My Lifelong Love Affair with Pro Wresting & the Life Lessons it Taught Me - by Jeff Russo

I don’t recall which wrestling match was the first I ever watched on television or in person. All I know is that it was in the mid 1970’s and I was 7 years old. I can tell you for certain that it was in Toronto, Ontario, Canada where I was born and where I grew up. I can also tell you that it was only the beginning of the life changing impact that this sport had on the person that I was to become and the career path I chose. Looking back and reflecting, I can honestly say that the impact of professional wrestling on me from a very early age, was the single biggest determining factor in my future success. And so, I’d like to share my revelations and the life lessons that arose from my many years of exposure to the mat game.

Like father like son. Reg Russo, Reg with Jeff, and Jeff at 23 

Toronto was a mecca for professional wrestling in North America and rivaled markets like New York City and Los Angeles for interest and attendance. In fact, it was always one of the most multicultural cities in the world, having a massive fan base of first-generation immigrants from places like Italy that would support their ethnic heroes like Bruno Sammartino. My father was one of those people. He immigrated to Canada in 1951 from the island of Malta at the age of 21 and was a huge wrestling fan.  He attended almost every match at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens in the 1950’s and 60’s and then started attending again when he began taking me around 1975. In fact, in the 1950’s, live wrestling shows at the Gardens occurred every Thursday night. My father, Reginald Russo (Reg or Aldo as his friends called him) who was living in downtown Toronto at Queen and Bathurst Street, had a regular ticket scalper that came by his house weekly to sell him ringside seats. Reg was a natural born organizer and leader - he bought seats for all his Maltese and Italian friends, and organized the trips down to the Gardens.

From a very young age he and his friends shared amazing stories with me of these larger-than-life superheroes like Sammartino, Gene Kiniski, Lou Thesz and Whipper Billy Watson - their incredible feats of strength, how tough they were and what cheats and bastards many of the villains like Kiniski or Hard Boiled Haggerty were. At a time when the cat had not yet been let out of the bag regarding the legitimacy of pro wrestling, they were perplexed at how these wrestlers could take such a beating and not have broken bones or gotten black eyes.  In the end, it was always the same conclusion. They were willing to suspend their disbelief and chalk it up to the wrestlers just being so much tougher than the average man and knowing how to defend themselves and take those falls. My father was fond of saying, “Jeff, you see what hard work, dedication and training can do for the human body. That constant pounding on the mat and all those blows to the body and their skin is as tough as a crocodile.” And for a young kid like me, who was clearly a dreamer from the start and very impressionable, I was fascinated by the larger-than-life abilities of these men. I believed it was possible for me to achieve these super human feats. And there was lesson number one. Hard work and dedication could transform me from average to exceptional.

And truth and fiction were not so far apart. My dad got to experience first hand how tough a pro wrestler’s skin really was. On February 17th, 1959 at the Forum in Hamilton Ontario (about a 40 minute drive west of Toronto), Reg was in attendance with a bunch of his Maltese and Italian friends including his brother Mario who retold this story numerous times. The main event match pitted future NWA World Champion and CFL football legend Gene Kiniski against Italian favourite Ilio Di Paulo. Ilio would go on to open a famous restaurant in the Buffalo NY area that featured all kinds of wrestling photos and memorabilia. Kiniski was conducting himself in his usual manner using rough house and illegal tactics. It got to the point where my father could not take it anymore and he jumped in the ring and attacked Kiniski from behind, hammering on his neck and back with forearm smashes and punches. My father was a very strong and well-built man who was into bodybuilding, boxing and judo training. He could really wield a punch that would knock most men down. But the way my dad and his friends described it, he was like a pesky little fly trying it’s best to make an impact to no avail. Kiniski simply got up, turned around and then started to chase my dad around the ring and through the arena. My dad, who was very resourceful, started grabbing the folding chairs at ringside and whipping them at Kiniski who athletically leap-frogged over every flying projectile. In the end, my father and his friends were ejected from the building and banned for one year. Whenever Reg would retell that story, he never left out the fact that hitting Kiniski on the back felt like hitting tough leather or crocodile skin.

