Category Archives: Moments in Time

Pittsburgh – Feb. 23, 1949

Gorgeous Who?

You’d think that Pittsburgh wrestling fans would have been starved for action by February 1949. After all, live wrestling had been non-existent in the city for two years. So expectations were high when Gorgeous George, the national TV sensation, stopped by to headline a card in February 1949.

ImageFrom the reviews, though, this was a case of dashed expectations. And it’s also clear that Pittsburgh fans were as indifferent to George as were New York City fans the night before.

Coming off his national TV exposure, George was hot as a pistol at the time. The previous month, he drew more than 11,000 in Buffalo against Ray Villmer, and nearly 12,500 in St. Louis against Lou Thesz. In Pittsburgh, he was lined up to take on Billy Hansen at The Gardens, the main sports arena in town. The facility, located about three miles from where the Civic Arena would later stand, held about 6,500.

The bout received a little pre-match newspaper publicity, though it really wasn’t necessary in 1949 to explain GG to the average wrestling fan. In point of fact, local critics were hot and heavy, as wrestling of George’s sort did not curry favor with traditionalists. No doubt they were unaccustomed to a grappler whose entrance record music blared out:

Arms full of muscles
Head full of curls
Gorgeous George is the man I need


Bill Cooper, Pittsburgh Press: Gorgeous George, a slice of ham who walks like a man, set the perfume industry back 10 years in Pittsburgh last night. He managed to raise an odor in the venerable Gardens that lingered long after the last whiff of Chanel No. 5 had drifted away.

Cooper explained the elaborate ritual of disrobing and atomizing the ring, and referee L.E. Kling of Dormont did his part, touching George on the shoulder only to be shoved back. “Keep your dirty hands off me,” George snarled. George was seconded by Hunter, one of his valets, who kept the atomizer and flit gun handy to keep things smelling like a rose. That was a little much for some writers.

Al Abrams, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Ulysses and Ajax, heroes of the greatest wrestling story ever written by a gent named Homer, would whirl in their ancient Grecian sarcophagus if they were able to get a load of the goings-on at The Gardens Wednesday night.

Perhaps the most disappointing fact was that the bout has little to offer after that point. Hansen tossed George from the ring three times, only to be victimized by a chair shot. “Most of the time Mr. Hansen looked as though he wished he could think of some other way to make a living,” Cooper said.

In the end George won two out of three falls, but the box office was the big loser. George drew 2,793 for a gate of about $5,600. The most memorable moment of his Pittsburgh debut came impromptu. When Hansen hurled George from the ring to the floor, a drunk ran over and asked GG for his autograph.  

Still, underneath the condescension, there was a sense that George was on to something, however vulgar, and that he brought out women to the match. Sportswriters noted that at least half of the crowd consisted of women, who seemed to take the whole thing even more tongue-in-cheek than the men, and Gardens publicity director Dick Fortune said the event produced the nost female-heavy crowd in memory. Hairdos, perhaps?

Abrams: There was a large number of intelligent-looking, well-dressed people there and with few exceptions everyone was happy about the whole deal and enjoying the monkey shines. It would be safe to add that a high percentage of those present felt they received their money’s worth, which is more than can be said for the Lee Sala-Tony DiMicco boxing bout in the same arena two nights before.

The flop at The Gardens was the second in two nights for George, following his well-known bomb at Madison Square Garden on top of a Feb. 22 card. That was the first time wrestling was held at MSG since 1938, and George may have set it back another dozen years, according to the Newspaper Enterprise Association account of the match. He drew just 4,197 and never again appeared in Madison Square Garden. He just never was as big a draw in the East, where ethnic wrestlers from Argentina Rocca to Crusher Lisowski would fare better in the later 1950s and early 1960s.

George ventured through Pittsburgh from time to time. Later that year, he fought Don Eagle twice to crowds of more than 5,000, but the record shows that it was Eagle who had become the big draw on weekly cards.

Abrams: True, Uly and Ajax pummeled each other for proverbial peanuts or its equivalent in their day and didn’t collect something like $4,000 per week as the Gorgeous One does now. Neither did they have George’s histrionics and showmanship ability, nor could they afford a valet.

