Sunday, June 17, 2018

The RAMP !

It's one of the most memorable parts of Maple Leaf Wrestling no matter when you attended shows at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Ramp. An elevated walkway to the ring that was originally put in to protect the heels, specifically Nanjo Singh, from the wrath of the fans.

First ramp circa 1950
In 1948 when it was first used, the weekly cards were often brought to rioting by the heels of the day. Whipper Watson was in his prime and the star of the show. That made any of his opponents public enemy #1. In particular the dreaded Nanjo Singh.

Nanjo and Whip had been feuding for years by 1948. Nanjo may have been the inspiration for The Sheik years later. A lot of biting, eye gouging, and foreign objects. It wasn't all an act either. The Sheik was Ed Farhat, but apparently Nanjo was still Nanjo out of the ring. Frank Tunney later noted that the only way he could get Singh to calm down was to threaten to call the cops. That's the only thing that scared him. He later went to prison (1958) for the murder of his wife in Philadelphia.

Whenever the fans got so enraged they tried to attack Nanjo he would escape under the ring. He would stay there until they could clear a track to the dressing rooms, usually with police and other wrestlers to form a protective line from the fans. The fans were used to this escape by then. 'Wild' Bill Longson had used it on many occasions in the early 1940's, also used when battling the Whip. The fans loved Watson feverishly.

Even with the escape under the ring he would still have to fight his way to the hallway that led to the dressing rooms with fans attacking physically as well as throwing drinks, chairs, and anything else they could find. They would learn new tricks too including lighting papers on fire and throwing them under the ring to ‘smoke him (Singh) out – like a porcupine.'

By 1948 Tunney had tried different measures to keep Nanjo both in the ring - and away from fans. The wire fence match, an early precursor to the cage match was used to varying degrees of success.

King of the ramp - Whipper 1955
In May 1948 during one of those bouts Singh was battering Watson into the ring post when a female fan jumped up and attacked Singh over the fence. The police rushed in to restrain her and Singh tossed Watson high and up out of the ring to crash down on the floor. Referee Cliff Worthy counted Whipper out while Nanjo strutted and taunted the fans from the ring.

As they were carrying Whipper out on a stretcher Nanjo pointed and screamed 'That's your champion.' The fans were enraged again. There were 11,000 in attendance and about 1,600 at ringside. Joe Perlove remarked in the Star the next day that while there were 1,600 at ringside '3000 tried to get at him.' As the police and other wrestlers tried to shield him he somehow made safely it to the back.

Anytime the fans got out of hand in those days Tunney would get flak from the Ontario Athletic Commission. That may have led to his decision to create a safer passage for Nanjo next time the two met. Right from the start it was called the 'ramp.' An 'elevated ramp from rinkside gate to ring apron which will be erected for the occasion. Nanjo will need it more than any of the others and it is questionable if even that will help him escape the wrath of the customers.'

That first bout with the ramp in place went the same way. Whipper had dropkicked Singh off the apron to the floor where he was counted out. The fans gathered around him and Nanjo awoke in a hurry and jumped back in the ring to attack both Whipper and his manager Phil Lawson. Whipper took the upper hand while the fans crowded around the ring. Then Nanjo went through the ropes and 'stepped out on that blankety-blank ramp and walked over the heads of the frothing populace.'

Kiniski gets air on Yukon Eric 1957
Perlove opined that Tunney should have cared more about the fans that were unable to get their frustrations satisfied due to the easy exit by Singh on the ramp. Tunney was said to be quiet about the outcome until notified that Nanjo had split his head for 11 stitches upon whence he elicited a wide grin.

At any rate it was a success, It had protected Singh from the fans and as time went on there were other advantages to having the ramp there. Wrestlers could use the structure as part of the story-line (see slams, suplex's, etc) and more importantly it created an entrance that the whole arena could see, no matter where you were seated in the vast MLG.

It was built out of wood, basically a solid structure with a few steps built on at the front to enable the wrestlers to step up and walk to the ring where the end of the ramp met the height of the canvas. It was a solid piece. They don't make stuff like that anymore. It was kept in the basement of Maple Leaf Gardens where they kept the ring until Wrestling nights. While the ring was set up downstairs to enable training the ramp appears to have been stacked in a corner. A bunch of pieces put together by the rink staff and only put together on Thursday nights back then.

Was it the same ramp we saw in the 1970's and early 1980's? Basically, but it did change and evolve a bit over time. The early days saw the steps very close to the hall. So the wrestler came out and was already up the stairs before most of the fans saw them. By the mid to late 1970's the ramp was a bit further out from the hall, so shorter. The wrestler would take a few steps out behind the curtain before hitting the stairs. The actual ramp shrunk fairly substantially over the years but so did the ring.

Carlos Rocha makes his entrance 1972
While originally built as a short term solution to an age old problem it ended up being a mainstay of the weekly cards and would stay in place right through to when the original Gardens closed for all intents and purposes in 1999.

In my era there was a lot of action on the ramp. It made for a lot of memorable moments. Likewise in the 1950's and later. The fan favorites could soak in the cheers on their way out while the heels could taunt the crowd and turn up the jeers while they lingered on the ramp. While it served as an additional area to wrestle and brawl it also worked as an easier way to go over the ropes without hitting the floor an additional 4 feet below.

