World Championship Wrestling Australia
Where anything can happen and probably will
It was multicultural before we had heard the term, equal parts high drama, pantomime and comic entertainment. It was also undeniably good fun, a blend of sports entertainment, athleticism, morality play and exquisitely timed promotion.
Each Saturday at mid-day Channel 9 welcomed us to World Championship Wrestling (WCW), the human circus that introduced the stepover toe hold, aeroplane spin, abdominal stretch and the small package to our vernacular. It also made household names of Mario Milano, Spiros Arion, Sheik Wadi Ayoub, Andre the Giant, Abdullah the Butcher, Australia’s Roy Heffernan, Ron Miller, Larry O’Dea and many more. Some we loved unashamedly, others we loathed with a passion.
WCW was a phenomenon that spanned seventeen successful years, 1964 to 1978, an era in which it is popularly claimed that Australia itself grew up. Its success stemmed from the timely union of several elements – the advent of television in this country and its convergence with post-war immigration, a passing parade of larger than life characters, a slick and judicious promotional package and a receptive Australian audience. At the instigation of expatriate American commentator Jack Little, then with GTV-9 in Melbourne, US promoters Jim Barnett and Johnny Doyle visited Sydney in early 1964 to assess the viability of bringing professional wrestling to Australia. There had been wrestling in Australia off and on since the beginning of the 1900s, but the matches often headlined a show with a boxing undercard.
Sydney Stadium circa 1963 - note the EJ Holden station wagon and sedan
Barnett and Doyle presented the first card of World Championship Wrestling on 23 October, 1964 at the Sydney Stadium. The first stable of imports included Domenico DeNucci and Buddy Austin, followed later by Cowboy Bob Ellis, Red Bastein and Mitsu Arakawa. DeNucci was an instant crowd favourite. He was initially contracted for twelve weeks but stayed much longer, famously feuding with villains Killer Kowalski, the dark side that was The Mongolian Stomper and the brash and thoroughly obnoxious Ray Stevens (this one couldn’t sing!).
WCW’s instant popularity rested primarily upon three complementing dynamics: pivotal was the Saturday noon slot on Australia's strongest television network, Nine; televised contests fuelled enthusiasm for upcoming main events at stadiums and halls in capital cities and regional centres, and – most importantly – the promoters, Barnett in particular, identified and understood the burgeoning ethnic market. Initially, most “visiting” wrestlers were from either the US or Canada. The Americans remained here for an average ten weeks, the Canadians for considerably longer. There was a practical reason for this disparity – Canadians paid taxes as members of the British Commonwealth, the Americans were taxed at a considerably higher rate.
There was a wrestling hero for each of the main ethnic communities that had swelled in size in the 1950s due to post-war mass immigration. The Italian community swiftly took DeNucci to their hearts and flocked to see him in action at the Sydney Stadium on Friday nights, Festival Hall in Melbourne on Saturday nights, Brisbane (Mondays), Perth (Tuesdays), Adelaide (Thursdays) and in regional centres. DeNucci was joined later by other Italian wrestlers Mario Milano, Vittorio Apollo, Antonio Pugliese and the fabled Bruno Sammartino.
Jim Barnett quickly grasped the reality that a headlining Greek wrestler ensured standing room only at Melbourne’s Festival Hall. The Greeks, the second biggest non-British immigrant group after the Italians, had Spiros Arion, who adopted the 'Golden Greek' persona, Johnny Kostas and Con Paplazarou, plus the jobber Con Tolios. Their countrymen were mostly city-dwelling factory workers, residing close to the wrestling venues. Similarly, an Italian on the card at the Sydney Stadium was a guarantee that the “house full” was posted. No-one needed fluency in the English language to grasp the drama being played out each week on WCW.
In his seminal 1957 essay, French philosopher Roland Bathes observed, “…true wrestling derives its originality from all the excesses which make it a spectacle and not a sport; the orgy of evil.” Pro wrestling in North America was traditionally based upon the babyface-heel precept. In mid-sixties Australia they became either “goodies” or “baddies”. It was the spectacle provided by the contest’s most flamboyant participants, rather than the contest itself that captured our collective imagination. With television in Australia less than a decade old the antics of the “evil” wrestlers capitalised upon their reaching a broadened audience. Certainly, World Championship Wrestling provided a colourful contrast to other local fare such as Barley Charlie or The Magic Boomerang.
