Category Archives: 1948-1979

Profile – Gene Kiniski

Holding the NWA World Heavyweight Championship for 1,131 days, former Canadian football star Gene Kiniski was one of the most successful champions in the record books.  In a time when champions were known as squeaky clean good guy wrestlers, with his aggressive nature and natural charisma, “Big Thunder” broke that precedent.

Kiniski was born on 23rd November 1928 in Lamont, Alberta, Canada before moving onto the nearby town of Chipman at an early age.  Times were hard financially for his family after the Stock Market Crash in 1929 and they moved to Edmonton by the time that Gene was 11.  By the time he was a teenager, At six feet tall with a robust build, Kiniski was a promising athlete practising amateur wrestling and football at St. Joseph’s High School.

By the time he was 20, Gene was recruited by the Edmonton Eskimos, sporting the number 50 and played defensive lineman in the Western Interprovincial Football Union, which was the predecessor of the Canadian Football League.  Quoted as making a paltry $200 a year with the Eskimos, Kiniski moved onto college at the University of Arizona and played lineman for the Wildcats and became a strong NFL prospect.  His aggression was highlighted after being chucked out of three games for unnecessary roughness.

While staying in Tucson, Gene and close friend Steve Paproski needed jobs and became working for wrestling promoter and Edmonton native Rod Fenton as ushers and selling programs at his events.  Kiniski became an asset at the events due to his size protecting the wrestlers from over-excited fans and began to start to work out at the local gyms with fellow wrestlers and Fenton and got involved in the basics of wrestling training.

It is rumoured that Kiniski and Paproski started wrestling in different towns under pseudo names so that the University would not find out, but eventually, their cover was blown and the Wildcat coach Robert Winslow demanded they immediately stop.  Later that year, although it was against the wishes of his family back in Edmonton, Kiniski decided to trade in the football pads for wrestling boots and was set to make his debut on Fenton show.

So, on February 13th 1952, donning the cover of the programs he used to sell, Kiniski made his in-ring debut at the Sports Center in Tucson defeating Curly Hughes in around 12 minutes. Gene went on to gain in-ring experience in Tucson, El Paso and Albuquerque working a few times per week.  Kiniski began working out with Dory Funk Sr. and Dory Jr. in a friendship that would work out well for both parties in the future.

By 1954, Kiniski was plying his trade in Los Angeles working NWA Hollywood TV shows frequently against a young Bobo Brazil before moving onto Hawaii to form a tag team with Lord Blears to face Japanese duo Kokichi Endo and Rikidozan.  Moving onto Dallas, Kiniski and his aggressive nature became a great draw, he was ruthless with sharp wit and possessed a mean streak.  With the vicious back-breaker as his signature move, fans were buying tickets to see Gene get beat up but much to the crowd’s dismay, Kiniski usually came out on top.

At the age of 29, Gene returned to Canada and received his first NWA Worlds Heavyweight Title shot against Lou Thesz and managed to hold the champ to a draw in front of thousands packed inside the Maple Leaf Gardens. Kiniski started to get massively over proclaiming himself as “Canada’s Greatest Athlete” and grappling with former world champions Bill Longson, Pat O’ Connor and “Whipper” Billy Watson. His trash-talking rogue persona started to turn promoter’s heads and he was booked across the States and Canada. Come 1960, Minneapolis promoters Wally Karbo and Verne Gagne broke away from the NWA and created the American Wrestling Association and they contacted Kiniski to headline their events.

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Gene alternated between AWA and NWA promoted events and on 11th July 1961, Kiniski dethroned Gagne to win his first world championship, the AWA World Title.  Although the reign did not last long and less than a month later, inside the confines of a Steel Cage, Gagne regained the title.  Gene’s career went from strength to strength winning singles titles in various territories and received a WWWF title shot against top draw Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Garden in November 1964 with over 18,000 in attendance. Kiniski believed he had pinned Bruno and left ringside with the title belt, but he was counted out. Gene kept the belt until a rematch a month later in which Bruno regained possession of his championship.

St. Louis promoter Sam Muchnick booked Kiniski to wrestle Fritz von Erich, Johnny Valentine and Dick the Bruiser. After clinching a win over former champ Pat O’Connor, Gene was awarded another shot at Lou Thesz’s NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship. The bout, booked by Muchnick was set to take place at the Kiel Auditorium on 7th January 1966 in front of a packed house and the NWA board voted to give “Big Thunder” a run with the strap.

In a best of three falls match, history was made. Thesz went ahead with the first fall but was disqualified for throwing Gene over the top rope tying up the bout at 1-1.  After less than two minutes inside the third fall, Kiniski pinned Thesz and referee Joe Scheonberger slammed his hand on the canvas three times and Gene had become the world champion. Kiniski was the first man in history to hold the AWA and NWA World titles.

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In a true contrast to Lou Thesz, Kiniski was a natural bad guy and his heel behaviour made him a very successful touring champion. He drew big crowds in all the NWA territories including the JWA in Japan where he faced Antonio Inoki and Shohei (Giant) Baba, even challenging the latter for his NWA International Heavyweight belt.  However, like many champions, the schedule became exhausting to Gene and at the NWA convention in November 1968, he told the Alliance members that he wished to drop the title.  Being a close friend to the Funk family, Gene ended his three-year reign to Dory Funk Jr. via spinning toe-hold on 11th February 1969 in Tampa, Florida.

After resting up, Gene travelled back to Japan to win the International Heavyweight championship from Baba in Osaka for a short 16-day reign before failing to the big man in Los Angeles in a rematch.  Throughout the 1970s, Gene was still a profitable draw for the NWA promoters and received many title shots against Dory, Harley Race, Jack Brisco and Terry Funk but failed to clinch that second reign.  He started to book his own shows with Vancouver All-Star Wrestling promoter Sandor Kovacs, buying out his trainer Rod Fenton’s share, and he brought many World title matches to the British Columbia area.

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He vastly eased up his schedule by 1976 and climbed into the ring intermittently in the early 1980s until quietly heading into retirement come 1985.  Always being the athlete for all his life, Kiniski stayed fit later in life training daily. However, in early 2010, congestive heart failure hospitalised Gene and his weight massively decreased.  He had been secretly battling cancer for years and it had grown to his brain. He passed away with family at his bedside on April 14th 2010.  He was 81 years old.

Kiniski was a true champion, a true athlete and to fill his bank account, a true heel.  Fans paid to see Gene get beat and he didn’t.  For over three years he was World Heavyweight Champion and in his own words, Gene made sure that even if the fan went home sulking, they got their money’s worth.

As always, thanks for reading…

Will Burns

Source: Tim Hornbaker – National Wrestling Alliance, Steven Verrier – Gene Kiniski Canadian Wrestling Legend

Profile – Dory Funk Jr.

Second generation athlete Dory Funk Jr. holds the honour of the second-longest reign as NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion, retaining onto the championship for a total of 1,563 days.  Only Lou Thesz wore the title longer and with over 7,000 wrestling matches under his belt, Dory is the personification of a wrestling legend.

