National Wrestling Alliance
The Untold Story of the Monopoly That Strangled Pro Wrestling
By Tim Hornbaker, Michael Holmes
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2007 Tim Hornbaker
All rights reserved.
THE ORIGINS OF A WRESTLING MONOPOLY
During the 1940s, professional wrestling was predominantly controlled by two shrewd promoters: Tom Packs of St. Louis and Paul Bowser of Boston. Driven by the prospects of making money and increasing their share of the market in the United States and Canada, they presided over a jagged period in the sport's history. Their influence was amplified due to their personal management of the National Wrestling Association (NWA) and American Wrestling Association (AWA) champions, and it was widely accepted that Packs's Bill Longson and Bowser's Frank Sexton were the top two heavyweights in the business.
In many regards, Bowser's status was secondary to Packs's because of the latter's connections to the leaders of the NWA, an impressive gallery of state athletic commission members. The NWA authorized Packs to supervise the direction of their prized championship, which dated back to 1930, and the St. Louis promoter happily seized all of the power that came with such an endorsement. Having officially booked the champion since 1939, he was the catalyst behind the title reigns of acclaimed wrestlers Lou Thesz, Bronko Nagurski, Ray Steele, and Sandor Szabo.
Known as an assertive capitalist, Packs was respected for turning St. Louis into one of the finest wrestling cities in the world. His amazing success, coupled with a czar-like attitude, infuriated many of his fellow Midwestern promoters, and by the early 1940s, a rival movement began to take hold in the region. The outsiders each may have been slow in devising an effective cohesion, but their passion to sustain their operations without having to rely on Packs to send talent or his champion Longson was truly a motivating factor.
Orville Brown was the first major player to declare his independence. A hardworking family man and up-and-coming wrestler, he took a job in Kansas City as a booking agent for promoter George Simpson in 1940. Although he had a farm in the Columbus, Ohio, area and worked regularly for Al Haft, Brown was eager to return to his home state. He wanted in on the business end of wrestling in addition to holding a claim to the heavyweight championship, and on June 13, 1940, he beat Bobby Bruns at the Memorial Hall to capture the Midwest Wrestling Association "world" title. As the territory's principal fan-favorite for the decade to follow, Brown drew great crowds for his matches against dynamic opponents.
Soon thereafter, Brown's booking enterprises expanded to St. Joseph, Topeka, and Wichita. Wichita, incidentally, was the headquarters of Billy Sandow and Maxwell Baumann, a brother tandem who fronted the second group to stray from Packs's syndicate. While Sandow and Baumann had ill feelings toward Brown for running opposition in their town, it was their dislike of Packs's tyranny that spurred their actions in January 1941. Using a colorless derivative of the National Wrestling Association name, the siblings started the National Wrestling "Alliance," a sanctioning body under the control of a handful of businessmen.
To give their immature promotion footing, they gave Packs's champion Ray Steele until February 9 to consent to a match with Roy Dunn, the superstar of their faction, or be stripped of his title. The threat, limited to clubs in Kansas, wasn't overwhelming. Dunn's credentials were respectable, but he had had a tough time making his mark in professional wrestling, and lacked the flamboyance and connections to rise to the top. An AAU heavyweight champion out of Oklahoma A&M, and member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team, he was impressed by the will of Sandow and Baumann to determine their own course, away from the glitz and glamour of the big shots of grappling.
Possessing an exceptional reputation as a shooter, Steele's nerve and skill could not be questioned. His time was constrained by the National Wrestling Association circuit, and he couldn't afford to squeeze in a ridiculous legitimate match with a former Olympian, especially when it wouldn't have benefited him in the slightest. When Steele failed to sign, the National Wrestling Alliance gave Dunn the title, and Roy was furnished a yellow-and-white-gold championship belt with 200 small diamonds encased in platinum.
