Crusher Lisowski liked to say he was the man who made Milwaukee famous. But for a brief time in the early 1960s, he did his damndest to put Pittsburgh wrestling on the map, as well.
Reggie Lisowski started wrestling after World War II—he said in newspaper accounts that he started wrestling when stationed in Germany, following weightlifting as a youngster. He debuted around 1947, even as he worked as a bricklayer, according to the most reliable information. In a 1956 article in the Chicago Tribune, he claimed to have an expanded chest of 59 inches, and 19-1/2-inch biceps.
Lisowski was well-known in the Great Lakes area well before promoter and wrestling impresario Toots Mondt started to breathe new life into Pittsburgh wrestling in 1960. His first appearances in the area were in Buffalo in 1952, against Wild Bill Zimm, “Dirty” Don Evans, and Frederich Von Schacht.
With “brother” Stan, Reggie formed a solid, rough-and-tough tag team that wrestled often in the Buffalo-Cleveland area in the late 1950s. Perhaps the highlight of that run was a heel versus heel tag team clash with Mike and Doc Gallagher in Cleveland in April 1959 that drew nearly 10,000 to the old Public Auditorium. The Lisowskis won, under the watchful eye of referees Ilio DiPaolo and Lord Athol Layton.
In 1960, he entered Pittsburgh as a singles wrestler, playing the role of “Crusher,” and not just “Reggie Lisowski,” and took the town by storm, thanks to his gruff manner, his powerhouse style, and a series of interviews that have fans talking to this day. No insult to Pittsburgh, its citizens, its sports teams and the surrounding regions in Ohio and West Virginia, was beneath him. While it was probably just promotional publicity, he was said to have won his first 43 matches in the area until he lost by disqualification to Zivko Kovacic in McKeesport, Pa., in late April 1961. True or not, it only added to his mystique.
Writer Evelyn Lesh: The Crusher arrived in town like a Sherman tank run wild and proceeded to bowl over each and every opponent tossed into the ring with him. The fans hated him but at the same time they felt a kinship with him because of his Slavic ancestry.
Crusher wrestled every name in the territory during his two-plus-year run, and a few that fans might not expect, such as former boxing great Primo Carnera, Swede Hanson, and The Mongol. While much is rightfully made of the incredible drawing power of former NWA champion Buddy Rogers, Crusher also had an impact on the area’s box offices in 1961 and 1962. Lisowski and Johnny Valentine headlined Forbes Field twice in 1961 – Valentine was the good guy. The two shows drew a combined 22,500. Two subsequent cards that showcased Rogers and Lisowski drew a combined 26,000. Rogers and Valentine then drew about 8,500 to the Civic Arena.
The [Connellsville, Pa.] Daily Courier (August 1961): The Crusher, signed after quite a bit of dickering by promoter Eugene Dargan, is much in demand and Fayette County fans are anxious to see him in this wrestling show. Of Polish descent, he is anxious to renew acquaintances with friends here. The Crusher, who weighs in at 242 pounds, is the hottest thing in wrestling today.
His appearances on Pittsburgh Studio Wrestling became must-see TV. While tapes of the eras have long since settled into dust, Lesh fortuitously chronicled some of his public showings for the occasionally accurate, and always entertaining, Wrestling World in 1962. Oh, and please note, star athletes from Mike Tyson to Terrell Owens—Crusher was speaking in the third person before you were born.
On his upcoming match with Giant Baba in April 1962: I’m going to get an axe and go around Pittsburgh to find the biggest tree, so I can chop it down and whittle a box out of it to send that guy back to Japan. So what if he knows judo and karate? That doesn’t worry the Crusher.
Crusher beat Baba in 3:48, by the way.
After a draw with Rogers in 1962, Crusher appeared on Studio Wrestling wearing a championship belt with his picture on it: I beat Rogers, so I’m the champion. This belt is recognized as the official belt in this country as well as in Canada, England, France, and Spain … That bum didn’t beat me, so he’s not champion. All he’s got is a homemade belt from old beer caps.
