Orville Brown Biography
by Steve Yohe
Orville Brown, the first NWA world wrestling champion, was born at Sharon, Kansas on March 10, 1908 the youngest of five children raised by Clarence and Ellen Brown. Western Kansas was still the Wild West in those days and Orville's father was disliked by the mother's relatives. The father was told to leave town or be killed, so two weeks after the birth of Orville he left. Ellen, with the help of the older children who worked, kept the family together. They later moved to Cedar Hills, Kansas. In 1919, the mother died and Orville found himself orphaned at age 11.
He was shifted from one family member to another, working for his keep. He did field work and broke horses. As strange as it may seem today, many of the famed cowboys were just that, boys. He only attended High School for one year before sacrificing his education for work. As a freshman, he started on the school football team.
Developing into an excellent cowhand, he became a professional rodeo cowboy working events throughout Kansas and the surrounding area. By his eighteen birthday, Orville was nationally known in the bronco riding and steer bulldogging events. At the Briggs Ranch Rodeo in Aug. 1927, he became the first cowboy to bulldog a buffalo jumping from a horse. He also bulldogged a steer in world record time (4.8 seconds) at one event, but the record was broken before it was officially recognized. Many of the cowboys with whom he competed with are in the Rodeo Hall of Fame.
Rodeo weren't the big money events they are today, so Orville also worked as a farm hand. While working on a farm near Leondarville, Kansas, he eloped with the farmer's daughter, Grace, in Oct. 1927. On July 17, 1929, their only child was born. A boy named Richard.
Becoming too heavy to continue as a rodeo cowboy, the family moved on to farming full time. At first, they did well but by Aug. 1930, the great depression forced Orville to take a job shucking corn on a farm near Wallace, Kansas, with Grace working in the farm house, cooking, cleaning and washing. After the harvest, Brown found a job working as a blacksmith at the Grover Brother's Garage, Filling Station and Blacksmith Shop in Wallace. In March 1931, Wallace was hit by a deadly storm and Orville became one of the local heroes when he drove thought freezing snow to Sharon Springs to supply the town with coal. The major blacksmith in Wallace froze during this blizzard, so Orville's blacksmith skills became very popular.
In early 1931, Orville met a local manager and trainer of wrestlers, named Ernest Brown (no relation), who convinced him that he could make a good living grappling. Orville then began training with a routine of running in the morning, blacksmithing all day and working on mat work at the Wallace High School in the evening.
Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and much of the Midwest had a wrestling and gambling culture that supported minor professional shoots. Most all young farmers wrestled and they would meet on Sundays get togethers after church, at carnivals, fairs, and some matches were even promoted like tradition pro wrestling events.
Orville had his first match in Oct. 1931 and that began an unbeaten streak that would reach 72 matches. Many of the names we find on his record aren't well known today, because they were local farmers and town champions, put up against Brown in shoots. On Sept. 2, 1932 Brown defeated Allen Eustace, a famed old time shooter whose career goes back to matches with Joe Stecher (11-28-14), Earl Caddock (5-7-17) and Ed Lewis (3-21-18), for the Kansas State Title. His reputation was such that he was used mid card on a traditional pro wrestling card in Wichita.
Orville realized that the fans didn't want or support shoot style wrestling; they thought it looked amateur, they wanted worked pro style and that was where the money was. He made the decision to learn how to "work" and when he told his coach/manager Ernest Brown, who was opposed to the move, they parted under friendly conditions .
Abe Coleman, a major star, befriended Brown and helped him get booked with St. Louis promoter Tom Pack for a tryout. Orville defeated Ivan Vacturoff in St. Louis on June 8, 1933. Pack and his people liked what they saw. Brown was big, powerful, and fast, with a wrestling background. He was also a good looking local kid with a good head that would follow orders. He was championship material if he could learn how to work. Pack financed Orville and he was sent with his family to Baltimore to train with major wrestlers. At a gym on Chesapeake Bay, he trained with famed wrestler George Zaharias and worked undercards in the Baltimore area. He learned fast and was given a good push from the beginning.
At the end of 1933, the wrestling world was at peace. The major promoters had formed a Trust that included sharing talent and profits. It was a great period for everyone because fans got to see major match ups between stars not available before and wrestlers could move around and make money. The only one left out was a New York promoter named Jack Pfefer, who had been kicked out of the Jack Curley group and vowed revenge by breaking kayefabe in the press and exposing the inside of pro wrestling in the courts.
Brown had his first wrestling loss on Nov. 3, 1933, when he was defeated by former world champion Dick Shikat, but for the most part Orville didn't do jobs and he was put in the ring with major workers to learn. During this period he wrestled draws with George Zaharias, Dick Raines, Shikat, Gino Garibaldi, Everett Marshall, Jim Browning, Jim McMillen, and Karl Sarpolis, while beating midlevel stars.
Billed as being a former member of the University of Southern California Trojan football team, the high school dropout Brown returned to St. Louis on Nov. 8, 1933 to defeat veteran wrestling heel Chief Chewchki. He would later return to being a former Kansas cowboy in defeating his trainer George Zaharias on April 11, 1934.
During these years, the greatest wrestling star in the world was Jim Londos. Without TV. PPV or steroids, he had become the sports greatest draw around 1921 and he controlled the world title follow the end of the Stecher/Lewis era in 1929. After being removed from power in New York City by Toots Mondt in 1932, he used the new trust to make a triumphant return in 1934.
