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|Posted: Sat Aug 05, 2006 9:48 pm Post subject: Paul Bowser by Tim Hornbaker
|Paul Bowser Biography
By Tim Hornbaker (Payton)
Outside of historians, serious pundits of the sport, or aged enthusiasts of New England, few people recognize the name Paul Bowser. He was, for nearly four decades, the maestro behind the promotion of professional wrestling in Boston, and a major influence in grappling throughout North America. While many researchers have amazingly chosen to ignore his accomplishments and longevity, it seems that in the year 2006, there is a strong push to finally get the man his peers aptly dubbed “The Brain” recognized. Bowser’s impact on wrestling cannot be disregarded on any level, and as Vincent Kennedy McMahon is today lauded for his vision, Bowser carried wrestling to new heights more than 70 years ago with a distinct creativeness that the sport had lacked.
Around 1877, a strong-willed Armstrong County, Pennsylvania farmer named Marlin Bowser (1843-1925) married Nancy Aretta Hawkins (1854-1954), and bought land near his parents in Kittanning. Marlin taught in a local school and ultimately served as the superintendent of schools in Armstrong County, while pursuing his own hobbies, such as the writing of poetry, and the mentoring of his five children. His three boys worked long hours on the family farm and were each athletes of some repute. His third son, Paul Forbes Bowser (1), was born on May 28, 1886, and had a natural gift for wrestling, outshining his siblings in impromptu sessions, and later distinguishing himself with peers.
Impressed by the lectures of his father, Paul continued his education, attending Beaver College. By 1910, however, his passion for grappling had taken him into the professional ranks, and he toured with the renown Pollock Brothers Circus (2), wrestling all comers. Known for his clever shooting ability, Bowser matched well with opponents in what was mostly worked matches in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and within two years, he began to assert dominance over his weight class in several states, looking for a bout with one of the various “world” middleweight champions. Among the others to claim middleweight honors were Joe Turner, Henry Gehring, Walter Miller, and Mike Yokel.
Bowser relocated to 15 N. Fourth Street in Newark, Ohio in 1912 and trained under wrestler Charles Metro, a local favorite. Building a strong following, he drew many notable grapplers to the area for matches, and among the competitors he faced were Young Gotch (Albert C. Haft Jr.), Henry Irslinger, Joe Varga, and John Kilonis. Paul also engaged heavyweight stars Stanislaus Zbyszko, Joe Stecher and Earl Caddock. During this same time-frame, Bowser began to stage matches of his own and often worked as a referee. He met and married women’s champion Cora Livingston (Cora Tubbs) (3) of Canada in 1913 and opened a wrestling school in Newark to tutor motivated students.
In Newark, Bowser beat Joe Turner on March 10, 1916 (4) for his middleweight championship and nabbed control of the famed Police Gazette belt. Often overlooked by the better known principals of the weight class, Bowser retained his status until fading from the active wrestling scene in the early 1920s. By that time, his focus had shifted to the promotions of his wife Cora as queen, and examined the possibilities of relocating to fresher ground.
Several scandals locally, including a situation in late November 1919, where he was sued by Kelton Mitchell, had exposed the business, and burned out the territory to his entrepreneurial ventures. Mitchell claimed that he had been conned out of $2,300 in a fixed wrestling match on November 22, 1917 in Newark by Bowser and C.A. Trapsky (5). The court case ended up going in Mitchell’s favor, a verdict worth $2,800, the money he had bet on the contest, plus interest. The publicity tainted Paul’s name locally, and the wrestling game was losing steam.
Still earning a living as a part-time grappler and hustler, Bowser and his wife entered New England and settled in Boston in 1922. Despite his reputation and enthusiasm, Paul worked the shadow’s of the area’s lead promoter, George V. Tuohey, a renown former sports editor for the Boston Post. Although handicapped by the lack of serious attention and a general lean of local fans to Tuohey’s operations, Bowser tried everything under the sun to gain the upper hand. Tuohey, who had managed the likes of Tom Jenkins, Charles Wittmer and Waino Ketonen, was well connected and respected throughout the country, but his distinct advantage over Bowser only lasted for a single year.
The tides turned when, in January 1923, Bowser’s zeal for the grappling business earned him a prime spot to showcase his product. He assumed the promotions of the Grand Opera House, and it wasn’t long before his enterprises and uncanny ability to garner publicity was attracting fans from throughout the area. His strong ties to manager Billy Sandow and perennial heavyweight champion Ed “Strangler” Lewis was also a major lure for fans to his programs.
It was apparent that Tuohey’s several decade run at the top of Boston’s wrestling market was coming to an end, and on May 9, 1923, he filed voluntary bankruptcy after amassing a debt of over $12,000 (6). The opportunity to corner the market on big time professional wrestling presented itself, and Bowser met the challenge with a rare ambitiousness that turned heads. While some didn’t appreciate his tactics or newfound position in the region, Paul accepted the role as Boston’s promoter, and looked for bigger and better matches for his venues.
As a grappler, Bowser had competed in more than 500 professional matches, and manipulated the middleweight title in the Boston area to generate excitement. On January 3, 1922, he annexed a middleweight championship from Joe Turner again, this time at the Opera House on a show that featured his wife on the undercard. Several months later, on May 6, 1922, the Fitchburg Sentinel, (Fitchburg, Massachusetts) reported that Bowser regained “the world’s championship middleweight title from John Kilonis of Manchester, N.H., last night before a small crowd at the Lyric Theater.” In 1923, the multiple-time champ retired from the mat to concentrate on his promotional interests.
There was one man who wasn’t altogether thrilled with the broad aspirations of Bowser. New York City promoter and arguably the emperor of all wrestling impresarios, Jack Curley was perfectly content with regulating the east’s affairs without a contemporary, and while Tuohey wasn’t seen as an adversary, Bowser was. An amplification of their quarrel saw the light of day as early as January 1923 when an unknown was matched against Curley’s undefeated Olympic hero Nat Pendleton.
In the months prior to the Boston match, Curley had bragged about the legitimate skill of Pendleton and claims were made that he could beat “Strangler” Lewis, Bowser’s Italian star George Calza, and Bowser himself all in the same night. Money began to talk at that point with thousands of dollars being put on the line in bets on behalf of Pendleton. Bowser listened to the proposals, considered his options, then offered Curley and Pendleton a match that the promoter and Olympic star might have regret they accepted.
Bowser made the suggestion that Pendleton grapple a mysterious opponent of his choosing on January 25, 1923 at the Opera House. The shadowy challenger to Pendleton’s undefeated streak would be forced to win two falls within 75 minutes to capture the affair and the cash prize. In addition to the large amounts of money being placed on the line was a measure of pride in the brewing conflict between veteran promoter Curley and Bowser. Each had something to prove, but Curley’s confidence in Pendleton blinded him to the possibilities, while Bowser’s relationship to the Sandow-Lewis clan provided him the perfect foil to the Olympian.
Bowser revealed Pendleton’s opponent to be none other than the famed “Tigerman” John Pesek, two days before the contest. Pesek, managed by Sandow’s brother Max Baumann, was an up-and-comer in the combine, and was acknowledged by some as the “Strangler’s” policeman. If anyone could give Pendleton a serious match, it was Pesek, and Bowser had faith that his man would successfully counter the amateur knowledge of Curley’s protégé.
He was right. On January 25, Pesek took the two falls he needed to win the affair in less than 45 minutes, injured his opponent, and added to his reputation. Pendleton’s wrestling career, on the other hand, was forever tainted, and the embarrassed Curley had not only lost the momentum he had been building around Nat toward the heavyweight title, but was out a bundle of money. Bowser made out like a bandit financially, and this one situation helped define a budding wrestling war between Boston and New York.
With the Sandow-Lewis connection, Bowser was comfortable with how things had transpired. He worked with ringleader Sandow to monopolize the championship, minimize the power of outsiders, and in the invention of novel ways to earn capital along a stable circuit of cities. Individual promoters along the trail were responsible for building up local challengers for Lewis, setting up high profile championship matches. One of Bowser’s more successful title aspirants was Polish heavyweight Stanley Stasiak (Ignacy Josef Stasiak), who, on May 8, 1924, drew an estimated 9,000 fans for his bout with Lewis at the Boston Arena.