One night, a snowstorm forced him to walk up a hill to the TV studio, and he was in full, mad character as he proclaimed: No wonder the women of Pittsburgh have such good legs, with all the hills they have to climb … I coulda broken a leg walking up that lousy hill. It’s a good thing the Crusher’s in condition to climb a hill like that and still wrestle when I get here. You know, this is the only town in the country where people can commit suicide by jumping out the basement window.
During a 1961 feud with Argentina Rocca, Crusher raced in front of the TV cameras to destroy a bouquet of flowers fans had given to the high-flyer: I don’t like the stink of flowers. I don’t want any flowers cluttering up any place I rassle.
When announcer Bill Cardille, who dubbed him “The Incomparable Crusher,” presented Lisowski with a bouquet from 23 “female admirers” a few weeks later: I don’t know. I can handle four women at once but 23 is too many even for the Crusher. Besides, I hate flowers.
On female fans, generally: Why don’t these women stay home and do their dirty dishes – must be an awful lot of dirty dishes in Pittsburgh with all these women up here to see the Crusher.
And on and on it went. When Crusher lost on a count out to Rogers at Forbes Field in September 1961, he announced the stadium’s infield was too hard, and that smog pollution contributed to his woes. Asked if he had seen the new Civic Arena in 1961, he retorted: “No, I don’t go slumming.” He was allegedly “suspended” by state athletic commission head Paul Sullivan in July 1961 for “acts detrimental to wrestling.” He choked out promoter Rudy Miller on the air, which long-time fans said added to his shock value.
Dennis Black: I’ll never forget him choking out Rudy Miller on TV and Bill Cardille screaming, ‘Crusher, he’s an eighty year old man … When he appeared in our hometown of New Castle, Pa., our art teacher allowed us to make a huge banner that said “Crush the Crusher.” He simply walked right through it on the way to the ring.
Now, that’s charisma. Eventually, Crusher turned from a bad guy to a good guy en route to being one of the sport’s early antiheroes – there was no change in his tactics, of course. Against Rogers in 1961, Crusher was cheered for the first time in Pittsburgh:
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: A crowd of 14,415 made a hero out of the Crusher, who was despised exclusively in 45 previous local showings.
Bill “Masked Superstar” Eadie, Pittsburgh area native: He’d come out an do an interview with a six-pack of Iron City beer on his shoulder and talk about going to the Polish and the Croatian clubs and dancing with all the ladies. I didn’t know he was a bad guy. I just liked him. Bruno was the local hero, but Crusher was over.
By fall 1962, it was time for the blue-collar beer swiller to move on. Crusher had been wrestling in the Midwest regularly during his Pittsburgh run, and he worked there for most of the rest of his career, as the feud between Rogers and local hero Bruno Sammartino took center stage in the Steel City. Crusher returned for a few bouts later on. In the fall of 1963, he headlined against Sammartino twice at the Civic Arena, losing by disqualification once and submission once; his name still spelled dollars as more than 15,000 fans flocked to see the cards.
In late 1966 and early 1967, he re-emerged in the territory, again as a heel. In a January 1967 match at the Civic Center, he fought with tag partner Bill Miller against Sammartino and the Battman, and ended up bloodied and unable to continue. His babyface turn – the fans more or less forced it on him – became his modus operandi in the American Wrestling Association, as well, where he also became a good guy, in particular against Mad Dog Vachon, without abandoning his kick, punch, and gouge style.
Lisowski died in October 2005 at the age of 79; he had been in declining health for years. Appreciations after his passing focused mostly on his work in the Midwest, and his long-time tag team with Dick the Bruiser, which was appropriate. But, for a while more than 40 years ago, Crusher and Pittsburgh had the ultimate love-hate relationship.
Crusher Lisowski: I’m the strong rassler, da most scientific and I got da highest IQ.
―Steven Johnson, July 2006
Credits: Wrestling World, for snippets of interviews that confounded Bill Cardille; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, George Lentz, The Daily Courier, The [Monessen, Pa.] Valley-Independent, our Studio Wrestling friends at Kayfabe Memories.
For more on Crusher’s career, see Lentz’s site.