The Myth Of Whipper


  There is the other side of the conversation about Whipper Watson. Not the one that talks about the pride of East York as a humanitarian, or as the tireless crusader for children with disabilities, or of the man who places high on any list of great Canadians, wrestlers or otherwise. 

It's the one about his 'real' wrestling skills, his legacy as one of the greats among peers Bill Longson, Gus Sonnenberg, Earl McCready, and Lou Thesz. Or more accurately, the lack of a legacy amongst the talk of shooters and hookers and the like.

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 the watchful eye of Phil Lawson are worth a look to gain insight to his skills in the ring. 

Main pic: with Lawson, McCready 1942

The Early Years 
Phil Lawson, notably known as Whipper's trainer and manager was a real powerhouse in the city running shows and training upstarts for many years. An accomplished amateur himself he had been both City and Ontario champion since starting at the YMCA as a kid around 1910. In 1921 he won the Provincial Light Heavyweight Title in boxing, and in 1926 the Canadian Lightweight Championship in Wrestling. 

1935
 Lawson took over training for the YMCA in 1926  and started training Whipper around 1931. Officially he became Whip's manager in 1940 but he had already being using his specialized training regimens from the time a teenaged Watson had first found the sport.  By the 1930's he was solidly entrenched in the sporting scene for both wrestling and boxing. Besides Watson, Lawson trained Billy Stack and worked with many others that frequented the MLG cards. Lawson was also very tight in the wrestling/boxing office of Jack Corcoran prior to- and after -the Tunney's taking over. He was later described as 'the eyes, ears, and sometimes mind of Tunney' as they shaped and built a modest start in wrestling to one of the most successful on the continent.

 In the early 1930s Toronto was teeming with wrestling, both professional and amateur. Many of the country's top amateur stars were from here or based in the city. Watson, at that time was still East York boy Bill Potts, and was wrestling on amateur cards that included Fred Spittles -Al Hamilton/Al Spittles future trainer of stars, Al Korman - longtime fixture and future ref, and Ted McKinley - noted amateur/pro, won Silver in wrestling at the 1934 British Empire Games. 

Others included Ben(gal) Engbloom -noted amateur here and overseas, the soon-to-be Pat Flanagan (Winnett Watson), and longtime wrestler and ref Cliff Worthy. Whipper wrestled for the Scarboro wrestling club and worked up to 190lbs.   
 
A trip to Europe honed the young Watson's skills. His success came fast once he returned from the U.K. and secured a spot on Tunney's cards. In his second pro bout at MLG, a 1940 contest vs Bobby Robert, Watson got the win and in a Joe Perlove recap 'seems headed for bigger things in the local mat scheme.' A week later Perlove wrote that Watson got the 'best hand of the night' after beating the aging Jerry Monahan in a 17 minute bout. 

Lawson & Whip 1945
Local Hero   
By November Perlove was proclaiming Watson as a 'local hero' who 'bids fair to be white-haired Johnny of Ontario Wrestling rings.' Perlove did a small feature on Watson and recounted the much heard origin story of being introduced by brother George to Wrestling at All Hallows Church in Toronto. Further training under Lawson and then his trip England via Ireland and training under George de Relwyskow, a noted promoter in the British Isles. 

Some lesser know tidbits in the Perlove article include a mention of Whipper appearing in several movies, including one as a Detective, and wrestling Tiger Tasker in another  featuring George Formsby (likely 1937's boxing themed Keep Fit). Perloves says in another 1937 film 'The Rat' Whipper was doubling for star Anton Wallbrook. 

That film also had Bob Gregory who was one of Whipper's travelling partners while in the U.K. Gregory married a then member of British Royalty, the Princess of Sarawak and arrived here in 1938 for a memorable visit. Watson meanwhile was said to win the European Light-Heavyweight crown in his travels as well as meet and marry his wife Eileen, bringing her back to Canada. 