Jack Little interviews Waldo Von Erich
Television forever changed professional wrestling here, enhancing it as a spectacle and making it more visual, its newfound accessibility guaranteeing the persona of wrestlers also became exaggerated. In those days of black and white TV, wrestling brought its own unique colour to the airwaves. Melbourne’s Jack Little often alerted viewers to the presence of a "foreign object down his trunks". He was also known to employ the expression, “this is war… disguised as World Championship Wrestling.”
Former South Sydney Rugby League international Mike Cleary in commentary
In Sydney the earliest commentary duties were handled by another expat American, Sam Menacker, who had been a grappler himself. A consummate professional behind the microphone, Menacker would conduct a post-match interview with a victorious wrestler, then remind viewers that tickets for next Friday night’s Sydney Stadium extravaganza could be reserved at Palings, David Jones and Alan Kippax or by phoning three-two triple-three one. Throwing to an ad break, he would seamlessly intone, “We will be back after this important informative interlude.” Later in its television reign WCW recruited South Sydney Rugby League international Mike Cleary as ringside commentator. Cleary, of course, was later to become State Labor member for the seat of Coogee, serving as NSW Sports Minister in the Wran government.
Most newly recruited wrestling fans pledged their allegiance to the Roy Rogers-Billy Graham amalgam that was the “goodies,” seemingly oblivious to their assembly-line sameness. The goodies were unapologetically bland, their blandness deliberately simulated to provide unambiguous contrast to the malevolence of the heel wrestlers. For example, Edwin “Bearcat” Wright, a towering (208cm) black wrestler from Arizona, was soft-spoken and polite. Bearcat embraced the identical values as crowd favourite Mark Lewin, also soft-spoken and polite, a Jewish matman from Buffalo, New York. Tex McKenzie, a rootin’, tootin’, fast-shootin’, high-steppin' wrestlin’ cowboy from (where else?) Texas, was not so soft-spoken. He was, however, exceedingly polite, dadburnit!
Tag team duo and crowd favourites Spiros Arion (l) and Mark Lewin
It was the heels, the baddies, who were the driving, sustaining force of WCW. None who saw him for even the briefest time was ever likely to forget the appalling biker-preacher Big Bad John. Bulldog Brower’s pop-eyed rants always seemed too authentic to be comical. Headbutt exponents Skull Murphy and Brute Bernard left an indelible imprint on the memory, as well as on the foreheads of many of their opponents. The succession of heels from a diverse mix of countries included Ray Stevens (USA), Cyclone Negro (Venezuela), Tiger Singh (India), Waldo Von Erich (Germany, although in reality he was a Canadian) and The Mongolian Stomper (parts unknown).
The Mongolian Stomper (aka Archie Gouldie)
It was less than 20 years after WWII and Australians were still shockable. We registered genuine revulsion at the ultra-aggressive Waldo Von Erich, who used to wear a German storm trooper’s uniform into the ring. Similarly, Japanese wrestlers Mitsu Arakawa and Professor Toru Tanaka were the inscrutable prototype: scheming Asian villains who would stop at nothing to win; their tactics included throwing salt into the eyes of their unsuspecting opponents, karate chops (illegal) and hammer blows to the skull (also illegal).
However, there was one grappler who outkicked, out-stomped, out-threatened and simply out-evilled the others. Away from the squared circle Walter Kowalski was a churchgoing vegetarian – inside it he became Killer Kowalski, doyen of heel wrestlers. At six feet seven and 20 stone (200cm, 127kg) he exuded menace, his huge frame belying his athleticism and speed. Kowalski arrived in Australia as one of the first overseas imports in 1964, returning every year until 1973. Arrogant, seemingly indestructible, without pity, the Killer embodied everything we feared and detested – and yet found ourselves drawn towards inexorably! The rumour mill, always churning busily in WCW, insisted that KK had severed the ear of an opponent, Yukon Eric, in a bout in Canada in 1952. Another rumour inferred that Killer had once studied for the priesthood!