One tactics being used by Lewis and Sandow was incorporating color into title matches, and the Stasiak affair certainly met that criteria, drawing the ire of the attending fans. The combine felt that dramatic scenarios and controversy would easily set up high-drawing rematches and big gates. However, the gimmicks only worked some of the time, and those enthusiasts that expected clean and scientific championship wrestling were more apt to walk away from the sport than be rushing to the arena for the rematch. The return bout between Lewis and Stasiak on July 1 was not a critical success, and only solidified the “Strangler” as a heel in Boston, which may have been the original intention of the syndicate to begin with.
At the Opera House, Bowser featured wrestlers of all sizes, sympathetic to non-heavyweights, and among the better known grapplers he used were George Kotsonaros, Jim Londos, and Utica’s Joseph Malcewicz. By the end of 1924, the 27 year old Malcewicz was one of the most promising wrestlers in the country, and had demonstrated his competence to Bowser to the point that the latter had full confidence that he could represent their faction as heavyweight champion. Like Stasiak and other grapplers pushed into the top challenger role, Malcewicz was being prepared for the job, a mission that would ultimately end in Joe walking away with the popular vote, but with the “Strangler” going over on the mat.
Sandow and Lewis had another plan they wanted to enact first, one they believed would make them a lot of quick capital. Their considerations were innovative in many ways, taking a respected football star and converting him to a championship-caliber wrestler, all the in the name of making money. They handpicked Wayne Munn, who had tried to make a name for himself as a boxer and failed, and gave him the basic knowledge he’d need to survive in the role they had prepared for him. His job was simple: to stand where they wanted him to stand, and to win when they wanted him to win. When it was time for him to get pinned, that too would be scripted well in advance.
Munn’s lack of experience as a wrestler was a factor the syndicate overlooked. They felt that the controlled environment they constructed around Ed Lewis would transfer nicely to Munn, and that only grapplers that took orders from the top would be put in the ring with him. The risk was low, and the payoff was going to be huge, especially with a Decoration Day rematch at an premiere outdoor stadium in the cards. On January 8, 1925 in Kansas City, “Big” Munn captured the World Title from Lewis exactly as they had planned. Sandow spun the bout, claiming that Lewis still had a claim to the championship, and negotiations for the return bout began.
Bowser hoped, like Sandow and many other promoters, that Munn would help turn around the decline of numbers, and break up the monotony wrestling was seeing. Munn’s unique, and revolutionary, wrestling style was enough to create a stir and Bowser looked to an April 1925 match in Boston against one of a handful of potential challengers. He anticipated great things from the match.
However, Curley was still looking for retribution. His importance in pro wrestling had diminished greatly since 1921 and after the Pendleton fiasco, he was patiently looking for a way to regain face. The push of Munn to the heavyweight throne created an opportunity that was unparalleled in the sport’s history. Sandow and Lewis had laid all of their eggs in one basket with the hopes that things would go the way they envisioned. What if someone stepped in and changed their plans? Curley saw the opening and prepared the seize the moment.
On April 15, 1925 in Philadelphia, Munn was booked into a match against a wrestler he had beaten in two-straight falls on February 11, Stanislaus Zbyszko. Zbyszko was a team player and a well respected member of Sandow’s syndicate. His excellent performance in Kansas City was expected to be repeated, only bolstering Munn’s worth as titleholder. Prior to the affair, Zbyszko secretly met with the Curley faction, and money changed his outlook for the bout with Munn. In reality, it was cash that compelled Zbyszko to jump sides, and then destroy Munn in two-straight falls on April 15 in Philly, capturing the heavyweight title.
In the 13 minutes it took for Zbyszko to beat Munn, the power base of all professional wrestling in North America switched from the Sandow-Lewis-Bowser troupe to the Curley-Stecher combine. The double-cross shocked the industry and sent promoters reeling. Curley, along with Tom Packs in St. Louis, and Ray Fabiani in Philadelphia, were prepared to take the title in another direction, and decided to lock out anyone allied with the Sandow organization. It wasn’t long before many wrestlers, John Pesek included, had crossed the lines and affiliated themselves with Curley.
News of the Munn-Zbyszko title switch received great press in Boston, and it is likely that Bowser would have been more content just sweeping that bit of news right under the nearest carpet. Nevertheless, life went on, and Bowser had to make the best of a bad situation. He was now on the outside of the cartel in charge of the main line of the championship, and any kind of cooperation with Curley was seemingly out of the question. Shortly after the title was passed from Zbyszko to Joe Stecher on May 30, 1925, Bowser issued a challenge to the new king on behalf of Stasiak or Malcewicz.
A number of Sandow’s remaining troops did appear in Boston throughout 1925, but
Bowser didn’t have any real leverage to present a major contest in his town. He continued to push Malcewicz and was fairly optimistic that he could goad Stecher into a match in his territory, preferably against the “Utica Panther.” If a straight challenge couldn’t get a contest signed, he planned to manipulate stories in the press and the local athletic commission. Portraying Stecher as a weak champion or afraid of Malcewicz was almost as damaging as a loss to the wrestler, and Bowser knew that his spiteful actions would get a reaction from the Curley-Stecher camp one way or another.
In early March 1926, Paul went to Chicago looking to arrange a match for Stecher in Boston and was initially met with resistance. His offer of $12,500 was persuasive, and Tony Stecher, Joe’s manager, agreed, but the opponent they decided upon was still up for considerable debate. On March 11, Stecher appeared at the Boston Arena for a bout against the competitor he expected to face, Iowa’s Jake Brissler, a friend and a member of their tribe. Before the bout began, Malcewicz entered the ring and replaced Brissler as Stecher’s opponent. Considering the switch to be an alteration of the terms of their contract, Stecher left without wrestling anyone. Bowser’s substitution reportedly beat Stecher by default and was announced as the new world champion.
Unfortunately for Bowser, the Stecher-Malcewicz debacle didn’t have the same sort of lasting impact that the Munn-Zbyszko situation had. Under the circumstances, it was really the best he could muster up. Malcewicz would be used as a title claimant with a forfeit victory over Stecher, and why not? Sandow was still billing “Strangler” Lewis as champion, and it was apparent that a lineage that made complete sense was becoming a lot less important than it had been in the past. Bowser used all the assets at his expense to discredit Stecher in the aftermath of the Boston affair, conversing with Athletic Commissions to get him banned, and looking for big money matches for Malcewicz.
Curley fought back in the propaganda battle for the hearts and minds of wrestling fans, and his syndicate’s legitimate entitlement to the heavyweight championship gave them an advantage in some respects. Trying to gain attention, Sandow and Bowser conjured up title vs. title unification matches for Lewis and Malcewicz, and astounded many people when an estimated 10,000 people turned out for a July 1, 1926 effort at Braves Field in Boston. The outcome was tedious 3-hour and 22-minute draw.
Milking the feud for all it was worth, Sandow booked the match again on August 2 at an outdoor venue in Tulsa for affiliate Sam Avey. The match ended in controversy, but with Lewis gaining a win. In some opinions, Malcewicz’s title claim would have disappeared here, but acknowledging the goals of Sandow, Lewis, and Bowser at the time, you’d have to believe that stringing along Malcewicz’s championship a little longer wouldn’t have hurt their bottom line a single bit.
Bowser watched as Sandow and the Stechers made peace, and, for the sake of business, the title passed from Stecher to Ed Lewis on February 20, 1928. Curley wasn’t moved by the new alliance, and decided to stray from the Lewis lineage, putting his backing behind Hans Steinke, the so-called “trustbuster,” for a period of time. The industry remained divided because of past hostilities and aggressive maneuvering, and a clear hatred between Bowser and Curley. Despite not owning the main line of the World Title, Curley had an outstanding talent pool which included Londos, Pesek, Steinke, the Zbyszkos, Renato Gardini, and Ray Steele, and powerful allies in Joe “Toots” Mondt and Ray Fabiani.
Remembering the impression Wayne Munn had made on the business in his short stint on top, Bowser contemplated his next move. He considered pushing another football star in the wrestling business, of course, this time without the same disastrous results. The concept could work if handled expertly, and if anyone could pull the right strings on a makeshift titleholder, it was Paul “Papa” Bowser.
Gustave Adolph “Gus” Sonnenberg was born on March 6, 1898 in Ontonagon County (Ewen), Michigan to Fred and Caroline Sonnenberg (7). His family migrated to Marquette, where he attended a local high school and distinguished himself as an athlete. In 1915, the Marquette High School football squad outscored opponents 211-7 in six games. Gus also starred as a basketball player and graduated in 1916.
