A Brief History of Pro Wrestling in Toronto: Gary Will's TWH

Originally written for the program for the "Titans In Toronto" Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame Dinner 
-held September 18, 2004.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the launch of weekly professional wrestling shows in Toronto in 1929, and the city's wrestling heritage extends many years earlier.

The most famous wrestler of the 19th century, William Muldoon, made a stop in Toronto in 1883 and in the years immediately following the turn of the century, some of the biggest names in the business made appearances in the city. Frank Gotch, George Hackenschmidt, Stanislaus Zbyszko, and women's champion Cora Livingstone all wrestled more than once in Toronto.

Mickailoff turns Toronto into a wrestling city
But while modern era fans know Toronto as one of the world's top cities for professional wrestling, it wasn't always that way. Despite these occasional visits by all-time legends, the sport had largely been a minor attraction in the city until promoter Ivan Mickailoff boldly moved -- in the face of a lot of skepticism -- to bring world-class wrestling to Toronto on a weekly basis in 1929.

He ran shows at Arena Gardens, the original home of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and from a slow start built the sport within a few months to the point where Toronto became a regular Thursday night stop for top-flight professionals. Strangler Lewis, Jim Londos, and Gus Sonnenberg were some of the names Mickailoff brought to town in his first year.

Jack Corcoran takes control
After Mickailoff had paved the way with his success, competition followed in Jack Corcoran, who had promoted boxing in the city. Corcoran started running pro wrestling shows on a regular basis in November 1930. His first show -- at Massey Hall -- was a disaster, but Corcoran aligned himself with the right people and by the time he won the right to promote wrestling at the new Maple Leaf Gardens in 1931, he had surpassed Mickailoff to become the city's top promoter.

In 1939, Corcoran passed the reins to his assistants, the brother combination of John and Frank Tunney. Older brother John Tunney was the head matchmaker, and quickly signed Wild Bill Longson, Lou Thesz, and Bronko Nagurski to make their first Toronto appearances.

The Frank Tunney era begins
But just a few months after becoming promoter, John Tunney died suddenly at age 32. From that tragic beginning, the Frank Tunney era in Toronto was born. Taking over from his brother at age 27, Frank controlled pro wrestling in the city for the next 43 years and became one of the most successful and respected promoters in the world.

Whipper Billy Watson arrives
Tunney had been head promoter for less than a year when he brought in a 25-year-old East York native who had been wrestling in England for the last four years. When he left in 1936, he was known as Bill Potts. He returned in 1940 as Whipper Billy Watson and would go on to be the greatest star in Toronto wrestling history.

Within seven months of his Maple Leaf Gardens debut, Watson was being pushed as Tunney's top star, and for the next 30 years he would rarely be in any match in Toronto but the main event or the semi-main event. His most notable feuds were with Nanjo Singh and Gene Kiniski, and he had memorable matches against the two men he would beat for the world title, Longson and Thesz, and Gorgeous George, whose head would be shaved in the ring following a loss to Watson at the Gardens in 1959.

The 1950s: The golden era
The 1950s were a golden era for Toronto wrestling, as TV introduced Tunney's stars to a national audience, and Gardens fans witnessed two NWA title changes: Watson defeating Thesz in 1956 and Dick Hutton also taking the title from Thesz the following year. Toronto fans were treated to regular appearances by future world champions Hutton, Kiniski, Pat O'Connor, and Buddy Rogers.

Wrestlers from Southern Ontario and other parts of Canada were also developing rapidly. Along with Kiniski, the 1950s saw the Gardens debuts of Billy Red Lyons, Chris & John Tolos, Waldo Von Erich (who received a brief babyface push as Wally Sieber), Mike Valentino (the future Baron Mikel Scicluna), the bear-wrestling Jacques Dubois (later known as Wildman Dave McKigney), Don Jardine, and George Cannon.

The trend continued into the 1960s with the Gardens debuts of future stars Stan Stasiak and Rocky Johnson, among others. But while they all wrestled in Toronto early in their careers, many of these Canadians had to become stars in other territories before getting a push locally.

The 1960s: Looking for new stars
With age, Watson's star power was beginning to fade in the 1960s and Tunney pushed several new wrestlers into main events, including Bruno Sammartino, Johnny Valentine, and Bulldog Brower, along with Canadians Johnny Powers and Tiger Jeet Singh. Lou Thesz won the NWA title from Buddy Rogers at the Gardens in 1963 and followed it up a couple of months later with a victory over Sammartino in the only match the two legends ever had with each other. Kiniski's three-year run as NWA champion from 1966-69 saw him defend the title many times in Toronto. In 1965, Tunney moved the shows from Thursday nights, where they had been from the beginning in 1929, to Sundays, where they remained for the next 30 years.

The Sheik takes over
A major turning point for Toronto wrestling occurred in 1969. Tunney brought back The Sheik, one of the all-time great heels who had caused a stir in the city in 1964-65. Sheik, with his manager Abdullah Farouk, took over wrestling in Toronto and was the city's dominant star for the next eight years, regularly drawing over 10,000 fans to the Gardens, at least for the first few years.