Toronto 1959 

Growing up I had seen my father take down some big guys in confrontations and lift some incredibly heavy objects working in construction.  I remember him once carrying a refrigerator single handily up a flight of stairs. He had absolutely no fear and got into many altercations in Malta as a teenager and in his first 10 – 15 years in Canada. In fact, I have an article from the Toronto Telegram newspaper relating how he had been arrested for knocking out a neighbour on Folis Avenue in Toronto with one punch for leaning on his car. The article is entitled the One Punch Boxer. So, I heard this story retold many times by my dad, friends and relatives.  It became family folklore. I respected and looked up to my father and revered his confidence and strength. To think that his attack had no effect on this pro wrestler elevated their status in my young and impressionable mind. And so, my second revelation was that there is always someone tougher, stronger and more able.

How could I elevate my game to that level? How would I fair if and when the challenge arose? And how could I best prepare myself to face my fears and come out on top? The answer to some of these questions would be revealed in a few years when I organized a pro wrestling weekly challenge in a small park in the High Park area of Toronto. And once again my dad would play his part in the drama by manufacturing a wrestling belt for me at Anaconda Metals where he worked as a machine operator for close to 30 years.

But before I tell that story, I want to return to the mid 1970’s in our 2-bedroom apartment on the west side of Toronto and try to capture the history and the sounds and feelings of weekend television wrestling in our market. I was blessed to grow up in a time and area when cable television was just starting to take off. Wrestling in our market only aired on weekends but we definitely had our share of variety. No matter how much homework I had or what assignment was due, I would never miss watching any of the wrestling shows with my father. And that continued right up into my university years which ended in 1990 with me completing a 4-year Honours Degree in Political Science at the University of Toronto. Also, the year that I followed in my father’s footsteps and organized a trip to Wrestlemania 6 with my friends and dad at Toronto’s Skydome. So, the first show that aired on Saturday on a local Toronto station called Global – channel 41 on the dial, was Verne Gagne’s AWA Wrestling from the Minnesota area. For me there was one particular wrestler I was drawn to. A multi time AWA World Champion, Nick Bockwinkel managed by Bobby the Brain Heenan, was a classy, refined, good looking and well-spoken performer who managed to hold onto his title using cunning and intelligence. Hulk Hogan who started his career in the AWA was never able to find a way to take the championship off of Bockwinkel. Bockwinkel’s manager complimented him perfectly and possessed many of the same qualities in terms of microphone skills and a high level of intelligence.

Then on Saturday at 1pm on a local television channel out of Hamilton Ontario, CHCH channel 11, yes, the same place my dad got into the altercation with Kiniski, Maple Leaf Wrestling was aired. The show was hosted by long time Canadian wrestling legend Billy Red Lyons who was best known for his tag team work with Dewey Robertson (later the Missing Link) as the Crusaders. Each week Lyons would implore us to come back the following week to watch the show or to attend a live match at the Gardens with his famous tag line that any wrestling fan growing up in Toronto in those days could recite to this day, “Don’t you dare miss it!” Maple Leaf Wrestling, which was an NWA territory at the time, included a combination of video taped local wrestling matches, highlights from fights at the Maple Leaf Gardens, and taped matches from Jim Crockett’s NWA Mid Atlantic Championship Wrestling. In fact, the full Mid Atlantic Wrestling show would air on CBS channel 4 from Buffalo NY around 3pm on Saturdays.


It was through these shows that I was introduced to maybe the most influential wrestler on my personal development, the Nature Boy Ric Flair. Like Bockwinkel, he was incredibly well spoken, had an amazing level of confidence, and always had a champion’s air about him. But on top of that, there was a level of intensity, showmanship and charisma that were off the charts. When I first started watching him, he had still not won his first World Championship. He was competing with guys like Greg Valentine and Ricky Steamboat for the NWA United States Championship in some of the most entertaining and intense segments in wrestling television history. What those men did in that small Mid Atlantic TV studio was simply magic and it made a huge impression on me.

 Like Gorgeous George Wagner, who pioneered the ‘look at me’ culture in the early 50’s when television started, the culture of narcissism, it was an invitation to share in his self-infatuation or condemn him for it. George broke down the barriers and Flair took it to the next level just like Mohammed Ali borrowed from George to create his persona. Flair had the total package that reeked of success and ultimate confidence. The expensive suits, watches and shoes. The championship belts for the Mid Atlantic title to the US title to eventually the 10 pounds of gold NWA World Championship. He was surrounded on the television shows by numerous beautiful women and claimed to be able to party all night long, workout the next morning and wrestle a 60-minute match night in and night out, 7 days a week while travelling all over the world. And there it was; revelation and lesson number three. To be truly successful in life you had to really believe in yourself. You had to have the gift of the gab, a great vocabulary and be able to talk a good game and not be afraid or too humble to self promote and draw attention to yourself. But you also had to be able to back it up by working hard and training hard and staying ahead of the competition.

