Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Updates and Summer Break

Great way to start a semi-vacation visiting with Roger and Gloria Baker and spending time in the wrestling room and looking through boxes of nostalgia. Just a small fraction of Roger's massive collection of photos and nostalgia on display.

Such a treat to hear stories from Toronto Wrestling and Boxing from the 1950's on. Roger has great stories about Whipper, Frank, Chris Colt, Siki, and many of our major stars. His adventures with Bulldog Brower alone would fill a book.

When we get back in couple of weeks we will have some new stuff coming up

  • A look at a fabulous 'Fabulous Kangaroos' press kit type with an awesome poster of wrestling moves
  • A look at Frank Tunney's later days
  • Classic Photo's including 'Gentleman' Jim Hady, Bobo Brazil, John Studd, and more 
  • Some new 'From The Scrapbook' with clippings from the 1950's, more Montreal, and much more ! 

That MLG photo - again

About a week ago I asked Roger Baker about the photo hanging in Frank Tunney's office that was set up to look like they were looking down at the ring.
See MLG Crowd Photo 1950

So a week later I met up with Roger for lunch and he had a 'The Wrestler' magazine from 1983. He said you're not going to believe this. He explained he opened up a box of magazines he hadn't looked at in years, opened up a mag and there it was, another picture of that photo. This time its on the wall in a regular frame in the final office Frank had, across from the Gardens.

The story was on Frank's death months earlier. I have several stories from the mags on Frank's death but had never seen this one. Thanks Roger!

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The RAMP !

It's one of the most memorable parts of Maple Leaf Wrestling no matter when you attended shows at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Ramp. An elevated walkway to the ring that was originally put in to protect the heels, specifically Nanjo Singh, from the wrath of the fans.

First ramp circa 1950
In 1948 when it was first used, the weekly cards were often brought to rioting by the heels of the day. Whipper Watson was in his prime and the star of the show. That made any of his opponents public enemy #1. In particular the dreaded Nanjo Singh.

Nanjo and Whip had been feuding for years by 1948. Nanjo may have been the inspiration for The Sheik years later. A lot of biting, eye gouging, and foreign objects. It wasn't all an act either. The Sheik was Ed Farhat, but apparently Nanjo was still Nanjo out of the ring. Frank Tunney later noted that the only way he could get Singh to calm down was to threaten to call the cops. That's the only thing that scared him. He later went to prison (1958) for the murder of his wife in Philadelphia.

Whenever the fans got so enraged they tried to attack Nanjo he would escape under the ring. He would stay there until they could clear a track to the dressing rooms, usually with police and other wrestlers to form a protective line from the fans. The fans were used to this escape by then. 'Wild' Bill Longson had used it on many occasions in the early 1940's, also used when battling the Whip. The fans loved Watson feverishly.

Even with the escape under the ring he would still have to fight his way to the hallway that led to the dressing rooms with fans attacking physically as well as throwing drinks, chairs, and anything else they could find. They would learn new tricks too including lighting papers on fire and throwing them under the ring to ‘smoke him (Singh) out – like a porcupine.'

By 1948 Tunney had tried different measures to keep Nanjo both in the ring - and away from fans. The wire fence match, an early precursor to the cage match was used to varying degrees of success.

King of the ramp - Whipper 1955
In May 1948 during one of those bouts Singh was battering Watson into the ring post when a female fan jumped up and attacked Singh over the fence. The police rushed in to restrain her and Singh tossed Watson high and up out of the ring to crash down on the floor. Referee Cliff Worthy counted Whipper out while Nanjo strutted and taunted the fans from the ring.

As they were carrying Whipper out on a stretcher Nanjo pointed and screamed 'That's your champion.' The fans were enraged again. There were 11,000 in attendance and about 1,600 at ringside. Joe Perlove remarked in the Star the next day that while there were 1,600 at ringside '3000 tried to get at him.' As the police and other wrestlers tried to shield him he somehow made safely it to the back.