A story told by Brown's family is that in early Aug. 1933, Londos was training for a major match with Everett Marshall (8-11-33). Londos set up camp in Philadelphia. He liked to train using young wrestlers as sparring partners, beating a group of them every day, one after the other. Orville was part of such a group. On the first day, Londos beat him in five minutes. The second day, ten minutes, followed by a 20 minute workout on the third day. The next day the contest was stopped after half an hour, by Londos manager Ed White, with Jimmy locked in a hold that looked unbreakable. The workout was becoming a struggle for the twenty-year year veteran and no one wanted him to look bad in front of the press. Orville was told that his services wouldn't be needed again. The sports writers realized, that the next time they saw the two in the ring, they would need a ticket.
In late April 1934, Brown had his first series of matches in the town that would late become his home, Kansas City. On May 14, he got one of his biggest wins over Everett Marshall. This set up a contest with the great Ray Steele on May 28, which he lost.
He toured the South and Texas the rest of the year and had his first world title shot vs Londos on Dec. 18, 1934. Brown lost two straight falls, as everyone did to champions like Londos in those days, but put on one of the most grueling matches Atlanta had ever seen. Londos won both falls with backdrops, the first in 42 minutes and the second in three minutes. The Golden Greek called Orville one of his toughest opponents and Brown remained a favorite in the city. On March 12, 1935 Brown wrestled a draw with Ed "Strangler" Lewis in Atlanta.
During 1935, Brown became a major star in Detroit. On Feb. 12, he defeated Ray Steele via DQ to gain another title match with Londos. On March 15, Londos defeated Orville but couldn't pin him. Brown had tried to tackle the Greek but missed, sailing out of the ring and over press roll, he landed on the cement floor. He staggered back to ringside and hoisted himself up into the ropes at the count of eight but collapsed to be counted out. The match drew 8,223 and was a big success. Like Thesz in the 1960's, Londos played heel and the crowd was with Orville until the end.
Brown's gimmick during this time was one of a good handsome ex-cowboy and family man. Newspapers, with excellent coverage, were filled with photos of his pretty wife Grace and of his son, Richard, going to the gym with his father. They also sat ringside at his major matches. This image of Orville was the truth, as he clung to his family after a youth without one.
A rematch took place on April 12 with Londos once again getting Orville over by playing the heel and the match was a fast passed ninety-minute draw. It drew 13,000 fans and $21,217 both Detroit records at Grand River Sports Arena.
To get a third title match Brown was asked to defeat Ray Steele again and he did so on May 1, 1935. This time via pin fall in 30 minutes.
Londos and Brown locked up again in Detroit on June 5 in a finish match at a outdoor park called Navin Field. Londos pinned Orville in 73 minutes. The match grew 11,572 and $16,213. The supporting card had a young wrestler appearing on his first major card, Lou Thesz, who was pinned by Olaf Olson.
This card did well, but it might have done better without the rumors of Londos soon losing his title. On June 27, Londos was defeated by a young Danno O'Mahoney in Boston. Brown would have to wait to get another shot at Londos.
Brown remained popular in Detroit and had two major matches with Undisputed World Champion O'Mahoney on Nov. 8 and Nov. 29. He lost both. In Detroit he made a lot of money and he began to look for investments. During the depression he didn't trust banks or finance and he didn't understand stocks, so he put his money into something he knew and understood. He bought a farm sixty miles outside of Kansas City and set up one of his brothers to manage it.
Brown spent most of 1936 working though out the South and Texas billed as a major title contender.
On March 2, 1936, Dick Shikat stole the world title by shooting on Danno O'Mahoney in front of the national press in Madison Squire Garden. This event and the mess that followed changed pro wrestling forever. Up until that event, the title storyline was national. Everyone in the country knew who the title claimants were, even if there were more than one at times. After the Shikat double-cross everything broke down into many champions and territories with each one having a storyline of their own. Promoters no longer wanted fans educated to the complete picture; they want their town or area to be a wrestling world on its own - with its own champion.
Paul Bowser, Jack Curley and Toots Mondt tried to buy back the title back from Shikat, but he instead made a deal with Al Haft of Columbus to pass the title on to Everett Marshall. The trust then attempted to get Shikat banned by all the different Athletic Commissions. While a member of the Trust (2-13-34), Shikat had signed a managerial contract with Joe Alvarez, a member of Bowser's Boston promotion. This paper was used to bind Shikat to the Trust, but Alvarez actually did nothing for Shikat and had not functioned as a manager. But after the double-cross, the Trust had Alvarez book Shikat into matches with some of the toughest hookers in the sport all over the country. The trust knew that Shikat wouldn't make the dates and this would result in the world champion being banned in all the states, because all the State Commissions had agreements to back each others rulings.
One of these matches was set up in Memphis on March 23, 1936. Shikat was booked to meet the feared Ray Steele, but knowing Shikat wouldn't show, the promoter had Orville waiting to replace the champion. When Shikat didn't appear, the fans were offered their money back but few accepted the offer, once Orville was announced as the Steele's opponent. The storyline was that Orville had to borrow trunks and shoes, but he gave Steele a battle before losing. This led to a rematch two weeks later (4-6-36), in which Brown upset Steele, pinning him in two out of three falls.
The Shikat situation turned into a famous Columbus court fight in which the wrestling business was exposited to the nation. No rulings were ever made, as the court made the mistake of allowing Shiket to defend his title vs a gimmick performer in Detroit and on April 24, 1936, the 5 ft 5 inch Ali Baba became the new world champion. To prove his point, Baba, who actually was a powerful wrestler who developed into a box office star, defeated Shikat again in Madison Square Garden on May 5. With out a title to fight over, wrestling's court trial fell apart.
