by Richard Brown
Wrestling's World Heavyweight Champion
Orville Brown's life as a professional wrestler was indeed a colorful one. He wrestled before television changed the nature of one of man's first sports. Orville elevated himself from the obscurity of a small farm in southern Kansas to the throne of the World's Heavyweight Wrestling Champion. Orville, left an orphan at the age of eleven, earned his board and keep working on the farms of his relatives. As with most boys living in the area at this time, he was up early milking cows and taking care of livestock before walking several miles to school. After school the chores were repeated.
On weekends and during the summer months he worked in the fields, broke horses, and got a job which would later have a great influence in his life - he became a helper for the local blacksmith. He attended only one year of high school at Kiowa, Kansas. As a freshman he started and starred as a football player. For financial reasons he was unable to continue his formal education. But later he was to graduate from the College of Hard Knocks.
He became an itinerate farm and ranch hand and developed into an excellent cowhand. He became a professional rodeo cowboy. That sport did not have the strong organization then that it enjoys today. When he heard of the site of a good rodeo he simply traveled there and paid the entry fee. By the time he was eighteen years of age he had become one of the top rodeo hands in bulldogging and both bareback and saddle bronc riding. He bulldogged a steer in 4.8 seconds, which was a world record, but the record was broken again before it could be officially recognized. In an exhibition at the Briggs Ranch Rodeo in August 1927, he became the first cowboy to bulldog a buffalo by jumping from a horse.
He had gotten a job on a farm near Leonardville, Kansas in 1926, and he and the farmer's daughter, Grace, eloped in October of that year - a marriage which was to last the remainder of their lives; nearly fifty-five years. Orville and Grace were doing quite well for a young couple until the country went into a severe economic depression. Orville had become too heavy to continue as a rodeo cowboy and there was not enough money in it to live on. Orville found a job shucking corn in Wallace, Kansas and Grace worked at the farm cooking, cleaning and washing clothes. By this time they had a small son, Richard, and when the harvest was finished they had no means of supporting themselves. Orville learned that a blacksmith was needed in town. He promptly went to town and told the owner of the shop that he was an experienced blacksmith. He did not elaborate on the fact that his experience consisted of running errands, building the forge fire, turning the forge blower and astutely watching every move of a very good blacksmith when he was twelve years old. He got the job and went to the shop very early every morning to practice and to teach himself, through trial and error, when no one was around. He became an accomplished blacksmith, welder and auto mechanic.
The heavy work in the blacksmith shop enhanced his naturally strong physique. One day a fellow, whose car was having some mechanical problems was directed into the shop. He walked back to where Orville was working some hot iron on an anvil with a heavy hammer. The man took one look at the powerful young man and asked, "With a body like that what are you doing in a blacksmith shop in this little town?" The man was Ernest Brown (no relation to Orville), who had some experience as a manager of amateur and professional wrestlers. He convinced Orville that if he worked at it he might have a future in the professional ring.
There was a farmer in the area who had been a pretty good wrestler when he was younger. He agreed to work with Orville and the local high school provided the wrestling mat for them to work out. Many of the high school boys joined in the fun. Ernest Brown got Orville his first match which he won easily, then another, and another, until he had the unbelievable record of seventy-one wins without a defeat.
He had gained enough notoriety in western Kansas that the wrestling promoter in Wichita put him on the preliminary of the weekly matches there. The promoter set him up with an experienced wrestler figuring to end Orville's career before it got started. To the promoter's great surprise Orville made it seventy-two straight wins.
A well known wrestler, Abe Coleman, saw Orville and called one of the top wrestling promoters in the country - Tom Packs in St. Louis, Missouri and said, "Tom, you gotta see this kid. He's got the makings of a future Champion." Tom told him to send the "kid" to St. Louis and he would take a good look at him. He told Orville he had a great future but he needed the opportunity to work with top notch men. He did not want to match him with the best just to get him beaten. He said, "Go back east where you can work out with the top guys - maybe set up a little training camp with a ring and I'll get some good wrestlers to work with you." Orville said he would really like to do that but he barely had enough money to get to St. Louis and with the winnings of the night he had enough to get back to Wallace. Tom opened a checkbook and wrote Orville a check for $5,000. Remember, this was 1933 at the height of the depression! Orville looked at the check in disbelief and said, "I don't know how I'll ever pay this back." Packs answered, "You'll pay it back, and some day you will make me a lot of money when you are wrestling main events in St. Louis."
