Reflections Of Phoenix Madison Square Garden
November 22, 2005 by Dale Pierce
The Phoenix Madison Square Garden housed wrestling in this Arizona city from 1929 to 1979, a double story adobe building which housed roughly 3,000 people. Though long since closed (ironically becoming a warehouse called Arizona Jobber Supply when the owner sold the building in 1980), the place remained a shrine to older wrestling fans. In the fall of 2005, in spite of numerous protests to save the structure, the Garden was torn down to make way for a high rise. It spelled an end to an era and the demise of yet another historic landmark.
The Garden housed tons of hot shows over the decades, frequently providing a stopover point for grapplers traveling between Texas and California, where they could make an extra payday. The names of who appeared there would be a long and impressive one.
Gorgeous George, Don Kent, Tito Montez, Luis Martinez, Don Arnold, John Tolos, Blue Demon, Flama Roja, Dick Hutton, Bob Geigel, Warren Bockwinkel (Nick’s father), Fred Blassie (incredibly a dark-haired fan favorite in the 1950s), Count Billy Varga, Baron Leone, Roy Shire, Tonyo Joe, Karl Von Brock, Hans Steiner, Bearcat Wright, Luther Lindsey, Shag Thomas, Sweet Daddy Watts, Mildred Burke, The Comamcharos, Mongol Lu Kimm, Mr. Wrestling,. Cowboy Bob Ellis, Eddie Sullivan, Mike Debiase, Ike Eakins, Alo Pasha, Ali Bey, Ray Gordon, Lou Thesz, Phil & Bill Melby, Les Thatcher (then a relatively new guy on the undercard), Charlie Kalani (another obscure wrestler, a Hawaiian who would later become famous as Professor Tanaka), Afa & Sika, Bobby Mayne (who later became Bobby Jaggers), Salvador Dominguez, Gory Guerrerro (the father of the Guerrerro clan), Ripper Collins, Argentina Rocca, Princess Tonah Tomah, Rose Evans, Jane Sherrill, Ann Casey, Bambi Ball, Jack Ringer, John “Machoman” Ringer (who was a Machoman BEFORE Randy Savage), the Assassins, the Medics, George “Baby Blimp” Harris, Rod Fenton, Jerry Graham, The Lumberjacks, Hercules Stevenson, Frankie Caine (later The Great Maphisto), Phil Sapien, Logger Larson, Brute Bemis, Henry Pillusso (a major star in Mexico, eventually responsible for turning El Santo from heel to babyface, thus changing his career forever), Ray Torres, Alberto Torres, Tony Barbetta, Kiko Torres, Pepe Romero, Nano Ortega, Maniac Mike Gordon, Lord Leslie Carton, Cowboy Bob Yuma, Benny Mendeblis, Chuck Karbo, Johnny Kostas, Ron Protchard, Bob Lueck, Jack Frisco, Kangaroo Bob Carson, Jerry Woods, Pancho Pico, Roberto Pico, Bobby Watts, Bobby Graham, Bathsada Sighn, The Gorky Brothers, Paavo Ketonen, Mike Mazurki, the Christy Brothers, The Monroe Brothers and many more. A young kid named Bill Laster started out running a fan-club for Nano Ortega down at the Garden and later became Flying Billy Anderson, known in the long run more for his training capacity as the man who helped launch Sting , Louie Spicolli and Ultimate Warrior) A wrestler was married there in the ring, long before the WWF started doing this on TV (the wedding was a real one, but did not last). A wrestler named Jim Wright died at ringside there.
To use crude layman’s terms here. “All that history has now been shot in the ass.”
Fan violence was a big problem at times though, as this was in an era when spectators took everything fairly serious. Jody Arnold, a longtime regional star, commented at an Old Timer Reunion a few years back on how he once went on TV, making fun of the Hispanic population and opponent Tito Montez. He wore a large Mexican sombrero and painted a thick mustache on himself with makeup. He then stammered and stuttered and said, “I the real Tito Montez. Don’t listen to that other guy. He not Tito Montez, even if he say he is. I the real Tito Montez. I wrestle and gots beated all the time by Jody Arnold cause I scared of him, but needs to wrestle to feed my ten kids. I gets beated in the ring every week by Jody Arnold and then in day I pick the lettuce and the cotton and the turnip in the fields as migrating worker, so I put beans on the table. I the real Tito Montez and I scared of Jody Arnold. Him too tough for me.”