Kowalski never missed an opportunity to dare the Australian public to dislike him. In a Four Corners interview, the giant Canadian feigned offence to a question asked by Frank Bennett, lifting the reporter off the ground by his lapels. Kowalski also once famously applied his much-feared claw hold to host Don Lane during a Tonight Show taping, his over-vigorous attention causing the Lanky Yank to miss his next show.
Mexican grappler Pepper Gomez was billed as “the man with the cast-iron stomach.” In a televised match-up, Kowalski had been unable to apply a claw hold to Pepper’s abdomen, presumably because of its ferrous character. With a draw announced, Gomez challenged the Killer to jump onto his mid-section from the top turnbuckle. As Kowalski steadied his huge frame in the ring corner he flashed the studio audience an evil leer – before delivering a knee drop to the throat of the unsuspecting Gomez. Making his way to the locker room as his victim convulsed in the ring, Killer let forth a stream of invective, boasting that he had rendered another adversary speechless.
In 1967, Killer joined the ranks of the good guys, forming a tag-team with Domenic DeNucci. Sam Menacker even took to calling Kowalski “Walter” in post-match interviews. A “good” Killer Kowalski was about as convincing as a toothless dentist, and he soon reverted to familiar ways.
There was another group of wrestlers who were just as important to the success of WCW as the established heels or good guys. These were the jobbers, journeyman wrestlers who were deemed “talent enhancement” by WCW managers. Con Tolios, Jan Jansen, Johnny Boyd, Braka Cortez, Alan Pinfold and plenty of others fulfilled their purpose in ongoing honourable losses to the high profile performers. No wrestling fan knew if George Lackey had a finishing move, simply because he was never known to win a bout.
Each headliner, however, did have a signature finishing move. No opponent ever escaped Bearcat Wright’s figure four lock, the brainbuster belonged to Killer Karl Kox (and yes, the KKK initials were contrived without a second thought back in the days when political correctness meant finding the right ballot paper). Mario Milano won most of his matches with the abdominal stretch. Mark Lewin perfected the sleeper hold, Waldo Von Erich the blitzkrieg.
Before identity theft became a cottage industry, wrestling promoters were, well, less than truthful with the personal histories of some of their headline acts. The Destroyer was Guy Mitchell (and, like the wrestling Ray Stevens, he couldn’t sing either!), Kox first saw light of day as Herb Gerwig, and the human brillo pad that was Bull Curry registered to vote as Fred Khoury. There were also those mysterious wrestlers, often masked, who hailed from "parts unknown". These included The Mongolian Stomper (Archie Gouldie), The Great Mephisto and The Spoiler.
Bull Curry, aka The Human Brillo Pad (r)
Professor Toru Tanaka (l)
We knew him as the thoroughly contemptible professor of martial arts from the University of Osaka. Professor Toru Tanaka (Professor Two Knackers to some fans), was one half of a tag-team, his partner the even more devious Arakawa. Tanaka was never interviewed on camera, for reasons that were revealed years later – the redoubtable professor was actually an American, and spoke only English. Tanaka was born Charles Kalani in Honolulu, Hawaii, and was a US Army veteran and Judo instructor before becoming a professional wrestler.
Italian-American Joe Scarpa wrestled in Australia with moderate success before returning to the US where he assumed the persona of a Native American, Chief Jay Strongbow. Embellishing his image he would enter the ring wearing a head dress, and regularly used the tomahawk chop as his finishing move. In one post-match interview Strongbow was asked the name of his tribe. Straight-faced, he gazed into the camera and replied, “the Wopaho.” Strongbow’s regular tag-team partner was Chief Billy White Wolf, aka Adnan Bin Abdulkareem Ahmed Al-kaissy El Farthie; Billy was actually a personal friend and former schoolmate of Saddam Hussein.
A matman who could claim a genuine identity crisis was Bob the Bruiser. Prior to his 1966 Australian visit he had wrestled as Hercules, "Irish" Pat Kennedy, Red Raider, The Masked Hercules, Black Terror, Mighty Hercules, and just plain ole Bob Baker. He was Larry Hulin of Tampa, Florida.