Between 1916 and ’23, with a break to serve in the United States Army during World War I, Sonnenberg played football for three separate colleges: Dartmouth College (Hanover, NH) (1916-’17), Northern State Teachers College (1917-’18), returning to Dartmouth (1919-’21) and then the University of Detroit, graduating in 1923. He attained a degree in law, All-American honors in 1920 with Dartmouth, and a reputation as one of the country’s top young athletes. He would continue his football career, entering the National Football League in 1923 with the Columbus Tigers and the Buffalo All-Americans. In 1925-’26, he was a member of the Detroit Panthers, coached by NFL Hall of Fame Coach, Jimmy Conzelman.
Conzelman would go on to coach the Providence Steam Rollers, and Gus followed, winning the NFL World Championship in 1927-’28. While in Providence playing for the Steam Rollers, Sonnenberg was convinced to try his hand at professional wrestling by Bowser and was thoroughly trained by Dan Koloff, John Spellman (another lesser known football player-wrestler), Ed Lewis, Joe “Toots” Mondt, and Pat McGill. Even with lessons by some talented shooters, Sonnenberg was not a high level wrestler himself, and very inexperienced, but he had the ability, drive and personality to excel far above the norm, and Bowser recognized that fact. He had found his man.
Bowser was no fool. He understood the consequences of what he was getting himself into, but if he could make it work, the payoff was going to be astronomical. Wrestling fans had grown bored of Stecher and Lewis, and the sport needed some excitement and color. Enthusiasts needed a reason to purchase tickets and a nimble football player with a wild flying tackle was reason enough. Sonnenberg was a guy to behold in person.
In conference with Sandow and Lewis, Bowser made a pitch to purchase and ultimately steer the main line of the World Title for the first time in his career, and would put him on a level with any major wrestling promoter in the world. Curley had done it before him, as had Sandow and Tony Stecher, in part. It was Bowser’s time to step up to the plate and take upon him the greatest single task a promoter could manage, handling the heavyweight champion.
The deal wouldn’t be cheap, that’s for sure. For their January 4, 1929 match at the Boston Garden, Lewis reportedly received $50,000 of the $70,000-plus gate, and, according to Fall Guys, had another $70,000 placed in escrow as a “guarantee that Lewis would regain his mat title when Sonnenberg had outlived his box office attraction.” In return, Bowser watched as Lewis made Sonnenberg look like a professional wrestling superstar, dropping two-straight falls in 29:46 and 8:20. At the end of the night, Sonnenberg was the titleholder and in possession of the coveted “Ed Lewis Belt.”
In 1925, Sandow carved out a unit of wrestlers that would, in effect, “play nice” with Wayne Munn out on the wrestling circuit. Bowser did the same thing, but on a grander scale. He hired wrestlers that would follow orders and those he had a question with were forced to put up a forfeit to comply with the night’s specific task. To ensure things went as planned, Bowser assigned Sonnenberg a “policeman” (Dan Koloff) who traveled with him and a referee (Theodore Tonneman) to work his matches, all in effort to stifle a double-cross. In territories that prevented them from slipping in their own referee or if any doubt remained in the mind of Sonnenberg or Bowser regarding an opponent, the promoter dubbed the match an “exhibition” and not being for the title.
Bowser was overly cognizant to the ramifications of a shooter getting their hands on Sonnenberg in the ring and that was the main reason he went to the extremes he did. The talent Gus was going over was pretty remarkable, notwithstanding all of the stipulations. He beat Lewis at least five times in 1929, including a rematch at Boston’s Fenway Park on July 9 that drew upwards of 25,000 fans (gate: $90,000), and defeated the Malcewicz Brothers, Stan Stasiak, Karl Sarpolis, Howard Cantonwine, Charley Hanson, John Spellman, Marin Plestina, Pat McGill, and Joe Stecher. Sonnenberg’s tough road schedule included contests from Miami to Bellingham, and in towns big and small.
Briefly in 1929, Curley was convinced that Sonnenberg was, in fact, the second coming, and dropped all previous recognition of a champion for an appearance by the footballer at Madison Square Garden. Bowser conceded to the demand, booking the champion for a February 4 date against Cantonwine. Even with topnotch publicity, the show drew under 4,000 fans, and was a bust. Surprisingly, Sonnenberg drew more the next night at the Ridgewood Grove Sports Club in Brooklyn against Frank Yusko. Curley was wholeheartedly unimpressed by the numbers by Sonnenberg and sought to again play hard ball with Bowser in efforts to dominate wrestling.
One of Bowser’s most important colleagues in the promotional world was the leading promoter on the west coast, Lou Daro. Daro was the man in charge of the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles and gave Bowser a huge outlet for Sonnenberg. On April 3, 1929, in his Olympic debut, Sonnenberg drew 10,323 and a gate of $24,621 for a match with Stasiak. The defending champion scored in two straight falls and endeared himself to the local crowd. Sonnenberg received exceptional publicity in Los Angeles, and Daro quickly arranged a summer appearance against Joe Malcewicz. Their July 24 bout set a new attendance record for wrestling in Los Angeles with more than 10,700 fans at the Olympic, paying $30,392. Needless to say, Sonnenberg was a huge hit in Southern California.
While things couldn’t be better in Los Angeles, things back east were getting sticky. Ray Fabiani, an ally of Curley in Philadelphia, pulled strings in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission and got Sonnenberg suspended in the state for wrestling unworthy opponents and failing to accept serious challenges (8). Shortly thereafter, the New York Commission followed suit, and Fabiani and Curley succeeded in discrediting Bowser’s champion significantly. It was revealed in the press that Sonnenberg had been battling the same men over and over, many of whom were using different identities in various towns, and Fall Guys revealed that Gus may have battled the “same opponents as many as twenty-five times.” His policeman, Koloff, had been “defeated by the champion as many as fifty times.”
The negative spin on Sonnenberg’s reign only served to help Curley and Fabiani better as they launched their own lineage, one that was started by Richard Shikat over Jim Londos in June 1929. Bowser ignored the actions of his peers, and was happily counting the money Sonnenberg was bringing in. In July, Londos posted $5,000 with the California Athletic Commission for a bout with Sonnenberg in San Francisco, but the offer was declined.
Several months later, Pete Ladjimi (1899-1968), a part-time wrestler, bondsman and general tough guy, ran into Bowser’s titleholder on Sixth and Broadway in Los Angeles, and issued a challenge. Sonnenberg was disinterested in Ladjimi’s request and tried to go about his business. Instead of allowing the wrestling champ to go by peacefully, Pete headbutted Gus in the face, sending Sonnenberg to the concrete bellow (9). Despite suffering a bruised nose and cut lip, Gus was healthy enough to wrestle Ed Lewis the next evening at the Olympic. Ladjimi, on the other hand, was taken into custody and sentenced to 30-days in jail for assault.
It was known throughout wrestling circles that Sonnenberg’s attacker was none other than Londos’s “policeman.” Fall Guys incorrectly referred to Ladjimi as a “welterweight wrestler” and stated that he had “beat the luckless champion into insensibility.” Newspaper reports differed, however, Marcus Griffin’s book was correct, Sonnenberg’s reputation had been further discolored.
Although Sonnenberg may have been taking a beating on several different fronts, Bowser continued to push him, and Gus had plenty of steam left to meet the demands. Looking ahead, Bowser prepared another talented newcomer to take the reins in the future.
Ed Don George was born Edward Nicholas George Jr. to parents Edward Sr. and Theresa Sarah Becker George on June 3, 1905 in the farming community of North Java (Sheldon), Wyoming County, New York. He had an older sister named Margaret, and three younger siblings, Leona, Raymond and Bernard (10). Following completion of high school, George attended St. Bonaventure College in Olean, where he played football and both competed and taught wrestling. George transferred to the University of Michigan, where, in 1926, placed third in the Big Ten Conference Wrestling Tournament as a heavyweight.
After taking time off, Ed returned to Ann Arbor and won Amateur Athletic Union Heavyweight Titles in 1928 and 1929, took the Big Ten Heavyweight Crown in 1929, and achieved three letters for wrestling. George was also a back-up football player at guard. St. Bonaventure and the University of Michigan would both honor Ed George for his athletic accomplishments by inducing him into their respected Hall of Fames.