I was inspired to grab a dictionary, get out a thesaurus and improve my vocabulary. It encouraged me to practice wrestling interviews, to workout, shape and build my body, and more than anything, to start to believe that anything was possible and that I was going to be great. Like the musician Robert Zimmerman, who recreated himself as Bob Dylan shortly after watching a match with Gorgeous George in his high school in Hibbing Minnesota. I knew, just like Dylan did at that moment, that I would never work for anyone and would create my own path, following my passions and dreams. Like my initial encounter with Ric Flair, Dylan always claimed that he felt anointed after his encounter with George. “His look and mannerisms said, I’m not like everybody else. I’m someone special. And I don’t just accept it, I revel in it.” 

Outdoor Wrestling in High Park

Earlier I mentioned the wrestling belt that my father made for me at Anaconda Metals when I was in grade school, probably somewhere between grades 6 and 8. At the time you could not purchase any type of replica professional wrestling belt. No one made them and no wrestling organization offered them. So, my dad took a risk and smuggled out a piece of brass that he had someone in the factory cut for him for the belt’s main center plate. At the time he explained to me that no one was allowed to take any metals from the company and if he had been caught, he probably would have been suspended or even lost his job. On and off he worked on the belt for several weeks drilling it and stitching it all together, and to this day it’s the most precious and memorable gift I ever received from him. When he passed away in 2013, I draped his casket with it for the limousine ride to the cemetery.  My son Connor then led the procession, carrying it on his shoulder to the grave site to pay our final respects.

Jeff and the title belt!

I can tell you that as soon as I received that belt and put it over my shoulder and around my waist, I felt special, and in some magical or psychological way, it immediately increased my sense of stature and confidence.  And that leads to lesson number four. In life you are more likely to act your way into feeling than feel your way into acting. You have to envision something, believe it before you see it and before it shows up in your world. You have to dress for success, put on a championship belt, talk like you’ve already made it, and create an aura of pride and excellence - good things will then follow.

In this case, what followed could have ended up being quite dangerous and could have gotten me into a lot of trouble. You have to remember that in the 1970’s and early 80’s, no television wrestling promotion had any warnings to not try their wrestling moves at home or on any of your friends because of the potential for serious injury. I thought it was perfectly normal to want to emulate my wrestling heroes and start fights in the neighbourhood and at school. I couldn’t wait to show off my one and only championship belt and defend it every chance I got. To be honest, it never dawned on me that I would ever lose a match and have to give my belt up.

I should have come to the realization that wrestling my friends had the potential to end up badly after one of my first encounters at St. Louis School on Morgan Avenue in either grade 5 or 6. I convinced one of my friends who I ran the 4 X 100 relay race with, Carlos Munoz, to allow me to demonstrate the heart punch. I don’t remember if he was questioning the validity of pro wrestling or if I was simply bragging about my belt and what an accomplished wrestler I was becoming, but in either case, he agreed to let me execute the move. Now I had studied former WWWF Champion Stan the Man Stasiak’s heart punch and of course Ox Baker’s devastating version, and had practiced pulling one arm behind the opponent’s head thereby opening up the rib cage and heart area. So, I brought Carlos’ left hand behind his head with my left hand and then delivered a right-handed punch directly to his heart with everything I had. You can imagine both my shock, and at the same time, sense of awe as Carlos immediately dropped to the concrete ground in a heap and totally passed out. I don’t think I stopped his heart or it missed a beat, or anything like that, I believe I totally knocked the wind out of him.  But whatever it was, I had a bunch of mixed emotions rushing through me. It totally validated everything I knew to be true, that pro wrestling was real and that I had the ability to be great at it and defend my title. At the same time, I started to panic and was so relieved when he came to, surrounded by a couple of teachers and students and turned out to be ok. I can’t remember if I was every disciplined by the school for that incident. School yard fights were more common in those days, and I might have been warned by the teacher or the principal. All I know is that it did not deter me in the least, and in fact, fueled my fire to engage in more matches and fights and really try out all of the moves I had been carefully studying on television and at live matches.

