Thursday, September 27, 2018

Canada's most notorious criminal gets in the ring: 1935: Gary Will's TWH

                    "Much of what Ryan said and did will be forgotten, and it cannot be too soon." 
Toronto Daily Star editorial, January 11, 1924

What Norman "Red" Ryan said and did are, indeed, now being forgotten. But for many years after the Star's editorial, Ryan was perhaps the best-known criminal in Canada. And his notoriety -- ironically, aided greatly by the Star -- only grew through the 1920s and 1930s.

Ryan became well-known as a bank robber whose exploits were romanticised, in a Bonnie & Clyde kind of way, by the newspapers of the day (a young Ernest Hemingway even wrote a story about him). We won't review Ryan's criminal career here—Peter McSherry's 1999 book The Big Red Fox goes into such details and is probably available from most public libraries in Canada—but after serving 11 years of a life sentence, Ryan was paroled from Kingston Penitentiary in July 1935 with the support of the prison chaplain and even Prime Minister Richard B. Bennett, among many others.

He was considered to be the model of a reformed prisoner. Shortly after his release, he wrote a series of stories for the Toronto Daily Star and when news got out that letters his wife had written to him had been confiscated by prison staff and sat in the warden's cupboard for 14 years—while Ryan was allowed to believe that she had died—he even became a symbol for prison reform. A car dealership in Toronto hired him as a salesman and invited people to buy a vehicle from the famous Red Ryan.

Just a few weeks before he'd been paroled, Ryan was allowed out of prison to attend his sister's funeral in Toronto -- something that was almost never done in that era. According to McSherry, Toronto wrestling promoter Jack Corcoran met with Ryan after the funeral:

Afterwards, Jack "Corky" Corcoran, a prominent Toronto wrestling promoter, who [penitentiary chaplain] Father Kingsley had involved on Ryan's behalf, came by in his new 1935 Chrysler sedan and took Ryan, [Ryan's brother] Russ, and the guard on a drive about a much-changed city.

Two weeks after he was freed, Ryan was spotted attending Corcoran's wrestling show at Maple Leaf Gardens.

There's a new wrestling fan in Toronto and he says it won't be his fault if he ever misses a show. The newcomer to the ranks of the mat addicts is Norman "Red" Ryan and he admits that he was positively amazed when he saw the mastodons of sport turn on the heat at Maple Leaf Gardens last Thursday. ... The "rasslin" bug must have bitten Ryan for the next night he motored over to Hamilton to see Sammy Sobel's show and he was the first in to Jack Corcoran for tickets for the Meyers-Cantonwine brawl of tomorrow night. — Lou Marsh, sports editor, Toronto Daily Star, August 14, 1935

Not only did Corcoran bring Ryan to the shows, he hired him as night manager for his Nealon House hotel on King Street East. Ryan greeted guests and booked entertainment, along with running errands to Maple Leaf Gardens and other places. Writes McSherry:

Ryan's employment with Corcoran also involved him in the activities of the Queensbury Athletic Club, for he was, after all, a huge celebrity in Toronto and his currency could be exploited in more than one way. On one occasion, Red Ryan was introduced into the ring at a Maple Leaf Gardens wrestling card while a multi-coloured spotlight bathed him in light.

Corcoran also let the 40-year-old Ryan work out with Freddy Meyers two days before Meyers' main event match against Howard Cantonwine (Ryan is the one facing the camera in the photo at top).

Ryan weighs 210 pounds and Meyers tried to sell him the idea that he should turn to wrestling as a profession. "Red" didn't hesitate a second. He said, "Nay, nay" in the most emphatic tones he could muster.— Lou Marsh, sports editor, Toronto Daily Star, August 14, 1935

As events would unfold, both Marsh and Ryan would be dead within 10 months of the date that story was written. Marsh died unexpectedly in March 1936. Ryan was one of many who attended the funeral -- as was Corcoran, Marsh's good friend.

According to McSherry, Ryan -- who still worked at the Nealon House -- attended a Corcoran wrestling show in Oshawa on May 21 and was planning on moving out west. Three days later, and just 10 months after his release from the penitentiary, Ryan was shot to death by police as he and an accomplice tried to rob a liquor store in Sarnia.


Before he was killed, Ryan cooly shot and killed 33-year-old Constable John Lewis, the first policeman to arrive on the scene. Following Ryan's death, there were rumours that he had recently committed other robberies and two murders. It was one of the biggest news stories of the year and led to a severe tightening of the parole system in Canada's prisons.

Corcoran and John Tunney attended Ryan's funeral at Mount Hope Cemetery.

