Wrestlers of Yore

I have in my collection a small scrapbook that I found in a pile of stuff under a table at a baseball card shop. Inside this scrapbook, is a collection of old newspaper ads and clippings of local Cincinnati wrestling from the late 1950s and early 1960s along with a few autographs of the top wrestling stars of the time. Now, I honestly have no idea who this book originally belonged to or how it would end up on top of a dusty heap of baseball card boxes at the card shop, but it’s one of my most valued items in my collection.

Several years ago, I went through and scanned each newspaper clipping and autograph in the scrapbook so I’d have them in a digital form. I was looking through the scans and found a clipping advertising the November 21, 1959 card from the Cincinnati Gardens, which at the time was being run by Jim Barnett and Johnny Doyle. I thought in this article, it’d be fun to go back, take a look at that particular card, learn about some of the wrestlers on the card, and then check out the results!

But first, a brief history of the Cincinnati Gardens.

Interior of the Cincinnati Gardens as set up for hockey
Photo Credit: Ronny Salerno

The Cincinnati Gardens was a large, brick arena situated north of Cincinnati near the intersection of Seymour Avenue and Langdon Farm Road. Modeled after the legendary Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, it opened on February 22, 1949 with an exhibition hockey game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Dallas Texans. Hockey was the main tenant during the Gardens lifespan, hosting several minor league teams such as the Cincinnati Mohawks, Cincinnati Swords, Cincinnati Cyclones, and the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks. Oscar Robertson and the NBA Cincinnati Royals called the venue home in the 1950s and 1960s. The Gardens also hosted scores of other events like concerts, boxing, political rallies, and in its final years, the Shriners Circus and roller derby.

Professional wrestling was also a frequent attraction at the Gardens, beginning in the 1950s through the early 1960s with the aforementioned Jim Barnett and Johnny Doyle tandem running cards. In the mid 1960s, the Sheik’s Detroit territory, Big Time Wrestling, took over the Gardens and began running shows there featuring the likes of Bull Curry, Bobo Brazil, and others through 1979. Jim Crockett Promotions and WCW was the primary wrestling tenant through the 1980s and in the 1990s, the WWF filmed several episodes of Monday Night Raw and Superstars there. My first wrestling show I ever went to was the April 10, 1999 WWF house show at the Gardens. TNA ran the final wrestling shows at the Gardens in 2013 and 2014, before the venue was closed in 2016, and ultimately demolished several years later.

This particular card has a lot of star power, both at the time and future stars. Five matches on the card as well, not like today’s 8 or 10 match cards. The main event of this card is a tag team match featuring Wilbur Snyder and Yukon Eric against Hans Hermann and Mitsu Arakawa. Also, lots of other big stars like Pat O’Connor (misspelled here at “O’Conner”), Joe Blanchard, Nick Bockwinkel, Angelo Poffo, and Bronco Lubich. Also, there’s a tag team match with Ethel Johnson advertised as well. Time to dive in and look a bit closer at some of the wrestlers on the card with some clippings I’ve got in the scrapbook.

I don’t know if this is an actual ticket stub from the event but this is one I had in my scrap book so I thought I’d include it just to show what a wrestling ticket stub from this time period looked like. As you can see, general admission was only $1.00. That same ticket would cost $9.25 today.

Ethel Johnson

Ethel Johnson was an Ohio based wrestler who was part of the traveling group of “lady wrestlers”, as coined by promoter Billy Wolfe who controlled the likes of fellow lady wrestlers Penny Banner, Mildred Burke, and others. Johnson’s sister, known as Babs Wingo, also wrestled alongside her often portraying the heel to Johnson’s babyface. Johnson was very athletic and often did a standing dropkick and flying headscissors. Some highlights of Johnson’s career included challenging Mildred Burke for the NWA World Women’s Championship (the same title that’s currently held by Kamille). In later years, she wrestled for Stampede Wrestling in Calgary and Vincent J. McMahon’s Capital Wrestling Corporation (later the WWWF, now WWE). She retired in 1976 and passed away in 2018 at age 83.