It didn’t take me long to find a venue and a group of kids that I could test my skills against on a regular basis. In those days I would visit my cousins Eric and Mark in the High Park area almost every weekend. Eric was two years younger than me and Mark was four years younger. I introduced them both to professional wrestling and we would watch the various shows together at their place on Glenlake Avenue on Saturday afternoons.  I would then practice moves on them before we would head out for the rest of the afternoon and early evening to meet up with other friends in the neighbourhood to ride bikes, skateboard and hang out in parks. We would always meet up with one of my cousin’s best friends who lived on the same street, a Greek guy by the name of George Karopolis, who also loved pro wrestling. One of the parks we frequented was on the northwest corner of Glenlake Avenue and Keele Street. I believe it’s now called Lithuania Park. It was there that I talked my cousins and George into wrestling me in the grass and trying out the moves we had watched together that morning on television.

George was bigger than me but I was always able to either make him submit or pin him. After a few weeks our little exhibitions started to gain more attention from other kids who would frequent the park. I was also growing in confidence and stature and started to bring my championship belt with me.  Before long I started to throw down challenges. In fact, it was probably my first introduction to being a promoter, learning how to talk smack and get kids fired up to get them to accept a match with me. I also encouraged my cousins and George to tell kids at their schools about our matches in the park and about my belt. I went as far as putting up hand made posters around the area with an open challenge. Years later I walked into the offices of WWF promoter Jack Tunney to ask him to donate his ring for a charity wrestling event I organized at my high school.  And about 10 years after that I would go on to promote underground fights with staff and members at a fitness facility that I was managing long before the Fight Club movie came out.

In the end, I had multiple bouts. I never took on more than one challenger a weekend. In these real fights I don’t think I ever had the opportunity to execute on many moves. I did not realize at the time that to get opponents into figure four leg locks, abdominal stretches and suplexes required total participation from the other guy. Most matches were just a lot of clutch, grabbing and rolling around with me cinching them in a headlock and making the kid give up. I sometimes would use a simple hammer lock and to this day don’t know how I didn’t break someone’s arm. It eventually came to an abrupt end when I bloodied the nose of one boy and made him cry after a punishing headlock. My cousin’s parents got a visit from his parents letting them know what happened and about our little wrestling organization. I retired from the High Park Wrestling League with my championship belt in tact and I am still in proud possession of that original masterpiece. Maybe it should be included in the history of wrestling belts defended in Toronto like the Canadian and North American Heavyweight Championships. 

A Few Memories of Maple Leaf Gardens & Maple Leaf Wrestling

My father would have started taking me to regular Sunday evening and occasional afternoon monthly matches at the Maple Leaf Gardens on Carlton Street starting around 1974 or 75. I saved every single ringside ticket stub right up until we stopped attending cards there around 1990. In the early NWA territory days, when Frank Tunney was promoting shows at the Gardens, we probably missed no more than 2 – 3 cards from 1974 – 1983. To this day I can still remember the immense disappointment I felt on those rare occasions when my father told me that we would not be able to attend. I understood how difficult and demanding my father’s work at his steel factory was, and that he would often have to work double or triple shifts to support the family. But it did not make it any easier for me. At that point in my life, there was literally nothing I wanted or longed for more than attending those live events. Keep in mind that the majority of main events and title matches were reserved for the live shows. The television studio wrestling always featured preliminary, average wrestlers, who would quickly lose to the established stars. Rivalries were built up over the weeks through some minor confrontations and interviews with the goal of selling tickets for the arena shows. There was no television or pay per view coverage of these matches, so you really felt like you had missed out if you were unable to attend. There could be a small 5-minute segment of a couple of the main matches shown on the studio show weeks after the event, but that was rare. In fact, if you saw a television camera being set up at the Gardens, you immediately got the sense that something big was going to happen. 

The local Toronto newspapers like the Toronto Star, and more so the Toronto Sun, featured small advertisements in the sports section for the upcoming card. They would also publish the results of the matches on Monday mornings in the sports section. That was pretty much the only way you knew about the outcomes. I’m still in possession of many of those advertisements and result summaries that I clipped out of the papers over the years. I was always a little bit frustrated and annoyed that professional wrestling did not get the same type of media coverage on television sports reports and in the newspaper as compared to the other major league sports. I would take great pride and pleasure when a newspaper featured a longer article on a wrestler. In fact, those stories usually involved an altercation between a wrestler and a fan or police officers. The wrestler usually came out on top and I was so quick to show the article to my friends to prove that pro wrestling was for real and that these guys were the toughest and best athletes in the world.