-by Gary Will


Everett Marshall vs King Kong Cox, 1940: A Real Contest?: Gary Will's TWH

In an interview somewhere, Lou Thesz once said that Toronto promoter Frank Tunney got along well with the newspapers in town because he would tell the reporters when a match was going to be a real contest. Thesz said a lot of things like that, and the truth is that in the 43 years Tunney promoted there were never any matches that appeared to be contests and none that was reported as a shoot ... with one exception.

 The last show of 1940 featured a main event between two former world champions. Everett Marshall had defeated Ali Baba for a claim to the world title in 1936, and was also recognized as champion by the NWA in 1938. In both cases, he dropped his title to Thesz. King Kong Cox had been a two-time world champion in Toronto in 1938.

The two faced each other at Maple Leaf Gardens on December 5, 1940 in front of 3,000 people. Before the main event, there had been a five-minute riot as some fans tried to get at George K.O. Koverly who had been unkind to Don Evans in the semi-final. Koverly was reported to have cuts all around his face and eyes, and even had a cigarette burn from a fan. Hamilton promoter Sammy Sobel was also said to have been injured in the melee.

The Marshall-Cox match went on for almost two hours before Tunney went into the ring around midnight to bring it to a halt. It had been a rough battle, with Cox doing a lot of biting and committing other fouls. The Globe said that "the usually unruffled Marshall was vowing vengeance when it was all over." Referee Al "Bunny" Dunlop had his shirt ripped up during the match.

Joe Perlove of the Star wrote that the bout proved that Cox, "with all his burlesquing and rough-housing, can wrestle with the best of them. For Marshall is one of the best."

The report that the bout was a shoot came a few days later from Ralph Allen's "Mostly Incidental" column in the Globe & Mail. It was mostly meant to be a humorous piece (most of it wasn't as funny as the author thought, so this is just an excerpt), but here's what he wrote about the match:

Exposes are not in this bureau's line, but this bureau, nevertheless, wishes to direct the attention of all right-thinking sportsmen to one of the most unsavory episodes that ever blackened the good name of Canadian sport. I will come to the point at once. Last Thursday night a wrestling match was contested on the level.

This match was not contested in Buffalo or California or Jersey City, New Jersey or any of those other distant spheres where the high traditions of wrestling are sometimes opposed by the baleful influences of commerce. This match was contested right here in Toronto, under the eye of a trusted Commission and in the full view of 3,000 trusting fans. The match was between King Kong Cox and Everett Marshall and -- I repeat -- it was strictly and shamelessly on the level.

It is a well-known fact that, even including a wrestling match that is not on the level, there is no more tedious and subversive spectacle in the whole program of sport than a match that is on the level. Consequently, all promoters who have the interests of the patron at heart take the most extreme precautions lest any such matches creep into the schedule to stupefy the clients, wreck future gate receipts and destroy the orderly sequence in which champions are made and then unmade.

The phrase "on the level" as it is used here does not apply to matters of honor and the law. A wrestling match that is not on the level is neither dishonorable not illegal. Indeed, the Ontario Athletic Commission, in its wisdom, refuses bluntly to recognize the other kind. The Ontario Athletic Commission calls all wrestling matches "exhibitions"; it doesn't care who wins, or how, or at whose behest.

It's unlikely that it was actually a shoot. Maybe there was some lack of cooperation, but it sounds like a regular -- if unusually long -- match from the reports by Perlove and Hal Walker at the Globe. Maybe the wrestlers didn't want to be upstaged by the semi-final. One of the preliminaries only went 35 seconds, so a long main event may have been the plan all along .

On the other hand, Marshall never wrestled in Toronto again.

-by Gary Will


Stanley Stasiak: Toronto's wrestling fatality, 1931

Stanley Stasiak was probably the wrestler who was most responsible for the success of Ivan Mickaillof's weekly shows in 1929 -- the shows that established Toronto as a pro wrestling town. He's also the only wrestler to have been killed as a result of a wrestling match in Toronto.

Mickailoff had already promoted a dozen cards at Arena Gardens before Stasiak arrived in the summer, but the popularity of pro wrestling hit new heights once Stasiak was on the scene to incite the fans' hatred.

Mickailoff and Stasiak -- both immigrants to North America from Eastern Europe -- were good friends with a long history. According to newspaper accounts, Stasiak was working at a car plant in Flint, Mich. when he accepted the challenge of a carnival wrestler and easily defeated his opponent. The circus boss hired him, and he began performing in the athletic shows. It was during those performances that he met Mickailoff. According to historian Mark Hewitt, after Stasiak left the carnivals, his first opponent was Mickailoff in a match in Waterloo, Maine.

