The automobile accident confronted me with a nightmare I had often experienced during the war: "What would I do if I couldn't wrestle again?" My injuries looked serious enough to make me need an answer. I found one without looking.
I had wrestled in Texas in January, 1942, soon after Pearl Harbor. I stayed until May. Immediately following the war I left Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and headed for Houston to pick up my career. I stayed about seven months. I liked Houston, and I liked and trusted Morris P. Sigel, the promoter.
Houston had a long wrestling history going back before World War I. Between 1915 and 1923 there were matches at irregular intervals. In those days many wrestling matches were often held for private bets between the contestants. Pet Brown was a tough middleweight who won a lot of money in Houston. Men like Clarence Eklund, who came from Wyoming and held the world's lightheavyweight title, traveled far to face him. Pet's name still comes up when real oldtimers talk.
About 1925, Julius Sigel -- brother of Morris -- started promoting in Houston's City Auditorium. Soon they had top wrestlers coming to Houston on a steady basis. Friday night was the night they chose to hold the matches, and we still hold them on Friday night.
Morris joined his brother Julius as a partner and around 1929 Julius decided to leave Houston and promote in New Orleans and Shreveport, La. Morris' strength as a promoter lay in his ability to bring good business practices into the sports world. He paid his bills promptly and had an unparalleled reputation for honesty. Matchmaking was not his strong point, but he did surround himself with people who knew the mat game and could evaluate the wrestlers. One of his earliest associates was a man who had wrestled in the early '20s, Karl "Doc" Sarpolis.
In 1933 the state of Texas passed laws legalizing and governing both boxing and wrestling. Morris Sigel received the first license issued in both sports.
From the beginning of Sigel's promotion Houston fans saw the best wrestlers in the game. The man who is remembered best, and was remembered gratefully by Sigel, was Leo "Whiskers" Daniel Boone Savage, a bearded, colorful Kentuckian. Whiskers filled the Coliseum almost every Friday night in spite of the nation's worst depression.
Wrestling prospered and became solidly established in Houston while many promotions across the nation collapsed. It was a rare tribute to the Texas sport spirit, and the spirit of Houston fans, which is still evident today. They are still the most knowledgable fans in the country.
To say that I became an associate of Morris Sigel by accident might sound like a pun. It is true. The accident in San Antonio and then, quite by accident, I was in his office one day when he needed some newspaper stories changed. I sat at the typewriter and changed them. A short time later he asked me to join him.
Doctors had said I should not wrestle again so I eagerly grabbed the chance to stay in wrestling. Houston was an exciting city for wrestling in those days, as it is now. The city had known champions and had developed men who were featured all across the nation. Gorgeous George had gone from Houston to become a household word. Dizzy Davis, Jimmy James and Ellis Bashara were following in the footsteps of Paul Jones and Juan Humberto, who had made their names in the 1920s and '30s.
I was in a fortunate position. I learned much about promotion from Sigel and learned to admire and respect Sarpolis' judgement in matchmaking. One of our earliest adventures after joining Sigel was the importation of Antonino Rocca from Argentina. There were others: Miguel "Blackie" Guzman and Rito Romero from Mexico; Duke Keomuka from Hawaii; Lord Blears and Count Billy Varga gave the game a noble touch; Wild Red Berry and LeRoy McGuirk added class and excitement.
Time turned out to be the best healer of my injuries and I returned to ring action. But it was tough, the competition was capable. LeRoy McGuirk was the world's junior heavyweight champion and Houston buzzed with challengers, who were capable of making him sweat. Irish Danny McShain and Wild Red Berry were constantly at each other's throats for the right to face McGuirk. And, to sharpen their tempers, they took on heavyweights and made their lives miserable. I had my share of knocks and bruises in battles with Keomuka and Danny Savich, a gravel-throated, tough competitor from Tooele, Utah.
Cowboy Carlson got his start in Houston when he came here for the Fat Stock Rodeo, got hungry when he spent all of his money for entry fees, and then challenged all three Macias brothers. It was a pleasure to help make a wrestler out of him.
I also had a part in starting Tiger Conway, and later his son, Tiger Conway Jr. I taught Verne Gagne the sleeper hold with which he became so adept that he won the world's junior heavyweight title, and then later the world's heavyweight title. Hogan Wharton, the University of Houston's first football All-American, was another man with whom I sweated on the mat so that he could learn to wrestle. He did and Hogan was good.