More followed, before Ali Baba could pass the title to the Marshall, he was double-crossed and DQ'ed by a referee in a match with light heavyweight wrestler David Levin. Some people, like Toots Mondt and RING MAGAZINE, considered Levin champion, but that didn't stop Baba from dropping his claim to Everett Marshall on June 26. In six months, wrestling went from having an undisputed champion to four major title lines and the NWA vacant and many more titles on the way. In the major newspapers, the coverage shrunk as the champions increased, and when it did talk about wrestling it was as if it was America's biggest joke. Wrestling, in most areas, when into a slump which didn't end until 1947 and the arrival of TV.
Orville Brown was billed as a major title contender during 1936 wrestling in the South and on the East Coast wrestling champions Dean Detton, Vincent Lopez, and Danno O'Mahoney. In 1937, Brown moved his family and home to Columbus, Ohio to work for promoter Al Half. He defeated Jim McMillen, Paul Jones, Fred Grubmeyer, Dorv Roche, Bobby Bruns and wrestled Everett Marshall for the MWA world title three times in Columbus. An Oct. 28, 1937 match with Marshall drew 10,000, a city record. Brown lost the first two but the third on Dec. 16, was a draw. In Sept. 1937, John Pesek, a hall of fame hooker, who had dominated Columbus wrestling since the 1920's, made a comeback and was awarded Londos's old National Wrestling Association world title when he was the only major title claimant to agree to participate in a national tournament.
On Jan. 1, 1938, Orville wrestled a 90 minute time limit draw with Pesek in a NWA title match. Pesek had other interests than wrestling. Besides running a farm, Pesek raised racing dogs in the mid-west and would later be a HOF'er in that sport too. He had money and very little interest in touring outside of Ohio and (similar to Londos) wasn't willing to job under any circumstances, so on Aug. 17, 1938 Pesek was striped of his NWA title. My records show that Pesek was awarded the Midwest Wrestling Association world title on that very day, so it seems like a title exchange because the title MWA (Marshall's old title) meant more to Columbus fans than the national NWA name. Orville wrestled Pesek again on Nov. 10, 1938 in front of another city record of 10,420 fans. After 60 minute, the two wrestlers were forced into 15 minute overtime and Pesek was awarded a close decision.
During the 1940's the four dominate champions would probably be Brown, Bill Longson, Frank Sexton, and Lou Thesz. In the 1930's, when the four were developing, Brown didn't wrestle Longson, but had three draws vs Thesz and his record vs Sexton was one loss, seven wins and two draws.
Orville also wrestled on the East Coast. In 1937 in New York City, he participated in an experiment that resulted in Orville being part of the first match ever recorded on television. Not broadcasted, it could only be seen on screens in the building, four inches in diameter. Lights were so hot that its use was impractical.
On the coast Orville made friends with Bobby Bruns. As Ric Flair had Steamboat and Buddy Rogers had Billy Darnell, Brown had Bobby Bruns. As rivals in the ring, they wrestled countless times. They were also close friends who would work together promoting and booking over the course of their careers. Brown and Bruns also formed a close alliance with Jack Pfefer.
In Brown's home state of Kansas, it was the law that to promote pro wrestling or pro boxing, you need to be sponsored by a charitable organization like the American Legion. The major promoter in Kansas City Kansas, George Simpson, had the necessary political connections in the city, but was losing money because he didn't have a good wrestling mind and was a poor businessman. Orville joined him in 1940, as a promoter/booker/wrestler and took control of Kansas City Territory, which included at one time or other, St. Joseph, Topeka and Wichita. Brown won a minor war over an old local promoter by bring in talent from the East Coast and using his connections with Jack Pfefer. By 1942, Brown was forced to move his family from Columbus to his Kansas farm to protect his investments. His farm's caretaker brother, with WWII underway, had left his duties for a job in a defense plant.
On Nov. 10, 1939 at Bridgeport, Conn., Bobby Bruns defeated Jack Pfefer's world light heavyweight champion Maurice Boyer. From that point forward in New England and the Atlantic Coast, the title changed to a heavyweight title and Pfefer billed Bruns as heavyweight world champion. Bruns was one of the first wrestlers booked from the East Coast into Kansas City in Jan. 1940, billed as the MWA world champion. It's always been the practice of wrestling promoters, to create titles by booking wrestlers recognized by other promotion or associated as a champion by fans. Once the wrestler is established as champion, the promotion may or may not disregard storyline used in the original territory of the champion and the title line separates into two, even with the two companies sharing champions. This seems to be the case with Bruns and his MWA title. The MWA name was used to confuse fans into thinking it was the MWA title held by Pesek in Ohio.
On Jan. 18, 1940, Bruns defended this title in a clean win over Brown. Bruns also defended the title four other times in the early part of the year. In May, Bruns refused to meet Orville Brown again in Kansas City, because he had already proven his superiority. Orville then earned another shot at the belt by beating Gus Sonnenberg (5-2-40), Lou Thesz (5-9-40), Karol Zbyszko (nephew of Stan) (5-31-40) and Dick Shikat (6-6-40) in KC.
