Saturday, April 28, 2018

Attendance in Toronto Part 1

Compiling attendance figures for pro wrestling can be a challenging and frustrating exercise. Most of the figures came directly from the promoter or office and were frequently inflated when reported or ignored altogether. In Toronto there was a bit of both of those.

There were eras when attendance looked to be honestly reported by the office or MLG*, others where the reporter doing the write-up either estimated or went by what he was told by the office, and other times when there were no figures reported at all.
*Maple Leaf Gardens as a whole was covered in different eras breaking down attendance for different sports and events.

Those times when it was reported we could assume they were mostly correct or close. Still there were a lot of 10,000 and 12,000 and 15,000 even type numbers not reflective of 'actual' attendance

All of that makes it somewhat difficult to determine the most successful eras of the promotion but with the attendance figures in hand (reported) and the absence of others (not reported) we can see a pattern that develops from the early days of Jack Corcoran through the last days of the NWA under Jack Tunney.

We will look at some of the better draws, notable draws etc from the early days through the 1980's.

A great source related to this is found at Gary Will's TWH: Top Drawing Matches 1929-1977

Big Show 1924 

Wrestling had been held in the city back to the turn of the century and before, cards being held at Mutual St Arena, Riverdale Rink, St Andrews Hall, Agnes Street Theatre, and other gyms and halls around the city. A Riverdale Arena show in 1909 packed in 2,500 fans (with 1,000 turned away) to see the "Russian Lion' George Hackenschmidt take on four men over 1hr 45 minutes. He beat all four within 56 minutes. A 1911 bout at the Agnes Street Theatre was filled to capacity of 1,200 to see Stanislaus Zybyskzo defeat John Lemm.

Pro wrestling as we know it in Toronto was still in it's infancy in the early 1920's with cards scattered in the early years sometimes paired with boxing. A card in 1924 that was recorded as 'Toronto's first taste of 'big League' wrestling stuff' drew 2000 to see Canadian champ George Walker go down in defeat to former world champ Stanislaus Zybysco. A previous meeting between the two in 1922 alongside a Jack Dempsey exhibition bout did not have attendance reported. Both cards was held at Arena Gardens later Mutual St Arena (and in 1962 and through my era re-christened The Terrace - Roller Rink) which could seat 7500 in the stands and more on the floor.

The Arena at Mutual St would be the regular spot for the big shows until MLG opened in 1931 but cards were held there from 1922 through to 1938 mostly under promoter Ivan Mickailoff. Other spots would host wrestling too, Massey Hall, and around the corner the smaller Labour Temple

Mickailoff would start promoting regular weekly cards in 1929 and the beginning of Toronto Pro Wrestling was off and running. Attendance ranged from 500 to 6500 to see some big stars including Jim Londos, Gus Sonnenberg, Ed 'Strangler' Lewis, and Stanley Stasiak.

Stasiak was the first notable star in Toronto with a bout vs Renato Gardini in 1929 drawing 9,300, at that time an attendance record for wrestling in the city.


Boxing promoter Jack Corcoran got into the wrestling game in late 1930 with a card at Toronto's Massey Hall. He struggled to compete with Mickailoff but still managed to secure the promotion of cards to be held at the new Maple Leaf Gardens in Nov 1931.

In Oct 1931 Corcoran ran the Coliseum on the Exhibition Grounds (now Ricoh) as a prelude to the bigger MLG and drew 7,000 for a main of George Zaharius vs Mike Romano, said to be one of the biggest crowds ever to watch wrestling here.

The next card on Nov 5 held at Arena Gardens drew over 8,000 to see Londos vs Romano , then the most for pro wrestling in the city to date.

Maple Leaf Gardens opened on Nov 12 1931 with an NHL game between the Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks. At opening the capacity was 12,500 plus 5000 standing for hockey. The capacity would change over the years as they renovated and changed seating configurations.

Londos vs Christie 1935

The first pro card was scheduled for one week later on Nov 19 with a main of Londos vs Gino Garibaldi. The attendance was reported by Lou Marsh in the Toronto Daily Star as 15,800 paid $13,000 gate, attendance outdrawing the debut of hockey the week before. There were a couple of different figures thrown out over the years but Marsh, a stickler for details and very by-the-book seems to be the one to trust. They wouldn't eclipse that as the year rounded out and moved in to 1932 with cards staying around the 5-6000 mark.

Mickailoff was still running Arena Gardens and the crowds were split with neither doing huge numbers. Mickailoff would lose his license ('for the good of the sport' according to the secretary of the OAC - the Commission) in Oct 1932, and while his club would continue under 'Crescent AC' and the Shamrock AC was granted a wrestling licence while Corcoran would fight to stay the only big show in town.

The Shamrock group held it's first card at Mutual St a short time later drawing 4,500 to see Sonnenberg vs Jack Washburn. Over at MLG they were similar numbers, higher when notables were in town

1935 saw a huge draw for Dan O'Mahoney vs Jim Browning at MLG that saw close to 16,000 (2 figures reported 15,400 and 16,000) while a Londos vs Vic Christie drew 12,000 as did an Ernie Dusek- Browning main.

Over the next several years they would be hard pressed to bring in even 10,000 fans. Only once I can see in 1938 for a Masked Marvel vs Vic Christie bout.

With several years of low gates and personal factors weighing into it, Promoter Corcoran would make the decision to pass the Wrestling side to the Tunney brothers in 1939. It didn't get better overnight for John (who died suddenly in Jan 1940) and younger brother Frank who were in tough right from the start. Star writer Joe Perlove reported that John and Frank had lost $2700 in the first 3 shows they put on after taking over from Corcoran in mid 1939.

During the brief time that John was matchmaker, he would bring in 'Wild' Bill Longson and Louis Thesz. For their initial appearances crowds remained low averaging around 3500 but Longson especially was making an impact have sent his first two opponents out on a stretcher. In his first MLG main event bout in Dec 1939 Longson had thrown opponent Everett Marshall to the floor and went after him only to have the fans attack him. he ended up bloody and beaten and a love (to hate) affair with the fans was born. On that same card Thesz had beat previous Longson victim Jerry Monaghan and the two (Longson & Thesz) would remain good draws in Toronto during their careers.

Longson would firmly entrench himself as a huge draw in St Louis through the early 1940's and would form a close bond with Tunney as the battle to regain the fans moved ahead. A new star was on the horizon and Longson too would be a big part of creating that legacy.

French Angel 1940

A hometown youngster back from an extended U.K. visit where he had worked the sport at the pro level soon made his way onto the MLG cards in 1940. Despite Tunney's partners and peers misgivings about the youngster. the young promoter would decide to use Billy 'Whipper' Watson and it would help pave the way to success at the box-office for the next 20 years.

In later years there were various numbers mentioned as to what Whipper drew between 1941 and his retirement in 1971. A story in 1970 suggested upwards of 600,000 over 600 main events at MLG. After Whipper was forced to retire in Dec 1971 an article quoted Tunney as saying 1000 mains and upwards of 5 million people. That's closer to the facts, I haven't counted all the mains for Whipper but it would be somewhere in the middle of those numbers and in his prime years as a star 1941 to say 1960 with weekly cards at MLG, the fan count would surely be in the millions.

At any rate the arrival of the hometown star would mean a revival in the local scene that would carry on through the 1950's

Another regular in the city Nanjo Singh would also prove to be a help to draws especially once he and Whipper started their long feud.

In 1940 The Angel (aka French Angel - Louis Tillet) came in for a bout vs Monaghan and drew 11,000, the best gate in five years. An early attraction type wrestler, as Andre The Giant was later, Tillet would claim 2 of the biggest houses of the next 2 years, drawing 10,000 in 1941 (vs Masked Wolf), and and again in 1942 vs Ed 'Strangler" Lewis.

Another hometown favorite in the name of Pat Flanagan would come on the scene in 1941 and he along with other local types including big George Richards (clothier and later Mr Big and Tall), the tough John Katan (already a veteran of the area, settled in Hamilton), and amateur standout Earl McCready (born here and returned to live in Stoufville), would bring the excitement and action back to the fans as the decade marched on.

Another attraction type 'The Blimp' the massive Martin Levy would attract 11,000 in march 1943 to flatten usual victim Jerry Monaghan. Monaghan was a member of the extended office at the time, likely why he was the pick for all of those bouts. It was reported that the gate broke the attendance record set previously by the Angel. Not sure what they are referring to as there were already bigger cards than those with Tillet. The Blimp would return to face Al' Bunny' Dunlop the next week with 8000 attending. Also a Whipper -Dan O'Mahoney bout as the main would have helped.

