Saturday, March 30, 2019

Whipper & Robert: From The Scrapbook

Whipper Watson and Yvon Robert were the 1-2 punch in Canadian Wrestling during the 1940's and 1950's (Robert went back to the 1930's). Whipper ruled Toronto while Robert ruled Montreal and over the years the two had quite a rivalry going.

After many tough battles here and in Quebec, the two would finally team up in 1953 to create a dream team of the era. It wouldn't take long for the two to lift the Canadian Open Tag Titles from Dick Raines and Lou Plummer.

They would soon face one of the top tag teams ever to wrestle at MLG. Al & Tiny Mills, known as 'Murder Inc.' Former boxing champ Joe Louis would be brought in to serve as co-referee with Joe Gollob and the fans would come in droves to see the bout. 16,000 of them would fill up the Gardens to see the heroes win.

The re-match saw 10,000 at MLG with Jack Sharkey assigned as 2nd ref for this one. While Whipper was being viciously attacked by the Mills, Hombre Montana rushed the ring causing the champs to lose the titles by disqualification.

Watson would then team with Montana in trying to regain the titles and would see success a couple of months later. Robert, nearing the end of his career would return to Montreal and stay local through the next few years.

Thanks to Roger Baker

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Memories of Toronto with Roger Baker : Fishing with Victor Rivera

We are very fortunate to have Roger Baker contributing his vast knowledge and memories of Toronto wrestling to this site. This time, fishing on Simcoe with Victor Rivera!

It was back in the mid sixties that a young Puerto Rican wrestler made his appearance at MLG. He had an easy to remember name- Victor Rivera- and his in ring skills as well as his impressive muscularity caught my attention.

I made a point to meet up with the wrestler and we hit it off well, it was the summer time and I was planing to go fishing on the week end, and asked him if he would like to come along and test his skills insofar as hooking a pike or a bass from Lake Simcoe.

Warming up for a day of fishing !

He was eager to go. He was staying at a three story walk-up on the third floor on Parliament St. about fifteen blocks east of the Gardens. We made plans that I would pick him up the following Saturday at 8am. He was out side waiting when I got there and we left to arrive at a pre-determined marina on Cook's Bay which is at the south end of Lake Simcoe.

The marina that we were going to launch from was owned by several brothers, and one of the brothers kept staring at Rivera, and then at myself. After a few minutes of  the stares he said to me 'Hey, your buddy looks like like Jeff, and you look like Mutt,' I had to admit he was right.

The day turned out to a very enjoyable experience for us both, and wouldn't you know it , the novice ''Rivera'' catches a pike, and I got skunked.

The rookie snags one! 

Fast forward about six years, I'm at Buffalo's War Memorial Auditorium on assignment to do a story on Abdullah The Butcher. I walk into one of the wrestlers dressing rooms and who do I see? It was none other than Bruno Sammartino, Domenic Denucci, Louis Martinez, and Victor Rivera. The wrestlers all had smiles on their faces as did this wrestling reporter. I yelled 'Victor, the fish, the fish, you remember us and only you caught a fish,' he was all smiles, and this impromptu meeting was the highlight of my trip to Buffalo that day.

As an after thought I heard that the photo of Rivera with the fish was published in wrestling programs in the Boston Mass. arena.
*note, pic was used in a Ring mag also , at bottom of post

Battling Abdullah in Buffalo

Ron Martinez and the ref attempt to separate the two during the Buffalo bout

Victor Rivera's wrestling career was very successful and he went on to win many titles in the following years including

The NWA Americas Heavyweight title 5 times
The WWW world tag championship with Dominic Denucci
He held the WWW  Los Angeles tag title with Tony Marino
As well the WWW International tag title also with Tony Marino
- Roger

-Thanks Roger ! 

Roger's photo used in a 1969 Ring Mag 

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Lionel Conacher: Big Train on the mat: Slam! Wrestling

Lionel Conacher was voted Canada's athlete of the half-century in 1950 and most biographies mention his participation in the world of pro wrestling but with little info. It's time to remedy that. In simplest terms, by the time Conacher tried pro wrestling in 1932, he was already a formidable and well known multi-sport more..

More on Slam! Wrestling

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Arena Gardens: Toronto's original wrestling palace (1922-1938) : Gary Will's TWH

Maple Leaf Gardens is Toronto's most storied wrestling venue and is one of a handful of sites that can credibly be called a pro wrestling mecca. For 64 years, the Gardens was host to top level pro wrestling matches, including four NWA world title changes.

