Technically, Big Joe Dempsey was not a professional wrestler but as a referee of somewhat dubious character, he was usually involved in more skullduggery than the meanest of villains.

The Mask (Ken Kenneth) and manager Joe Dempsey. Courtesy Peter Handley.

That distinction often landed him in a combative role against some of the best wrestlers working in Larry Kasaboski’s far flung Northland Wrestling Enterprises in the 1950s. The very fact Dempsey’s name was often associated with the world famous boxer, Jack Dempsey, also lent an aura of mystery to Joe’s identity.

But even though he could grunt with the best of the crop or indeed don the gloves on occasion, he bore little resemblance to the heavyweight champion. His main strength lay in the fact he could adapt to any role the promoter required him to perform. Over the years, his roles were numerous and varied and carried out to perfection.

It is believed Dempsey was born in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1902. Adding to the mystique of the man are the sketchy details surrounding his personal life and background. He was brought into North Bay, Ontario, in the mid-1950s by Memorial Gardens’ manager Morris Snider to serve as trainer for the North Bay Trappers hockey team.

If he was a qualified hockey trainer, it was also a well known fact that Dempsey was a more than capable bouncer, having been gainfully and effectively employed in numerous bars and beverage rooms in Hamilton and North Bay. When the talk turned to the mysterious Dempsey, hushed tones were used to describe his escapades, the least of which was his inferred involvement in the death of another man.

Since the story was never substantiated it served only to add to Big Joe’s somewhat already colorful resume. But many of Dempsey’s exploits were factual and recorded for posterity.

After melding into the hockey scene in North Bay, it didn’t take Dempsey long to come to the attention of wrestling promoter Kasaboski. The veteran matchmaker was always on the lookout for characters who could add another dimension to his promotion and Joe came across as a prime candidate. Dempsey weighed over 300 pounds and ambled about with a perpetual scowl on his face, an intimidating trait he would use not only in the bars but also in the rinks and rings.

He was never shy about becoming involved in the heat of the moment. There was an amusing story making the rounds about an encounter Joe had at the rink. It seems that a member of the Pembroke Lumber Kings carved up a North Bay player during a spirited game between the clubs. The Pembroke player involved was John Bailey, a fierce competitor and a take-no-prisoners type of guy.

After the game, Dempsey barged into the Pembroke dressing room, all 300 pounds of quivering flesh, and threatened to do physical harm to Bailey. No shrinking violet, the Lumber Kings player rose to the challenge, staring down Big Joe.

“Get the f— out of here,” Bailey challenged the big man, “or I’ll stick a pin in you.”

Cooler heads prevailed and Dempsey retreated to the safety of the Trappers’ dressing room.

When Snider left North Bay for Port Huron, Michigan, where he also managed the Flags in the International Hockey League, he brought Dempsey along as a trainer for one season.

Don Evans Irish whips Joe Dempsey. Courtesy Rolly Ethier.

“In those days, players from both teams occupied the same penalty box,” recalled Snider. “Our bench was next to the penalty box and on occasion Joe would climb in between the players in order to keep the peace. The league put a stop to this practice but not before Joe lost a set of teeth.”

Snider also recalled the time he asked Joe to brighten up the shower stall in the team’s dressing room. No hesitation on Dempsey’s part. The shower had a floor with a marble finish and Joe promptly scrubbed it clean with a strong acid resulting in a less than desired result.

Dempsey had a strong presence around a hockey bench but he was one of those unique showmen who could draw attention in any forum, particularly a wrestling ring. In the annals of pro wrestling and particularly in the kayfabe era, there have been some exceptional performers with the ability to work the fans into a frenzied state. While the gift to draw heat was usually possessed by villainous wrestlers, Dempsey was that rare breed who perfected the role of “heel referee.”

As the third man in the ring, he could easily rile the fans with his ineptitude, disregard for the rules and favoritism towards the villain in such a manner that he would often be more despised than the most detested heel. It was often said that Big Joe missed everything all evening except his ride home.

There is an old axiom referring to referees at sporting events to the effect that they should be seen but not heard. In most sporting contests it is preferable to have the referee take a back seat to the action since spectators pay to see the athletes not the men in stripes. But in pro wrestling, it is the referee who is often the focus of attention and central to the plot, sometimes in a positive manner, often times negative. The referee as spoiler is an integral part of the script.

Joe Dempsey twists Rolly Ethier. Courtesy Rolly Ethier.

Since Dempsey worked exclusively for the Kasaboski promotion, his exploits are not universally known but are of great significance when dissecting gimmicks employed in the art of grunt and groan. To old-time wrestling fans in Northern and Eastern Ontario, the mere mention of his name elicits various reactions. Whether they are good or bad, they are never indifferent but always strongly held beliefs about his ability.

As a referee, Dempsey had a knack for giving babyfaces a difficult time. He and promoter Kasaboski had the routine down to a science. Larry was the hometown favourite and the boss man but such credentials meant little to Joe as he mercilessly ensured the veteran mat man received the short end of the deal. The miscarriage of justice meted out by Dempsey usually resulted in a grudge match or a series of matches in the ensuing weeks.