Whipper would start to emerge as a future champ in battles with both Longson and Thesz with their bouts drawing them in in droves to the Gardens Watson and Longson would draw 10,000 in 1942, an impressive 14,000 in1946, and 1947 would prove to be a huge year with Whipper and Longson doing 11,000 and 15,000, while Whipper vs Thesz would do similar numbers for all three of their bouts here in 1947,
Thesz vs Watson 1947

In Dec 1947 Perlove wrote that Tunney had run 300,000 fans through the turnstiles over 44 shows at MLG. That would translate into nearly 4 million dollars today.

In Feb 1947 Whipper would beat Longson for the World Title in St Louis and the future success of wrestling in Toronto was further aided if not wholly assured. he would return to a hero's welcome, getting congrats from then Toronto mayor Bob Saunders and scheduled to make his first defence at MLG vs Sandy o'Donnell. The card would draw 8,000 and a bout a week later with Longson would bring over 11,000. Whipper would stay local during his short reign, just as he did in his later title run in 1956, the title runs proving to be an indelible helping hand to the gates in the city.

The good times continued with Perlove reporting in March 1948 that Tunney was enjoying the best season of his career. While the business world was suffering Tunney said that Jan and Feb '48 were the best he'd ever had. By miles. March was still roaring and April will be roaring even louder. Over 11 shows so far in '48 -from a low of 6,000 (Bobby Bruns vs Marvel) to almost 14,000 for the first of the year between Whipper and Singh.

Whipper and Flanagan would continue their popular tag team that did well in 1948 drawing 10,000 and 12,420 for bouts with the two against Marvel and Goon Henry, and another with 3rd tag Fred Atkins against Singh, Marvel, and Sky Hi Lee.

The last year of the decade remained strong and my have been the most successful of all, with 7 cards reported at 10,000 or over. A February bout between Whipper and Marvel brought in 14,000 and a series of Whipper against fellow Canadian star Yvon Robert did well with 10,000 on consecutive weeks

Another star was about to emerge to carry the city into the 1950's. Yukon Eric made his MLG debut in 1949 and soon received a main event against Hi Lee in front of 8,500. Two bouts vs Atkins (10,000 & 9,000) and one against Mike Sharpe (9,000) would earn him a rivalled top spot alongside Whipper that would carry on through the 1950's.


Alongside Whipper and Yukon Eric, Lord Athol Layton would become an adopted hometown hero after arriving here in 1950. First as a heel type, then would switch over and become crowd favorite over the next decade. All three would play in to the biggest draws of the year to start the 1950's. Watson and Thesz would again draw 11,000 and yet another bout in the Watson-Singh drama getting 12,000. Former boxing champ Primo Carnera came in and took on Yukon Eric in front of 11,000 and an Eric-Tim Geohagen bout drew the same. Layton, in his MLG debut no less met Sky Hi Lee in front of 11,000 also.

The biggest draw of the year, no surprise, was Whipper vs Eric. They had a series of bouts throughout the year ( face vs face and heel vs heel bouts were quite common in this era) with one drawing 12,000 or 13,000 depending on which paper you were reading. That bout, their first, was touted as possibly breaking the record at MLG still held by that first card back in 1931. World champ Thesz also came in for 5 bouts at MLG during the year and all drew well, averaging 8-9,000 fans.

1951 was more of the same with Whipper filling the Gardens both on his own and with partners Flanagan, Eric, and Sunny War Cloud. Layton would earn his merit battling Whipper and they would earn the top spot of the year drawing 14,000 .

Whipper had settled into his role as the top star holding our top championship: The British Empire Title. Villain after villain, and a few friends would challenge for the title over the next decade and it would remain a good draw for the man referred to as 'that era's Hulk Hogan.'

New arrivals would settle in and take over the mains when Whipper was off or out of town. Bobo Brazil, Hombre Montana, Don Leo Jonathon, and others would do their best to fill the Gardens, but no-one could fill them like Watson. He took an extended leave after undergoing an appendectomy. Gorgeous George came in highly touted and faced Chief Big Heart but with only 8,000 present. Another bout vs Geohagen only brought in 5,000. His next appearance vs Thesz wasn't reported.
Dream team 1953

Even Whipper, when in and facing opponents like Singh and Killer Kowalski was only sitting around 5,500 to 7,000 on average. The did get 10,000 for a Watson-Hans Schmidt draw, Schmidt a big TV star at the time.

Tag team wrestling was turning into a good draw and Tunney took advantage of it by bringing in some wild teams of the day including 'Dirty Dick Raines and Lou Plummer and Al & Tiny, The Mills Brothers (aka Murder Inc.). Both teams were rough and tumble and fans had a real hate on for them right from the start.

Raines and Plummer were crushing everyone in their path so Tunney put together a 'dream team' of the era. Watson and Yvon Robert. The heroes trounced the villains and took the tag trophy. The two would team a week later against Layton and Lord Blears with only 6,500 on hand. Watson and Robert would them meet up with the Mills Brothers and set a new record for attendance in the city in front of 16,000, surpassing the 1931 debut at MLG. The rematch saw The Mills take the trophy in front of 10,000 and a subsequent re-match with Watson and new partner Montana would draw well too with 10,000

Business would stay steady for Tunney through the middle of the decade, additionally he was running all over the Southern end of the province and maintained the Boxing side also.

1955 and 1956 especially would see an upswing with multiple cards seeing big crowds. Argentina Rocca would be a big crowd favourite even as he battled Whipper in front of 13,000 in Feb 1955 and 10,000 against Edouard Carpentier in Aug 1956. Yukon Eric continued to be the second most loved in the city seeing success on his own and in tags with buddy Whipper. A highly touted bout between Eric and new arrival the Canadian Strongman Doug Hepburn in Oct 1955 drew 10,000. Eric and Whipper teamed to battle another new arrival in the hated Fritz Von Erich and partner Firtz Von Schober drawing 12,000 and 10,000 in two of the bigger crowds in their series. They would see similar numbers as their feud continued into early 1956

While Toronto was no stranger to the NWA Title since it inception in 1948 (Thesz had been in 17 times between 1949-1956) it would become the house title once Whipper beat Thesz here in Toronto in March 1956. The initial bout drew 15,000 as did the re-match 2 weeks later which saw Whipper get the win and the coveted crown.

Watson would defend the title 16 times in Toronto before losing it back to Thesz in St louis 8 months later. Having his own World champ would pay off for Tunney somewhat with an overall strong year but not as much as would be hoped for. While the Watson-Thesz re-match held in St Louis drew 14,000 Watson wouldn't see many huge crowds here during his reign but it remained steady with 7-8,000 on average.

After winning the World Title Whipper had passed his B-E Title to Pat O'Connor. He would also defend against O'Connor twice here during his reign (Whip getting booed! in one of the bouts!) drawing 10,000 and 6,500.

Another newcomer Dick Hutton was doing well with his 1000$ challenge beating all challengers to his cash but his first try against Watson only drew a reported 6,499 while his second try was only 5,500, and third 5,000. Hutton would turn out to be a steady draw here over the next 2 years leading into his 1957 win over Thesz here at MLG.

The best draws for Whipper during the reign were Mr Hito (9,500) and a handicap bout against both Mr Hito & Mr Moto drawing 10,000. After Thesz had regained the title the re-match here saw 11,000 in late November 1956.

We looked at the year 1956 in our MLW Almanac 1956
Big tag 1957

In Nov 1956 Buddy Rogers hopped up in the ring to challenge Whipper Watson. He had been in Toronto before in some filler type matches but was back with a purpose. When the two finally met it was not at MLG (booked for the popular Ice Capades) but the small East York Arena. Attendance was 1,800. For fans at the time, quite a treat I am sure to see stars like that at a small arena.

When they made it into MLG they drew only 7,000. By Jan 1957 they had 10,000 and Gene Kiniski got involved on behalf of Rogers while Pat O'Connor assisted Watson. When the four went at it the next week they managed 14,000. Rogers would come back some years later and make quite an impact as he did most everywhere else he wrestled.

An article in the Toronto Star said that over 48 shows in 1957 they drew 320,000. One of the highlights of the year was in November when Toronto regular Dick Hutton would beat Thesz at MLG to claim the world title in front of 10,000. The largest draw however was the second card in January with Watson and O'Connor facing Buddy Rogers and Gene Kiniski in front of 15,000 or 14,000 depending which report. A Watson and Buddy Rogers single also drew 10,000.