It was true that the substantial figures being put up by Bill Longson were enough to create some level of harmony among promoters once separated by their champions. Primarily a heel, Longson drew better than 570,000 fans over his first 58 appearances in St. Louis between 1941 and 1944, was traveling at least 80,000 miles a year, and reportedly earning $50,000 annually. He matched up perfectly with any of the sport's leading grapplers, and shined in bouts against Bobby Managoff, Yvon Robert, Lou Thesz, and "Whipper" Billy Watson.
Despite the achievements of Longson, Sandow and Baumann were still reluctant to kowtow to Packs, even with their audience down because of the war. On April 28, 1942, they had Dunn lose the Alliance title to Ede Virag (Ede Ebner), who, in turn, traded the belt with John Grandovich on August 12 in Topeka, and on October 26 in Wichita. In June 1943, Virag took a booking into virgin territory, Des Moines, for wise entrepreneur Paul "Pinkie" George.
For several years, George had sought a stable moneymaker. He'd enticed AWA champion Maurice "The Angel" Tillet and NWA champion Sandor Szabo to do a handful of sporadic appearances. He imported Brown from Kansas City and Orville exceeded all expectations. Nevertheless, Brown's title claim in Des Moines was ultimately eclipsed by a more valuable piece of hardware, the NWA belt carried by Longson. On July 22, 1942, Brown put Longson over, ending his own reign in Iowa, though Orville returned to Kansas still holding his MWA crown.
Drafted into the United States Army, George served as a lieutenant for five months at Camp Dodge in the quartermaster corps, but an old injury suffered in a car accident kept him from combat. Still in the spirit to promote, Pinkie opened Riverview Park for wrestling in June 1943, and lined up wrestlers from the surrounding area. Jim Londos, a grappling idol, performed in his June 9, 1943, feature against Tom Zaharias.
The following week, Virag toured through with his National Wrestling Alliance title, the first of three showings in Des Moines that summer. But significantly more notable than what took place in the ring was the imprint left on Pinkie by the specialized name of the title he wore. The "Alliance" label was brought to his attention for the first time.
George was persuaded by rumors that wrestling was drawing upwards of 10,000 spectators per event in St. Louis, and immediately tried to obtain topflight athletes from Packs. After all, he'd known Packs for years, and Des Moines was only 270 miles from St. Louis. It made complete sense to share wrestlers. He was optimistic that he could lure Longson back into town, and cognizant that Longson was where the cash was, not Virag.
In the September 1, 1943, edition of his arena program, The Iowa Sportscaster, Pinkie announced that Virag was dethroned in St. Louis by Longson, and that it was the second time "Wild" Bill had won the championship. The article mentioned that Longson won the title from Brown in Des Moines "two years ago" (it had really occurred on July 22, 1942) and stated that "Virag held the title less than five months." In reality, he had been champion since October 1942, and was sponsored by Sandow and Baumann for the remainder of World War II. The Virag-Longson match in St. Louis was pure fiction. Pinkie wanted to establish Longson as the champion in his territory, accomplished that, and waited to hear from Packs.
But Packs didn't send Longson to Des Moines. He was busy booking the champion to Houston, Montreal, Toronto, and a network of towns that were essentially making himself and his grappler rich. Dismayed, but not crushed, George was prompted to adopt his own strategies, unperturbed by the happenings elsewhere. He formed yet another major Midwestern troupe working on the periphery of the St. Louis empire.
On November 3, 1943, Pinkie advertised Ray Steele as the National Wrestling "Alliance" World Champion, a mysterious development that likely shocked many of his well-informed customers. Steele's emergence as titleholder came out of left field, and to make matters even more confusing, the previous night in Minneapolis, Ray had been acknowledged as the "former NWA titleholder." No clear understanding of where Steele gained the "NWA" belt was provided, but it was quite obvious that a promoter could appoint anyone he wanted champion.
Seemingly influenced by Virag's tour, George adopted the signature words "National Wrestling Alliance" for his promotion without the direct consent of the name's originators, Sandow and Baumann. At the time, there didn't appear to be much of a backlash, and all parties forged ahead trying, first and foremost, to please their local audiences.