Bobby Bruns agreed to another rematch on June 13. Bruns dominated the first fall, winning with a back-drop and pin in thirdly two minutes and thirdly eight seconds. It looked like Bruns was going to win two straight, when Brown reverted to a new hold by applying a piledriver for the pin in eight minutes and twenty eight seconds of the second falls. Hurt, Bruns offered little resistance in the third and was pinned after another piledriver in three minutes and thirdly seconds. Brown was declared the new Kansas City MWA world champion.
Back in Columbus, it seems like the promoters had been trying to get Jack Pesek to drop his MWA world title for most of 1939. Pesek had money and a major career in dog racing to go along with his reputation as one of the greatest shooters in wrestling history. It was hard to get him to do anything he didn't want to do. He began missing dates in the mid-west and refused to meet major contenders like Orville Brown. On June 22, 1940, Columbus promoter Al Haft announced that Pesek had been striped of his title by the Midwest Wrestling Association president Heywood Allen. A match between Orville Brown and Dick Shikat was booked for June 27 to decide a new champion.
On that day, with Shikat playing the heel, Brown won his second MWA World title by pin in forty nine minutes and thirteen minutes after the German hurt himself in a fall on a press table. Brown won a rematch over Dick Shikat in Columbus on July 25.
For the rest of 1940 and early 1941, Orville wrestled in other cities such as; Detroit, Des Moines, Cincinnati, Memphis, Indianapolis, Dayton and Cleveland, defeating such stars as Frank Sexton, Don McIntyre, Wladek Zbysko, Dorv Roche, Angelo Savoldi, and Lee Wyckoff. He had two major draws with John Pesek (1-17-41 & 4-8-41) and another with the great Sandor Szabo (10-21-40).
Lee Wyckoff is one of the neglected wrestlers of the 1940's. He was a legitimate wrestler who is mostly remembered for wrestling a supposed shoot with Ed Lewis on Aug. 13, 1936 in NYC. On April 17, 1941, Brown put Wyckoff over clean in KC and lost his MWA world title. It seems Brown dropped both titles because either Brown or Wyckoff wrestled in Columbus during the Wyckoff reign. Brown also lost three rematches to Wyckoff to get him over. On Sept. 19, 1941, the two wrestled a memorable draw in KC that was stopped after hour and forty five minutes by a midnight curfew. Brown won the first fall in one hour and thirdly one minutes. Wyckoff won the second in five seconds with a tackle and press. The first fall was one of the longest in KC history and the second was the shortest. Wycoff's title reign came to end in a finish match on Oct. 16, 1941. Orville won both his falls with a stepover toe hold. Wycoff would remain a major contender for Brown in the years that followed.
World champions thrived in the Mid-west during 1942. Beside the Orville's two MWA titles and the St. Louis National Wrestling Association title, there was another NWA title. This National Wrestling Association champion was Roy Dunn and he wrestled out of Wichita. He had a championship belt that pre-dated and looked identical to the Thesz NWA belt (it was missing the plates on the sides that the Thesz belt would later have.). A photo can be found of Dunn with the belt in a 1941 issue of RING MAGAZINE. If you are confused over the reuse of these organizational name (NWA. MWA. & AWA) it's only because the promoters wanted it to be confusing.
On Jan. 28, 1942 at Topeka, Roy Dunn, NWA champ, and Orville Brown, MWA champ, had a title unification match that was ruled a draw. On Feb. 6, a rematch took place in Sioux City Iowa. Brown used flying tackles to win the first fall in forty three minutes and Dunn won the second fall in thirteen minutes with a figure four. Time ran out in the third fall, total time hour and ten minutes, without a winner.
March 5, 1942 saw Brown selected to meet Dorv Roche in KC for the title. After about one minute of wrestling Roche's knee locked up and he was unable to continue. Tom Zaharias, a mid-card performer who had wrestled a draw with Frank Sexton earlier in the night, was asked to take Roche place in the main event. To everyone's surprise Zaharias won a fall before the match had to be stopped by the midnight closing rule. The referee at first tried to call the match a draw but then changed his decision. He ruled Brown the loser and Ton Zaharias the new MWA world champion. In two following matches, Brown was unable to regain the title.
In one of the strangest storylines forgotten in wrestling history, promoter Heywood Allen booked Orville Brown for a match in Louisville against a masked man called Superman II. Most believed Superman II to be Wild Bill Longson who had just won the St. Louis NWA title from Sandor Szabo (2-19-42). Longson was the first straight out heel world champions. Others like Ed Lewis were heels but it wasn't openly stated by the press and it was much more subtle than with Longson. Longson was also drawing crowds that wrestling hadn't seen since 1937. Brown was billed as MWA champion for this match by promoter Heywood Allen, who in 1940 was said to be president of the Columbus MWA, even with the fact that Brown had lost his title to Zaharias. The press billed the match up as a title unification match.
On April 21, 1942, with the match tied up two falls each, Brown, who had dominated Superman II, threw his opponent out of the ring. Bill Longson then unmasked himself and jumping into the ring, used the hood as a noose to choke out Orville. After the referee broke the "hold", Longson pinned Brown to win the match. Longson was declared the undisputed world champion. To make the card even stranger, Lou Thesz defeated Frank Sexton on the undercard. The Louisville crowd was 2,800.
Brown returned to KC and wrestled a draw with Lou Thesz on June 14, before regaining his MWA world title from Tom Zaharis on June 25, 1942.
Brown then took the title to Des Moines, where he had been defending the title for promoter Pinkie George since 1940. On July 1, 1942 Brown defeated former NWA champion Ray Steele in two straight falls. On July 8, Brown pinned Tom Zaharias to defend his MWA title.
