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WRESTLING COLUMNS

A Look At Toronto's Wrestling History
March 21, 2005 by Sean Ritchie




I can still remember it like it was yesterday. My dad used to take me down to Maple Leaf Gardens every time the WWF was in town for an arena show. As a family we never had a lot of money but my dad knew that even at a young age professional wrestling meant the world to me. I can still remember before the show my dad saying that wrestling was not what it used to be, that it did not have men like Whipper Billy Watson or The Sheik around to give it the same feel. As a young child I had no idea what my dad was talking about, as my perception of the world of wrestling was restricted to Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage. As I grew up though I began looking into professional wrestling more and more and soon discovered that I should have been listening to my father more closely when he was talking about the good old days of Toronto's professional wrestling scene.

It's hard to really pinpoint when professional wrestling began in Toronto but many historians on the subject say that it really started around the early 1900s. Several promoters tried to get cards going around town but none of them seemed to make as much of an impact as Mr. Frank Tunney. Frank's introduction into the world of wrestling promotion was not what he wanted. His brother John Tunney died suddenly at the age of 32. From that moment on Frank was thrust into the world of professional wrestling and many were curious to see how the younger Tunney would do.

Frank Tunney had been promoting for about a year to a year and half when he brought in the man that would soon become synonymous with professional wrestling in Toronto, Whipper Billy Watson. Watson was a native of East York in Toronto and had been honing his craft in England for four years prior to coming into the Toronto territory. When Tunney first laid eyes on Watson he could see that this man was destined to become a star. Only a few short months after coming into the territory Whipper Billy Watson was being pushed as Frank's main man and would go on to compete in a large percentage of main event matches in that region for many years to come. Watson's biggest win arguably came in 1956 when he pinned World Champion Lou Thesz for the title in Toronto. As the 1950s came to a close Watson also scored a meaningful victory over one of the biggest heels of that time, Gorgeous George. What made this so meaningful was that due to pre match stipulations George had to shave his head. Thanks to Watson Gorgeous George would be leaving Toronto not so gorgeous anymore. These two big wins by Watson capped off what was to be a great decade for the Toronto Wrestling Scene.

Although Watson was doing his part to make Toronto wrestling as exciting as it could be it was around the 1950s that Frank Tunney teamed up with a partner that would take professional wrestling to new heights, television. With the introduction of television the stars of Toronto Wrestling were able to show a much larger audience what they were capable of, and the fans were not disappointed. Stars such as Waldo Von Eric, Stan Stasiak, Billy Red Lyons and even Rocky Johnson began to make their debuts in the Toronto territory. With all television exposure and the emergence of new superstars it was hard to imagine how the Toronto Wrestling Scene could get any better. That's where the most hated, villainous individual of his day stepped in.

The year was 1969 and an old face was returning to the Toronto Wrestling Scene. This man was one of the biggest villains of his day and many people today consider him one of the all time greats. Of course I am talking about none other then The Sheik. When The Sheik was re-introduced to Toronto crowds he was instantly hated. Along with his manager, Abdullah Farouk, the two riled up to the crowds and drew in record numbers for Tunney, at least for the first few years. When it came to wrestling in Toronto no one was more dominant then the Sheik. He wrestled exclusively in main event spots or co-main event spots and compiled an unheard of record, 100-0-27. No man was able to defeat The Sheik until the 8th Wonder of The World, Andre The Giant accomplished this task in 1974, and he only got the victory due to disqualification brought on by The Sheik's dirty tactics. The good times could not and would not last forever though. By 1977 the fans had grown tired of the Sheik's act and both he and Tunney agreed to part ways. It was the end of an incredible run that would never be duplicated again in Toronto Wrestling history but it was also the start of a new era that packed just as much excitement as before.

Tunney was looking for a way to keep his Territory red-hot and he accomplished that by bringing in a mixture of AWA, NWA and WWWF performs to take part on his cards. Wrestling fans in the area were treated to dream cards each and every time they came out. The biggest card in many people's minds was headlined by AWA Champion Nick Bockwinkel taking on WWWF Champion Bob Backlund in 1979. If the main event was not enough to keep fans on the edge of their seats, just consider that Ric Flair taking on Ricky Steamboat was a part of the under-card. By putting on shows like this Frank Tunney cemented his place in professional wrestling history. Many wondered just how long it would take before the Toronto Wrestling Scene slowed down, and unfortunately their answer was coming.

By 1983 the territorial wars were becoming more intense and it was difficult to exchange talent for shows. This news was overshadowed by the fact that the father of Toronto Wrestling, Frank Tunney, passed away at the age of 70. He left his promotion to his son Eddie Tunney and his nephew Jack Tunney. It did not take long for Jack Tunney to align with the growing WWF. It was a historic and sad day when the only show at the Gardens was the WWF. After 34 years the book closed on Toronto Wrestling.

As I was researching this article I kept thinking back to my dad telling me stories about when he went to the Gardens as a young boy. He told me about names that really had no meaning to me, but now, now that I have visited the past they mean so much more to me. Just like the song goes, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone." You know my dad was right, wrestling just does not seem the same without those old familiar faces.

I hope you enjoyed my historical look at the Toronto Wrestling Scene and if you wish to find out any more information visit www.garywill.com/toronto/ for all your Toronto Wrestling needs.

by Sean Ritchie ..


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