Monday, March 19, 2018

Lord Athol Layton

When Lord Athol Layton made his debut at Maple Leaf Gardens in November 1950 - in the main event no less - he made a big impression, literally. He was pictured in the Star in the days before the card with his arms outstretched over 6 of the Gardens ushers, towering over the other men.

Layton, billed at 6'6 was to be matched against another huge guy, the man billed as the 'Ozark Giant' (then area resident) the 6'8 Sky Hi Lee. The 'Lord' was an immediate hit, with 11,000 fans showing up to see the battle of the giants. Layton proved to be a formidable challenger for the larger Lee winning his debut by making Lee submit to a leg crab.

He was without his valet Gerald who had accompanied him in the previous weeks as Layton was introduced to the scene with bouts in Hamilton and Niagara Falls. He was brought in as a star and main-evented around the area from the start, portrayed as an English Nobleman, impeccably dressed right from the start in a suit or tuxedo type. He had the gift of gab too right from the start showing his English 'aristocracy' and quick witted in his steady voice.

His debut in Niagara Falls a few days previous to the MLG card had the reporter saying that Layton had "one of the most impressive debuts a grappler has ever made here" after downing Lee Henning.

Originally a heel, he was set to work towards Whipper Watson and his British Empire Title. After being matched against fellow heel Fred Atkins in Feb 1951 Layton announced he was looking for a bout with the popular champ. A subsequent bout vs the #2 favorite in the city Yukon Eric saw Layton surprisingly getting cheered by the crowd (Eric had just matched against Whipper). A rough bout with the Masked Marvel and his manager Mayes McLain saw the fans attack Mclain and further endeared Layton to the fans.
With Atkins 1952

As was more common in those days he would face a mixture of fan favorites and heels alike. A Sept 1951 bout against tough Mike Sharpe was said to be an elimination bout for Whipper's B-E Title. Layton would earn a bout with Whipper the following month and the two would go to a 44 minute draw when curfew was called. The rematch saw Layton with a rare loss after he attacked the refs 'Bunny' Dunlop and Bert Maxwell and got disqualified.

A subsequent re-match saw Layton appear to get the win after guest ref Teddy Thomas (a Niagara Falls/Buffalo area ref) awarded the win to Layton only to see Maxwell reverse the decision. Whipper's leg had been on the ropes during a pin and Thomas had counted the champ down. Maxwell ordered the show to go on and Whipper promptly pinned Layton.

Layton and Whipper would even be pictured together at a charity event with the caption 'Buddies yes, but only for charity.'

Layton would also see success up the road in Montreal with a big bout against Yvon Robert and alas, a team with Whipper himself.

In Toronto bouts vs fan favorites and heels alike continued with match-ups against newcomer Bobo Brazil and the hated Hans Hermann, He would team also with George 'Zebra Kid' Bollas, as well as frequent opponent Fred Atkins, for bouts with Whipper and assorted partners.

By now a regular here on the weekly cards through 1953 he would match up with Lord James Blears to create a royal tag team. They would have an extended feud with the tough Texans 'Dirty' Dick Raines and Lou Plummer. The two 'Lords' would meet their match against the superstar team of Watson and Robert but still earn a draw with the two icons of Canadian wrestling. As a team Layton and Blears would be accompanied by their 'gentleman’s gentleman' Captain Holmes and were pictured in the paper holding a trophy, said to be the Pacific Tag Title.
Popular 1961

In Niagara Falls in October 1953 he would vie for the World Title (Montreal version) against 'Killer' Kowalski and go to a 60 minute draw with the well-conditioned champ. A month later he would get the chance to face NWA champ Lou Thesz at the Gardens. Layton opined that the date coincided with Guy Fawkes Day in Britain and was a good omen for him. He ended up giving the bout via dq

Up in Montreal he would team with another giant Don Leo Jonathon to again test Whipper and Robert with a wild bout that ended in a no contest.

The tide was turning and Layton would soon be cheered faithfully by the fans as he started to team with fan favorites. In Niagara Falls he teamed up with long-time foe Sky Hi Lee to take on the hated Mills Brothers and a week later he was back battling him at MLG. In more bouts vs the Mills and the equally hated Kalmikoff brothers with partners Bill McDaniel and Prince Maiava he was settling into the fan favorite role.

A bout in Apr 1955 vs Argentina Rocca saw Layton get a cheer when he got Rocca in a headlock and dragged him over to the ropes for a photog to catch a picture. At the end of the bout with Rocca won by count-out, Layton returned to the ring and shook hands with his opponent getting another rousing cheer from the audience.

In Mid 1955 he teamed with Whipper in London to take on the Dusek brothers. Years later he would admit he was relieved to be on the good side of the fence as his kids would get trouble at school from the other kids, many of them members of Whipper's 'Safety Club.'

His friendship with Watson would continue for many years both in the ring and outside as they both worked hard to make others lives better, especially children and those with disabilities.
vs Kiniski 1961

He would also start serving as a special referee, his size and fairness deemed worthy to settle a heated feud. He was appointed in '55 for a Whipper Watson/Yukon Eric vs Karl Von Schober/Fritz Von Erich bout and would ref many bout over the next decades up to and including a 1976 bout of Andre The Giant vs Angelo Mosca.

Layton had officiated a tag bout with Whipper and Rocca vs the Kalmikoffs which led into he and Whipper teaming up at MLG vs the Russians in an all in tag bout, said to have planned their tactics while fishing at Lake Simcoe.

In 1959 he found time between battling Yukon Eric to referee an amateur bout featuring his young son John and present the trophies to the winners.

In 1961 he was hosting the TV show and gained more respect as an adept interviewer. A 1961 show earned raves on the TV page in the Star saying ''Better by far than the actual matches on the Saturday afternoon wrestling show are the interviews between Lord Athol Layton and the wrestlers. Last week, at one point, he took on all three Kalmikoffs, and later he matched words and threatening gestures with a ruffian newcomer. I'm waiting for Layton to take over the commercials." he would continue into the mid 1970's as a commentator on TV.

He would continue to wrestle regularly and saw some big main events throughout the 1960's, some vs familiar opponents like Kiniski, and testing newcomers in the early '60's such as Bulldog Brower and Taro Sakuro. A special referee assignment in 1964 saw him handcuffed to Atkins for a Whipper-Professor Hiro bout to stop Atkins from interfering on behalf of his charge Hiro. He and Whipper would also team regularly throughout the decade.
Chopping The Sheik 1969

In 1970 the 20 year veteran would interfere in a Sheik-Dewey Robertson bout and get his turn with the newest star on the scene. A huge crowd of 15,000 would see Layton batter Sheik with his judo chops before the bout even started. After 5 minutes of that Layton accidently floored ref George Kanelis who disqualified both wrestlers once he recovered. Layton had also floored Mike Loren and Jos Leduc who had rushed the ring with Mighty igor putting the squeeze on Layton to subdue the angry giant.

They would get a re-match and another with Kiniski as special referee for both and go on to a long feud that carried over through 1974.