In 1928, George made the United States Olympic Team as a freestyle wrestler. At the Games in Amsterdam, he beat Wernli of Switzerland in the semi-finals of the unlimited class and then matched talents with Johan Richthoff of Sweden in the deciding bout. In 4:41, Richthoff beat George and captured the gold medal. Ed took home fourth place. Due to an injured elbow, he was unable to compete in the 1929 NCAA Wrestling Tournament, where he was a favorite to take the championship.
Recruited and trained by Bowser and his crew in New England, Ed made his professional debut and adopted the name “Ed Don” George. A sudden illness in July 1930 nearly took Bowser’s life and left him in critical condition. He relied on his associates to run operations in his absence, and George’s rise to the top of the business continued uninterrupted. It was obvious to many people that he was going to be Sonnenberg’s successor.
That plan was a direct violation of the agreement made by Bowser, Sandow and Lewis the year before. Bowser recovered his health and gave the final word green lighting George’s victory over Sonnenberg on December 10, 1930, before 10,000 fans at the Olympic in Los Angeles. Feeling double crossed, Lewis and Sandow conspired to regain their championship the hard way, in a shoot in the ring. Either Bowser felt his Olympian could fend off the aged “Strangler” or had simply forgotten about their 1929 pact, but he allowed George to wrestle Lewis on April 13, 1931 at Los Angeles’s Wrigley Field in a match Lou Daro predicted would draw more than 25,000 people and pro grappling’s first $100,000 gate.
Lewis won two-straight falls against the wishes of Bowser, capturing the title. The attendance was far below expectations with 12,000 paying $27,951, and the Los Angeles Times reported that the gate was smaller than some of Daro’s indoor shows.
Bowser’s ego wouldn’t let him disregard his ongoing feud with Jack Curley and 1931 offered some new opportunities to fire a few rounds over the latter’s head in New York City. With talent sharing agreements with his old pal Al Haft of Columbus and a partnership with Jack Herman, Bowser opened up a venue in Manhattan for his New England matmen. On February 11, 1931, Bowser and Herman ran the 69th Regiment Armory using Joe Stecher and Marin Plestina the same night Curley was presenting a program at Ridgewood Grove in Brooklyn with Jim Londos on the bill. The established promotion had an advantage, and with Londos, it was hard to beat, but Bowser’s venture attracted 3,500 fans.
On March 25 at the Armory, they drew 6,000 with Ed Don George in his local debut, 2,000 more than Curley that night. By this time, Bowser was energized for a full scale attack on Curley’s territory, and expanded to hold shows at the Jamaica Arena, Broadway Arena and at the Star Casino with a mixture of New York and Boston grapplers. Prior to the double-cross in Los Angeles, Paul had everything going for him. “Strangler” Lewis and Billy Sandow reminded him that he was in the business of professional wrestling, where anything goes.
Not only had Bowser lost the championship, but his precious, young titleholder had been embarrassed, much like Nat Pendleton (although at least Lewis allowed the match to go more than an hour), in two straight falls.
The success of the Sandow-Lewis scheme allowed Paul to devise a plot twist of his own, and on May 4 in Montreal, history would again take a dramatic turn. That night at the Mount Royal Arena, promoters Louis Letourneau and Lucien Riopel booked Lewis in a title defense against another Olympic champion, Henri DeGlane. DeGlane took the first fall and Lewis won the second, both according to plan, but the second fall was reversed when Henri informed the referee that he had been bitten. Claiming that Lewis had caused the injury, DeGlane watched referee Eugene Tremblay disqualify the “Strangler” and award the match and the championship to him (11).
Sandow and Lewis vehemently disputed the decision and one double-cross had sparked another. It is commonly believed that DeGlane had bitten himself or that the latter’s second, Dan Koloff, Bowser’s renown “policeman,” was the culprit. Did it really matter? Bowser had regained the title.
In response to the invasion of New York City, Curley and his intelligent matchmaker Joe “Toots” Mondt crowbarred their way into New England, and set up shop in the crowded wrestling scene in Boston. Ray Fabiani, another enemy of Bowser, obtained a promoter’s license for the Boston Garden, and, in January 1932, named Mondt the facilities’ wrestling director (12). Mondt set up temporary housing in Boston, and began booking with hopes of edging Bowser out of business completely.
Lewis, who had broken up with Sandow, had accepted an offer by the Curley-Mondt faction to work for their syndicate on a full-time basis, and happily agreed to work Boston in opposition to Bowser. By this time, the Curley-Mondt-Fabiani faction had the two strongest personalities in wrestling under their care, Londos and Lewis, enough power to dominate wrestling on the east coast, and operations in three of the best markets: New York, Philadelphia and Boston.
Bowser tried to prevent Mondt from holding his debut program on January 27, 1932 by pulling political strings and trying to obtain a court injunction, but everything failed. Lewis and Pat O’Shocker appeared in the brutal main event and the show featured Dick Shikat, George Zaharias, Ernie Dusek, Mike Romano, Renato Gardini, Kola Kwariani, and Hans Steinke on the undercard. Bowser’s top wrestlers during this same time-frame included DeGlane, Sonnenberg, Jim Browning, Joe Malcewicz, Nick Lutze, Jack Sherry, and Pat McGill. A third promotion in Boston was controlled by Charley Gordon and the Massachusetts Wrestling Association. The MWA ran programs every Wednesday night with the likes of Paul Adams, Frank Bruno, George Linnehan, Ted Germaine, and Jim Wallis.
Mondt continued the pressure on Bowser by bringing back Lewis for a bout against Gino Garibaldi on February 10 and lining up Ray Steele, Fred Grobmeier, George Kotsonaros, Shikat, Kwariani, O’Shocker, and Zaharias for the undercard. 6,000 fans responded to the bill by attending the show at the Garden. If only the Curley-Mondt-Fabiani group could have maintained control, they might have drastically damaged Bowser’s standing in Boston. Instead, all hell broke loose. In April 1932, Londos decided he had enough of paying Mondt and Curley’s bills, and broke away from their clan, taking his New York State Athletic Commission backed World Championship with him.
Promotional wars had dominated the landscape of professional wrestling for the first two years of the decade, but 1932 offered a chance for an alliance unseen in wrestling, ever. Losing Londos was a major factor in the new peace talks between Curley and Bowser, and the wrestler’s defection could have killed Curley’s promotion entirely. That is how devastating the move was. Londos had grown tired of paying Curley and Mondt’s bills, and abandoned ship to work with promoters a little less demanding.
That summer, Bowser and Curley ended all hostilities, and when wrestling returned to Madison Square Garden, the program was stacked with talent from Boston. Their restructured syndicate invited “Strangler” Lewis into the fold, and on October 10, he went over Jack Sherry for the vacant World Title, recognized by the New York State Athletic Commission. While the numbers for their arenas were not spectacular, they were decent enough to remain afloat against Londos as he aligned himself with the Johnston Brothers and Rudy Dusek in yet another promotional conflict.
Bowser pushed Ed Don George back to the helm of his territory, going over DeGlane for the “American Wrestling Association” World Title on February 10, 1933 (13) in Boston. The American Wrestling Association was Bowser’s personal response to the National Wrestling Association, a biased group he believed was being run, in part, by St. Louis promoter Tom Packs and Fabiani to prop up Londos. Bowser had started the AWA around 1930 and the organization acted as a sanctioning body for promoters throughout New England. It offered promoters the same sort of guidelines the NWA or Midwest Wrestling Associations had in their districts, but as Packs or Fabiani held court over the NWA or Haft over the MWA, Bowser pushed the buttons of the AWA.
Known for his brilliant foresight, Paul was grooming another future champion, James Orville Browning of Verona, Missouri. Browning stood better than 6’2”, weighed upwards of 230 pounds, and was recognized by some of the most respected shooters in the game to be a fierce, legitimate competitor. In work out sessions in gymnasiums, away from hollering spectators, Browning had proved his value as a wrestler, and had the confidence of not only Bowser and Curley, but “Strangler” Lewis, who was seriously considering going into semi-retirement.
No one could predict whether Browning’s impact at the gate was going to be better than Lewis, but change was necessary. Bowser paid the “Strangler” and Mondt a reported $42,000 to pass the championship to Browning on February 20, 1933 at the Garden.