Hutton would defend his title in Toronto 9 times over the next year against some noted opponents including Watson, Thesz, Longson, and Yukon Eric. Hutton and Watson drew 10,000 but a bout vs Longson was reported as the 'smallest house in a while' with only 4,500 fans. Even Hutton vs Thesz was reported at only 6,000. A card at the end of November 1957 had champ Hutton taking on Hombre Montana in the second last bout. Unusual for the NWA title. Whipper vs Fritz Von Erich was the main, though the ads set it up as 'two main events.'

The best draw of 1958 was an unusual one. A Watson vs Al "Bunny' Dunlop bout drew 13,000. Dunlop was by then a full time ref who had angered Watson (and the fans) with his ref work so was challenged to a duel. Watson made short work of Al and he was back reffing shortly after.

New NWA champ Pat O'Connor would come back to Toronto 11 times to defend Between Jan 1959 and Nov 1960. His first defence against Thesz drew 8,500. Many thought of him as an improvement over Hutton but the numbers weren't great either. A re-match against Thesz a week later only corralled 5,000 and another week later vs Hans Schmidt only 6,500. Whipper was notably absent through much of the start of the year though a bout in Feb vs Kiniski had 12,000. Upon his return in March 1959 he again drew 12,000 with Kiniski. The following week with O'Connor back to face former champ Hutton there was only 6,000.

The week after the O'Connor Hutton, Tunney brought back Gorgeous George to face Watson. It was a hit with 14,000 (13,999 according to the Globe). This was the long remembered head shaving of George vs Watson retiring if he lost. An O'Connor vs Ilio DiPaolo a week later had 6,000 while the re-match between Watson and George a week after that drew 12,000,

The balance of 1959 was lean with shows as low as 3,000 in the seats despite the on-going Watson-Kiniski feud and a powerful tag team of Kiniski and Don Leo Jonathon battling Whipper and assorted partners.

1960 - 1990 next

Friday, April 27, 2018

Angelo Mosca & John Studd 1982: Classic Photo

Angelo Mosca and Canadian champ John Studd face off on the ramp in 1982 with ref Terry Yorkston trying to keep the peace. The night I took that pic there was a photog from the Star taking shots for an upcoming feature article. The pics below are what he took a few seconds after I took mine. Must have been standing right where I had before the ushers chased me away.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Cartoons: Buddy Rogers 1956

In our era we had 'Nature Boy' Ric Flair who set the area on fire from 1978-1984. In the 1950's there was the Nature Boy- Buddy Rogers. He appeared in Toronto from 1951-1963.

Above a couple of cartoon type drawings by Bob McCormick who did the Danny Fortune strip as well as many wrestling drawings which we will feature here from time to time.

These two are from 1956 with Buddy in to face Whipper Watson at both MLG and East York Arena.

Thanks to Roger Baker

Friday, April 20, 2018

Flanagan and Watson win Tag Trophy 1952: Classic Photo

From 1952 to 1961 we had the Canadian Open Tag Team Titles. Tag Titles were a fairly new thing in the early 1950's and instead of belts, most promotions awarded a trophy to the champs.

In Toronto we had the Calvert Trophy. The Calvert Distillery sponsored many sports and had a syndicated sports column in the newspapers. Another noteworthy Calvert Trophy had been awarded to hockey great Maurice Richard a year prior in 1951, ours was presented in August 1952.

The first holders of the titles were Whipper Watson and Pat Flanagan. They defeated Lord Layton and Hans Hermann in the finals of a tournament that went on over 4 consecutive cards to gain the honors. Fred Atkins suffered a separated shoulder on a circuit show before the finals and was replaced by previous entrant Hans Hermann. Tourny brackets below.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Stan Stasiak

Taking the boot from Carpentier 1966
In 1961 a youngster billed from Arvida, Quebec by the name of Stanley Stasiak made a successful debut at MLG winning his bout against Johnny Foti. Right from the start the scribes made reference to the Stanley Stasiak of the early 1930's who had been a big star in Toronto before dying suddenly in 1931.

The earlier Stasiak had wrestled Ed Don George at Arena Gardens in Sept 1931 and suffered a broken arm during the bout. As he left Toronto for Montreal his arm became infected and he suffered blood poisoning. He was admitted to hospital in Belleville, ON and he died there days later.

He was remembered as a 'beloved villain' due to his ready wit and cheery manner outside the ring. The original Stasiak had been such a force in Toronto under promoter Ivan Mickailloff that he was still remembered here some 30 years later when the new Stasiak appeared.

The youngster started fast and earned a bout with Whipper Watson for his British Empire Title just 4 bouts in. Now going by just 'Stan' (though Joe Perlove would still refer to him as Stanley occasionally) he would get two straight against the champ before settling into a regular schedule at MLG and around the circuit.

He would team up with Man Mountain Campbell to win the International Tag Titles and continue to wrestle solo with a bit of a long running feud against another future WWWF star Gino Marella (Gorilla Monsoon).

first main 1961
In those days there were frequent heel vs heel bouts and in Oct 1961 Stasiak became another victim of the unstoppable force Bulldog Brower in what would be Stasiak's last main event at MLG for some years to come.

He would however frequently head the card in the outlying cities though, main-eventing in Hamilton, Oshawa, London, and other spots during that era.

A bout in early 1963 saw Stasiak coming up with the short end of the stick in a bout against then local star Bruno Sammartino. Their paths of course, would cross later and make history when Bruno beat Stasiak (who had beat Pedro Morales) in NYC to regain the WWWF Title in 1973.

In Toronto Stasiak would remain a fixture for most of the next 15 years while branching out to other territories but returning here frequently and appearing as a regular throughout.

He would get an NWA shot against Jack Brisco in early 1975 and due to a feud with Johnny Valentine and a couple of shots at local kingpin The Sheik was turned into a fan favorite here.

A year later he would meet new NWA champ Terry Funk and later team with an old WWWF nemesis Chief Jay Strongbow. In 1977 he met then WWWF champ Superstar Graham at MLG and in Jan 1978 got a shot at AWA champ Nick Bockwinkel.

Stasiak is on the very short list for having challenged for all 3 major titles in Toronto, the NWA, WWWF, and AWA. Edouard Carpentier and Tiger Jeet Singh were the others.

He would also see time on Dave McKigney's small town circuit battling Tony Parisi over the North American Title (which he would hold for a short time) but remain a fan favourite at MLG. His last bout in Toronto was in Feb 1978 when he pinned the Wolfman (Farkus).

Thanks to Roger Baker

Monday, April 16, 2018

A look at the year 1956

We take a look at one of the most exciting - and successful - years in all of Maple Leaf Wrestling history in our latest addition to the MLW Almanac.

The in-progress Almanac covers the later era of the promotion starting with 1979-1982 but we will also venture into the past and choose select notable years from the 50+ years of MLW history.

You can read 1956 here - MLW Almanac looks at the year 1956

Friday, April 13, 2018

Johnny Powers: Classic Photo

Double the fun this time. A couple of great Roger Baker photos from 1966. Johnny Powers 'The Golden Adonis' posing in front of the 'wall' at MLG and in action vs Tony Parisi. I was going to do a small feature on Powers but there is not a lot of other info out there past the readily available.

He was a regular here from 1964-1967 and returned a few times (notable bouts vs The Sheik in 1973) but was mostly traveling and running his own ventures in the U.S. and abroad.

The photos were taken about the same time that Powers took over promoting Cambridge, Galt etc from Frank Tunney and Tommy Nelson, Would like to know more about all that, let me know if you have info, In the meantime enjoy these great Classic Photo's. Thank you Roger !

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Early TV Wrestling in Ontario

A look at TV wrestling as it started here in Ontario.
News from New York state was prevalent and influential in this area so is included for scope.

As early as 1940 it was being discussed in Toronto papers of how Television would impact the country's game - hockey. In New York they were televising boxing and other sports to movies theaters. Conn Smythe, owner of the Maple Leafs had been invited to take in a Football game at a theater in New York and while not dully impressed remarked 'It was like the old flickers, but remember the handicap of making these impressions outdoors and on a cloudy day.'

By 1943 they were showing fights from MSG in NYC and in 1944 televised a bout between Bobby Ruffin and Tippey Larkin to more than 20 Hospitals in the New York area. Most of the patients were servicemen and this was said to be the first extensive television coverage ever given a fight to that time.

