Being a pro wrestling historian is tough at the best of times. It is often solitary work, poring through old newspapers, whether via microfilm or microfiche, or, more recently, in online archives.
With the death of Don Luce at age 84 — our “godfather” of pro wrestling results — the historian world is a little lonelier.
Who will be emailing fellow historians with results, out of the blue, on Buffalo, New York, from 1865, Minneapolis 1923, or Columbus, Ohio, in 1965?
I suspect no one else besides Don would compile a near-complete list of results for Ivan Michailoff in North America and complain that “the various spellings of his last ring name would drive anyone crazy” — Boris Mikailoff, Ivan Mickailoff, Mikailoff, Mikeloff, Micheloff, Mikiloff — and remind us that “likely more than one wrestler used the name over here.”
Don received the James C. Melby Historian Award from the Cauliflower Alley Club at the 2018 reunion in Las Vegas. After being introduced by Tom Burke, Luce shared the story about beginning to watch wrestling in 1951 while at a friend’s home. It was wrestling from the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, and naturally, that’s where his research started. He ran the Rock and Groan newsletter from 1960-63.
“You solve one mystery, there’s something else always takes its place,” Luce explained to the CAC crowd. “What gets me is there was so much B.S. from these promoters, and solving what the truth was is really what’s interesting.”
At one point, researching in Columbus, Ohio, Luce stumbled upon promoter Al Haft, and he had a thousand questions, but was a bit tongue-tied. When Luce did tell him about his research, Haft suggested: “Don’t take it so seriously”
“I should have took his advice, I guess,” cracked Luce.
Luce died Monday, April 24, 2023 at Buffalo General Hospital of a heart issue.
Those of us who toil under the wrestling historian title prefer to think that his heart just burst with too many results.
The 2018 profile that Jon Langmead wrote — Don Luce the ‘godfather’ of pro wrestling research — remains the perfect tribute to a great historian, but we opened up the floor here for others to share their thoughts too:
STEVE JOHNSON: It’s impossible to relate what Don meant to the field of wrestling history. I have hundreds of emails from him going back nearly 20 years and everyone is a mini-lesson in sleuthing. My favorite, and it’s one by which to remember Don, is his investigation of the claim that Abraham Lincoln was a wrestler, a popular tale often received without proper documentation. So leave it to Don to do the legwork as follows:
There is much mention of Lincoln wrestling a local bully named Jack Armstrong in the town of New Salem, Illinois. The town disappeared around 1840. I have spent a lot of time researching Springfield and other Illinois towns in the early 1880s. I found nothing on Lincoln’s mat doings during the time period. One match again a local bully does not make one a professional.
All of us have wrestled local bullies in our younger days. I don’t claim to be a pro, do you?
Of course, I never was president either.
TOM BURKE: My first contact with Don Luce was in the mid 1960s via the Matmania bulletin by the late Burt Ray. Don was a major historian of wrestling and baseball.
He was a master mind of wresting from the Depression era and a keen observer of wrestling in the ’50s. Don’s passion to keep the history of professional wrestling with his longtime support of the Professional Wrestling Hall Of Fame in upstate New York and when it moved to Texas. The Trinity of Wrestling Historians — J Michael Kenyon, Fred Hornby and now Don Luce — are now in a debate as to who was the Green Shadow on the 1938 in Dayton, Ohio.
KOJI MIYAMOTO: I talked with Don Luce over the phone many times when I was working in San Francisco, 1995-1998. I loved listening old stories from him. The most memorable one was his visit to Al Haft office of Columbus, Ohio in 1964-1965. Don said he studied many things from Haft and Ohio territories, and then he continued to research almost all the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, even early ’70s results of Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, Springfield, Cleveland. Jim Melby edited these results and made books by each city. Don did the same routine for all the major cities of USA pro wrestling. Just unbelievable passion indeed. He did same type of old results research about baseball at the same time.
He always said to me with big smile, “I borrow certain amount of microfilms from certain local library, I spend my time finding wrestling results first, then move to baseball if I have time. Sometimes my time for baseball was not enough. That is why my baseball results are not perfect.”
To me, it looks obvious that his wrestling love was bigger than his baseball love. Digging out old results are hard task, really. Don Luce had never got bored to share his time with microfilms. Never. And he never forget to share his fact findings with other fellow historians. He was always the ultimate person to reach true wrestling facts.
MARK HEWITT: For the past several decades there has existed a loose association of pro wrestling researchers, historians and writers, who cooperated and shared our work with one another. Don Luce was our Dean, or as the late JMK dubbed him “The Godfather.” Long before there was an internet or emails, we did our tedious work in libraries pouring over old newspaper microfilms. We typed up or hand-wrote our research and sent it out by way of the Post Office. Don was particularly keen on the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Early on he and I shared a passion to document the career of Tigerman John Pesek, that he might receive the recognition he deserved as one of the sport’s toughest shooters as well as an NWA World heavyweight champ. Don was a walking encyclopedia of wrestling history – names, dates, and places. One of his pursuits involved tracking down the real names of those old-time pros, who changed their monikers as often as they moved from town to town. Don worked with me on the 2023 IPWHF ballot inductions and we spoke frequently during that process. We had also been working on a match record for Charles Olson. I checked and the last emails I received from Don were from late March. He was sharing his recent work – Australia, 1880s, and Schenectady, late 1920s. Don has passed the torch on to us to continue preserving pro wrestling history. He will be truly missed.