Orville took Grace and Richard to Baltimore and found a place on Chesapeake Bay where he set up a ring and worked out with some of the best. He swam and ran mile after mile. A great wrestler, George Zaharias, who later married the famous Olympic athlete and golfer "Babe" Didrikson, worked with Orville and introduced him to the game of golf. Promoters around Baltimore used Orville in some of their preliminary matches and he progressed very rapidly.
In August of 1933, World Heavyweight Champion Jim Londos set up training headquarters in Philadelphia to prepare for a very tough title match against heavyweight champion Ed "Strangler" Lewis. Londos put out the word he was looking for young wrestlers, who desired experience, to work as his sparring partners. Londos liked to line up rookies and beat them one after the other. The first time he worked out with Orville, he pinned him in five minutes. The next day it took ten minutes. On the next outing Orville stayed with Londos twenty minutes. Then Londos and Orville went for more than a half an hour and Orville had Londos in a hold from which he could not escape. Londos' manager, Ed White, called time and said he wanted Jim to work with some of the other young wrestlers. When Orville went to the shower, White went to the dressing room and told Orville they wouldn't need him any more. There were some sportswriters watching the workout and Orville's popularity skyrocketed.
Orville found himself booked in semi-final matches and soon the main events. He was in demand in Baltimore, Newark, Philadelphia and Madison Square Garden. He could then realistically set his goal on the World's Heavyweight Championship. He received an offer of a very attractive contract to tour the southern states. He beat some of the greats of the day - Ray Steele, Chief Chewecki, Dorv Roach, George Zaharias, Frank Sexton, Man Mountain Dean, Karl Davis, Jim McMillan, Bill Lee and even Ed "Strangler" Lewis. By 1935, he was considered the number one challenger to Jim Londos' Title.
On the night of March 15, 1935, in Detroit's mammoth Olympia Auditorium, before a near record crowd, Orville's dream of the Title was at hand - a match with the Champion, Jim Londos. It proved to be a grueling match and with the Champion nearing exhaustion Orville hit him with a flying tackle. Londos staggered to his feet and Orville hit him again. Londos, near the ropes, got to his knees and Orville charged with a third tackle to finish him off for the pin. Londos, at the last second, collapsed on the mat and Orville went over him and through the ropes, landing on his head on the concrete floor. Orville was unable to return to the ring and the referee was forced to count him out and declare the Champion the winner even though he was lying prostrate on the canvas.
Orville was given a rematch with Londos on April 12, 1935. It was a great match which went the time limit and ended in a draw.
A third meeting was held on June 5, 1935 in Nevin Field before the largest crowd ever to see a wrestling match in Detroit. Orville lost that match on a real fluke. It was later firmly established, by impartial Detroit Times magic eye photographs, that the referee's decision that Orville's shoulders were pinned was a mistake. The Michigan State Athletic Commission directed that a rematch be held. However, Londos already had a contract to meet the Irish wrestler Danno O'Mahoney. O'Mahoney sailed from Dublin for the match in Boston held only two weeks later. Londos did not realize that three of his ribs had been cracked in the last match with Orville. O'Mahoney forced Londos to submit with a scissor hold. Londos returned to Greece and retired.
The matches against Londos resulted in praises being heaped upon Orville. Every metropolitan newspaper hailed him as the greatest offensive wrestler in the world. From then on he was a top money winner - always on the main event. He had repaid the loan from Tom Packs and Tom did make a lot of money with Orville in main events in St. Louis.