On July 22, 1942, Orville Brown wrestled NWA champion Longson in another title unification match, this time in Des Moines. Longson won the first fall, after much gouging, slugging and hair pulling, in thirty-two minutes and twenty seconds with the pin following a body slam and armlock. Brown worked Wild Bill over in the second fall and won with an Indian death lock in ten minutes and twenty six seconds. At eleven minutes of the third fall, Londson was once again trapped in the Indian death lock when the two wrestlers fell. Longson somehow rowed Brown into a pin and got a three count. Brown then rowed back into the original Indian death lock and when he was told to release the hold, didn't know he had lost. When Longson's hand was raised, a near riot started with fans throwing rocks into the ring. Longson was ruled both NWA and MWA world champion in Des Monies by promoter Pinkie George. In the years that followed Longson remain NWA champion in the city and Brown was billed as a ex-champ. This match also explains (maybe) why when the National Wrestling Alliance was formed in 1948 by George and others, Brown was called the NWA champion with the MWA name not being used.
Brown remained MWA champion in KC and Columbus after this. The rationalization is that promoters used titles as props in their storylines and wrestlers were only interested in getting paid. Promoters and even powerful wrestler/bookers like Orville Brown could get away with it because no one took pro wrestling serious after the 1936 scandals and the press didn't cover it, so fans found it hard to get information outside their areas. Even fans paying attention were lost, because promoters went out of their way to confuse the titles. WWII had to be factored into all this too. With rationing, talent shortages, and travel restrictions, promoters were probably happy to just keep the art form alive with everyone making a living.
The war and the resulting talent vacuum created opportunities for older wrestlers and Ed "Strangler" Lewis was one of them. Lewis had a big comeback in 1942. In April, he drew almost 13,000 as a challenger to Longson in St. Louis and later in the year began a series of matches with Brown. The first matches were won by Brown, but on Nov. 26, 1942 Lewis defeated Orville and took his Kansas City MWA world title.
Brown was still champion in Columbus but had wrestled very little in the city during that year. John Pesek was back and Al Haft seemed to be putting pressure on Orville to give him back this title. I believe Brown refused to job to Pesek because John had refused to drop the title to him in 1940. Instead Brown dropped the Columbus version of the MWA Title, on Dec. 3, to Ed Lewis via a count out of the ring when a new referee gave him a ten count instead of the usual twenty. The crowd booed the decision for fifteen minutes and Brown left Columbus, not to return until 1949. On Jan. 28, 1943, John Pesek defeated his old boss Ed Lewis and got his MWA title back. Pesek never loss his title and, like Jim Londos, took it to his grave. Pesek was never able to beat Orville Brown clean.
Two weeks before losing the Columbus title (Jan. 14), Ed Lewis dropped the Kansas City MWA title to Lee Wyckoff. In a contenders match on Feb. 4, Brown got his win back from Lewis and a contest with Wyckoff on Feb. 18.
It's interesting that Orville wrestled Bobby Managoff for the St. Louis NWA title on Feb. 12 in St. Joseph and was pinned.
On Feb. 18, 1943, Brown defeated Lee Wyckoff to hold the KC MWA title for the fourth time. In May and June (17) Brown and Wyckoff switched the title back and forth again. Brown also defeated Lewis again on Sept. 9. Brown then did a title switch with Jack Pfeffer's Swedish Angel on Dec. 2 and Dec. 9.
In 1944, Jack Pfeffer's other major wrestler, Dave Levin, got a big run in the Midwest and Kansas City. Levin was small but handsome and a good worker, that had held the world title in 1936 after a DQ double-cross over Ali Baba. On Feb, 17, Brown and Levin wrestled an hour and forty five minute draw in KC. A rematch, on April 27, was also stopped by the midnight curfew but this time Levin had won the only fall. The referee ruled that Levin was the new champion but Brown protested that MWA rules stated that two falls must be won for title to change. Brown refused to give up his belt, so a rematch was set for May 4. Orville didn't do much better as he lost 2/3 falls to Levin and the undisputed title.
In Jan. 1944, Ray Steele appeared in Des Moines billed as National Wrestling Alliance world champion. It's not known it Steele won this title from someone like Wichita NWA champ Ed Virag or not. It seems not, because photos show Steele posing with the St. Louis Thesz belt. It seems like promoter Pinkie George wanted fans to think that it was the title Steele won from Bronko Nagurski in 1940 and lost back to Nagurski in 1941. It's hard to believe, but that's the way the storyline plays.
On May 10, Ray Steele and Dave Levin wrestled a title unification match at Des Moines. Levin won to claim both the MWA title and the Pinkie George NWA title.
Levin reign did last long (but who's did in Kansas) as he was defeated by Lee Wyckoff in KC on June 29, 1944.
The Brown/Wyckoff feud continued as Orville took advantage of an injury to pin Wyckoff using a wrist lock at Topeka, Kansas on Aug. 16. Brown won the MWA for the seventh time and historians believe he also received the Pinkie George NWA title. From this point forward, Brown would be called MWA champion in Kansas and National Wrestling Alliance champion in Des Moines.
Brown kept his titles this time for 22 months. During this reign he defeated Bobby Bruns, Ed Lewis, Joe Cox, Lord Albert Mills, Ray Eckert, Chief Little Wolf, Al Mills, Sky Hi Lee, Wladislaw Talun, Ken Fenelon, Hans Schnabel, Roy Graham, Ronnie Etchison, Fred Blassie, Swedish Angel, Jules Strongbow and Ray Villmer.
