The WAWLI Papers, page 1


by H.H. Roxborough

MacLean's Magazine - October 15, 1931

Ages ago, historians tell us, the largest of animals roamed across Canadian plains and left their footprints in the sands of time. True, they have long been consigned to glass cases in museums; but today their human counterparts, the 225-pound mastodonic specimens of the human family, like the mammoths of old, are snorting, writhing, puffing and stamping their courses along the canvas- covered, manila-bound wrestling rings of the broad Dominion.

The arrival of these heavyweight wrestlers was almost as unexpected as would be the restoration of those prehistoric animal giants, for both were considered to have passed forever from human sight.   True, the grapplers were popular a quarter century back.   The names of Hackenschmidt, Gotch and Zbyszko meant something and their appearances in a ring attracted thousands, but with their decline the sport rapidly rolled downhill.   The leading wrestlers forsook championship bouts and began barnstorming the countryside, ballyhooing challenges to "all comers."

The "comers" were usually men of their own camps who were planted in the audience and who, with considerable assumed bravado, accepted the defi, entered the ring and went through the motions of wrestling.   Occasionally a sum of money was offered to anyone who could "stay" for an arranged time without being thrown, and when an honest stranger did offer himself he was handicapped with a referee friendly to the barnstormer and a timekeeper who often prolonged the limit so that the challenger might be securely pinned.   Naturally, the game could not live long in such an unhealthy atmosphere; and so from barnstorming to circuses to burlesque shows, and finally out of the sporting picture altogether, the "rasslers" travelled from opulence to oblivion.

Then something happened.   A little over two years ago a tall, athletic-appearing, pleasant-spoken sportsman arrived in Toronto and registered under the awe- inspiring Russian name of Ivan Mickailoff.   Ivan was not an impostor.   He had been an officer in the famous Cossacks, an intelligence commissioner in the Allied armies, a university graduate and a point gatherer for Russia in the Olympic wrestling championship of 1908.   Mr. Mickailoff furthermore had an attractive personality and appeared quite sane.   But when he approached sports editors and told them his Canadian mission was to revive wrestling, and even to make money out of it, they greeted him with shaking heads and expressions of sympathy.

Those experienced judges of sports taste informed the prospective promoter that he hadn't a "Chinaman's chance" of   making good; that former wrestling conditions had been so unsavory that even the recollection induced nausea; that wrestling even at its best wasn't much to look at, and, besides, boxing had such a "foothold" that a "toe hold" wouldn't attract enough people to pay for the resin. The Russian visitor listened, but he was too big to be moved by the sound of voices.   He merely shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and began preparing for his first show.

Wrestlers had been procured, paid advertising had announced the time and place, and eventually "came the night." The bright lights illuminated the duck- covered platform, the contestants for the great inauguration were "on the job."   Every preliminary requirement had been met.   The arena was sufficiently large to house ten thousand paying guests, and the metropolitan area of Toronto is population by nearly a million inhabitants.   But, alas, only 300 curious folks strolled past the ticket taker, and fully half of them had complimentary tickets for which they hadn't paid even the amusement tax.

Dick Cossack Mickailoff roll himself up in his canvas flooring and quietly steal away?   Did he call upon his sports advisers and tell them they were right?   He did not.   He didn't even wince.   He was accustomed to hard rides, and the writers didn't hesitate to give him one.   Like the heroes of old, the promoter sailed on.   Steadily the printed opposition increased in vigor and word power; but week after week the wrestling bouts continued until the pass holders became regular customers.   Those who had come to scoff remained to praise.   Eventually, after the promoter had gone "into the red" for $20,000, the increased interest brought the principal rolling home.   And how the industry has thrived! Mr. Mickailoff gave a glimpse of its growth when he informed the writer that for arena rental alone he has expended over $50,000 in little more than two years.

But that is the situation in only one section of the country.   Within the past year most of the larger Canadian cities have been visited by the exponents of "pitch and toss," while in Quebec, Montreal, Hamilton, Ottawa, Toronto, Windsor and Vancouver, the grapplers have appeared nearly every week even through the summer's heat.   In most of these centres there have been many occasions when capacity crowds have attended.   Not only has boxing been forced to recognize the drawing power of the mat men, but wherever wrestlers have staked a claim, gold has been revealed in paying quantities.

What forces compelled wrestling to leap into such national popularity? How has this fan approval been maintained? Is it just a passing fancy or will it continue for many years?

Remember, wrestling is not a modern game.   It is possibly the world's oldest sport.   More than twenty-six centuries ago the Grecian youths were matching grappling skill at ancient Olympia.   Arm locks, half nelsons, toe holds, were familiar terms to our grandfathers.   Every age, every people, seem to have accepted wrestling in some form.