© Steven Johnson, January 2010

Dunkirk, NY – Summer 1950

A Wrestling Train Wreck

Located on the shores of Lake Erie, Dunkirk, N.Y., population 13,131, was once known as the “Train Wreck Capital of the World.” A pretty ignominious claim to fame, to be sure, and perhaps unwarranted — though a Pennsylvania Railroad train did collide with a Nickel Plate freight in 1939. And, like most of Western New York, Dunkirk has been undergoing a massive population decline from more than 18,000 people in 1950.

Well, maybe it’s because they had danged good wrestling in those days. In the summer of 1950, wrestling made a big-time surge in Dunkirk, as some of the nation’s top stars converged on the tiny city as an afterthought to bouts in nearby Buffalo.

Wrestling had been an on-again, off-again fixture in the area, and Dunkirk saw some sporadic action into the spring of 1950. In June 1950, firemen in the town of Gerry, near Jamestown, sponsored a card as part of an annual rodeo. Working with Buffalo promoter Ed Don George, they landed a main event of Chief Suni War Cloud, just emerging as a popular star from his days in movies, against Steve “Mr. America" Stanlee. A week later, War Cloud squared off with 292-pound Texas Hi “Tiny” Lee, while Stanlee fought Western New Yorker Johnny Barend on the undercard.

Taken with the facts that televised wrestling from Buffalo (WBEN-TV, Fridays at 9 p.m.) was a big hit locally, and locals traveled to Gerry to see bouts (“Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wright and daughter, Sandra, attended professional matches at Gerry recently,” the Dunkirk Evening Observer duly noted), it only made sense to get a piece of the pie.

In July, directors of the Chautauqua County Fair met at Floral Hall on the fairgrounds to discuss plans for the fair’s 50th anniversary. Secretary C. J. Larson noted that the 1949 version of the fair lost $6,000. How to ensure that the fair could stay within its $72,000 budget? Why, wrestling, of course!

Farmer MarlinImage For a July 31 card, George locked up War Cloud, billed as the protégé of Jim Thorpe and said to be a winner in 56 straight matches. The promoter announced plans to import Farmer Don Marlin, who portrayed a Michigan backwood hick. No doubt rewriting a press release, the local paper gave its approval:

Dunkirk Evening Observer: Leaders behind the move to bring back pro wrestling on a large scale made it plain that no stone would be left unturned to secure, top shelf wrestling talent. New York state athletic commissioners, closely following the actions of the Dunkirk men, have already complimented them for their efforts.

Two days later, Marlin was added against Stanlee, while Kay Bell was signed to face War Cloud. The price of a ringside seat — $2.50.

The event turned out to be a success in the ring and at the box office. The crowd was put at 2,148, about all that Floral Hall could handle. War Cloud went over Bell in a two-out-of-three falls match in which the Indian twice won submissions with his Indian deathlock finisher. Puzzlingly, War Cloud’s undefeated streak was now put at 62 matches. In the prelims, Marlin and Stanlee drew after each securing a fall, while Barend beat Bull Montana. And the whole night nearly sparked a riot. A nasty crowd gathered around Bell, who was escorted away by a patrolman named Clem Lutz. Just as Bell was making his way to safety, “a smallish boy” ran up behind him and raked his back, apparently with a knife. Let’s let the hometown paper pick it up:

Dunkirk Evening Observer: [Bell] he turned and started to give chase. The startled boy rocketed through the crowd, knocked down Peace Justice Louis Pease of Ripley. As he tumbled, Mr. Pease in turn knocked down a woman, who was quite badly shaken up.

ImageFew wrestling promoters will pass up a hot hand, so the next Monday, August 7, George lined up a dandy main event of Gorgeous George, still only a few years into his gimmick, against Jumpin’ Joe Savoldi, the Notre Dame footballer-turned-wrestler. George was at the start of a run where he’d draw more than 26,000 to Buffalo in a three-week span. Ticket sales were predictably brisk, with Jordan’s News Room, the 1950 equivalent of Ticketmaster®, taking more than 100 reservations within hours of the announcement. Promo photos of a bloody George dropping a recent match to Lou Thesz probably only hyped the appearance. Tiger Joe Marsh, fresh off silver screen appearances in “Pinky” and “Panic in the Streets” was added as a second attraction against Barend.