Dory was born Dorrance Earnest Funk on 3rd February 1941 in Amarillo, Texas.  His father Dory Funk Sr. was a wrestler and promoter of the Western States Sports promotion and his own words, Dory Jr. proclaimed that: “My father was my teacher, he was my coach, he was my guidance counsellor, he was pretty much everything to me.”.

Training under his father, Dory Jr. began wrestling at age 22 after a successful college football career as a tackle at West Texas University.  His father was very critical of Dory and his younger brother Terry Funk’s work, delivering very little praise to his sons.  Terry stated, “if our father never said anything to us, we’d know we had a good match.”.  Although this negative behaviour may have broken some, Dory and Terry felt they excelled from this treatment, although they had minimal training before stepping in between the ropes, his critique helped them improve.

His in-ring debut was a win over Don Fargo at the Amarillo Sports Arena and continued on to face Wild Bull Curry, Mike DiBiase and Harley Race in his early years.  Only four years into the business Dory became promoting with his father, Dory Sr. in 1967.  They both owned a 50% share of the Amarillo territory after promoter Doc Sarpolis passed away and his widow sold Doc’s asset onto Dory Jr.

In-ring, even in his rookie years, Dory showed a hard-hitting style that got people in the business talking and he would eventually move onto the Florida, Vancouver and Missouri territories and the National Wrestling Alliance board, which his father was an influential member of, chose to give one of the Funk brothers a run with the Worlds Heavyweight Championship.  Dory Sr. returned home from the NWA meeting and he stated to his boys that “we can get one of you ready”, brother Terry unselfishly nominated his brother to get the title belt.

On 11th February 1969, Dory Funk Jr. defeated champion Gene Kiniski with a spinning toehold at the Armory in Tampa, Florida to begin his four-year reign.  That evening, his father uncharacteristically praised him and said: “you have accomplished a hell of a lot and I’m proud of you.”.

Dory was a consummate champion and went onto to gain a huge following in Japan with his no-nonsense legitimate-looking style.  He made his debut in the Land of the Rising Sun later in ‘69, working for the Japan Pro-Wrestling Association tagging with Danny Hodge taking NWA International Tag Team Champions Antonio Inoki & Giant Baba to a one-hour draw.  With his ability of strong-style forearm smashes, a variety of suplexes and leglocks, the Japanese fans lapped it up.  This became the first of many, many of tours of Japan.

Over the four-year reign, Funk feuded with Jack Brisco in a series of one-hour draws all over the world. From the U.S. to Japan to Mexico to the Caribbean, crowds across many territories sold out for the match.  The feud intensified and the brothers got involved as Jack’s brother Jerry Brisco would team up to take on Dory and Terry, again selling out many arenas across the NWA territories.

Dory was scheduled to face Jack in another NWA title defence but he suffered an unfortunate accident with a pickup truck on his father’s ranch.  There was speculation through Brisco that Dory was scheduled to drop the title to Jack and the injury was fabricated.  Jack states he came to this conclusion due to the history of manipulation tactics used on fellow NWA board members by Dory Sr. in the past.

Nevertheless, he was forced to drop the title in Kansas City on 24th May 1973, not to Brisco but to 30-year-old hometown hero Harley Race.  Race and the Funk family were rumoured to be close friends at this point and presumed by many speculators as a reason why the title was dropped to him rather than Brisco.

Tragedy struck the Funk family just nine days later on 3rd June 1973.  Terry and his father Dory Sr. were at his father ranch with fellow wrestler Les Thornton.  Les and Dory Sr. started grappling in good spirits and Les claimed that Dory “couldn’t choke him out”.  Les was made to eat his words moments later and tapped but Dory began to feel unwell shortly after. Unfortunately, he suffered a heart attack and passed away while travelling to the hospital.

In their father’s absence, Terry joined Dory in booking the Amarillo territory to great success but their popularity in Japan brought greater triumph. They started regularly competing for Giant Baba’s All Japan Pro Wrestling which saw its inception a year earlier and Dory became a veteran of the promotion.  He feuded with Baba, The Destroyer, Jumbo Tsuruta, Abdullah The Butcher, The Sheik and NWA champion Harley Race.  Terry joined him soon after working tag matches against teams of the crazy tandem of Abdullah and Sheik and Japanese pairing of Baba and Tsuruta.

In December 1975, Jack Brisco was NWA World Champion and a match was set in Miami Beach, Florida to face Dory for the championship.  Brisco had held two reigns with the title over two years and became exhausted with the schedule the champion was expected to honour.  He was ready to drop the title, but the NWA board had chosen Terry Funk as his successor.  That night, they ran an angle where it was Terry would face Brisco and defeat him to become the champion.  The promoter and Brisco used the excuse that Jack had prepared for Dory, not Terry.

The Funk Brothers became big box office stars in AJPW and captured many World’s Strongest Tag Determination League trophies in 1977, 1979, and 1982.  On 11th December 1980, the Funks won ‘Match of the Year’ Award from Tokyo Sports for their match against Baba and Tsuruta.

Yet in AJPW, Dory’s greatest accomplishment was winning the NWA International Heavyweight Championship a total of three times.  He captured his first by victory in a tournament for the vacant title defeating his brother in April 1981.  After dropping the title to Butch Reed that June he went on to recapture it from Reed later that summer.  On 9th October he was defeated by Bruiser Brody in Tokyo but regained it a month later, before eventually losing it back to Brody in April 1982.

Dory went onto to work for Vince McMahon’s WWF in 1986, Puerto Rico and Japan until the mid-90’s when he followed brother Terry to Philadelphia to work for Paul Heyman’s Extreme Championship Wrestling.  They competed against the Public Enemy until the feud culminated in a brutal and bloody Barbed Wire Match in the summer of 1994.

Dory nurtures his own talent through his Funkin’ Conservatory in Ocala, Florida which he opened in 1981.  Dory now 78 years old, is still active in the ring with his last match (at the time of writing) took place in November 2018 in Japan.

As always, thanks for reading…

Will Burns

Source: Tim Hornbaker – National Wrestling Alliance, Terry Funk – More Than Hardcore‘The Funks’ Documentary

Profile – Sam Muchnick

In the shady business of professional wrestling uniquely St. Louis wrestling promoter Sam Muchnick became known as “the honest wrestling promoter”. His influence within the National Wrestling Alliance was incomparable and many believe he was solely responsible for the success of the organisation.

Muchnik was born in Novohrad-Volynskyi in Ukraine on 22nd August 1905 and moved to St. Louis, Missouri at the young age of six.  Not soon after he was hooked by the sport of wrestling and even skipped his high school graduation to watch Wladek Zbyszko wrestle at the Odeon Theatre.

Sam left his first employment at the postal service in 1926 to join the sports staff of the St. Louis Times, earning $20 a week to write about Baseball team St. Louis Cardinals. In 1932, the newspaper merged with the St. Louis Star and Muchnick was subsequently offered a journalistic role there but declined.

As a journalist, Muchnick learnt great people skills and how to deal with media and politicians and working in sports had grown many connections.

After forming friendships with Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Lou Thesz and Ray Steele, Muchnick met Tom Packs, a wrestling promoter for the National Wrestling Association (the original NWA). Packs controlled the Association’s World title with Billy Sandow defending the strap in the Midwest area.

