The world of pro wrestling has always had a history of conflict with the various sports commissions right from the early days of the sport.
Toronto was no different.
At different times pro wrestling in the Ontario capital had come under scrutiny and in 1957, right in the midst of a pro wrestling boom in Toronto, it would get some attention from the Ontario government — and one MPP in particular.
It may have been brewing for some time, but it hit a head when Gene Kiniski caused his usual brand of mayhem at a card at the small East York Arena, in the east end of the city. His partner in crime, Dick Hutton, was facing Whipper Billy Watson in the main event. At stake was Hutton’s $1,000 that he offered to anyone who could beat him in less than 20 minutes. Even before the bout started Kiniski was causing trouble outside the ring. According to writer Joe Perlove, Kiniski “was never in anything less than a riot from there (on)” and aptly described him as “no doubt the greatest character in history. To pull that stuff in Whipper’s backyard.”
Hutton was so far undefeated in Toronto and this bout was not looking good for The Whip. He had been thrown to the outside where nasty Kiniski was waiting to put the boots to him. Whipper managed to slug Hutton from the outside and dove back over the ropes to score the pin — and the $1,000.
When announcer Jerry Hiff tried to give Watson the $1,000 cheque Kiniski grabbed it and tore it to pieces. That’s when the chairs started to fly. There were 2,500 fans in attendance and a full-scale riot broke out. Kiniski and Hutton were fending off the chairs and a few fans took a run at Kiniski, who turned them back with a lunge and a growl. Once the police and the Miller Brothers had helped calm the crowd Whipper was carried off by his adoring fans as they carried him back to the dressing room.
Ontario Athletics Commissioner (OAC) Merv McKenzie fined Kiniski $500 and barred him from wrestling (Toronto only) for four weeks. He also revoked Frank Tunney’s license to promote at East York for six months. The suspension on Kiniski was to be effective February 8 so as to allow him to appear in a pre-arranged card at Maple Leaf Gardens on February 7 pitting him and Hutton against Whipper and Yukon Eric.
Kiniski blamed Whipper for influencing McKenzie and Tunney tried to take the blame himself, telling the Commission that, while Kiniski was out of line, it was because the chairs were not anchored to the floor as required. He said at Maple Leaf Gardens the seats were in sections and thus immovable. They should have had them chained together. He further explained that they didn’t expect the big turnout so had to add seats at the last minute. Kinsiki also claimed to have already mailed the $500 to the Commission and that the suspension would cost him $8,000 in Toronto bookings. Tunney actually paid the fine for him.
It mostly fell on deaf ears to an Ontario Member of Provincial Parliament named Arthur Child, a Progressive Conservative who represented Wentworth, a part of the Hamilton area. At an assembly meeting he declared McKenzie should be ordered to appear before the legislature’s commissions committee to explain why unsportsmanlike practices are permitted in wrestling matches.
Wait, it gets better.
Child claimed that wrestling referees resemble “some third rate cook in a greasy spoon restaurant” and “are slapped and pushed around like comedians in a two reel slapstick comedy.”
He also asked for film from Thursday night’s Gardens shows (they would tape the last one or two bouts to be shown, in part, on Saturday night TV); The crusading MPP wanted to screen the matches in the assembly to illustrate his charge. Child, of course, singled out Kiniski for particular criticism. He used phrases like “disgusting behaviour,” and “utter brutality.” And he did not respect the referees, for allowing “the sloppy circus-like performance” while the wrestlers slapped and pushed the arbiters around.
As for Kiniski’s four week suspension, Child opined that it was unclear who was running wrestling in Ontario, the Commission or the promoters.
He asked why Kiniski’s suspension was “only” for four weeks and why it only applied to Toronto. Tunney at that time ran a regular circuit of primarily southern Ontario towns and Kiniski was already in Kingston for another bout. He also rued why Hamilton fans should have to see a wrestler that was considered undesirable in Toronto.
Child wasn’t totally against pro wrestling, to the contrary. He singled out Whipper Watson and Pat Flanagan as having contributed much in their careers with their sportsmanlike conduct and should be considered as a credit to the sport. Kiniski wrestling however was seen to be a “crying shame.”
A few others spoke up too. Reginald Gisborn, Co-operative Commonwealth Federation MPP for Wentworth East, wanted to know if Mr. Child doubted that the matches were on “the up and up,” and added, “Don’t you think the referee is a part of the show?”
After Child had made his criticisms known the provincial Labour Minister in Premier Leslie Frost’s Tory government, Charles Daley, came to the defense of the wrestlers the next day at the assembly.
Daley started with his opinion that some of the bad guys in wrestling “are as nice as you’d want to meet,” and that they could not be hurt too badly in their matches or they couldn’t wrestle five to seven nights a week. He also pointed out (as Tunney had long acknowledged) that in Ontario pro wrestling was required to be advertised as “an exhibition” and not as a contest.