Owning a stake in New York City and at the Garden, plus the Empire State’s “World” Champion, Bowser was making a real case for czar of the entire industry. He would send Browning out for dates as a title claimant to Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and acquire sizeable percentages from the Missouri Titleholder’s appearances. This was on top of Bowser’s regular AWA champion, who was on another circuit, his Boston ventures, and the New England booking circuit. No other promoter in history had as much power as Bowser had at this time, and his enterprises were, amazingly, still growing.
Magazines and newspaper pieces lauded Browning’s title claim, while most of the public’s opinion for a champion fit the mold of Jimmy Londos, who was still traveling the country, undefeated. Londos’s popularity was unequaled anywhere in wrestling and rivaled recognizable athletes from other sports. He was an energetic and dynamic performer, mingling with presidents and governors on his days off, and when he wasn’t the centerpiece of a civic gathering somewhere, he was investing his wealth wisely.
A move far from the norm, the leaders of the wrestling business met at the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York City for a round-table discussion in the name of peace and prosperity on November 29, 1933. At the meeting were representatives from all the major cliques: Curley, Mondt, Bowser, Packs, Londos, Rudy Dusek and Ed White. What arose from the discussion was a ten-year talent and profit sharing agreement that was officially signed by Curley, Mondt, White, Bowser, Packs, and Ray Fabiani. This select combination, known officially as the “Trust,” ended the major territorial strife, with a few notable exceptions, and set a new course for the entire industry. Instead of confusion amid the many heavyweight titleholders, the unit had a chance to unify the championships into one and create a unique stability.
Bowser’s name intermixed with a bunch of other high-profile promoters may not shock anyone familiar with the sport’s history, but his level of persuasion and influence amongst the group may. His peers had long recognized his ability to make wrestlers into champions that turn around and establish new box office records. While Browning wasn’t lighting the world on fire, combined with George’s reign as AWA champion on his side of the fence, it was more than enough to pad any bank account nicely. A unified champion could easily couple both segments of the wrestling universe, and then whoever went over Londos was going to be the first unanimously accepted titleholder since 1928.
All it took was a vision and Bowser possessed it more than anyone else in the “Trust.”
Step one was the fusion of the New York and National Wrestling Association claims, and a match between Browning and Londos was scheduled for the summer of 1934 at the Madison Square Garden Bowl on Northern Boulevard in Long Island City. The June 25 bout was booked by men expecting more than 30,000 fans and a gate greater than $75,000, but only 20,000 fans turned out, paying around $40,000. The result was satisfactory, although Bowser and Lou Daro both believed outdoor shows in their respective cities could draw superior numbers.
Londos came out the winner in 1-hour, 10-minutes, merging the two strands. Some sportswriters and smart marks believed “Jeemy” was the likely candidate to become the undisputed titleholder with a victory over Ed Don George, and a Boston match at Fenway Park on July 18, 1934 was expected to see the happening occur. An estimated 30,000 fans paid upwards of $60,000 to see a protracted 3-hour, 14-minute, and 13 second draw. The wrestlers, tied at one, wrestled until they could wrestle no longer, and the struggle was proclaimed a draw. Both men walked away with their championships intact.
The “Trust” shared in the magnificent spoils extracted from the travels of Londos throughout 1934, and the Greek’s accomplishments as a draw can compare to the figures of any wrestler for a single year in wrestling history. Other than the New York and Boston matches mentioned above, other highlights from his reign include a January 31 contest against Joe Savoldi at Chicago Stadium drawing 20,200 enthusiasts (gate: $32,000), a February 2 match in St. Louis with Gus Sonnenberg attracting 15,666 spectators (gate: $17,339.70), an October 10 bout with Man Mountain Dean in Los Angeles luring a state record 23,765 fans (gate: $41,000), and the record shattering affair in Chicago on September 20. The latter was for Londos’s match with “Strangler” Lewis at Wrigley Field, the match everyone had been waiting for. 35,265 saw it live, paying a record $96,302.
One city that was expected to do a lot better under the circumstances was San Francisco, run by sometimes wrestler Jack Ganson. In November 1935, Ganson was ordered by Bowser and “Toots” Mondt to sell off his interest in the Bay Area to Joe Malcewicz, and later given the responsibility to run Montreal. Malcewicz would be a major affiliate for Bowser’s AWA wrestlers in California and spiked attendance as the powers-that-be had hoped. Grapplers from Boston toured the Malcewicz circuit frequently, and the Pacific Coast Heavyweight Title, booked out of the San Francisco office, was traded by some of the best workers in the business.
Bowser’s outstanding farm league program churning out successful wrestlers was about to fashion the sport’s next sensation, an Irishman named Danno O’Mahoney. Despite being a relative newcomer to all things pro wrestling, O’Mahoney was pegged by “The Brain” to be Londos’s successor, and the first man to boast undisputed credentials since Joe Stecher. Steve Yohe’s superbly detailed portrait of O’Mahoney correctly explains Danno’s rise and fall in wrestling, how he impacted the sport, and, more importantly, defined Bowser’s role in the industry during a period of immense success.
This writer will not recite the same information again (14), but reaffirm that it was Paul Bowser, out of all major promoters in America who was willing to step up and create that invincible, undisputed champion. And for a while, that decision paid off in spades. O’Mahoney fit a perfect mold, and in similar fashion to Sonnenberg, he took orders from the top. But unlike Sonnenberg, and more like Wayne Munn, Danno’s fate rest in an in-ring double-cross that changed history, and destroyed the “Trust.”
One interesting chronicle of O’Mahoney’s reign came during the down swing of his ride at the top, when a group of sports journalists gathered in Chicago for the Joe Louis-Charley Retzlaff fight on January 17, 1936. When the fistic battle ended in the first round, it left the contingent with a lot of excess time on their hands.
At a “meeting” that night, the scribes began discussing numerous topics, one being the state of professional wrestling and the claim many were making to the heavyweight throne. Despondent with the style and skills of O’Mahoney, the writers announced their delight with the heelish antics of one Theodore “George” Vetoyanis, known in the squared circle as George Zaharias. The always sociable Zaharias had made friends with most of the individuals in the room, and with that, the attending group decided that he had more of a right to the world title than O’Mahoney. They went back to the columns and printed the news. Of course, their comical conclusion was frowned upon by promoters and Zaharias lost a bout to Danno on January 24 in Detroit just to make sure nothing got out of hand.
Bowser was probably the most embarrassed by Dick Shikat’s March 2, 1936 defeat of O’Mahoney in New York, but there was enough anxiety to go around. The wrestling world was left reeling. There was a scramble by some to prove ownership of Shikat’s contract, and Bowser’s matchmaker Joe Alvarez produced one such document supposedly signed by the new champion. The controversy ended up in Ohio Federal Court, but before a decision of any kind could be rendered, the title was passed to Ali Baba. Shortly thereafter, Alvarez and Bowser lost interest in any legal wrangling.
Another young prodigy being pushed by the Boston office was Yvon Robert, a product of Verdun, Quebec, and master of the rolling short-arm scissors. Robert was actually in contention to replace O’Mahoney prior to the Shikat match, and was getting victories throughout their northeastern circuit. Bowser’s ownership of Robert gave him financial interest in Montreal, where Yvon was already drawing significant numbers. On July 16, 1936, he captured whatever claim O’Mahoney retained to the AWA Title at the Montreal Forum in two-of-three-falls, and at 21 years of age, became one of history’s youngest heavyweight champions.
The aftermath of the O’Mahoney double-cross left things in New York in disarray, and surprisingly, Bowser came to Curley’s aid. Boxing impresario Mike Jacobs entered the wrestling business and aligned himself with Ray Fabiani and Jack Pfefer, using the Hippodrome in Manhattan at Sixth Avenue and Forty-third Street. Their enterprises was in opposition to what was left of Curley’s promotion, and using Dean Detton and later Bronko Nagurski as titleholder.
Bowser reformed a deal with the veteran New York promoter to provide workers for the latter’s programs, including the ability to highlight his top prospects at the Garden. One of the grapplers Bowser featured was a tough guy from Sneem County, Ireland.
Steve “Crusher” Casey was born on December 4, 1908 to Michael “Mick” and Bridget Sullivan Casey, one of seven brothers, including James, Thomas, Mick, Dan, and Paddy. His father was a former bare-knuckle boxer and each of his sons each learned how to defend themselves early on. According to legend, Steve made his professional wrestling debut in 1933, only to debut for Bowser on October 30, 1936 in Boston. Differing from O’Mahoney, Casey was a heralded fighter and able to protect himself in the ring under most circumstances. There was always an exception.
