gym, and the building just beyond the garage sure looked like what I remembered. I got as close as I could from across the block and snapped the photo below.

IMG_1740

A quick Google search over the weekend confirmed my suspicions: the building that housed the Columbia Gym still stands! It belongs to Spalding University now, and in 2015 – a year AFTER my book was released – WHAS did a very nice story about the building’s history. They don’t mention wrestling of course, because someone else very famous made his name learning to box in the same gym, a man whose name towers over every other in the world of sports. You can click this link to read his story and more about the gym.

You can bet I’ll be back to the building later this year. I don’t know if there’s anything inside that tells more of the Heywood Allen story, but if not, I will certainly be glad to share some of his story with those willing to hear.