In those days, the only way to get tickets for the live matches was by going down to the arena in person and lining up at the box office. It’s one of my fondest childhood memories. During the Sunday night shows, the ring announcer, typically Norm Kimber, would promote the upcoming show for the following month, indicating that tickets would go on sale at the box office the following morning. He would announce a couple of returning wrestlers from the current card and then announce one or two big main events. Once I was old enough to start taking the subway downtown on my own, I would get the money for two seats from my dad and head down first thing Monday morning. I was not in the least bit concerned about being late for class, and I typically ended up first to third in line every time. Seldom would I be able to land us a pair of first row A ringside seats. Those pretty much went to season ticket holders. On a few occasions I was fortunate enough to get the second row, but more often than not we sat somewhere between rows C and D. And of course, this was long before cell phones so I had to wait to get back home after school to share the news with my father. If it was anything beyond row D, he always voiced a little disapproval. I also seem to remember him wanting us to avoid the first row in case a wrestler was thrown out of the ring on top of us. Being that close to the action, for all of those cards, was truly an incredible experience for me. You could feel and hear the action, and the banter between the wrestlers and the fans made it more captivating. I was also thankful that we were not sitting at the top of the arena in the green or gray seats. In those days, people smoked a lot in the arenas, and there was always a cloud of thick heavy smoke at the top of the building by the first intermission.

Three generations! Jeff & Connor, Reg, Jeff, & Connor, Jeff & Connor

After forty plus years, I can still vividly recall and feel the experience of travelling to and from the Maple Leaf Gardens by public transportation. Because we lived in the west end of the city in South Etobicoke, that meant a bus ride up Royal York Road to the Bloor Danforth eastbound subway line. We would then transfer at the Yonge Street station to take the southbound line down to Carlton station. At the Yonge and Bloor station you would be join by a myriad of wrestling fans heading to the event that were coming from all different parts of the city and suburbs. So, my fondest memories involved that south bound train that only needed to go two stops to arrive at the Gardens College Station. Up to the 1980’s, or maybe even early 90’s, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) ran the original old red subway cars on that line. I remember being packed into them like sardines and they would rattle, creek and squeak and the car lights (which were lightbulbs screwed into old sockets and covered with glass) would go off and on as the train rambled down the tracks swaying from side-to-side causing people to stumble and bump into one another. My dad would be holding onto one of the metal handles that you could pull down from the ceiling of the train car for support, and I would be looking up at him and holding on to his other arm or leg. The mounting excitement for upcoming matches was palpable. People would be talking about who was on the card, who they thought was going to win, who they liked and who they despised. “Did you see what happened on last week’s Maple Leaf Wrestling show?” “Do you think that Race is going to lose the title to Flair tonight?” I always felt comforted and protected being close to my father in that environment and I also felt a special bond to him. It was the one passion and experience that we shared the most.

When the train arrived on the College/ Carlton subway stop platform, we funneled out shoulder to shoulder, made our way up the stairs to the street level and walked east towards the Maple Leaf Gardens. When we ascended the stairs and then joined the hustle and bustle of all the action and noises on Carlton Street, my excitement continued to grow. Seeing that iconic Maple Leaf Gardens marquee, lit up with ‘Maple Leaf Wrestling Tonight’ was literally heaven on earth for me. The train rides home were more subdued, after expending a lot of energy screaming and jumping out of our seats during the matches, but were still memorable in a different way. Fans would be discussing the outcomes of the matches, the main events announced for the next card, and possibly flipping through a wrestling program they had purchased. In those days there were very few options in terms of merchandise. Typically, your standard program with a few articles on some wrestlers and the line up of the card. You could also buy 8 X 10 black and white photos of some of your favourite wrestlers, but there were no t-shirts, wrestling belts or wrestling figures. One of my fondest pieces of wrestling memorabilia is a 1970’s program that my dad purchased for me, with Andre the Giant on the front cover posing over the city pre-CN Tower. On the inside was a photo of Elvis Presley, Promoter Frank Tunney and Whipper Billy Watson from when Elvis played the Gardens, a story on Haystack Calhoun and a story on Harley Race regaining the NWA Title.

There is one interaction that I had with a wrestling icon from those days, while travelling to the Gardens, that stands out above the rest. As I mentioned earlier, in the mid 70’s Bruno Sammartino was my favourite wrestler and a huge inspiration for me throughout my life. He was one of the main reasons I got into bodybuilding and eventually started a profession in the fitness industry. At the time of this encounter that happened right on Carlton Street, Bruno was in his second run as WWWF Champion. In my mind, and in the hearts and minds of many wrestling fans and writers who produced the wrestling magazines, Bruno was an unstoppable and unbeatable force of nature. But there was one man who ended Bruno’s incredible first title run that went over seven years, and I just happened to walk right by him as he made his way to the arena. Of course, that legend was the Russian Bear Ivan Koloff.