Not only did promoters have to overcome this old-age handicap, but they also had to combat the antipathies aroused by the evil practices of a former wrestling generation.   The game has made good because the organizing was sound and the matching skillful; because the athletes and managers sacredly kept promises, and principally because showmanship has been added in large doses to wrestling ability.

It is often supposed, but not generally known, that the wrestlers do not travel "on their own" but are formed into schools, trusts, combines, or whatever similar name you choose to give them.   This control is beneficial to discipline.   The directors know their men, they are acquainted with comparative weights, strength and skill; and when two wrestlers climb into the ring the fans are assured that there is a close approach to equality in the performers.

This control also ensures that the wrestler must give value.   Lack of discipline killed the old game, but today if the athlete is incompetent, if he does not fulfill his engagement, if he does not observe rules, he is liable to be fined, suspended or refused further bookings.   This control is not theoretical; it really functions.   Three wrestlers were assigned to a certain programme and missed the train that would have permitted them to appear on time.   Did they telegraph regrets? No.   They hired airplanes to fly them to the battlefield at a cost of $125, and the expense was distinctly personal.   One hot summer night an irritated Irish wrestler took a swing at the referee.   He was a high-priced performer, but he worked that night for nothing.

In dressing rooms, around hotels, throughout their journeyings, the wrestlers have proved to be real gentlemen whose friendship is worth cultivating.   Unlike some other sports participants, they are not followed by noisy disturbers, groups of gamblers or oath- dispensing managers.   Indeed, wagering is not one of the by-products of present-day wrestling.

Some of the wrestling fervor undoubtedly has had a patriotic origin.   In days of old, Russia and the Balkans provided most of the contenders, but now every motherland seems to contribute a "rasslin" son.   Pat McGill, Ireland; Al Baffert, France; Joe DeVito, Italy; Andreson, Sweden; Komar, Lithuania; Zarinoff, Russia; Miyaki, Japan; Oakley, England; Schwartz, Germany; Henriquez, Cuba; Londos, Greece; Sonnenberg, McMillen, McCoy, George, United States; McCready, Canada -- these men and many others indicate the strength of this league of wrestling nations.

Youth and intellect are also contributing to the sport's popularity, for, while the champions in the preceding dynasty were men in their forties, the current crop contains many young men who have recently graduated from universities and who are still on the sunny side of thirty.   Wrestling is a paying profession.   One wrestler paid income tax last year on $80,000.   The leaders are wealthy men. So good faith, expert matching, strict discipline, international rivalries, youth and education have each given their little tug in the effort to pull wrestling into public favor.   But those alone could not have succeeded.   Something more was needed; something that would appeal to the man who wanted action, speed, combat, excitement, mob frenzy.   Wrestling proved to have them all.

Picture a typical show in almost any of the large cities on almost any night.   The outside temperature may have reached an unbearable altitude or sunk so low that the mercury seems ready to hit the floor; nevertheless, regardless of degrees, you will probably have to park so far away from the arena that you will wonder why you didn't taxi.

As you enter, the huge enclosure is in semi-darkness.   In the centre the powerful lights concentrate their rays on the "squared ring." The two combatants are in their corners, and the announcer is shouting:   In this corner, Freddie Meyers, Jewish wizard, weight 205 pounds; in this corner, Carl Pospishil, Bohemian champion, weight 215 pounds.

Then, after the bows, removing of robes and instructing by the referee, the two heavyweights leap from their corners with the dash of a sprinter and the ferocity of a jungle king.   Quickly they engage, and for half an hour, without stalling or long-distance mauling, they pleasingly but forcefully illustrate every hold in a wrestler's repertoire; and when they conclude, the crowd admires, enthuses, and cheers as though a championship had changed hands.

The preliminary bout is followed by the semifinal exhibition.   Into the ring jumps a superbly molded Frenchman with a weight of 195 pounds, built for speed and endowed with crowd-pleasing talents.   Then ponderously to the opposite corner advances a Swede; slower moving, huge, thirty-five pounds heavier than his opponent, strong and grim, thoroughly hated by the mob.

The match begins.   "Come on, Al," echoes through the arena.   Every move of the Frenchman arouses encouragement.   The hero, with sudden fury, chucks the Swede clean through the ropes, and as the villain despairingly hangs on the edge of the platform the cheers exceed that accorded a political leader as he accepts the nomination.

Slowly Axel Andreson crawls back and returns to work.   Almost superhumanly, he lifts Al Baffert's shoulder high and tosses him so forcibly that the thud is heard outside the building.   When Al returns to the perpendicular he is hurled to the ropes, while the crowd boos the villain for his roughness.   A victory for the Frenchman would be as popular as the return of prosperity, but justice must prevail, and so after thirty- five minutes of clever and speedy manhandling the shoulders of Al are securely "nailed" to the floor.   Villainy has triumphed, but the victor is hissed and hooted as though he were a Simon Legree.

The first two bouts are interesting, but the final is a "wow" for it introduces two of the choices examples of 'strength with showmanship' ever graduated from this school of wrestling.