 Another variation on the origin story has Whipper answering an ad for wrestlers, hitchhiking to Montreal, and then heading to Wales, then on to England where he received 8 pounds sterling (about 13$) for his first bout. A note in the Star from 1936 supports the Perlove version, with Potts, Tasker, Korman, and Tommy Nelson (long time Tunney office guy/promoter), along with Harry Joyce as a manager sailing out from Montreal the week of June 8 1936. According to the blurb another group was scheduled to head out the following month. A subsequent trip included the then Winnett Watson, soon to be renamed as Flanagan. 

Some programs from England 1936-37

Back in Toronto in 1940 Whipper soon faced George K.O. Koverly in a special one hour bout said to determine the next main eventer in Toronto. The bout ended badly for Watson but set the tone for the coming stardom for the young grappler. Watson ended up out cold on the floor after taking a beating from Koverly who had also knocked referee Bunny Dunlop to the mat. 

The fans unhappy with the result tried to get at Koverly as he made a hasty retreat to the dressing room. This was in the pre-ramp days and Koverly, despite the police presence, was attacked by fans. Once he had made his exit the fans went after Dunlop, and finally after the photogs who had vacated the press table during the melee. Some 200 fans wouldn't give up, even when ushered out of the Gardens, milling about until the ambulance came and took Watson away on a stretcher to St Michaels Hospital around the corner. The new crowd favorite was said to have taken a stiff punch on the chin while off-balance injuring his neck in the process. 

In 1941 before his first main event, again vs Koverly, Whipper was pictured in the Star sparring with soon to be World boxing featherweight champ Jack 'Spider' Armstrong. In the 1940's and 1950's they kept the ring set up in the basement of the Gardens for the wrestlers to work out between cards. They  also set up the ring in its usual spot a day or two before a card if the arena was free, and some of the stars wrestled exhibitions in front of small crowds of reporters and other insiders. Longson, Thesz, Watson, and their opponents or sparring partners, including Dunlop, Ted Christie, Frank Hewitt, Billy Stack, Flanagan, and others. 

 In those early years Watson took a lot of abuse in his bouts. He was a high flyer with a ton of energy. He was constantly going over the ropes to the floor and for a (rising) star of his stature took a lot of stretcher exits from the floor at MLG. Some of these falls led to the injuries that hampered his style. He started to suffer some serious neck and back injuries in the 1940's leading to a change in style as he progressed. Not as much as his doctors may have liked, those injuries continuing to pile up through the 1950s.

Wild Bill
 A long and successful rivalry with Wild Bill Longson spanned the 1940s and resulted in a World title win for Watson when he beat Longson in 1947. Wild Bill had held the title for 4 years and rarely lost.  He was close with Tunney and had helped the young promoter gain a foothold in the lean years prior to Whipper arriving on the scene. While Watson only held the title for a few months, he was soon firmly entrenched in the upper tier of the best wrestlers in the game. He and Longson thrilling the Toronto fans with tough and exciting bouts, the fans riled to riot on many occasions. Wild Bill often having to flee under the ring until the cops could get him out- before the ramp. 

1954. By 1956 he had dropped 30lbs and was in great shape leading to the title win.

The Toronto papers reporting on Whippers win over Longson in St Louis proclaimed him 'wrestling's No. 1 box office attraction.' St Louis programs lauded Whippers speed and noted his popularity and exciting ring work. Longson was viewed as a legit type and many of those bouts go 30-40-60 minutes of action and earn attention from all over the wrestling world. 

Wrestling was long past legit by the 1940's and Whipper didn't really beat Longson or Thesz, but he was good enough in the eyes of those who mattered to be able to hold the big title. In his later years Thesz (who was often brutally honest) was asked about Whipper and always answered amicably. That Watson was a 'fine wrestler,' and 'tough.'  Not to say Whipper was picked because of his skills. Of course Tunney's influence within the NWA would rate, and that he was trusted to return the title, but it was not a one-man vote. He had the respect of the top stars both in the ring and out of it. 

-AC

Whipper UK programs from Twitter or one of the UK guys sent it, thank you