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Mad Dogs, Midgets and Screw Jobs
The Untold Story of How Montreal Shaped the World of Wrestling
By Pat Laprade, Bertrand Hébert
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2013 Bertrand Hébert and Pat Laprade
All rights reserved.
THE ORIGINS OF WRESTLING IN THE TERRITORY
Although wrestling's glory years occurred during the second part of the 20th century, the history of pro wrestling in Montreal goes back to the 19th century. Given that the province has a rich history, spanning more than 400 years, let's leave aside the sport's traditional history, with its Cro-Magnons, Greeks and Romans, and consider its North American roots.
Native Americans had an array of different wrestling styles, probably influenced over the years by contact with other cultures, including the Vikings and other Europeans. Combat has always been an integral part of the Viking mentality; so much so that, in Nordic mythology, Thor is the god of wrestling. Of course wrestling was also very popular in England and France, two countries that would play such a large role in developing North America.
Spanish explorers of the 1500s noted that Native Americans held wrestling contests, very often in the form of tournaments. Later colonizers also said that wrestling was very popular among Native Americans. Focusing on parts of the body, many styles of wrestling were identified, namely Indian Leg, Indian Thumb, Indian Back and Indian Arm wrestling.
The 18th century and the early 1800s witnessed spectacular growth rates for the territory. The population, which numbered just 3,000 in 1666, was 20 times larger by the mid-18th century. The mid-1700s saw the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, probably the most famous battle between Francophones and Anglophones in Quebec history. This battle would pave the way for numerous other linguistic and cultural wars that would be waged in different fields, including professional wrestling.
As the 19th century came along, professional wrestling in North America started not in a stadium or an arena, but in fairgrounds and festivals, carnivals and circuses. A man would challenge all comers. The aspirant had to pay an amount of money, and if he managed to beat the "champion" he would win the jackpot. If he lost, however, he would lose the money he paid. Sometimes the "champion" was facing a plant, someone who was working for the organization and who would beat the champion just to prove to the crowd that he could be beaten. Obviously this is one of the early forms of a worked match. But we are still far away from what pro wrestling is nowadays.
Thanks to Confederation in 1867, Quebec officially became a province of Canada. That was also the year in which the first champion was crowned using a professional wrestling style that would serve as a precursor to what we now know as the collar-and-elbow style. This first style was a mixture of wrestling, judo and gouren, and would be the dominant style of the 1870s. The American collar-and-elbow championship was actually the first official championship of its kind. Its stars were James H. McLaughlin, John McMahon (not related to Vince) and Henry Moses Dufur. Although he was not Canadian, the latter came from Richford, a town in Vermont two miles south of the Quebec border.
THOMAS A. COPELAND AND JOHN MCMAHON, TWO PIONEERS
It's not surprising that the first wrestlers to stand out were Anglophones. After the American Revolution many Anglophone Loyalists sought refuge in what is now the province of Quebec (and, more precisely, in the Eastern Townships), given its proximity to such northeast American states as Vermont.
A man named Thomas A. Copeland took part in a very important wrestling match on July 22, 1873. He lost to John McMahon in Troy, New York. As it was announced, the match saw the U.S. champion facing the Canadian champion, although no title histories exist to prove they had been the champions they were announced to be. Historical records suggest various places of origin for Copeland. While many hold that he came from Peterborough, Ontario, others contend that he came from Montreal. Perhaps it's a mixture of the two, as he may have been born in one town and then lived in another. This was the case of his former opponent, McMahon, who lived in Montreal for the latter part of his life. Although communication technologies were nowhere near as advanced as today, news still travelled throughout North America. The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and even the Indianapolis Sentinel announced the results of wrestling matches held in Montreal or any other city where wrestlers from the territory performed.
In the 1880s wrestling underwent some changes in the way it was performed and, as a result, a new wrestling style emerged, namely catch-as-catch can.
This wrestling style comes closest to what would become modern wrestling. Catch-as-catch can means catch a hold anywhere you can. This distinguishes the catch-as-catch can style from the Greco-Roman wrestling style. The latter allows wrestlers to catch a hold only on the upper part of the opponent's body.
There was also the arrival of William Muldoon, one of the all-time greats, who would become the Greco-Roman wrestling champion during this decade and beyond. This decade was equally marked by the end of the collar-and-elbow title on one hand and the emergence of two other titles on the other hand: catch-as-catch can and the mixed titles. In fact mixed matches, in which two wrestling styles are pitted one against the other, also began to appear. Among the other stars, aside from Muldoon, were Joe Acton, Edwin Bibby, Tom Cannon, Carl Abs, Evan "Strangler" Lewis (not to be confused with Ed Lewis) and the first Quebec-born wrestler to really make a name for himself.