Nick Bockwinkel

Fans of WCW will know Nick Bockwinkel as the on-screen WCW Commissioner from the mid-90s, but his career started way back in the mid-1950s as basic undercard wrestler in the Los Angeles area where he won the Los Angeles version of the NWA International Television Championship. During his early years, Bockwinkel traveled the Midwest and wrestled not only in Cincinnati, but also in other major midwest markets like Chicago, St. Louis, and Milwaukee. Verne Gagne’s AWA was were he blossomed. He spent 17 years in the AWA, winning the AWA World Title four times and was also a three-time AWA tag team champion. His AWA matches included bouts against the likes of Verne Gagne, Hulk Hogan, Jerry Lawler, and Curt Hennig, and also included him having Bobby Heenan as his manager. Bockwinkel retired in 1987, did a stint in the WWF as a commentator, and still wrestled the occasional match right into the early 90s. He passed away in 2015 at age 80.

Joe Blanchard

This ad of Joe Blanchard is an advertisement for a different Gardens card, however it’s the only scan I have of Blanchard in my scrapbook. Blanchard is the father of Tully Blanchard and grandfather of Tessa Blanchard. He began his in-ring career in 1953 for Stu Hart and Stampede Wrestling after a three-year stint in the Canadian Football League with the Edmonton Eskimos and Calgary Stampeders. He also toured with 50th State Wrestling in Hawaii, where he won the NWA Hawaii Tag Team Titles with Lord James Blears, and NWA Big Time Wrestling (the precursor to World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW)) which was highlighted by a run with the NWA Texas Heavyweight Title. Blanchard is best known for being the promoter for Southwest Championship Wrestling in San Antonio, which featured stars like Chavo Guerrero Sr., Mando Guerrero, Killer Tim Brooks, Gino Hernandez, and Tully Blanchard. Southwest Championship Wrestling was also the first wrestling show to appear on USA Network and ran for two years before it was cancelled. When Southwest folded in the mid-1980s, Blanchard left wrestling to work for a prayer service in San Antonio. He passed away in 2012 at age 83.

Don Eagle

Chief Don Eagle was a member of the Mohawk tribe of North America and was originally from the Kahnawake territory in southern Quebec. His in-ring career began as a boxer in 1945 and medaled in the 1945 Cleveland Golden Gloves. He turned pro in 1947 where he accumulated a 16-4 record over 1947-1948. After his boxing career concluded, he moved into a wrestling career and became on of the better known wrestlers of the 1950s when he was at his peak. He held the AWA World Title (the Boston version), the World Heavyweight Champion for the Fred Kohler promotion in Chicago, and also the Ohio version of the Midwest Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Championship. In 1950, Eagle was involved in a highly controversial match in Chicago for the AWA (Boston) World Title against Gorgeous George where he was fast counted by the referee in the final fall of a best of three falls match and then subsequently suspended by the Illinois State Athletic Commission for attacking the referee. Eagle injured his back several years later in a match against Hans Schmidt and wrestled infrequently throughout the Midwest until he retired in 1965. He passed away in 1966 at the age of 40, the circumstances of which are still debated today.

Wilbur Snyder

The main event of this card was a tag team match featuring Wilbur Snyder and Yukon Eric against the team of Hans Hermann and Mitsu Arakawa.