Packs offered Sam a job and his understanding of the wrestling business grew. Around nine years later, with experience under his belt, Packs entrusted Muchnick to essentially run the promotion.  Sam decided to promote his own shows and by 27th March 1942, he promoted his own card. However, his plans for wrestling had to be put on hold as World War II broke out. After a stint in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945, Sam returned to St. Louis to try his hand at promoting professional wrestling shows, opening an office in opposition to Packs.

His shows really started to thrive. His ‘Sam Muchnick Sports Attractions’ shows would pull good money from the Kiel Auditorium by booking Steele and Lewis.  Seeing Muchnick as competition, Packs severed tie with Sam and used his connections across the country to blackball Muchnick’s promotion and the stopped the top talents from working his shows.  Muchnick was resorted to using veterans of the game, older stars while Packs booked all the young, popular stars.  Packs slaughtered Muchnick at the box office, virtually monopolising the St. Louis market.

But fortunately for Muchnick, Packs lost his wealth in the stock market and was forced to close his office. Muchnick shared his experiences and troubles in his own territory with several promoters and they agreed to form an alliance to combat this. This was known as the National Wrestling Alliance.

A meeting was held on 18th July 1948 in Waterloo, Iowa. Pinkie George (Iowa) invited Muchnick, Orville Brown (Kansas City), Maxwell Clayton (Omaha), Fred Kohler (Chicago) and Wally Karbo (representing Joe Stecher of Minneapolis) and they made an agreement to share talent within their promotions but now with anyone in competition to the Alliance. They also declared they would be one true World Champion.

Business picked up for the NWA territories and on 4th February 1949, Muchnick celebrated his first sell-out of the Kiel Auditorium which was headlined by “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. This was a few months after Sam offered to unite companies with Lou Thesz, who had taken over Packs’ bookings.  Although Thesz declined at that time after he witnessed how successful Muchnick’s and the NWA’s shows were becoming, Thesz then offered to Muchnick to merge promotions.

Muchnick replaced Pinkie George as NWA president in 1950 and held the role for 22 years. He elevated the organisation to its greatest heights and helped it grow in numbers. It was an extremely tough role in managing the Alliance’s greedy representatives who were looking to improve their own wealth.  His pleasant professional attitude and diplomatic style with authority policed all the troublemakers trying to hinder the NWA’s future. Sam kept the stability of the professional wrestling business for over two decades and became one of the only promoters that were respected by the all in the business.

Muchnick was an amicable, smart businessman and he had the power to make himself rich and book good friend and World Champion Lou Thesz on as many shows as he liked, but unselfishly he assured that Lou was booked fairly across the territories.  Muchnick has to take a lot of credit for the credibility and prestige that the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship still holds today.

In 1959, Muchnick formed the St. Louis Wrestling Club while producing a new television program titled “Wrestling at the Chase” on Missouri station KPLR-TV, which ran for 23 years until September 1983 and produced over 1,000 episodes of the show.  The show, filmed at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in St. Louis, holds the accolade of being one of the most popular local productions in St. Louis television history. The show developed professional wrestling into a nationally popular form of entertainment as it beamed the many stars of the NWA on the TV sets across the country.

By 1960, tired of dealing with wrestler demands and settling disputes between members of the group, Muchnick stepped down as NWA President. Although his hiatus did not last long and he was unanimously re-installed as president in 1963 until 1975, thus contributing a total of 25 years. During his second term as president, the NWA remained as wrestling’s supremacy and Muchnick expanded the Alliance globally by securing deals with territories in Japan, Europe, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Sam continued to promote until New Years’ Day in 1982, which Mayor Vincent Schoemehl named “Sam Muchnick Day”.  Shortly afterwards, the St. Louis Wrestling Club was purchased by a consortium of Bob Geigel, Pat O’Connor and Harley Race.  A year later, the World Wrestling Federation struck an agreement with Muchnick’s long-time associate and ring announcer Larry Matysik which gave the WWF access to the former TV timeslot of “Wrestling At The Chase”.

Muchnick lived to the grand age of 93 years old as he passed away on 30th December 1998, in his home of St. Louis, the city out of which his wrestling empire grew. To the day he died, he was honest as the day was long, a trait that is very rare within the history of the professional wrestling industry. Sam was truly the godfather of professional wrestling.

As always, thanks for reading…

Will Burns

Source: Tim Hornbaker – National Wrestling AllianceLarry Matysik – Wrestling At The Chase, 

Profile – Mildred Burke

Behind the glitz and the glamour of professional wrestling is a legend of a true pioneer for women in the sport – Mildred Burke.  Burke was considered as one of the toughest competitors in professional wrestling and she fought her way into the history books.  Undefeated, she held the World Women’s Championship for over fifteen years.

Burke was born Mildred Bliss on 5th August 1915 in Coffeyville, Kansas and was the youngest of six siblings.  Her love for professional wrestling did not materialise until her late teens when she saw her first bout at the Midway Arena in Kansas City and in 1932, she decided she would try it herself.

She began working in an office during the day and but longed to get involved into the sport and met Missouri Middleweight Champion Billy Wolfe.  She begged Wolfe to train her but Wolfe refused. She pestered him until Wolfe gave in and invited her to the gym. He instructed a male wrestler to rough her up to detract her away from the sport.  However, Mildred rolls over the wrestler and pinned him.  Wolfe thought it was a fluke and asked her to do it again, and she did. Impressed, Wolfe saw potential and agreed to teach her and through their training, they bonded and they started dating and eventually married

Already boasting a muscular physique and great strength at aged 19, Wolfe began promoting her on the carnival circuit.  The announcer would proclaim that a $25 reward was on offer to any man of similar size to try to pin Mildred within a ten-minute time limit – no man could.  Wolfe would take much of her fortune, openly cheat on Mildred and violently beat her.

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Changing her name to Mildred Burke she started wrestling on shows and within a few months, she won the Midwest Wrestling Association Women’s Championship tournament clinching her first belt.  By January 1937, she then moved around the United States defending her title and defeated the number one women’s champion, Clara Mortenson, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  She wrestled and defeated all comers, wrestlers such as Mae YoungMae Weston, Gladys Gillem and Elvira Snodgrass keeping her championship belt. For a time, she also mentored The Fabulous Moolah.  The business was great for Wolfe and Burke was featured in Life magazine where it was deemed that she earned over $50,000 at the height of her fame in the late ’40s.

Since its inception in 1948, she butted heads with the National Wrestling Alliance.  The NWA board declared that the Men’s World Heavyweight Championship could not be defended on shows with women’s matches featured so this stopped many promoters booking female bouts. In 1949, her husband Billy Wolfe became the NWA’s agent for promoting women wrestlers, Burke was known as the NWA Women’s Champion and he was profiting heavily.

The marriage of Burke and Wolfe began to crumble and Wolfe, a known womaniser, was sleeping with his trainees. After Mildred had an affair with his son and the couple grew a great hatred for each other and in 1952, they were divorced.  Wolfe froze out Burke and she was struggling financially so she reached out to New York promoter Jack Pfefer for help and began defending the NWA belt against her own promoted wrestlers.  The NWA was not happy and appointed a committee to attempt to work out a solution between Wolfe and Burke.