His last main event at the Gardens was in April 1975 teamed with Mighty Igor against Abdullah The Butcher and Waldo Von Erich. He main evented in Oshawa a few months later as his career wound down. His last bout at MLG was in July 1977 teamed with veteran Lou Klein against the Kelly Twins. The guest referee shot for Andre-Mosca in Dec 1976 was his last in ring appearance here.

I asked MLG photog and writer for his memories of Layton

'The time was perhaps 65 years ago, Toronto's MLG was a hotbed of big time pro wrestling, the matches were held most Thursday evenings. Whipper Watson had been in the ring numerous times with the young English wrestler Lord Athol Layton, at stake was Whipper's coveted British Empire wrestling title. This very young fan of The Whipper remembers standing outside of The Gardens at the northwest corner of Church and Carlton, there was a large circle of fans trying to catch Laytons attention, for an autograph, and to ask whether he thought he would topple Watson in any future encounters. Layton was very gracious with his audience, and his response was a simple 'what does one have to do to in order to beat The Whipper in Toronto?'

'On another occasion many years later, this reporter was in the dressing room area on the west side of the Gardens, I almost bumped into both Bulldog Brower and Athol Layton, they had wrestled as team partners a short time earlier, and Layton was applying oil to Brower's back, I mentioned to them both that their earlier tag match was a good one, they both had big grins on their faces, it was a very nice chance meeting.'
Old friends re-united 

'On yet another occasion I was covering a heavyweight boxing match at the Gardens, the main event featured George Chuvalo vs the then ranked world title contender Ernie 'The Octopus' Terrell. It is a practise to introduce a number of personalities and fighters that are in attendance to the audience. After perhaps ten personalities were in the ring, the Announcer called in Maple Leaf Gardens wrestling great Lord Athol Layton who entered the ring to a very receptive audience. His lordship walked around the ring, arms extended, and with a very big smile on his face, the crowd loved to see him, and it was very obvious that Layton was pleased to be in the ring. This reporter was able to capture a photo of this wonderful moment, it is displayed on my wrestling wall were I often view that photo, and many others as well.'

In later years he continued his role as an ambassador for many causes. He had sat on the Ontario Advisory Council on the Physically Handicapped, worked with the Ontario Society for Crippled Children, was on the board of directors for the St Albans Boys and Girls Club, and had been an Imperial Potentate of the Ramses Shrine Temple. In July 1983 he received the Ontario Medal for Good Citizenship from then Lieutenant Governor John Aird.

He was working as head of public relations for Bacardi Rum when he died suddenly at the age of 63 in Jan 1984.

Thanks to Roger Baker!

Nanjo vs Whip: A Feud For The Ages

Forget Flair vs Steamboat, never mind Mosca vs Studd, The Sheik vs Tiger Jeet maybe, but the biggest feud in Maple Leaf Wrestling history may well have been the continuing battle of Whipper Watson and arch-enemy Nanjo Singh.

From their first bout in 1941 to their last in 1966 the rivalry would carry over three decades and lead to the creation of one of the most recognizable hallmarks of MLW at Maple Leaf Gardens – the Ramp! – But more on that later.

The feud found its beginning way back in the history of MLW. Frank Tunney had taken over for his brother John who had passed away suddenly in January 1940 leaving young Frank to forge ahead on his own – with his new soon- to- be- star of the city – Whipper Watson.

Whipper, after winning a tournament to decide a number one contender for the World Title in 1941 would see his star power begin to rise. In February 1942 he would enter into a battle with the hated Nanjo Singh and take the British Empire Title from Singh in April 1942 to begin his first of nine reigns as Champion.

Nicknamed the ‘Hooded Hindu’ or ‘Hindu Killer’, or variously ‘Horrid Hindu’ or ‘Turbaned Terror’ or several other monikers, Singh had been wrestling since the early 1930’s. Said to have come from India via Vancouver he first showed up In Toronto in 1938 and was already earning the fans hatred using the feared Cobra Hold to finish off his opponents. He debuted for matchmaker Jack Corcoran (Corcoran preceded John Tunney as Toronto Promoter) billed as a student of the great Gama the famous Indian wrestler.

In those days it wasn’t unusual for the fans to engage in some ‘spirited’ involvement at the Wrestling matches with frequent riots and cases of wrestlers – and referee’s – being attacked after an unpopular decision. Some wrestlers could earn the fans wrath just by showing up, Nanjo Singh was one of those wrestlers. In 1940 after putting Ottawa native Leo Giroux to sleep with the Cobra, Singh would have to be escorted to the dressing room to escape the fury of the fans. It was one of many occasions that Singh would see this played out over his career of infuriating wrestling fans.

In addition to the Cobra which was said to be his original move, Singh would pray in the corner before a bout and use the villain tactics of eye-gouges, biting, and foreign objects to further enrage the fans. Later area heels Tiger Jeet Singh (no relation) and The Sheik (Farhat) would borrow much of the act getting mostly the same reaction at MLG.

The two would first meet in early 1941, but it was in Dec 1941 when the seeds were planted for the feud of the ages. During a bout with George Lenahan, Whipper unveiled his new finisher the Canadian Avalanche, said to be invented by Watson and his mentor Phil Lawson. Described as a standing leg lock, forward body roll, and jumping leg stretch, Watson finished off Lenahan with his new move when Nanjo watching from the sidelines tore into the ring. Singh walked right into a right cross and hit the canvas in a daze but continued to go at Watson until they were separated.

On the next card in Jan 1942 Singh would interfere in Watson’s bout vs Gus Sonnenberg. Singh was sitting at the press table for the bout and started taunting Watson. At one point in the bout Watson hit the floor and Singh attacked. In what was described by long time (and often tongue in cheek) Wrestling Reporter Joe Perlove, it was ‘just a little less than a split second’ before the fans converged on Singh for going after their hero.

Singh ended up under the ring (more on that later too) while the fans pelted him with anything they could throw. With the action on the floor referee Al ‘Bunny’ Dunlop would count out Watson costing him the much anticipated match-up with the well versed Sonnenberg.

Back in the day Whipper was a fast, high flying star on his way to becoming the number 1 star in all of Canadian Wrestling history. Nanjo, like Watson, had come up through the light-heavyweight division and was said to have (as Watson had) held a European Light Heavyweight Title prior to his arrival in North America.

Having set up the grudge bout the two rivals would meet on the next card and end up brawling on the floor before being counted out. The new game in town was now ‘hissing the Hindu’ as reported by Perlove and Singh would have to constantly battle the fans on his way in – and out- of the ring. He would also make it a habit to hide under the ring to escape the abuse which now included pop bottles being flung in from the upper rows at MLG.

At one card Singh was said to have packed the ringside with his ‘gang’, about 400 hundred supporters from the Dundas-Parliament section of Toronto – in order to combat the influence of Watson’s East end supporters (Watson was the pride of East York).

With subsequent bouts ending in dis-array, Frank Tunney would set up a re-match on Feb 5 1942 with what we would know now as a cage match. With a ‘wire enclosure’ around the ring there would be no escape for the hated Singh, constantly on the run from both Watson – and the fans. In the lead up Watson would demand Singh be searched so there would be no more coat-hangers as in a previous bout.