The Labour Minister, representing the riding of Lincoln in the Niagara Peninsula, continued to explain the workings of the pro version of the sport by saying the idea of an exhibition is a show, designed to please the public, to be sensational and dramatic, to attract customers. His point was that while Whipper was an exemplary fellow, to have the proper effect you had to have a “bad guy” in the ring too.
The backstory was that wrestlers were, for the most part, high calibre, Daley pointed out. They were college boys, successful football players, big strong athletes that can earn as much as $30,000 – $100,000 a year. At that comment Premier Leslie Frost interjected: “Let’s get into this business!”
Daley had praise for Watson and his charitable interests and added that the taxes raised by the “exhibitions” were used to support the commission and supply thousands of youth with equipment and such to participate in sports in the province.
As far as the “exhibition” status of pro wrestling, the committee’s head, Don MacDonald (CCF MPP for York South, in Toronto), said he would produce two ads from recent shows that did not state “exhibition” anywhere on them, and that Daley “as much had called me a liar.” McDonald thought it was misleading to the public to go unlabeled for what they are.
At the end of Daley’s speech he claimed not to be a wrestling fan but that as long as the public is satisfied no one would have to go. “Wrestlers,” he contended, “are a fine type of citizen.”
Long-time referee and constant storyline victim Joe Gollob was next to chime in. Gollob, a former boxer and tough as nails type, offered that while wrestling is as dangerous as other competitive sports, even in fishing you could drown. “Wrestlers are in top condition and know how to take falls, in football and hockey more people are hurt and killed. Leave things alone!” he pleaded.
Tunney was up next, and he took an aggressive approach blaming camera angles and parents who let their children stay up until midnight to watch — at that time the shows went on after the late news. “There’s a lot of good exciting sport in wrestling but on television the camera just seems to pick out the worst of it,” Tunney added. No word if he said it with a straight face.
After Daley’s stand for the sport, Child dedicated himself to getting rid of the dastardly deeds so prevalent in the mat game. He proposed minimum fines of $100 for any wrestlers that fight dirty or hit the referees, which he promised would put an end to the nonsense.
Child attended a card at Maple Leaf Gardens two weeks later to further his discontent with the sport. The main event was Whipper Watson and Yukon Eric versus Bill and Ed Miller. Normal procedure at the time was to have two referees for tag matches. Child’s complaint? Refs Al “Bunny” Dunlop and Bert Maxwell both wore the usual ref attire of white t-shirts and white slacks. “They might as well go into the ring in decent attire. They’re supposed to be officials but I wouldn’t let them wait tables.”
The overall abuse of the referees was low, partly because announcer Hiff told the 9,000 fans that Mr. Child was in attendance (loud boos ensued) and mostly because Tunney likely asked his boys to keep it cool. Despite this, Child also wasn’t impressed with the Dick Hutton versus Pat O’Connor bout, saying “this is nothing more than a farce.”
Child continued his attack by comparing disrespect for a wrestling referee to disrespecting the law in the eyes of the youngsters. As a ref ignores fouls, it’s the same thing as a policeman ignoring someone breaking the law and teaches the youngsters to flout authority.
He evidently still hadn’t figured out “pro” wrestling when Child added, “I have no doubt that wrestling is the only so-called sport in the world where the crowd cheers a man kicking and slugging another while he’s flat on his back.”
Daley’s original complaint in the government assembly did not fall on deaf ears. The committee on commissions ordered OAC head McKenzie to appear before them to explain the conduct of wrestling matches in the province. He was ordered to appear on February 20 and to bring films of certain matches.
Two days after Child had brought his complaint to the other MPPs, Whipper Watson had a rebuttal printed in the Toronto Telegram newspaper.
Whipper wrote that he wasn’t sure what all the fuss was all about; yes it was entertainment; yes they were participating in an exhibition; but it wasn’t an easy life with long hours and injuries.
Watson took particular offense to the “wrestling is a farce” comment, stating that Child, who used to play goalie in a “so called amateur league” wouldn’t last a minute against Argentine Rocca, a graduate student in electronics. Whipper related how he had been hospitalized over 20 times with numerous injuries to his back, reduced vision and two cauliflower ears.
Whip went on the attack calling out Child to pay attention to more pressing matters than professional wrestling like traffic safety, cutting the death toll on the highways, and curbing the “sex maniacs who are making the streets unsafe for our children and wives.”
Whipper lauded McKenzie for doing a great job as head of the OAC and, as he had been an outstanding lacrosse player, understood that wrestling was a man’s sport. If the government, as Child suggested, should not be controlling wrestling, Whipper proposed that they allow the National Wrestling Alliance to appoint a supervisor, Then the taxes (2% commission tax, 10% hospital tax) currently paid could be used to benefit the various children’s charities Whipper was active in.