In 1947 the President of RCA suggested that Television may soon be received in Toronto and Hamilton from across the border in Buffalo, NY. As the 'TV receiver' was available in the U.S. for 200-300, it was reasonable to expect the Canadian price to be 395-435. At that point there was said to be 45,000 TV's in use in NY and another 35,000 in the rest of the U.S. with a projected 160,000 over the next year.

An article in 1947 said that of all sports, boxing probably televises best, because the camera can focus on the ring and remain in fixed position. Basketball, and Football came next, Baseball was said to present a problem because of the players spread out, No mention of wrestling and already promoters in boxing were blaming TV for low attendance at bouts.

Football too was blaming short attendances on TV while other sports blamed what was on at the same time as their event. A boxing promoter claimed to have been going broke as his weekly show took place at the same time Milton Berle was on TV.

Conn Smythe was quoted in Nov 1948 as saying 'Sure, I'll go for television if the television people pay me the equivalent of a capacity house each time they televise.'

At the same time Frank Tunney felt television in the homes would hurt him grievously on rainy, snowy, or cold nights. 'I know it would hurt my business on such nights, Tunney said, his fingernails starting to bleed just at the thought.' 'Otherwise I couldn't say just how it would affect boxing and wrestling.'

Bill Johnston in New York was bringing Wrestling back to MSG and was said to be forming the Wrestlers Promoters Association of America with Ed 'Strangler' Lewis as chairman. He was quoted as saying he 'thinks television will play a strong part in wrestling's resurgence. Our receipts in the New York neighborhood clubs are up 40 per cent, because of television.' He later was reported to have asked for $17,500 per night to allow TV into Madison Square Garden.

By 1949 TV's were on sale in Toronto by General Electric with the sales byline of 'see and hear your favorite programs daily, hockey, fights, wrestling, and news.' You had to order now or face wait times of up to 6 months to see 'Wrestling matches from Buffalo,' and 'Boxing matches from Madison Square Garden.' You also needed $599 - installation extra, plus each household needed a license. The CBC was said to be moving with 'extreme caution.'

By 1950 those lucky enough to own a TV in the Toronto area could look forward to 2 channels. WHAM from Rochester, and WBEN in Buffalo, showing from about 12 noon to 12am. Wham had wrestling variously on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights at different stages showing the Dumont wrestling from Chicago. WBEN had 'Wrestling at the Aud' which featured many of the local Toronto stars. Ontario fans could catch announcer Chuck Healy and Sports Director Ralph Hubbell calling the action and interviewing wrestlers during the preliminary bouts on Friday evenings from Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo.

Roger Baker, Wrestling and Boxing photog and writer - and huge wrestling fan - was one of those lucky enough to have a TV in the house at an early age.

'We had a TV at home from the time that i was twelve, and I was glued every Saturday night to that little box to see all of the great stars that appeared in Chicago. These shows were shown on The Dumont Network and featured stars such as Verne Gagne, Hans Schmidt, Yukon Eric, Killer Kowalski, Bob Orton, Wilbur Snyder, The Mighty Atlas, and many others that entertained the faithful viewers weekly. These events were televised live from The Marigold Arena.

'As well I watched TV broadcasts of top flight wrestling from Buffalo N.Y. These matches took place in Buffalo's War Memorial Auditorium, and this show ran for years. The play by play announcer for many years was Chuck Healy, a very popular Buffalo sports announcer.'

'The promoter was Pedro Martinez and he used many international stars, as well as many seasoned mat pros. These would include well known wrestlers including Fritz and Waldo Von Erich, Whipper Watson, Yukon Eric, Gagne, The Lewin brothers, Baron Gattoni, and the Gallagher Brothers.'

Closed circuit broadcasts were being shown in theaters here of select boxing cards from NYC. It was said to be in the test stage though they were adding about 100 theaters to the network which could open a card to 200,000 people. It was still viewed as small time compared to what was coming. Other ways of getting the public to buy included 'Phonevision' where you would order by phone and pay at the end of the month, and 'telemeter' by dropping coins into a box attached to your TV.

In early 1950 Tunney was quoted as saying to be 'weighing the options of TV after success in the US.'

In a 1951 'Canadian Sports Parade' column it imagined the effect of TV on Canada's sports. Wrestling, due to its attraction in the U.S. had its success assured. They asked that Frank Tunney and the other Canadian promoters follow the national trend. 'Tunney could come up with a whole galaxy of Canadian wrestlers suitably titled. Imagine such drawing cards as the 'Brampton Benumber,' the 'Terrible Torontonian.' or the 'Ottawa Ostrich', and perhaps the Kitchener Kook.'

Conn Smythe was still resisting TV at MLG saying 'I think the radio broadcast is good enough.' The NHL owners chief complaint was the same as Tunney's. That the fans would not brave winter weather to come to the arenas. The fight among the NHL and the emerging technology would continue to debate until 1952 when the CBC first started to televise hockey.

In fact the first try was from Maple Leaf Gardens when they televised a Memorial Cup game in closed circuit to executives from the network and advertisers in order to prepare for the coming NHL season. The first game from Montreal on Oct 11 1952 was followed by the first game from MLG, called by Foster Hewitt.

Hewitt had once called the wrestling over the radio from MLG starting with that first card on Nov 19 1931. He would pick up the card for the main event and sometimes second to last bout from high up in the gondola and broadcast live after the late news on CKCL. Coverage was sporadic but would continue even after TV took hold. Foster's son Bill would also call wrestling occasionally on Foster's station CKFH in the early-mid 1950's picking up around halfway through the card at 930pm. Prior to MLG being built there had previously been radio broadcasts from the cards held at Mutual St Arena.

In May 1952 it was announced Canada would begin its TV programming production in September with 3 hrs or less daily. Ad rates set at $1600 hourly for Toronto, Montreal at $500 as there were few TV's in Quebec. They would be connected with the 4 U.S. networks but would focus on Canadian production and development of shows in Toronto and Montreal.

On Sept 8 1952 CBC would open CBLT transmitting on channel 9 with an opening ceremony lasting three hours. Montreal's CBC station CBFT would start on the previous Saturday.

Quebec got started first in the homegrown wrestling side also. In the fall of 1952, they presented wrestling every Tuesday night live from the Verdun Auditorium.

Right away , TV was the talk of the Toronto sports columns. Tunney's Wrestling shows were regarded as 'a likely feature.'

Here by mid 1952 you could get 5 channels including CBLT which only ran a few hours a day. The price had come down to about $300 (still about 3,000 by today's equivalent) and in the ads for sales, Wrestling was getting billing after Hockey, Baseball, and Boxing.

Wrestling could now be found not only on WHAM and WBEN, but also WICU out of Erie, PA showing live bouts from Pittsburgh.

In early 1953 CBLT started showing wrestling at 1030 on Friday nights and again on Saturday in the same time slot as WHAM. Along with the others you could also get a show on WHEN out of Syracuse at 11pm on Saturday. The CBLT show initially consisted of film from other spots. One 1953 item said much of the Toronto TV wrestling came from the 'Grapefruit Belt' of the Southern U.S. The first broadcast appears to be Feb 23 1953.

In a recap of the Dec 10 1953 card, Joe Perlove noted that the Yvon Robert vs Mr Kato bout had been the 'feature TV match.' Wrestling had been listed in the guide at 8:30 on Thursday since the Oct 15 card but have yet to find any confirmation of live coverage prior to the Dec card. It's still likely that with the start of the 8:30 Thursday coverage that they were showing a bout or two from the Gardens.

Feb 1953 CBLT Wrestling at 1030pm Fri
Jun 1953 CBLT Wrestling at 930pm Sat
Oct 1953 CBLT Wrestling LIVE from MLG 830-930pm Thurs
Dec 1953 CBLT Wrestling 1115pm Sat

It didn't take long for Wrestling to become one of the most popular programs on CBLT, with Holiday Ranch, and Playbill rounding out the top 3.
busy Saturday night 1954

More channels would come aboard including CKSO Sudbury, Canada's first privately owned TV station. and in 1954 they started airing a Wrestling show after the news at 10pm Saturdays.

CBLT/CBC here and in Montreal and later in Ottawa were broadcasting from the live card and would not turn to in-studio wrestling until a later in the decade.

By the close of 1954 viewers now had access to 20 channels depending on where in the province you were.
And there was quite a bit of wrestling to choose from.