In front of over 6,000 fans and enclosed in the cage the two would battle it out for almost 20 minutes before Nanjo flung Whipper into the cage entangling the hero somewhat outside the ring and leading to a count out. Sam Yanaky an area promoter who was acting as Nanjo’s manager would attempt to interfere in the bout before being beset on by the now constantly irritated fans.

In response Hamilton promoter Sammy Sobol would attempt to help Watson extricate himself from the fence before Singh knocked him off the outside. Singh would once again hide under the ring till the unpopular decision died down, and in trying to get to the dressing room would be met by Sobol’s younger brother Eddie who would take up the fight. Just another night in the Maple Leaf wrestling wars

With the win over Watson, Singh earned a bout with British Empire champ Earl McCready. Whipper would not wrestle but be on hand to challenge the winner. Another Canadian star Yvon Robert would be on the card to validate his World Tile reign, as recognized in Montreal at the time. Singh would end up beating referee Dunlop’s count to emerge victorious over McCready in a bloody bout to become the new British Empire title holder.

The very next day Frank Tunney announced that Nanjo’s first defense of his new title would be against Whipper to which Nanjo was said to have agreed on the terms that he receive $1000 over the usual percentage. Tunney estimated they would draw a minimum of 12,000 to see the bout. A few days later it was announced that a special appointment of referee Fred Bourguignon of Ottawa was secured for the match-up. Bourguignon was a noted referee on the Ottawa cards and a former wrestler himself.

This bout would be especially brutal, even by the previous standards set by these two. Whipper, in a very unfamiliar role, would become just as aggressive as his hated foe, and the bout would end up a bloodbath in front of the less than spectacular turnout of 5,000 fans on hand. As with previous bouts Whipper would end up on the floor and the fans would seize the opportunity to ‘try and tear at least one leg free’ from Singh before Watson got back in and went straight to strangling his adversary.

Singh would end up being stretchered out and was reported to have gone to St Micheal’s hospital just down the street from the Gardens for treatment of facial injuries. Manager Sam was again caught in the middle when he tried to argue with Whipper after the bout and Whipper knocked him flat before the fans made his exit another treacherous route.

When the next card was announced, Singh was due to defend his title against Roland Kirchmeyer much to Watson’s dismay. Watson proclaimed he would never again wrestle in Toronto until he was given another chance at beating Nanjo. He was said to have turned down a chance to wrestle in the semi in order to appear in Montreal for promoter Eddie Quinn on that night (in reality Whip was in Hamilton taking on John Katan). Singh would use his Cobra hold to subdue Kirchmeyer only to be then matched up against former World champ Lou Thesz for the next round of battles the following week.

Thesz was undefeated in Toronto and they would play up Singh’s earlier boasts of one day winning a world title for India and beating Thesz would be the next step. Whipper would find himself matched against another former Champ – Ed Don George.

The card billed as Parade of Champions would see the famously stiff Thesz rattle Singh from pillar to post before ref Dunlop disqualified Nanjo for repeatedly kicking Thesz while he was down. The fans, so happy with the decision -and in marked contrast to previous bouts - would forget to attack Singh on his way out. Whipper meanwhile would beat Don George to set up a future meeting with Thesz.

Singh would keep busy cultivating his image as the heel of the century including attacking a radio announcer (Rex Stimers: for publicly calling Nanjo ‘punch drunk’) and being tossed out of a couple of local establishments in Toronto. In between he would take on others including Vic Christy and The Angel before being set up in a re-match with Watson. In the lead up to this one it was said that the two had engaged in a battle inside Tunney’s private office and demolished the place.

When they finally met again on Apr 30 1942 in yet another grudge bout, Whipper would emerge victorious and claim the British Empire Title, with which his name would become synonymous with for the better part of the next 25 years.

Nanjo got his re-match on May 15th getting pinned by Watson, but not before another violent outing including Nanjo snatching Whipper’s new belt (presented by Toronto Controller Fred Hamilton) and using it as a weapon on his hated rival. Whipper would get the last laugh using the ref’s belt to handcuff Nanjo and lay a beating on him much to the crowd’s approval

Prior to the May 20 card with Whipper taking on The Angel, Nanjo was at it again. This time he was picketing in front of Maple Leaf Gardens with a sign proclaiming ‘Wrestling officials unfair to Nanjo Singh’. Tunney remarked ‘He must be a cry-baby’ and wondered aloud if Singh was doing it to increase or decrease attendance for Whippers next title defense.
Sharkey taking a shot at Singh 1942

When Thursday came around, Nanjo once again got involved by hitting Watson when The Angel tossed him outside the ring. As per the norm, the Gardens faithful attacked Singh and he made his retreat again to his new home away from home – under the ring. This time Toronto’s finest went after him and escorted him safely back to the dressing room. Tunney would later admit (not without a touch of truth) that ‘He’s caused a lot of trouble but he’s also created a lot of interest and drawn crowds’.

When the next re-match came around on June 18 1942 Tunney would appoint former Boxing champ Jack Sharkey to be the third man in the ring. Tunney would note that if Nanjo gets out of hand he may be stopping a ‘lethal punch to the chin’ from Sharkey. They would also bring back the wire enclosure – the cage, but Whipper would remain champ and the feud would cool off with the two being matched against other grapplers.

Whipper would lose the title to McCready in October and Nanjo, if not enjoying the crowds approval, was certainly helping bring in the fans and thus was awarded a main vs World Champion Bill Longson only to lose to ‘Wild Bill’ in a 20 minute bout.

On Jan 28 1943 new Empire champ John Katan (had won from McCready) failed to show for his main event bout vs Watson. Nanjo got the sub and Watson got the win, once again taking the championship. The drama would play out over the next few months with Watson losing his belt to Robert and regaining it soon thereafter. While the feud would die down, both Watson & Singh would remain vital to the Toronto Wrestling scene and over the next few years would have occasional cage bouts and special referees whenever they were matched.

Fast forward to 1948, Watson is still champ five years later and had also added the tag of ‘Former World Champ’ to his resume when he beat Longson in St Louis for the NWA (National Wrestling Association) belt in February 1947. Watson would lose that belt to Thesz in April 1947 but returned to Toronto the ultimate home town hero.

Back to business in Toronto in May 1948 the next match-up between Singh & Watson would include the wire fence as well as a new stipulation of removing the curfew and time-limit. With a large crowd of 11,000 on hand, the hated Singh would end up with the win by count-out. As Whipper was being stretchered out Singh would taunt the ex-champ and the fans as usual would try to tear him apart again. When a crowd including Police and the other wrestlers on the card tried to protect Singh he dashed under the ring until they could form a wall to enable the new champ safe passage to the back. The fans would learn new tricks too including lighting papers on fire and throwing them under the ring to ‘smoke him out – like a porcupine’.
Bloodied Whip on the new ramp
ringside Dr Myron Miller on the left

After beating a visiting Gorgeous George, Whipper was awarded a re-match to regain his crown.

This time however there would a new development, one that would impact wrestling at the Gardens over the next five decades.

In order to provide safe passage for the constantly harassed Singh, Tunney announced there would be a ramp set up from the entrance way to the ring. An ‘escape hatch’ as described, it would serve exactly the purpose for which it was created. After Watson was declared the winner and new champ, Singh would attack Phil Lawson in the ring. Watson would save his manager and Singh would then hightail it across the ramp, safe above the heads of the surging ringside crowd.

