Why You Need to Visit the National Wrestling Hall of Fame

Waterloo, Iowa might just be the center of the wrestling universe. The city lives and breathes wrestling. The President’s Hotel, now an apartment complex, was the birthplace of the National Wrestling Alliance, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg in Waterloo. This city loves wrestling at all stages: high school, college, Olympic, and pro. Waterloo is the hometown of Dan Gable, a man considered by many to be the greatest wrestler of all time and one of the greatest sportsmen of the 20th century. It is also home to the museum that bears Gable’s name: The National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum.

The name is quite a mouthful, but the museum, which doesn’t look all that big from the outside, is just as jam packed as the name it bears. Located just up the street from the old President’s Hotel, the Dan Gable Museum is a shrine to wrestling’s past and present. The museum pays homage to the champions of NCAA wrestling and Olympic wrestling (including Indiana University’s Billy Thom) as well as the legends and icons of professional wrestling. It is dedicated to preserving the past while inspiring wrestlers at all levels for the future.

The pro wrestling wing of the museum features an impressive number of rare artifacts going back to the days of Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt. A trunk belonging to Gotch is on display in the gallery near Lou Thesz’s robe and title belt.

You’ll see robes belonging the multiple generations of the Henning family and the legendary Tiger Man, Joe Pesek. A marble statue with a fascinating backstory that once belonged to Thesz sits in the same gallery as does one of three death masks made of the original French Angel, Maurice Tillet. Modern fans will also find a spinner belt signed by John Cena, the singlet worn by Kurt Angle when he won a gold medal with a “broken freakin’ neck,” and the signature black and pink jacket once worn by Bret Hart.

The Dan Gable Museum has exhibit areas devoted to Olympic wrestling, NCAA wrestling, and the history of wrestling itself, starting with one wall dedicated to the legendary confrontation between Jacob and an angel in the book of Genesis. Other highlights included several posters for the Barnum and Bailey “At Show” wrestling exhibitions, some beautiful original art work paying tribute to the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame inductees, and this unique artifact from Brock Lesnar’s pre-WWE days as an NCAA champion in Minnesota.

The Dan Gable Museum is more than just a place to learn about wrestling. They also host clinics on a weekly basis in the Dan Gable Teaching Center, an area they plan to expand in the coming year. The museum has $1.7 million dollars in planned renovations now starting, including interactive exhibits in the pro wrestling wing. Museum director Kyle Klingman gave me a quick tour of the storage area where even more amazing wrestling artifacts are waiting their turn to be put on display in the galleries above.

If your summer plans are still flexible, here’s another reason to plan a quick trip to Waterloo: the museum is hosting their second annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony in less than two weeks. Special guests for the July 20-22 festivities include Jim Ross, Shelton Benjamin, Chuck Taylor, B. Brian Blair, American Alpha, Sabu, Paul Orndorff, Magnum T.A., Larry Henning, Baron von Raschke, J.J. Dillon, Gerry Briscoe, and the museum’s namesake himself, Dan Gable.

The National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum is located in Waterloo, Iowa, and is open Monday through Friday from 9 AM to 5 PM. For more information visit their website or find them on Facebook.

Yes, it’s off the beaten path. Yes, it’s out of the way. Yes, it’s absolutely worth the effort. I know I’ll be back again soon.

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.