Yukon Eric

Wilbur Snyder was just 19 when he debuted in 1953 in Southern California and by 1956 had won the Detroit version of the NWA United States title after beating Verne Gagne in Chicago. Over the course of his long career, he held titles in nearly every territory he wrestled in. At the time of this card in 1959, Snyder was in the midst of a violent feud with long time rival Dick the Bruiser, having just fought Bruiser one month prior in a violent Texas Death Match in Denver. Snyder would later feud with other notable wrestlers as Dr. X and Don Leo Jonathan. In 1964, Snyder and Bruiser purchased the NWA Indianapolis territory from Jim Barnett. The WWA began an agreement with the AWA where they would share talent and recognize the AWA champions. Several notable wrestlers got their start in Bruiser and Snyder’s WWA including Bobby Heenan and The Great Wojo. Snyder would hold the WWA Tag Team championship a record 14 times. After his wrestling career was over, he retired to Carmel, Indiana and eventually moved to Fort Lauderdale. He passed away on Christmas Day 1991 at the age of 62.

Wilbur Snyder’s tag team partner on this show, the barrel-chested Yukon Eric, will forever be known in wrestling lore as the man who lost his ear to Killer Kowalski. The story goes that Kowalski went for a knee drop and accidentally botched it, which severed part of Eric’s ear. Following that incident, Kowalski adopted the nickname “Killer” and went on to a very successful career. A rematch between Kowalski and Yukon Eric in 1953 was the first ever televised wrestling match in Canada. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Eric held multiple tag team titles including a three-time holder of the NWA Canadian Open Tag Team titles, which was the top tag team title in the Toronto territory. He was also one-third of the inaugural NWA World Six-Man Tag Team champions with Roy McClarity and Pat O’Connor. Towards the end of his career, he wrestled in Florida where he committed suicide in January 1965 at the age of 48.

Hans Hermann

The opponents for Wilbur Snyder and Yukon Eric were the evil team of Hans Hermann and Mitsu Arakawa.

Mitsu Arakawa

Hans Hermann was a regional star in the 1950s and 1960s for numerous territories across North America such as Toronto, St. Louis, and Hawaii. He also won several regional tag team titles with partners like Hans Schmidt, Killer Kowalski, and Fritz Von Erich. By 1962, Hermann’s active career came to an end with a run for the WWA based out of Indianapolis, where he wrestled stars such as Dick Hutton, Bill Watts (yes, that Bill Watts), Mark Lewin, and Rikki Starr. He made a brief comeback in 1972, wrestling for the AWA and passed away in 1980.

Originally from Hawaii, Mitsu Arakawa debuted in 1953 and joined up with the Minneapolis Boxing & Wrestling Club (the precursor to the AWA) in 1957 as a cousin to Kenji Shibuya. Over the course of his career, he and Shibuya would team together in various territories and won tag team gold in Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Calgary. Arakawa also worked for Jim Barnett’s World Championship Wrestling promotion in Australia where he won the IWA World Heavyweight Championship. He is probably best known for his team with Toru Tanaka in the WWWF where they were crowned the first WWWF International Tag Team Champions stemming from a fictitious tournament. Arakawa died in 1997 at the age of 69.

Results of the Nov. 21, 1959 card

Now that I’ve looked at some of the wrestlers on the card, I’ll take moment at the end here to run through the results.

In the opening bout, Joe Blanchard drew Nick Bockwinkel. Next was the ladies tag team match where Ethel Johnson and Babs Wingo (her sister) defeated Lola LaRay, the ex-wife of women’s wrestling promoter Billy Wolfe, and Mary Reynolds. Following that, Don Eagle beat future World Class referee Bronco Lubich, and in the semi-main event, Pat O’Connor beat Angelo Poffo, the dad of Randy Savage and Lanny Poffo. Unfortunately the results do not specify if the match was for the NWA World’s Heavyweight Title, which O’Connor held at the time, however in the initial ad for the match, O’Connor is listed as the “World’s Champ”. Finally, in the main event Wilbur Snyder and Yukon Eric defeated Hans Hermann and Mitsu Arakawa. According to the ad, the event drew just over 4,000 people for a gate of $6,500 (approximately $60,000 today).

Looking back on this card, it wasn’t a memorable or famous card. However, it did feature a lot of future stars and legends of wrestling and it just goes to show that there’s a lot of wrestling history out there just waiting to be discovered.