Eight days after his 61 birthday, on July 12, 1937, Curley passed away of a heart attack in Great Neck, Long Island. It was ironic that at the time of his death, his most important ally in wrestling promotions was none other than Paul Bowser, a man he had quarreled with painfully for almost a decade. Their treaty in 1932 was a key factor on the road to the configuration of the famed “Trust,” which conspired to give pro wrestling almost 28 months of spectacular box office returns. Bowser demonstrated that business, over and above any personal grievances, was his true focus, and his ability to offer friendship to a one-time rival, was an admirable trait.
During the summer of 1937, Bowser formed an agreement to share talent with Tom Packs and Billy Sandow, and several of his name grapplers appeared in St. Louis. Among them was Frank Sexton, another of Bowser’s up-and-comers, and a future titleholder. The promoters conjured a plan of action they hoped would prove beneficial and utilize two of their principle athletes, Casey and Lou Thesz. On January 25, 1938, the American Wrestling Association stripped Yvon Robert of his championship and placed their backing behind Thesz, who had dethroned Everette Marshall on December 29.
Thesz was an interim champion, dropping his claim to Casey on February 11, 1938 before more than 10,000 fans at the Boston Garden (15) . In the months that followed, Casey drew well in St. Louis, 10,173 against Marshall on March 9 and 11,344 versus Thesz on April 6. A general decline in popularity hurt wrestling across the board, but Bowser’s interests were so diversified away from Boston that he never truly suffered.
On March 2, 1939, Casey lost the title to a masked individual working under the guise of “The Shadow.” The Shadow identity was Marvin Lou Westenberg (1910-1978) of Tacoma. Westenberg, a large and talented grappler who played football for the University of Washington, became the first masked man to win a claim to the World Heavyweight Title. Westenberg was dethroned by Sonnenberg two weeks later, only to drop the championship back to Casey on March 29. Casey passed the title to George on April 18 and regained it on November 3.
Regular attendance of 6,000-10,000 for shows in Boston sank to under 3,000 by the end of the decade, and while Madison Square Garden closed to their brand of entertainment, Bowser provided wrestlers to clubs throughout New York City, working with the likes of “Toots” Mondt, Al Mayer and the Johnstons. Consistent in his success, Bowser earned great sums of money off the work of Casey, George, Sonnenberg, O’Mahoney, Robert, and Sexton, and continued his run as the richest promoter in the sport.
By 1940, Bowser had a catalog of athletes he’d turned into wrestling celebrities, and exploited each of them for maximum payoff. A feature in the September 4, 1939 issue of Life Magazine on a unique wrestling sensation abroad caught Bowser’s attention, and added a distinct name to that particular list. Paul went to great lengths to import Maurice “The Angel” Tillet to the United States. Tillet, billed as “England’s Uglist Man” because of his abnormal physical characteristics, had a 180-match winning streak in Europe and was a leading draw. His arrival in the United States received great fanfare and Bowser employed all techniques to get the “Neanderthal man” over with the American public.
Shortly after his debut, Maurice stripped Casey of the AWA Title in Boston on May 13, 1940, and remained undefeated for next 19 months (16). Tillet traversed the country as one of the biggest stars of the war years, and may have been the second most accomplished active draw outside of Bill Longson. Bowser’s magic had worked once again.
Longson, incidentally, was another superstar who benefited from being affiliated with Bowser’s expansive promotions. Early in his career, after winning AAU Titles and developing his grappling abilities under the tutelage of John Anderson at the Deseret Gymnasium in Salt Lake City, Longson went to Boston and made his initial impressions on Bowser in 1934. In the years that followed, he wrestled for Malcewicz in San Francisco, and received his biggest push under the guise of the “Purple Shadow.” Through the early 1940s, and prior to capturing the NWA title, Longson spent time in Montreal, Buffalo, and Toronto, where he was credited by many for helping turn the city around.
One of Longson’s San Francisco opponents was Frank Sexton, who also made a name for himself on the west coast under a mask. As the “Black Panther,” he became a multiple-time owner of the Pacific Coast Heavyweight Title, and was seemingly being groomed for the AWA Title. During the summer of 1944, he had a short stint as the Montreal “World” champion, then beat Sandor Szabo for the AWA belt on May 2, 1945 in Boston. In June, he traded the title with “Crusher” Casey, a recently recovered veteran, and on June 27 began a streak that lasted a total of 1,791 days.
Much of the competition and animosity between promoters that led to the conflicts of the 1930s were gone by the 1940s, and the power was divided between two men, Bowser and Packs. Packs was the leader behind the National Wrestling Association, and his heavyweight crown was accepted by most to be the central championship lineage mostly because of the honor brought to the throne by Longson. Bowser’s tentacles were far more extended than Packs, who seemed more content earning a living off his local promotion and by the touring of his champion.
In place of the numerous wrestling promotional battles that accomplished little or nothing was an everlasting stream of heavyweight titleholders in just about every major territory in North America. An individual wrestling champion almost defined the success of a particular region, and one thing about Sexton was his willingness to tackle rival claimants, even with the possibility of a double-cross. Sexton held Bowser’s confidence in that regard, and was booked into matches against Longson, Orville Brown, Enrique Torres, Cliff Gustafson, Lou Thesz, and Billy Watson. One of Bowser’s other title claimants, “Texas” Babe Sharkey (17), was forced to lose his title to Sexton in a unification match on January 29, 1946 in Baltimore.
Between 1945 and 1950, Sexton brought tremendous credibility to the AWA Title and satisfied the combine well enough that Bowser saw no reason to make a change. In 1948, a handful of independent-minded and imaginative promoters in the Central States teamed up to form the “National Wrestling Alliance,” a unit that had impressive ideas for the future of pro wrestling. In the beginning, few shared those same ideals, but by November 1949, there wasn’t a major promoter in North America not in talks of some kind to be apart of the clique. (18)
One of the novel principals of the NWA was the crowning of an undisputed World Heavyweight Champion that all members would recognize and promote. At the November 1949 convention in St. Louis, Bowser was on hand with the organization’s president Pinkie George, the meeting’s host Sam Muchnick, and dignitaries from throughout the world. When the topic came up of how to handle the heavyweight division in light of Orville Brown’s automobile accident, Bowser made a motion nominating Thesz for recognition. The body agreed unanimously.
Although agreeing to the fundamental rules of the Alliance verbally and even sending a check to cover initiation fees, Bowser refused to sign the official By-Laws because of his recognition of Sexton. In a letter to Muchnick dated March 17, 1950 (19), Bowser remarked about the NWA and his status in light of not autographing the organization’s rules:
“Naturally, Sam, I wouldn’t want my check back. I feel that my friendship for the National Wrestling Alliance will do you no harm and I also feel that in many ways my influence would do you good and there is a possibility of there being things that I could straighten out that, maybe, no one else in the world could. So, as long as you have been so generous with me in your dealings, along with the personal friendship I have with you as well as with many other members of the Alliance, I think I better stay in.”
George agreed to leave Bowser’s “membership in abeyance” through the next annual conference, and hoped that the title situation would be closer to being resolved by that time. On May 23, 1950, Sexton dropped the title, not to Thesz in a unification match, but to “Chief” Don Eagle in Cleveland. Three days later in Chicago, Eagle was double-crossed in the ring by Gorgeous George, a tainted referee, and Fred Kohler (20) . The maneuver in response to Bowser and Al Haft’s cooperation of Kohler’s local promotional rival, Leonard Schwartz. The war in Chicago had disastrous implications for the budding NWA, and all sides came together in mediation. By 1951, the local problems had been resolved, but the issue of heavyweight champions other than Thesz was still on the table.
For dates in New England, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois, Bowser booked Eagle as “AWA” champion. Several times in 1950 and ’51, Don appeared before large audiences in New York City as part of a talent sharing deal with “Toots” Mondt. Among his showings were matches at Madison Square Garden and at Yankee Stadium with Antonino Rocca.
Finally, in 1952, the NWA issued a final proclamation censoring all local claimants to the “world” title and moves were being made to eradicate “Baron” Leone’s California version. Two titles that were still up in the air was Eddie Quinn’s longtime championship in Montreal and Bowser’s “AWA” belt. Conceding to take the pressure off, Bowser began billing his local diadem, the “Eastern Heavyweight” Title, while Quinn received a special waiver for his operations in Quebec.
