Early TV Wrestling in Ontario Part 1
A lot of Toronto years in this photo with Flanagan & Henning alone. Flanagan came up with the Balmy Beach Club and was wrestling semi pro by 1936. He debuted at MLG in 1941 and wore many hats. Wrestler, booker & matchmaker, agent, promoter, and referee, before retiring in 1978.
Lee Henning debuted in Toronto in 1940 and finished up -wrestling! - in 1975. By the 1950s he was mostly a prelim guy testing the newcomers and such but had some bigger profile bouts, especially on the circuit. He was the opponent for Whipper Watson's debut at MLG in 1940 and notably in the later years was the opponent for Jean Ferre's (Andre) Toronto debut in 1971.
Tony Marino wrestled in Toronto from 1960-1976 while Chris Colt wrestled for Tunney from 1972-1976 and served a memorable tenure for Dave McKigney's Big Bear through to 1986.
Thanks to Roger Baker for all his contributions to the site and photo by...
Some misconceptions about the Toronto promotion we see commonly online and in books etc.
Frank Tunney was Jack Tunney's Uncle
TRUE! Jack (John Jr) Tunney was John Tunney's son. John was Frank's elder brother who took over with Frank from Jack Corcoran in 1939. John died suddenly in Jan 1940. Frank's son Eddie Tunney later joined the office. See Smiling John: The forgotten Tunney & Frank Tunney: The Early Days
Toronto was a one city territory like St Louis or Houston
FALSE! For most of the history of the Toronto office there was a busy and vibrant circuit. Ivan Mickailoff began the weekly cards at Arena Gardens in Toronto in 1929. Right from the start he was branching out with cards around the region. Hamilton, London, Brantford, Kitchener, Oshawa, Timmins, and other towns. When businessman and boxing promoter Jack Corcoran entered the wrestling scene in 1930 he replicated the outward growth. He started to build the circuit using associates in the smaller towns.
Frank Tunney continued the circuit growth with stops in over 30 cities many seasons. He took advantage of his associate promoters setting up a strong network of former wrestlers and old-timers. Sometimes two towns a night with split crews.
By the end of the 60s and into the Sheik era, Frank was 30 years in as promoter. The roster was gone. Many of the smaller towns were now left to Dave McKigney and others, occasionally still in tandem with Jack & the Toronto office. For a time Jack even ran with McKigney before it all turned sour.With the Mid-Atlantic era (1978) and the success it brought, they went back to an office run circuit. The difference by that time was that much of our top tier talent was now imported. While many of the M-A stars stayed on past the MLG card, others continued back south. The circuit also only ran for a week a month or so though there were some spot shows on the off weeks, more so in the summer months.We looked at 'The Circuit' in Quick Bits: The Best (and rest) of Toronto Wrestling
Whipper Watson was not a good wrestler/old guy (nary a mention in the great 'wrestlers' talk)
FALSE! There are a few things to consider when looking at Whipper's career to be able to judge him fairly as a wrestler. His prime, shortened by injuries early in his career came mostly before the advent of TV. By the time Watson became the big Canadian star with CBC's TV Wrestling from Maple Leaf Gardens in the mid 1950's, his best years were mostly behind him.In his prime in the 1940's, his early years on the busy amateur circuit and his training under Phil Lawson are also worth a look to gain insight to his skills in the ring.We looked at 'The Myth of Whipper Watson' in Quick Bits: The Best (and rest) of Toronto Wrestling
Frank Tunney was complacent or unambitious
FALSE! Frank was a smart and well respected businessman in the city. His early efforts and creating key allies (Longson, Muchnick, Thesz etc) laid the foundation for over 40 years as the only wrestling promoter in town. Maple Leaf Gardens was a jewel and with a busy circuit from the 1930s to the 1960s there was no need to expand out of Southern Ontario for the most part (a few East Coast tours and others and mostly in the off-season). Frank did test Kasaboski & Northland in the 50s but opted to let it be. That was covered in Beyond the Boom in From Nanjo to The Sheik.
In those early days Toronto was a key NWA member and Frank was known for being 'easy to deal with' & 'a man of honor.' NWA head Sam Muchnick often looked to Frank as a 'voice of reason.' By wrestling promoter standards Frank was an anomaly. A nice guy, his handshake as good as gold. By his 30 year mark (1969 at age 57) Frank stepped back while nephew Jack took the reins and they started to bring in outside help. Detroit, then AWA, and finally Mid Atlantic.
Vince McMahon bought Maple Leaf
FALSE! After Frank Tunney died in 1983 nephew Jack & son Eddie took over the office. The new Maple Leaf Wrestling was formed in June 1984 during a meeting with McMahon in June 1984. The partners were 50% Titan Sports (WWF), 33.33% Tunney Sports (50% Jack, 50% Eddie) and 16.66% George Scott. The deal was such that Tunney Sports would continue to run the business but only use WWF talent. McMahon and the WWF invested no money in the partnership. We looked at that in The Canadian Heavyweight Title: The Complete History 1978-1984.