Whipper Watson slammed Lou Thesz on the ramp in 1956 and beat the count back to the ring to claim the NWA title. Whipper used the ramp to his advantage many times since he had first walked it in 1948.

Others would use it as an additional tool to the utmost effect. In the 1960's Bulldog Brower, (just barely!) unable to  lift the actual ramp would oftentimes just pull up the stairs and heave them around. In a 1962 bout against NWA champ Buddy Rogers he pinned the champ with his feet up on the ropes, claimed the championship belt, and was celebrating with his new title on the ramp before the result was overturned.

I asked Roger Baker, who spent a lot of time on or near the ramp in his days as a ringside photographer about his memory of the ramp. He related a incident with the always crazy Brower.

'This wrestling photographer was very familiar with the Gardens ramp, since I had on many occasions climbed the steps leading to the ramp. Standing on the ramp offered me opportunity to get many dramatic photos of the wrestlers both on the ramp, as well as in the ring.

My favorite entrance to the ring side floor was after climbing the steps to the ramp, was to take a calculated jump down to the concrete floor with my cameras, and then I was able to roam the ring side, always looking for that great wrestling shot.
moments before attacking Roger! 

However my luck ran out one night many years ago. One of wrestling's greatest villains Dick The Bull Dog Brower  was wrestling on this night, his opponent had managed to inflict a head cut on Brower who was in a very vile mood.  I sensed an opportunity to get a close up blood shot of Brower on the ramp, 

I climbed the steps to get on the ramp, and found myself just a few feet from this very violent man, I took my picture and then he came rushing at me, without hesitation I leaped off the ramp, at this moment burdened down with a bulky twin lens camera, also a 135mm camera, and a strobe flash with a large power pack.

I hit the concrete floor off balance with my equipment all over me, it was a very nasty and painful fall that I took. It took me a minute or two to get back on my feet. Thankfully Brower went back to the ring. I landed on the floor which was a corridor between the dressing rooms on the south side, and the north side of the gardens, while I struggled to get to my feet a wrestler that I'd done a prior story on was standing feet from were I fell and he had a grin on his face, that bugged me, but It's all part of the game.'

This is gonna hurt! Race vs Flair 1981
Near title changes and actual title change celebrations while starting in the ring would inevitably end up on the ramp with the belts held high and the center of the spotlight.

In the 1970's The Sheik would own the ramp. He would race out and attack his opponent, often before they had a chance to get in the ring. Some bouts took place entirely outside the ring in those days.

In 1980 Ray Stevens was attacked by a fan as he was leaving the ring following a tag bout with he and Jimmy Snuka against Flair and Dewey Robertson. After the fan had climbed up on the ramp Stevens kicked and knocked him off  leaving him unconscious on the floor. Once Stevens and Snuka had departed they put the fan back up on the ramp where he was put on a stretcher and examined by Gardens trainers.

In the late 1970's early 1980's Ric Flair was a master at using the ramp to his advantage. With his extravagant robes for maximum visual effect he would soak in the crowd and turn to face the fans above the ramp. During bouts he would escape to the relative safety of it, and from his first appearances he would take the fight to the ramp.

In Flair and Harley Race's brawls over the NWA Title they would battle back and forth exchanging suplex'es and piledrivers on the hard wooden structure. Fans all over the arena were able to see unobstructed by the ropes and was much better than the two fighting outside the ring on the far side to where you were seated. Race would also drop his falling head butt out on the ramp with Flair moving aside just in time. Ref Terry Yorkston, not known for his quick movement would get out there with them and start counting. It seemed he would hit 30 - 40 before they came back to the ring.
This is gonna hurt too! Race vs Flair 1982

At ringside in that era  you were able to get up close and personal at certain times. The ushers were fairly vigilant but it depended on who was working. Oftentimes they were as into it as the fans so you were able to crowd the ramp as the action spilled out. Other times they kept you in the seats which were about 7-8 feet away from the ramp, separated by a metal rail. I once dabbed a Program in a bit of Ivan Koloff's blood. See. Its real! It also helped for photographs without having the ring ropes in your way.

When Jack Tunney switched to using WWF wrestlers exclusively in 1984 Hulk Hogan was a big hit on the ramp. It was made for him at that time with the cupped ear thing he did. When he was here in 1981 vs Andre The Giant he used the ramp to give a good arm flip off to the fans. Hated heel back then.

In later years far removed from MLG and the NWA days in Toronto, many wrestlers including Flair and Hogan, when asked about wrestling in Toronto inevitably say - that Ramp! Nowadays nearly every wrestling (and other sports, concerts etc) show has a ramp of some kind somewhere.

And the 2$ question is what happened to it after the Gardens became a Loblaws? Did it actually become the dock at Jack Tunney's lakefront home East of Toronto. Was it used to build a shed at Eddie Tunney's house? Did it become firewood? Or was it just tossed out in the many dumpsters of garbage removed from the site. If you know please share it !

Photos
1950 shot out of the MLG book 1981
Burns photos
Rocha and Brower are Roger Baker pics - and Thanks to Roger
Flair Race - MLW

For more on the Nanjo-Whip feud and Flair-Race battles do a search at the right