One day last September SI received a letter from Miss Marie Garrison of Oakland, Calif., president of the "Lords of the Mat" fan club. Miss Garrison enclosed a card making SI's publisher an honorary member of her club, which is pledged to root for and admire "Lord" Athol Lay-ton, the peerless Captain Leslie Holmes and "Lord" James Blears (opposite, lower left). Miss Garrison also had a question: what, she wondered, was SI going to do about professional wrestling? Since then the question has been asked again and again by other interested parties.
Here and on the following pages is SI's answer. As Mark Kauffman's color photographs make clear, America's 5 to 10 million television wrestling fans are missing a lot. To really understand a man like Kubla Khan it is necessary to see with one's own eyes that he not only wears harem pants but that they are purple.
All wrestling (which has been described as all gall) is divided into two parts: heroism and villainy. This is not an accident. It was discovered long ago that a contest between two clean-cut young athletes generates less emotion in the spectator than a struggle between one clean-cut athlete and one dirty-cut athlete. Of the approximately 3,800 wrestlers who populate the 335 arenas in the U.S., one-half are clean-cut and the other half are dirty-cut.
The same thing is true of the champions. Right now, for example, there are six "undisputed" heavyweight champions of the world, the newest being Leo Nomellini, a young man normally employed as a football player. Mr. Nomellini claims to have won the title in San Francisco a week or so ago when Mr. Lou Thesz misbehaved and was disqualified. The National Wrestling Alliance, a marching and chowderhead society of the nation's 38 leading wrestling promoters, says the title cannot change hands on a disqualification. The Messrs. Vern Gagne, Hans Schmidt, Antonino Rocca and Pat O'Connor say jointly that the dispute is academic since each of them is the world's champion, anyway.
April 11, 1955
There is little prospect that the situation ever will be resolved, for the simple reason that six champions can make more money than one. Four of the claimants are under contract to a single promoter, Fred Kohler of Chicago. Gagne, a hero, makes about $100,000 a year; Rocca, also a hero, makes as much or more; Schmidt, a villain, makes about $75,000; and O'Connor, a rising hero, is hot on Schmidt's heels. Mr. Kohler has no trouble keeping his four champs busy; besides Chicago's Marigold Gardens, which drew 144,731 fans last year, Kohler books matches in 90 cities in Illinois, 22 in Wisconsin, 13 in Indiana, and he occasionally exchanges wrestlers with promoters like Morris Sigel in Houston or Hugh Nichols on the West Coast.
Although journeyman wrestlers have always worked five or six nights a week, until the advent of TV few of them made really big money. Prior to World War I wrestling was a pretty prosaic business, with only one champion instead of six and hardly any lords, counts, princes or Masked Marvels. Frank Gotch was the champion from 1906 to 1913 and a contemporary account of a title match between Gotch and George Hackenschmidt in 1908 notes that "one hour after the start nothing approaching a hold had been gained by either man."
No modern wrestling fan would wait a solid hour for Hold No. 1, and neither would any TV director. Luckily, a fellow named Gus Sonnenberg came along in the late 20s and opened up the game. Gus had been a mighty linesman at Dartmouth and he was a ferocious tackier. He couldn't hit a moving target, but an enterprising promoter convinced a number of wrestlers that they could all make money by standing still and letting Sonnenberg tackle them. They did, he did and they all did.
Out of this cooperative enterprise came many of the holds which so delight televiewers today. Some of them—the airplane spin, the surfboard and the drop kick, to name three—can only be applied with the skilled complicity of one's opponent. One, the Indian death lock, is so complex that the assistance of the referee is sometimes required.
There is some argument as to how Frank Gotch would make out with the modern crop of TV wrestlers. A few experts believe he could beat them all in one night; others think it would take two. Actually, the argument is beside the point. Professional wrestling, circa 1955, owes only a slight debt to Gotch and Hackenschmidt and not much more to the amateurs. Its true forebear is the morality play (pages 38-40), and its true concern is not with athletics but with good, evil and gate receipts. The curtain is about to go up. Turn the page and watch the plot unfold. P. S. You may hiss the villain.
IN BAD COMPANY
Although there are almost as many heroes as heels in wrestling, on the opposite page it's villains 3 to 1. Perhaps embarrassed at being in such bad company, Hero Bobo Brazil (upper right) has turned his ornate back. Villain John Tollas (upper left) holds bouquet presented by admirers. At lower left is the insufferable, unconscionable, monocled "Lord" Blears; and at lower right, Kubla Khan, a man who has plumbed the depths of fancy dress and perfidy.
THE AGONY OF COMMUNICATION
Stoicism does not count for much with wrestling fans, who would feel defrauded if not allowed to share the exquisite tortures of their heroes. On the opposite page Hero Wilbur Snyder grimaces as longhaired Villain John Tollas howls as he prepares to flip Snyder to the mat. At right Bobo Brazil registers alarm, though it is he who has the hold (a scissors) on Gene Kiniski. At lower right Warren Bockwinkle's face contorts in agony as Villain Bulldog Pleeches (red trunks) bears down on a wristlock, and directly below, Matt Murphy (green trunks) and Mike DeBiasie suffer the dual devastation of a double arm stretch. Actually, the pain projected from these twisted countenances was slight compared to that happily received and endured by the spectators who witnessed the matches on a recent evening at the Ocean Park Arena in Santa Monica, Calif.
A VILLAIN PUT TO FLIGHT
As every good American knows, sportsmanship and courage are inevitably allied; so, conversely, are brutality and cowardice. One nice thing about wrestling is that it wholeheartedly affirms these fundamental beliefs. Here, for example, we have the hateful Kubla Khan, snarling sadistically as he applies first a double wristlock and then a knee drop (below, left and right) to the admirable but overpowered Mike DeBiasie. What happens, though, when Mike retaliates (bottom)? Kubla flees (opposite), shrieking in terror.
A MODERN MORALITY PLAY
The plot is simplicity itself. Evil seems sure to triumph over good. The evil man uses every sinful device at his command and it appears that the long-suffering good man will never be stirred to retaliate in kind. Meanwhile, the referee appears to be blind; he makes only the feeblest of protests at the villain's outrageous conduct. The picture above is a sample. Man Mountain Dean Jr. has Sandor Szabo backed into the corner and is butting him with his big belly while Sandor emits loud cries of "Hah! Hah!" On page opposite, upper left, Dean holds Szabo with a perfectly legitimate headlock, but pulls Szabo's hair while the referee is unable to see what he is doing. Lower left, Szabo has at last rebelled; he holds Dean's shoulder down with his knee while bending a hand back. And at right, Szabo stands triumphantly, for the moment, over Man Mountain, having thrown him with a "suplex." Events up to this point have moved women at the ringside (left to right below) to clench a fist, threaten with the back of the hand, assault Dean with a shoe, and suffer exquisitely for Szabo. In reply to the question, "What do women see in wrestling?" amateur psychiatrists ask, "What do men see in burlesque shows?" For what both men and women saw at the conclusion of the Dean-Szabo match, main-event feature of the thrice-weekly card at Hollywood Legion Stadium, see page following—bearing in mind, before turning, that in wrestling, as in life, the wicked sometimes seem to prosper.
VICE IS ITS OWN REWARD
The morality play comes to a happy conclusion as men and women spectators rise to their feet to give the raspberry to the fallen Man Mountain and cheer the noble Szabo. The lesson is plain enough to the true aficionado. Any wrestler who persists in using dirty tactics, who habitually violates every precept of fair play, such a scoundrel—is sure to be on next week's card.