For those who are wondering why so many people are saying, “The money is in the rematch,” after last night’s fight, here’s a story from Louisville’s past – all the way back to 1881.
In that year, a Louisville “resident: named Robert M. Pennell went to the Courier-Journal newspaper office and issued a challenge. Pennell, who was locally known for his feats of strength in weightlifting, offered to fight for any sum of money against any citizen of the United States or Europe brave enough to step into the ring with him.
On August 21 the Courier-Journal published a response to Pennell’s challenge from Chicago grappler Charles Flynn. Flynn sent a man named Edward Morrill to Louisville to negotiate terms for the blockbuster match. Morrill and Pennell’s representatives agreed to a Greco-Roman contest with each side putting up $250. The contest would take place on September 17 at Woodland Garden, a popular beer garden located on Market Street. A number of stipulations were added to the contract, and the most significant one was the promise that no matter how long the match went, there would be no draw!
When Flynn arrived in town on September 7, people were eager to learn all they could about Pennell’s challenger. Billed as as champion wrestler of the Northwest, Flynn stood at five foot nine and a half feet tall and weighed 182 pounds. Flynn was fairly new to the sport of wrestling, but in less than five years he had racked up a number of notable wins in his adopted hometown of Chicago. He was so confident he would win, he offered to double the stakes of the match to $500. Flynn also wanted the winner to take all the gate money, but Pennell refused, insisting the loser get one third of the box office.
A crowd of eight hundred, mostly young men, gathered at Woodland Gardens on the 17th to witness the battle between Pennell and Flynn. What happened was an unexpected and disappointing finish. Pennell was clearly the stronger of the two, but Flynn proved to be the superior technical wrestler. Flynn took the first fall, but after falling, the fans could see desperation in the challenger’s eyes.
The clock ticked passed midnight, and at 12:10 AM, Flynn shocked the fans by withdrawing from the match. The fans were outraged! They were assured there would be no draw in this contest. Edwin Morrill announced to the fans that Flynn had agreed to wrestle Pennell on September 17. Since it was now September 18, the written contract had been fulfilled. Flynn was done with Pennell.
The crowd was livid. They screamed for Flynn to finish the contest. The referee, hoping to appease the crowd, announced Pennell as the winner, but Pennell gallantly refused to accept the win. Ignoring the cry of the masses who wanted him to take the win and the $500, he told the crowd that Morrill had out-foxed him, and he agreed the match should end in a draw. But he also took the opportunity to demand a rematch, two weeks hence, for double the stakes – a $1000 purse! Flynn agreed to the rematch, and the evening was over.
The very next day, Flynn backed off from his promise of a rematch. Flynn said he had no objection to wrestling Pennell again in private, but he had no desire to step into a ring in Louisville with the city’s fans against him. Flynn had no immediate plans to leave town, stating he had made many friends and intended to stick around for a week or so, but the public rematch was out.
The next day, Flynn put up a deposit of $50 at the Courier-Journal to show he was sincere about the private rematch. He announced his intention to remain in Louisville until the races were concluded at Churchill, but he reiterated his stance he would not face Pennell in a public exhibition.
On September 22, Pennell met with Edward Morrill again to negotiate terms of a public rematch. With Flynn’s blessing, Morrill agreed to a second match. This time, Pennell closed the loophole. The match would continue until there was a winner. There really and truly would be NO draw this time!
On September 30, a crowd of more than 1000 gathered to watch the strongest man in the world take on the champion of the Northwest. A good number of bettors and sports enthusiasts from Peoria and Chicago came in for the match to cheer on Chicago’s own, but the crowd was largely local and largely in Pennell’s corner.
When the opponents disrobed, it was clear Flynn was in better shape than his opponent that night. He was also much cooler and patient than in their previous match as the two locked up. Pennell matched Flynn’s caution, and both men took a defensive posture. Flynn took the early advantage when Pennell went for a neck hold, dropping him to mat, but when Flynn went for a hold, Pennell powered out and dropped Flynn on his shoulders, scoring a fall and drawing a roar from the partisan crowd.
Flynn came out more aggressively for round two. His scientific knowledge of the sport gave him the edge, and in ten minutes, Pennell was on his back, struggling to keep one shoulder off the mat. Flynn overpowered him, and the match was even at one fall a piece.
Flynn looked fresh as they began the third round just before 10 PM. Pennell, on the other hand, was showing serious signs of fatigue and suffering from sprained fingers. Pennell spent much of the round face down on the mat as Flynn struggled to flip him on his back. Unable to put his “Nelson grip” to use, Flynn ultimately used a neck lock to turn the stronger man over and take the third fall.
Pennell called for a surgeon during the third intermission and attempted to treat his badly damaged hand. It was of little use, and when Pennell answered the bell for the fourth round, he appeared “timid as a child.” Flynn kept Pennell on the defensive, chasing him all over the stage. At one point, Flynn had Pennell pressed against the floodlights, and Pennell, afraid he might be tossed off the stage, was heard saying, “Don’t hurt me, Flynn, don’t hurt me.” At that moment, Flynn flipped Pennell over one last time and scored the pin, taking the victory and ending the contest.
After the crowd left, the two competitors met in the presence of the judges, referee, and Courier-Journal representatives. Flynn received his prize of $1000 plus two thirds of the gate. Pennell admitted he had been soundly defeated and congratulated his opponent.
Having won the battle, Flynn declared his intention to next challenge Duncan Ross. Pennell and Flynn would leave town together on September 7th for Chicago for they hoped would be a run in with Ross, who would soon move to Louisville himself and set up shop.
It seems strange that two such bitter rivals would leave practically arm in arm in pursuit of their next challenge, but a year later, an article in the Courier-Journal would shine a different light on their so-called rivalry. A unidentified wrestler gave the Courier what he claimed to be the real story of Pennell and Flynn – it was all a work.
According to the unnamed source, Pennell and Flynn came into Louisville playing a very common game used by greedy promoters. A wrestler of some repute would move into a town where people could be “easily gulled.” The wrestler, now claiming to be a local, would issue open challenges that would be answered by a pre-selected opponent from out of town. The opponent would come to town, engage in a war of words with the challenger, and ultimately square off with him in a match.
What’s more, the outcome of these matches was often decided on the fly. Observers would watch the betting on the matches, and depending on who had the most money bet by the third of fourth round, decide the finish based on who could win the more money. By doing so, the promoters and their allies could maximize their profits by betting – and winning – on the perceived underdog.
“It is,” the source concluded, “a settled fact that all the wrestlers, who are abusing each other, are very good friends in reality and put on the disguise of enmity to gull the people more easily.”
The article couldn’t have come at a worse time for Louisville wrestling enthusiasts. The champion of the world, William Muldoon of New York, was in town wrestling against the latest wrestler to make Louisville his home and issue and open challenge to the world. That wrestler was none other than Duncan C. Ross, formerly of Chicago.
The rumors of a fix, combined with some heelish behavior from Muldoon, soured the Louisville sports fans on wrestling. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that men like William Barton and Heywood Allen would succeed in popularizing wrestling in the city again, igniting a passion for the sport that continues to this day.
The story of Pennell and Flynn, as well as the stories of Ross and Muldoon, appear in the book Bluegrass Brawlers: The Story of Professional Wrestling in Louisville.