The feud now in its 7th year would continue on and off right up to the early 1950’s. The newspaper ads of the time would depict cartoon caricatures of the wrestlers and in the different political climate of the day Nanjo would be depicted as a turban wearing snake going up against the crown wearing Watson.

Whipper would lose and regain his crown several times along the way and then on March 15 1956 would beat Lou Thesz at MLG to win the NWA (National Wrestling Alliance) World Title. Watson would vacate the British Empire title at this point and go on to defend the NWA title on home ground 16 times over the year before losing the belt back to Thesz in St Louis on November 9 1956 . That same year Nanjo would wrestle his last bout in Toronto on April 4 losing to Pat O’Connor before an extended leave from the area.

On Jan 22 1958 Nanjo would be arrested in Philadelphia for the murder of his wife Betty who had been found beaten in their apartment above a bar Singh was operating in the city. He was eventually found guilty of second degree and sentenced to 8 years
Under the ring 1966

Just about 8 years later in August 1966 during an extended series of cards at the now defunct Maple Leaf Stadium (Ballpark on Toronto’s shores), Nanjo would return to Toronto to interfere in a tag bout between Whipper & Bulldog Brower vs Tiger Jeet Singh and Fred Atkins. The feud was on again. The following week at the top of the card, and once more for the British Empire Title (Whipper was billed as Empire champ from 1959-1967 inclusive) Whipper and Nanjo would revisit the rivalry of the old days.

While both wrestlers were nearing the end of their careers and were both up in age, they would match the ferocity of their earlier bouts albeit in a short contest when both men were counted out of the ring at the 4:31 mark. Both Whipper and Nanjo would return to Maple Leaf Stadium on September 18th for a re-match before some 6,000 fans with the bout ending in a disqualification win for Watson.

Toronto Photographer Roger Baker who covered the meeting at the Ballpark and reported on bouts for the magazines of the day remembers

“They had a showdown at the Maple Leaf Ball Park, a riot ensued as a result of Singh receiving outside assistance, I covered this event, and Singh tried to hide out under the ring because of all the heat. I went under the ring and got a shot of Singh, exhausted and scared as hell of the fans who tried to get him; they got his young accomplice and really worked him over, there were a number of Toronto's finest trying to get the fans off of the young wrestler, who had aided Singh”.

The young wrestler who was billed as Mohan Singh was said to be Nanjo’s son and Tiger Jeet said to be Nanjo’s brother. At this point Nanjo would have been about 49 years old while ‘brother’ Tiger, though he looked older, was only about 18 and could have easily also been his ‘son’.

It’s interesting to note that at this time that Tiger Jeet was the main heel in the area (under the tutelage of long time star Fred Atkins) and a similar persona to Nanjo. The cards featuring Nanjo vs Whipper were alternated with cards featuring Tiger and Fred save for the first re-appearance on Nanjo back in August.

As in the old days Nanjo could incite the fans like no other. During the riot at the Ballpark several police officers were assaulted and one 18 year old fan was charged with three counts of assault on an officer.
Nanjo snacking on Whip's foot 1966

For their 3rd bout in Oct 2 1966 Whipper would soundly defeat Nanjo and the feud would devolve with Nanjo going on to teaming with Tiger as well as Mohan Singh before making his last appearance on Nov 17 1966.

In a 1969 article with Tunney celebrating 30 years in Wrestling, he would remark on The Sheik, the new heel aggravating fans at MLG. ‘He’s the nuttiest wrestler we’ve had around here since Nanjo Singh’. Describing Nanjo as the best (therefore the worst) heel ever to antagonize an audience in the 30 year history of wrestling at the Gardens and Whipper as the all-time hero really sums up the drama played out over the decades.

Tunney goes on to say that ‘The people must have sensed that Nanjo was the genuine article. I mean he and Whip really disliked each other. There’s showmanship in wrestling but they didn’t need it. I’ve seen Nanjo go after Whip in the office after the matches were over “.

Tunney relates how he originally brought Singh in because he had heard he bit off another wrestler’s ear in Kansas City. “In fact there was only one way to cool Nanjo off and that was to let him know the cops were coming. He was scared of them. He was the greatest I ever saw.

He would do anything; you were always scared to death when he was working, for fear of what he might pull off. He’d pick up anything loose and hit his opponent with it. You’d never put up with a guy like him if he wasn’t such a big draw”.
Mohan facing camera, Ref Joe Gollub on right
Rocky Johnson in foreground, back to camera 1966

Tunney’s propensity for promoting is related in a telling anecdote: “The Late Lionel Conacher, when he was athletic commissioner, fined him $100 for some caper. We had a picture taken of him (Singh) with 10 sawbucks and it made the papers. Connie phoned up and said if he’d known we were going to get $1000 of publicity out of it, he’d have fined him a grand”.

When Whipper was hit by a car in Dec 1971 effectively ending his wrestling career, the headline ‘Whipper Watson beaten at last’ was followed by: ‘Nanjo Singh couldn’t do in a decade of trying…”

Nanjo’s name would continue to pop up whenever the stories of Wrestling at Maple Leaf Gardens would be related even making it into a 1982 article on the then current scene with his name dropped as a grappler ‘nearly forgotten about’. In 1995 in an article titled ‘First time since 1939 storied Tunney name not part of Wrestling’, Nanjo, his legacy of infuriating fans, starting riots, and being a general troublemaker, would get a fitting mention as the first name in a series of ‘detestable villains’ who had opposed Whipper over his career as the hero of Toronto.

Thanks to Roger Baker !

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Classic Photo: Adonis & Ventura

I took these in Jan 1982 when Adonis and Ventura made their only appearance as a tag team here during the NWA days. Both wrestled here a bit on their own, Adonis as Keith Franks as far back as the mid 70's and both would be in the Cadillac Tournament a couple of months after this card but this was the only time in a tag.

They were well known here from AWA TV and both were appearing in WWF rings by this time.
In fact Adonis would face Backlund (also on this card) the very next night at MSG in NYC.

The two also appeared a few weeks later in the Greensboro NC round of the NWA World Tag Team Championship Tournament - the M-A Gateway has that at M-A Gateway - World Title Tourney

The fans were mostly split as to their love/hatred of the team in a bout vs Parisi & Denucci. In the lower photo you can see Terry Yorkston doing a head slap 'doh' after the botched ending when the East West Connection stole the bout from the Italian Connection.

Classic Photo: Blackjack Mulligan Sr & Jr 1982

Blackjack Jr. helps poppa Mulligan after another tough bout vs Big John Studd. Sr. Mulligan and Studd had some tough battles here in the NWA days 1980-1982 with most ending up in bloodbaths. This one had Jr. coming in to help after Studd continued attacking Sr. after the bout was over. .

This card also marked the debut of Jr. who took on Austin Idol in a good bout. Even at this early point you could tell Jr. was going to be a star, the fans already solidly behind him.

Both Mulligans would continue in Toronto after the WWF came in, Jr. coming back as Barry Windham. Sr.'s Toronto career went way back to 1971 when he faced Lou Klein in his debut at MLG. He and Studd would face each other again in Dec 1984, Sr. teamed with Andre while Studd teamed with Patera during Sr's short tenure in the WWF.