'The Maple Leaf Gardens?'
HMMM...Many people outside of Toronto refer to the Carlton St cashbox as 'The Maple Leaf Gardens.' Always sounded strange to me. For Torontonians it was 'Where is the game tonight?' 'At Maple Leaf Gardens.' Or at 'The Gardens.' I suspect it came from that and partly as the Gardens (not Garden as in Madison Square) was synonymous with the Maple Leafs who played there from beginning to end. And their history and ownership was tied to the building. The Maple Leafs. Maple Leaf Gardens. The Maple Leaf Gardens. Even the papers occasionally inserted 'The.' We mostly call it the abbreviated MLG or just 'The Gardens!
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Wildman, the OAC & Court
|Dave vs Sheik in '82|
If you are a fan of Ontario wrestling you likely know about Dave McKigney's problems with the Ontario Athletic Commission. In the last years of his promotion he had issues over licensing, insurance, using the wrestling bear (also with the Ontario Humane Society), and other issues.
The OAC had been an issue for pro wrestling in years past, even for Frank Tunney and his predecessor Jack Corcoran. Tunney especially though kept the Commission close, and but for a few issues never really had major problems with them. They would mostly impose fines (see Nanjo Singh and Gene Kiniski) and Tunney would iron them out. His esteemed spot within the Toronto and national sports scenes enabled him to work through issues that would later affect McKigney - though Frank did once lose his license to promote at East York Arena for a time (see link at end of post).
In previous years the Wildman's troupe had toured around Ontario keeping busy through most summers (and some winters) with shows in the smaller towns around the province. He mostly worked on the outskirts of Frank Tunney's promotion and had often used Tunney stars. Dave himself had also wrestled at MLG and mostly had a symbiotic attachment to the big circuit. In the heyday of the his Big Bear promotion Dave would attend MLW TV tapings to recruit the stars for his summer shows.
By 1987 that was down to a few spot shows and Jack Tunney who had replaced Uncle Frank in 1983, had not been as receptive to the arrangement.
In that vein, anything from this era is particularly interesting to come across. This, an OAC report from a card during Dave's last days in Ontario before he went on the fateful tour of the East coast the following year.
I asked Toronto's wrestler/trainer/promoter and good guy Ron Hutchison if he could add some info re the OAC Report..
'We absolutely had to file these reports with OAC commissioner Ken Hayashi (and before Ken with Clyde Gray) after the show. He did expect his 2 per cent tax on the gate, no matter how minuscule that might have been. In addition to the the 2 per cent tax on the gate receipts the shows and the wrestlers working the shows had to be sanctioned by the commission.The sanctioning fee for the shows themselves depended on the population of the town you were running in. If memory serves me correctly any town with a population of over 100,000 people the show cost $300 to be sanctioned and in order for the show to be sanctioned the promoter had to have a $1 million dollar public liability insurance policy as well.I remember at one time (when I was working) the licensing fee per wrestler was $5 yearly with the year ending at the end of March. So, if you licensed yourself on April 1st of one particular year or March 1st of that same year the licensing fee to the commission would still be the same amount. If memory serves me correctly the yearly licensing fee for the boys did go from $5 to, I think $25 and then to $50 per year.'-Ron
It's too bad McKigney didn't fill in the payouts. It's not a bad card at 579 paid tickets, though back in the mid/late 1970's they were regularly pulling 1,000-1,500 fans in to the small arena cards. Tickets at 6-9$ which had steadily gone up since we paid 2-4$ in 1981-82 but times had changed.
The crew listed is mostly the same as the previous year. After Jack took over for Frank it ended the cross pollination that had occurred in previous years. Chris Colt had been a regular for Dave since 1981 while Sweet Daddy Siki, Jet Star, Wolfman Farkus were mainstays in the last years. Mosca Jr and occasionally Mosca Sr would also join for some shows. As was standard on Wildman cards there was a little bit of everything. A hardcore bout, some ladies (Orser, Rose, Sheena), and the little people.
And what about the other usual presence on Wildman cards? A few years earlier in 1984 Gentle Ben (Dave's latest wrestling bear) had bitten off a piece of the fingers of two young men during an exhibition in PEI. When he returned to Ontario it started a firestorm of problems including Commissioner Clyde Gray banning the bear and making it a condition of the wrestling license.
The incident also brought back the tragic mauling of Dave's girlfriend Lynn Orser by previous bear Smokey at Dave's Aurora home back in the summer of 1978.
The following season (1985) when Gray noticed an ad for Scarboro Arena with the bear listed, he pulled the wrestling licenses putting Dave and the crew on the shelf. McKigney and his lawyer went to the Ontario Supreme Court which reinstated the license but with the same conditions - no bear - until it could make a ruling weeks later. In front of a full house of 1,500 Dave and Ben exchanged a few playful slaps before the cheers turned to boo's as he announced he wasn't allowed to wrestler the bear.
