Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Myth Of Whipper Watson

There is the other side of the conversation about Whipper Watson; not the one that talks about the Pride of East York as a humanitarian or as the tireless crusader for children with disabilities, or of the man who places high on any list of great Canadians. It's the one about his 'real' wrestling skills, his legacy as one of the greats among peers including Bill Longson, Buddy Rogers, Gorgeous George, and Lou Thesz. Or more accurately the lack of a legacy among the historian sorts.

There are a few things to consider when looking at Whipper's career and being able to judge him as a 'wrestler'. His prime, shortened by injuries early in career came mostly before the advent of TV. While Whipper did become the big Canadian star when the CBC started broadcasting Wrestling from Maple Leaf Gardens in 1953, his best years athletically by and large were behind him.

His 'prime' athletically fell in the 1940's. His early years on the amateur-pro type cards held at Toronto's Consols Stadium in the late 1930's and his training spent mostly under the watchful eye of Phil Lawson, while not as well documented as his later years, are worth a look to gain insight to his skills in the ring.

In 1936 Toronto was teeming with Wrestling shows, both Professional and Amateur. Watson, at that time still East York native Bill Potts was wrestling on Amateur cards that included Fred Spittles, Al Korman (future MLG ref), and noted amateur/pro Ted McKinley (Mckinley won Silver in Wrestling at the 1934 British Empire Games). The future Pat Flanagan (Winnett Watson), and another future MLG wrestler and ref Cliff Worthy were both regulars on YMCA cards prior to their pro debuts.

His success came fast once he returned from England and secured a spot on Tunney's cards. In early battles like his second pro bout at MLG, a 1940 contest vs Bobby Robert, Watson got the win and in a Joe Perlove recap 'seems headed for bigger things in the local mat scheme.' A week later Perlove wrote that Watson got the 'best hand of the night' after beating an aging Jerry Monahan in a 17 minute bout.

By November Perlove was proclaiming Watson as a 'local hero' who 'bids fair to be white-haired Johnny of Ontario Wrestling rings.' Perlove did a small feature on Watson and recounted the much heard origin story of being introduced by brother George to Wrestling at All Hallows Church in Toronto. Further training under Lawson and then his trip England via Ireland and training under George de Relwyskow, a noted amateur and then promoter in England.

Some lesser know tidbits in the Perlove article include Whipper appearing in several movies, including one as a Detective, and wrestling Tiger Tasker in another  featuring George Formsby (likely 1937's boxing themed Keep Fit). Perloves says in another 1937 film 'The Rat' Whipper was doubling for star Anton Wallbrook. That film also had a Bob Gregory who was one of Whipper's traveling partners while in the U.K. Gregory married a then member of British Royalty, the Princess of Sarawak. Watson was said to win the European Light-Heavyweight crown in his travels as well as marry his wife Eileen and bring her back to Canada with him.

Another variation on the 'origin story' from 1943 has Whipper answering an ad for Wrestlers, hitchhiking to Montreal and then heading to first Cardiff, Wales, then on to England where they received 8 pounds for a first bout. A note in the Star from 1936 supports the Perlove version, with Potts, Tasker, Korman, and Tommy Nelson (long time Tunney office guy/promoter), along with Harry Joyce as a manager and sailing out from Montreal the week of June 8 1936. According to the blurb another group was scheduled to head out the following month. A subsequent trip would include the then Winnett Watson, soon to be renamed as Pat Flanagan.

A day after the feature Whipper faced George K.O. Koverly in a 'special one hour bout' said to determine the next main eventer in Toronto. The bout which went on after the main event of Everett Marshall vs the Golden Terror ended badly for Watson but set the tone for the coming stardom for the young grappler. Watson ended up out cold on the floor after taking a beating from Koverly who had also knocked referee Al 'Bunny' Dunlop to the mat.

The fans unhappy with the result tried to get at Koverly as he made a hasty retreat to the dressing room. This was in the pre-ramp days and Koverly despite a police presence was attacked by fans. Once he had made his exit the fans went after Dunlop, and finally after the press who had vacated the press table during the melee. Some 200 fans wouldn't give up, even when ushered out of the Gardens, milling about until the ambulance came and took Watson away on a stretcher to St Michaels Hospital around the corner. The new crowd favorite was said to have taken a stiff punch on the chin while off-balance and injuring his neck in the process.

