Wednesday, February 28, 2018

George Richards: Mr Big & Tall

1936
George Richards is an interesting name from the past.

Famous for his Big & Tall clothing shops which catered to athletes and big men, including many of the Toronto smart dressers including Whipper Watson, Pat Flanagan, and Athol Layton.

Before opening his chain of stores Richards was a pro wrestler here in the 1930's and '40's. Born in 1914 he had taken up wrestling to help support his family after his father died. When Maple Leaf Gardens opened in Nov 1931 the teenage Richards was selling programs at the arena he would later wrestle in.

He went pro in the early 1930's and in addition to the local scene he traveled a bit working around New York and Ohio (as Benny Stein) alongside fellow Toronto stalwart Jerry Monahan.

Here he was mostly a prelim type guy wrestling on the openers. One listing in NJ has him (if he is Benny Stein) wrestling Gino Garibaldi.

In 1936 he tried his hand at boxing and entered into the Jack Dempsey 'White Hope' tournament
1962
under the tutelage of Ed Kellar who had competed in the 1930 British Empire games in Hamilton.

During World War II he enlisted in the Air Force and helped to train troops on the ships going from Halifax to London. On the return trip he'd be in charge of German prisoners of war coming to Canada.

After the war he opened his first store and noticed he was seeing a lot of his athletic colleagues so started catering to men taller than 6'1 (sized 38-60) and to stout men 200-450lbs (sizes 42-66), It was in an instant hit for football players and of course the wrestlers who were now able to get quality suits in their sizes.

Athol Layton who was 6'6 265 wore a size 52 tall and appreciated the bright colors, shirts in pink, lilac, and chartreuse. He was one of the snappiest dressers among any athlete both on TV as a commentator and at the many charity functions he appeared at. .

It wasn't exclusive to athletes, some of the city's more famous 'stout' men were customers including former police chief Harold Adamson (6.2 210lbs) and Sam Shopsowitz of Shopsys -the hot dog king
1968
(5'10 270lbs).

Shopsowitz once said about Richards suits 'The fact that I'm fat doesn't mean that I don't like to follow fashion trends. I object to elephant pants but I like patch pockets on my suits'  indeed!

In 1954 after the Toronto Tag Trophy (sponsored by Calvert Distillery dubbed the Calvert trophy) was destroyed by the Mills Brothers,  Richards donated a new trophy to be awarded to the Tag champs - the George Richards Trophy which was awarded through the balance of the 1950's.

By 1980 under the banner George Richards Kingsize Clothes  it had grown to 16 locations around the country and while George still remained active his son Michael was running the day to day operations. The Grafton-Fraser company who had bought 50% share in 1977 purchased the balance of the company in 1981

George was still leading exercise classes for seniors into his mid 80's and at 87 (2002) was still working out 4 times a week. Was unable to find a date of death, if anyone can help please contact me.

The name lives on as George Richards Big & Tall and I still frequent the one near me today. (6'3 240 but working on it!)
1957 with Whipper and Pat 

some info from the book - I Know that Name!: The People Behind Canada's Best-known Brand Names from ...By Mark Kearney, Randy Ray

edit : Always a pleasure to receive a note from Roger Baker , our Maple Leaf source of golden info

... enjoyed it (George Richards post) as old memories of the days when I worked out at the Bloor St. YMHA. came back. Alfie Richards, who was George's younger brother was in the weight room on a regular basis, he was a big guy, and so were some of the guys that he had workouts with, he was friends with Les Lyman (promoter/wrestler), who also occasionally worked out at The YMHA.. I remember the time when Alfie invited myself and a friend that I worked out with to be seconds at a wrestling show that he had a hand in. Insofar as Alfie Richards being an active wrestler, no don't believe he ever was, I'm thinking that he worked in men's fine clothing sales, as did his older brother George.

Roger also sent over a photo of Alfie Richards wrestling with Les Lyman on a mat at the YMHA. Richards clad all in black. It sent me looking through some ads from shows that Les Lyman promoted around Toronto in the mid 1950's. On some of those shows, one 'Blackjack Richards', Roger remembers 'Killer' Jim Conroy on those shows too.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

50th Anniversary Show Nov 15 1981: Sunday Night


This is a 'Sunday Night' feature... We have looked at the various anniversary shows held at Maple Leaf Gardens over the years, this time we focus on the final one, celebrating 50 years of wrestling at MLG.