CKSO Sudbury 1954
WREN Buffalo 1954
WKTV Utica 1954
WSPD Toledo 1954
WGR Buffalo 1954
CPPL London 1954
CBOT Ottawa 1954
WXEL Cleveland 1954
WWJ Detroit 1954
WXYZ Detroit 1954
WJBK Detroit 1954

CBOT first tried it out on July 13 1954 at the Auditorium in Ottawa. Producer Pierre Normandin headed a 15 member mobile unit crew for a card featuring a main event of Killer Kowalski vs Bobby Managoff. The broadcast of all three bouts did not go beyond the building and was said to be a trial run in anticipation pf live telecasts from ringside in the near future

In 1955 more channels and more wrestling including WKTV Utica, WEWS Cleveland, as well as WCNY Watertown with 'Texas Wrestling.'

CBLT's Saturday night show would feature action from the previous weeks MLG card.

WGN added Wrestling in 1956 from the studio in Buffalo, was said to be the first to originate from a studio in Western New York - and Ontario. The Buffalo show would become a favorite in the Toronto area right into the 1960's.

When I spoke to Barry Lloyd Penhale some years back he said he hosted the first Studio Wrestling show in Canada. A 1957 article included a look at Penhale, now on CKGN North Bay. The author says 'he (Penhale) staged the first studio live wrestling events to be seen in Canada -or anywhere else with two exceptions.' CKGN in North Bay had decided to produce their own local shows instead of showing old movies in the evening, one of those was Live Studio Wrestling.

The Penhale show featured the stars of Northland Wrestling headed by Larry Kasaboski and often featured stars from MLG who would make the trip up North.

By 1957 in addiiton to the U.S. channels, there was CKVR Barrie, CHEX Peterboro, CKWS Kingston, CKCO Kitchener, CFCL Timmins, CKNY Wingham, and CHCH Hamilton all running wrestling. Some, being CBC affiliated, would have been a twin of the CBLT show. Some would show tape from Winnipeg.

Kingston's CKWS ran Texas Wrestling while CHCH (later to host the homegrown show for many years) and CKCO ran wrestling from Chicago and the 'Wrestling from Ringside' show out of Ohio. If you had tuned into CHCH on Apr 12 1957 at 11:30pm you could have caught Vern(e) Gagne & Bobby Bruns vs Al Williams & Rudy Kay, and also Lou Thesz vs Bronco Nagurski. (The Gagne/Bruns tag is on youtube with the announcer introducing Vern GAG-NEE).

Just a few years in and wrestling had taken hold on TV here. The stars of MLG including The Fabulous Kanagaroo's, the Kalmikoff's, Yukon Eric, Lord Layton, and Whipper Watson were now 'TV stars' and in high demand across the country. The Whipper-Gene Kiniski feud in 1957, along with many of the Toronto area wrestlers would travel through Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Vancouver due to the coverage from TV wrestling. They had moved away from the 'live' aspect by then, a letter in the Star from a fan in Nov 1957 asked to have 'live wrestling returned.'
CHCH 1957

The CBLT show was still film of the Thursday MLG shows at least till mid 1960. A tidbit in May says the CBC were moving the Saturday night CBLT show to Friday to allow CBC to meet the late movie competition of other channels but that the show will continue to run on Saturdays 'on the network.' CBOT in Ottawa was also on the air with wrestling in 1960 while CFTO and CHCH would take over the weekly Maple Leaf show with Lord Layton as announcer.

Roger Baker remembers the Toronto studio

'Wrestling was taped by the CBC at a studio on Yonge St. near Dupont. You had to be there early to get in to watch the taping. The announcer's name was Fred Sgambati. I saw him interviewing Ivan Kalmikoff, the Russian kept repeating that there are people in the know, that agree that he and his partner Karol Kalmikoff are very superior wrestlers. Sgambati insisted that Kalmikoff reveal the name of the wrestling expert. Kalmikoff blurted out, 'his name is Earle Yetter' who at that time was active in as a wrestling photo journalist working out of Buffalo NY.'

Thanks to Roger Baker

Information from Toronto Star, various Ontario papers
some information found at

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

MLW Letterhead

A letterhead (condensed) from the wrestling office circa 1984. Not exactly sure when they moved from the office at MLG to the one above which was across the street from the MLG front entrance. Sometime in the 1970's I presume.

At one time the office was where they eventually built the Hot Stove Lounge, they then moved to a smaller locale on the East side of MLG.

I went to the Carlton st office around 1980 and Frank Tunney himself let us in and let us look at his wall which was covered in photos. They had a huge poster of Andre on the front window for many years which you could see as you came out of the subway just down from MLG.

They were there until 1988 when they moved up to Downsview in the north end of the city.

That lowrise office building - above - is still there now sandwiched between huge condo buildings. Used to be a huge parking lot on the one side.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Article 1982: Wrestling at the Gardens: It's a real scream

With photos from the Jan 17 1982 show, photog must have been standing right near me for those ramp shots.

NOTE: Click on the photo , once it opens then right click to open in new tab or window, then you can magnify it to actual size to read it

Monday, April 9, 2018

WWWF/WWF Title in Toronto

The WWWF/WWF Title would have an almost 20 year span in Toronto rings during the NWA days. From it's first appearance in 1964 to it's last in 1982 the title was defended on Toronto cards over 50 times. After the switch in 1984 it would continue to be defended here in the Hulk Hogan era (though not as often) but we will only be looking at the years up to 1982 when Bob Backlund made his last appearance with the title in the NWA era.

Before we look at the actual first Toronto defenses of the newly created WWWF belt in 1964, we can trace its origins here before the WWWF was actually created. The Toronto bouts between Thesz and Rogers in 1963 that led to the formation of the new fed is the logical start but we can even look a bit more into the past for the start of the story.

At the onset of the 1960's Toronto was fertile ground for young stars that had yet to make their name in the wrestling game. Gino Marella (Gorilla Monsoon), Don Jardine (The Spoiler), and Taro Sakuro (The Great Kabooki) were all working at their craft here as were The Tolos Brothers, Sweet Daddy Siki, and one Bruno Sammartino.

On the favorites side Yukon Eric had made his mark in the years he had been here while another newcomer Bulldog Brower had taken over the #1 villain spot on the scene as the 1950's turned to the 1960's. The #1 favorite here was still Whipper Watson but he was getting older and other stars were starting to share the main stage.

Bruno Sammartino had come into Toronto in 1962 on a recommendation while having issues with the Northeastern Promoters. Frank Tunney welcomed him into the city and was instantly rewarded when the fans got solidly behind the newcomer.

His first appearances at MLG in March 1962 were low on the cards. By April he was moving up and in May he headlined at MLG vs powerhouse (and seldom loser) Bulldog Brower. He got the win and there was no turning back. If Whipper was absent Bruno was in the main.

In June of 1962 Bruno got his first NWA Title shot vs Buddy Rogers. The trio of bouts the two had over the next 3 months cemented Bruno as a power to be in the wrestling world both here and in the Northeast where the promoters were looking at him in a new light.
vs Rogers 1962

In a 1962 article in the Star Frank Orr wrote '...the city's Italian populace has found a major hero in Bruno Sammartino and have been flocking to cheer their countryman. Bruno is a hero in the same mould as the great Rocca is to the Puerto Ricans in New York.' Frank Tunney answered 'The Television exposure has helped and we've had some great cards. Also the Italian people have been following Bruno in a big way.'

They sure were with an average of 14,000 coming out for his 3 bouts with Rogers. After the 3rd bout in Aug 1962 it was reported that 'the traffic out front (of MLG) was jammed before and after the bouts. Many fans came from out of town to see the fun, and they were not disappointed.' Fred Atkins added 'There is nothing wrong with pro wrestling that a couple of top-notch cards can't cure.'

Despite failing to unseat Rogers from the NWA throne Bruno would go on to win our version of the U.S. Title as well as team with Whipper and win the International Tag Titles for a time.

When Lou Thesz beat Buddy Rogers in Jan 1963 with the resulting changes with the promoters led by Vince McMahon Sr. breaking off to form the WWWF, it was said they already had an eye on Bruno to lead them into the future. Bruno would get a shot at Thesz here also in March 1963 and Thesz' win was said to be to establish Thesz as the 'real World champ' once the championship dust settled.

Bruno wrestled his last bout here on March 21 1963 in a tag with Kiniski before leaving for the WWWF and winning their title in May.

