Saturday, March 31, 2018

Fred Atkins: Ferocious Fred

If there was a Hall of Fame for the MLG stars and you were to pick the first stars to be inducted, Fred Atkins would be a shoo-in on the first vote. His career in Toronto lasted 5 decades with Atkins serving as one of the trusted few in Frank Tunney's inner circle. Alongside Whipper Watson, Pat Flanagan, and later Lord Athol Layton, Atkins would make Toronto his home base from which to center his long career.
Set to battle Whipper 1949

Starting in Australia in the early 1940's he was soon recognized as Australian Champion. In 1946 he faced Jim Londos in Australia in front of 14,000 fans and was then said to have been offered $9380 to wrestle in five contests in San Francisco by Promoter Joe Malcovich.

He eventually did come to the US for what was said to be a six month tour. They followed his progress in the Australian newspapers, one update reporting him at 41 bouts with 41 wins. Upon his return to Australia it put him at 78 bouts with only one loss - to Sandor Szabo - and that he would be next returning to the US to take part in an elimination tourny for the World's Title.

In 1947 he would headline in Vancouver for a time battling Szabo and Joe Savoldi in big bouts before moving East.

In 1948 he wrestled his first bout in Toronto and got his first win against Jack Moore.

In a Star item before the following card it said "Promoter Tunney is looking for an opponent for Atkins. A number of the big matmen have hinted to Phil Lawson that they will 'be busy' while the Anzac wrestler is around."

It would set the tone for the rest of Atkins career, known as a tough no-nonsense type both in -and out- of the squared circle.
Noting a curfew change 1949

Atkins and his wife would buy a house that same year in Crystal Beach, Ontario in which he lived for the rest of his career. It would serve as a central point for Atkins to work regularly in Toronto and around Ontario and the Great Lakes region including Cleveland, Buffalo, and Detroit. Like the other locals he would make trips outside to other areas, often alongside Whipper, Flanagan, Lee Henning, or one of the other Toronto regulars.

In September 1948 before facing the #1 villain Nanjo Singh in the main event at MLG. it was reported that Atkins was looking for a 'clop at Whipper Watson'. First though he would team with Whipper who was by now established as the main matman in Toronto. He would tag with Whip against Sky Hi Lee and The Mask and then they would add Pat Flanagan for a 6 man bout vs Hi Lee, The Marvel, and Nanjo. Main events would continue including a big win over the 320lb Ben Morgan.

In February 1949 The Sydney Herald said Atkins was expecting to meet Whipper for the title at MLG and said his record since leaving Australia last year includes more than 50 wins 2 draws and 1 dq. It added that Atkins had packed MLG five times and he and Mrs Atkins were living at Crystal Beach.

In March 1949 being billed here as Australian Champ he did face Whipper and won the British Empire Title. In an update in the Star Atkins threatened to take the belt back to Australia and it was said Whipper and manager Phil Lawson were chasing Tunney for a re-match. Atkins wins the rematch by dq then takes on Mike Sharpe, Whipper again, and then the two new arch rivals go in n 8 round special with Strangler Lewis as ref which ends in a draw after 65 minutes of action.

A non-title loss to Ray Villmer would follow as well as a partnership with 'Wee' Willie Davis in which the two would second each other for bouts. In June 1949 he and Whipper would have a 10 round match with animal trainer Tuffy Truesdale as referee. The bout with 8 minute= rounds would go the distance and end in an 80 minute draw. After various tags facing Whipper and Flanagan, Atkins would lose the belt back to Whipper in Hamilton in August.

In Oct 1949 Atkins would get a shot at World Champ Lou Thesz in a highlight of the early years. Atkins would control the bout and make a good showing only to lose by dq after trying to erase part of Thesz's face with his elbow bandage.

He would also make an impact in the smaller towns. In Oshawa he was in many main events in the early years and would go on to headline the town 45 times over 20 years.

