It’s going to be a bittersweet induction weekend at the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. The museum is closing up shop in Newton, Iowa and moving up the road to the bigger city of Waterloo, leaving behind memories and ghosts.
Mike Chapman is the museum’s driving force, and one of the most respected minds in wrestling — amateur and pro. It was his dream to found the International Wrestling Institute and Museum; it was his labour that put much of it together. He also brokered the deal to change locations, and rename the museum the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum.
“From an emotional/nostalgia standpoint, it’s going to be very tough when we start taking things down,” Chapman admitted to SLAM! Wrestling. “The first time I ever saw this building, Lou Thesz was with me. … I opened the door, and Lou and I walked in the doors, walked around the building and it was completely empty. I said, ‘Here’s where we’ll do this, and here’s where we’ll do that.’ He said, ‘Why don’t we do this other there?’ We were just laughing and talking, and all of a sudden we realized we were serious, that this looked like it might be the building. We stepped out on the balcony and watched the traffic go by and we talked about the potential.”
The potential in Waterloo, an hour-and-a-half drive up Highway 63, is far greater — the city has 135,000 residents, has a rich amateur history and incredibly competitive high school wrestling teams, with 37 state team championships among the schools. Of course, it’s the home of Dan Gable too (and Chapman originally as well).
The city of Waterloo is “really stepping up to the plate to support us,” said Chapman. The new location is twice as big as Newton, and will even include a training center with pullout bleachers.
Besides the existing three Hall of Fames under the International Wrestling banner — The AAU National Wrestling Hall of Fame, the Glen Brand Wrestling Hall of Fame of Iowa, and the Tragos/Thesz Pro Hall — another two will be joining: a national Greco-Roman Hall of Fame and a Sambo Hall of Fame.
Rest assured, pro fans, the Tragos/Thesz Hall will still be a big part of the museum. “The designated area for the pro spot is actually almost, but not quite, twice as large as it is now. But the whole building’s twice as large,” said Chapman. “We signed an agreement that as long as there’s an International Wrestling Institute and Museum, our board made a resolution that there will be a George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame.”
The Class of 2006 — the eighth induction class — is headlined by living inductees Bret “Hitman” Hart, Larry “The Axe” Hennig and Bob Roop. The induction ceremony takes place at 11 a.m. on Saturday, July 15. Admission is $10. A banquet goes down that night as well.
“We have had the biggest response to this event of any since the opening of the museum, back in 1998,” said Kyle Klingman, associate director. “It’s a great lineup, and there is tremendous interest due to the appearance of Bret Hart.”
In the posthumous category, the inductees are Dory Funk Sr. (Terry Funk is trying to clear his schedule to receive the award for his father; Bob Geigel is the backup); “Iron” Mike Dibiase (“The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase will be there); and Tom Jenkins (represented by a great-grandson).
Nikita Koloff will also be there to receive the Frank Gotch Award, given annually to a person who has brought prestige and recognition to professional wrestling.
The museum is full of ghosts for Chapman, some of whom he never met — like Frank Gotch and Strangler Lewis — and others who were inducted and have since left this mortal world.
“Of course Dick Hutton was in here a lot, Tim Woods was in here a lot. I remember when I told Lou we wanted to give Bobby Managoff the first Frank Gotch Award, and they were real good friends. He said, ‘That’s a wonderful idea but be prepared he won’t come, but it’s a great idea.’ I said, ‘Oh, he’ll come.’ [Lou’s wife] Charlie agreed with me. I’d been to Bobby’s house before and he treated me like a son, and we got him. I remember when Bobby Managoff walked in the door the first time and started looking around and saw the display for him and his father; he had tears in his eyes and I got choked up. It was here in the building when Joe Stecher’s daughter met Earl Caddock’s son and sat down and watched the Caddock-Stecher match together. The building itself has this incredible history.”
It’s with a feeling of nostalgia that Bob Roop prepares for his first trip to Newton.
“I’m honoured. My amateur career — I don’t know if you want to call it a career because you don’t make a living it at — my amateur was a lot more important to me than the pro was. The pro was a way to travel, and that’s the main reason I did. I enjoyed it,” Roop said.
“There are some great guys in the Hall. It’s certainly a privilege to join them. I have one real regret, and that is that Tim Woods has passed on. Tim was a wrestler at Michigan State and I actually worked for him when I was a junior in high school. He had already graduated from Michigan State, and he had a tree company here locally, and I worked for him for a couple of months one summer,” explained Roop. Later, while in high school, Woods came by East Lansing High School a couple of times and rolled around with Roop. “I’m not saying that got me over the edge, but it certainly helped to have a guy of his ability and experience to come work out with me.”
Yet despite the fact that their professional careers coincided for at least 15 years, Roop never met up with Woods, aka the masked Mr. Wrestling, on the road. “I worked on one card with him, at the Bayfront in St. Petersburg, but the dressing rooms were so far apart I couldn’t get to see him.”
Woods and Roop reconnected at the Gulf Coast Wrestler’s Reunion in Mobile a few years back. Already a member of the Tragos/Thesz Hall, Woods said he was going to nominate Roop. Then Woods died of a heart attack in 2002 at 68.
Chapman has been out promoting the Hall’s move to Waterloo. One speech he gave was actually at the very site where Frank Gotch wrestled Dan McLeod at the Signet Theater in 1909. The Hall is just two blocks from the President Hotel, where the National Wrestling Alliance was formed in 1947 on the second floor.
The author of many books, Chapman will be leaving behind one workspace for another.
“I’m the kind of person who feels ghosts. I’ve been in here late at night, midnight or so, and I’ll be working on something, lean back in my chair, and it’s almost like I can feel Lou [Thesz] and Frank [Gotch] looking over my shoulder, that kind of thing because I allow those kind of images to come into my mind because I enjoy them,” he said. “So from that standpoint, there will never be another building like this. We’ll start fresh in Waterloo.”
TRAGOS/THESZ CLASS OF 2006 STORIES
- July 17, 2006: Family & faith dominates Tragos/Thesz induction
- July 3, 2006: Memories will haunt at Tragos/Thesz inductions
- Dec. 14, 2005: Larry Hennig one tough guy
- Nov. 30, 2005: Tragos/Thesz HOF announces Class of 2006