Thursday, September 27, 2018

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