Pat Flanagan: 'The Irish Tornado'

With apologies to Whipper Watson, Pat Flanagan may have been the most prolific and hardest working man in Toronto Wrestling history. He's at least in the top 3 alongside Whip and Fred Atkins. From his days wrestling to his later days as a referee his career spanned 5 decades.

As with most pro wrestlers of the day he would start out on the amateur circuit as a teenager under his given name of Winnett Watson. Already an accomplished athlete, by early 1936 at the age of 19 Flanagan was wrestling at the 174 pound level as a light heavyweight. A notable bout found him battling the British Empire champion of the day (amateur version) and former Dominion champ Terry Evans. Also on the circuit at that time was Cliff Worthy, a heavyweight who was also to become a longtime referee at Maple Leaf Gardens.

In mid 1936 Winnett the future 'Pat Flanagan would go over to England to join fellow Toronto wrestlers Billy Potts, Ken Tasker, Al Korman, and Tom Nelson on their tour of the British Isles.

Also appearing was fellow amateur combatant from the Toronto (and Montreal) scene Ben Engblom. It's said that Winnett Watson earned his new moniker while on this tour as Billy Potts had recently been christened the very similiar Whipper Watson.

Some years later, Pat Flanagan's mother noted that in all the confusion between the names and the fact that Pat and Whip were close, people were often asking about 'her sons' Winnett and Whipper.

In England the newly christened 'Pat Flanagan - The Irish Tornado' would earn experience alongside - and also against - Whipper and the rest of the Canadian contingent.

Upon his return in mid 1937 Flanagan would wrestle both under his true name and wrestling name around Michigan and Illinois before returning to Ontario.

The first sign of him locally as Pat Flanagan is in Hamilton in 1939. He would spend a bit more time over in England and it would be a couple of years before he made it to Maple Leaf Gardens debuting on May 1 1941.

It was said that he had been wrestling in the US since his return from 4 years in England. In addition to his exploits across Lake Michigan, he is said to have been wrestling as Mendel Singer in the New York area around 1940.

While it does appear to coincide with the dates I couldn't find any proof they were one and the same - such as a photo. Mendel Singer was billed as 'Jewish Flash' and more notably The California Dropkicker'. Flanagan in his early days was a high flyer and known for his dropkicks also.

The night of Flanagan's debut at MLG was a tournament being held to determine the #1 contender for the Worlds heavyweight title. Flanagan lost in the first round to Jack Claybourne who was later beat by the nights winner Whipper Watson. This would begin Pat's long tenure as part of the small circle of Toronto regulars that would remain loyal to Frank Tunney for the next 35+ years.

Tunney would remark about Flanagan in a 1943 piece: "Flanagan has learned to wrestle all-in style, has put on weight and is steadily going up the wrestling ladder. If nothing untoward occurs he'll be a top-flight operative in a year or maybe less."

Flanagan, like the Whip would always wrestle on the 'good side' and take on the heels. Occasionally there would be face ve face contests and Flanagan would find himself on the the other side of the ring to Watson himself on a night in 1942. As part of Army Week Tunney put on a Boxing/Wrestling show at Maple Leaf Stadium for 1500 soldiers and their friends. The most popular bout of the day was an exhibition bout between Pat and the Whip which saw 13 minutes of action before Watson pinned Flanagan under the watchful eye of referee Phil Lawson.

They also occasionally faced each other in the smaller towns (likely as a fill in for a no show) and would go on to be frequent tag partners through the 1940's. Flanagan would mostly wrestle on the undercards at MLG other than when teaming with the Whip but had his share of main events in the outside towns.
Oshawa 1948 vs The Zebra

In addition to the Toronto scene, Flanagan would frequent other towns including Ottawa (Tunney run at that time), Buffalo and Cleveland, and also make appearances in St Louis both on his own and alongside Whipper during the Whips NWA Title run in 1947. One notable bout in St Louis found Pat facing future champ Buddy Rogers.

In Aug 1947 he would appear on Pat Milosh' first card at the Oshawa Arena. Pat would go on to have the most appearances in Oshawa out of all wrestlers with about 187 bouts over 20 years (summer month circuit) appearing in 42 main events solo and as part of a tag. The two Pat's would remain close through the years with Flanagan providing help and support to the young promoter.

In 1950 Flanagan would step in as an occasional referee, a position he would fill both during his remaining wrestling years and after retiring as a wrestler.

In 1952 teaming with Whipper the two would capture the Canadian Open Tag Titles by defeating Lord Athol Layton & Hans Hermann in tournament final to become first champions. Presented with the Calvert Trophy they would hold the title for several months before losing to Lou Plummer & Dick Raines. This appears to be the only Title Flanagan would hold in his ring tenure.

Around this time Pat would start to assist Tunney in scheduling the wrestlers for the Ontario curcuit towns. He would set up the wrestlers to appear on the local cards around Southern Ontario acting as a sort of booker, a liaison between the circuit promoters and the Tunney office.
Posing for Roger 1960 

In 1959 he was the first partner to newcomer on the scene Don Jardine. The future 'Spoiler' was said to have been discovered by Whipper on a tour of the Maritimes. Jardine had been in several singles bouts before being teamed with Pat vs the Vachon Brothers.

In the 1960's Pat would mostly appear as a referee, only stepping in as a wrestler as a sub or for a no-show. He would make his last appearance in the MLG ring July 1968 vs Waldo Von Erich.

A brief note in 1961 mentions Sam Yanaky, best known as manager of Nanjo Singh, being accompanied by 'his son Pat Flanagan' in visiting an ailing wrestling fan. I am unsure if there was any relation between the two, Yanaky also promoted a bit in the Kitchener/Cambridge area

I asked Writer and MLG Photographer Roger Baker for his memories of Flanagan.

"He was a very nice guy, and he helped me out a few times to gain access to a wrestler for the purpose of doing an interview. Remember so well my introduction to Gene Kiniski courtesy of Pat, I wound up doing a 40 minute photo shoot in a private room as well as an interview with Gene, as a result both Gene and myself were quite pleased with the results."

"Another time I was working one summer as a butcher up in Jacksons Point, had only been covering the Toronto wrestling scene for about a year at this point in time, not having been to the Gardens all that summer, well guess who comes into the store to buy some steaks, yes it was Pat Flanagan. We had a very welcome conversation and I mentioned to him to let the wrestling office know that I'd be back in Sept. He promised to do just that."
Flanagan warns Thesz 1963

"I first saw him wrestle at The Gardens around 1950. Around 1956 I met Pat at The Gardens and mentioned to him that I had a couple of pictures of him that had been taken some years earlier at The Gardens, he was very pleased to hear this. A few weeks later we met again at The Gardens and I gave him those pictures that were mentioned. He was very pleased, and he said to me that so many people promise something but don't bother to follow through."

In 1973 Flanagan accompanied Whipper to the annual Easter Seals dinner of which Whip had missed the 1972 one because of his accident. In a photo from the event Flanagan can be seen helping Whip make the memorable walk up the stairs with that years 'Timmy' on his shoulders.

Around late 1976 he would officiate his last bout and retire from the ring.