I would have been about 9 years old and both very weary of and intimidated by what I thought I knew about Russian athletes - about their desire to promote their way of life and politics, and prove they were superior by dominating the West in any competitive endeavour. The Central Red Army had taken Canada to the limit in the 1972 hockey series and they were now starting to dominate NHL teams. There was a lot of bad blood and tension between our nations. In those days, I was too young and had no way of knowing that Koloff was actually a Canadian, and that he was only playing the part of a Russian bad guy. He had done the unthinkable and pinned Sammartino in 1971 bringing the crowd at Madison Square Garden to a stunned hush. People were in total shock and disbelief.  Many in the audience were shedding tears that their Italian hero had been dethroned. So, for an impressionable young man coming face to face with this dangerous villain, on a cold dark snowy winter night in downtown Toronto, steps away from the legendary Maple Leaf Gardens, the encounter brought emotions of awe, fear and excitement to the surface. I can still see him wearing a huge fur coat and a type of Russian Cossack hat. He looked as big and wide as a Mack truck. In those days bad guys never came out of character. I yelled, “Dad, dad, that’s Ivan Koloff” as he slowly walked by, but he did not make eye contact and continued on his way without even acknowledging me.

Now I’m so thankful that these wrestlers made every effort to protect the business and stay in character and role in all situations. It totally heightened our experiences and allowed us to be fully invested with our emotions and hearts. No different than an Oscar winning actor taking years to fully understand and get into his character. To the point of even transforming his body and looks, so that when he plays the role, the audience is totally drawn in, can suspend their disbelief, thereby gaining the maximum benefit of the entertainment experience.  And there is a key lesson in all of this as well. Fiction written well, produced well, and done well can have a very strong and positive impact on lives. Make time for and put yourself into that world of make believe and magic whether it’s novels, theatre, movies or professional wrestling and allow yourself to dream and believe. It’s the stuff of legends and heroes and we should all be reaching and striving for the stars. Live in the unknown and in the adventure, and allow yourself to go wherever the road takes you. Because of experiences and moments like these, I was able to take the path less travelled, take risks, and pursue a unique life of passion and adventure, and it made all the difference in the world. I was and am a dreamer, and I’ve been living out my dreams to this day.

Another Maple Leaf Garden memory that I cherish and will always stick with me occurred on February 6th, 1977 and Ivan Koloff just happened to be on that card. I was 9 years old and once again in attendance with my father in the third or fourth row in the ringside seats. The match prior to the main event pitted two long term foes who frequented so many cards in Ontario and Michigan - Bobo Brazil versus the United States Champion the Original Sheik. The Sheik was the stuff that childhood nightmares were made of. Take all of the characters of any horror film that terrified you growing up, combine them all, and they wouldn’t come close to the fear that the Sheik brought to children who got to experience his insane brutality, bizarre rituals and horrifyingly scarred face. But it wasn’t the Sheik that made that night extra special for me. In the 1970s, Toronto was a National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) territory. It was definitely a major market, but even so, Promoter Frank Tunney would be able to bring the World Champion to his region no more than a few times a year. So, the fact that on this night NWA Champion Terry Funk would be defending his title against Harley Race was already a pretty big deal. But to actually witness a world title change was truly a rarity for a few reasons. First of all, title reigns would last considerably longer than in the current era. Terry’s brother Dory Funk Jr. held the title for just over four years and Terry was in his fourteenth month as champion. Lou Thesz has several long title reigns including one that lasted almost six years. Secondly, titles usually changed hands in territories or markets where the most influential promoters for the organization had their home base. For the NWA that would often be St. Louis, Chicago or Kansas City. I’m positive that most in attendance that night, including myself, never expected the belt to change hands. However, looking back on the history books, Toronto had three NWA title changes prior to this match indicating how significant this market was to the organization over the years. This would be the final time that the NWA crown would change hands in Toronto, and I was there to take it all in.

Reflecting back, I can’t tell you if it was the atmosphere and spirit of the hallowed building that made it feel like a big-time major title fight. It was the same building that was the home to epic confrontations like Ali versus George Chuvalo.  Was it the larger-than-life personas of Race and Funk, and their methodical styles that gave it that extra air of championship stature? Was it the NWA Ten Pounds of Gold, with its incredible lineage going back to 1948, with champions that my father boasted about and saw wrestle live like Canadians Whipper Billy Watson and Gene Kiniski? Or was it that I still believed that all of this was 100% real and that the NWA World Champion was the toughest man on God’s green earth? Most likely, it was a combination of all of those things that created that mystique for me and for most of the people there in attendance.