The conclusion came in January 1953 when Burke and her benefactors bought out Wolfe with $30,000.  The deal meant he could no longer promote women on wrestling shows for five years, however, he did not keep to the deal and started gazumping Burke booking her wrestlers in Columbus for more money.  Burke’s company ‘Attractions, Inc.’ could not cope and was declared bankrupt only a few months later.

Her assets went into the hands of James Hoff, a Columbus promoter and he employed Wolfe as his administrator. Wolfe claimed he held the contracts of Burke and 27 of her wrestlers but Burke disputed this due to $30,000 deal. Her contract stated he could not promote for five years and he was breaching that commitment. She aligned herself with Tulsa promoter Leroy McGuirk, a prominent member of the Alliance.

The NWA held in meeting in The Blackstone hotel in Chicago to discuss the mess but as only male members were allowed to attend the meeting, Burke, fighting for her livelihood, was shunned and had to stay in the Blackstone’s lobby.  Wolfe had a seat at the table and once the meeting concluded the NWA announced that they no longer recognised women in the sport.

Following a tournament held in Baltimore, Wolfe professed June Byers (his daughter-in-law) as the NWA Women’s champion and his girlfriend Nell Stewart as the United States champion.  He reached out to all of Burke’s contractors to book them but a lot stayed loyal to Mildred and some even retired from the sport.  In November 1953, Burke wrote to the NWA and stated she would wrestle any woman in the business including Byers and Stewart to settle the claims of this phoney champion.

On the 20th of August 1954, Burke wrestled Byers in Atlanta in a three-fall contest with obvious genuine heat.  Wolfe booked to have Byers win the championship and she won the first pin but Burke refused to be pinned for the second fall.  They fought for over an hour until officials called the match without a winner.  With Wolfe lining their pockets, the press reported Byers won so she became the legitimate NWA Women’s champion however, Mildred maintained her right to her title.

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In fear of her safety, she travelled with an escort at all times but refusing to be beaten, she promoted women’s wrestling on an international basis creating the World Wide Women’s Wrestling Association promotion and the WWWA title.  In a hugely successful business decision, she took women’s wrestling to Japan in November 1954 with instant success.

The U.S. Department of Justice investigated the NWA in 1955 due to accusations of monopolising the sport and Burke vented against the Alliance.  Her testimony targeted NWA members and included stories of corruption, adultery, tax fraud and accusations directed at ex-husband Wolfe of domestic abuse and a horrific allegation that over-training their adopted daughter Janet which resulted in her 1951 death.

The NWA emerged from the investigation with little punishment and Burke retired from in-ring competition in 1956 and vacated her title. She continued to promote the WWWA in Japan, Canada, Mexico, Cuba and parts of the U.S. and in 1970, the hugely popular All Japan Women’s Wrestling bought the legal rights to the WWWA championship, a title that was contested until 2005.

After retiring, Burke lived in California and operated a women’s wrestling facility nurturing many women’s wrestlers including Rhonda Sing, who went to wrestle for AJW, Stampede, the WWF and WCW.

Burke suffered a stroke in February 1989 and passed away for days later at Northridge Hospital, Los Angeles aged 73 years old.  Mildred left a legacy for many potential Women’s champions, courageously fighting for females in a male-dominated sport, she paved the way for future generations of women in professional wrestling.

As always, thanks for reading…

Will Burns

Source: Tim Hornbaker – National Wrestling Alliance, Jeff Leen – The Queen of The Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds and the Making of an American Legend

Profile – Rikidozan

When it comes to professional wrestling in Japan (known as Puroresu), it has a vast history being performed on the carnival circuits. Although, in 1883, learning of the popularity stateside, former Sumo wrestler Sorakichi Matsuda ventured to New York City and immediately became involved in the sport. A few years he returned home to promote wrestling in his homeland, however, his efforts fell on deaf eyes. By the 1950s, another man decided to give it a try by the name of Rikidozan.

Although a cultural hero in the country of Japan, “Rikidozan” was actually born in a small village in South Hamkyong Province (North Korea) as Kim Sin-Rak on 14th November 1924.  He later changed his name to Mitsuhiro Momota to hide his ethnic origin after settling in Japan at the age of 15. He lived on a farm with the Momota family (thus where his new name originated from) near Nagasaki Prefecture started training to become a sumo wrestler under the Nishonoseki stable debuting in May 1940.

While spending ten years training Sumo in the middle of World War II, Momota was subjected to a lot of anti-Korean racism and was bullied by his Japanese colleagues who tried to force him out of the stable and the sport. Nevertheless, due to his determination, he built to a good standard becoming a ‘Sekiwaki’ which is the third-highest rank in Sumo and during this time he was given the Sumo name of “Rikidozan”.

Possessing a fiery short temper, Rikidozan quit Sumo in 1950 after yelling at an official during a technical decision loss, which was highly forbidden – though he did claim himself, he left the sport due to financial reasons. After falling to defeat in WW2, it was a time of extreme patriotism for the people of Japan, and the country was ready for a hero. Rikidozan was ready to take full advantage of this.

By 1951 a boxing and professional wrestling show, promoted by heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, was touring Japan to entertain the occupying U.S. army troops and observing the popularity of the show, Rikidozan decides to train in the sport.  Additionally, he was working out in karate and he shed around 50lbs and come October 28th, he wrestled American Bobby Bruns to a ten-minute draw in his debut.  Bruns agreed to help coach Rikidozan in the American style and organised future trips to the States.

Rikidozan promoted himself as a Japanese national and began defeating American wrestlers one-by-one. He reinstated the countries pride, doing battle with the people the Japanese detested the most and doing what the nation had previously seen as impossible: being victorious.

He travelled to Hawaii for extra in-ring schooling with Harold Sakata, who found James Bond movie fame as “Oddjob”.  Working for Mid-Pacific Promotions under the NWA banner, Rikidozan received an NWA World Heavyweight title shot against Lou Thesz in Honolulu on 6th December 1953 but was narrowly defeated. He returned to Japan and in 1954 he started promoting his own shows.

Rikidozan was declared as the creator of Puroresu, finally bringing the sport to life in Japan. With the financial help of his friend Nick Zapetti, an American member of the Yakuza, he created the Nihon Puroresu Kyokai (translated to Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance – the JWA) and they became the first NWA affiliate outside of the United States.

On the JWA’s debut eight-day tour in February 1954, Rikidozan and partner Masahiko Kimura were headline attractions. The pairing took NWA World Tag Team Champions Ben and Mike Sharpe to a 60-minute time limit draw on the first show. While the Sharpe Brothers were from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada they were billed as Americans and the promotion sold-out houses in Kobe, Kumamoto, Fukuoka, Osaka and Tokyo.

The debut shows were shown on two separate television networks and thousands of people packed the streets in front of the windows of Tokyo stores to watch their hero in action. The Japanese public, who could afford it, rushed out to purchase the TV sets. Rikidozan had become a major national celebrity.

Matches with the foreign villains were always the most lucrative, but prominent bouts between Japanese stars also occurred and by the December of 1954, the JWA had created the Japanese Heavyweight title to be contested at Tokyo Sumo Hall by Rikidozan and Kimura.  Kimura was a judoka who trained closely with Rikidozan in 1952 and was an accomplished and experienced shooter.