Stasiak was an instant sensation in Toronto. The Star called him "the roughest wrestler yet to appear" locally. His position as the ultimate heel was sealed in his second match, when he reportedly broke the leg of Canadian champion Jack Taylor. The popular Taylor had been the name Mickailoff had depended on to build an audience for his shows. Taylor returned four months later, but was never again pushed as a top star. His rematch with Stasiak -- which Stasiak won -- was his last appearance in a main event in Toronto.

Stasiak's first Toronto main event was on August 15, 1929 and drew a reported 6,000 fans to Arena Gardens to see him take on popular Italian star Renato Gardini. Stasiak challenged Gus Sonnenberg for the world title in October 1930, a show that the Star reported had "the greatest advance sale and demand for seats in the history of wrestling in Toronto." It set a Toronto attendance record with 9,300 paid.

Some of his other well-known opponents in Toronto included Stanislaus and Wladek Zbyszko, Strangler Lewis and Jim Browning. He defeated Browning in his first appearance for promoter Jack Corcoran, wrestling in the main event of a show at Massey Hall in March 1931. That ended up being his only Toronto booking with Corcoran.

In the summer of 1931, Star sports editor Bill Hewitt wrote that "Stasiak has often been credited as the man who made the game popular here. ... Stasiak has won a host of friends in Toronto, for outside of the ring he is one of the best-liked men in sport."

 A couple of months later, on Thursday, September 3, 1931, Stasiak wrestled for Mickailoff against former world champion Ed Don George. In its preview of the match, the Star described Stasiak as "the greatest showman in the game" and labelled the bout a "grudge fight" -- Stasiak was said to have been hospitalized in January after a match with George in Buffalo.

The Toronto show drew 7,500 fans to the Arena Gardens. The Globe described the match as "a gruelling struggle" and "a rough-and-tumble affair" which saw George win in straight falls. He took the first in 41:28 after a number of flying tackles and the second in just 3:10. What wasn't apparent to the audience was that Stasiak had suffered a broken arm during the bout, but it wasn't considered to be anything serious at the time. "The biggest crowd of the season applauded George till their hands were sore and then went home saying what they thought about Stasiak," reported the Star.

Leaving Toronto, Stasiak headed for Montreal, but he never got that far. His arm had become infected and blood poisoning had set in. He was hospitalized in Belleville on Monday, September 7 with the Globe reporting that his arm was "in a dangerous condition." He underwent surgery on Wednesday with another round on Thursday by a specialist brought in by Mickailoff, but it didn't stop his condition from getting worse. The blood poisoning spread from Stasiak's arm to his shoulder and down his right side. On Friday, the Star reported that Stasiak was "seriously ill." The next day, it said his wife was by his side in Belleville.

Stasiak never left Belleville and died there on Sunday, September 13 at age 36. His body was taken to his home in Cambridge, Mass. Mickailoff and George attended the funeral, which was preceded by a mass at St. Adelbert's church in the Hyde Park section of Boston.

In its obituary, the Star wrote:

No more will the Arena rafters ring with the boos and hisses of worked up wrestling fans, as that arch-villain of the mat Stanley Stasiak the "stormy Pole" rages around the ring. No more will be heard the roar of hoarse voices imploring the giant Pole's opponent to "tear him to pieces" and no more will be heard the sighs of disappointment from the crowds who flocked to see him beaten for the beloved villain is no more.

Gone forever is the famous Stasiak strut of victory that the wrestling fans so loved to see as with chest extended and head thrown back the giant wrestler stamped around the ring beating his chest with clenched hands and making faces at the highly enraged fans as they cried out their disappointment.

Globe assistant sports editor Tommy Munns wrote:

Stasiak was known as the "villain of the mat," and lived up to that reputation in competition, but outside the ring his ready wit and cheery manner endeared him to all with whom he came in contact. His "bad man" tactics were all a part of his marvellous acting. He was best pleased when he contrived to incite the fans the most, and when his bouts appeared to lag momentarily he soon sent the crowds into renewed outbursts of booing, sometimes by a gesture, sometimes by pulling his opponent's hair or taking some unfair advantage calculated to antagonize the spectators.

The real Stasiak was different. Humorous, charitable, fond of children, and immensely proud of his ability to carry out his role of a villain; he made friends quickly--and kept them.

About 30 years later, his name was taken by George Stipich, a wrestler from Quebec who spent many years in Toronto. As Stan Stasiak he became WWWF champion in 1973 and was a well-known wrestler through the 1960s and 70s.

-by Gary Will