Des Moines was dark to wrestling until January 12, 1944, when Steele was again billed as the Alliance champion. Steele's matches away from Pinkie's territory had no effect on his standing in Iowa. He could conceivably lose every engagement not promoted by George, and still be recognized as a titleholder in the "Hawkeye State." On May 10, 1944, Steele's reign came to an end when he was defeated by Dave Levin in Des Moines. Six days later, Steele won a rematch in Minneapolis, but, needless to say, didn't regain the title.
Levin was a popular grappler, but he was always on tour with Jack Pfefer and lived in California. What Pinkie needed was a regionally based heavyweight star who could attract crowds to the Coliseum on a regular basis. That's where Orville Brown came back into the picture. George had used Brown sparingly after Orville dropped the unification match to Longson in July 1942. In Kansas City, Levin lost the NWA and MWA titles to Lee Wykoff, and Wykoff was then conquered by Brown. When Brown made his return to Des Moines on November 8, 1944, George booked him as the National Wrestling Alliance champion.
With a humble background, sound wrestling ability, and an entertaining personality, Brown was an ideal fit in George's territory, and Iowa fans embraced his championship claim. A diverse list of challengers ventured through the area and Orville performed and delivered week in and week out. Among his most outstanding opponents were the Swedish Angel, Ras Samara, Bobby Bruns, Kola Kwariani, Ray Eckert, and Ed "Strangler" Lewis. Excitement was generated with Orville on the marquee, and Brown and George became close acquaintances.
Fostered by a need to share talent, George created an elaborate partnership with Brown and neighbors Tony Stecher in Minneapolis and Max Clayton of Omaha. Their arrangement enhanced the caliber of wrestlers for more than eight cities in the Midwest, and formed the foundation for the global National Wrestling Alliance. The quartet remained in the shadows of the nation's leading manipulators, but their fusion served to strengthen their roles in the marketplace.
Of the four men, Stecher was the most experienced. Born Anton Charles Stecher on February 7, 1889, near Dodge, Nebraska, Tony obtained a substandard education, and went to work at a young age on a farm. In January 1912, famous wrestler Dr. Benjamin F. Roller stopped in nearby Fremont and, as he was accustomed to doing, challenged all comers. Tony and his brother Joe, always up for a competition, opted to test the esteemed physician on the mat. Roller tossed them both, but was struck by Joe's — the larger of the two siblings — raw abilities.
Tony turned pro as a middleweight and began logging victories against foes from across the central states. He grappled John Solomon, Peter Fromm, John Svoboda, S.P. Morgenson, Jud Thompson, and Frank Coleman, and by 1914, he had claimed to be the middleweight champion of Nebraska. On October 15 of that year, he added to his laurels with a two-straight fall win over Tom Doctor in Dodge for the Kansas State middleweight title. Similar to the bout Joe would have with Ed "Strangler" Lewis in 1916, Tony engaged in a five hour and 18 minute contest with Wesley Cobb in Stuart, Nebraska, on April 22, 1914. No falls were secured and newspaper reports stated that Tony led the match.
Although he showed his skills in matches against Clarence Eklund, a distinguished wrestler, Tony's true mission was not on the mat, but at the side of his undefeated brother. Joe, who was four years younger, battled demons off and on throughout his career, and needed a strong-minded second to protect him. Without Tony at his side, he could easily have been abused by devious promoters looking for a profitable mule to kick. Instead, he rose to the top of matdom, becoming one of history's most important pro wrestlers.
The siblings were also best friends. They traveled from coast to coast, with Tony brokering scores of consequential matches from 1917 to 1934. Joe won four claims to the World Heavyweight Title in that period, and dominated rivals using his famed "scissors leghold." A more critical and personal task lay ahead for Tony. At the age of 43, after several failed investments in Nebraska and California, a dejected Joe suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. Tony arranged for him to be moved to a VAhospital in St. Cloud, Minnesota, where he would attend to his brother's wellbeing until his own death.