Although Kimura claims this match was booked to be a draw, Rikidozan began shooting on his opponent during the match and claimed the championship. During the bout, Rikidozan attacked Kimura in the corner with a flurry of chops, right hands, knees and once his Kimura fell to a knee, stiff kicks were laid into his head. Lying face down and immobile, Kimura was counted out by the referee and the hand of Rikidozan was raised in victory.

Rizidozan vs. Kimura video is below.

Kimura claimed that night, he received a telephone call from the members of the Yazuka that they were about to arrive in Tokyo “to kill Rikidozan.”. Kimura stated he called them off from harming Rikidozan.

The sport continued to profit on both sides of the pacific and although he was recognised as a hero in Japan, the American promoters would fly Rikidozan over and promote him as the foreign villain. NWA champ Lou Thesz showed great respect to Rikidozan and agreed to wrestle three return World title bouts against him in Japan, these matches all ended in 60-minute draws. The 6th October 1957 bout drew an 87.0 rating – a staggering 87% of the Japanese public was watching.

Seeing the massive popularity in Japan, and the money that could be made, Thesz asked the NWA to defend the championship more regularly over there, they refused and Thesz gave up the title. In 1958, Rikidozan defeated Lou for his newly created NWA International Heavyweight Championship, a belt that was promoted in Japan until 1989.  This win helped the Japanese public ease the pain of their World War II losses.

“Once we had a chance to sit down together and discuss our business, I discovered very quickly that Rikidozan was no fool. I had already figured out for myself that he had built himself a money-making machine, but I had no idea of its magnitude until he mentioned, almost off-handily, that he had received a $250,000 — a fortune in those days, especially in yen — from his television network for the rights to televise our Tokyo match. He had used the money shrewdly, buying advertising and doing heavy promotion, so interest in our match was front-page news.”

Lou Thesz – from his autobiography ‘Hooker’.

On 24th May 1963, his popularity continued to be colossal as he battled to a draw with The Destroyer which drew a 67.0 rating, the largest viewing audience in Japanese history, a considerably larger audience than the Thesz match as more people had purchased television sets by then.

Rikidozan went on to tour both sides of the Pacific and feuded against The Sharpes, The Destroyer and “Classy” Freddie Blassie and continued to make big money.  Although he enjoyed the nightlife, women and alcohol, he invested wisely and created his own wrestling school, purchased a golf course, shares in nightclubs, apartments and hotels. As his business ventures and his assets increased so did his involvement with the Yakuza.

On the evening of December 8th 1963, an incident in the New Latin Quarter nightclub in Tokyo brought a sad ending to Rikidozan’s career and his life. It is reported that he was confronted by Katsuji Murata, a member of the Yakuza and rival to Zapetti, and a fight broke out in the bathroom. Murata pulled a switchblade from his belt and he stabbed Rikidozan in the abdomen.

Conflicting reports state that Rikidozan either ignored the wound and kept partying or was rushed to the hospital. Murata reportedly offered an apology, which Rikidozan accepted days later. He did receive treatment for the wound and doctors ruled it not to be serious but recommended Rikidozan to have surgery which was successful. However, he was advised to take it easy, stay on a strict diet and stop drinking to help the recovery which he ignored. His condition worsened and it required further surgery, he had contracted peritonitis and passed away at 9:50pm on 15th December.

He was 39 years old.  Murata was found guilty of manslaughter and served seven years imprisonment.

However, Rikidozan’s legacy continued well past his death.  In the early sixties, he took two protégés from his training school under his wing.

In March 1960, he returned home from a trip in Brazil with 17-year-old Japanese immigrant Kanji Inoki. He signed the trained mixed martial artist to the JWA and labelled him as Antonio Inoki after Argentinean wrestling great Antonino Rocca. He also recruited a 6ft 10inch former Nippon Professional Baseball pitcher, called Shohei Baba. Due to his height and being abnormally tall
for a Japanese national, Rikidozan gave Baba the moniker of “Giant.”

The JWA didn’t survive the death of Rikidozan and in 1972, it was closed. However, Antonio Inoki founded New Japan Pro Wrestling (January 1972) and Giant Baba created All-Japan Pro Wrestling (October 1972) – the two companies that would dominate Puroresu for the rest of the 20th century and two companies influential in our journey at ProjectWCW.com.

Rikidozan introduced professional wrestling to Japan. Not only for his lifetime but forged a legacy for its future. He truly is the founding father of Puroresu. 

As always, thanks for reading…

Will Burns

Source: Lou Thesz and Kit Bauman – Hooker, Chris Charlton – Lion’s Pride: The Turbulent History of New Japan Pro Wrestling, Rikidozan: A Hero Extra Ordinaire (Feature Film)

PROFILE: Paul Boesch

Paul Boesch left a legacy in Houston and Texas in general, as the heart and soul of professional wrestling to the thousands of fans that had witnessed his product. Through his efforts, Boesch had turned Houston into one of the best promotions in the territories era.

Boesch was born in Brooklyn, New York until him and his family moved twenty miles to Long Beach.  He went on to graduate from Long Beach High School in the summer of 1929 and Boesch was a natural athlete. To earn money, he got a job as a lifeguard on the Long Island beaches and during this time, he was lured by Jack Pfefer’s wrestling shows in New York.

Although he is build was athletic, he was never the biggest of guys but he started to train and he stepped into the ring himself on 25th October 1932 in Staten Island for a Pfefer show. He continued to build a good living and wrestled throughout the northeast and travelled to St. Louis on occasion.  Although never a headliner, Boesch was regularly booked and toured through Canada, California and the South Pacific.  During this time, he became good friends of Calgary wrestler and promoter Stu Hart, and Boesch had the privilege of introducing Stu to his future wife Helen, while the Canadian was wrestling in the New York area.

Once World War II broke out in 1939, his career came to a halt as he enlisted to fight in Germany.  Boesch was deployed over to Europe and serve for the States in the one of the fiercest conflicts of the war – “The Battle of Hürtgen Forest”.  Although he received some injuries, he returned home a hero and was awarded many medals including the Purple Heart and the Combat Infantryman Badge and the Distinguished Unit Citation.  Boesch wrote and released Road to Huertgen: Forest In Hell later in 1962, which was his memoirs of the battle.

Missouri wrestling promoter Tom Packs invited members from Boesch’s Regiment to the wrestling program labelled “The GI Night” on 5th October 1945 at the Kiel Auditorium.  It was a tremendous tribute and honour for Boesch, who climbed into the ropes to defeat Dick Lever using judo holds in front of over 8,000 in attendance. In the crowd were 118 members of the Gray Bonnet Regiment and 26 convalescents from the Jefferson Barracks who had served with Boesch throughout his military career.

Paul “Bombshell” Boesch settled in Houston wrestling full-time for the Gulf Athletic Club under the leadership of promoter called Morris Sigel.  Just after the first World War, Morris’ brother Julius had started promoting wrestling shows at the City Auditorium, weekly on Friday nights to great success.  By 1929, Julius left Texas to promote shows in New Orleans and Shreveport in Louisiana, leaving the promotion in the hands of his brother.

