It was a hot Summer in the City of Detroit in 1967. Lyndon Johnson was president, “Light My Fire” by The Doors topped the music charts, the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice was number one at the box office, The Monkees TV show was a hit on the small screen and The Summer of Love exploded out of the San Francisco’s Haight/Ashbury neighborhood.
As always, Big Time Wrestling ruled every other Saturday night at Cobo Arena in downtown Detroit. As a 12 year old fan at the time, one of the biggest cards in years was in full swing to a crowd of over 8,000 fans on July 22, 1967. The highly anticipated matchup between the United States Heavyweight champion The Sheik against his key rival and number 1 contender Bobo Brazil was the main event of the evening. The co-main event saw Lord Layton trying to finally silence the hated loudmouth manager Gary Hart. The card also featured such stars as Fred Curry, Bill and Dan Miller, Mark Lewin, Bobby Shane, Al Costello, and The Mighty Igor among others. Plus, there was a special added attraction, a midget men’s tag team match and also the midget women in action.
I remember the main event going back and forth, with the crowd on the edge of their seats. Even one of my front row patrons, 70ish-year-old Rev. Cessna, became so enraged at the evil tactics of The Sheik that he leaped from his seat and gave a few swats at him while he paced outside of the ring. Normally, local police would have thrown him out but they calmed down the devout Big Time Wrestling regular and placed him back in his $4 main floor perch.
After 25 minutes of hot and heavy action, The Sheik was disqualified by the referee, leaving him still champion but the fans were still steaming and wanting revenge. They would now have to wait until the following Thursday evening where they would tune in to watch the taped matches and find out who would headline the upcoming card in two weeks time. Things seemed to be heating up, not only in the world of wrestling, but at the same time on the west side of Detroit.
How excited you were to be one of small group of fans who were lucky enough to garner tickets to the Sunday TV tapings the following day, July 23, in Windsor, Ontario. There, you would not only witness two one-hour tapings featuring your favorite wrestlers but you were also the first one to know the entire line up for the upcoming show, which would be August 5th.
As always, friends and regulars of Big Time Wrestling such as Dawn Porter, Cleo Laine, Jerry Davidson, Carl Gow, Mark Cohen, Mickey Doyle, and others would find our usual spot on the two-tiered bleacher seating in the small studio that featured an even smaller ring. It was there that wrestler/commentator Lord Layton announced to the television audience that in the main event at Cobo Arena on that date would be a return bout pitting The Sheik against Bobo Brazil once again for the title.
We all cheered and jeered for our favorites that day, watching the so-called “squash matches” as they became known, where both top heel and babyface stars ripped through an enhancement talent in no time flat.
When the last match ended at about 3 p.m. and all the fun we had became memories to share, we all filed out of the studio and most headed for their cars to back across the border. Myself, I’d make the mile long walk back to the tunnel bus to take me back stateside.
The CKLW studios were along the riverfront of the Detroit River, right across from downtown Detroit. As I started my walk back on Riverside Drive, I had noticed in the western distance, there was smoke billowing into the sky at numerous locations. I thought to myself, “Wow, that’s quite a fire.” As I reached the border crossing, I boarded the bus, paid my 25 cent fare and went through the tunnel back to Detroit. I exited, went through customs and it was another half-mile walk to my DSR (Detroit Street & Railway) bus stop to catch my Van Dyke route transport back to my Eastside neighborhood.
During this walk, I happened to notice that the streets were nearly deserted, rare for a sunny Sunday afternoon in downtown Detroit. As I neared my bus stop, I ran into a few groups of teenagers who said they were at the Fox Theatre for a Motown Revue show that featured many of Detroit’s Motown music acts of the day. They said they were let out of the show early on, told by Martha Reeves of the famed Vandellas that they should leave calmly and return straight home. The news seemed quite strange for a 12-year-old wrestling fanatic and lover of all music from the era. Plus, with the absence on people on the streets, I had no idea what was happening.
On my bus ride home, I became aware with no humans out and about, there was nary a car on the road as well. When I reached my stop, I walked the two blocks back to my home and found my parents and a few relatives with their eyes glued to the black & white television screen. They were happy to see me home safely and this is where I had learned the truth of the day’s events.
Overnight in the early hours of Sunday morning, the heat that exited Cobo Arena from the wrestling event the previous night must have spilled over to Detroit’s West Side. There, at an after hour’s bar, known as a Blind Pig at 12th Street and Clairmount, police had raided the establishment, arresting 82 people. As was seen in select cities across the US just a month before, riots were the norm, fueled by police aggression towards the black community. The scorching Summer heat wave and the brewing racial tension were the talk of the city. This action started what was to become one of the worst riots in U.S. history.
We watched the TV, seeing building after building go up in flames, police clubbing looters and beating crowds who had gathered on the streets. At a park a few blocks from my home, US army troops complete with tanks took up residence on the baseball fields. We also received a call from my grandmother, who lived two houses away from our family neighborhood meat market/party store near downtown. Rioters had broken in and looted most of the store. To this day, I remember when my father went there to assess the damage days later, they had looted almost everything, except the weekend’s earnings that were in a grocery bag under the register.
In the next five days, when it was all over and peace somewhat restored, 43 people lost their lives, 342 injured and nearly 1,400 buildings were looted and set ablaze. With over 7,000 National Guard and US army troops exiting the city, how was the city supposed to recover and who would be the first to initiate its healing? Fast forward days later, Saturday, August 5, 1967.
Throughout the city, people were still in fear of what might happen next, store owners and city workers desperately trying to clean up a bloody mess left from the rioting. With racial tension still at an all time high, this one night might prove to be the start of the healing process.
With another stellar wrestling card put together by promoter Francis Fleser, only a figurehead promoter for the Big Time Wrestling organization owned and operated by his son-in-law, The Noble Sheik himself. With stars Mark Lewin, Killer Karl Kox, Billy Red Lyons, Bulldog Brower, Ricky Cortez and the usual host of BTW regulars, wrestling fans, both black and white, converged on Cobo Arena, united as one people. No tension, no racial bias, no mention of the tragedy that occurred only days before, just wrestling and nothing but wrestling. We were all here as wrestling fans with one thing on our minds — seeing The Sheik lose his precious title belt.
Having spoken to The Sheik years later about this particular night, though it wasn’t in the original booking plans, he thought what could be better than to give the fans what they hoped and dreamed. A time to see a man of color be lauded as a champion, giving both fans of multiple races and color the thrill of a lifetime. As he saw it, what could help heal the City of Detroit than by this small gesture of taking the fall and crowning a new champion.
When it finally happened and the final bell was rung, wrestlers poured out of the dressing room, jumping into the ring to help Bobo celebrate his monumental victory. Fans alike hugged, cheered and slapped high fives, filling Cobo Arena with a festive atmosphere never seen before. Though Bobo’s title reign would only last a few months, what occurred in the summer of 1967 still bodes ramifications through the city.
In the years to come, The Sheik’s promotion would rule the wrestling world, bringing in every top star to the promotion, showcasing stellar cards and uniting fans through sell out after sell out. Yet, through it all, on this one night in 1967, it was The Sheik who helped heal a city in a time of crisis.