Tagged in: wrestling history

Sisterhood of the Squared Circle is a Knock Out

A few years ago I started work on what was going to be a history of women’s wrestling. I did some research, bought a few magazines, reached out to a few ladies about interviews, but ended up setting the project aside for another, and then another. I’m glad I did. Pat Laprade and Dan Murphy have delivered one of the most enjoyable and educational wrestling books I’ve read in a while, and it’s 100 times better than the book I envisioned writing.

Sisterhood of the Squared Circle is both a history and a “who’s who.” They tell the story of women’s wrestling by introducing the reader to the ladies who wrote that history. Every era, from the dawn of the 20th century up until 2017, is thoroughly covered. You’ll meet the pioneers of women’s wrestling, Mildred Burke and Billy Wolfe’s troupe, the women who trained under the Fabulous Moolah, the ladies of GLOW, the legends of Japan, the Divas, the Knockouts, the Shimmer Girls, and the current stars of the WWE.

As much as I enjoyed Pat’s previous collaboration with Bertrand Herbert, Mad Dogs, Midgets, and Screwjobs, he and and Dan have outdone themselves. They cut through the kayfabe storylines and give you the real story behind the fight to legalize wrestling, the battle to legalize intergender wrestling, the checkered legacy of the Fabulous Moolah. They capture the struggle women have faced to be treated as equals, to receive equal pay, and to be taken seriously as wrestlers.

If I have one complaint about the book, it’s a minor one. There simply wasn’t the room to cover every influential woman in wrestling history, and my favorite golden age grappler Elvira Snodgrass is sadly missing. Nevertheless, Sisterhood of the Squared Circle is a solid book and a must read for fans who love the history of this business. It’s enough of a page turner that when my long-awaited copy of Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn arrived, Thrawn had to wait his turn until the ladies had their due.

Sisterhood of the Squared Circle is available on Amazon.com. Get it, read it, share it. Bravo, Dan and Pat. Can’t wait to see what you do next.

Louisville Wrestling Talk with the WBKI FANatic

Friday I had the chance to talk about the new book Louisville’s Greatest Show with George Bueller, host of the WBKI FANatic on Facebook Live. George is a walking encyclopedia of all things comic books and – as it turns out – pro wrestling. If you’re into the comic book shows on the WB, this is worth liking and following every week. And if our conversation about the book intrigues you, please head over to Amazon.com to pick it up for yourself.

WBKI Fanatic Chat

Posted by WBKI – Louisville's CW on Friday, April 14, 2017

Crowbar Press: A gold mine of golden age wrestling

Just passing on a quick plug for my friends at Crowbar Press. They currently have 25 wrestling titles available with four new ones on the way. Hooker and Whatever Happened to Gorgeous George? are two of my personal favorites, books I highly recommend to any wrestling fan. Visit them at www.crowbarpress.com to see what else they have to offer.

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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.

“The Black Panther” Jim Mitchell

The Black Panther Jim MitchellOne of the wrestlers I discovered while researching Bluegrass Brawlers was a man named Jim Mitchell. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Mitchell was one of the early African American pioneers in professional wrestling. He wasn’t the first; that distinction goes to a former slave named Viro Small, who became a star wrestling in New York back in 1874. But Mitchell was one of the first African Americans in the modern era to break the color barrier, wrestling against white opponents for major promotions.

Early in his career, Mitchell wore a hood to the ring. He called himself “The Black Panther,” and he did battle with other non-white wrestlers. He was in good company, frequently doing battle with fellow African American stars Seelie Samara and Gentleman Jack Claybourne.

Mitchell was an athletic and gifted wrestler who proved he could be a draw. After a successful European tour and stops all around the US and Canada, he ended up in Los Angeles and became a regular at the Olympic Auditorium. Mitchell soon found the confidence to lose the mask and even wrestle under his real name.

In the late 1940s the LA promoters took a chance and put Mitchell in the ring against white opponents. Mitchell had to work these matches as a babyface for fear of what might happen outside the ring if he were a heel. It was still a risk, but Mitchell’s battles with white opponents proved to be a hit, opening the doors for others to follow.

His most famous battle took place in 1949 against one of pro wrestling’s greatest heels, Gorgeous George. After George tossed Mitchell from the ring, an angry fan rushed into the ring to take a swing at George. George dispatched the fan quickly, but when he did, the fans rose up and rushed the ring. George and Mitchell slipped through a hidden tunnel to the locker room while a riot, divided largely along racial lines, raged inside the Olympic.

Mitchell and George would meet many times in the coming years. Their in-ring rivalry was fierce, but in the locker room, there was no real rivalry. What’s more, the racism that divided the cities where Mitchell wrestled was non-existent in the pro wrestling locker room. The wrestlers, black and white, were bonded together by the sport they loved and a common adversary: the promoters who paid them. A 1954 account of an appearance Mitchell made in his hometown of Louisville describes a scene where white wrestlers rose to embrace and shake hands with the returning hero.

Mitchell worked a little as a referee in his later years in the business, and he also traveled with future Hall of Famer Bobo Brazil. After retiring from the ring, Mitchell opened a store in the Toledo area called Black Panther Carryout. The walls of the store featured photos and memorabilia from Mitchell’s career, and locals would come in to talk wrestling in addition to shopping. He passed away in 1996 at the age of 87.

Mitchell is an unsung pioneer in the history of pro wrestling. He deserves to be in the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame as well as the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame.

Jim’s story is told in part in Louisville’s Greatest Show. I’m continuing my research on Jim Mitchells, and my hope is that I can eventually tell his full story. I’m looking for photos, programs, videos, stories, anything I can get my hands on. I’m also hoping to find some folks with first or second hand stories about the man, whether they come from relatives or the relatives of other wrestlers who worked with him.

If you’ve stumbled on this page and you have information about The Black Panther Jim Mitchell, please contact me at johncosper@yahoo.com. I would love to hear from you!