Monday, March 19, 2018

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 !