Again, a crowd of 2,100 packed the fairgrounds, only to be disappointed as George evaded one of Savoldi’s trademark dopkicks to score a third fall victory. George wore a long blue robe described as his “George Washington” robe, and stopped Savoldi in the first fall with a flying kick and headlock. Savoldi got the equalizer in just 1:31 before misconnecting and going down to George’s leglock. Interestingly, Howard “Hangman” Cantonwine acted as a bodyguard to George (his daughter Kay was a robemaker to the star), but he was cheered in his match against Kay Bell. Bell captured that match and Barend won a two-of-three falls contest with Marsh.

Image Truly, Dunkirk was on a roll. For an August 21 card, promoter George brought together Marlin and Lord Jan (James) Blears, a regal heel of the day. In delicious promotional material, Blears disclosed his visits to American were merely a sign of appreciation for the World War II era Lend-Lease program. Advance ticket sales for card were reportedly especially strong and the Dunkirk predicted the crowd would top the previous two events.

Dunkirk Evening Observer: Indian warriors with torn toms and similar characters caught the imagination of the amused spectators. The crowds grew and grew and as they did boxing slumped more rapidly into the background.

Hold on just a second. The crowd for this card was 1,049, a 50 percent dropoff from the earlier summer events. Promoters cited unseasonably cold weather (Western New York — cold? Could it be?) But the real reason was that you just couldn’t run a small town like Dunkirk three times in a month with big names. In fact, the August 21 card was the least appealing of the three. Blears finished off Marlin with a half-Boston crab after the two had split the first two falls (Blears used a full Boston crab in fall number one.) That bout, according to the scribe of the day, saved a “clinker” of card in which Barned beat Frank Klocko, a last-minute substitute and Stanlee stopped Marsh. Stanlee was appearing as a good guy after wrestling as a heel earlier in Dunkirk; that may or may not have confused customers who sat through the 45-minute bout.

Well, that was it. An old story in wrestling — something heats up, and promoters quickly suck the lifeblood from it. Dunkirk would continue to host wrestling for years. It was a regular stop for the National Wrestling Federation in 1972 and 1973, but Floral Hall at that point was dilapidated, and the venue was never packed for the likes of Waldo von Erich and Luis Martinez as it was for a brief time in 1950. But it was fun while it lasted.
 

© Steven Johnson, February 2007

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buffalo – January 24, 1973

The NWF World Title Tournament

So what do you do when your heavyweight champion – who’s also your booker – wants more money than you’re willing to fork over? You declare his title vacant and hold a high-profile tournament to decide a new champion.

That’s the dilemma – and the solution – that the National Wrestling Federation came up with in January 1973, when Johnny Valentine’s monetary demands got out of hand. Valentine, who had headlined in the territory for much of 1972, was seeking an exorbitant $1,500 a week guarantee, according to Ron Martinez of the NWF. That sum was “huge in those days,” Martinez said. Perhaps more to the point, while Valentine is rightfully considered a legend in wrestling, his methodical, grind-it-out style never took hold in the NWF. Attendance figures show very little impact from Valentine’s appearances, perhaps because the area had been built for years on heated angles. Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo also had significant minority and blue-collar populations that seemed to cater more to wrestlers like Bruno Sammartino and Ernie Ladd.

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Jacques Rougeau celebrates his NWF title win.

As a result, as 1972 came to a close, the NWF world title was in a state of flux. Valentine had defeated Abdullah the Butcher for the championship in a rare “heel vs. heel” match in Cleveland in October, then went on to a continuation of his long-running feud with Johnny Powers. On Nov. 30, Powers and Valentine went to a double disqualification in Cleveland. A week later, Powers beat Valentine by countout, but the belt was held up, pending a review of the match finale..

The world title tournament was scheduled for Buffalo on Jan. 24, 1973, and the hype on TV shows was clearly to give anyone and everyone a chance at the gold. As laid out in the pre-match publicity, the card looked loaded. The first round matches included:

• The Executioner (Donn Lewin) against Boris Malenko
• Don Serrano vs. Fidel Castillo
• Jacques Rougeau vs. Bruce Swayze
• Chief White Owl vs. Hans Schmidt
• Reginald Love vs. Tony Parisi
• Pampero Firpo vs. Eric the Red
• Zulu vs. Valentine
• Johnny Powers vs. Waldo von Erich

About 4,000 fans turned out that night in the old Buffalo Aud. Unfortunately, there was a little bait-and-switch on the card. Malenko, who had been wrestling in Cleveland, did not show, and Killer Karl Krupp (previously Mad Dog Momberg) took his place. Eric the Red, a fixture in the region, subbed for the wild Firpo, while Valentine was replaced by Hartford Love. (Valentine was not totally done with the NWF; he wrestled in Cleveland through early February, got in a tussle with Eddie Creachman at one point, and made a spot appearance in Buffalo in June). Finally, “brother” Raoul subbed for Fidel Castillo.