At that point, I’m pretty sure I did not know what the Indian Death Lock was. I was familiar with the Figure Four Leg Lock, but when Race applied that leg hold to Funk I was mesmerized. The great invincible Terry Funk could not break the hold which Race had total control of using only one of his legs.  Funk attempted to head butt his way out, chop and slap his way free, but to no avail. Race just continued to rock back and forth and drop back to apply more pressure.  After what seemed to be a few minutes, Funk submitted and Race bolted to his feet with his arms raised high in victory. The match was refereed by resident Garden’s official and former wrestler Fred Atkins, even though former NWA Champ Pat O’Connor had originally been scheduled to officiate. As Atkins handed the belt to Race, ring announcer Norm Kimber grabbed the microphone that would descend to the ring on a cable that was connected to the score clock above. This added to the majesty and electricity of the grand spectacle. “The winner of the match, at a time of 14 minutes 10 seconds, with an Indian Death Lock, the new Heavyweight Champion of the World – Harley Race!” The voice, the tone, the style, the echo through the arena, sounding so much like the ring announcer in the movie Rocky II calling out Rocky Balboa as the new Heavyweight Champion of the World.

I had just witnessed the most prestigious championship in pro wrestling history change hands right before my eyes, in my own home town, and my young heart rejoiced and celebrated along with Race and so many in attendance. Something epic had been accomplished, and I not only felt a part of it, but in that moment, I believed that I could and would achieve great things.  It should come as no surprise that it was not long after that match that I was already practicing and perfecting Race’s winning hold on friends and relatives, and issuing challenges to anyone at school or at the park to see if they could break the hold or not give up. To this day it remains my favourite submission hold. And as special and magical as seeing The Ultimate Warrior defeat Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania VI in Toronto’s Skydome, a match that I took my father to, for me it never measured up to or came close to what I experienced on that February night at the Maple Leaf Gardens.

That brings me to one final memory that I will relate, although there were countless others, that was unique to my experience with Maple Leaf Wrestling. It occurred in 1985 in my fourth year of high school in a small office across the street from Maple Leaf Gardens. But a little back story is required first. As I mentioned, Bruno played a pivotal role in inspiring me to take up weight training and body building at a very early age. But there were others like Superstar Billy Graham, Jimmy Snuka, Ivan Putski and Ricky Steamboat that had outstanding physiques that helped achieve outstanding success in the business. By grade 12, my fourth year of high school at Michael Power / St. Joseph’s Catholic High School, I was 17 years old, bench pressing just over 300lbs, squatting around 450lbs and wrestling on the high school team. I was 5’9’’ and weighing in at about 193lbs. My love for professional wrestling was still at an all time high which inspired me to order a life size 6’7” colour poster of Hulk Hogan through the mail. I hung it up in our high school weight room without permission, and the few guys that trained there with me from the football and wrestling teams loved it. However, the one guy that did not particularly appreciate it was our high school wrestling coach Mr. Mills, and he tore it down and forbade us from putting anything else up. It might be slightly better today, in terms of more respect coming from those so-called legitimate sports and competitors for professional wrestlers as a result of more amateur wrestlers and MMA stars crossing over to professional wrestling and having success in both worlds. But the biases and disrespect that were so prevalent back then are still mostly in place now. 

High School yearbook 1985

After the poster was taken down, I became more determined than ever to expose more students to the excitement, entertainment and athleticism of professional wrestling. And so, I approached our class Vice - President Steve Deighton with an idea about organizing and producing a high school pro wrestling show for charity. Although Steve was not into sports and wasn’t a huge pro wrestling fan, he embraced the concept and approached a couple of teachers and the principle and got permission. We worked together to pick the individuals who would be on the card and then came up with the story lines. The main event would feature a tag team between two members from our high school against our nemesis St. Mike’s College. Although the team from St. Mike’s would be comprised of Michael Power students including Steve Deighton, we would create St. Mike’s blue and white masks and they would easily become the bad guys in the event and draw a lot of heat.