Bowser’s promotion in Boston saw up-and-down periods for attendance, but with TV from Chicago booming in, had a terrific resurgence in the early 1950s. Wrestlers such as Buddy Rogers, Killer Kowalski, Don Leo Jonathan, Yukon Eric, and the Duseks were making a pretty strong impact on his local shows, but Verne Gagne proved to be most marketable product Bowser had seen in a long time. On April 7, 1953, Gagne and Thesz wrestled to an hour draw before 8,000 fans at the Garden.
Professional wrestling was changing and the once sacred territories that had been protected by verbal agreements were now being challenged by outspoken critics. During the first half of 1953, an unknown man stepped into the Boston office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation claiming that the National Wrestling Alliance had an illegal monopoly of wrestling, and that Paul Bowser was purposely preventing any competition in the region. The information was recorded, but two years would go by before a thorough investigation was opened into the practices of the Alliance.
In the years that followed, Bowser quietly did business and complied with all orders handed down by the U.S. Government (21) . He was getting older and was losing his ambition to serve both as a promoter and booker. The Boston office in Park Square, which was owned in part by Quinn and Marvin Westenberg, had it’s day-to-day operations run by a score of individuals, all of whom took orders directly from Bowser. In April 1957, Paul’s wife and best friend Cora passed away (22) . The loss took a serious toll on his life, and wrestling was slowly becoming less and less important.
Edouard Carpentier beat Thesz in Chicago’s International Amphitheatre two months later, capturing the NWA World Heavyweight Title. The Alliance pulled its recognition of Carpentier after a falling out between Bowser’s partner Quinn and Sam Muchnick at the annual convention in St. Louis. Quinn left the organization, and Bowser followed suit, dropping his membership in protest.
Bowser continued to acknowledge Carpentier as the heavyweight titleholder in his territory, building up for a May 3, 1958 showdown with Killer Kowalski at the Boston Garden. The match, which was won by the challenger, dew 10,267 fans and was refereed by legendary fighter Jack Sharkey (23). The event was one of Bowser’s final noteworthy programs in terms of fan attendance.
Hiring Johnny Doyle, the man behind the 1952 Lou Thesz-Michele Leone match-up in Hollywood, Bowser turned over all booking responsibilities to his new assistant, and reduced his presence at live events. Doyle, in addition to improving attendance at the Garden, was able to expand their TV interests into New York City, which, in turn, offered new venues for their wrestlers to work (24). By mid-1959, Doyle had moved on to form a new partnership with Jim Barnett, and rumors were floating around the business that Bowser was going to retire.
On Friday, July 15, 1960, the final program under the auspices of Paul Bowser was staged at the Boston Garden with the tandem of Thesz and Carpentier battling Kowalski and Hans Schmidt. Three days earlier, Paul had suffered a heart attack at his home in Lexington and was taken to Concord’s Emerson Hospital. A surgery was performed and he recovered slightly.
Paul died on Sunday, July 17 following a second surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. He was 74 years old. Bowser was buried at Westview Cemetery in Lexington and among the dozens of pallbearers at his funeral were Steve “Crusher” Casey and Steve Passas. (25)
Aside from professional wrestling, Paul had a love for horses and harness racing, a passion he had gotten from his father. During his youth, he joined his brothers Roy and Walter in the raising of high-value horses and won numerous races across Western Pennsylvania. Bowser later became the director of the Bay State Raceway in Foxboro, Massachusetts and at Rockingham Park in Salem, New Hampshire, and personally managed a string of champions. Two of his best were Tara and Dominion Grattan, both of which set world records, and earned a considerable amount of money in the field. Bowser was dubbed the “master of an ace harness-horse stable,” and when he wasn’t racing horses, he was riding them for his own amusement.
As a wrestling promoter and businessman, Bowser had influenced the major happenings in the sport for more than 30 years, from extraordinary gates to the manufacturing of hugely successful wrestlers. He was a classy individual, and often mingled with political and civic leaders in Boston, for which he was provided a degree of protection. During the Depression, he was known for his charitable donations to the city as he prospered from wrestling engagements, while proving the citizens with a first-class entertainment product. His annual benefit for the Archbishop Cushing Nazareth Fund always packed them in and featured the top grapplers in the country to include, Thesz, Gagne, and Pat O’Connor.
Bowser’s matches were always colorful, and exhibited all the creative signs of a thoughtful and driven wrestling promoter. Using different angles that built up rematches, and special referees, he sold his product to the audience first with newspapers and radio, then with television, and received steady returns throughout his tenure. At times, his offerings were tops in the nation. Here are some of his better drawing affairs in Boston:
Date: Match: Crowd: Venue:
7-30-35 O’Mahoney vs. George 45,000 Braves Field
7-30-31 DeGlane vs. Sonnenberg 30,000 Braves Field
7-18-34 George vs. Londos 30,000 ($60,115) Fenway Park
6-27-35 O’Mahoney vs. Londos 28,000 ($60,000+) Fenway Park
7-9-29 Sonnenberg vs. Lewis 25,000 ($90,000) Fenway Park
9-11-35 O’Mahoney vs. George 25,000 Fenway Park
1-13-33 DeGlane vs. Sonnenberg 22,000 Boston Garden
1-4-29 Sonnenberg vs. Lewis 20,000+ ($78,000) Boston Garden
7-21-32 DeGlane vs. Washburn 20,000 ($26,000) Braves Field
4-26-35 O’Mahoney vs. Lewis 20,000 Boston Garden
2-28-36 O’Mahoney vs. Robert 19,000 Boston Garden
5-24-35 O’Mahoney vs. Sonnenberg 16,000 Boston Garden
4-7-32 DeGlane vs. George 15,000 Boston Arena
6-23-33 George vs. DeGlane 15,000 Boston Garden
1-21-32 DeGlane vs. Lutze 14,000 Boston Arena
1-4-35 O’Mahoney vs. Dusek 14,000 Boston Garden
11-14-58 Kowalski vs. O’Connor 13,909 Boston Garden
2-10-33 DeGlane vs. George 13,000 Boston Garden
10-31-58 Kowalski vs. Y. Eric 12,600 Boston Garden
2-11-38 Casey vs. Thesz 10,000+ Boston Garden
11-28-58 Kowalski vs. Cortez 10,000+ Boston Garden
5-3-58 Kowalski vs. Carpentier 10,267 Boston Garden
7-1-26 Lewis vs. Malcewicz 10,000 Braves Field
2-25-32 DeGlane vs. Browning 10,000 Boston Arena
4-17-36 O’Mahoney vs. Robert 10,000 Boston Garden
3-29-44 Szabo vs. Golden Terror 10,000 Boston Garden
5-8-24 Lewis vs. Stasiak 9,000 Boston Arena
12-11-58 Kowalski vs. Carpentier 9,000 Boston Garden
3-8-44 Golden Terror vs. Managoff 8,000 Boston Arena
4-7-53 Thesz vs. Gagne 8,000 Boston Garden
5-24-58 Kowalski vs. Torres 7,500 Boston Garden
Here are some gates brought in by Bowser’s top workers in other
Joined: 01 Aug 2006
Location: Wonderful Montebello CA
|Posted: Sat Aug 05, 2006 9:56 pm Post subject: The rest of it
|Here are some gates brought in by Bowser’s top workers in other cities:
6-25-34 Londos vs. Browning 25,000 ($40,000) L.I.C., NY (MSGB)
5-5-30 Sonnenberg vs. Marshall 17,580 ($69,745) Los Angeles (Wrigley Field)
10-7-42 Robert vs. Longson 14,980 Montreal (Forum)
11-7-35 O’Mahoney vs. Sonnenberg 14,321 St. Louis (Arena)
8-28-33 Browning vs. Stein 14,000 Los Angeles (Wrigley Field)
8-19-42 Robert vs. Longson 14,000 Montreal (Forum)
10-16-46 Robert vs. Thesz 13,000 Montreal (Forum)
4-13-31 George vs. Lewis 12,000 ($27,951) Los Angeles (Wrigley Field)
10-30-33 Browning vs. Szabo 12,000 New York City (MSG)
7-8-35 O’Mahoney vs. C.L. Wolf 12,000 Bronx, NY (Yankee St.)