As a result, the first round matches became fairly predictable, and unbelievably quick. Only two matsmen went over clean – Rougeau with a sleeper on Swayze in 4:10, and Serrano with a dropkick and press on Castillo in just eight seconds. Otherwise, the endings were disqualifications or countouts. Schmidt beat White Owl, who was standing on the ring apron, chopping away at his foe. Hartford topped Zulu by countout in 4:22, and Reggie Love got himself disqualified against Parisi in 10:05. Krupp beat The Executioner by DQ in 4:40 and Eric was counted out against Martinez in 8:40. In the key event, Powers controlled von Erich for most of the 9:35 before getting him in his figure four “Powerlock.” But Powers maintained the hold on the ropes and refused to break against his long-time rival, resulting in his disqualification.

Image
Jacques Rougeau beat Waldo von Erich for the NWF heavyweight championship.

The second round saw three more less than clean finishes. Serrano was counted out in 6:00 after von Erich threw him from the ring, while Schmidt and Parisi were DQ’ed against Rougeau and Krupp, respectively. The Rougeau contest went just 4:55. Only Luis Martinez with a 7:00 pinfall against Hartford earned a clean triumph.

In the semifinals, von Erich bested Martinez, again by countout, while Krupp was DQ’ed against Rougeau. That set up a final match of von Erich, who already had held the NWF world title twice, against Rougeau, who had entered the federation in the fall of 1972, when promoter Pedro Martinez bought the Pittsburgh and Montreal territories to round out his Great Lakes-based group.

The key moment in the match came at the pat downs. Von Erich’s stock in trade, his black glove, was considered a resting place for foreign objects that he used to despoil his adversaries. In a protracted discussion before the bout, Rougeau insisted that the referee take off the glove – Ron Martinez was in the ring, watching the affair. von Erich was forced to remove the controversial device, and Rougeau, thus satisfied, whipped him with a slam and press in less than 10:00 to become NWF champion. Give the purchase of the Montreal office, Rougeau seemed like a reasonable choice as champion, Ron Martinez recalled.

It’s interesting that so many of the matches ended in disqualifications or countouts, considering that usually only one or two bouts per card ended that way. The effect of the tournament was not great. The Montreal purchase lasted only a few months before Rougeau’s territory went its own way. In fact, the North American belt became the center of contention in 1973 between Eric, Powers, and J.B. Psycho. Powers regained the world belt later in 1973, and defended it mainly in the Cleveland area, where he made his home. In December, the sage of the NWF world title came to an end as Powers dropped the strap to Antonio Inoki, who would make the title a mainstay of Japanese wrestling for years.

— Steven Johnson
December 2004

Akron – June 24, 1972

Abdullah becomes a champion

You associate Abdullah the Butcher with blood and gore. You associate Abdullah with scars and forehead divots that could engulf small change. You associate Abdullah with wild, out-of-control tactics that bring a look of incredulity from even the likes of Cactus Jack.

In short, you don’t associate Abdullah with the dignified look and classic style of professional wrestling champions of the 1970s. But, for a brief time, that’s exactly what he was.

The main event at the aging Akron Armory on June 24, 1972 shaped up as just the kind of rabble rouser that fans in northeastern Ohio loved — National Wrestling Federation world champion Ernie Ladd against Abdullah. Ladd had captured the belt from Waldo von Erich in Cleveland just 15 days before, and the factory workers who populated Akron’s tire and rubber factories saw him as a true hero, and an African-American one at that.

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Abdullah the Butcher, the 300-pounder billed from Sudan , won a controversial match in Akron to claim the NWF World Heavyweight championship.

The Ladd-Butcher match went on second at the aging armory, which had served as a civic center for nearly 65 years. The fact that it followed an opener between Victor Rivera and Yoshino Sato should have been a tip-off for wizened wrestling fans — given the propensity for rowdiness among Akron fans, slating defeat for the favorite at the end of a card probably was unwise.