At the onset of the 1950's he would alternate between main events and opening bouts around the area. It would appear he was used as a tester of sorts for newcomers, or to set the tone for the nights card. After a 1951 bout with Steve Stanlee it said Stanlee had made one mistake -'getting rough with Atkins, he'd have been better advised to snarl at a lion'.

'Ferocious' Fred as the papers were now calling him, both here and in Ottawa and Montreal, would tag with newcomer Lord Athol Layton, initially a hated heel with his manager/valet Gerald. Their partnership would prove tumultuous as the two would engage in a few instances of tag rivalry after bouts. Layton would soon cross over to become one of the most beloved in the area but Atkins would remain nasty both here and at home in Australia.

In 1957 Dick Hutton would beat Lou Thesz at MLG to gain the NWA World Title. It was reported after (and in later years) that Hutton had trained with Atkins previous to the bout. One report said Hutton spent 8 weeks with Atkins.

It was said that Atkins got Hutton's weight down through his extreme conditioning regiments. Atkins claimed Hutton was an 'alcoholic for cake' so he 'ran him through the sand until he dropped, then insulted him till he got up and ran some more.' It may have been to give Atkins a hometown rub, more likely it may have been a legit situation to get Hutton in shape, how much help he could have been in a 'pro wrestling' bout is the question but there is no doubt Hutton looked a lot trimmer by the time of the Thesz bout.

On a trip back to Australia in 1959 the papers reported he was back for the first time in 9 years and he would face Stanlee in his first bout back - in the main event.

Back in Toronto in 1960 an item mentioned Atkins had logged 23,500 miles in one week. It reported he was in Cleveland on a Tuesday, took him 7 hours to drive to Chicago where he boarded a plane to Los Angeles, where he transferred to another plane bound for Honolulu. There he caught a jet to Australia. Having lost a day due to time differences, he arrived in Sydney Monday. He wrestled there that night, in Melbourne Tuesday, Brisbane Wednesday, and Sydney Thursday. Friday morning he headed back to Crystal Beach. Gaining back the day he lost, he hit Buffalo on Saturday. Total distance covered: 23,500 miles.

In the early 1960's he also began training others officially. He was already well respected for his conditioning and would begin to impart that knowledge onto others. Luke Brown who wrestled here as Man Mountain Campbell at the onset of his career was one of the early trainees.

In 1963 a MLW Program mentioned a giant 7 foot 300lb Japanese star about to invade the area. With Atkins at his side, the young Giant Baba would appear in Toronto and around the region.
Oshawa 1951

A couple of years later a teenage Tiger Jeet Singh would learn under Atkin's tutelage and go on to become a huge star in Toronto. Atkins would tag with his young protege into the late 1960's as his own career was winding down.

It was at this time Atkins would also start to referee and after wrestling his last bout at MLG in July of 1971 he would stay on as a ref until the early 1980's. He would also work for both the Buffalo Sabres and the Toronto Maple Leafs as a conditioning expert though the 1970's.

In what is a common thing now, Atkins in the 1971-72 season was the only full time conditioning coach employed in the NHL at the time. He also went on road trips with the Sabres that year to keep an eye on the players. In 1973 Sabres Coach Roger Crozier credited Atkins regiments as being the key to their success. In 1982 former Sabre and then Detroit Red Wing Jim Schoenfeld credited Atkins with saving him from surgery (through recuperative training) and later listed him as one of his biggest influences on his career.

In 1980 Atkins was splitting his time as a referee and as conditioning coach for another year with the hometown Leafs. An article at the time said the players were talking about 'Freddie's killer sessions, endless repetitions of push-ups, leg stretches, and situps. It went on to say that Ian Turnbull, then star defenceman with the Leafs once challenged Fred (at age 70 then) to an exercise showdown. Fred won in a walk, and Turnbull strained his back missing a few games

Whipper Watson in 1983 had this to say about his old foe "even today I would say that Fred Atkins would defeat 90% of the wrestlers in the business, he was the toughest, best-conditioned wrestler I ever saw."