Anytime the fans got out of hand in those days Tunney would get flak from the Ontario Athletic Commission. That may have led to his decision to create a safer passage for Nanjo next time the two met. Right from the start it was called the 'ramp.' An 'elevated ramp from rinkside gate to ring apron which will be erected for the occasion. Nanjo will need it more than any of the others and it is questionable if even that will help him escape the wrath of the customers.'

That first bout with the ramp in place went the same way. Whipper had dropkicked Singh off the apron to the floor where he was counted out. The fans gathered around him and Nanjo awoke in a hurry and jumped back in the ring to attack both Whipper and his manager Phil Lawson. Whipper took the upper hand while the fans crowded around the ring. Then Nanjo went through the ropes and 'stepped out on that blankety-blank ramp and walked over the heads of the frothing populace.'

Kiniski gets air on Yukon Eric 1957
Perlove opined that Tunney should have cared more about the fans that were unable to get their frustrations satisfied due to the easy exit by Singh on the ramp. Tunney was said to be quiet about the outcome until notified that Nanjo had split his head for 11 stitches upon whence he elicited a wide grin.

At any rate it was a success, It had protected Singh from the fans and as time went on there were other advantages to having the ramp there. Wrestlers could use the structure as part of the story-line (see slams, suplex's, etc) and more importantly it created an entrance that the whole arena could see, no matter where you were seated in the vast MLG.

It was built out of wood, basically a solid structure with a few steps built on at the front to enable the wrestlers to step up and walk to the ring where the end of the ramp met the height of the canvas. It was a solid piece. They don't make stuff like that anymore. It was kept in the basement of Maple Leaf Gardens where they kept the ring until Wrestling nights. While the ring was set up downstairs to enable training the ramp appears to have been stacked in a corner. A bunch of pieces put together by the rink staff and only put together on Thursday nights back then.

Was it the same ramp we saw in the 1970's and early 1980's? Basically, but it did change and evolve a bit over time. The early days saw the steps very close to the hall. So the wrestler came out and was already up the stairs before most of the fans saw them. By the mid to late 1970's the ramp was a bit further out from the hall, so shorter. The wrestler would take a few steps out behind the curtain before hitting the stairs. The actual ramp shrunk fairly substantially over the years but so did the ring.

Carlos Rocha makes his entrance 1972
While originally built as a short term solution to an age old problem it ended up being a mainstay of the weekly cards and would stay in place right through to when the original Gardens closed for all intents and purposes in 1999.

In my era there was a lot of action on the ramp. It made for a lot of memorable moments. Likewise in the 1950's and later. The fan favorites could soak in the cheers on their way out while the heels could taunt the crowd and turn up the jeers while they lingered on the ramp. While it served as an additional area to wrestle and brawl it also worked as an easier way to go over the ropes without hitting the floor an additional 4 feet below.

Whipper Watson slammed Lou Thesz on the ramp in 1956 and beat the count back to the ring to claim the NWA title. Whipper used the ramp to his advantage many times since he had first walked it in 1948.

Others would use it as an additional tool to the utmost effect. In the 1960's Bulldog Brower, (just barely!) unable to  lift the actual ramp would oftentimes just pull up the stairs and heave them around. In a 1962 bout against NWA champ Buddy Rogers he pinned the champ with his feet up on the ropes, claimed the championship belt, and was celebrating with his new title on the ramp before the result was overturned.

I asked Roger Baker, who spent a lot of time on or near the ramp in his days as a ringside photographer about his memory of the ramp. He related a incident with the always crazy Brower.

'This wrestling photographer was very familiar with the Gardens ramp, since I had on many occasions climbed the steps leading to the ramp. Standing on the ramp offered me opportunity to get many dramatic photos of the wrestlers both on the ramp, as well as in the ring.

My favorite entrance to the ring side floor was after climbing the steps to the ramp, was to take a calculated jump down to the concrete floor with my cameras, and then I was able to roam the ring side, always looking for that great wrestling shot.
moments before attacking Roger! 