But before there was Maple Leaf Gardens, there was another Gardens that was Toronto's primary wrestling venue -- the site where major league pro wrestling became established in the city. That was Arena Gardens -- later known as Mutual Street Arena.

Arena Gardens was where Ivan Mickailoff began promoting weekly shows in 1929. It was also where he presented his final Toronto show in 1938 -- the last time the building was used for pro wrestling.

Even before Mickailoff came to town, Arena Gardens had been the site of two matches between Stanislaus Zbyszko and Canadian champion George Walker in 1922 and 1924 (see ad at right).

Some of the names that Michailoff presented at the Arena included Strangler Lewis and Toots Mondt, as well as reigning world champions Gus Sonnenberg, Ed Don George, Henri Deglane, Jim Londos, Ali Baba, and Everett Marshall, who all defended their title in the building (as did light heavyweight champion Billy Weidner). Toronto-made world champion Vic Christie defended his title there once as well.

Rival promoter Jack Corcoran also promoted some shows at the Arena in 1931 before moving over to Maple Leaf Gardens when it opened in November of that year.

Arena Gardens was built in 1912 for $500,000 and was at the time the largest indoor arena in the country. It was located east of Yonge on Mutual Street between Dundas and Shuter, not far from Massey Hall, which was also used at times for pro wrestling shows, particularly when the Arena was closed for repairs. Sir Henry Pellatt, the man behind Casa Loma, was one of the Arena's primary backers.

The NHL's first Stanley Cup winners, the Toronto Arenas (1917-18), were named after the building and played their home games there, as would the Toronto St. Pats and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

In 1938, the Arena was leased to William Dickson who turned it into a recreation facility offering ice skating in winter and roller skating in summer. Dickson bought the building in 1945 and it remained in the family for the next 43 years. Curling sheets -- 18 of them -- were added in a 1962 renovation, and the building was renamed The Terrace, a name it kept until it was sold in 1988 to become the site of a condominium complex. It closed its doors on April 30, 1989 and was demolished a few months later.

In the Toronto Star, Jim Proudfoot wrote:

The birthplace of professional hockey in Toronto is about to disappear - torn down and replaced by, yes, yet another picturesque pile of residential condominiums. Before long, people will dwell at Cathedral Square and they'll have no idea, most of them, that their homes sit precisely where so much of this city's history took place. A Stanley Cup was won there and the Maple Leafs started out there. Sammy Luftspring fought there and Frank Sinatra sang there. The Harlem Globetrotters entertained there and Torchy Peden rode his bike there. Foster Hewitt broadcast his first hockey game there.

Soon it'll be gone and shortly after that, forgotten.

And so it's goodbye forever to another chunk of what's made Toronto what it is today, about to join Sunnyside [amusement park], Thorncliffe [racetrack], Dufferin [racetrack], Icelandia [skating rink/arena], Ravina [Gardens -- one-time practice rink for the Leafs] and Long Branch [racetrack] in a dim and distant past - just a trivia question of the 21st century.

- by Gary Will

Friday, March 8, 2019

Lord Athol Layton

When Lord Athol Layton made his debut at Maple Leaf Gardens in November 1950 - in the main event no less - he made a big impression, literally. He was pictured in the Star in the days before the card with his arms outstretched over 6 of the Gardens ushers, towering over the other men.

Layton, billed at 6'6 was to be matched against another huge guy, the man billed as the 'Ozark Giant' (then area resident) the 6'8 Sky Hi Lee. The 'Lord' was an immediate hit, with 11,000 fans showing up to see the battle of the giants. Layton proved to be a formidable challenger for the larger Lee winning his debut by making Lee submit to a leg crab.

He was without his valet Gerald who had accompanied him in the previous weeks as Layton was introduced to the scene with bouts in Hamilton and Niagara Falls. He was brought in as a star and main-evented around the area right from the start.

He was portrayed as an English Nobleman, impeccably dressed in a suit or tuxedo type. He had the gift of gab showing his English 'aristocracy' and quick witted response in his steady voice.

His debut in Niagara Falls a few days previous to the MLG card had the reporter saying that Layton had "one of the most impressive debuts a grappler has ever made here" after downing Lee Henning.

