Part III: London and the golden era of pro wrestling - The press and changing times
- Written by Geoff Dale
Today when the fan wants the latest scoop on ring action, whether it’s the WWE or the independent circuit, there are countless wrestling websites on the Internet and social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus.
Back in the golden days print journalism was the key to getting the dirt on The Sheik or Bulldog Brower. In London fans routinely turned to talented and eminently quick-witted writers like Bev Tyrrell and Harry Eisen.
Samples of their coverage:
“Honestly, folks, it’s getting monotonous! The way that evil character Dick “Bulldog” Brower keeps winning, that is. One would think that a bad egg like Brower would come to no good end. But that seems to be far in the future.” – Harry Eisen, on Brower’s disqualification win over Whipper Billy Watson.
“Maybe next time they stage a pier six wrestling brawl, the powers-that-be will install traffic lights to keep the combatants honest.” – Bev Tyrrell covering Brower, Sweet Daddy Siki and Johnnie Valentine’s win over Watson, Sammartino and Gentleman Jim Hady.
"We had really good sports writers in London who got the comedy and sports in wrestling,” says Terry Dart. “Harry Eisen did it with humour, like when he wrote, ‘Gene Kiniski’s knee drop is not to be confused with a gum drop’ or ‘Whipper Billy Watson looked like Little Orphan Annie tied to a train track.''
What did local pro wresting aficionado Terry Dart think of the big names that hit London on an almost weekly basis?
“Whipper wasn’t that friendly, he’d just hello and nothing more,” he says. “The Kalmikoffs were interesting; Fritz Von Erich was a good man and Billy Red a really nice guy. We used to call Tony Perisi a butterball. The Canadian Wildman (Dave McKigney) was fascinating because he both a wrestler and promoter. I kept calling him Dave and you’re not supposed to do that."
“I think the worst times were when The Sheik attacked me. He was unpredictable but once in Simcoe his manager asked me to do them a favour as part of the match, which I did. In the 1970s he was the big undefeated name. There were some good moments like me taking photos of his nephew Sabu. His manager The Weasel was a good guy but there were those nights when The Sheik would spit or hit me.”
One night when Abdullah was fighting Pampero Firpo, he was taking photos of the wild action. Firpo was flipped out of the ring, landing squarely on the shocked Londoner. “He said ‘what are you doing there’ and I replied ‘I don’t know but I want out,” Terry said. “Abdullah threw a judo chop that missed Firpo but hit me. That hurt.”
“Lord Layton told me he would have liked to live in London. The Wildman (immortalized in Jim Freedman’s book Drawing Heat) wanted to buy the London Arena but that never happened. When it was torn down, there was a lot of memorabilia lost and chairs that had been autographed by wrestlers. Dave was well liked as a promoter and I saw him pay all his wrestlers, which wasn’t always the case with others."
“Later in the ‘70s there was wrestling in Centennial Hall but that didn’t work out. Cowboy Frankie Laine ran the Grand Prix wrestling in the 80s. The arena was too hot and crowds not that good.”
“One night, I saw Tony Marino wrestle Krusher Stan Kowalski in London. Kowalski hid a metal plate in his knee pad. He kept kneeing Marino in the head until he was a bloody mess. Young girls were screaming. There was total chaos. The next night, I went to a match in Woodstock to see them. Marino was totally healed up."
“Being the mark that I was, I walked up and told him that I had been in London the night before. When I asked about his injuries, he said, "Oh, I heal quickly, that's all." I said that was a miracle.”
Theatrics aside, Terry says wrestling was serious business for fans. One night when the referee gave heel John Katan the nod over face Whipper Billy Watson, a riot erupted with chairs smashed, floorboards torn up and ultimately matches temporarily suspended.
“It was more fun back then,” Terry says. “We believed it was real. Now we know differently, so it’s like being told there is no Santa Claus. You don’t see as many old people like Ma Pickles and the prices, what a change! Back then it was $1.50 ringside, $1.25 for regular and 75 cents for kids. Some of us got in free because we’d carry suitcases for some of the wrestlers."
“That was heavy stuff, but we were young and full of energy. It was so much fun and seems like only yesterday.”
[Photos: Courtesy of Terry Dart]
Geoff Dale is a freelance writer and photographer based in Woodstock, Ontario. Born in London, England, he has been a journalist since 1975 and a lover of film, theatre and books since as long as he can remember. A Stratford Festival reviewer for The Beat, his first work of fiction, an alternative history entitled The Fine Art of Boxing – No Stooge in the Ring, was published in 2013.
[Editor's Note: This concludes the three part series on London and the golden era of pro wrestling.Thanks to writer Geoff Dale and especially Terry Dart for this flashback to an earlier time in London sports history.]