Thursday, March 22, 2018

Tiger Tommy Nelson

It was the ship that launched a thousand careers. Well, several actually, including the one of the man who would become Toronto's -and Canada's-greatest name in Pro Wrestling - Bill Potts aka Whipper Watson. He wasn't the only one. The others that accompanied the soon to be re-named Whipper on that ship in 1936 would also make an impact on the Toronto and Ontario wrestling scenes in the coming years.
vs Billy Kohnke (mat) Sept 1938

It was June 1936 and a group of wrestlers from the amateur and semi pro ranks would embark on a tour of the United Kingdom. Along with young Bill Potts, there was Ken 'Tiger' Tasker, Al Korman, and Tom Nelson.

Whipper, of course would return in 1940 and go on to be the King of Toronto for the next 30 years. Tasker and Korman would continue their wrestling careers and then go on to be long time referees. Tommy Nelson's in-ring career would end sooner but he would be a part of the office for many years to come.

Tommy was born in 1900 making him an elder statesman among the younger wrestlers he traveled with. He had formerly worked as a bus driver for the Danforth Bus Company. In 1928 he was involved in an accident at Midland and Danforth Rd when a CNR Train hit his bus injuring him and the only passenger on board at the time. The bus was completely destroyed with fire after the train hit and likely ended his driving career.

I couldn't find any mention of his earlier wrestling years but he likely came up in the same way that they all did in those days. Learning their craft at the many Athletic Clubs and amateur contests that were plentiful in the small halls around Toronto.

He would hang up the boots in the early '40s and work with Tunney in a promotional capacity right through the 1960's putting on shows in the outlying towns around Toronto.
London, England 1938

The reports say the wrestlers left Montreal around the week of June 8. The 'SS Duchess of Bedford' (Canadian Pacific) is the likely vessel as a member of Nelson's family shared some nostalgia with me and there was a postcard of the Bedford in the collection. The only outbound I could find was 3 weeks later but if it took 7-8 days its possible they went on the Bedford on or around June 8.

Nelson wrestled in England as 'Bear-Cat Tom Nelson' initially. A Poster from Centenary Hall for a bout vs Hein Stack in Oct 1937 lists Nelson as 'from USA, extremely popular here as wrestler and referee.' A later ad in December of 1937 has him as 'from Canada and ex Olympic games, the return of an old and tried favorite, back by public demand, and glad to be back.'

There is no record of Olympic involvement or at least active at any games, Olympic background was a frequent boast to push wrestlers in those days though many wrestlers participated in events leading up to -or qualifying for.

Other names alongside Nelson in those years were Ben(gal) Engbloom, the popular in Toronto amateur Finn, as well as Herb Parks. Parks was a fine wrestler in his day and he and his brother Bill (Dinty) were early stars for Larry Kasaboski's Northland group in the 1940's. The brothers later owned Sunset Park in North Bay while starring for Kasaboski until Herb disappeared on a hunting trip in 1956 and was later found drowned. Sunset Park was the inspiration for the Sunset Flip.

Nelson made it through other parts of Europe through 1939. On a physicians statement in Toronto on Feb 20 1940 it lists his past bouts and includes stops in Belfast, Edinburgh, Vienna, Budapest, Paris, London, Manchester, and finally Toronto, and St Catherines.

Opponents in Europe list Rod Fenton (later Promoter in Vancouver), Whipper Watson, Johnny Demchuck, a namesake 'Gotch', Heine Stack, and a 'Shicat' (Dick Shikat?)

His last bout in Manchester is listed as May 31 1939, He would return for a bout in St Catherines vs Lee Henning on Jan 8 and also wrestled in Hamilton 1940 as 'Irish Tommy Nelson.'

His debut at MLG came in 1940 on Jan 12 vs Pete Baltran. The write up lists Nelson as hailing from Ireland and having had won the European light-heavyweight championship back on March 13 1939. I haven't found any reports of that as of yet. In his recap of the bouts Joe Perlove called Nelson an 'undersized grappler from Ireland' in his draw with Baltran.

It's not clear when Nelson 'joined' the office in an official capacity but he looks to have been involved as one of Tunney's insiders around the late 1940's.

Nelson looks to have worked as a promoter much as Sammy Sobol and others had previously. Running the towns and reporting (and bringing the $$$) back to the Toronto office. Towns he officially ran include Stoufville, Aurora, Barrie, Collingwood, Sutton, and Bradford . Nelson also had bigger centers such as Galt (Cambridge) and Kitchener until Johnny Powers bought Tunney (and Nelson?) out around 1965.

In 1955 Nelson was announced as taking over for Roy McMahon as matchmaker for CCWA (Red Garner's group) in Aurora on Aug 29 and then promoting in Stoufville, this time with Tunney stars instead of Garner's team. Garner and Tunney looked to have had a small turf war in the area - but that's for another story.

The only mention of a Toronto-proper show under Nelson was a 1958 show held at Scarboro Arena  on Oct 4 to benefit the Scarboro Hospital Building Fund using Tunney's stars. There is a small mention later of Nelson being on the Board of the Scarboro Police Youth Club.
MLG 1940

In some towns such as Barrie, Nelson was refereed to as 'Matchmaker for the Queensbury Club' which was the Toronto office's official name at that time.

In a 1958 piece on Nelson in the Galt Evening Reporter it quotes Tommy saying ' I was wrestling on a pro card in Manchester, England in 1938. I was thrown out of the ring and cracked my spine on the exposed iron part of a ringside theater-type seat.' The writer adds

'The results was five painful months in an English hospital with the not-too-heartening news that he would never walk again. But two years later Nelson was not only walking but was back on the pro grapple beat. It was 1940 now and he was booked into Detroit. Gus Sonnenburg was his opponent, when big Gus attempted a flying tackle both gladiators went sprawling among the ringsiders. Nelson, on the bottom, found another empty iron frame with his tender spine. Another long siege in hospital followed. But this time it was the end. There definitely would be no further wrestling.'

It goes on to explain that after spinal operations they found that he shrank somewhat from the effects of the spinal knife job. In a later 1962 piece in the Barrie Examiner, it repeats the story and says his height was pared by a couple of inches as well as his weight. It says he fought at 220lbs (though he was now down to 150lbs) and from later photos looks to have stayed in good shape into his senior years.

MLG Photographer and Writer Roger Baker attended some of Nelson's shows in the early 1960's.
He recalls Nelson was 'a very nice guy who was worried for his incoming wrestlers on a particularly snowy evening in Kitchener but still kept his smile amid the pressure of the evening.' 

Roger remembers another show in Sutton when 'one of the wrestlers threw his opponent via a slingshot into one of the corner posts with such force that the ring ropes popped out of the turnbuckles. Tommy came to the ring dressed in a suit, and again under pressure got those ropes back up, and the balance of the card was able to go ahead. A part time wrestling promoter must be able to handle a litany of potential problems!"

Below is a group pic from 1958 courtesy of Nelson's family.
l. to r. top: ?, Pat Flanagan, Joe Gollob, Dara Singh, Tunney, Lou Pistocia,
l. to r. bottom: Sammy Gotter, Al Korman, Tommy Nelson
thanks to Roger Baker for ID help

Thanks to Brian Lanigan for sharing some family history and pics with me.
There are lots of gaps so if you can add anything to Mr Nelson's story please contact me.
Thanks as always to Roger Baker for his help