|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