Whipper added that Tunney was constantly giving blocks of tickets to various charities and groups in Toronto and that he has offered more free tickets than all other sports combined, all in the name of entertaining the public.
Once the time had come to meet again at Queen’s Park, both Whipper and Pat Flanagan appeared alongside Tunney and the CBC TV announcer Dave Price to argue their points. The session lasted over two hours and was said to be kept calm mostly by Watson, who proved to be an agile opponent in debate and kept several members on the defensive.
At one point Whipper offered to demonstrate some holds, looking in the direction of Child but no-one took him up on it. McKenzie offered that the referees hadn’t been complaining and got some laughs when he stated, “A wrestler is never allowed to hit a referee with his closed fist on the head.” He proposed a $100 fine for hitting a ref and an indefinite suspension if he uses a closed fist.
When someone inquired about the bouts being pre-arranged Whipper asked on whose authority those statements had been made. He admitted the kids shouldn’t be watching though he himself had been to over 350 schools and that there were 160,000 boys and girls in the Whipper Safety Club. He admitted there were some things about pro wrestling that could be fixed but that the best solution was to encourage kids to go their YMCA and take up wrestling. He also admitted to knocking over a ref occasionally himself: “The ring is only 20 x 20 so it’s only natural” and that late night movies were more detrimental to the youngsters than the ring violence.
Whipper became somewhat irritated when pressed on the “real” aspect of the pro game and one member asked about the $1,000 that Whipper admitted he had not collected from Hutton. Whipper, replying to a call of “false advertising” said that the cheque was drawn on a Tulsa, Oklahoma, bank and that while Hutton had put a stop payment on it, Whipper was still trying to collect.
Someone claimed a promoter from Milwaukee named Johnny Haim had said there had not been an honest wrestling match in that city for years and that “honest wrestling just won’t draw the crowds.” Whipper was visibly flustered and Child asked Flanagan if wrestling here was the same as wrestling elsewhere. Flanagan replied it was. Child replied, “I’m glad to hear you say that then.”
It went around and around on the mandated advertising it as “exhibition” and not contest. There were more tough questions such as, “If it is an exhibition why is there championship matches?” Whipper’s reply: “The bouts are recognized by the NWA not the (OAC).”
One of the MPPs, ahead of his time, said they should change the billing to “entertainment” instead of exhibition. Whipper protested that one and ended with, “Do you tell Conny Smythe how to run his business?” Smythe, of course, owned the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team.
When it was Tunney’s time he blamed TV and specifically TV announcer Dave Price, as he was appointed by the CBC, and “knows only three holds — kicked, gouged, and choked.” He explained that when they had Flanagan substituting there had been no complaints; Flanagan knew a few more of the moves apparently.
They finally passed a resolution to look into the complaints and address them with all the interested parties to take part. When they asked Tunney if he was agreeable to the action of “cleaning up wrestling” Tunney replied, “There’s nothing wrong with wrestling, that’s like asking me if I’ve stopped beating my wife.”
At the conclusion Child asked Watson for an autograph for his son, which Whipper smilingly obliged. Others soon admitted they like the bouts and attended with their wives. Some of the members of the house took the opportunity to pose for photos with Whipper and Flanagan with double wristlocks applied.
The next day writer famed sportswriter Scott Young wrote a somewhat scathing article questioning Watson, Flanagan, and Tunney being allowed to speak at Queen’s Park at all, especially to people who weren’t schooled in the workings of wrestling. About the competition aspect he related how some years back Lou Thesz was coming in to face Watson for the World crown. Amid all of the ballyhoo and promotion Young noted there was no mention that the day prior Thesz was to defend his title in Montreal against Yvon Robert. That there was no worry that Thesz may lose on Wednesday and be here on Thursday without his title seemed to imply some sort of “pre-arrangement.”
For all of the fuss nothing changed. Wrestling was back on the Gardens on Thursday and it was business as usual. Kiniski served his whole month’s suspension and came back as boisterous as ever. A photo of him standing between referees Joe Gollob and Sam Gotter showing him the rule book had Kiniski with his hands up and the quote, “Rules – who needs ’em?” Big Gene would meet Whipper in his first bout back at the Gardens and the wild bout on March 14, 1957 ended in a double countout. There was no abuse of the referee and no chair throwing — this time.
In actuality the whole episode helped wrestling, and likely fueled Watson’s losing run to be an federal Member of Parliament in York East in 1965.
“It was the best thing that could ever happen for the wrestling office, because as much flak as they got from the fellows in Canadian politics, they got tons and tons of free publicity,” said long-time Gardens wrestling photographer Roger Baker. “As a result, Watson and Kiniski had big main events all over the country for months and months and months, because that information was not just limited to Toronto. It made it right across the country.”
As is often said “all publicity is good publicity.”
– with files from Roger Baker and Greg Oliver