After his first match back, Sheik only wrestled in main events (or co-main events if the NWA champion was booked on the show) and didn't lose a match for over five years, wrestling in Toronto about twice a month, compiling a record of 100-0-27 before losing by disqualification to Andre the Giant in 1974. No single wrestler has ever dominated Toronto wrestling the way The Sheik did in this period.

Tunney beats back challengers
Through the years, there were never any serious threats to Tunney's position as ruler of pro wrestling in Toronto. Several promoters ran shows at smaller venues in the area, often with Tunney's blessing or indifference. But in the 1970s, there were two notable attempts by other promoters to run big-venue shows in Toronto.

Dave McKigney, a successful promoter outside Toronto and at smaller sites within the city, tried running a show at Varsity Arena in September 1971 with Tony Parisi booked in the main event. Tunney quickly scheduled a Gardens show directly against it. Parisi was a no-show and began working for Tunney the following week. According to the newspapers, the McKigney show drew 700 fans while Tunney got 15,500 at the Gardens.

History repeated itself five years later. George Cannon and Milt Avruskin had built strong awareness of their promotion in Toronto through a TV show broadcast on Global and taped at the Global studios in Don Mills. They tried to parlay that visibility into running a big-venue show at the CNE Coliseum, but once again Tunney moved quickly to book a Gardens show on the same day. The Toronto Star reported that only 600 people showed up for Cannon's show. The promotion moved to Montreal not long after.

Farewell to the Sheik
Meanwhile, at the Gardens, Harley Race took the NWA title from Terry Funk in 1977 in the fourth and final time the belt would change hands in Toronto. The Sheik's act had grown stale after an amazing run and fans were ready for something new. The Tunney-Sheik partnership ended in 1977, and for the next year Toronto fans saw a mix of AWA and WWWF stars performing in the main events -- sometimes with both world titles defended on the same show.

Ric Flair revives Toronto wrestling
The stars of Jim Crockett's NWA-affiliated Mid-Atlantic promotion were added to the mix the following year, as Tunney went into partnership with Crockett and his booker, Hamilton native George Scott. The first Gardens card with Crockett's talent in 1978 featured a match between Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat, both making their Toronto debuts. For the first few years, AWA and WWWF stars also continued to perform in the city, including a historic meeting between AWA champ Nick Bockwinkel and WWWF titleholder Bob Backlund in 1979, with Flair vs Steamboat also on the card.

New local heroes
Along with presenting top wrestlers from the U.S., Tunney also launched the Canadian title in 1978 and used it to turn Dewey Robertson and Angelo Mosca into local babyface heroes and main event stars.

Death of Frank Tunney
By 1983, rivalries between the various promotions made it difficult to bring talent from different factions together. And it was right at this time that Frank Tunney passed away at age 70, leaving his piece of the Toronto promotion in the hands of his son Eddie Tunney and his nephew Jack Tunney -- the son of John Tunney.

Toronto joins the WWF
The next-generation Tunneys quickly moved to align themselves with Vince McMahon's WWF. Crockett had begun sending his B-team to Toronto and attendance at the Gardens was plummeting. Toronto became one of the first of the former NWA strongholds to jump to the WWF, starting a trend that would continue through the 1980s.

After a 34-year run, the NWA title -- which had made its Gardens debut in January 1950 --made its final appearance in the building in May 1984. Whatever nostalgic feelings long-time fans had for the old days, the McMahon-Tunney alliance and Hulkamania captured a whole new audience, attracting sell-out crowds to the Gardens and drawing over 65,000 people to Exhibition Stadium in 1986 and 68,000 to SkyDome for Wrestlemania VI in 1990 to see Hulk Hogan lose the WWF title to the Ultimate Warrior.

Rivals take a run
With the Gardens locked up by the WWF, the AWA held a show at the CNE Coliseum in December 1989 that drew what remains the smallest crowd ever in the city for a show from major promotion -- just 200 people. WCW, which evolved out of Crockett's Mid-Atlantic promotion, ran three shows at the Coliseum in 1990 with better results, but not good enough to keep Toronto on their schedule. WCW came back in 1993 and drew about 4,000 to SkyDome, and then made a big return to Toronto with two well-attended shows at the Air Canada Centre in 1999 before the promotion fizzled out.

End of the Tunney era, and Maple Leaf Gardens
McMahon ended his relationship with Jack Tunney in 1995 and the 64-year affiliation of pro wrestling and Maple Leaf Gardens ended in September of that year. The WWF has continued to run shows in Toronto ever since. It drew another 68,000 back to SkyDome for Wrestlemania X8 in 2002, with Hulk Hogan vs The Rock in what was generally seen as the main event. That card made Hogan the main event performer in the top-drawing Toronto show of the 1980s, the 1990s, and (so far) the 2000s.

In 2003, Toronto was host to just three major-league pro wrestling shows, all from the sole surviving big-name promotion, Vince McMahon's WWE.

- by Gary Will