Bruno Sammartino

Even with all the upheaval among the promoters Tunney remained close with McMahon and Bruno would return with his new belt in Feb 1964 to face a previous opponent The Great Kudo (Red Garner). The fans would show up again , 11,000 of them though the main of the night was actually a handicap bout with Watson vs The Beast and his Manager Martino Angelo. Kudo, accompanied by manager Sam Sullivan was taken down by Bruno after just one minute 39 seconds of action. Manager Sullivan didn't fare too well either getting his jacket ripped apart by the champ previous to the bout.
vs Brower 1965

The next card saw a bigger challenge with Bulldog Brower getting his chance at the title. Bruno would emerge victorious in front of another fairly strong crowd of 7,000 in a bout that saw very few wrestling moves. Bruno and Bulldog would slug it for 19 minutes before Brower tried to charge at Bruno in the corner and met up with Bruno's sizable fist.

Bruno would return in March to face Professor Hiro, in July/Aug for 3 bouts vs The Beast, and again in November to face local boy Wally Seiber now turned into German villain Waldo Von Erich.

In the bout vs Hiro, Bruno was on the short end of judo chops and nerve holds and narrowly held on to his title when Hiro was counted out on the apron by ref Tiger Tasker.

Von Erich had met Bruno previously on the East Coast earning several title bouts - but this was the first local bout between the two. They would go on to be familiar adversaries over the next 15 years and Von Erich would prove to be one of Bruno's most respected opponents. The first bout in front of 5,500 saw Waldo repeatedly hitting the apron to escape the champ. The bout was called for curfew after 32 minutes with both wrestlers prone on the mat.

The re-match vs Von Erich on Jan 10 1965 ended when Waldo was flattened by Bruno and declared unable to continue after 24 minutes. A subsequent re-match was scheduled for 2 weeks later but was postponed due to Bruno being unable to attend due to bad weather in New York. They would meet on the last card of the month with Bruno getting the win in what was said to be an exiting fast paced bout between the two who 'have the dimensions of dinosaurs.'

In all Bruno would defend the title 24 times in Toronto between 1964 - 1969 with additional series against Johnny Powers, Bill Miller, Tiger Jeet Singh, and Professor Toru Tanaka.

He would win 2 consecutive bouts vs Singh in the summer of 1967. Under the tutelage of Fred Atkins, the young Singh had been tearing up the area and would battle back time and time again against the bigger Bruno to the delight of the Indian fans in the city.
vs Johnny Powers 1965

In his final Toronto defense during his first reign as WWWF champ he would meet Baron Scicluna on June 29 1969 but the title bout would not be the main attraction. At this time The Sheik had taken over top spot in Toronto and would meet Gene Kiniski in the final bout of the evening in front of a full MLG of over 15,000.

Tunney would book Sammartino to meet the Sheik on the following card but it was billed as a non-tile bout. The crowd of 12,000 was said to be 'half Italian.' Bruno still showed up with the title belt and used it to throttle Sheik after being attacked with the ring microphone and Sheik's #2 pencil prior to the bell. Bruno would earn a dq after pal Dom Denucci came in to help and the champ would then be absent from the Toronto scene for almost 7 years.

Bruno would lose the title in 1971 to Ivan Koloff and it would pass to Pedro Morales and Stan Stasiak before Bruno won it again in 1973. None of the others would defend here during their reigns. If Stasiak had held it longer its possible he may have appeared in Toronto given his previous history here in the early 1960's.

In Feb 1976 Tunney would bring Bruno back as a stop-gap fill in for the injured Sheik. By now the glory days of wrestling in Toronto were fading and the fans were tiring of the short bouts of the seemingly unbeatable Sheik on every card. Bruno was also a classic type champ on the cusp of a new wrestling generation that was slowly replacing the old guard in an effort to revitalize the game.

Sammartino would defend on 4 consecutive cards facing old foe Waldo Von Erich, Killer Kowalski, Ox Baker, and on the last card Apr 11 1976 - Brute Bernard. All of his opponents were also entering the later stages of their careers and the fans were evidently not impressed.

A card scheduled for Apr 25 was cancelled, Bruno was scheduled to face Superstar Billy Graham on May 2 but that card was also cancelled after Bruno was injured by Stan Hansen on Apr 26 in NYC.

That would be it for Bruno during the NWA years. His son David (as Bruno Jr.) would appear here quite regularly in the early 1980's both on Tunney cards and on Dave McKigney's circuit. Bruno Sr. would return in 1987 during his short lived comeback to meet Butch Reed at the Gardens.

Superstar Graham

Sammartino would lose the title to Superstar Graham in 1977 and SBG would come into Toronto on a number of occasions. The fans knew him from several appearances here in 1976 and as champ Graham would face Chief Jay Strongbow (2 times, one at Exhibition Stadium), and Stasiak during 1977.
vs Backlund 1978
 (mag photo)

On July 10 1977 a show at Exhibition Stadium had Graham defeating Strongbow in a short bout. The card also featured an NWA Title bout between Harley Race and The Sheik. Graham was scheduled to meet Stasiak on the next Ex card on Aug 7 but but an airline strike held him up and a main of Andre The Giant and Haystack Calhoun vs Bulldog Kent, Frank Stanley, and Chris Tolos went on instead.

Graham was then scheduled to face Stasiak on the Oct 16 card at MLG but again was not there. Stasiak faced Waldo Von Erich instead on a card that also featured AWA champ Nick Bockwinkel facing Dom Denucci. This card would have been the first time that both the WWWF and AWA Titles would be defended on the same night at MLG.

Graham would finally face Stasiak on Nov 20 1977 winning by pinfall after 10 minutes. AWA champ Nick Bockwinkel would also appear vs Carpentier making this the first card to feature both feds champs.

It's hard to judge Graham's drawing power in the city due to the overall climate for pro wrestling at the time. Attendance was in a sharp decline from years previous. There were many factors. Pro wrestling on the whole was seeing a decline across North America and many of the long time stars here were getting up in age. The Sheik's act had grown stale leading to a change and Tunney was looking outwards for help. During Graham's run Tunney made a deal to use Verne Gagne's top tier AWA stars including the champion Nick Bockwinkel so the cards became a mix of WWWF and AWA talent alongside the local stars.

Graham would make his last appearance with the title here on Feb 19 1978 pinning Ed Carpentier. It would prove to be his last successful defense as he lost it the next night in NYC to Bob Backlund. Graham would return a month later minus the belt to have 2 consecutive brawls with Dusty Rhodes at the top of the cards

Bob Backlund

Backlund would come in to MLG in May 1978 to face off against former champ Graham with the now renamed WWF Title and go on to defend in Toronto 22 more times through 1982. The skilled champ earned a strong following among the Toronto fans and would prove to be a popular (if not strong drawing) star in the city.

The early bouts vs Graham which included a steel cage bout (and the one vs Patera) showed Backlund to be more than just a scientific wrestler. He was able to brawl and match power against the bigger opponents. In the cage with Graham he battered SBG into the steel post and escaped through the cage to a huge roar from the crowd.

Opponents during his reign included Graham (3 times), Ken Patera (2 times), AWA champ Bockwinkel (Title vs Title), Monsoon, Koloff, Ernie Ladd, Greg Valentine (3 times), Ric Flair, Baron Von Raschke (2 times), Pat Patterson (2 times), Jimmy Snuka (2 times), Bob Orton Jr, and Buddy Rose (2 times).

Many of Backlund's defenses in the early part of his reign would be the semi main on the cards. Starting in October 1978 the Mid Atlantic stars headed up by Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair started coming in and they would often occupy the main event on those cards.

On that first M-A stacked card in Oct 1978 Backlund faced former WWWF champ Ivan Koloff and won after an atomic drop and pin.

Backlund would find time to team with Dino Bravo to take on AWA Tag champs Patterson and Ray Stevens in a spirited bout in Nov 1978. The two would team up again in an Oshawa bout in July 1979 vs Greg Valentine and Ken Patera.

In what appeared to be a coup for Tunney, a bout was signed for Backlund to face AWA champ Bockwinkel in a Title vs Title bout. There wouldn't be many of those type in the wrestling world at all through the many eras of multi fed champs. As hard as it to believe now this bout actually wasn't the main of the night. The two new stars of Toronto Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair battled it out in the main in another of their bouts over the U.S. Title. The other big bout had Canadian Champ Dino Bravo against Greg Valentine to make this card one of the biggest of the era.