The first show was held on Nov 19 1931 under the promotion of the Queensbury Athletic Club headed by Jack Corcoran. Corcoran passed the promotion to John & Frank Tunney in 1939 but in later days Frank said he had started working for Corcoran in 1931 and was around the night MLG officially opened on Nov 12. In fact he said it was notable also as it was his 19th birthday.

Frank had gone off to college in Feb 1930 and settled in as Corcoran's secretary for those early years. When his brother John passed away suddenly in 1940 Frank took over the reigns for the next 43 years untill his death in 1983.

The show was planned for Sunday Nov 15 1981 and was to feature an NWA title bout with new champ Ric Flair defending against #1 contender Harley Race. At that time newspaper coverage was minimal as compared to previous eras, but this anniversary earned a couple notable entries in the dailies.

The Toronto Sun had an enlarged ad type entry on Nov 11 with the caption 'He does it with Flair' with a photo of the new champ and his belt. It was billed as 3 championship bouts, Alongside Flair vs Race, Angelo Mosca trying to regain his Canadian Heavyweight Title from John Studd, and NWA TV champ Ron Bass to defend against Kurt Von Hess. Added to that was Andre the Giant going for revenge against Killer Kahn for breaking his leg (actually happened well before and the two had had several return bouts elsewhere) and 'others' including Johnny Weaver, Mike Miller, Mike (billed as Ron) Davis, and Victor Jovica.


The Globe had a feature article by James Christie (40 years at Globe as Sportswriter) entitled 'Love and pain and 50 years of grappling.'  He looked at the history of wrestling here and quoted Tunney as saying he would sell out the show expecting 17,000 and a gate of $100k.

The card did almost sell out MLG, announced attendance was 16,000 which made it one of the best of the era. Since 1974 there had only been two other cards over 15,000.

The place was full, and loud.

The card itself did not disappoint, though there were some minor changes from what was scheduled.

NWA TITLE: Ric Flair WP Harley Race 24:03
Andre the Giant D/DQ Killer Kahn 14:19
Canadian Heavyweight Title: John Studd LCOR Angelo Mosca 15:47
TV Title: Outlaw Ron Bass W Mike Miller (sub for Kurt Von Hess) 10:46
Johnny Weaver W Charlie Fulton 8:24
Tony Parisi/Mike Davis W Doug Vines/Izzy Slapowitz 11:12

About to hit the ramp! 


The highlight was Flair vs Race , 24 minutes of suplexes, figure fours, falling headbutts, and all out action both in the ring and on the ramp. As was usually the case when these two met both were covered in blood after sacrificing themselves on the hard wooden ramp.

Race appeared to pin the champ when ref Terry Yorkston counted Flair down for 3 and the fans thought we had seen another title change in Toronto. Ref John Laing came out to tell Yorkston that Race had pulled Flair's trunks. During this exchange Flair got behind Race and threw him into the ropes catching him in a cradle and pinning him. Flair was declared the winner and  wrestlers from the back came out to congratulate him.

Race blew up and laid out Mike Davis before piledriving Flair into the mat. Race continued to attack until Johnny Weaver grabbed the NWA belt and swung it around until Race departed down the ramp after which Weaver and Davis helped Flair off to a huge ovation.

That was their 2nd of 6 bouts here over the NWA Title between 1980-1984, each as champ for 3 bouts. Flair who was popular here all of the time since his switch in 1980 always earned the cheers while mostly a heel in other areas.


Even as a full fledged heel here in 78-79 the fans loved him and he would always draw them in when he made his return here as NWA champ, 10 defenses total 1981-1984. The only downside of his NWA runs was that we saw him less often.

The Andre- Kahn bout was also a hard fought, very realistic and rough battle. Andre looked to be killing Kahn before Miller, Fulton, Slapowitz, and Vines rushed out and dragged Kahn away from the angry Giant. Andre had Kahn on the ropes trying to break his leg and wouldn't let up so officially a double dq.