However my luck ran out one night many years ago. One of wrestling's greatest villains Dick The Bull Dog Brower  was wrestling on this night, his opponent had managed to inflict a head cut on Brower who was in a very vile mood.  I sensed an opportunity to get a close up blood shot of Brower on the ramp, 

I climbed the steps to get on the ramp, and found myself just a few feet from this very violent man, I took my picture and then he came rushing at me, without hesitation I leaped off the ramp, at this moment burdened down with a bulky twin lens camera, also a 135mm camera, and a strobe flash with a large power pack.

I hit the concrete floor off balance with my equipment all over me, it was a very nasty and painful fall that I took. It took me a minute or two to get back on my feet. Thankfully Brower went back to the ring. I landed on the floor which was a corridor between the dressing rooms on the south side, and the north side of the gardens, while I struggled to get to my feet a wrestler that I'd done a prior story on was standing feet from were I fell and he had a grin on his face, that bugged me, but It's all part of the game.'

This is gonna hurt! Race vs Flair 1981
Near title changes and actual title change celebrations while starting in the ring would inevitably end up on the ramp with the belts held high and the center of the spotlight.

In the 1970's The Sheik would own the ramp. He would race out and attack his opponent, often often before they had a chance to get in the ring. Some bouts took place entirely outside the ring in those days.

In 1980 Ray Stevens was attacked by a fan as he was leaving the ring following a tag bout with he and Jimmy Snuka against Flair and Dewey Robertson. After the fan had climbed up on the ramp Stevens kicked and knocked him off  leaving him unconscious on the floor. Once Stevens and Snuka had departed they put the fan back up on the ramp where he was put on a stretcher and examined by Gardens trainers.

In the late 1970's early 1980's Ric Flair was a master at using the ramp to his advantage. With his extravagant robes for maximum visual effect he would soak in the crowd and turn to face the fans above the ramp. During bouts he would escape to the relative safety of it, and from his first appearances he would take the fight to the ramp.

In Flair and Harley Race's brawls over the NWA Title they would battle back and forth exchanging suplex'es and piledrivers on the hard wooden structure. Fans all over the arena were able to see unobstructed by the ropes and was much better than the two fighting outside the ring on the far side to where you were seated. Race would also drop his falling head butt out on the ramp with Flair moving aside just in time. Ref Terry Yorkston, not known for his quick movement would get out there with them and start counting. It seemed he would hit 30 - 40 before they came back to the ring.
This is gonna hurt too! Race vs Flair 1982

At ringside in that era  you were able to get up close and personal at certain times. The ushers were fairly vigilant but it depended on who was working. Oftentimes they were as into it as the fans so you were able to crowd the ramp as the action spilled out. Other times they kept you in the seats which were about 7-8 feet away from the ramp, separated by a metal rail. I once dabbed a Program in a bit of Ivan Koloff's blood. See. Its real! It also helped for photographs without having the ring ropes in your way.

When Jack Tunney switched to using WWF wrestlers exclusively in 1984 Hulk Hogan was a big hit on the ramp. It was made for him at that time with the cupped ear thing he did. When he was here in 1981 vs Andre The Giant he used the ramp to give a good arm flip off to the fans. Hated heel back then.

In later years far removed from MLG and the NWA days in Toronto, many wrestlers including Flair and Hogan, when asked about wrestling in Toronto inevitably say - that Ramp! Nowadays nearly every wrestling (and other sports, concerts etc) show has a ramp of some kind somewhere.

And the 2$ question is what happened to it after the Gardens became a Loblaws? Did it actually become the dock at Jack Tunney's lakefront home East of Toronto. Was it used to build a shed at Eddie Tunney's house? Did it become firewood? Or was it just tossed out in the many dumpsters of garbage removed from the site. If you know please share it !

