Friday, March 23, 2018

Yukon Eric: The Sampson of the North

Flying into the front row at MLG 1954
For most of the 1950's and into the early '60's Yukon Eric would hold the esteemed spot of #2 fan favorite in Toronto, behind the main man Whipper Watson. From the big mans' debut here in 1949 he would immediately captivate the fans and spend most of his time at or near the top of the weekly cards at MLG, and in the many arenas around Southern Ontario.

As Yukon Eric he had been wrestling for several years before settling in this area including a short run with the NWA Texas Heavyweight Championship. He first showed up at MLG in the the ring before the main event on Oct 20 1949 to challenge any wrestler Frank Tunney could match him with. He claimed he had only wrestled in the lumber camps 'but talked so persuasively' that Tunney gave him a spot on the following card.

His debut at MLG on Oct 27 1949 on the undercard of a Yvon Robert/Killer Kowalski main event ended with a 90 second win over Faro Renaldi. More quick wins followed and the barefooted Eric would look to be un-beatable in his early showings using his Kodiac Krunch backbreaker to steamroll his opponents.
With Sandor Kovacs at Crystal Beach 1956

At this time the big draw was Whipper Watson vs Yvon Robert over the British Empire Title. Whipper would win the Title and successfully defend it against Robert in the re-match in November 1949. The following card, held on the last day in November saw Yukon receive his first main event taking on the equally large Sky Hi Lee in front of 8,500 fans.

He would prove to Frank Tunney he could draw on his own when Whipper was absent with good houses for 2 bouts against Fred Atkins (10,000 & 9,000) and one vs big Mike Sharpe (9,000).

Described by Jim Proudfoot as ' a large and cumbersome chap (who) can move like lightning' and '275 pounds and five feet around the chest', the papers would picture him posing with Alaskan dogs and in caricatures as a giant with an axe. Another byline described him (and in ads visually) as 'the iceberg that walks like a man'.
Squeezed by The Beast 1962

In Feb 1950 the still undefeated Eric would defeat the much hated villain Nanjo Singh at MLG. The recap the following day described him as a world’s champion in Montreal having beat Bobby Managoff in the Quebec metropolis on Feb. 15 for a 'world’s title of some kind'. This was the the Montreal Athletic Commission's International Heavyweight Championship, the highly regarded title previously held by Lou Thesz and Yvon Robert and soon to be held by the likes of Buddy Rogers and Verne Gagne.

Montreal would figure prominently again a couple of years later when Eric lost part of his ear during a bout with Killer Kowalski. In addition to Quebec, Eric would travel quite a bit through Canada and most of the upper U.S. with much of his time spent in Ontario.

Back in Toronto in March 1950 'The Sampson of the North' as he was sometimes billed would be handed his first loss by Whipper Watson. In a re-match the following month Eric would get by Watson with a dq win. They would meet quite a few times around the circuit over the first half of 1950 and while in the coming years the two would occasionally do battle, they would later form a very successful tag team.

In the many arenas around the Toronto circuit, Yukon would continue to prevail against the areas top heels and fan favorites alike. Big main events in Oshawa, Hamilton, Newmarket, Niagara Falls, London, and the new arenas in Milton and Bowmanville would contribute to his success.

He would rack up victories against the other big men. Primo Carnera, Lord Layton, and Canadian Weightlifting Champ Doug Hepburn would all see the lights after bouts with Yukon.

Midway through 1950 he would receive a NWA Title shot against visiting champ Lou Thesz which ended in a curfew draw.

In 1951 Eric would first team with Watson in a 6 man tag pitting the two (along with Pat Flanagan) against the trio of Sky-Hi Lee, Masked Marvel and Mayes McLain. The next few years would see Eric continue to dominate the cards both as a tag with Whip or solo in the mains.

Whipper and Yukon take Siki for a ride 1962

In the middle of the decade Fritz Von Erich would become one of the areas most hated wrestlers of the era. First in a team with Karl Von Schober and then with Gene Kiniski the hated duos would have wild clashes with Eric and Watson and other combinations of the favorites.

When Watson won the NWA Title here in 1956 he would defend it often on home turf. Eric would earn one of those title bouts with Whip which ended in a double count out decision.

In 1957 Yukon would meet then NWA champ Dick Hutton at MLG and again in Oshawa in 1958. Teaming with Dara Singh in 1959 he would again hold the Canadian Tag Titles after beating the Kalmikoff Brothers.

In late 1959 a battle of bear hugs would ensue against the Great Antonio, the unkempt strongman who had been putting on feats of strength displays around Toronto, including pulling TTC buses. Billed as 'The Siberian Strongman' Antonio would be no match for Eric losing in 8 minutes after falling to the ground after a bear hug and getting the 1-2-3.

Against both Gallaghers in Buffalo 1962

That same year Eric would be tested by the newest sensation on the Toronto scene, Don Leo Jonathon. Don Leo, one of the best big men ever would remain undefeated at MLG and beat Eric in a little over 14 minutes setting up a bout down the line with NWA champ Pat O'Connor.

In 1961 Eric would again be set to test another new star on the scene. the unstoppable Bulldog Brower. Yukon would lose the first bout by count-out and the two would draw over 10,000 fans for the re-match, with Eric losing once again to the now un-beatable in Toronto Brower. When the Stoufville Arena was demolished in 1987, a story mentioned one of the highlights of its long life - a 1961 bout between the two.

Photographer and writer Roger Baker followed Yukon's career closely both as a fan and as a writer for the mags. He relates a chance meeting with the big man in the summer of 1956.

'It was in the summer of 1956 the place, Crystal Beach Ont. which is situated on the shores of Lake Erie, it was a wonderful spot to come for a visit and enjoy all that it had to offer. Wrestlers also visited in the summertime to enjoy an outing on the famed beach, these wrestlers would almost always be appearing in a town or city that was not to far off, Buffalo, St.Catherines, Welland, Niagara Falls.

'It was a sunny Saturday morning, a wrestling card was taking place later in the day, it was an afternoon show that was being held in the fabled Crystal Beach Park, The main event was a tag team match that featured Yukon Eric his partner Sandor Kovaks vs. a very young Nick Bockwinkle and his partner Johnny Barend.'

'Earlier that day I was walking on Derby Rd. taking in the sights what with all the restaurants there was no shortage of interesting subjects to admire if you happen to be a twenty year old fellow with a sharp eye for detail. Who do I see sitting on a bar stool at the front of the restaurant? it was Yukon Eric, on the table in front of him was a plate stacked hi with jumbo pancakes, also beside the pancakes was a large jug of as I soon learned his own favorite syrup which he brought along to enjoy on his pancakes.'

'I couldn't resist and walked over to Yukon and introduced myself to him, and let him know that I was one of his many fans, he was wearing jeans, and a large plaid short sleeved shirt, one could not help but to notice lust how massive he was, his arms looked like tree trunks, and his chest according to Yukon himself was sixty inches around, his arms were over twenty inches in circumference.Eric explained to me that because of wrestling being the main focus on him, that his huge muscular development received less attention.'

'I thanked Eric for chatting with me while he had his pancakes, and assured him that I'd be at the Chrystal Beach Park later on in the day to see his match.'

His last bout at MLG was in July 1964 and he would finish his career in Florida some months later. Sadly he took his own life in 1965 but left a strong legacy here in Toronto and ranks among the most popular ever to appear at MLG.

-Thanks! - and photos by- Roger Baker