Pro wrestlers body-slammed their way to huge popularity

By CONNIE ZEIGLER, Contributing editor

What about professional wrestling? Let’s look back at the era that wrestling mavens call the “First Golden Age” of professional wrestling.

Spawned from carnival acts, pro-wrestling first became popular as entertainment in the U.S. in the 1920s. The new “sport” was known by its practitioners as “kayfabe,” a bit of jargon that those inside the pro-wrestling world used to indicate that they were pretending it was a real sport to those outside it.

Dick the Bruiser was a high-profile villian on the Midwest professional wrestling circuit. He was billed as “the World’s Most Dangerous Wrestler’ in this clip from a Chicago Professional Wrestling publication.

This first period of pro-wrestling ended when World War II began pummeling Europe with death and destruction and most able-bodied men went into service in the war.

After the war, pro-wrestling answered an itch for bawdy, mostly male, seemingly (though rarely actually) dangerous fun. Just what the doctor ordered for the men who had gotten used to experiencing the adrenaline rush of war’s real dangers.

In Indianapolis a smart operator named Billy Thom had his finger on the pulse of the city’s manly men and began arranging and promoting pro-wrestling matches.

Thom was one of the members of a group of promoters from across the country who joined together to form the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), headed by former pro-wrestler Ed “the Strangler” Lewis.

Thom organized weekly matches at armories in Indianapolis. The Indianapolis News reported on these matches, including the Oct. 19, 1948, “show” with an opening bout between Martino Angelo of Toledo and Eddie Williams of Springfield, Mo. After the opener came a tag-team match with Chicagoan Frankie Hart and Columbus, Ohio’s, Joe Wolf getting the best of “Ali Ali, [of] Turkey, and Irish Mike McGee” of Hoboken. “Wolf ended the tussling with a triumph over Ali, after McGee had thrown Hart and before that Hart had thrown McGee,” the news report read.

By 1950, the wrestlers’ monikers had more pizzazz. A March 21 article in The Indianapolis Star noted that Buddy Rogers, “the Atomic Blonde,” and Jack O’Brien, the “Death Valley Demon,” would highlight that night’s action.

In 1952 Thom partnered with a local Lions Club to promote a wrestling show with proceeds going to support the “Leader Dog League for the Blind” program. The event attracted 7,000 to the Midget Car Racetrack on W. 16th Street and made enough money to allow “the [Lion’s] organization to continue its work among the blinded,” The Indianapolis Star reported on Sept. 14. Thom told other promoters at the NWA about his success and by the end of that year more than 300 pro-wrestling promoters had partnered with local service organizations across the country to hold matches for charity.

In the 1940s pro-wrestling was seen only by those attending local venues, but in the 1950s television came along to make pro-wrestling an in-home activity for the entire family, turning beefy pro-wrestlers into brawny celebrities. Early programming like Big Time Wrestling, produced in Detroit, aired in Indianapolis.

In 1955, a gravelly voiced local named William Fritz Afflis entered the picture with the ring name of Dick the Bruiser. Afflis was a former offensive end for the Green Bay Packers, and before that a former football player at Shortridge High School, according to the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis. He had suffered an injury to his larynx during a game and it left him with the rock-tumbled vocals that supported his image as a wrestling villain.

Dick the Bruiser became one of pro-wrestling’s biggest celebrities. His bad guy persona was so effective that live audiences booed him and even threw things at him from the stands. My own grandfather, Harry Clark, once spat a stream of Beechnut chewing tobacco juice at the good-for-nothing Bruiser when the wrestler was tossed out of the ring at a match in Greensburg, Ind. That was the level of personal hatred that Dick the Bruiser inspired in his audiences.

Dick the Bruiser appeared as the headliner against Milwaukee’s Hans Schmidt at Art Zipp’s Speedway in Indianapolis in August 1958. The Indianapolis Star reported that Bruiser had recently “engaged in a wrestling rhubarb,” a fun term for a dustup, in a match at New York City’s Madison Square Garden before a crowd of 15,000. The rhubarb, whatever it was, cost him a $500 fine from the New York State Athletic Commission.

By 1959, The Indianapolis Star was reporting on how the many women who attended pro-wrestling “shows” behaved at matches. “Whether they wore mink or mouton lamb, most of the women in the audience rocked and rolled in and out of their seats …. They screamed, sometimes in horror, sometimes with delight: ‘Break his back, Bruiser.’” So outside the feminine norm was this behavior that Star reporter Dorothy Knisley consulted a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a psychoanalyst and a physician for their opinions about it.

All four doctors agreed that the behavior was perfectly acceptable, and also, “to varying extent, that there is a certain amount of repressed sex-desire in the arm-flailing, screaming woman.” Then, in a decidedly non-sexist observation, “the analyst” concluded that “They’re as much ‘people’ as men are – and no one ever questions why men scream curses [or spit tobacco juice] at a boxing match.”

In 1965, blonde and handsome pro-wrestler Wilbur Snyder teamed with Dick the Bruiser to form an enterprise based in Indianapolis called the World Wrestling Association. Although the two men were enemies in the ring, their partnership changed the wrestling world and made Indiana a locus of pro-wrestling. Television station WTTV, Channel 4, produced a weekly pro-wrestling program, Championship Wrestling. A broadcast of a live match between Dick the Bruiser and The Crusher (Reginald Lisowsk) teamed against the “Devil’s Duo,” (Angelo Poffo and Chris Markoff) held at Victory Field was broadcast in July 1967, according to an ad in The Indianapolis Star on July 8.

Dick the Bruiser remained a major draw at pro-wrestling matches for almost 20 more years. He finally retired in 1982 when he was 53, long after the end of the First Golden Age of pro-wrestling, and just a few years before the “Second Golden Age” arose, which was only about a decade before the “Third Golden Age” started.

Dick the Bruiser died in 1991 and was posthumously inaugurated into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2005.

The Hall of Fame website shows that, during his long career in pro-wrestling, he won 11 single WWA World Wrestling Championships and five tag-team championships with the Crusher. Considering that he owned the corporation which started the WWA, those statistics could be called into question. But what would be the fun in that? Let’s all just kayfabe along.

Connie Zeigler holds a master’s degree in history. She enjoys digging up a surprising, forgotten story and sharing her pirate’s booty with Urban Times readers.