Ultimately the Supreme Court quashed the OAC's cancellation of his licenses. McKigney argued that without the bear he would be unable to attract enough fans to cover the costs of arenas and the 18 wrestlers in the show.
Gray responded that it was not in his jurisdiction to sanction promotions that involve animals and if so 'you might as well throw the athletics out the window,' Dave summed it up by calling Gray arrogant and that 'the Ontario government spends millions of dollars to create employment and I pour money into the economies of all the little towns we go to but they want to close us down.'
It was a small win but the war was soon to be lost. In 1988 due to all of the issues in Ontario Dave took his show back to the East coast - with the bear advertised - but it would be cut short with the tragic accident that killed him, Pat Kelly, and Adrian Adonis.
|Mark Greer (l) 1982 and Dave and a wrestler that I can't recall (r) 1985 with Gentle Ben|
Thanks to Roger Baker
Thanks to Ron Hutchison for his insight- for more on Ron's career get the excellent
Ron Hutchison - Pain Torture Agony - the Book!
Flair vs Race: Science & Violence
Flair wins the title from Dusty Rhodes in Oct 1981 and appears as champ for the 50th Anniversary card held in November. They pack 16.000 in for that one and the next time the two match-up was another special card. A double World title card featuring both the NWA and AWA titles. AWA champ Nick Bockwinkel defends against our Canadian champ Angelo Mosca while Flair and Race had another hard fought battle that was action from start to finish.
The main photos were taken at that bout. In the sequence the battle rages from the ring to the ramp and Race catches Flair with a piledriver after turning the tables on champ Flair, the last pic of the sequence shows Flair being restrained by Ron Ritchie and Johnny Weaver from going down the ramp after Race.
In the summer of 1983 Jack Tunney had recently taken over for Uncle Frank and took a risk promoting two big shows at Exhibition Stadium. They were packed with title bouts and topped by Race vs Flair. Both cards.
The last matchup takes place in early 1984, just months before Jack aligns with the WWF. That card stood as the last great turnout of the NWA days.11/16/1980 NWA Title - Harley Race D/COR Ric Flair est 14,000 not reported
11/15/1981 NWA Title - Ric Flair W Harley Race Att: 16,000
04/25/1982 NWA Title - Ric Flair D/COR Harley Race Att: 11,000
07/10/1983 NWA Title - Harley Race W/DQ Ric Flair Att: 20,000 est
07/24/1983 NWA Title - Harley Race W/DQ Ric Flair Att: 14,000 est
02/12/1984 NWA Title - Ric Flair W Harley Race Att:17,700
The 83 Ex shows are covered a bit at Open Air Wrestling in Toronto
-AC and photos, nostalgia by...
Quick Bits: Ali vs Inoki Closed Circuit MLG
There were several closed-circuit cards shown at Maple Leaf Gardens over the years, and at other spots around Toronto. The 1976 Ali-Inoki 'War of the Worlds' card was a rare one that included pro wrestling.
Ungerman would also present the Ali-Inoki telecast, this time alongside Frank Tunney Sports. Tunney held exclusive rights to hold wrestling at MLG which was the extent of his involvement (cut of the $), having long since removed himself from the boxing wars in Toronto.
The card was set to start at 830pm and included some bouts from New York's Shea Stadium wrestling show which had Bruno Sammartino vs Stan Hansen and a few other bouts, Andre the Giant vs Chuck Wepner in a wrestler vs boxer bout for 10 rounds, and then the Ali-Inoki from Tokyo scheduled for 15 rounds. Tickets in Toronto were priced from $8-15, a bit cheaper than the Foreman-Frazier bout which were priced at $10-20.
For comparison Tunney's regular wrestling shows were $2.50- 7.
Prior to the show in a Jim Proudfoot Star column, Gene Kiniski had predicted 'if it's on the level, Ali hasn't got a chance.' Kiniski, a pretty smart guy, predicted that Inoki 'has got to go to the canvas, that's where any wrestler would go - for the legs- if Inoki stays on his feet, you'll know he's going to get himself knocked out.' Kiniski added 'I've wrestled Inoki a few times and...he's nothing special.'
As the bout played out, it was generally viewed as a rather big disappointment after all the hype.
The next day on the front page of the Star was a pic of Ali looking down at Inoki on his back. The caption, all in caps screamed ...
About 8,000 turned up at MLG to watch it, one of 18 locations across the country to show it. Ungerman declared it 'a disgrace.' 'Never again. We blew a tube at our Hamilton location and had to refund admissions to about 1,000 people. They were lucky.'
The wrestling fans weren't quite so upset. Different expectations.
The sports world was slow to accept the combo of boxing and wrestling (known as mit-mat cards in the early days). Writer Jim Kerhaghan in the Star wrote that the Andre-Wepner bout was 'highly suspect' and after Andre got Chuck in a headlock ‘those who were watching closely noticed that Andre had his hand on Wepner's head and bonked his own knuckles.'