On June 20, 1946 he lost his MWA title to Bobby Bruns via DQ in Kansas City. Brown protested and refused to give up his championship belt. This allowed Orville to take a working vacation to Los Angeles for two weeks. On Aug. 8, 1946, Orville defeated Bobby Bruns for his eighth MWA title run.
In the next seven months he defeated Everett Marshall, Ernie Dusek, Ali Baba, Danno O'Mahoney, George Becker, Ras Samara, Wee Willy Davis, and Ed Virag. On March 14, 1947 he lost the MWA title to Vic Christy via DQ at St. Joseph and won it back from Roy Graham April 10 in Kansas City. Many wins over Christy followed.
The Brown family sold the first farm around 1946 and move into the city. After all these years of successful booking and promoting, Orville was financially well to do, with many businesses, such as two apartment houses and, at one time or another, six different farms, around Kansas City. He owned a new Cadillac that he drove from city to city to make his wrestling dates. RING MAGAZINE, at one point in the early 40's, even proclaimed Kansas as the best territory in the nation.
Orville lost the Des Moines NWA title on Nov. 3, 1947 to Sonny Myers, when referee Jack Dempsey DQ'ed Brown and punched him. Orville rewon the title on Jan. 5, 1948 with a pin fall win over Myers. While Myers was NWA champ, he was wrestling and losing to MWA champ Brown in KC.
Another MWA title switch took place in St. Joseph between Brown and Tug (Lord) Carlson over seven days in Dec. 1947. Brown also dropped the KC title to Bobby Bruns via DQ on April 29 and took it back on May 4. This was the last time Orville Brown would ever lose a title match.
In 1947, Lou Thesz and a group of investors (Frank Tunney, Eddie Quinn, Bobby Managolf and Bill Longson) bought the St. Louis promotion from Tom Packs. A war was taking place in St. Louis between this group and a smaller company headed by a Packs former employee Sam Muchnick, who was helped by Jack Pfefer.
In late 1948, Muchnick was presented with an idea by Pinkie George and Tony Stecher. They wanted to form an Organization of promoters to scare talent, create a champion and battle the Nation Wrestling Association. The Association was, at one time, a wing of the National Boxing Association, controlled by state athletic commissions, but had been dominated by Packs St. Louis promotion for years. George (Des Moines), Muchnick (St. Louis), Wally Karbo (who represented Tony Stecher of Minneapolis), Orville Brown (Kansas City), and Max Clayton (Omaha) met at the President Hotel in Waterloo, Iowa. To confuse fans, they called their new organization the National Wrestling Alliance, using the same abbreviations as the old NWA. This was also the name of the Alliance first president's (Pinkie George) promotion and title in Des Moines. This talent exchange agreement caused other major promoters, such as Paul Bowser and Al Haft, to join soon after and it still used Jack Pfefer as an ally in St. Louis. The feelings of the promoters in general was that the new tool, television, was the way of the future, but that a national organization and champion was needed so that the new medium didn't expose the performance sport to the public they had tried to keep in the dark for years. For the first time since 1936, they had a reason to work together and have a national champion. On July 14, 1948, the group agreed to declare Orville Brown, MWA and Des Moines champion, as their first recognized NWA World Champion.
Marketed as a national champion, Orville traveled to areas that hadn't seen him in years. He wrestled in Los Angeles (& national TV), Columbus, Salt Lake City, Ohio, Canada and Texas defending his title and defeating such wrestlers as Bill Longson, Wladek (Killer) Kowalski, Don Eagle, Otto Kuss, Ruffy Silverstein, Ivan Rasputin, Frankie Talaber, Ali Baba, Hans Kampfer, Dean Detton, Earl McCready, Bobby Bruns, Pat McGill, Joe Pazandak, Rito Romero, and Bronko Nagurski. He was a good champion and the Alliance grew.
On March 15, 1949, Brown wrestled AWA world champion Frank Sexton in a title unification match at Cleveland. Sexton had been champion on the East Coast since June 1945, having defeated Steve Casey for the AWA title. The AWA world title was the second most prestigious title in the nation that's history went back to Gus Sonnenberg defeating Ed Lewis in Jan. 1929 and covered Steve Casey's win over Lou Thesz on Feb. 11, 1938. Sexton also was champion over the old Baltimore Jim Londos line, having defeated Jack Sharkey in a unification match after Londos was striped. The Brown/Sexton match ended up being an hour and forty-five minute draw. It was said to be a terrible match that only drew 4,892. No further matches between the two took place.
Brown's greatest challenger was a young wrestler named Buddy Rogers. They wrestled a series of matches in Hollywood, Wichita, Cleveland, and Kansas City. Half were draws and the rest Brown won via a screw finish like a DQ or count out.