The Butcher entered first, accompanied by his manager, The Black Baron. Abdullah, then 36, was well known around the world for his lack of a wrestling style. He had maiming foes in Los Angeles and Japan (in the World League Series) in 1971 before entering the NWF late in the year. His first manager was Beautiful Bruce Swayze, whose penchant for frequent interference had gotten him handcuffed to Chief White Owl and suspended in a cage above the ring the Cleveland.

In the late winter of 1972, though, the mysterious Baron, became the chargé de Butcher. The Baron dressed totally in black, except for a white, bandage-like mask. He carried a cane and rarely spoke; when he did it was in a guttoral, surrealistic fashion —as though he was talking through a mechanical larynx.

Asked by NWF TV commentator Jack Reynolds if he held Abdullah in a hypnotic spell, the Baron remained silent. He regularly incited Abdullah by banging the cane on the ring apron, as a call to action. Because of Swayze’s previous record of service, most fans speculated he was under the mask, but no one knew for sure.

Ladd entered from across the armory, wearing his trademark “Promises, Promises” vest. The silver sequined vest, with the words stitched on the back in red, was a play on the popular Dionne Warwick song from 1968. In his time as a treacherous villain, Ladd used the phrase to mock his fair-headed opponents’ promises to knock him down a notch or two. “Promises, empty promises,” Ladd regularly bellowed on “Championship Wrestling with John Powers,” the weekly NWF program.

Even after his spectacular falling-out with Waldo von Erich, and subsequent transformation to idol, Ladd, 34 at the time, wore the vest during his entrance. He had a more important bauble with him, though — the NWF world belt that he had taken from von Erich.

The match was billed as a 60-minute time limit, but Ladd wasted no time in going after his rival. Never the most scientific of grapplers, Ladd punched and kicked his 300-pound adversary from the opening bell. He sent Abdullah reeling, but the Wildman from the Sudan raked Ladd with the tape around his right fingers and started to bite him. Abdullah headbutted Ladd in the face; as Ladd writhed in pain, the Butcher headbutted him in the back, and then again in the face. A quick whip into the far turnbuckle, and the Butcher started to move in for the kill.

But Ladd was ready. As Abdullah threw Ladd into the turnbuckle a second time, he put up his size 16 boot and blocked the collision. Then he turned, caught the big man coming, and sent him backward with a pair of chest chops (a move well in vogue before Ric Flair). As the Baron tried to enter the ring to aid his wrestler, Ladd kicked him and sent him outside the ring, and then kicked Abdullah to the armory floor. By now, five furious minutes had elapsed.

While he was outside the ring, Abdullah loaded up his arsenal. He pulled a foreign object — a pencil, perhaps — from his baggy tights and started to punch Ladd in the face. The Butcher followed with a series of headbutts, chokes, and more headbutts. But the last headbutt was the final straw for Ladd, who started a superhuman comeback. He shook off the headbutt and started to go wild inside the ring, and the crowd was with him. Ladd kicked Abdullah, threw a solid right hand, and delivered a standing elbow smash. Then, whipping Abdullah into the ropes, he caught him coming off with a boot to the face. That caused something to shoot out of Abdullah’s mouth — whether it was a tooth or simply a wad of spit was immaterial.

Ladd picked up Abdullah and started to use him as a human punching bag. But this time, he caught him too flush, as the beaten and battered Butcher fell backward into referee. Seeing the ref down, the Baron sprung into action. He whacked Ladd across the upper back with his cane, sending him to the mat. The referee, regaining consciousness, reached across for the 1-2-3 count. No sooner had the bell rung than Rivera and TV announcer Ron Martinez raced to the ring to try to explain the Baron’s interference. Rivera attacked Abdullah, who grabbed the title belt and departed to debris and boos. But Rivera’s quick actions did earn him a shot at Abdullah for the next card in Akron.

The odd thing is that the match was hardly the blowoff to a long feud. NWF records show no previous bouts between the two; that’s not to say they were squaring off for the first time. But the first six months of 1972 had been preoccupied with the von Erich-Ladd war, while Abdullah had been paired with the relatively soft touches of Manuel Soto and Mike Loren in the days preceding the match.