Although Morris was inexperienced in the wrestling business, he steered the promotion though good times with his robust business wisdom and the likes of Jim Londos, Orville Brown, Lou Thesz, Wild Bill Longson, Buddy Rogers and Womens’ Champion Mildred Burke on his cards.  Sigel would surround himself with people capable of running wrestling shows and during this time, due to a horrific car accident, Boesch would ultimately become one of Morris’ employees.

On 22nd October 1947, Paul was travelling to Corpus Christi for a show with two other wrestlers, Frank Vallois and Miguel Guzman.  They did not make the show that night. A trailer truck had failed to break at a stop sign and crashed into Boesch’s vehicle on Highway 66 and Military Drive in San Antonio – all three were injured.  Boesch suffered a break in his right leg and numerous cuts on his head and face.  The injury to his leg was fatal to his wrestling career as doctors advised him never to compete in the ring again.

Paul reached out to Morris and Boesch took up administrative duties in the office and trained young wrestlers – he even taught Verne Gagne how to apply the sleeper hold.  This would then escalate into commentating on Sigel’s wrestling bouts on radio station KLEE and in January 1949, Boesch would present the first-ever televised wrestling show in Houston simply named “Houston Wrestling with Paul Boesch” – a show that aired for nearly forty years!

Boesch would also occasionally step back in the ring throughout the early 1960s and this spiralled into eventually booking his own shows when Morris sadly passed away on Boxing Day in 1966.  In early 1967, he purchased the promotion from Morris’ wife and held good relationships with both the National Wrestling Alliance and Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association, so he had a wealth of talent at his disposal.  Bringing the very best wrestlers to the Sam Houston Coliseum would elevate the venue as the home of Houston Wrestling.

This was the biggest arena in the area and for Boesch’s shows, the Coliseum would sell-out to nearly 10,000 fans.  The venue held some big championship matches, but it was never acknowledged by nationwide wrestling fans as a legendary arena in comparison to the likes of Madison Square Garden, the Kiel Auditorium and the Greensboro Coliseum.

Boesch caught the attention of the NWA which declared Houston “The Wrestling City of the Seventies” at their annual convention and it became home to many World Heavyweight title bouts but only one title switch happened at the Coliseum – Jack Brisco defeating Harley Race on July 20th 1973.

Throughout the years, Boesch formed relationships with many affiliates of the NWA with the likes of Joe Blanchard’s Southwest Wrestling but one of the most profitable connections was with Fritz von Erich’s Big Time Wrestling.  The Texan Fritz and his sons were huge draws for Boesch and this continued until they severed ties in 1981 as Fritz looked to expand his promotion.

In 1981, NWA world champion Harley Race failed to attend an event despite being heavily promoted, Boesch was dismayed that he felt he had let the Houston fans down. He took action and immediately informed the NWA that he was withdrawing his membership.

Boesch forged a relationship with Bill Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling. Stars like Magnum T.A., Butch Reed, Steve Williams, Jim Duggan and tag teams like the Midnight Express and the Rock N’ Roll Express all ventured into the Coliseum and did tremendous business.Shitloads Of Wrestling — Tom Prichard & Paul Boesch [1982] What a ...

A young Tom Pritchard with Paul circa 1982As 1984 emerged, Boesch and Watts was forced into competition with Vincent K. McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation as the McMahon-owned Titan Sports invaded Texas and secured TV time on two independent stations KTXH (Houston) and KTXA (Dallas and Fort Worth).  The fans, that had only ever known Boesch’s product, took to the WWF programming well and Boesch, Watts and Von Erich merged to compete with Titan’s shows.

In early 1987, Watts sold his promotion to Jim Crockett Promotions and Boesch was forced to arrange a deal with the Vince McMahon to hold WWF shows in Houston.  This was a huge transformation from the city’s longstanding run with the NWA and Watts.  Professional wrestling was experiencing a transitional period and WWF was implementing a different style of the sport – a huge contrast to Boesch and his predecessors’ product.  The deal only lasted four months and Boesch eventually shut down his Friday night shows at the Coliseum. The end of Houston Wrestling.

Due to failing health, after 55 years of contributions to the sport as a wrestler, a referee, a radio commentator, a TV announcer and a promoter, Boesch decided to call it a day on 28th August 1987.  On that night, McMahons’ WWF hosted his retirement show at the Coliseum in his honour.  He had drawn a sell-out crowd one last time.

Boesch did temporarily return and made a deal with Crockett in 1988, so JCP’s stars would wrestle at the Sam Houston Coliseum and they agreed that Boesch would also have an on-air role.  However, like the WWF deal, this did not last long Crockett sold his promotion to Ted Turner in November of that year.

Aged 76 years, Paul sadly passed away on March 7th 1989, after suffering a heart attack at his home in Sugarland, Texas.

Boesch was not only a war hero for his country. Due to his lifelong commitment to the industry, he was a hero in many eyes in professional wrestling.

As always, thanks for reading…

Will Burns

Source: 

Profile: Lou Thesz

It is speculated through many in the professional wrestling business that the National Wrestling Alliance would not have excelled without the legitimate athlete Lou Thesz at the helm. He is arguably the most celebrated professional wrestler of the mid-20th century.

Born on 24th April 1916 and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. Thesz’s love for wrestling began after his father took him to a match at eight years old and he was instantly intrigued by the sport. His father Martin, was a former Greco-Roman wrestler and coached his son some techniques, which he picked up in his native Hungary before emigrating to the States in the early 1900s.

This early experience in amateur mat wrestling gained Lou confidence and he began to enter professional wrestling competitions at aged 17.  He started competing in St. Louis’ and the city’s passion for professional wrestling was vivacious and all the wrestlers were cashing in under the pencil of Tom Packs. The promoter Packs had been keeping an eye on Thesz’s progress on the semi-pro circuit and he was noticing that young Lou was becoming an attraction.

Working under Packs was where Thesz would meet catch-as-catch-can grappler George Tragos, a legitimate shooter. A former three-time Olympic wrestler for Greece, was an expert in submission skills, he was well-known for stretching his young apprentices at his gym. Packs suggested to Thesz that he should join Tragos’ gym sessions to hone his craft. After all, Tragos had a great reputation nurturing young wrestlers with Joe Stetcher and Ed “Stranger” Lewis listed as former proteges of Tragos at the University of Missouri.

Image result for lou thesz buddy rogers

Thesz trained seven days a week under George for two years and Tragos become a great influence. Lou continued to work for Packs along the way making a name for himself in St. Louis. However, through the relationship created with Tragos, Thesz met the legend of Ed “Strangler” Lewis and the young upstart challenged Lewis to a shoot contest. Thesz stated it his “longest 15 minutes” of his life. The then 46-year-old man mountain Lewis reportedly humiliated and beat up Thesz but Lewis saw the respect, determination and the willingness to learn in Thesz and “Strangler” became Lou’s mentor.

By the time December 1937 had rolled around, Thesz had hit the road touring around the likes of Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska and became the youngest World Heavyweight Champion at only 21 years old. After a career-making match against George Zaharias, Packs booked Lou into his first title shot. He defeated Everett Marshall via a count-out for the American Wrestling Association World strap and hundreds of fans climbed into the ring in celebration and lifted Thesz above their shoulders.