1950 shot out of the MLG book 1981
Burns photos
Rocha and Brower are Roger Baker pics - and Thanks to Roger
Flair Race - MLW

For more on the Nanjo-Whip feud and Flair-Race battles do a search at the right

Friday, June 15, 2018

Whip Gene Fritz O'Connor 1957: Classic Photo

Another Classic Photo Friday, this time with a 'brawl in the hall' at MLG in 1957. Whipper Watson and Pat O'Connor had just battled Gene Kiniski and Fritz Von Erich to a draw and the battle continued down the hall. Tunney and pals watch from the back. Check out the look on big Gene!

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Cartoons: Hutton Thesz Yukon Eric 1957

I love the drawings and caricatures from the earlier era's, this time more from Wilf Long. Dick Hutton about to win the the NWA World Title in Toronto from Lou Thesz. Then battling Yukon Eric in his first Toronto defense after winning the title.

Thanks to Roger Baker

Program Apr 4 1982

Program from Apr 4 1982. Was not a great show, the cover star Austin Idol didn't appear and the 'Mystery Opponent' for Mosca was a letdown.

The mystery man turned out to be Tarzan Tyler, long past his prime and relatively unknown here at this time. We had speculated for weeks, the most intriguing one we came up was Andre The Giant. Would have been ahead of the curve on that one to turn Andre heel, even if for just one card.

Winners are marked. The Privates and Youngblood/Parisi drew

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

MLW.com now on Twitter

Will be posting oddball items, Today in History's with ads and info, and other quick stuff that is easy to post on Twitter , check it out !


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

MLG Crowd Photo circa 1950

I had assumed the 2nd photo with Frank Tunney (r) and author/broadcaster Barry Lloyd Penhale had them looking at a still photo mounted to look like a window looking down on MLG. It's a cool effect with the frame and curtain.

Frank's office had once been described as being 'in the bowels of the Gardens.' They were then for a time where the Hot Stove Lounge was later built, and in the 1960's they were at the Northeast corner on street level with an entrance off Church St. The angle of the Tunney-Penhale photo is off, plus they would have had to be at the very top of MLG and at that point there was no boxes up there yet.

The photo of the crowd appears to be from 1950-1951 I would guess. The ramp was introduced in mid 1948 and the end boards and the decorations fit with the early 1950's. Barry and Frank in the office would be from about 1953-54. Penhale was busy as a broadcaster in North Bay for Larry Kasaboski's Northland TV show as well as penning the 'Canadian column in WAYLI magazine.

Even though the Gardens had less seats then before several renovations, it is filled to capacity. You can note the gent in the top rows that has turned around likely when he saw the flash of the camera from the last rows.

Thanks to Roger Baker for help with info.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Blackjack Mulligan 1982: Classic Photo

Blackjack Mulligan 1982 heading up the ramp to face John Studd in one of their many bouts here. Whenever those two met you could be sure the blood would be flowing. Their Bunkhouse matches here were some of the most brutal of the era. Blackjack had first appeared in Toronto back in 1971 as a heel and returned in the M-A era soon to turn into one of the most popular stars here.

Blackjack would stay on the next day (as would son Jr.) to appear on the TV tapings in Brantford. Sr. would form an unusual team with Tony Parisi for a couple of bouts while Jr. would team with Johnny Weaver against Studd and Koloff in the main of that TV card.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Whipper and Kiniski: The Feud

There's a new book coming up about the life of Gene Kiniski by Steven Ferrier that looks to be a good one. It's in pre-order now so thought we would look at the long feud he and Whipper Watson had here in Toronto and across the nation.

Whipper and Kiniski: The Feud 

By the time Gene Kiniski burst onto the Toronto scene in November 1956 Whipper Watson was well into his 16th year as the reigning king of the ring at Maple Leaf Gardens. Kiniski, billed as a 'footballer of note' made an instant impact on the fans in Toronto. They hated him right away.