With the start of 1948 I took on a new assignment as a member of Morris Sigel's staff. I did a radio broadcast, from ringside, of some of the matches. I was not exactly a stranger to the microphone. In 1936, in Portland, Ore., I was interviewed between falls in the main event. The announcer, Rollie Truit, handed me the microphone when the wrestlers returned to the ring and said, "You broadcast the next fall." I stammered a protest, but he walked away and I became a radio announcer.
I became a television announcer in much the same way. I did the radio broadcast for KLEE for a full year. At the end of that year W. Albert Lee had the license for Channel 2 and had a television station ready to go on the air. In the first week of January, 1949, I did my first telecast. I hadn't even seen television and suddenly I was on it!
For the first nine months of telecasting we started with the Star Spangled Banner and wound up when the lights went out. It is difficult to explain, 33 years later, when people are blase and bored with the miracles the tube produces, that the early days were exciting. It is hard to explain how people stood in front of TV sets placed in store windows to watch wrestling; and how Friday night was wrestling party night in someone's home.
When the number of television sets increased and the sport was in competition with itself, the broadcast time was changed from 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. The semifinal and main event were not telecast and the box office, which had been adversely affected, improved. Channel 2 was bought by the Houston Post and became KPRC-TV instead of KLEE-TV. When commitments with compulsory network programs took precedence, Houston wrestling moved to a new station in town, Channel 13.
We stayed there until three months before Channel 39 came on the air. Those three months are the only time Houston Wrestling has not been on the air, as I write this, for 33 years. In January, 1982, we begin our 34th year.
I am as proud of that record as I am of my 50 years in the wrestling game. Early in our TV career I recognized that wrestling, through television, could accomplish a lot of good deeds. We started with the Elks' Mile of Dimes, which was a Houston tradition at that time. Since then, through a polio epidemic, telethons for the March of Dimes and hundreds of other worthy causes, we have been ready to help. We have not only provided action and entertainment, but we have been a useful instrument for the betterment of nonprofit causes. We intend to stay that way for the next 34 years.
On December 26, 1966, after a long illness, Morris Sigel died. Behind him he left a world of friends. In January of '67 I purchased the Gulf Athletic Club from Mrs. Sigel. I had long known the stress of promotion and was well aware of its possibilities and its promise. For 20 years I had been training for my new position without knowing it. I was ready. Now I could put into practice my own ideas and I alone would bear the responsibility for their success or failure.
The early years were not easy. Channel 39 was a fine, hustling TV station but it was new and unknown; UHF telecasting was not yet universally accepted. But Houston Wrestling took hold and the program that had thrilled Houstonians at the birth of television regained its strength and stature. It grew.
My contacts with wrestlers across the country and my friendship with promoters paid off. Top wrestlers came to Houston and among them were crowd pleasing, hard wrestling athletes. The recipe for success is the same in every sport: give the fans men who produce action, make sure fans get their money's worth, and give fans what you say you will give them. I tried.
Johnny Valentine had made a hit in Houston when he first appeared and then went on to establish himself nationwide. He returned to Houston and was the foundation for fulfilling fans' demands.
Wahoo McDaniels left the world of football to go into business for himself in wrestling and Houston fans war whooped him into a world title contender. Boris Malenko and his manager, Lord Montagu, became the hottest TV couple on anybody's channel. Malenko gave me a nickname I still hear from fans of the early '70s when he insisted on calling me "Mr. TV Announcer." Sports fans often ask, which is more important, the wrestlers or the promoter? Well, they also ask, which is more important, the team or the owner? The only answer is that they are both important. Each depends on the other whether they realize it or not.
It has been the response of the Houston fans that made it all worthwhile. It is the enthusiasm of fans that has kept me interested in wrestling after 50 years of participation. I look forward to the years that lie ahead, I look forward to the new crop of wrestlers that promise to make being a fan, or a promoter, exciting during the rest of the 1980s. Wrestling will expand, it will meet the demands of the fans in this rapidly disappearing decade just as it has during the past hundred years in this country.
To prove that the future is here we have published this book. To insure it we have planned something never before attempted here, a three-day "Golden Cup" tournament that invites every claimant to the world's title to compete. Happy Golden Anniversary Year to all of you!
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