Mosca and Studd continued their feud with two referees and brawled their way to the floor where Studd had had enough and fled to the dressing room leaving Mosca the winner but not the champ. Mosca would eventually regain the title a few months later in a cage bout.


Those 3 bouts were worthy of the card and the openers were pretty good, including the only appearance for Slapowitz. Some of the wrestlers appeared in Brantford for TV tapings the following day, notably Race who wrestled 3 bouts for the day.

The card got some write ups in the magazines of the day including an 'Arena Report' in PWI, 'The Wrestler' had a' story entitled 'The John Studd School of Rulebreaking' - Studd mentoring Slapowitz, Miller, Davis and a great shot of the old dirty Maple Leaf Dressing room,  and a 2 page spread in 'Ring' Magazine.

The Mid Atlantic Gateway has the TV bout from the next day featuring Race vs Weaver 

None of the bouts from the 50th card have surfaced, I have a hazy memory of seeing portions of the Andre-Kahn and Flair-Race bouts on the CITY TV Monday 6pm news, likely repeated from the Sunday 11pm news where they usually showed it - we wouldn't have been home in time for that and I didn't have a VCR till about '83!



Saturday, February 24, 2018

Lou Marsh

The legendary sportsman Lou Marsh was a mainstay on the Toronto scene as an athlete, referee, and journalist for many years. You could write a book on his exploits and accomplishments but we will look at his close connection to pro wrestling in the city. He was involved from the very early days as both a referee and then covering the sport on a regular basis as a reporter for the Toronto Star.

He was a tell it like it is type and could be critically honest in his views of the sporting world. He demanded utmost participation and effort and his view of pro wrestling was no different. His column in the Star titled 'With Pick And Shovel' (and later as Sports Editor) frequently covered the sport and as a referee he had a unique perspective on the going ons in the squared circle.

During a March 1921 bout between Canadian Champion Jack Forbes and Steve Graf in a bout described as a sensational 20 minute bout full of 'head spinning, bridging, and high and lofty tumbling,' referee Marsh called a sudden halt to the proceedings. He told the two wrestlers that from then on 'a real contest was demanded.' The two accepted 'the hint' and in 3 1/2 minutes Graff pinned Forbes shoulders to the mat. Another fall ensued with Forbes being disqualified for roughhousing tactics. The chairman of the Ontario Athletic Commission was in attendance and was said to be taking further action against the main bout wrestlers 'for faking.'

Marsh was an early supporter of boxing promoter Jack Corcoran and his Queensbury Athletic Club who later got into pro wrestling before passing the office to the Tunney Brothers. Marsh and Corcoran ran in the same circles hunting and fishing together. They had both served as judges for amateur trials held across the county in the 1920's and Marsh frequently served as ref on Corcoran's boxing cards.

In May 1924 Marsh reported on a card held at Arena Gardens with a main of Stanislaus Zybysco vs Canadian heavyweight champion George Walker. Calling it as Toronto's first taste of 'big league wrestling' he described the then 53 year old Zybysco as having a 'stomach with a double chin effect.' and a 'rolly polly Pole with the bullet head,' and that the bout was like an 'acrobatic contest between an eel and a seal lion.' He summed up the prelim bout between Larry Ness (lightweight champ of New York) and Jim Watson (champ of Canada) as 'the bunk'. 'If either one is champion of anything I'm Carry Nation.'

After Ivan Mickailoff brought regular pro wrestling into Toronto, Marsh was a frequent critic of the participants. He could also be impressed so would assume he was 'smartened up' or maybe the style was just that convincing. Upon seeing Gus Sonnenberg defeat Dan Koloff  in Oct 1929 he remarked 'Gotta give the wrestling champion (Sonnenberg) credit, boys. He certainly gave the lads and lassies who packed Andy Taylor's parlors to the roof plenty of action. What a sweet workman he is. Short squatty, with all his weight where he needs it most, he is as quick as a flash and he knows the game, a brainy, smart fellow.'