When he died at the age of 68 in 1985 he was the fourth member of the old guard of MLG wrestling to pass away in the 2 years span after Tunney, Layton, and Frank Ayerst. His obituary said that he had attended Malvern Collegiate and had played football for the Junior Argonauts and Balmy Beach while in High School

Photos by - and thanks! - to Roger Baker

Fritz Von Erich in Toronto

For a time in the late 1950's and early 1960's Fritz Von Erich was one of the biggest stars in Toronto and across Southern Ontario.
with Von Schober 1955

His debut in the area came in July 1955 when he teamed with Karl Von Schober to take on Lou Plummer and 'Dirty' Dick Raines in an all heels tag. The 'Germans' were victorious and challenged the yet to be determined winners of the feature bout. A tag of Whipper Watson and Lord Layton against the Kalmikoff brothers.

Within a few weeks the hated team would star in the main event at Maple Leaf Gardens against the new strongman sensation Doug Hepburn and Prince Maiava. The 'Von's' would spend much of the bout complaining to refs Sam Gotter and Bunny Dunlop about Maiava's manager Coconut Willie. They claimed Willie was beating out instructions on his drum.

Schober, thrown outside the ring took advantage of the opportunity and flattened Willie, silencing the drum. After the Germans won Hepburn carried Willie back to the dressing room and then came back for Maiava.

Their winning ways continued against the team of Watson and Layton and the two heels remained undefeated in Toronto through September. They were also running roughshod throughout Southern Ontario keeping busy on the circuit around Toronto. Fritz would lose a singles bout in Niagara Falls against Hepburn in the middle of August.

They would also appear as far up as Fort William, Ontario with some of the others from the Toronto scene, as well as in Ottawa with one main event pitting Von Erich and Schober against Yvon Robert and Pat O'Connor.

On the last card of September Von Erich earned his first main event in a bout at East York Arena on his own against Watson and lost to Watson's 'claw' hold, not the claw that Fritz would use later. The following week saw another all heels tag bout with the Germans going up against the Kalmikoffs at MLG. The fans were solidly behind the hated Russians in a bloody match which saw Von Erich and Schober win by count-out after Ivan Kalmikoff failed to meet a ten count outside the ring.

The team of Von Erich and Schober continued through the balance of 1955 and lost their first bout against Watson and Eric in December in a match to determine new Tag champs. Special ref Joe Louis disqualified Fritz after Whipper ducked and Von Erich hit the former boxing champ.

They would come back though and and defeat Watson and Eric on the last card of the year to capture the Canadian Open Tag Titles. Over 10,000 fans saw ref Bunny Dunlop disqualify Watson for knocking him over and raised Schober's hand to the dismay of the fans. They would continue their winning ways through August of 1956 before losing the laurels to the Brunetti brothers.
with Von Schober 1955

In September 1956 Tunney revisited Stoufville Arena (north of Toronto) for the first time in years. 'Red' Garner usually ran Stoufville and the surrounding towns and at that time one of his stars was a young Bradford trainee who was wrestling as Baron (Wally) Von Sieber. Sieber already had a writeup in the WAYLI magazine and was highly touted. He would soon debut at MLG (as Waldo Von Sieber) and later become Waldo Von Erich, Fritz's wrestling 'brother.' On that first Tunney promoted Stoufville card, Fritz headlined against Tex McKenzie.

Fritz would see his share of main events all over the region. One bout vs Edouard Carpentier at MLG was said to have a 'considerable bearing on the World Title scene.' Von Erich was disqualified when he hit ref Bert Maxwell after Carpentier ducked under a haymaker.

In June 1957 Fritz interfered in a bout between Whipper and Gene Kiniski. Watson had just beaten big Gene to regain his British Empire Title when Fritz attacked. Yukon Eric came in to save Watson and it set up a series with Fritz and Gene joining to create a powerful team.

Even when wrestling solo Kiniski and Von Erich would accompany each other to the ring and interfere on each others behalf. A bout in August 1957 saw both Fritz and Gene attack Whipper before his bout with Kiniski. Later in the bout Fritz tossed ref Bunny Dunlop from the ring bringing out Yukon Eric to save the day. Fritz was fined $200 by the Ontario Athletic Commission for his actions.
First main 1956

At the time Kiniski and Von Erich were the top two heels in the area and formed a formidable tag. They finally defeated then champions Watson and Pat O'Connor to capture the titles on Oct 31 1957.

Publicist Frank Ayerst described the twosome as 'hovering somewhere between grumpy and miserable even on their most jovial days.'

MLW photographer Roger Baker was a young fan attending bouts at MLG and offers his memory of Fritz.

'He was a brute of a man, had very long legs that he used to to kick opponents all over the ring . The remarkable feature that you recall of his legs were the huge upper legs he possessed, they were very heavily muscular, as well he had a very long pair of arms. He was one of the greatest heels that ever appeared at the Gardens, he was also a regular main eventer in Buffalo N.Y. at this time of his career as well.'

In Jan 1958 Fritz and Kiniski would meet Verne Gagne and Don Leo Jonathon in a tag bout in Ottawa and Fritz would go solo against Gagne in a subsequent bout.

After losing the titles to Watson and Eric in Feb 1958 Fritz would soon take a leave from the area and not return until November 1958. This time in a tag team with Hans Hermann. Fritz would also see a main event against Watson while the NWA title match between champ Dick Hutton and Hombre Montana (unusual at the time) went on second last.

Fritz would remain quite unpopular and at times would have to escape (as many before him had) under the ring to get away from the unruly fans. He and Gene would also re-team around the area wrestling their brand of havoc wherever they appeared.

Fritz would face the then NWA champ Pat O'Connor in Niagara Falls in Jan 1958. Surprisingly Fritz never challenged for the title at MLG against either face champs O'Connor nor Whipper during his many title defenses here in 1956. Also notable is that while Fritz and Waldo teamed in other cities, they never teamed here. Waldo didn't start using 'Von Erich' in Toronto until 1964, long after Fritz had departed.
Fritz and Gene battling Whip and O'Connor
in the hallway 1957 

During 1959 Fritz was living at the Sunny Acres Mobile home park just across the border in Buffalo,NY. Tragedy struck when his young son Jack was killed in March in an accidental electrocution. A few months later they dedicated a park at the site 'Jacky Von Erich' in the youngsters honor and Fritz and his wife (listed as Jack and Mrs Adkisson) presented a trophy to be awarded annually to the best boys baseball team at the park.

In 1960 Fritz would team with Don Leo Jonathon for a time and continue his feud with Watson before winding down his main Toronto career with a bout against Whipper at MLG on June 23. He would still wrestle a few more bouts on the circuit shows into summer 1961. He would return for a final bout in 1965 teaming with The Beast (Yachetti) against Whipper and Karl Gotch.

In the Von Erich family heyday in the late 1970's early 1980's it would have been a natural for Tunney to import one or all of the sons for guest appearances in Toronto. With the 'family' history (Waldo was still active here up to 1979) they could have played it up and Kevin or David or Kerry would not have looked out of place at MLG.