The interview filled the arena with irate fans, all wanting to see Montez tromp the arrogant young villain. A group of other fans were arrested though, before the show even started. They were passing out switchblades with the intention of taking matters into their own hands.
The Comamcharos (known as The Hells Angels back east) were also good for causing riots, including one that evolved into a mass fight between wrestlers and fans as they took on Pancho Pico and Ben Justice. Another time, they burned an American flag on TV, which “got heat” and filled the building that week, but also got them kicked off of Channel 5 TV, sending them to the UHF station, Channel 21, instead.
There were many other close calls, where wrestlers came close to being seriously injured or killed by angered fans. One of the Monroe Brothers had his head laid open by a metal chair hurled at him by someone who took displeasure in the antics of the two-tone-haired tag team. One of the aforementioned Comancharos was grazed with a switchblade and cut on the chest, but saw the wound was slight and actually finished the match. Dr. Jerry Graham had to hide in the locker room, gun in hand, waiting for the building to clear out on more than one occasion. And as noted earlier, someone did die, though not by fan attack.
Big Jim Wright was working at the Garden in the 1960s. In a tag team match, he was double teamed and staggered to the corner, where he rested and his partner took over. He then grabbed his chest and fell off the ring apron, hitting his head on the wooden floor. The blow to the skull or the fatal heart attack that put him down would have been enough to kill him either way, but this deadly one-two combo left him lifeless on the spot.
As far as feuds, there were many, all violent and bloody. Arizona was truly hardcore before such a word existed in fan vocabulary. Tito Montez, the area icon, was always involved in a brawl with someone. He had lengthy runs with Don Kent (filling the arena for nine weeks straight. For the first eight weeks, Don always won on some type screw-job, but when Montez beat him in a cage, concluding the feud, the house went down next week, as the people went home happy and the promoter had booked no feud to carry over from the under-card at the next show). Over a decade later, a “brother” Jimmy Kent materialized and the very same feud came to be. Montez beat this Kent in a cage as well, but the new promoter had the brains to have a follow up feud with Chuck Karbo for the next show.
Two regional wrestlers, Cowboy Bob Yuma and Hercules Stevenson, also filled the arena numerous times. Yuma, a lanky fan favorite, contrasted greatly with the muscular Stevenson, who was an arrogant and outspoken rule-breaker of the worst order. Stevenson, now retired, works as a cabinetmaker and carpenter, while Yuma was headfirst in the battle to save the Garden from destruction throughout most of 2005.
Other long-lasting feuds saw Eddie Sullivan vs. Cowboy Bob Ellis, Kurt Von Steiger vs. Bobby Mayne (Jaggers), Jody Arnold vs. Woody Farmer, Dr. Jerry Graham vs. Chief Big Heart, Argentina Rocca vs. Buddy Rogers, Mr. Wrestling vs. Handsome Paul Harvey, Super Argo vs. Maniac Mike Gordon, Ellis vs. Don Arnold, Bearcat Wright vs. Sweet Daddy Watts, The Comancharos vs. Bob Lueck & Ron Pritchard, Jack Ringer vs. Armon Hussein, John Ringer vs. Benny Mendeblis, Don Arnold vs. Gory Guerrero, Johnny Kostas vs. Jody Arnold and Billy Anderson vs. David Rose.