JON LANGMEAD: I first met Don Luce in 2017; met virtually, that is. We never did get to meet in person, which is something I really regret. At the time, I was working on an article profiling all the great wrestling historians, and the titanic J Michael Kenyon connected us. J Michael called Don the “undeniable Godfather of our game.” No historian, he continued, “has done more to advance the understanding and knowledge of professional wrestling history in this country than any other five people.” This wasn’t hyperbole, and I don’t think any historian past or present would dispute the claim. Don earned this praise by approaching wrestling history with the fervor of a true historian. He wanted facts, and he wasn’t given to undue speculation. His first love was baseball history, and he used the same methods employed in that field in his own work. He tirelessly pored through old, really old, newspapers and magazines hunting for clues. He specialized in the era when American professional wrestling was born, starting around the Civil War and continuing into the early decades of the twentieth century. He had a particular passion for decoding the careers of the great barnstormers, who performed under different names from town to town. He tracked down the fake Gus Sonnenberg, which may not sound like much, but trust me… you can learn everything about how the wrestling business operated in the 1920s and ’30s by researching the fake Gus Sonnenberg.
As our relationship grew, we connected frequently over email and phone. There didn’t seem to be a town he didn’t have the results for, or a wrestler whose record he couldn’t track backwards through time. Without Don, the foundation that so much of the modern understanding of wrestling history was built upon simply would not have been there when the next generation of historians needed it. He pushed everyone’s research forward, and he did it with a kind word and an infectious passion. Who knows what happens once this life ends, but if there is some kind of next stage, I hope Don is being greeted with open arms by Jim Londos, Jack Curley, Al Haft, John Pesek, and all the other greats. And I hope they’re giving him some straight answers, so Don can complete the story, once and for all.
MATT FARMER: We lost a true pioneer of a wrestling historian with the passing of Don Luce. Though I did not know Don well, I always looked forward to the emails Don would send, whether it were results from Wichita in 1941, Boston in 1905, or finding a new Lou Thesz result. I first came across Luce’s work when J Michael Kenyon introduced me to his work. This was during the era when research was limited to scrolling through reams of microfilm at a library. Don and his life’s work is a great loss to the wrestling world and will be missed by fellow historians.
STEVE OLGIVIE: Don Luce was familiar to me long before I interacted with him; he formed one of the pillars of wrestling historians and researchers. Frequently, when I read a piece of research I really absorbed, Don’s name was involved to some degree. One thing I really appreciated about Don was that he genuinely did read the research I sent him. Months, even years later, he was sending me additions, corrections and suggestions to my work, along with his regular emails of his current research. I like that he chose research topics that appealed to him at any particular time. I shall miss his weekly emails, and miss his connection to the prior generations of wrestlers, promoters, researchers and historians of which he interacted with personally.
STEVE YOHE: I don’t know what to say …. he was the king.
Donald W. Luce Jr, 84 of Batavia, passed away on Monday, April 24, 2023 at Buffalo General Hospital. He was born May 22, 1938 in Buffalo, to the late Donald W. and Ruth (Yager) Luce Sr. He is preceded in death by a sister Judith A. Murnan.
Don retired from Amax in Cleveland, OH. He was a Professional Wrestling and Baseball Historian, writing many articles in different publications. Don proudly served in the National Guard. He loved old TV shows, westerns and old west history. Don took great care of his family and he will be missed.
Don is survived by siblings, Marjorie (Rick) Dorman of Albion, Charles Luce of Batavia, two nephews, Ben (Kristine) Heintz, James Heintz and several great-nieces.
Friends are invited to call on Thursday, May 4, 2023 from 10 to 11am at Gilmartin Funeral Home & Cremation Company, Inc. 329-333 West Main Street, Batavia, New York 14020. An 11:00am Celebration of his Life will immediately follow. He will be laid to rest in Grand View Cemetery, Batavia.
In lieu of flowers, memorials can be made to East Pembroke Volunteer Fire Department, PO Box 44, East Pembroke, NY 14056 or to Genesee County Animal Shelter, 3841 West Main Street Road, Batavia, NY 14020. To leave an online message of condolence please visit www.gilmartinfuneralhome.com. Arrangements completed by Gilmartin Funeral Home & Cremation Company, Inc. 329-333 West Main Street, Batavia, New York 14020.
TOP PHOTO: Don Luce with his James C. Melby Historian Award from the Cauliflower Alley Club at the 2018 reunion in Las Vegas, alongside his presenter, Tom Burke. Photo by Greg Oliver