Nostalgia and memories thanks to Roger Baker

Doug Hepburn: Worlds Strongest Man

Pro Wrestling has seen it's share of Football players and Strongmen over the years. In Toronto we saw our share of both dating back to the very early days of Pro Wrestling.
With the Red Cross ladies 1955

In the mid 1950's Doug Hepburn would try his hand in the squared circle after taking the country by storm setting Weightlifting records and earning the title of 'World's Strongest Man.' He had won medals, set records in many of the lifts, and won the prestigious Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada's top athlete in 1953. Some ads proclaimed him as 'the strongest man in history.'

He had overcome some serious physical issues to reach those heights and Wrestling was to be his next challenge.

A Jim Vipond column in early 1955 claimed that he had signed a 5 year contract with Frank Tunney before Christmas and that he was in training under Whipper Watson at the Queensbury Athletic Club basement gymnasium (below Maple Leaf Gardens). It said he was enduring 3 hour workouts 4 days a week alongside another of Whipper's proteges' the Toronto Argo's Gil Mains. He was said to be making his debut in 4 or 5 weeks after performing some feats of strength on upcoming cards. Mains was said to be progressing faster as he had an amateur wrestling background (he would debut at MLG in May 1955).

Teacher Watson spoke highly of his charge saying he thought Hepburn to be 'a much stronger and more agile wrestler than Yukon Eric' and that he may soon pose a threat to all of the strongmen of wrestling. Hepburn was said to weigh in at 295lbs with a 21 inch neck and 57 1/2 inch chest.

Another column spoke of Hepburn attempting to wrestle previously under San Francisco promoter Joe Malcewicz. After enduring endless elbow smashes and other forms of wrestling indoctrination Hepburn had left discouraged.

His first appearance in the ring at Maple Leaf Gardens had come on Nov 11 1954 when he performed in front of 9,000 fans there to see the Whipper Watson & Paul Baillargeon tag vs The Great Togo and Tosh Togo. Hepburn did a clean press with 320lbs, benched 450, and then crumpled a can of tomato juice with his bare hands.
With Whipper 1955

After training with Whipper he returned on the Mar 10 1955 card to lift a a group of Red Cross girls on a table. Before the feat he tore a license plate in half and did the same with a pack of cards. He then tore the cards halves into halves again. Then came the big event.

The platform weighed 200 lbs and the girls were said to be 115 each. First they sat 8 girls and Hepburn stood under the beam it was rested on and lifted it off with his back. Then they added 4 more girls and after only getting three corners off was able to lift the whole platform up. He got quite a hand from the crowd and was said to have lifted about 1580lbs total. He had done similar stunts in the past including lifting 6 Vancouver Canuck hockey players the same way

In between he was pictured around town performing other strongman acts including carrying a field gun barrel weighing upwards of 600lbs at HMCS York after nine men had lifted it into the air to shoulder level. He would get lots of press posing with local stars and in one photo with former wrestler and 'Big and Tall' founder George Richards, he would 'test' one of Richards mohair jackets by pulling it apart (or failing to).

Photographer and writer Roger Baker observed Hepburn up close one day at the YMHA at Bloor and Spadina.

'I do remember seeing Hepburn wrestle at The Gardens back in the early fifties, also remember the hype that he received leading up to his match with Yukon Eric. One memory of Hepburn stands out in my mind very clearly, it happened in 1955 at The Y.M.H.A. The facility had a room devoted to bodybuilding, as well as weight lifting. There were perhaps twenty five of us young muscle heads who had gathered in the weight room to see the mighty Doug Hepburn honor us with what we hoped would be an exhibition of his incredible feats of strength.'

'Hepburn did not fail to treat his eager audience to an amazing thirty minutes of his prowess handling of the bar bells, and dumb bells. He had us all gasping as he did the overhead press, the bench press, the dead lift as well as barbell curls. Considering that Hepburn had a clubbed right leg since he was a child, made his exhibition of strength all that more impressive. Hepburn's visit to our weight lifting room at the Y.M.H.A. was talked about for months afterwards.'

His wrestling debut came a week after the Red Cross stunt against Frank Marconi. The bout was quick. 2 minutes and 39 seconds. Marconi was left a 'helpless heap of humanity' after Hepburn snapped a series of holds then grabbed Marconi in a reverse bear hug and 'squished a couple of times' and dropped him to the canvas. Marconi was carried out on a stretcher.

The debut was successful but the next night Hepburn was pulling out from Mutual onto Carlton St in front of a stopped eastbound streetcar and got hit by a westbound one which threw it against the stopped one. Damage to the 2 streetcars was estimated at 45$ while damage to Hepburn's car was about 700$. There was no word of damage to Hepburn.

He continued to appear on the weekly cards making short work of opener types including Mike Paidousis, Alan Garfield, Pete Manganoff, and stalwart Lee Henning.

By May he was moving up and faced Jan Gotch on the undercard of a Whipper-Pat Fraley main. Next up was Pat Flanagan whose haymaker was said to just bounce of Hepburn's midsection.
With Whip and Miss Toronto 1955

He was the feature of Milt Dunnell's Star column in June and was described as starting to get a cauliflower ear from wrestling. Dunnell claimed Whipper and Tunney had offered to back Hepburn against Russia's 10 leading weightlifters, for each Russian to do his specialty and then Hepburn to do all 10 at the same time. Hepburn claimed his appetite had been exaggerated in the past and Whipper agreed saying he was not eating more at one time than Sky Hi Lee who once ate five steaks and three dozen eggs, and followed it up with a light bulb! Hepburn, Whipper claimed, had not eaten more than one steak and three dozen eggs, and the eggs were scrambled so it was really only a snack.

Another item a short time later had Hepburn issuing the challenge to the Russians. He mentioned that the Canadians should be doing more to help their homegrown athletes. 'Just one Alberta oil well would bring in enough dough to support, train, and feed Canada's top athletes. But do you see governments or associations or anyone in Canada going out of their wat to help our athletes? You sure don't.'

By June he was in the semi main event at MLG vs Karol Kalmikoff. Hepburn had Karol in his reverse upside down bearhug when 'brother' Ivan came out and got his partner disqualified. In the main Whipper faced Ivan and Joe Perlove remarked the next day that 'one would imagine' Whip and Hepburn would likely be teamed the next week vs the brothers as 'yous guys don't know Frank Tunney.'

As predicted Hepburn would then team up with trainer Whipper to face the Kalmikoffs and return over the next few months to work with different partners in mostly tag bouts.

They would also team Hepburn up with the high-flying Antonino Rocca for a pair of bouts vs the hated Russian team which resulted in a dq win and then a draw.

Hepburn would appear on the circuit cities as well and keep busy in Niagara Falls, Hamilton, Oshawa, and other towns often working in the main or teaming with Lord Layton, Ilio DiPaulo, and others. An Oshawa bout saw him take on both Kalmikoff's in a handicap bout. He won.

There were later other handicap bouts around the region with Hepburn beating two at a time including an MLG bout where he beat Firpo Zbyszko and Mickey Gold in a bout that 'had the fans in laughter' due to the antics of Zbyszko trying to match strength with Hepburn.