Unfortunately the championship soon became muddled. O'Mahoney lost the title to Dick Shikat of Munich, Germany. Bronco Nagurski, a better football player than wrestler, won the title on a disqualification which was disputed. So there were two champions, then other wrestlers claimed the title which was, of course, disputed so wrestling wound up with a champion in about every area of the country. Lee Wycoff, Bill Longson, Ed Virag, "Ruffy" Silverstein, Everett Marshall and several others had some claim, real or imagined, to the title.
In 1937 Orville wrestled the first match ever televised. It was an experimental thing in New York City. There was no broadcast. It could only be seen within the building on receivers wired directly to the camera. The receivers had screens about four inches in diameter. It required lighting so bright that the wrestlers could hardly stand the intense heat. Little did they realize what would result from these meager beginnings.
By 1939 the Midwest Wrestling Association was the largest organization of wrestling promoters in the country. This group recognized John Pesek, who had the most solid claim to the Title, as Heavyweight Champion and Orville Brown and Dick Shikat shared the rating as number one contender. Pesek was playing it very carefully, not meeting top contenders. Pesek was warned to become more active and to agree to matches with top challengers. In January 1940, the Governing Board of the MWA gave Pesek a formal written order to meet at least one of the number one contenders by June 1, 1940. Pesek failed to comply and on June 5, 1940 the MWA membership, meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, by unanimous vote ousted John Pesek from the Championship by default. The Executive Board directed that a match be held as soon as possible between Shikat and Brown to establish a new Champion.
The Brown-Shikat title match was held in Columbus, Ohio on June 28, 1940. Orville beat the German in two straight falls. In ringside ceremonies Orville Brown was proclaimed the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World and was awarded the Diamond Belt. The Championship was undisputed as far as the MWA was concerned but there were other smaller groups which had their own Champion.
Orville began a campaign to force other "champions" to meet him and other organizations to recognize his legitimate claim to the Title. He met and defeated Virag, Wycoff and other pretenders to the throne but was unable to corner Bill Longson of St. Louis.
Orville was the catalyst which brought about the formation of the National Wrestling Alliance in 1948. This was truly a national organization which included promoters from every major city in the United States. Orville maintained an undefeated record after defeating Shikat and was acclaimed the Heavyweight Champion. The Championship was then virtually undisputed as Longson had not accepted Orville's offer to meet. Then Longson was beaten by Lou Thesz.
Thesz did not want to meet Orville but his claim to the title became insignificant. So he agreed to a match with the accepted Champion, Orville Brown, to be held Thanksgiving night, 1949 at the Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. It is interesting to note that Lou Thesz, at just seventeen years of age, wrestled on the opening preliminary in Detroit on the night Orville wrestled Jim Londos for the third and last time.
Orville had been maintaining a heavy schedule meeting all comers around the country. He decided to take no matches for a month prior to the match with Thesz. He made arrangements to set up a training camp in Galveston, Texas where he could relax in the warm sun and work out with some tough "sparring partners." He hired Silverstein and Roy Graham, of Corsicana, Texas to work with him. He went to Des Moines, Iowa on Halloween night for his last match before the Brown-Thesz match. Bobby Bruns of Chicago, who had a long "friendly" rivalry with Orville was on the card that night. Bobby was booked in Kansas City next and Orville asked him to ride back with him to K.C. Orville wanted Bobby for a sparring partner at least some of the time he planned to spend in Texas. Bobby already had some commitments but agreed to workout with Orville as time permitted.
Then disaster struck. Orville came over the top of a hill near Bethany, Missouri to find a semi-trailer truck crosswise in the road. His car struck the trailer and lodged under it. Both of the powerful men had pushed back on the seat, which broke. This, fortunately, prevented them from being decapitated. Bobby had a broken arm and shoulder plus numerous cuts and bruises. Orville's head struck the main frame of the trailer. He had severe brain damage plus cuts and bruises. His car, a nearly new Cadillac, was sold for salvage for $218.
Orville lay in the hospital, unconscious. The doctors were not able to determine if he would survive. Grace and Richard were warned that this could go on for days or months or he might never wake up. After five days he did regain consciousness. The doctors agreed his powerful body and exceptional physical condition had saved his life. But when he came to, he was paralyzed on his right side.