Up until 1948, Rogers was the rated the greatest high flyer and babyface in the wrestling, but Rogers wasn't limited and in Los Angeles he turned heel and became boxoffice dynamite. Roger was very successful in Texas in 1946 and was probably the most popular face in St. Louis but he was held back by promoter Pack and a jealous Lou Thesz who always had him job in main events. In late 1948, Rogers's manager, Jack Pfefer, had him jump from Thesz's St. Louis promotion to Sam Muchnick's group. Buddy Rogers is credited by both side as the major factor that turn the St. Louis wrestling war to Muchnick's advantage. On Nov. 26, 1948, Rogers drew a crowd of 10,176 in St. Louis meeting Jim Wright. Thesz's next card only drew 7,228. It should be said that Orville Brown was the other main event wrestler used by Muchnick in this battle. Most of Brown's attendance figures aren't known, but he did draw 9,857 vs Bobby Bruns on Feb. 18, 1949. Rogers was averaging over 10,000 and outdrawing all the Thesz cards. On May 13, 1949, Brown and Rogers were matched in St. Louis in what seemed like a big draw, but the crowd was only 6,137. The next week Thesz only drew 4,504 for an Antonio Rocca/Primo Carnera match. The war wasn't helping either sides, so Thesz and Muchnick made peace by merging both companies and by agreeing to unify both NWA titles. A match between Brown and Thesz was scheduled for Thanksgiving night, Nov. 25, 1949.
At one point a shoot match was discussed, mostly pressured from the Thesz side. I do not know how serious this idea was, but Brown's family tells the story and Lou talks about the situation in his book (somewhat and one sided, to get himself over). The two had wrestled a few times and even worked out in the gym for a few minutes. Unlike Thesz, who had never wrestled a shoot in public, Brown had engaged in this style in the early part of his career. Everyone understood that Thesz was trained in hooks, but in their short workout, Lou had trouble breaking down Orville on the mat because of Brown's strange build, short legs and long body. With Orville in the amateur down position, Thesz was unable to move him and quit after a short time. Orville had been in the ring with people like Lewis, Londos, Steele, Sexton, Wyckoff, and Pesek more then Thesz and even with those matches being works, it meant something. There was also a rumor that Brown had got the best of Joe Pazandak in a workout. So Thesz was worry, but it also was a silly idea for two Pros to think about a shoot in public, with so much on the line. St. Louis didn't need another terrible match like the Brown/Sexton match in Cleveland, so Thesz and Brown, two men who had always booked themselves as champions, met to decide how to handle this match. It was agreed that they would switch the title over the next year, with the two both making good money as champion and challenger. Brown told Thesz to pick the winner of the first match. Lou picked Orville to win the Nov. 25 match, and after rematches in all the territories, Thesz would get the title back near the end of 1950. Whatever happened after that would be decided later and to the good of the Alliance.
The planning was for nothing. On Oct. 31, 1949, Brown defended his title against his best friend and booker Bobby Bruns in Des Moines. Late that night the two wrestles were driving home in Brown's 1948 Cadillac Sedan. A semi trailer truck stalled, with the trailer across the road and the cab in the off road ditch, as Brown and Bruns come over a hill driving 80 miles an hour. Brown hit the trailer in the landing gear area. The top of the Cadillac was pushed back so far it looked like a convertible. The two wrestlers used their strength to force the front seat backward and that saved both their lives. Bruns suffered a broken shoulder and upper arm injuries, which he recovered from. The frame of the trailer came thought the car hitting Orville's head, resulting in brain damage. Brown was able to get out of the car and walked before falling unconscious. Brown's mangled Cadillac was sold to salvage for $216.
Brown was taken to a hospital, with Bruns, where he laid in a coma for five days. When awaken he was paralyzed on the left side.
At the Aug. NWA meeting, promoter, Paul Boswer, nominated Lou Thesz to be the next World Champion and the motion was passed without Thesz having to wrestle anyone. With the title in hand, the Thesz/Muchnick partnership made St. Louis the most respected territory in the nation. It's interesting that Buddy Rogers, the most popular performer in that city, didn't get booked in St. Louis after the Thesz/Muchnick merger for fourteen months.
Orville rehabbed for a long time; going to the gym and even attempted to wrestle. He regained use of his right arm and leg, but he had to think about every move. Automatic responses never returned. He attempted a short comeback in Oct. 1950, but was forced to give up the idea and he permanently retired. Orville continued to promote the Kansas territory (Kansas City, Wichita, Topeka & St. Joseph) until 1957. He could walk, drive, fish, work in his garden and everything else in his life he wanted to do, but the one thing he really wanted to do: wrestle.
Because of being abandoned early he life, his family had always been the most important thing in his Brown's life. His son Richard grew up around pro wrestling, watching his father perform and spending much of his childhood working out with his dad and other wrestlers in the gym. Dick graduated from Baker University in 1951, where he earned All Conference in football. He joined the Navy after school and served two combat tours during the Korean War. He was released from active duty in 1953, to begin a wrestling career, promoted by his father that lasted until 1957. As Dick Brown, he won the Central States title three times and was good enough to be pushed in Georgia, Florida and Texas. By 1957, Dick realized he would never reach the level of his father; tired of travel, injuries and pressure from his wife, Doris, he retired. He went back to school and got his Masters Degree and Doctorate from University of Northern Colorado. He worked first as a Science teacher and later as a Junior High School Principal. He reached the rank of Captain in the Naval Reserve and he was serving as Inspector General of all Naval Reserves in a five state area when he retired in 1983. He is alive and healthy today.
Orville became less interested in his wrestling promotion in the mid-50, and as his company determinated, he had to survive a take over attempt from old allies: George Simpson, Gust Karras and best friend Bobby Bruns. Once his son stop wrestling, he had no further interest and retired. He and Grace moved to a retirement village at Lee's Summit, MO. He did woodwork and kept a productive garden and fished. Orville was active in the Shriners and Grace was active in the town, serving as President of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Orville was kept in a nursing home (Village Care Center) the last twenty-three months of his life, being visited by his wife Grace each day. He died on Jan. 24, 1981 at age 72. Grace Brown passed away in late Oct. 2003.