Originally a heel, he was set to work towards Whipper Watson and his British Empire Title. After being matched against fellow heel Fred Atkins in Feb 1951 Layton announced he was looking for a bout with the popular champ. A subsequent bout vs the #2 favorite in the city Yukon Eric saw Layton surprisingly getting cheered by the crowd (Eric had just matched against Whipper). A rough bout with the Masked Marvel and his manager Mayes McLain saw the fans attack Mclain and further endeared Layton to the fans.
With Atkins 1952

As was more common in those days he would face a mixture of fan favorites and heels alike. A Sept 1951 bout against tough Mike Sharpe was said to be an elimination bout for Whipper's B-E Title. Layton would earn a bout with Whipper the following month and the two would go to a 44 minute draw when curfew was called. The rematch saw Layton with a rare loss after he attacked the refs 'Bunny' Dunlop and Bert Maxwell and got disqualified.

A subsequent re-match saw Layton appear to get the win after guest ref Teddy Thomas (a Niagara Falls/Buffalo area ref) awarded the win to Layton only to see Maxwell reverse the decision. Whipper's leg had been on the ropes during a pin and Thomas had counted the champ down. Maxwell ordered the show to go on and Whipper promptly pinned Layton.

Layton and Whipper would even be pictured together at a charity event with the caption 'Buddies yes, but only for charity.'

Layton would also see success up the road in Montreal with a big bout against Yvon Robert and alas, a team with Whipper himself.

In Toronto bouts vs fan favorites and heels alike continued with match-ups against newcomer Bobo Brazil and the hated Hans Hermann, He would team also with George 'Zebra Kid' Bollas, as well as frequent opponent Fred Atkins, for bouts with Whipper and assorted partners.

By now a regular here on the weekly cards through 1953 he would match up with Lord James Blears to create a royal tag team. They would have an extended feud with the tough Texans 'Dirty' Dick Raines and Lou Plummer. The two 'Lords' would meet their match against the superstar team of Watson and Robert but still earn a draw with the two icons of Canadian wrestling. As a team Layton and Blears would be accompanied by their 'gentleman’s gentleman' Captain Holmes and were pictured in the paper holding a trophy, said to be the Pacific Tag Title.
Popular 1961

In Niagara Falls in October 1953 he would vie for the World Title (Montreal version) against 'Killer' Kowalski and go to a 60 minute draw with the well-conditioned champ. A month later he would get the chance to face NWA champ Lou Thesz at the Gardens. Layton opined that the date coincided with Guy Fawkes Day in Britain and was a good omen for him. He ended up giving the bout via dq

Up in Montreal he would team with another giant Don Leo Jonathon to again test Whipper and Robert with a wild bout that ended in a no contest.

The tide was turning and Layton would soon be cheered faithfully by the fans as he started to team with fan favorites. In Niagara Falls he teamed up with long-time foe Sky Hi Lee to take on the hated Mills Brothers and a week later he was back battling him at MLG. In more bouts vs the Mills and the equally hated Kalmikoff brothers with partners Bill McDaniel and Prince Maiava he was settling into the fan favorite role.

A bout in Apr 1955 vs Argentina Rocca saw Layton get a cheer when he got Rocca in a headlock and dragged him over to the ropes for a photog to catch a picture. At the end of the bout with Rocca won by count-out, Layton returned to the ring and shook hands with his opponent getting another rousing cheer from the audience.

In Mid 1955 he teamed with Whipper in London to take on the Dusek brothers. Years later he would admit he was relieved to be on the good side of the fence as his kids would get trouble at school from the other kids, many of them members of Whipper's 'Safety Club.'

His friendship with Watson would continue for many years both in the ring and outside as they both worked hard to make others lives better, especially children and those with disabilities.
vs Kiniski 1961

He would also start serving as a special referee, his size and fairness deemed worthy to settle a heated feud. He was appointed in '55 for a Whipper Watson/Yukon Eric vs Karl Von Schober/Fritz Von Erich bout and would ref many bout over the next decades up to and including a 1976 bout of Andre The Giant vs Angelo Mosca.

Layton had officiated a tag bout with Whipper and Rocca vs the Kalmikoffs which led into he and Whipper teaming up at MLG vs the Russians in an all in tag bout, said to have planned their tactics while fishing at Lake Simcoe.

In 1959 he found time between battling Yukon Eric to referee an amateur bout featuring his young son John and present the trophies to the winners.

In 1961 he was hosting the TV show and gained more respect as an adept interviewer. A 1961 show earned raves on the TV page in the Star saying ''Better by far than the actual matches on the Saturday afternoon wrestling show are the interviews between Lord Athol Layton and the wrestlers. Last week, at one point, he took on all three Kalmikoffs, and later he matched words and threatening gestures with a ruffian newcomer. I'm waiting for Layton to take over the commercials." he would continue into the mid 1970's as a commentator on TV.