In 1930 after Corcoran's first pro wrestling card at Massey Hall Marsh weighed in on what he perceived as a double cross against the promoter. He stated that Corcoran was 'butting into the racket of well organized combine' and 'he might be dead lucky that the only thing that gets the ride is his pocketbook.' He implied that main eventer Jack McCarthy  was  'pie-eyed' and that Corcoran would be 'well advised to stick to the boxing end of sports promotion.'

A couple of weeks later on the eve of Corcoran's second card featuring Jon Pesek Marsh opined that the first card which had been plagued by 'razzers' were in fact a 'paid clique' sent to disrupt the card on behalf of others (presumably rival promoter Ivan Mickailoff). He said it was openly charged that the hecklers were paid 25$ to start trouble at Corcoran's debut and that the same parties set up a pair of double crosses on the same show.

Pesek proved to be popular and even impressed Marsh who also suggested that Corcoran and Mickailoff get together and set up a Pesek-Sonnenberg (Sonnenberg appearing on Mickailoff cards) bout to 'pack them in.'

He retired as a referee several years later though he would occasionally come back for one-offs,  some at the Bowmanville Lions Club. Corcoran had more than once offered Marsh as much as $500 to ref a bout in Toronto. it would have made for some publicity as Lou didn't like modern wrestling and the public knew it. Marsh always refused. Just a few weeks before Marsh passed away suddenly in 1936 he had reffed at a Corcoran charity show in Hamilton. Corcoran had asked and Marsh offered to do it only if Jack worked one bout as well, so they did.

In late April 1936 Marsh was having a bite at a cafeteria and suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Initially they thought he would recover but on Mar 4   suffered a fatal stroke. Upon his death Corcoran related several anecdotes including crediting him with saving him when their canoe turned over on a fishing trip. He was said to have saved close to a dozen people from drowning over the years.

Marsh was so influential and respected the Star devoted all of its cover and most of its first 4 pages to him when he died.

They named an award after him to be awarded to Canada's top athlete each year starting the year of his death. No pro wrestler has ever won it  but in 1953 Doug Hepburn won it for weightlifting. He had a brief tenure as a pro wrestler here in Toronto in 1955, we looked at him in another entry here on the site.


Monday, February 19, 2018

Whipper, Tunney, & McCready 1941

A notable date in MLW history featuring Whipper Watson vs Earl McCready for the undisputed Canadian Heavyweight Championship on June 12 1941

This was the beginnings of the British Empire Title which became the main title here for close to 30 years. McCready had come in to Toronto as holder of both the B-E Title and the Canadian Championship and had faced Whipper the week before this bout.




In the mid 40's McCready owned a farm on 2nd Concession in Whitchurch Township (Vandorf) near what is now Aurora. He would be gone for 6 months at a time traveling around the world and was known for a time as 'The Whitchurch Farmer. In a 1944 Stoufville paper it proclaimed Frank Tunney as the second most well known local name in pro wrestling - next to McCready.

In June of 1941 rookie promoter Tunney introduced the new title belt 'emblematic of the dominion wrestling championship' in order to give more credence to Canadian wrestlers. McCready was still billed across the nation as champ and Tunney deemed local star Whipper Watson to be a claimant so the two were set to meet at MLG.

The initial meeting was inconclusive but in the re-match McCready pinned Watson in the 5th round of another 8 round bout to become undisputed champ. Both were said to be competing for the chance at the World title so it helped to establish Watson as a worthy challenger. The new British Empire title would then become the centrepiece for the next decade and provide a platform for Whipper to eventually attain the World Title.

McCready would lost the title to Nanjo Singh who then lost it to Whipper for his first run in Apr 1942, McCready would regain it from new champ John Katan late in the year and by 1943 Whipper would regain it and hold it on and off (mainly on) before it was retired in 1967.

McCready and Watson would also find time to team up as a formidable tag in 1942 in a bout billed as the 'first time four men in the ring at the same time.' Our era's Texas tornado bout. The two would beat John Katan and Al 'Bunny' Dunlop in a wild bout.

McCready would continue to appear often through the 1940's while still maintaining a busy schedule throughout the wrestling world and would wrestle his last area appearances here in 1954 before finishing his career out West.