Publicity man Frank Ayerst remarked that Kiniski was 'sometimes referred to as Genial Gene, because he smiled once when an opponent was being carried out of the ring.' Adding that he 'is such a rugged ring operator that getting a match with him is gaily alluded to as The Point of No Return.'

1957 with Jersey Joe
He would take out a few of the smaller types early in the cards before suffering his first loss against Shaq Thomas. He actually beat Thomas in a mere 54 seconds but was disqualified when he wouldn't stop assaulting his opponent. He would finish out the year beating another newcomer Billy Red Lyons in December and next show up at MLG on Jan 3 1957.

This time Kiniski would trounce local favorite Pat Flanagan with his 'Prairie Paralyzer' and return to the ring for the main event between Whipper and Buddy Rogers. Kiniski, not known for his quiet demeanor, stepped into the ring before the introductions and challenged Whipper. Rogers backed him up declaring 'Kiniski will pick up the pieces after I've finished with you.'

Kiniski would exit but return to the ring when Whipper captured Rogers in his 'Canuck Commando' and the future looked bleak for the 'Nature Boy'. Kiniski attacked Watson and special ref 'Jersey' Joe Walcott took at swing at big Gene. Pat O'Connor, who had wrestled earlier in the card came to Whipper's rescue but Walcott wasn't sure and took a couple of swings at Pat before going at Kiniski again and then disqualifying Rogers for outside interference.

That would set up a tag bout for the next card with Whipper and O'Connor to face Kiniski and Rogers with Walcott and Bunny Dunlop as referees. The heroes won by dq in front of 14,000 fans when Kiniski took off under the ring a'la Nanjo Singh.

Joe Perlove in his recap the next day opined that 'he (Kiniski) had heard that Nanjo Singh had those nether regions fitted up with a bar and chintzy furniture.'

Perlove went on to describe the 'several hundred customers (that) wanted to make his (Kiniski) crew cut a little shorter. By maybe a foot.' When Kiniski failed to return Walcott gave the win to Watson and O'Connor. Kiniski still had to make his way through the fans to the safety of the dressing room having earned the fans ire previously shown to Nanjo and other enemies of the state - State Whipper.

1957 Jersey Joe again and Hutton outside the fence
That would set the feud in motion with the two going to battle on the next card at MLG and later a wire fence bout (early type cage match). Dick Hutton would side with Kiniski and draw himself into the bouts and team with Kiniski against Whipper and Yukon Eric on a subsequent card as well as interfere in each others bouts.

The Fence match on Jan 24 ended in a wild finish with Kiniski and Hutton going after Whip and ref 'Jersey Joe' who was again part of the action.

A bout at East York Arena between Watson and Hutton the following week led to another incident involving Kiniski. Watson beat Hutton to win the $1000 check that Hutton had been offering to anyone who could beat him within 20 minutes. Whipper would be the first in Toronto to beat Hutton, but after the bout Kiniski jumped in and tore up the check while he and Hutton attacked ref Bunny Dunlop.

This led to Kiniski being given a $500 fine, said to be the steepest penalty handed down at the time. Kiniski was also given a 4 week suspension from Metro Toronto. Commissioner Merv McKenzie also curtailed the license of Tunney to promote at the Arena for 6 months. MLG was not included !

It may have been legit as Tunney didn't return to East York until Oct 1957, though they only used it when the Gardens was not available anyways. Les Lyman and others ran the smaller Arena in that era also.

Genial Gene meanwhile offered this to the fans in response to the outrage over how he treated our fan-favorites. 'Tell them from me to go to hell too ! I'll fight in Maple Leaf Gardens whenever I like. Let those chicken bums stay home if they don't like me.'

Genial Gene orating while on suspension 1957
This was around the same time that Ontario MPP Arthur Child had leveled criticism at the antics of Wrestlers pushing the referee's around and called it a farce. It started a heated battle with debates over the OAC being associated with pro rasslin and involved Whipper and others around the scene. Ref Joe Gollob, no stranger to the rough stuff replied back that 'we don't need a Commission.' Whipper used his diplomacy to smooth things over in the end.

