Originally published on Torontoist on October 28, 2008.
Toronto Star, October 28, 1948 (left) and November 4, 1948 (right).
While hockey has usually been portrayed as the main attraction for spectators at Maple Leaf Gardens, the building had an equally rich professional wrestling heritage. Starting with a Jim Londos–Gino Garibaldi card in November 1931, a parade of dignified heroes and costumed heels entertained packed houses at Church and Carlton. For half-a-century most of the matches were promoted by Frank Tunney, who, when asked if the sport was on the level, responded “The ring is level, isn’t it?”
The tag team matches in the spotlight today featured one of the city’s most popular mid-century sporting figures, Whipper Billy Watson. Born William Potts in East York in 1915, he moved to England to begin his professional career in 1936, where a promoter quickly determined he required a snappier moniker. Watson first hit the ring at the Gardens in 1940 and continued to wrestle until injuries sustained in a car accident ended his career in 1971. He spent much of his life supporting charitable organizations in the GTA, with his contributions ranging from championing Easter Seals skate-a-thons at the Gardens to campaigning for therapeutic pool services in York Region.
Heels Sky-Hi Lee (named, with spelling variations over the years, due to his 6’9″ stature) and the Masked Marvel (one of many to grace Toronto cards) triumphed over Watson and tag team partner Fred Atkins on October 28, 1948, prompting a rematch a week later. The villains did not emerge unscathed—Tunney told the press a few days later that Lee had suffered multiple leg wounds and “and a few more on his back that he claimed was wrought by a nail file in the hands of an infuriated fan. Also his ankle was swollen from the bending treatment it received when another fan leaped on the ramp and tackled him. Lee wanted the ramp built higher, the customers searched, the ushers provided with tear gas bombs.”
The Toronto Star was filled with outrage from the Watson-Atkins camp. The defeated wrestlers were “fully aroused over the foul treatment accorded them by the villainous pair in last week’s match.” Watson was offended by the officiating of Cliff Worthy, who “let the Mask and Lee get away with everything short of murder…and then he saw Hi Lee kick me off the ring apron. He should have disqualified the Mask and Lee. Instead he gave them the bout.” The day of the rematch, the Star pictured Watson in perfect health and ready to rumble. “He’s so much in the pink,” the caption writer noted, “that Dr. Myron Millar of the Ontario Athletic Commission turned over his stethoscope to the Whipper and said ‘You tune in on me.’”
Did good triumph? The scriptwriters were fuzzy about that—accounts depicted a mayhem-filled night, with much of the body-slamming, rope-choking action taking place on the ramp before referee Bunny Dunlop declared a tie, then called the match off due to the ensuing pandemonium. A crowd of 1,000 spectators mulled around Tunney’s office, jeering the promoter, Dunlop, and the heels. With a sly smile, the Star noted that the disgruntled fans “vowed they wouldn’t come back next week—because the Ice Capades will be in the Gardens.”
Additional material from the October 30, 1948, November 1, 1948, November 5, 1948 and May 10, 1983 editions of the Toronto Star.
Wrestling match, Dick Hutton vs. Whipper Billy Watson, Maple Leaf Gardens, July 5, 1956. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7520.
Looking for an action shot of Whipper Billy Watson on the city archives website, I came across this picture from a bout where Watson defended his National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Championship against Dick Hutton.
Toronto Star, July 4, 1956.
Globe and Mail, July 5, 1956. Fritz von Ulm soon changed his wrestling persona to Fritz von Goering.
I can’t match the colourful writing style used by sportswriters to describe vintage wrestling matches, so here’s the Star’s account.
Toronto Star, July 6, 1956.