The first Kasaboski-Dempsey tryst was sure to have an unsatisfactory ending, thereby setting up a return match. In the return match, Kasaboski still wouldn’t get his pound of flesh as Dempsey insisted on jumping out of the ring when under attack. When the fan base was built to a sufficient level of interest, the rubber match was held. The ring was enclosed with chicken-coop wire and the matter finally settled, always in Kasaboski’s favour.

The routine would be repeated with other fan favourites such as Bill Curry, although with a slight twist. Since Curry was a former boxer, the challenge would be for Dempsey to don the boxing gloves with Bill in a fifteen-rounder. Usually Joe, who was known as “Gasbag” among the wresting fraternity, would be on the canvas looking up at the arena rafters by the seventh round, completely spent and out of gas.

But Dempsey’s feuds were not restricted to the faces. Even tough Texan Dory Funk Sr. would tangle with the rotund referee. So inept and loathed was Dempsey, feared villains such as Don “One-Man-Gang” Evans would become the choice of the fans in their match-up.

On one occasion against French-Canadian idol Louis Papineau, Dempsey bragged that he would make short shrift of the popular star.

“It seems every time one of these wrestlers has a beef against a decision, I have to put on the trunks and I’m getting fed up with it,” lamented Joe. “This time I will settle it once and for all by jumping seven feet in the air and landing square on the back of this ‘pea-souper’ Frenchman. When I’m finished, there’ll be nothing left but squashed peas in the ring. My wife is making extra big meals so I can put on 15 pounds. Then I’ll really squash him.”

This was typical banter used in the build-up to the matches since the territory featured many French speaking fans in Sudbury, Rouyn-Noranda and the Ottawa Valley.

Match at Memorial Gardens, North Bay: Morris Snider, Dick Hutton, Joe Dempsey, Gene Kiniski, Bruce Ruggles and Larry Kasaboski. Courtesy Kim Visinski.

“He was a showman,” recalls Morris Snider. “I still remember him climbing into the ring dressed in his blue robe. As arena manager, Larry and Joe kept me informed on how things were going to play out. Joe was a good man for Larry and Larry was good to him as he was to me.”

For one stint, Joe traded in his referee whites for a suit and tie. Kasaboski was notorious for bringing in veteran wrestlers who had reached their best before date and giving them one last kick at the can. Such was the case with Ken Kenneth from New Zealand. He brought in Kenneth and had him wear a hood as The Mask for one season. But to ensure the gimmick worked, he employed Dempsey as the manager of the masked man for the desired affect with fans. Big Joe’s presence in Kenneth’s corner guaranteed the pair had some drawing power and The Mask added another year to his career. After the assignment, Joe was back in his whites causing even more havoc in the ring.

“Joe was the complete opposite of his ring demeanor,” explained Curry, a North Bay legend. “He and his wife resided in North Bay year round. They had no children. He kept to himself but he was well liked by the guys and was always dependable. He was loyal to Larry.”

While Joe usually came out on the short end of the stick in contrived situations in the ring, there was at least one instance when he was shortchanged in real life. He was never overly cautious when it came to physically interfering with wrestlers in the ring or jawing with fans at ringside. They didn’t call it trash talking but heated exchanges with fans and wrestlers and fans and referees were a common occurrence and sometimes escalated beyond words.

So it was no surprise when Dempsey jousted with the judiciary in Brockville, Ontario, in 1961. The controversial referee was charged with assaulting a fan at ringside after a wild melee broke out during a match at the local Memorial Centre. The fan alleged that Joe had punched him twice in the back and the blows had aggravated an existing neck injury.

Dempsey testified on his own behalf and claimed there was much disorder around the ring with screaming fans throwing various objects at him. But he denied punching the complainant, insisting that with his considerable weight the man would have collapsed if he had punched him.

But Joe failed to convince the court of his innocence as there were just too many credible witnesses who testified that the alleged assault actually took place. Dempsey took the fall. In rendering his decision, Magistrate Gordon Jermyn suggested it was part of the referee’s job to make the crowd angry and in the ring it was up to him to take the consequences.

“But what you do outside the ring is my business,” the magistrate concluded and fined Dempsey $15 and $18.50 in court costs.

Ever pugnacious, Joe asked the court for time to pay the fine, suggesting that his accusers should go to church on Sunday and confess the lies they had told.

Joe Dempsey was one of those rare performers that the fans loved to hate. So convincing was he in his role of bungling referee that eventually the fans embraced him. He became a crossover heel, the anti-hero, an enigma who took on a life of his own and was as recognizable to the fans as most babyfaces.

After he had eased away from active ring duties, he was still brought back by popular demand on occasion to referee special matches. Even now, many years after his demise, Dempsey remains one of Northland Wrestling’s most endearing and remembered legends.

The mere mention of his name evokes eternal discussion clouded in controversy. Kind things are not always said about Big Joe.

Were it otherwise, he would be the first to render a disqualification to those who so spoke.