He would continue to wrestle regularly and saw some big main events throughout the 1960's, some vs familiar opponents like Kiniski, and testing newcomers in the early '60's such as Bulldog Brower and Taro Sakuro. A special referee assignment in 1964 saw him handcuffed to Atkins for a Whipper-Professor Hiro bout to stop Atkins from interfering on behalf of his charge Hiro. He and Whipper would also team regularly throughout the decade.
Chopping The Sheik 1969

In 1970 the 20 year veteran would interfere in a Sheik-Dewey Robertson bout and get his turn with the newest star on the scene. A huge crowd of 15,000 would see Layton batter Sheik with his judo chops before the bout even started. After 5 minutes of that Layton accidently floored ref George Kanelis who disqualified both wrestlers once he recovered. Layton had also floored Mike Loren and Jos Leduc who had rushed the ring with Mighty igor putting the squeeze on Layton to subdue the angry giant.

They would get a re-match and another with Kiniski as special referee for both and go on to a long feud that carried over through 1974.

His last main event at the Gardens was in April 1975 teamed with Mighty Igor against Abdullah The Butcher and Waldo Von Erich. He main evented in Oshawa a few months later as his career wound down. His last bout at MLG was in July 1977 teamed with veteran Lou Klein against the Kelly Twins. The guest referee shot for Andre-Mosca in Dec 1976 was his last in ring appearance here.

I asked MLG photog and writer for his memories of Layton

'The time was perhaps 65 years ago (1952), Toronto's MLG was a hotbed of big time pro wrestling, the matches were held most Thursday evenings. Whipper Watson had been in the ring numerous times with the young English wrestler Lord Athol Layton, at stake was Whipper's coveted British Empire wrestling title. This very young fan of The Whipper remembers standing outside of The Gardens at the northwest corner of Church and Carlton, there was a large circle of fans trying to catch Layton's attention, for an autograph, and to ask whether he thought he would topple Watson in any future encounters. Layton was very gracious with his audience, and his response was a simple 'what does one have to do to in order to beat The Whipper in Toronto?'

'On another occasion many years later, this reporter was in the dressing room area on the west side of the Gardens, I almost bumped into both Bulldog Brower and Athol Layton, they had wrestled as team partners a short time earlier, and Layton was applying oil to Brower's back, I mentioned to them both that their earlier tag match was a good one, they both had big grins on their faces, it was a very nice chance meeting.'
Old friends re-united 

'On yet another occasion I was covering a heavyweight boxing match at the Gardens, the main event featured George Chuvalo vs the then ranked world title contender Ernie 'The Octopus' Terrell. It is a practise to introduce a number of personalities and fighters that are in attendance to the audience. After perhaps ten personalities were in the ring, the Announcer called in Maple Leaf Gardens wrestling great Lord Athol Layton who entered the ring to a very receptive audience. His lordship walked around the ring, arms extended, and with a very big smile on his face, the crowd loved to see him, and it was very obvious that Layton was pleased to be in the ring. This reporter was able to capture a photo of this wonderful moment, it is displayed on my wrestling wall were I often view that photo, and many others as well.'

In later years he continued his role as an ambassador for many causes. He had sat on the Ontario Advisory Council on the Physically Handicapped, worked with the Ontario Society for Crippled Children, was on the board of directors for the St Albans Boys and Girls Club, and had been an Imperial Potentate of the Ramses Shrine Temple. In July 1983 he received the Ontario Medal for Good Citizenship from then Lieutenant Governor John Aird.

He was working as head of public relations for Bacardi Rum when he died suddenly at the age of 63 in Jan 1984.

Thanks to Roger Baker!

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Frank Tunney's Custom Buckle

Over the years I have had the site up I have heard from many family members of wrestlers. Some have been kind enough to share their personal photos and other items that have been left for them. This one is very special.

Frank Tunney's custom belt buckle courtesy of his grandson Chris. Was likely made by Alex Mulko aka Nikita Kalmikoff/Mulkovitch, Toronto based wrestler and artist that later made all of our title belts as well as many others. He was known for making jewelry and belt buckles in addition to the belts. Looks like a crown which is fitting for the King of  Toronto wrestling

What a beauty!
Thanks so much to Chris for sharing this with us.