Ladd and Abdullah did not engage in an immediate series of rematches. On June 30, Ladd was disqualified in a return engagement in Cleveland for beating up Abdullah until he was a bloody pulp. The Big Cat would take a break from the NWF for a while, running a successful stint in Los Angeles as America’s champion.

The two would not face off again until the late summer when they had two brass knuckles matches, one at the “Super Bowl of Wrestling” at Cleveland Municipal Stadium on August 12. Abdullah would hold the world title until October, when Johnny Valentine wrestled it from him.

The mystery of the Baron would not be solved for years. Swayze did eventually return as Abdullah’s manager, but the role of the Baron in 1972 was played by Don Fargo (Kalt), who wrestled with “brother” Johnny later that night in Akron.

Ladd and Abdullah appeared on Ohio mats on and off for several years. Abdullah engaged in a feud with Johnny Powers in early 1975 after the NWF promotion had fallen by the wayside, and has toured the world many times over.

With his vicious, bloodletting style, he’s never been one to throw title belts across his shoulder as a sign of his wrestling immortality. But, on one night in 1972, he captured the top prize in the Steel Belt area.

— Steven Johnson

Cleveland – January 31, 1974

Ox Baker incites a riot in Cleveland

In his three decades as a wrestler, Ox Baker caused a lot of grief for hapless opponents. But long-time wrestling fans in the Great Lakes area know that the grief sometimes befell Baker.

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Ox Baker is smiling in this 2003 photo, but there was no grin on his face during the 1974 wrestling riot in Cleveland.

For it was 30 years ago that Baker, by his own admission, incited a riot at the Cleveland Arena in an out-of-control struggle that ended in whirl of patrol cars, broken chairs, knives, and stitches.

“That was something,” Baker recalled in a recent interview. “There were chairs everywhere. It was a real scene.”

The prelude to what would be the last significant angle for the National Wrestling Federation borrowed from the famous John Tolos-Fred Blassie feud of 1971, in which a televised “Wrestler of the Year” presentation served to rile wrestlers’ tempers.

A month before the hubbub, the NWF named Ernie Ladd as “Wrestler of the Year” for 1973. Ladd, a fan favorite in the NWF, received the honor before a tag team match at the Cleveland Arena that paired him with Johnny Powers, the popular North American champion, against The Sheik and Pampero Firpo.

During the match, The Sheik smote Ladd with a set of brass knuckles, knocking him to the floor of the antiquated arena. The Sheik then joined Firpo to administer a brutal double-teaming to Powers. When a desperate Powers strained to tag his partner, Ladd was nowhere to be found.

As Ladd shook off the cobwebs and worked his way to the ring apron, Powers berated him for his lack of support. “Where were you when I needed you?” he demanded. Powers then slugged Ladd, pulled him into the ring, and started punching, kicking, and elbowing his partner before leaving to a chorus of jeers.

In the meantime, Firpo and The Sheik started feuding as well. Firpo pulled the wily Syrian off the prone Ladd, concluding a rare “double turn” in which two wrestlers in the same match changed their stripes.

In a televised interview, Powers explained his actions: “I’ve been here all year, putting a lot of effort in winning my matches and this guy [Ladd] has only been in the area for about a week and he wins the award. As far as it goes for the match, Ladd was out on the floor signing autographs or talking to the female fans. He was not hit with brass knucks.”

At the next Cleveland house show, Ladd was disqualified for administering a bloody beating to Powers. A Jan. 10 rematch ended indecisively when Powers, on the brink of losing his belt, slugged special referee Firpo to earn a disqualification and save his title. Firpo let the match continue, and Ladd pinned Powers to claim the belt, but the ruling was overturned because the bell rang to end the match when Powers laid out Firpo.

That set the stage for the wild events of Jan. 31, a “Texas Uncle” match that could be won only by submission holds. In addition, Ladd stood to win $5,000 from Powers if he could wriggle out of Powers’ figure-four “Powerlock” finisher. In front of about 4,000 people, Ladd held the upper hand throughout much of the match. And though Powers had placed his rival in the “Powerlock,” Ladd was on the verge of breaking it — and collecting the loot — when Baker, who had been in the area for less than a month, raced into the ring.

Baker had a longstanding reputation as master of the heart punch, including “credit” in wrestling circles for two fatalities, Alberto Torres in 1970 and Ray Gunkel in 1972. With his stalking persona, out-of-control eyebrows, and Fu Manchu, “the sight of Ox Baker is enough to scare the devil into going to church,” longtime wrestling manager Percival A. Friend once observed.