While there were historic and shining moments, there were some dark ones as well. A trio of wrestlers were arrested on their way out of Arizona, when they stole half the metal chairs out of the building and attempted to sell them to a community center. Jerry Graham freaked out at a Phoenix hospital, right at the height of his stardom in Arizona, when his mother died. He attempted to carry her body out of the hospital, holding it under one arm, while he brandished a shotgun in the other. He ended up doing time in a mental institution over that one. One wrestler was arrested for the traffic of aliens from Mexico and busted by someone in law enforcement whom he worked with on Phoenix cards. Another time, shortly after the movie, Mad Bull, came out (which involved a wrestler being stalked by a crazed fan and his gun), a Phoenix wrestler was shot in the leg by people supposedly speeding away in a car. To this day, others maintain the man literally shot himself in the leg or had his partner do it and created the story simply for publicity. If true, now there’s dedication for you. If not, then there’s something just as scary. Twenty years later, however, the pair still refused to change their story.
Several wrestlers who appeared at the Garden also went on to film careers. Billy Anderson found small parts in a number of movies. Mike Mazurki became an established film star and in one of his last movies, Challenge To Be Free, he ended up being stalked by Vic Christy, his old nemesis from the ring wars. Tony Hernandez made numerous films in Mexico and may still be seen as the standout jail thug in the American film, Losing It. El Santo and Blue Demon both became major film stars in Mexico, while Henry Pillusso played in some films with them. Argentina Rocca also had a small part a few years before he died, in the horror film, “Alice, Sweet Alice”, where he was killed by a knife swinging psycho. The scene remained in the big screen version but was for some reason edited out of most video versions and when run on TV.
Where are the stars from this historic arena now? Well, we can take a look at what is known.
Billy Anderson returned to Phoenix after a number of years in California, where he is again thinking of starting his wrestling school. Don Curtis retired to Florida. Bobby Mayne (Jaggers) now works for the highway department in Kansas. .Super Argo, Pancho Pico, Flama Roja and Tom Ramirez all returned to Juarez, Mexico. Cowboy Bob Yuma, Phil Melby, Eddie Lopez, Nano Ortega, John Ringer, Eddie Lopez, Hercules Stevenson, Jody Arnold, The Lumberjacks, and Barbara Starr all live in the Phoenix area still. Armon Husein retired to Texas and John Shane moved to Oregon. As for Chuck Hondo, Ben Justice, Handsome Paul Harvey, Jack Ringer, Tony Barbetta, Pepe Romero, Killer Kane, Sweet DaddyWatts, Pedro Romero, Mitri the Arabian Assassin Henry Pillusso and some others, they have dropped out of site. Where they are and whether they are even still alive is unknown to me. Don Arnold, still alive in his 80s as of the fall of 2005, lives in a nudist colony in California. He recently made an appearance as a “commissioner” for an independent show in California, after decades away from the ring. The year before the Garden was torn down, a Phoenix referee and book publisher did a reprint of my Riot At The Garden, with the addition of many photos. It documents the history of this arena and especially the Comancharos versus Ben Justice & Pancho Pico feud. It may be ordered at http://www.riotatthegarden.com
Several images of those mentioned here, who appeared at The Garden, as well as others who just couldn’t be fit into the article, may be found in the profile section of Online World of Wrestling as well.
Dick Murdoch, Chief Big Heart, Jerry Graham, The Comancharos, Ripper Collins, Don Kent, The Mortician, Navajo Frank. George “Baby Blimp” Harris, Ali Pasha, Paavo Ketonen, Monti Ladue, Red Berry, Buddy Rogers, Dick Hutton, Gorgeous George, Firpo Zybysco, Lord Carson, Eddie Sullivan, Blue Demon, Roberto Pico, El Santo, Bob Sallee, Russ Barker, Ernie Muhammid, Lou Thesz, Mike Debiase, Ike Eakins, Ray Gunkle, Alberto Torres, Logger Larson, Bearcat Wright, Gory Guerrero, Fred Blassie, Mildred Burke, Yukon Eric, Yukon Jake, Bull Curry, Fritz Von Erich, Pepper Gomez, Johnny Kostas, Roy Shire, the Christy brothers, Johnny Mann, the Gorky brothers, Chuck Karbo, and many others who appeared at this building have all passed away.
The Phoenix Madison Square Garden now joins them in final and conclusive death, never to be resurrected except in memory.