Another handicap bout vs Pat Flanagan and Tommy O'Toole was notable as Flanagan, who started off against Hepburn, got upset with O'Toole for coming in and attacking Hepburn from behind to break the holds. After Flanagan (a fair minded sportsman) told O'Toole three times to mind his own business, he grew disgusted with his partner and tagged him in to face the irate Hepburn. It was all over less than a minute later when Hepburn put his upside down bear hug on and finished it off.

His finisher which had previously been suggested as a 'Vancouver Vise', or a 'Squamish Squeeze' was now referred to a the 'Grizzly Crunch.'

He would also see some action in the West wrestling on some cards in Stu Hart's Stampede area as well as on cards in BC and Winnipeg.

At the October 6 card ring announcer Jerry Hiff read aloud a telegram said to be from Winnipeg where Hepburn was accepting Yukon Eric's challenge to a bout. A previous recap had referred to Hepburn as 'Canada's Yukon Eric' and they had been comparing the two since Hepburn had debuted.
Battle of the strongmen

The bout was held on Oct 27 got a lot of press with billing as the biggest attraction in years. They would battle it out in front of 10,000 trading strength moves until Hepburn captured Eric in his reverse bearhug. Eric grabbed at the ropes and when ref Bunny Dunlop kicked at Eric's hands the two fell back with Eric on top and Dunlop counted him down. The crowd was said to have been pleased with the bout which saw Hepburn throw a couple of dropkicks and edge the barrel chested Yukon Eric in bodyslams.

He would return to the West for much of late 1955 and early 1956 wrestling regularly in his home area of Vancouver and area.

An item from Vancouver in Jan 1956 proclaimed 'Big Doug Hepburn gives up wrestling.' 'Wrestling is too tough for me' he said in an interview. He said he had made about 25k and netted 15k the first year while Tunney who holds his five year contract said he'd hit 50-60k next year, and 100 k in three years. 'Its a rough business and it's not for me, I just haven't the temperament for it. I've had my nose smashed, my leg hurt, and the boys have been just beginning to turn it on. Right now I'm going to sit tight for a while and maybe get together a touring show troupe featuring a strong man act.'

Frank Tunney responded by saying 'He's a slightly mixed up young man, a bit of a boy who acts first and thinks later.' Tunney says he missed bouts in Vancouver and that he fells he can straighten Hepburn out. Annis Stutjus the former BC Lions coach who had brought Hepburn to training camp for the inaugural season in 1954 remarked 'He came out and then he quit. And you know something? He could have been one of the best. But somebody made a crack to him one day and he never came back.' Tunney added 'Why, he's barely started. He has to build up a following and he's done well for the time he's been at it.'

March 1956 would see Hepburn's last Toronto bout vs Seelie Samara. He would continue to wrestle somewhat regularly in BC up to about 1960

He was said to have had personal troubles in the 1960s but by the end of the decade he had a new venture. An ad in the star in 1969 was looking for distributors for the Doug Hepburn exerciser, 'a portable gymnasium for home or office.'

He was never far from the Sports pages, for each year with the announcement of the Lou Marsh Trophy winner he would get some print, and still does to this day.

By the late 1970's he was said to be in the health food business.

As late as 1998 he made the Star in an 'After the Cheering' column. The column kicked off with 'Don't make us laugh, Hulk Hogan. Take a hike, Hercules. The worlds strongest man is a Canadian - and 72 years old.' There is just a bare mention of him having being 'disillusioned by the hokum when he tried professional wrestling.' It goes on to describe him as 225 pounds and having invented a coin operated arm wrestling machine which he hopes to market worldwide.

On Nov 30 2000 he earned a well placed Obituary in the Star having passed on at the age of 74. It described him as having tried his hand at a variety of occupations including poet, inventor, dietitian, cabaret singer, and rambling storefront philosopher. There was no mention of his pro wrestling career.

Thanks to Roger Baker

Friday, March 16, 2018

Transfer from MLWP to BLOG

We will start to migrate the main features from the MLWP site here to the BLOG so all of the info is in one place. Some of the main features such as the NWA Title in Toronto will be listed on the left sidebar. Stay Tuned !

AC March 2018

Friday, March 9, 2018

Les Lyman

Les Lyman was a promoter/wrestler active around Toronto in the 1950's and early 1960's. I'm not sure when Les started wrestling but by the time he settled in as a regular at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1960-61 he was already fairly long in the tooth.
Lyman vs Alfie Richards (on ground) 1956

The first signs of him in the area are alongside Red Garner on Red's shows around the Toronto outskirts in 1950-51. It's likely Lyman came out of the busy amateur scene as had Red and many of the pros of the 1950's.

Around 1953 he started promoting some shows at East York Arena, the same spot Frank Tunney would occasionally run when MLG was unavailable. The wrestlers were a mix of guys who worked on Garner and Tunney's shows around the region.

Those early cards featured young Sandy Scott and his billed brother/ cousin Joe (real brother George?), Wilf Jennings (long time wrestler turned McKigney ref later), and big Jim 'Killer' Conroy. All of which would work for Tunney in some capacity down the road. Others names included Jack Sibthrope, Ivan Klimenko, Kenny Evans, Paul Penchoff, Al Kendall, George & Bob McKeague, Ronnie Kopac, and the usual masked gimmicks Masked Marvels, Red Mask etc.

Sometimes they would mirror the going-ons over at the Gardens. During the big Red Mask angle on Tunney's cards which ended with Lou Thesz unmasking the villain to reveal Dutch Hefner, Lyman too had a Red Mask headlining his cards.

He would promote under the banner of 'International Wrestling Association' and occasionally branch out to other spots, Scarboro Arena, Lakeshore Arena, etc. He and Garner had an ongoing partnership of sorts that lasted throughout the '50's. Besides sharing talent, much of it the homegrown talent that Garner had trained himself, Lyman would appear on Garner's cards, often as 'Canadian Heavyweight Champion.'

Sometimes referred to as the 'Scarboro Strongman' and variously billed from Scarboro or East York, In 1954 as Canadian champ he faced Quebec star Sylvain Richard at the Thornhill Market north of Toronto. Was also often billed as undefeated and a year later a byline listed him as 'having an enviable record, among his victims Baron Von Seiber, (later Waldo Von Erich), Tiger Jenson, and Sandy Scott who wrestled at MLG a few weeks back.' Garner mostly had middleweight wrestlers among a few heavyweights, Lyman, variously at 218-230lbs a heavyweight. Garner had his own title, the Canadian Middleweight Title.

He lost his Canadian title to Seiber in 1957 on Garner's circuit and was described even then as 'aging.' He was one of Seibers early opponents and carried on a feud over several years with the up and coming star.

In 1960 he made his MLG debut against Bob Nandor in the opener. He would remain a regular through 1961 and but for a few occasions, always worked in the opening bout. His last MLG date was teamed with Tony Marino against the Kalmikoffs, that one in the semi of the night but Lyman still took the fall for his team.

Photographer Roger Baker used to work out at the YMHA in Toronto and remembers Lyman and associates from there. The photo of Lyman and Alfie Richards was taken by Roger in 1956 as they worked out on the mat at the facility and he also attended some shows.

Thanks to Roger for the photo !

If you can add to the story of Les Lyman please comment or contact me

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

George Richards: Mr Big & Tall

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
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
(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.