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WRESTLING COLUMNS

Watson, Thesz And The In-Betweens
April 11, 2005 by Sean Ritchie


After watching WrestleMania 21 with several of my housemates we were all left with a bad taste in our mouths. Don't get me wrong - the majority of the card was stellar and even at times we were jumping out of our chairs cheering our favorites and heckling the ones we despised. However, when it came to the final two matches of the night, the championship matches, we were left scratching our heads and asking, "That's it"" For some reason this year those matches, the ones that are supposed to be the most important and invoke the most emotion, simply did not deliver. When I woke up the next morning I still felt a bit let down by those two matches so I decided to re-visit a time when Championship matches were a little more then just part of the card, when in fact they were the card. Seeing as how I've recently become interested in the golden days of Toronto Wrestling that was where I first turned and boy I was not disappointed.

Now my friends this was a big match feel. In one corner you had the most dominant champion in professional wrestling history, Lou Thesz, a man who has held the NWA Championship for eight straight years (July 1948 - March 1956). He's held countless titles in his illustrious career and is often called one of the greatest wrestlers to ever walk the Earth. Playing the role of his challenger was a man in his early 40s who had become one of the darlings of the Canadian Wrestling Scene, Whipper Billy Watson. This was not Watson's first shot at the gold, Watson held the NWA Championship for a brief time in 1947, before eventually losing it to the man he was facing, Lou Thesz. If these two icons were not enough just look at who was officiating the affair, none other then legendary boxer Jack Dempsey. With so many elements it looked like it was going to be one great night at The Gardens.

Two weeks prior to this match, March 1st 1956 to be exact, these two had fought it out in The Gardens for the NWA Championship. The match did not result in a clean pin fall or submission, but instead by an accidental disqualification. Watson went to leap frog over Thesz and caught a head butt to the groin region. The referee had no choice but to disqualify Thesz for the low blow. Of course Watson did not want to win this way and considering the fighting champion that Thesz was, the re-match was scheduled for March 15th, 1956 and the whole town was buzzing about the big title fight.

Many people speculated that this was Watson's last shot at the championship. Although both competitors were in their 40s there was a distinct difference between Thesz and Watson. Thesz was the champion and proved that he could take on all comers, while Watson although a Canadian icon had not provided to be a very stable champion when he held the same belt eight years earlier. The Canadian crowd was strongly behind their country's hero but when facing such a dominant champion you had to wonder if it would be enough.

The big night finally arrived and 15,000 people sold out Maple Leaf Gardens to see if Whipper Billy Watson still has it in him for one great title run. Jack Dempsey makes sure that the competitors are ready and signals a start to the match. What followed was an awesome display of scientific wrestling as both wrestlers used their extensive knowledge to punish their opponent. At various points in the match it seemed as if both men were poised to take the victory and leave with the NWA Championship in tact. However around the half hour mark Watson applied a new hold that seemingly spelled certain doom for his opponent, The Corkscrew Wristlock. Thesz fought valiantly against the hold and even tried to go to the outside in hope of breaking the move. Watson was determined though and followed Thesz to the outside, all the while keeping the move secured tightly. On the outside the match turned into a violent affair. The two men battled around the ring and onto the entrance ramp where Whipper Billy Watson delivered a body slam to the champion. The crowd erupted as Watson stumbled back into the ring before Dempsey reached his ten count. Unlike today, a title change could occur on count-out and the crowd roared in excitement as Whipper Billy Watson had done it, he had re-captured the NWA Championship, eight years after he had originally lost it to Thesz.

For Thesz the aftermath of the match was just as crushing as the loss itself. Besides losing his Championship belt he walked away from the match with strained ligaments in his elbow and torn ligaments in his ankle. Watson had put a real hurting on the now former champion and ensured it would be awhile before Thesz was able to challenge for a rematch. However with such a great atmosphere surrounding their March 15th encounter it was only a matter of time before these two locked horns once again.

During his reign Whipper Billy Watson defined what a champion should be, making defenses in major Canadian Provinces from British Columbia to Quebec, taking on all the top contenders in between. Watson did not keep his defenses strictly to his home country though as he frequently fought off top contenders in such wrestling cities as St. Louis, Memphis and San Francisco. Watson cemented himself as a great champion of that era but he always held the cloud of doubt over his head, could he really beat Lou Thesz with a pin or submission. He didn't have to wait to long to get his answer.

The former champion came calling and on November 9th, 1956 the re-match was set in St, Louis. The crowd was hot once again as Thesz had fought his way back up the ranks and was poised to reclaim the title that he had become synonymous with. The match was once again a back and forth affair with both men gaining control at one point or another. At the end of the night though it was Lou Thesz's hand that was raised in victory as he reclaimed the NWA Championship from Watson. Watson would never recapture the championship but that did not take away from the legacy he left with the title or Canadian wrestling as a whole.

After their title match both Thesz and Watson went their separate ways as far as wrestling went. Watson went on to feud with one of the originators of Sports Entertainment, Gorgeous George, and many consider their series of matches some of Watson's finest work. The climax of this feud came when Gorgeous George lost to Watson and due to a pre-match stipulation had his head shaved in the ring. As for Thesz he continued to dominant the World Title scene for a few more years before working his way down the card, all the while retaining the dignity and class that has made him a true legend of the sport.

Both of these competitors were at the top of their game back in their day and even though they may have been getting on in age they still put on two classic encounters in Toronto and St. Louis. Although times may change and wrestling continues to evolve when I look back on both of these matches I can't help but think that these two really made a World Championship Match a big deal. Then again that's just my opinion.

Credit for additional information goes to http://www.garywill.com/toronto/ and of course http://www.OnlineWorldofWrestling.com. Just on a personal note, this coming summer I am trying to get a documentary going about the Toronto Wrestling Scene. If anybody reading this is available to help and lives in the Greater Toronto Area please drop me a line, it would be most appreciated.

by Sean Ritchie ..


Gordon Schmidt in the Whipper's home town, Toronto wrote:
I've just read your Online World of Wrestling web site and am pleased to "meet" a real Whipper fan. I remember the Whipper from the Fifties and Sixties and recall that he became damaged in an auto accident which ended his wrestling career.

Was that when he started his beverage company which marketed "Whipper's Beverages"". I still have two of the 7 ounce bottles in which his soft drinks were sold. The labels showed the Whipper in his characteristic pose with the words "Whipper's Beverages" superimposed. Above that main label are the words"The Champion of Drinks". And on the back side of the bottles sketches of wrestlers are shown in classic positions.

On one bottle it shows "The Leg Trip" and on the other it shows the "Crotch Lift and Body Slam". I don't know how many varieties existed.

I'd welcome any of your comments about the beverage phase of the Whipper's life.
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