5-15-46 Robert vs. Talun 12,000 Montreal (Forum)
4-6-38 Casey vs. Thesz 11,344 St. Louis (Auditorium)
11-20-33 Browning vs. Sonnenberg 11,000 New York City (MSG)
8-1-34 George vs. Londos 10,914 Buffalo (Offerman Stadium)
7-24-29 Sonnenberg vs. Malcewicz 10,700 ($30,392) Los Angeles (Olympic Aud.)
9-18-29 Sonnenberg vs. Stecher 10,400 ($35,000) Los Angeles (Olympic Aud.)
4-3-29 Sonnenberg vs. Stasiak 10,323 ($24,621) Los Angeles (Olympic Aud.)
3-9-38 Casey vs. Marshall 10,173 St. Louis (Auditorium)
12-10-30 Sonnenberg vs. George 10,000 Los Angeles (Olympic Aud.)
10-2-33 Browning vs. Savoldi 10,000 New York City (MSG)
7-16-36 O’Mahoney vs. Robert 10,000 Montreal (Forum)
9-14-38 Robert vs. Masked Marvel 10,000 Montreal (Forum)
10-22-42 Robert vs. Longson 10,000 Montreal (Forum)
1-29-36 O’Mahoney vs. Lewis 9,170 St. Louis (Arena)
12-16-35 O’Mahoney vs. George 9,000 New York City (MSG)
1-12-38 Thesz vs. O’Mahoney 9,000 St. Louis (Auditorium)
6-17-42 Robert vs. Tillet 8,035 Montreal (Forum)
Note: Attendance figures provided in newspapers were often worked.
The Boston Herald on July 18, 1960 reported that he was “credited with achieving the biggest indoor gates in wrestling history” and “once grossed $250,000 with five Boston Garden matches.”
Bowser’s intellectual sensibilities transferred smoothly into the realm of professional wrestling promotions, and his sixth sense for entertaining crowds grew from make-shift mats in Ohio to the grandest stages of New England or New York. His ability to scout talent and get the most of his wrestlers was proved year after year for decades. Utilizing ethnic athletes, he captured large percentages of his available audience, enthralling them in the wrestling drama, and securing business that might normally been drawn elsewhere. Bowser produced such an atmosphere for pro wrestling in Boston that the market not only supported his big time outfit, but stabilized a handful of small indy promotions, all necessary to feed the public’s demand.
As a diplomat among wrestling promoters, Bowser was well respected for his accomplishments. He influenced a generation of newcomers striving to make cash by putting on matches in their individual locales, including Joe Malcewicz, Eddie Quinn, Frank Tunney, and Sam Muchnick. There was little question that the honchos behind the National Wrestling Alliance wanted Bowser to be apart of their organization, and expected his presence at annual gatherings to be enough to reconcile differences among the clergy. His reputation as a powerbroker was well known throughout the business, and wrestlers found running the New England circuit to be a lot less of a hassle than many other regions because of his organizational and leadership skill.
From the very beginning, Bowser displayed his wrestling talents on the mat and roamed the countryside as a middleweight claimant. He invaded Boston, toppled Tuohey and then took on wrestling’s most dominant promoter, Jack Curley, head-on, and without trepidation. In business with veterans of the sport like Billy Sandow and Ed “Strangler” Lewis, he matched them move-for-move, and instead of turning a blind eye to betrayals, he fought with a vengeance, even employing some of the oldest moves in wrestling history to gain retribution.
His ability to sell Sonnenberg, O’Mahoney or “The Angel” to fans from coast-to-coast were significant factors that define his legend, and shine a light on his impact in professional wrestling outside of 38 years at the helm of the Boston promotion. The remarkable numbers that Sonnenberg, for example, had put up for 23 months during the Great Depression was representative of Bowser’s capabilities, on a national scale, to create a popular and entertaining champion.
Compared to other Hall of Fame-quality promoters of his era, how many could claim the same range of achievements that Bowser could? First, he had profound interest in at least two major cities with a population greater than 700,000 (Boston and New York). He personally created, from the ground up, no less than eight world heavyweight champions between 1929 and 1950, and had contributed to the reigns of Henri DeGlane and Jim Browning. He took a relative unknown (O’Mahoney) and piloted him to the pinnacle of the sport, the undisputed title with a victory over wrestling’s greatest attraction Jim Londos, which was unheard of. And in a room full of grappling’s top promoters, Bowser was looked to for leadership and decisions that effected not only the members of the “Trust,” but hundreds of promoters nationwide.
In Canada, Bowser’s persuasion was just as potent, naming Jack Ganson the head of Montreal’s operations, then callously evicting him as he had in San Francisco, for Eddie Quinn in 1939. Bowser’s interest Montreal remained for several decades and net a small fortune in itself. Booking to Jack Corcoran and later Frank Tunney, he also made an impression in Toronto, providing Ontario wrestling fans with the same level of top notch talent being featured in Buffalo and Boston.
Out of the mind of Bowser came Bedlam from Boston, his studio offering on channel 25 that featured all the chaotic grappling one would expect, and the introduction of Babe Ruth as a special guest referee. When it came time to devising a gimmick to sell tickets, Bowser’s mind worked outside the box, and looking at his career as a promoter, one would get the sense that he often asked himself, ‘what would my paying customers like to see tonight?’ Did they want drama and violence, or did they want exhibitions of science and skill? Maybe, this week, a little comedy could be thrown into the mix, or the addition of a high profile special referee to keep the match clean. Whatever it was, Bowser went to extremes to bring it to his loyal public, and similar to Muchnick in St. Louis, was able to transcend the quirky stereotypes that go hand-in-hand with professional wrestling.
Legend has it that shortly before his death, Bowser severed his ties with Eddie Quinn because of the latter’s well known connections to gangster Frankie Carbo (26). Quinn was, however, one of the major figures trying to assume all rights to Boston after Bowser’s death. The battle over the city’s wrestling scene raged between Quinn and probably his number one adversary Jack Pfefer, who was aligned with Tony Santos. The latter duo were successful in renting the Garden and presenting shows with a combination of unique personalities, Pfefer creations, and talented up-starts. Abe Ford later took control of the Garden and promoted WWWF workers, showcasing Bruno Sammartino, Killer Kowalski and Pedro Morales.
Today, wrestling continues to thrive in that part of the United States and it will surely well into the future, thanks, in part, to the work and the seeds planted by the legendary Paul Bowser.
By Tim Hornbaker
Notes and References:
(1) Could also be Paul Frank Bowser
(2) Boston Globe, July 18, 1960
(3) Boston Herald, July 18, 1960
(4) Newark (Ohio) Advocate, March 10, 1916, March 11, 1916, March 21, 1916
(5) Newark (Ohio) Advocate, November 28, 1919
(6) Hartford Courant, May 10, 1923
(7) Marquette Monthly, October 2000
(8) Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1929
(9) Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1929, Fall Guys by Marcus Griffin
(10) United States Federal Census, 1920 and 1930
(11) The Gazette, Montreal, Quebec, May 5, 1931
(12) Boston Globe, January 20, 1932
(13) Dunkirk Evening Observer, Dunkirk, New York, February 7, 1933, Fitchburg Sentinel, Fitchburg, Massachusetts, February 10, 1933, results from various newspapers across the country, February 11, 1933
(14) Danno O’Mahoney biography written by historian Steve Yohe
(15) Boston Globe, February 12, 1938
(16) Maurice “The Angel” Tillet biography by Steve Yohe
(17) The Washington Post, January 9, 1946
(18) National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly that Strangled Pro Wrestling by Tim Hornbaker
(19) Department of Justice records, letters copied from the office of Sam Muchnick
(20) Chicago Daily Tribune, May 27, 1950; interview by Kohler to Department of Justice investigators
(21) National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly that Strangled Pro Wrestling by Tim Hornbaker
(22) The Post-Standard, Syracuse, New York, April 23, 1957
(23) Boston Herald, May 4, 1958
(24) Doyle’s advancement into New York City is described in letters between Willie Gilzenberg and Jack Pfefer found in the Pfefer Collection at the University of Notre Dame.
(25) Boston Globe, July 18, 1960, July 21, 1960
(26) Letters between Gilzenberg and Pfefer found in the Pfefer Collection at the University of Notre Dame
A special thanks to Steve Yohe, Mark Hewitt, Don Luce, J. Michael Kenyon and George Rugg for their contributions to this biography.
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