The match had a bit of everything, both wrestlers showing their talents and using their favorite holds, Backlund with the Atomic Spinebreaker and Bockwinkel with the sleeper and a figure four attempt. Backlund, as in previous bouts would show his strength when Bockwinkel clamped on a short arm-scissors on the mat. Backlund would stand up and hoist Bockwinkel with him. Both would end up on the floor brawling and would be counted out after 39 minutes.

Backlund won a hard fought battle against Ladd on June 3 in another semi with a pin after 24 minutes. Dino Bravo won the Canadian Title from Greg Valentine in the main event of the night.

In what can be looked at now as a historic matchup, Backlund would defend against Ric Flair on July 15 1979. Flair was by now a very popular heel here and was tearing up the area but fell to Backlund when he was counted out. Backlund would show off his great conditioning yet again outdoing Flair in several showdowns and at one point doing his impressive bridge pushing out of a pin attempt with Flair on top of him. Backlund got the win by count-out after a fast paced 23 minute bout. At the time it was said that a return bout was to be expected but it never happened. It was on this trip North that Backlund would stay on for the Monday show in Oshawa to team with Bravo.
vs Valentine 1982

In August Canadian Champ Dino Bravo was scheduled to meet Ken Patera in a main event. Bravo no-showed and Tunney was able to get Backlund to fill in - in a title bout no less. Backlund won by dq at 24:14 of the bout

Backlund was scheduled for the Oct 15 1979 card to face Patterson was but the Bockwinkel-Dewey Robertson bout went on instead. It was said the Backlund bout was cancelled due to curfew but neither he nor Patterson were present at MLG.

The bout was re-scheduled for a month later but Patterson was replaced by Baron Von Raschke and the match ended in a double count-out.

Another bout vs Raschke and then Backlund finally met Patterson which ended with Backlund being counted out of the ring at 16:26. The re-match 2 weeks later saw Backlund get the pin over Patterson

Backlund would return to face The Destroyer on Jan 13 1980 in an action packed bout that was again the semi of the night. The Destroyer (Beyer) had returned to Toronto after an extended absence (he was here as Beyer in the '60's) and proved to be a great opponent for the young champ. Backlund would pull out all the stops using his abdominal stretch to almost earn the win and then deliver a brutal piledriver to the masked man. The bout ended in a double count-out with both brawling on the floor but Backlund was the clear winner and the fans got their moneys worth with this one. After the bout Backlund was mobbed when he stepped up into the stands by the ramp and while his drawing power in Toronto could still be argued, his popularity here can not.

After an extended absence Backlund would face Valentine in Jan 1982 in what was billed as a 'return' bout after the title was held up at MSG in New York. That bout actually took place back in October 1981 and the two had met since then (not here obviously) and they played it up as a grudge bout. The two had a great battle going toe to toe alternating between a slugfest and a scientific clinic, exchanging those slow suplexes that had them up in air for what seemed like an eternity. Valentine was a very well matched opponent for Backlund and while Valentine was always a hated heel here, he was well respected as a great wrestler. Their previous bout here in June 1979 was also a classic.

In the Aug 8 1982 bout vs Snuka, the Superfly kept throwing Backlund out of the ring and eventually Backlund stayed there being counted out. Their next matchup on Aug 22 was set to be in a steel cage. After a hard fought battle Snuka would climb to the top and launch his 'Superfly' only to miss and 'knock himself out' enabling Backlund to get out the door to earn the win.

Almost 11,000 came out to see Backlund face Bob Orton Jr. Backlund won after 23 minutes.

Next up was Playboy Buddy Rose for 2 consecutive MLG cards. Rose would make quite an entrance accompanied to the ring by a couple of pretty ladies but it wouldn't help him vs the champ. He was awarded the win in the first bout via dq but lost the rematch in a Texas Death match when Backlund used his chicken-wing move and Rose was declared unable to continue.

That would be the end of the WWF Title during the NWA days. Hulk Hogan would make his first appearance in Aug 1984.

Photos by Roger Baker, MLW as noted


Saturday, April 7, 2018

A Look at Ric Flair in Toronto

In Pro Wrestling in the late 70's - early 80's era, Ric Flair was ' the man '. He walked the walk, talked the talk, and could wrestle with the best of them. Although still wrestling as a heel when he debuted in the area, the ' Nature Boy ' was a favorite of the fans right from the start. His battles in Toronto with Ricky Steamboat, Greg Valentine and world champ Harley Race would earn him the fans respect and admiration, and he would continue to be a force in the area during his NWA World Title reigns.
Tying up Piper 1980

At the onset of the Tunney / Crocketts partnership, the U.S. Heavyweight Title as recognized in the hotbed of Mid-Atlantic wrestling would figure prominently in Toronto. The battles over the title would spill over to the Great White North and entertain fans throughout the area. Flair would play a major role in the U.S. Title picture in the years preceding his run with the NWA Title. In addition to facing Steamboat and Valentine, long time foes Jimmy Snuka and Roddy Piper would also challenge Flair over the title.

Flair was also a fixture on the local TV. In Nov 1978 saw U.S. champ Flair beating Ernie Dugas and Steve King in a handicap match making him look like a tough champion to beat. The on-going feud with Steamboat would finally catch up to the ‘Nature Boy’ right here in Toronto in December when Steamboat beat Flair for the belt in front of a very appreciative crowd. Toronto had been picked again as the site of an historic title change. Their matches were taking over the spotlight usually reserved for the world titles.

The feud between Flair and Steamboat is still regarded as one of the best match-ups in the modern era, the two young stars would enthrall spectators with their highly emotional and physical bouts. The sparks would fly again in Jan 1979 when Flair interfered in the Steamboat/Valentine bout after failing to unseat Canadian champ Dino Bravo in an earlier bout.

This would set up a tag battle with Steamboat teaming with Bravo vs Flair and Valentine on the following card. In the return single bout Steamboat would get the better of Flair pinning the Nature Boy in a defense of the title. Flair would regain the belt in Greensboro in April 79 and return to defend again vs Steamboat pinning the challenger on the May 13 show.

Flair would also be seen on TV in singles as well as tag matches with Valentine vs Leo Burke & John Bonello, Burke & Frank Marconi, and Burke with Silent Brian Macnee. On the May 26 TV show Flair would make Macnee submit to his trademark figure four. Macnee is famous around here for being one of the few deaf wrestlers ever to compete.
Bringing some help 1980
(Jack Tunney on right)

Flair, in an effort to rid himself of his foe would end up offering a bounty to anyone who could put Steamboat out of action. Big John Studd would take up the challenge here in Toronto but was no match for Steamboat losing by pin on the June 3 show.

Flair would then return to challenge Dino Bravo for his Canadian Heavyweight Title but would get disqualified at the 19 minute mark. The next card would again see Flair at the top this time challenging WWWF Champion Bob Backlund in a rare match-up. In a wild bout the Nature Boy would be counted out of the ring after 23 minutes but had established himself as one of the best and most popular wrestlers ever to appear in the Toronto area.

Late 1979 saw Flair, now receiving the fans cheers, return to challenge U.S. champ Jimmy Snuka including a 28 minute match in November. Snuka, like Flair was becoming one of the main stars of the day and would also enjoy fan support for his wrestling ability and high-flying style.

The start of 1980 would see Flair and Canadian Champ Dewey Robertson team up as a result of their mutual hatred for Jimmy Snuka and Ray Stevens and their manager Gene Anderson. In late 1979 in a battle of the then U.S. (Snuka) and Canadian Champ (Robertson), Ray Stevens had interfered on behalf of Snuka giving Robertson the DQ win.

On the last card of '79, Snuka and Stevens got the better of Flair and Robertson setting up a return for the first card of 1980. Flair and Robertson would reign supreme and solidify Flair's change to wrestling as a fan favorite.
Another rough night at MLG 1980

The two would also team for a couple of TV Tag bouts defeating The Destroyer (Beyer) and Bill White as well as The Destroyer with Brute Bernard. Flair would also team on TV with Blackjack Mulligan defeating Frankie Laine and Doug Somers.

Another great feud that would see it's share of matches in the area was the battle between Flair and his former partner and now arch enemy Greg Valentine. July saw an exciting match with Flair retaining his U.S. belt (regained from Snuka in Greensboro Apr 1980). Valentine had tried to suplex him in from the apron but Flair shifted his weight to get the pin. Valentine spent a lot of his time repeatedly beating on Flair's broken nose leaving Flair covered in blood..