In 1941 before his first main event, again vs Koverly, Whipper was pictured in the Star sparring with soon to be World boxing Featherweight champ Jack 'Spider' Armstrong. In the 1940's and 1950's they would keep the ring set up in the basement of the Gardens for the wrestlers to work out between cards. They would also set up the ring in its usual spot a day or two before a card if the area was free and some of the stars would wrestle exhibitions in front of small crowds of reporters and other insiders around MLG. Some of these workouts and exhibitions would earn a photo in the papers. The stars Longson, Thesz, Watson, and their opponents or sparring partners including Dunlop, Ted Christie, Frank Hewitt, Billy Stack, Pat Flanagan, and others.

Tunneys inner circle of Wrestlers from the '40s to the '50s years besides Whipper, Flanagan, and Dunlop, included Fred Atkins, Jerry Monahan, Cliff Worthy and others from the amateur ranks for wrestling or boxing. Phil Lisner, Phil Lawson, Tommy Nelson, Jimmy Webster were all fixtures in the office with legit backgrounds.

Lawson, notably known as Whipper's trainer and manager was a real powerhouse in the city running shows and training upstarts for many years. An accomplished amateur himself he had been both City and Ontario champion since starting at the YMCA as a kid around 1910. In 1921 he won the Provincial Light Heavyweight Title in boxing, and in 1926 the Canadian Lightweight Championship in Wrestling.   Lawson took over training for the YMCA in 1926 and would start training Whipper around 1931. Officially he would become Whippers Wrestling manager in 1940 but he had already been using his specialized training regimens from the time a teenage Watson had first found the sport.

By the 1930's he was solidly entrenched in the sporting scene for both wrestling and boxing. Besides Watson, Lawson was known to have trained Billy Stack and worked with many that frequented the MLG cards.  Lawson was also very tight in the wrestling/boxing office of Jack Corcoran prior to - and after - the Tunney's taking over. He would later be described as 'the eyes, ears, and sometimes mind of Tunney as they shaped and built a modest start in wrestling to one of the most successful on the continent.'

Getting back to Whipper and his credentials in the ring we can look at his long and successful feud with 'Wild' Bill Longson which spanned the 1940's and resulted in a NWA (Association) World Title win for Watson when he beat the then 2 time champ Longson in 1947. Longson, the biggest star of the era had held the title for 4 years and rarely lost.  While Whipper would only hold the title for a few months before losing to Lou Thesz, he was firmly entrenched in the upper tier of the best wrestlers in the game.

The Toronto papers reporting on Whippers win over Longson in St Louis proclaimed him 'wrestling's No. 1 box office attraction.' St Louis programs lauded Whippers speed and noted his huge popularity and exciting ring work. Longson was a 'legit' star as was Thesz, and later Dick Hutton who Whipper beat for the title in 1956. Many of those early 1940's bouts vs Thesz and Longson at MLG would go 30-40 minutes of action. There were quite a few 60 minute affairs with Watson also. The bouts with Thesz were always top-notch and earned attention from all over the wrestling world.

Wrestling was long past 'legit' by the 1940's and Whipper didn't really beat Thesz, and Longson, and Hutton, but he was good enough in the eyes of those who mattered to be able to hold the titles. In his later years Thesz was asked about Whipper and answered amiably, that Watson was a fine wrestler, and tough. The critics may say that Whipper was picked because of Tunney's influence within the NWA, and that would be true to an extent but it was not a one-man vote. He had the respect of the top stars both in the ring and out of it.

In those early years Watson would take a lot of abuse in his bouts. He was constantly going over the ropes to the floor and for a star of his stature would take a lot of stretcher exits from the floor at the Gardens. Some of these falls led to the injuries that hampered his style. He suffered some serious neck and back injuries in the 1940's leading to a change in style as he progressed.

Who knows what may have been had he been healthy.