"Ladies and gentlemen: In this corner, Pat McGill, the Irish terror; in that corner, Gus Sonnenberg, former world's champion."   McGill, seeking patriotic appeal, enters the arena attired in a brilliant, green silk gown with a fine gold harp embroidered across the back.   Off comes the robe and at the clang of the timekeeper's gong, Patrick wraps Sonnenberg's head under a huge, powerful arm and proceeds to manipulate his monstrous "nut-cracker." When that viselike hold fails to secure the desire result, the Celt lifts "Gus" above his head, spins him around like a top and then slams him to the floor.   Between times, the former Dartmouth star hurls himself at McGill and on many occasions "Pat" counters this devasting crash with a rabbit punch or a hoist under the chin.

For thirty-five minutes these mastodons twist arms and toes, shove hands and heels at faces, punch necks, pick up at full length and hurl to the floor, toss each other through ropes, drag across canvas face down and apparently advance every conceivable punishment short of beheading.

During all this battling and battering the cheering of the onlooking mob is one continuous ear-splitting roar; then, after Sonnenberg finally sinks the son of Erin, the voices of the spectators have become so strained that many of the "congregation" can only whisper their approval.

But is it all real? Do the wrestlers actually suffer? Are the contests faked? In the answers is found the key to wrestling prosperity. Today a wrestler must know how to wrestle; but to this talent must be added the agility of an acrobat and an undoubted gift for acting.   Pain may be simulated, punches may be pulled, toe holds may be massages, but you can't fake a six-foot toss to the platform or a violent heave to the concrete floor.   Only a gymnast can take those chances and come through successfully.   Occasionally he distance is misjudged and the human projectile is carried to his dressing room, but, to the mystification of attending physicians, no bones are broken and recovery is so rapid that ten minutes later the wrestler is back in the ring.

However, while they usually escape breaks or concussions, wrestlers do suffer.   They do feel pain, and the most common cause of distress is that old complaint of boils.   The constant scuffling on the resin- covered platform, the frequent dragging and grabbing, often produce those painful tumors.   "Gus" Sonnenberg, the human bomb who hurls himself so successfully at his opponent's stomach, has been plagued with four boils at one time, yet he wrestled.   An Indian had one boil lanced four times within eight hours, yet gamely contributed one of the best exhibitions of his career.   They do suffer and they are game.

Boils contributed to the death of Stanley Stasiak, the Polish giant, whose wrestling ability and artistry so moved the wrestling fans that in thirty-one engagements in Toronto nearly one hundred and fifty thousand persons paid for the privilege of hissing this "master villain." You will recall that after a slight operation had been performed to check infection, poison from boils on one arm spread so rapidly that even a major operation could not stem the infected stream in time to save the life of that magnificent figure of a man.   Wrestlers suffer; and they are game.

Are the contests faked? A good boxer often carries an inferior fighter for ten rounds when he could have won at any time; a Tilden may win a tennis set at six to four when he might have prevented his opponent from getting a game; a mile runner has beaten his competitor by twenty-five yards when a hundred yards should properly have separated the two.   Not many individuals nor many team teams play themselves "all out" when they can win by a reasonable margin.   But these winning boxers, tennis players and runners are not called fakers; indeed they are often complimented for their chivalry.   Why, then, should it be assumed the wrestlers are "quacks" when they perform three quarters of an hour with a wrestler whom they would "pin" in shorter time? Faking really occurs when the best man loses.   Leaders like Sonnenberg, Don George and Londos have such long strings of victories that it is well known that the best wrestler wins.

Indeed the secret of the wrestling popularity might be compared with that of the stage.   In both, the performers are actors, the hero is cheered and the villain hissed.   The actor who dies in the play isn't really dead, the wrestler who registers agony may not be suffering; but in both, the people who pay like the show and appreciate the artistry like to see the good man succeed and the bad man suffer. Will wrestling continue in the public favor?   I put this question to Sonnenberg.   "Gus" is not only a sensational performer and a leader in his profession but also a graduate of Dartmouth University, where he excelled in both football and studies.   Sonnenberg has had an opportunity to test public opinion and he firmly believes that the sport's popularity will wax and not wane.   "I have just come from Boston," said he.   "In two weeks there, over $140,000 was paid by wrestling fans."

Hitherto the sport has prospered in Canada without much native talent.   Earl McCready, Regina's representative on Canada's 1928 Olympic team, has proved his fitness for competition in the most select company; Harold Starr, former Ottawa rugby player, has successfully crashed into the game; and at the time of writing, without any publicity, one of Canada's most capable all-around athletes is attending the school of wrestling, acrobatics and showmanship.   After he stands the preliminary battering and training, he will be chucked into the den of wrestling lions.   When he fully arrives, the game in Canada will receive a patriotic impetus that will assist in surpassing the high figures already established.

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