A brief black-and-white clip showed what happened next. The segment, less than five minutes long, was absent of commentary. But none was needed.

Baker, in the ring, hit Ladd with a left hand to knock him off Powers. He then pulled Ladd by the hair and threw his deadly heart punch. Powers was circling the ring, while Baker continued his assault on Ladd.

Quickly, the ring started to accumulate debris — trash, cups, and paper. Baker then threw half-a-dozen punches at the staggering Ladd. Suddenly, from Baker’s left, a fan rushed the ring with a chair, but Powers shoved him away. Baker stomped the prone Ladd as irate fans encircled the unguarded ring. One chair landed in the ring, then another, then another, until the event looked like a cyclone of chairs.

“When I hit him four or five times, they thought I was trying to kill him” 

By then, all pretense of sport was gone, and survival was uppermost in the wrestlers’ minds. Baker and Powers looked for escape paths, but the ring was surrounded by an angry mob. Powers decided to make a dash for it, and was slugged by a fan as he took off for something approaching safe haven. He ran through the main floor and hurdled the hockey boards to retreat to the bowels of the arena. Baker, moving quickly, followed him soon thereafter.

Cleveland police responded to the riot, but the situation stabilized quickly after the wrestlers left. The incident made the local news and infuriated Dave Ott, the chairman of the Cleveland Boxing Commission. It could not have come at a worse time — in the same arena the night before, hockey immortal Gordie Howe went after some hecklers in the stands, causing a major disturbance.

“We’re not going to permit a third man to enter the ring any more, either,” Ott told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The problem, Baker said, was that the 6-9 Ladd didn’t take his beating as quickly as planned.

“We wanted to get the people excited. We didn’t realize we would go over the limit, you see. And when I hit him four or five times, they thought I was trying to kill him and I actually incited it,” Baker said.

“We’d work him up to a certain point, then the good guy would bust you back and pop the crowd back. I was supposed to run in, hit him a couple of times, and get out of there. What made me mad was he wouldn’t go down. He wouldn’t go down, so I kept hitting him.”

Baker was particularly alarmed that several fans clearly were wielding knives as he scurried up a flight of stairs to offices in the arena. “Nobody realized in the back, they chased me upstairs with knives. They were going to cut me.”

Incredibly, as Baker opened the door to what he thought would be a secure room, he found fellow wrestler Gypsy Joe and a lady friend. Joe offered Baker use of his knife and he whipped out a blade that was several inches long. Baker recalled with a hearty laugh: “I was more scared of his knife than I was their’s [the hecklers].”

Baker was not the only frightened one. Ron Martinez, son of promoter Pedro Martinez and a fixture in the NWF on- and off-camera, said Powers later told him he was not sure he would make it back to the dressing room in one piece.

Baker and Powers needed stitches to close head and arm lacerations, respectively — Baker was said to have had between six and 21 stitches. An estimated 300-400 chairs — plastic ones, fortunately; not the older, harder wooden style — were destroyed.

Ladd recovered from the attack to square off against Baker a month later. The match ended in a double disqualification.

But the NWF’s ability to play off the real-life brouhaha was limited. The dilapidated Cleveland Arena gave way within months to the shining new Richfield Coliseum in a southern suburb of Cleveland, attracting a far different type of crowd than the inner city Arena. The promotion, which ran shows in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York from 1970 to 1974, folded later in the year.

Baker and Ladd, though, lived to fight many more days. They squared off in places like Indiana and Georgia. The video of the riot made the rounds and set the tone for Baker’s invasion of places like Chicago. “I gave him [Ladd] a heart punch for my grandmother, and my mother, and my brother, and even one for me, too,” Baker once said as he narrated the footage during a TV show.

But wherever they worked together, Ladd and Baker never had problems in the ring because they worked out a system to prevent a repeat of the Cleveland riot.

“He’d hit me too hard, I’d yell, ‘Oops,’ Baker said. “And I’d hit him too hard, he’d yell, ‘Oops.’ ”

Update, May 08: First hand testimony from someone who was there. revRecluse of Radio Enigma recaleld the riot and his brothers' reaction. Check it out here .

 

— Steven Johnson