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.
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