Born Esdras Lambert in Saint-Guillaume in 1855, Gustave, or Gus, as Americans called him, wrestled principally in the city of New York, but also all over the world. Dan Anderson, wrestling historian, has a list of Lambert matches. Some of the latter matches were held in Cleveland and San Francisco, sometimes even on the same cards as Muldoon, and every one of them happened between 1881 and 1890. Moreover John McMahon, the last collar-and-elbow champion, wrestled Lambert on December 28, 1882, in New York. Almost 20 years after the publication of the first wrestling match results in a Quebec newspaper, La Patrie, a newspaper that was published in Montreal between 1879 and 1978 and that used to cover pro wrestling in an assiduous fashion, announced the results of a match opposing David Michaud and Gustave Lambert in its edition of August 26, 1884. In a double competition Michaud won the feat of strength contest, and Lambert that of wrestling.
LOUIS CYR AND WRESTLING
Gustave Lambert wasn't just a wrestler; he played a key role in the career of the strongest man in the province, none other than Louis Cyr. According to Cyr's historian and biographer, Paul Ohl, Cyr participated in a number of wrestling matches in Saint-Henri, his own neighborhood, in the mid-1880s. It was not as a wrestler that Cyr made his legendary reputation, but, rather, as someone performing feats of strength. Among the most famous of these are his holding four horses for about a minute, the many weightlifting records performed with only one finger, as well as the back lift, without forgetting the fact that he was the only man to have lifted the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Lambert was Louis Cyr's mentor, as well as his first promoter. Louis Cyr influenced many strongmen who, like him, wanted to practise wrestling and have a life similar to that of their hero. Victor Delamarre, the Baillargeon brothers and Gilles Poisson worshipped Cyr at one moment or another. On the other hand, all of these people had wrestling careers much superior to and longer than that of Cyr.
Undeniably the most important wrestling match of Cyr's career, or at least the one most covered by the media, was held on March 25, 1901. In this match he wrestled "The Giant" Beaupré. Beaupré, whose first name was Édouard, was an almost mythical figure in Quebec, given his exceptional height. Born in Saskatchewan, he stood 8'2"— to this day the tallest pro wrestler of all time. Many Quebec Gen-Xers are surprised to learn that Beaupré really existed and that he was not yet another creation of Quebec folklore. He died of tuberculosis, in 1904, at the age of 23, while he was attending the St. Louis World's Fair. The fair and the games of the third Olympics overlapped in St. Louis and, ironically, freestyle wrestling made its debut there. The match itself was more of a farce than anything else, as Beaupré didn't know how to wrestle, and it was not Cyr's specialty, either. "Beaupré injured his elbow during the match and Cyr beat him," relates Ohl. The match took place at Sohmer Park, where many Quebec and foreign wrestlers performed at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century. Sohmer Park is considered the first mecca of wrestling in Montreal. Sometime before, on January 21 of the same year, Louis Cyr wrestled against a man who would become very famous. In fact at the Montreal National Monument George Little beat Cyr in front of a crowd of more than 2,000 people. Little, well known under the pseudonym Dan McLeod, was a former American heavyweight champion.
In addition to Lambert, Cyr and Little, the end of the 19th century saw Ernest Roeber, one of the best Greco-Roman champions of his time, wrestled several dates in Montreal in July and October of 1898. Roeber's match against Casper Muller on October 18 drew 1,500 people at the Theatre Royal.CHAPTER 2
1900-1920 THE FIRST TRUE GOLDEN AGE OF WRESTLING IN MONTREAL
Pro wrestling experts regularly say that Montreal wrestling witnessed three golden ages. They refer to the era of Yvon Robert and Eddie Quinn as the first golden age. But the truth of the matter is that the first two decades of the 20th century were very prosperous as far as wrestling was concerned, and this prosperity was mainly due to a former wrestler, who would later become a promoter. He was even able to purchase the Montreal Canadiens!
GEORGE KENNEDY, FROM WRESTLER TO OWNER OF THE MONTREAL CANADIENS
Try to imagine a moment: Hulk Hogan buying the Tampa Bay Lightning or Ric Flair buying the Carolina Hurricanes. Of course these scenarios seem impossible, but something like this actually took place in 1910. In fact on November 12, 1910, George Kennedy, the wrestler-turned-promoter, bought the Montreal Canadiens — a hockey team founded in 1909 by John Ambrose O'Brien — for $7,500 through his company, the Canadian Athletic Club. Kennedy put pressure on the National Hockey Association, claiming that the "Canadien" brand belonged to him, which made the transfer of the hockey team easier.