Image result for lou thesz buddy rogers

Even though Thesz’s reign only lasted a matter of six weeks, he had become a major attraction. He continued touring across the United States claiming many titles in various promotions but in 1949 his world changed. The National Wrestling Alliance was set-up in 1948 (for the full story on this – read here) and Thesz was set to challenge Orville Brown for the NWA World Heavyweight Title. A title with plans to unify all belts and the titleholder becoming the single World Champion for professional wrestling. Unfortunately, Brown was involved in a car accident and could not compete and Thesz was awarded the title.

By 1953, the NWA expanded into 30 affiliates in the US, Canada and Mexico which gave Thesz many venues to conquer, and he held onto the NWA championship for six years, three months and 16 days, a record for a wrestling champion. On March 15th 1956, Thesz dropped the title to “Whipper” Billy Watson in front of over 15,000 fans in Toronto, Canada. Thesz took six months off to get a much-deserved rest and recover from an ankle injury, but he returned to claim the title back in November that year in St. Louis.

In June 1957, Thesz battled former gymnast, Edouard Carpentier in Chicago in a Best of Five Falls match. The match was tied at 2-2 when Thesz claimed a legitimate back injury and was unable to continue – Carpentier was declared the winner. However, as this was not an official win sanctioned by the NWA board, they chose not to recognise the title change, proclaiming that the belt could not change hands due to injured opponent.  Despite the NWA’s announcement, some promotions did continue to acknowledge the title change. Thesz defeated Carpentier by disqualification a month later in Montreal but only some territories backed Thesz as the champion again, although the NWA still does not recognise this linage.

Thesz gained massive notoriety in Japan as later that year he became the first wrestler to defend the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in Japan. He battled Japanese wrestling legend Rikidozan in a series of one hour draws. These matches vastly aided commercialise professional wrestling in the land of the Rising Sun and helped the sport gain acceptance throughout the Japanese public. Their first match can be found on our YouTube account here.

Image result for lou thesz rikidozan

With his newfound fame in Japan, and the money that came with it, Thesz asked the NWA board to regularly defend the title over there but the request was rejected. Thesz then wished to drop the title to friend Dick Hutton on 14th November 1957 and NWA sanctioned the change. This allowed Thesz to book his own tour of Europe and Japan, billing himself as the NWA International Heavyweight Champion, a title that All Japan Pro Wrestling adopted. During his time away from the States, Thesz became one of the only few men to wrestle in front of The Queen.  He wrestled to a draw at the Royal Albert Hall in England on 11th December 1957 against Indian wrestler Dara Singh. Thesz saw this is as a tremendous honour and one of the highlights of his career.

By the start of 1963, Thesz was back in possession of the World title dethroning long-time rival “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers in a one fall contest in Chicago. The wars with Rogers were unique for wrestling at the time. Thesz, a professional athlete, a world-class wrestler and submission specialist against Rogers, who oozed charisma, bleached blond hair, possessed great strength, tremendous physique and pure arrogance. Rogers was reluctant to drop the title back to Thesz so the threat was there that Lou could shoot on Rogers and make him give him up the title.

However, this was to be Lou’s final reign as three years later he dropped the strap to former American Footballer Gene Kiniski on a Sam Muchnick promoted show in St. Louis. Thesz was 49 years old but he was not ready to retire and wrestled part-time for the remainder of his career until his final match in 1990 in New Japan Pro Wrestling against protégé Masahiro Chono.

A wrestler in seven different decades, the truly fascinating life of Lou Thesz ended as he passed away at the age of 86 on April 28th in 2002. He had undergone triple-bypass heart surgery and aortic valve replacement just three weeks before his death.

Some experts claim Thesz to be the greatest professional wrestler of all time and rightly so. Today in professional wrestling, moves like the German Suplex and S.T.F. submission hold are massively integrated into the business. These were moves that Lou brought into the game and of course, there are a few guys that still use the ‘Thesz Press’.

In the documentary ‘Lou Thesz – An American Icon’, he stated that he only regretted one thing in his life… “I can’t do it again.”

As always, thanks for reading…

Will Burns

Source: Tim Hornbaker – National Wrestling Alliance, Lou Thesz – An American Icon 1993 Documentary, Lou Thesz and Kit Bauman – Hooker

Profile – Orville Brown

Kansas born Orville Brown was the first-ever World Heavyweight Champion of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) after the organisation’s formation in 1948. This was a title he never lost as he was forced to retire just over a year later.

At the beginning of 1931, Brown met a local wrestling trainer called Ernest Brown, who persuaded Orville that there was a decent wage to made in the ring. He began training with a daily regime of running before breakfast, his day job of blacksmithing and gaining wrestling experience with Ernest in the evening. And by the time October rolled around that year, Orville made a winning debut that started an undefeated 72 bout streak.

With short legs and a long body, Orville was physically strong and he became a legend in the Midwest area and spent many years wrestling for the Midwest Wrestling Association (MWA).  Realising there was money to be made from professional wrestling, by Orville was the age of 32, he began promoting wrestling matches with Kansas City promoter George Simpson. The partnership worked well with Brown compiling the card and Simpson promoting these with the press.

At the time of the NWA formation, Orville was the MWA champion, a title he held eleven times. He was chosen by the NWA board (which he was a prominent member of) to become the first NWA Heavyweight Champion. Instead of creating a new title (shown below), Brown had two plates made to cover up the words ‘Midwest’ and ‘Association’.

However, much to the NWA’s displeasure there were many ‘world’ champions in circulation and these needed to be unified to recognise one champion. Plans were put in place for Brown to meet National Wrestling Association (yes, another NWA) champion Lou Thesz. The bout was due to take place on 25th November 1949 but it, unfortunately, was not to be.

Orville and in-ring rival Bobby Bruns were driving to a show on November 1st in a 1949 Cadillac Sedan. A semi-trailer truck stalled on the side of the road and Sedan crushed underneath the vehicle (see newspaper cutting below). Brown and Bruns were seriously injured. Orville suffered head injuries and paralysis down one side, and despite determined to make a comeback, sadly he never wrestled again. Thesz was awarded the NWA title.

However, Brown remained active in the wrestling business as a booker and promoter until retiring in 1963.  He lived with his wife Grace in Missouri until his passing in January 1981.  He was 72 years old.

Brown was a fantastic wrestler who held great achievements wherever he stepped into the ring, but he holds acclaim which no other human being can – he was the first-ever NWA Heavyweight Champion.

As always, thanks for reading…

Will Burns

Source: Wrestling-Titles.comTim Hornbaker – National Wrestling AllianceAntiques Roadshow (PBS): Orville Brown Wrestling Archive

The National Wrestling Alliance 1948-1979

In the 1940’s, the popularity of Professional Wrestling was growing within the United States. Many ambitious entrepreneurs had created their own regional wrestling promotions and each promoter claimed to have their own World Champion, however, the plethora of titles was damaging the sport as none of the belts were deemed legitimate.