Wealthy from his two decades of involvement in wrestling, Tony opened up shop as a promoter in Minneapolis. His inaugural program on February 21, 1933, marked the professional wrestling debut of football hero Bronko Nagurski. Nagurski, trained by Stecher, became a member of the Chicago Bears football team after a fine collegiate career at the University of Minnesota. Remarkably tough, Bronko built a mat routine upon the methods taught by his mentor, but lacked the colorful approach that many of his peers exploited. The populace, nonetheless, reacted positively to Stecher's shows and Nagurski's appearances boosted attendance.
Nagurski shot to the forefront of the Mondt-Fabiani syndicate with Stecher's help, and became world champion with a victory over Dean Detton on June 29, 1937, in Minneapolis. In Los Angeles and Chicago, he drew good houses, and had a second stint as titleholder under the sponsorship of the National Wrestling Association in the early 1940s. Wrestling in some parts of the country was hampered by the general indifference of fans, but Stecher and Nagurski still found a way to earn a bundle of money.
After a number of years as an associate of Tom Packs, Stecher severed his ties in 1943 and recognized numerous heavyweight champions, including Jim Londos, Bobby Managoff, and Bill Kuusisto. In November 1946, Sandor Szabo entered the territory with his "National Wrestling Association" title. The championship did not have a pedigree, but it effectively set up a local crown that held the interest of spectators. In December 1946, the title went to Dr. Len Hall, then returned to Szabo a week later in Minneapolis. Between April and June 1947, he traded the belt with former amateur champion Cliff Gustafson, and with Nagurski in 1948.
Stecher's decisions in Minnesota never conflicted with his talent agreement or hurt the promotions of his allies in Omaha, Des Moines, or Kansas City. The same was true for Clayton, George, and Brown. None of the quartet was undone by their egos or wanted to inflate their individual reputations beyond their respective territories. The group shared an enthusiasm for making money and protecting their businesses, and enjoyed the fruit of their collaboration. Stecher's experience, when combined with Clayton's personality, Brown's wrestling and booking abilities, and George's vision, presented a unique combination, one that stood out from the rest.
Maxwell McKinley Clayton was the third son of Samuel Thomas and Sophia Anna Elmer Clayton, born on April 30, 1896, in Hamilton County, Nebraska. Shortly after his birth, the family settled south of Central City in Merrick, where the Claytons owned a farm. In 1910, when Max was only 14 years old, his father was killed in a farming accident, and he and his brothers picked up much of the labor end of the family farm. At Central City High School, Clayton was a lauded quarterback in 1912–13, and played semi-professional football after attending a couple of semesters at the University of Nebraska.
Nicknamed "Squire," Clayton took a position as the boxing matchmaker for the Grand Island Elks Club and began building his resumé as a fight promoter. He soon hooked up with Omaha boxing maestro Jake Isaacson, and tended to the town's need for stable wrestling as early as 1926. Succeeding a long procession of superb promoters in the city, from Gene Melady to the famed Farmer Burns, Clayton ran the Auditorium on Monday nights and frequently featured the Duseks, John Pesek, Ed Lewis, and women's champion Mildred Burke. The public welcomed his endeavors and Clayton soon expanded to booking throughout Nebraska and up into the Dakotas.
The fifth midwestern wrestling promotion to blossom independently of Packs was started by Packs's former matchmaker, Sam Muchnick. Initially rebuffed in his attempts to secure a license, Muchnick proved that persistence paid off, and in December 1945 he opened up his small-time operation, instigating a fiery battle for St. Louis. In the months that followed, Muchnick received critical support from bookers Stecher, Billy Sandow, Al Haft, and Jack Pfefer, and repeatedly demonstrated his resolve. With the help of grapplers such as Gorgeous George, Frankie Talabler, and Frank Sexton, his crowds grew steadily, and by 1948, he had Packs irritated beyond belief. (Continues...)
Excerpted from National Wrestling Alliance by Tim Hornbaker, Michael Holmes. Copyright © 2007 Tim Hornbaker. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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