There has been an attempt to past over Orville Brown in the writing of wrestling history. Most fans just know him as a name on the list of former NWA champions. It seems that many Thesz fans resent even seeing him on that list. In this years PWI 2004 WRESTLING ALMANAC, he isn't even allowed to be in the NWA title line. Brown has been pushed into the footnote section, because the author had to find a way to trace the National Wrestling Alliance title through Lou Thesz's National Wrestling Association title all the way to Hackenschmidt. Titlelines are fan fantasies, but if a attempt was going to be made, a true historian would have to explain not going through Pinkie's George's Des Moines NWA title or Brown's MWA title. Everyone appreciates the accomplishment of Lou Thesz, but that shouldn't mean writing out, or putting down, every other wrestler in history, to get him over. The idea of writing wrestling history through the eyes of the St. Louis promotion is too narrow a view. Understand pro wrestling's 1940's, must mean seeing wrestlers such as Orville Brown, Steve Casey and Frank Sexton for what they truly were.
Some would like to think that Orville Brown was a minor worker and star who was known only because he controlled his own small territory and booked himself into the world title because of ego. Brown began his career as a major prospect in the national trust. He was groomed for a high position from day one. The fact that he wrestled a series of matches and given a draw vs the great Jim Londos, showed how the wrestling powers felt about him. He was a major title contender working in the South and East Coast, that had star power. After the national organization fell apart, the trend was toward smaller local territories. Brown found a spot for himself in this system, becoming the major star in Columbus and then ran his own major territory and succeeded with himself as the top star for nine years during the 40's, overcoming depressions and world wars. As a booker, he gave title runs to wrestlers such as Bobby Bruns, Lee Wyckoff, and Dave Levin. He had classic matches with every major star of his time, including, Longson, Thesz, Sexton, Detton, Londos, Lewis, Rogers and Pesek. When the national NWA was formed in 1948, Brown was a successful first champion and the promotion grew in number and strength. After the St. Louis merger, it was Brown who was going to remain as champion, not Thesz. To say Brown had something to do with booking himself as champion would be true, but Lou Thesz also booked himself into the world title and just about every world champion had major front office ties.
Brown's gimmick was black trunks and straight wrestling. I can not find him using a nick name of any type. In the early Detroit matches he seemed to be using a family man type gimmick, but that may have just the real Brown being himself. For most of his career he wrestled as a rough babyface but in the late 1940's, his style was to play heel more, as most champions do when they've been around for years. Iowa and Kansas has always been the center of wrestling in American and they always accepted pure wrestling over color. I don't think Brown need a lot of angles and turns, like a Jerry Lawler, to keep them interested.
Brown also was a very good booker. He worked with Bobby Bruns, who later became booker in St. Louis's best days and played a part in the development of pro wrestling in Japan. Brown was not afraid to do clean jobs to keep storylines and other wrestlers strong and his wrestling intelligence and instincts were good.
Everything I've read or heard from people who saw him, makes me think he was a very good worker. He could beat someone one week and draw a bigger crowd the next week for a rematch. He used all the innovative moves of his time. He also kept changing his finishing holds over the years. He was not short, 6'1", but he had short legs and a long body. He was very powerful and athletic. Many reports have him throwing opponents around the ring. A story is that in 1949, he press slammed the huge Killer Kowalski in a match. Report from Mae Young, Bob Orton, and Dick Brown claim he ranked with the best workers of his time.
He was a major draw early in his career, setting attendance records in Detroit and Columbus. Figures from the mid-west don't seem all that impressive, because of the rural area and the small arenas, but he was doing 3,000 to 5,000 every night, week after week. Wrestling was in a major slump during these years because of the wrestling scandals of the 1930's, the Depression and then WWII. From all accounts, Brown made a lot of money and kept it. It was Buddy Rogers and Orville working for Sam Muchnick that ended the St. Louis wrestling war in 1949.
Orville Brown was a good businessman who never was associated in any scandals. He was an excellent family man, who is still loved and talked about today. Looking at his career, the only weakness or fault you see is that it ended too early and wrestling was created out of one of its greatest super matches on Nov. 25, 1949. A match Orville was booked to win.
- THE ORVILLE BROWN RECORD BOOK with research by Don Luce, Fred Hornby, Tim Hornbaker, Libnan Ayoub, J Michael Kenyon, Mark Hewitt, Steve Yohe, George Lentz and Jim Melby. Published by Jim Melby and Steve Yohe
- ORVILLE BROWN, FIRST NWA CHAMPION by Richard Brown (This was the first Bio I've written that had a superior one existing.)
- Letters and e-mail with Orville's son Dick Brown. I relied on Dick for most of Orville personal history, but mostly used newspapers etc for wrestling storylines and my comments. Dick also fixed some of my misspelling and bad grammar.
- MEMORIES OF WALLACE by Grace C. Brown (This is a paper written by Orville's wife on their early life in Wallace. Grace passed away a week before I contacted Dick.)
- WRESTLING TITLE HISTORY by Gary Will & Royal Duncan (as always)
- Scott Teal's History of St. Louis Wrestling, and Scott's interviews with Sam Muchnick (WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO?Issue # 16) and Bob Orton Sr (WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO?Issue # 8).
- 100 different newspapers. Most of the clippings can be found in the ORVILLE RECORD BOOK.