*note in the photo above with all three, McCready who was billed at 5'11 looks to tower over Whipper (billed 5'10) (and Tunney -5'9?) , there is an entry on the web that claims Watson was 5'7 but photos show him to be about 5'10. Another photo shows them to be about an inch apart, must be the angle of this one.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Gene Kiniski at Make Believe Gardens

Another fine figure from our friend Barry Hatchet in our continuing look at the heels and heroes of Make Believe Gardens.

Kiniski has been the subject of several features both on the main site and here on the blog. He was an integral part of the wrestling scene here spanning some 4 decades from his debut in 1956 to his last appearance here in 1982.

He caused a lot of mayhem in and out of the ring for all of those years and he never met a mic he didn't like. One of the most important and notable of the many stars that spent a considerable time in our area. Thanks to Barry again, great job !

Make Believe Gardens
More from Make Believe Gardens



Saturday, February 10, 2018

Whipper & Politics 1965


Whipper Watson won a lot of battles over his lifetime. For a big star he lost more than his share of bouts in the ring, but usually won the battle.

In 1965 at the age of 48 Whipper would try his hand at politics to run on his home turf for the '65 Federal Election.

At the time Whipper was  25 years into his pro wrestling career and while getting up in age - and with limited mobility - he was still a huge star on the weekly cards at  Maple Leaf Gardens.

He was still the British Empire champ though working in tag teams most of the time. His bouts generally stayed under 15 minutes and he was travelling less, preferring to stay close to the farm he owned on the South shores of Lake Simcoe.

Frank Tunney had planned a 'Silver Aniversary' contest for Whip in October but then Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson announced a federal election for Nov 8 1965 and Whipper decided to turn from the wrestling ring to the political ring.

For the Sept 9 1965 card he was matched against Professor Hiro (managed by Whip's long time adversary Fred Atkins) and it was called a 'farewell - for present at least.'

Whipper was not new to the political forum, at least in concept. He was frequently appearing at events around Toronto covering both the business and charity worlds and was constantly hob-knobbing with Mayors, Commissioners, Sports Figures, Actors, and other stars of their respective fields.

He had ran several business, and had a hand in promoting wrestling and parts of the office both here and in the U.S. He had also been at the forefront of several battles with both the city and the Sports Commission over Pro Wrestling. More on that in another column.

Whip was known as 'The Pride of East York' so it was a natural to try to win his home riding known as York East. He would have to overcome Steve Otto, a Lawyer who had held the seat since 1962. Otto, for the Liberals was billed at 162lbs vs Whipper for the Conservatives at 245. They would face a challenge from NDP incumbent William Smith (no weight given),

Otto had fallen out of favor in his own party, expecting to have to pay all his own expenses and saying 'I don't think the Liberal party  would cry at all if I lost.'

Whipper, meanwhile had the whole of the Conservative party rooting hard for him, providing him with all of the assistance and encouragement it could muster. Prior to Otto taking the seat in 1962 the Conservatives had held the riding for the previous 37 years with the same guy -Robert McGregor 1935-1962.

Whipper didn't claim to know all the answers. He readily admitted that when it comes to economics and other political platforms he would be 'just kidding you' to claim to know the solutions but would find the experts who did. He would confine his campaign to a portfolio of physical fitness, programs for all Canadians and sponsorship of Canadian athletes, and scholarships at universities.

He promised to end his wrestling career to grapple full time with the problems of government if elected.

During his campaign which was centered in a large hall in East york and staffed with many volunteers, he would came back to the wrestling ring on Oct 3 to team with Johnny Powers against Hiro and Gene Kiniski before taking a break.

On Nov 8  when the numbers were counted Whipper lost, but not by much. Otto had 18,840 votes against Whipper's 15,312. Smith got 13,045 and outsider Bea Beacock with 194 making Whippers share about 32% of the vote, not bad for a first showing.

In the Federal spectrum Pearson remained Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker placed second, and Tommy Douglas with the NDP placed third. Douglas, whose daughter actor Shirley Douglas married actor Donald Sutherland, is the grandfather of Keifer Sutherland, Interestingly Keifer later resided in East York.

That would be the end of Whipper's political aspirations and a couple of weeks later he would be back at MLG revitalized to defend his title against Kiniski, the 3 fall bout going to almost an hour.