He went through long agonizing hours of therapy and exercises. He was determined to recover and go back into the ring again. He regained full use of his body. He regained his strength and stamina. But he never regained the ability to respond automatically. He had to think about every move he made. He had been exceptionally agile and quick for a man of his size. No matter how hard or how much he worked he was simply unable to react with the speed necessary to do what he wanted to do most - to wrestle again.
While his career was over, his life was not. He became a very successful promoter and enjoyed staying in the business and with the wrestlers he knew so well. He received a great deal of satisfaction watching Lou Thesz, who became one of the all time great Champions, and knowing that he would have beaten him on Thanksgiving night, 1949.
Orville retired in 1957 and did not retain an interest in wrestling after that. The world was changing and wrestling changed more than anything. It really hurt him to see what television and unscrupulous people had done in order to milk more money from the sport enjoyed since the time of the caveman. He would not even watch television. His beloved sport had been destroyed.
How did Orville Brown rate with the professional wrestlers of the first half century? People in any profession are most accurately rated by their contemporaries. Many of the wrestlers of the time proclaimed Orville Brown to be the best professional wrestler ever to step into the ring. He came up the hard way and got there by beating everyone who would get in the ring with him. He held the Title for eight years and went out of his way to meet the best, especially those who claimed to be Champions.
When asked who were the best of all the wrestlers, Orville was too modest to name himself. He would respond, "Joe Stecher, Jim Browning and Ed 'Strangler' Lewis." All three were Champions before Orville hit the top. There is an old and proven saying, "Size isn't everything but a good big man will beat a good little man." Orville certainly recognized this, so he reserved a special notch for Jim Londos, who was small for a heavyweight, as "pound for pound the best who ever wrestled."
There were so many great wrestlers in those days it would be impossible to get agreement on a single one as the best of all. But if one were to pick six, it would be nearly impossible to find a better group than those four plus Lou Thesz and, of course, Orville Brown - perhaps the greatest of them all!
Richard Brown is Orville Brown's son. While in high school, he would occasionally work out with wrestlers who came to train with his father. While in college, Richard worked out with such stars as: Joe Pasandak, Rube Wright (Lu Kim), Dennis Clary, Verne Gagne, Bobby Bruns, Bibber McCoy (El Toro) and Dave Sims.
Richard graduated in 1951 from Baker University (in Baldwin City, KS) with a major in Physical Education and a minor in Science. He also earned All Conference honors in football at Baker. After graduation, he served two tours of duty in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War as a gunnery officer.
After being released from active duty in 1953, Richard went to work for his father helping to run the Kansas City wrestling office. Richard did general office work and began refereeing in addition to maintaining a heavy workout schedule. His skills did not escape his father's notice, so Richard wrestled his first match in Kansas City, KS against Roy Graham.
Richard did well enough in the ring to win the Central States Heavyweight Title three times. He rates a match against Lou Thesz in front of a sellout crowd in Wichita KS as being his biggest match. Among other notables he wrestled were: Gorgeous George, Joe Dusek, Tom Zaharias, Bill Longson, Wild Red Berry and many others. Richard also wrestled in Georgia, Florida and Texas (out of the Houston office).
After a few years of wrestling, Brown's wife, Doris, gave him an ultimatum. She did not like the risk of injury, the amount of travel and the insecure future that came with being a wrestler in those days. Richard started work on his Master's Degree, and gave up wrestling to start teaching Science in junior high in 1957.
Brown did his graduate work at Colorado State College (now known as the University of Northern Colorade) in Greeley. He taught science for three years in the Shawnee Mission (KS) School District, then became science curriculum coordinator for an elementary school district. Brown later went back to Greeley and received a Doctor of Education degree in Science Education. Richard eventually got out of the classroom and became a principal of a large junior high school in Shawnee Mission.
Today, Richard is enjoying retirement and still has several keepsakes from both his father's career and his own in professional wrestling. Below is the Central States title belt which was used during the 1950s. The picture on the belt is Richard Brown.