The very influential Paul “Pinkie” George, a promoter in Des Moines, Iowa proposed a meeting with other selected promoters to try and regulate the business and create one true World Champion. The promoters would share this champion and use him as an attraction to keep the interest in wrestling growing.

The meeting was held on July 18th 1948, located in the Gold Room within the Hotel President in Waterloo, Iowa. George invited Sam Muchnick (a St. Louis promoter), Orville Brown (Kansas City), Maxwell Clayton (Omaha), Fred Kohler (Chicago) and Wally Karbo (representing Joe Stecher of Minneapolis). They all agreed on nine pledges which formed the National Wrestling Alliance and George was declared the first president of the NWA.

The newly created NWA Worlds Heavyweight Title was awarded to Brown, who ran the Midwest Wrestling Association in Kansas, where he held his own version of the World Championship. Undefeated for eight years, Brown went on to conquer many other regionally recognised World Champions in a way to try and unify into the NWA title.

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The legendary Lou Thesz

On the way, Brown needed to beat the National Wrestling Association World Champion Lou Thesz. The Association (the other NWA) was created by the National Boxing Association in 1930 as a way to try and regulate professional wrestling bouts.

On Thanksgiving night, 25th November 1949, Brown and Thesz were to compete for the NWA title at the Kiel Auditorium, St. Louis, Missouri. Devastatingly for Brown, this match would never happen. Travelling to his final warm-up bout in Des Moines on 1st November, he was involved in a horrendous automobile accident that forced Brown to retire from in-ring competition. Thesz was awarded the NWA Worlds Heavyweight title by default. Brown continued to book his promotion in Kansas until 1958.

Thesz was a legit tough-man and he excelled with the belt around his waist. On many occasions, Thesz had to force rebel competitors into submission when outlaw promoters would try and prove that their regional champion was the best in the world. For trustworthy NWA promoters, Thesz had to put on believable impressive matches but more importantly, make the regional headliners look good so that business would not drop in that area.

By 1950, the NWA had 26 members and had massively exceeded George’s expectations. George wished for the NWA to manage all the Midwest promotions and he had no plans for national expansion, so he stepped down as president in September and recommended that Sam Muchnick lead the alliance in his place. Muchnick, a successful promoter in St. Louis, booked Thesz into a full schedule and he became a credible title holder defeating all opponents across all the territories unifying all the belts.

The scheduling of the champion was the most important duty of being the NWA president. Muchnick’s task was incredibly difficult as every NWA representative wanted the champion on their events as much as possible. This became a political issue and although promoters were supposed to be in collaboration with each other, money talks and Thesz was a great draw.

Throughout the 1950s, Thesz held onto the championship until March 1956. Taking six months off while nursing an ankle injury, he lost the belt to “Whipper” Billy Watson at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Thesz returned to claim the title back in November that year in St. Louis. Dick Hutton, Pat O’Connor and “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers all went onto reigns with the title but by the start of 1963, Thesz was back in charge of the championship.

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“Big Thunder” Gene Kiniski

Finally, on 7th January 1966, Thesz ended his final reign at the age of forty-nine by dropping the belt to former Edmonton Eskimos star “Big Thunder” Gene Kiniski on a Muchnick show in St. Louis. Billed as a bad guy, Kiniski was an innovative, captivating powerhouse that carried the championship well until dropping it to Amarillo-based star Dory Funk Jr. in February 1969. Funk was a profitable champion for the territories with a real knack of making his opponent good – usually the promotions’ top star.

However, by August 1972, Funk had become tired of the constant travelling and a successor was earmarked in former national collegiate wrestling champion Jack Brisco. A bout was set for 2nd March 1973 in Houston, Texas but unfortunately for Brisco, the match was cancelled after Dory suffered an accident at his home in Umbarger, Texas around a week before the scheduled match.

After a 1,563 day reign, the second-longest in NWA history, Missouri star Harley Race dethroned Funk on 24th May 1973 in front of his home crowd of the Memorial Hall in Kansas City. Race held the title for only a few months as Brisco was crowned by July that year in Houston, but this was only the beginning for “Handsome” Harley and for the belt.

Before the bout, Race was presented with a new title belt by president Muchnick. The new NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship was created by Mexican jeweller Manuel Sabala with a “domed globe” and featured five flags of countries where the championship was defended the most: the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia and Japan. In future years, the belt became known as the “Ten Pounds of Gold” (but we will discuss that in forthcoming articles in our chronological journey).

Due to his past NCAA championship success, Brisco was well regarded instantly and Shohei “Giant” Baba quickly signed up to the NWA with his new promotion, All-Japan Pro Wrestling – founded in 1972. This gave him exclusive Japanese promotional access to Brisco and the belt and Baba, also an in-ring performer managed to convince Brisco to pass the title to him for a week while on tour. Giant Baba was champion from the 2nd until the 9th of December 1974 before dropping back to Brisco. This gave the championship further credibility overseas and the Japanese press lapped it up.

Just over a year later, the 14-month reign of Terry Funk began. Funk, younger brother of Dory Jr, had actually brokered the deal to book Brisco to face Baba, much to the disappointment of the NWA brass who had not previously been consulted. Dory Funk Jr. had been scheduled to challenge Brisco on 10th December 1975 however, he was in the middle of a three-week tour with Baba. The wild brawler Terry stormed the ring in place of his brother and cradled Brisco up for the win. History was made as Terry and Dory became the only brothers, as of the time of writing, to hold the NWA Worlds title.

The only man to defeat two brothers for the title was Harley Race, as his second reign ended Terry’s only possession of the belt in Toronto on 6th February 1977. Race held on to the gold for 926 days until he strolled into Eddie Graham’s Championship Wrestling of Florida in the summer of 1979. The popular uber-charismatic “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes blossomed in the ’70s and although this went against the grain for the usual title holders, Rhodes pinned Race in front of over 9,000 elated fans in Tampa.

History proved that the bad guy champion entering the territory to face the much-loved local guy was a recipe for success and drawing the big bucks. Dusty was the opposite, throughout the 70’s he was a major box office attraction, he’s connectivity with the audience made him easy to love. He was very much the epitome of a babyface and the NWA handed him the opportunity to be champion for only five days before it was returned to Race. For Dusty to hold the title, was merely a favour to Florida promoter Graham from the NWA board.

Harley Race

The year 1979 brought one of the most important events that formed the face of professional wrestling across the United States for years to come. NWA affiliate Georgia Championship Wrestling became the first wrestling program to be nationally broadcast on cable TV on the WTBS network. This caused many regional promoters upset and feared that Georgia would expand their shows nationwide. However, the Georgia company kept to their agreement and continued to just book shows in their territorial area.

By the beginning of 1980, Harley Race remained the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion which represented a total of 26 promotions across the territorial system.

This is where our journey will begin.

We will relive all the highs and the lows, the good, bad and the ugly of this wonderful business we call professional wrestling. This will be a long journey, we have hours of content to review, we have thousands of stories to tell, come with us, I’m sure you will find something you will enjoy.

As always, thanks for reading…

Will Burns

Sources: Tim Hornbaker – National Wrestling Alliance, Dick Bourne – Ten Pounds Of Gold, Cagematch.net