Kiniski meanwhile would show up at MLG in March and take to the ring before the main of The Miller Brothers vs Hard Boiled Haggerty and Hutton. In his usual quiet way Gene announced his suspension was now over and he would be back to destroy Whip.

They would continue through the year both in singles and tag bouts, Whipper with various partners and Kiniski with Hutton. Kiniski would go on to beat O'Connor for our British Empire Title and he would earn a bouts against NWA champ Lou Thesz at the Gardens.

They would do big business here with averages of 10,000 a card. With Whip and Kiniski on top for most of the year Tunney drew over 320,000 over 48 cards in 1957.

The feud would travel around the circuit here with some big bouts in London as well as in Buffalo, and then moving across the country with stops in Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver with the fans following the feud on the CBC shows.

Gene would soon team with Fritz Von Erich to form a formidable tag and continue to battle Whipper and his partners through 1958 while the two would battle in singles bouts and trade the B-E Title into 1959. They would also battle with the Canadian Open Tag Titles at stake in the same time frame, both of them on top of the wrestling world here in Toronto.

The feud would periodically start up again and continue through the 1960's up to 1965.

MLG Photog and writer Roger Baker saw these two in action many times over the years and relates his memories

"Their matches will forever be a bench mark for both the length of time and many dozens of encounters that took place between these two great Canadian wrestlers. The only other feud that Watson had that could compare in number of years and brutality, would have been The Whipper's many grudge encounters with Nanjo Singh.

Kiniski was a very brash, in your face competitor, and he kept himself in excellent physical condition at all times. He belonged to be the headliner that he was, only the top wrestlers of his era could stay with him long enough to make for a good match, and at the same time walk out on their own two feet.

Whipper always gave Kiniski a battle whenever they met. Watson probably body slammed Kiniski at least eight to ten times in every encounter. To see Watson apply this slam was a thing of beauty. He would crotch Kiniski and lift him with his right arm and actually be able to raise him up to where Kiniski was a good foot above the Whipper's head, then Kiniski was slammed to the mat, or the wooden ramp with all of Watson's strength. This move always got the crowd excited, and had Kiniski crawling on his knees in a lot of pain.'

Kiniski employed many wrestling holds to his opponents that were at times crippling. An example would be his knee drop to his opponents upper chest, and sometimes to the exposed throat as well. He often delivered his big boots to their rib cage, this could result in a wrestler having many a recovery for bruised ribs."

Kiniski would have his run with the NWA Title and would defend here a total of 17 times including a 1966 bout against Whip. Their last bout at MLG would come in June 1967 with Kiniski taking on both Whipper and Bulldog Brower in a handicap bout. The NWA title was not at stake as Whipper and Brower, working in tag rules, beat Kiniski in front of 6,200.

Whipper's career ended in 1971 but that would not be the end of the feud. In 1978 Kiniski was set to battle Dino Bravo for the newly created Canadian Heavyweight Title. The night was also deemed 'Whipper Watson Appreciation Night.'

Frank Tunney was to honor Whipper by donating 1$ from each ticket to the Easter Seals 'Timmy Scholarship Fund ' and would acknowledge Whipper for all he had done for the sport and the charity work. Watson would also award the new championship belt to the winner of the bout.

Well, big Gene, still not a quiet guy by any means would start an argument with Whipper earning the wrath of the newer fans who would boo him mercilessly as he lost the bout to the now new champ Bravo. At that point Whip and Gene were at the 22 year mark of the feud.

Kiniski, in later years would talk very highly of Watson and of the money they made with each other, and he would be present at Whipper's funeral in 1990. The feud was finally over.

Photos by Burns and original clips and memories thanks to Roger Baker
For more on the MP's vs Wrestling incident see  1957: The year the Ontario government questioned pro wrestling's validity