After the match, both competitors bloody and exhausted continued to fight down the ramp while other wrestlers tried to break them up. Flair would then trounce his former partner in a Texas Death Match and go once more in a tag match in September before moving on to yet another feud.

Hossein The Arab /Iron Sheik became the next target after having the seeds planted earlier in the year when Greg Valentine had turned on the Nature Boy during a Mid Atlantic area match with the Iranian and Jimmy Snuka (w/mgr Gene Anderson). Flair had been beaten bloody and suffered a legit broken nose when Valentine hit him with Anderson's cane.

The Great Hossein The Arab- as he was known here - was into his second reign with the Canadian Title. This run, much like his previous with the title would be remembered for constant manager interference and cheating his way to victory. Hossein actually held the M-A title at the same time but lost it to Ricky Steamboat the night before the card.

On November 2nd 1980 the two would go after each other before the bell was rung and at one point the hated Arab had Flair in his dreaded camel-clutch hold. Flair fought back and managed to break the hold and went on the offense. The future World Champ would batter Hossein with his trademark chops and elbow smashes and looked to be on the verge of winning the title as the match wore on.

He would earn revenge but not the title after the Arab retreated to the safety of the dressing room and was counted out. Hossein would only manage one more defense before losing the belt back to Angelo Mosca at the end of the year.

Late June 1981 saw the highly touted matchup between then U.S. Champ Piper and challenger Flair. Hyped as Piper-Flair III (due to two previous match-ups at MLG) Tony Parisi was designated as the special referee to ensure a finish to the feud. However it was not to be as Piper was disqualified for refusing to obey the rules. In Oshawa on the 30th, Flair would team up with Parisi against Piper and Ray Stevens and the two teams would meet again on the July 12th MLG card.

Piper would prove to be one of the better challengers for Flair over his career, able to match up both in the ring and by way of the mic. Flair would also find time to team with local legend Angelo Mosca in bouts throughout the area and on TV. The future world champ would also tag with up-and-comer Jay Youngblood who was quickly becoming a fan favorite at MLG and on the secondary circuit.

A dream team of sorts evolved when Flair teamed up with Andre The Giant in his on-going feud with Piper. Roddy would enlist the aid of Crippler Stevens as his partner in what would be a losing effort. Piper would survive to face Andre in a singles match in August.

In September Flair beats Dusty Rhodes to win the NWA World Title in Kansas City, beginning his first of many runs with the title. The Toronto favorite would make a triumphant return for the 50th Anniversary Show in November.
Wrapping up Hossein 1980

Ric Flair would be making his first area defense of his newly won NWA World Title against former champ Harley Race. In promo's leading up to the bout, the rugged Race would boast of his experience and superiority to the young "Nature Boy" and promise to regain the belt he had worn on six previous occasions. Harley would also remind fans of his historic Toronto victory over Terry Funk in 1977 when he won the NWA title belt for the second time after beating Funk with an Indian deathlock at the beloved MLG.

The match itself would not disappoint, with 16,000 fans seeing the two ring warriors matching each other hold for hold with Race coming close to pinning Flair on several occasions. Race would use his falling head butt to precision causing Flair to bleed profusely and would punish the champ with his calculated knee drops and variety of suplex's. The young Champ would not be denied however and mount a comeback with his own arsenal of moves including his trademark figure four leg lock. Flair would wear down the former champ and get the pinfall victory after a spirited 24 minute match.

The April 25 1982 card would bring a return of the November 1981 classic with Flair again defending his NWA crown against former champ Harley Race. In the previous bout, Harley had pinned Flair and was awarded the prestigious belt before a second referee came out to explain Flair's foot had been on the ropes and reversing the decision.

Race was by this point a six time former champ and was a credible threat to Flairs reign but the wild match ended in a double disqualification. It was another tough battle with action around the ring and on the ramp. Both grapplers would be disqualified after about 20 minutes for ignoring the referee. This was the third of their six bouts here and is noteworthy for being a double world title night. AWA champ Nick Bockwinkel would lose via dq to challenger Angelo Mosca in a memorable night at MLG.

June would see Flair return to face another former champ in veteran Jack Brisco. The magazines at the time were pushing Brisco as gearing up for another run at the NWA title but in reality the former champ had no such aspirations. He did make a formidable challenger however and would defeat Roddy Piper for the MId-Atlantic Title soon thereafter.

Flair would continue to defend across North America almost daily before returning in October to face yet another former NWA champ in Dory Funk Jr. Funk had taken on an increased role in the Carolinas and would prove to be another strong challenger to Flair. The match would go over 21 minutes before Flair made the pin and had his hand raised in another successful title defense.

A big build-up to the Feb 1983 card which was to feature Flair defending against Roddy Piper was all for nought as Piper didn't show (in his book says he missed a flight from Puerto Rico) and was replaced by Dory Jr's younger brother Terry Funk. After another pin of a former champ, Flair would meet Piper on two successive cards in late March, early April. Veteran Sandy Scott would be the special ref in the latter match which Flair won by dq.

After a local defense against Valentine, Flair would lose the title back to Race in June (in St Louis), setting up a return for the huge Night Of Champions card in July which saw the Nature Boy lose by dq and fail in his bid to re-capture the belt.

The return bout 2 weeks later on Night Of The Champions II would see the same outcome but Flair would catch up with Race at the inaugural Starcade in Greensboro in November, regaining the belt to start his second reign as NWA World Champion.

Flair would return to the area in Feb 1984 to face Race for a final time at MLG again winning decisively to the delight of the fans. A last defense in May 1984 against Dick Slater would mark the end of an era in Toronto with the WWF taking over a short time later.
vs Jack Brisco 1982

Post 84 Flair would return as part of the Mosca promoted NWA Moscamania. In 1991 he faced Jim Powers in Ottawa in his debut for the WWF and returned to MLG defeating old nemesis Roddy Piper using the feet on the ropes trick.

From Wrestling Exchange 'Toronto Connection - First M-A Card 1978 by Marty Slobin'

The final match of the evening was a confrontation between Ric Flair and the sensational Ricky Steamboat. Both young wrestlers combined showmanship, brawling and scientific wrestling. In matches before capacity crowds in North Carolina and Virginia. the pair had aroused the passions of the fans with ultra-violence and intricate wrestling holds. Every battle in their war had been a classic, and this Toronto main event was to be no exception. 

Flair entered the ring wearing a sequined turquoise robe that was accentuated by his strutting across the runway antagonizing every fan as he completed his triumphant march to the ring. As Steamboat entered the ring, be was attacked by Flair. A few deadly chops to the forehead from Steamboat caused Flair to retreat to his comer. As the bell rang, both men jumped into mid-ring to begin the match. A series of Steamboat arm drags caused Flair to fall all over the ring. Flair countered with punches and eye gouges. Frustrated by his attempts to end the match early. Flair launched a new attack based on punches, elbow drops, and kneelifts to the stomach. Flair seized the temporarily weakened Steamboat in a vertical suplex, and tried for a pin. Steamboat threw him off, and began a counter-attack based on dropkicks, body slams, martial arts hand thrusts and chops to the throat.

After several two count pins by both men, the tide began to turn. Ric Flair could not break Steamboat's version of the figure-four leglock but he refused to submit to the hold. Slowly and painfully, he crawled into the ropes. Upon breaking the hold, Steamboat stepped back, then launched a series of body slams, suplexes, flying mares, and punches. Steamboat satisfied his cheering, stomping, whistling fans by beating Flair from one end of the ring to the other. In the midst of a series of body slams, Flair grabbed Steamboat in a cradle for the count of two. Steamboat reversed the cradle, applying an inside cradle that Flair broke by pulling hair.

Flair then threw Steamboat into the ropes and caught him in a high back body drop. When Flair tried the moved a second time, Steamboat caught him with a sunset flip cradle. When Flair broke the hold, each wrestler began to use kicks, elbow drops, chops, and punches, in a last ditch effort to destroy the other. Finally, Steamboat grabbed Flair in a sleeper hold which Flair broke by eye gouging. Steamboat went wild, using chops, kicks, and another flying sleeper hold to subdue Flair. The nearly unconscious Flair went for the ropes again. Steamboat responded by turning the sleeper into a stranglehold. When referee Tommy Young tried to break up the hold, he was thrown to the mat. The referee thus disqualified the enraged Steamboat. Bloody and nearly unconscious, Flair had won. The fans had witnessed a match that would never be forgotten.