During that match I was the manager for the St. Mike’s Masked Marvels. I got heavily involved in the match and was Irish whipped into the front row of fans that I prepped before the match to ensure they would not be injured. A couple of students, including my best friend Peter Muscat, moved out of the way at the last second and I hit those steel folding chairs with a lot of momentum and got a great reaction.  At the time, the WWF was doing a story line with John Stud and Andre the Giant with each claiming that neither man could slam the other.  I introduced the idea of using our biggest high school football player Ian Galiota for a body slam challenge. I would be involved in that encounter and came to the ring all tanned and pumped up in a Brutus the Barber Beefcake looking outfit minus the scissors. When I was unable to slam Galiota, I hit him over the back with a chair.  Then, football and basketball star Mike Zita and I double teamed him and double suplexed him. The high school gym was packed to maximum capacity for this fundraiser. Nothing else like this had ever been done in school history and I don’t believe has ever happened since. It’s little wonder that my grade thirteen 1986 year book says the following; “Jeff plans to go to Madison Square Gardens to win the world wrestling title from Hulk Hogan.”

Now you might ask what this all has to do with Maple Leaf Wrestling? Well, supposedly there is a VHS tape out there somewhere that has this whole event recorded. Deighton claimed to have come across it at his home a couple of years ago but still no one has seen it. If you were able to watch it, you would notice that our ring was just a huge mound of amateur wrestling mats piled up on top of each other. They did the trick but I originally had a much bigger vision. I wanted to have an actual wrestling ring donated and installed for the event. I had recently been made aware that one of our students, Jamie McDonnell, was the nephew of acting WWF President figurehead Jack Tunney. In fact, the word is that Jamie is still in possession of the only remaining tape. Jack had taken the promotion over from his uncle Frank Tunney a year or two before our event and brought the WWF to the Gardens ending their family’s relationship with the NWA. So, I offered to use Jamie’s name and head down to Jack Tunney’s office to boldly ask for his ring fully expecting that we would have a good shot. I had known for years that Frank Tunney had his promoter’s office across the street from the Gardens in a small office tower that was pointed out to me several times. I had walked into the building’s lobby a few times over the years and saw Maple Leaf Wrestling listed on the directory of businesses and seem to recall that it was on the third floor. It was at 27 Carlton Street and the building is still in existence today with offices on the first few floors and apartments above.

I think I might have tried to get the phone number for the office to make an appointment, but I either never found the number, or if I did, no one answered the phone. I decided to make my way down there and take a shot a meeting with someone in person on the fly. That area was like a second home to me and like my own back yard, having by then attended over 100 live matches at the Gardens. I got off the subway at the College /Carlton station, and this time crossed the street to the south side and took the elevator up to the office of Maple Leaf Wrestling. As I opened the door, I noticed there was no one at the reception desk and it was pretty close to lunch time, but I did hear some deep booming voices in the back offices.  I just waited in the lobby to see if anyone would come out. It didn’t take long for three large men to appear and I recognized all of them immediately. Leading the way was Jack Tunney himself. He was a very tall, broad shouldered and thick individual with a loud deep voice. Just behind him was one of Canada’s greatest tag team wrestlers with the Crusaders and commentator for CHCH Maple Leaf Wrestling Billy Red Lyons, no small figure himself, and ring announcer Norm Kimber. Although I was pretty large in stature for my size, all three of the men dwarfed me.

Fit at 50!

Tunney was the first to speak and asked what he could help me with. I introduced myself and mentioned my connection with his nephew Jamie. That did not get any response or even acknowledgement. I then told him that I had been an avid wrestling fan and how much my family supported wrestling at the Gardens since the 1950’s. I don’t recall much response from him if any on that topic either. And then I told him about our charity event and asked if he would be willing to donate his ring to support us. That’s when he turned to Red Lyons and Kimber and started to laugh.  He said something to the effect of “Billy, who is this guy kidding? Charity? He’s going to probably put all the money in his pocket. We’re not interested.” The three of them just walked past me chuckling and talking amongst themselves, heading to the elevators to probably go out for lunch. So we went on with the event, we had a massive turnout, we raised a lot of money for charity without a dime going into my pocket or any other students or staff. It was my first and last professional wrestling match.  It was also my very first event promotion but definitely not my last. And here’s my final takeout and lesson from this adventure and challenge. You’ll never have all the answers, have all the dots connected or have the clear path. You’ll never be fully educated or prepared for anything. But the most important thing is to just jump in and figure it out along the way. It’s only in the realm of doing, failing, struggling and persevering where the true learning and the real success will occur.

So, what great event or great day are you saving yourself for? You only have now and that moment has already passed. “Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans” – John Lennon

-by Jeff Russo 2022

Photos from Jeff Russo collection, nostalgia collection - Thanks Jeff!