Kennedy was born George W. Kendall in Montreal on December 29, 1881, and his family focused heavily on religion and, thus, deplored wrestling. So Kendall decided to wrestle under the name George Kennedy, a name he would keep afterward. On October 24, 1902, Kennedy won the lightweight title over the hands of Max Wiley at Sohmer Park in Montreal. He lost it on April 3, 1903, though, in a match against Eugène Tremblay. In this catch-as-catch can match, for which fans had been waiting two years, the victory of Tremblay at Sohmer Park allowed him to become the town's new darling. These two Quebec wrestlers were considered, according to the articles written at the time, the very best lightweights the territory had. After this match Kennedy retired as a wrestler and became both a promoter and trainer to Tremblay, who was now the new champion. Before he started promoting in Montreal, Kennedy learned his craft with one of the all-time greats. According to D'Arcy Jenish in The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years of Glory, Kennedy worked as a road agent and front man for Martin "Farmer" Burns in Chicago, Des Moines, Kansas City, Omaha and Minneapolis. His job was to rent the venues, schedule the bouts and visit the local newspapers to talk up the matches.
After purchasing the Montreal Canadiens, Kennedy immediately began generating profit with the team. The franchise won the Stanley Cup in 1916, while it was still in the NHA — the league which became the National Hockey League one year later. Kennedy was actively involved in the creation of this new league — essentially created to get rid of Eddie Livingstone, owner of the Toronto club. This Stanley Cup was, in fact, the first in the history of the club. The Montreal Canadiens have won 23 other cups since, thus dominating the league's history and being beaten only by the New York Yankees when it comes to the number of championships a North American major sports franchise has won.
He was also the owner of a professional Montreal baseball team in 1911 and a lacrosse team from 1911 to 1914. In addition Kennedy organized soccer matches, had the most modern bowling alley in Montreal and built a gymnasium in the eastern part of the city. It's at this training centre that foreign wrestlers like Raymond Cazeaux and Constant le Marin trained before their matches.
In partnership with Dr. Joseph Pierre Gadbois, Kennedy founded the Canadian Athletic Club in 1905. Gadbois was also a referee and, from time to time, announced the wrestling shows he organized along with Kennedy. This club promoted wrestling, as well as other sports. Thanks to Kennedy, boxing, which had been banned in Montreal since 1887, was legalized in 1916. With New York City wrestling promoter Jack Curley's help, he even succeeded in bringing Georges Carpentier, the famous French champion, to town in 1920.
In spite of his English name, Kennedy spoke French fluently and was able to make connections with many promoters and wrestlers all over the world. One of them was Jack Curley. Curley's real name was Jacques Armand Schuel. He was born in San Francisco to French parents, but spent his childhood in Paris and Strasbourg, France, before coming back to the United States. The first important wrestling match that Curley organized took place in 1907 and showcased Frank Gotch. Then in 1910 he would organize shows in Europe with such wrestlers as Benjamin Roller, Great Gama and Stanislaus Zbyszko. It was during this trip that he convinced the great champion George Hackenschmidt to accept a return match against Frank Gotch, even though the latter had already beaten him three years earlier. A total of 28,757 spectators came to Comiskey Park in Chicago to see Gotch beat, yet again, the Russian Lion. Furthermore, Curley made New York City one of the biggest pro wrestling centres in North America, with the likes of Gotch, Joe Stecher, Wladek Zbyszko and Ed "Strangler" Lewis. In March 1918 Curley, in partnership with the promoters Billy Sandow and Tony Stecher, reached an agreement that allowed promoters to exchange talent. This agreement benefited big centres on the east coast like Boston, Philadelphia, New York and, of course, Montreal.
Curley, nicknamed the Tsar of wrestling, had a working knowledge of French because of his origins. This certainly made the discussion easier and strengthened the trust between the two promoters. It also made it possible for the two men to become friends. It's unquestionably because of this friendship that Kennedy was able to present a championship match between Stanislaus Zbyszko and Constant le Marin on May 24, 1913. This match drew about 12,000 spectators, establishing the largest attendance record in Montreal for more than 20 years. Léon Dumont, the number one promoter in France, also worked with Curley and Kennedy. In 1913 Kennedy managed to send the best American wrestlers to Paris, but World War I put an end to this kind of exchange. On April 22, 1920, in Montreal, Kennedy organized a match between Joe Stecher, the world champion, and Salvatore Chevalier. This was the last important match Kennedy would organize before his death.
In 1919, while the Montreal Canadiens were competing for the Stanley Cup with the Metropolitans in Seattle, Kennedy, like many others, contracted the Spanish flu, in a pandemic that affected tens of thousands. Aside from 2005, 1919 is the only year during which the Stanley Cup was not awarded to any team. Kennedy died on October 19, 1921, after having seen excellent doctors both in Canada and the U.S. Two weeks later, on November 4, 1921, his wife sold the hockey club to Léo Dandurand, Jos Cattarinich and Louis Létourneau for $11,000.
Eighty-eight years later the same hockey club was sold for almost $600 million.
Excerpted from Mad Dogs, Midgets and Screw Jobs by Pat Laprade, Bertrand Hébert. Copyright © 2013 Bertrand Hébert and Pat Laprade. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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