King Curtis Iaukea was in every respect a larger-than-life character, a man mountain who claimed linage from the Hawaiian royal family. His WCW allegiances were always ambivalent to say the least, allowing him to straddle the territory between good-guy and committed baddie. However, by the end of the 1960s King Curtis was a household name in Australia, drawing huge audiences curious to witness the results of his feuds with Mark Lewin, Big Bad John and Sheik Wadi Ayoub. In a so-called wrestling ''war'' from 1971 to 1974, Curtis took on an array of visiting bad-guy wrestlers, most famously when he and his “people’s army” fought against a team managed by Big Bad John. Curtis retired from wrestling in 1979 and became a fixture on Hawaii's Waikiki Beach where he ran a surfboard hire business. “He was a really good professional guy and the master of the interview,” said former wrestler and promoter, Australian Ron Miller. “None of his rants were scripted. I don't know where he got it from. It just came to him from the top of his head."
One of the most maniacal wrestlers to visit these shores was Abdullah the Butcher. Sometimes billed as "the Madman from the Sudan," he was Larry Shreve from Windsor, Ontario. Abdullah’s matches invariably turned into bloodbaths, and he became notorious for stabbing opponents’ wounds with a fork (or any other foreign object). He is currently the owner of Abdullah the Butcher's House of Ribs & Chinese Food in Atlanta, Georgia. According to Ron Miller, the restaurant never gets any complaints, nor does it have any printed menus. “He tells you what you can eat,” said Miller.
Abdullah the Butcher (l) and King Curtis
Big John Studd (aka Big Bad John)
Some WCW performers were destined to die in tragic and violent circumstances. There are conflicting reports about Brute Bernard’s 1984 demise. One version is that he sustained a gunshot wound to the head when the pistol he was cleaning discharged; another insists he shot himself playing Russian roulette. Brute’s regular tag partner Skull Murphy died of a drug overdose. Big John Studd was shot dead in a New Orleans bar – nobody saw anything. Hercules Cortez was just 32 when he lost his life in a 1971 car accident. Killer Kowalski, Gentleman Jim Hady, Bulldog Brower, Haystacks Calhoun and King Curtis all died of heart attacks. So too, both Mitsu Arakawa and Professor Tanaka – perhaps their heart attacks were caused by an overuse of salt!
Brute Bernard and Skull Murphy
At least two of the wrestlers were to aspire to loftier ambitions. An enduring pioneer of WCW in Australia was the ever-popular Buddy Austin. He was born Austin Rapes but legally changed his name to Austin Wesley Rogers. He died in August 1981, aged 51 after having worked as a minister in the years following his retirement from wrestling. As Bob the Bruiser, Larry Hulin usually entered the ring with a lighted cigar, often blowing a cloud of smoke into the faces of opponents. Post-retirement Hulin continued to blow smoke, becoming an evangelist for almost 20 years until he tapped the mat in 1996.
Archie Goldie (aka The Mongolian Stomper) became a law enforcement officer in Tennessee. Before his death in November 2011 Killer Karl Kox was a prison warden. One day an inmate reminisced how he used to watch Kox all the time. “Now I watch you all time time," Kox replied.
A shaven head atop a huge moustache complementing bushy eyebrows that pointed skyward gave the behemoth Ox Baker (pictured left) a truly demonic look. He stood six feet, five inches (196cm) and weighed 24 stone (155kg); his deadly heart punch was banned (by whom always remained obscure) from use in Australia. In retirement Baker became a farmer in upstate New York before co-authoring a childrens’ colouring book as well as a recipe book.
Mario Milano (pictured) came to Australia in 1966 as a “replacement” for Domenic DeNucci – and never left. After retiring from the squared circle Milano ran both a pizza shop and a travel agency. These days he lives in Melbourne. Ron Miller now lives in quiet retirement on the NSW north coast. Ron’s long-time tag partner Larry O’Dea lost a battle with cancer in 1997. Following his wrestling career Con Tolios worked as a real estate agent in Sydney's inner city and still lives in western Sydney. Post-WCW, Jan Jansen became a forklift driver, then a Bondi parking officer before joining the fitness industry on the NSW south coast.
Time did nothing to stifle Killer Kowalski’s sense of theatre. At 79 he married for the first time – to a woman 78. Asked, "Why would you get married now?" he replied, "She told me she was pregnant so I had to do the right thing!"
Andre the Giant
“Wrestling is the great spectacle of suffering, defeat and justice”