"The History of the World's Junior Heavyweight Championship"
by LeRoy McGuirk
Wrestling Monthly, November, 1971
The junior heavyweight division of wrestling has often been labeled the
"tiger weight" division because the wrestlers in this category are
large enough to be as rough and mean as the heavyweights and at the
same time small enough to be as fast as some of the lighter men.
Some of the really great names in professional wrestling have made the
junior heavyweight division a standard in speed and agility in the
bone-bending profession. Although relatively new as one of wrestling's
championship divisions, the junior heavyweights have become so popular
throughout the country that their champion is ranked right alongside
the heavyweight title holder.
The junior heavyweight division was the brainchild of Hugh Nichols,
promoter at the famous Hollywood American Legion Stadium. Nichols, a
former great in the light heavyweight division (175 pounds), found
himself with an overabundance of wrestlers of real ability in the early
thirties. These men tipped the scales at around 185 pounds, which made
them too small for the heavyweight class but too large for the 175
pound light heavy class, which was very popular in the twenties and
Nichols asked for and got permission from the National Wrestling
Association, a subsidiary of the National Boxing Association, to hold a
world's tournament for wrestlers weighing not more than 190 pounds.
The National Wrestling Association was headed by colorful Harry J.
Landry of Friars Point, Mississippi. Landry thought so much of
Nichols' plan that he agreed to come to Hollywood and present the belt
to the winner of the tournament. Winner of the tournament was a robust
190-pounder from the small township of Luray,
Kansas, named Albion Britt. And the date engraved on the original
junior heavyweight belt that was presented to the Kansas farm boy was
August 14, 1934.
Britt came from a family of wrestlers. His father was a legend in
middleweight wrestling around Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska.
Albion learned his grappling from his father and also spent
considerable time in Wyoming on the sheep ranch of Clarence Eklund, on
of the greatest of all light heavyweights.
Albion had difficulty keeping his weight within the required 190
pounds, and this could have been a factor in his defeat when he lost
the World's Junior Heavyweight belt to Dude Chick of Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Chick took the belt from Britt in the old downtown auditorium just off
Market Street in San Francisco in 1936.
Dude also came from a wrestling family. His brother, Bobby, held the
world's light heavyweight title and proved to be a great champion.
Dude moved to Hollywood which was the stronghold of the junior
heavyweights and began working as a movie cowboy in addition to his
wrestling activities. One of Dude's life-long friends is the famous
Gene Autry. In 1937 Chick ran afoul of a tough former Marine named
Sgt. Bob Kenaston in San Diego and was beaten for the title in a real
cliff-hanger of a match. Kenaston was strong and had a good Marine
background of rough-and-tumble brawls in many a port. He hailed from
Gold Hill, Oregon, and proved a tough nut to beat, but John Swenski, a
clever and talented lad from Lynn, Massachusetts, was able to pin
the Sergeant's shoulders to the canvas to cop the World's Junior
Heavyweight belt in the spacious Tulsa, Oklahoma, Coliseum in January
John proved a top hand at fighting off challengers. He had great speed
and real scientific wrestling ability and frustrated all contenders for
his newly-won belt until he climbed into the ring against LeRoy
McGuirk, a former all-time college wrestling great from Oklahoma State
University at Stillwater, Oklahoma. LeRoy had become too heavy for the
Light Heavyweight Division after winning the championship in that class
from the great Hugh Nichols, and was to become one of the junior
heavyweight division's greatest stars. He downed Swenski in the
Hollywood Legion Stadium in 1940 and beat off all pretenders to his
throne for ten years (Transcriber's note: I was very tempted to change
this sentence, but did not in spite of the sexual nature of the
comment) until he was forced to give up the title because of
blindness brought on by an automobile accident.
With McGuirk sidelined forever, the National Wrestling Association,
still headed by the one and only Colonel Harry J. Landry, named
McGuirk's hometown, Tulsa, OK, as the place where a tournament would be
held to name a new champion.
All of the great names in the 190-pound division immediately headed for
the Oklahoma town which McGuirk and his partner-manager, Sam Avey, had
made one of the hot spots of wrestling in the entire country. Many
great names in the junior heavyweight division fell by the wayside
before Verne Gagne, a former Olympic team wrestler and national college
champion at the University of Minnesota, wound up with the belt after
taking a hard-fought bout from Sonny Myers of St. Joseph, Missouri.
Gagne was growing all the time and soon found the chore of making the
190-pound limit a real problem. This could have been the major of his
defeat when he lost the crown to Danny McShain, Arkansas-born, but a
resident of Hollywood, California, before 10,000 fans in the Memphis,
TN, Municipal Auditorium.
McShain became one of the all-time great drawing cards and his colorful style
made the entire junior heavyweight division one of the standout classes in professional
wrestling. but everything must end sometime and Danny made the mistake of risking
his belt against a rugged Italian named Baron
Leone in the Hollywood Legion Stadium in 1954. The Baron, who had a tremendous
nationwide following on television, upset the prediction of many experts and
flattened the strutting McShain. Wrestling was just getting a toehold on television
screens throughout the nation and the matches at the Hollywood Stadium, and
later at the downtown Los Angeles Olympic auditorium, were among the first to
be filmed for television. It was quite natural that people in Atlanta, Memphis,
St. Louis and other wrestling centers would want to see the stars who were being
made on the brand new instrument of entertainment. Leone made a pot of money
appearing in clubs throughout the country and decided to retire after he lost
the world's belt to Ed Francis of Columbus, Ohio, in Tulsa, Okla., in 1956.
Leone had sustained a neck injury some time prior to his title bout with Francis,
and this loss made him determined to give up the mat sport for fear of becoming
a permanent cripple. Luckily this did not happen and the Baron is basking in
the sunlight each day at his plantation home in Santa Monica, California, no
doubt dreaming of some of his great exploits in the grappling game. While a
junior heavyweight, Leone wrestled the World's Heavyweight Champion Lou Thesz
of St. Louis. This match was promoted by the late Johnny Doyle at Gilmore Stadium
and it drew one of wrestling's all time record houses of 25,000 fans who paid
a record gate of $103,000. Not a bad house even today.
Francis, who makes his bread as the promoter in Hawaii, was beaten for
the world's crown in Oklahoma City in 1956 by a former college star
from the University of Nebraska, Iron Mike DiBiase. Mike had been a
national college champion and is remembered as one of the toughest
linemen ever to wear a Nebraska football uniform. DiBiase was really a
heavyweight and his effort to keep his weight down to the junior
heavyweight limit so weakened him that he was never really up to par
while defending the junior heavyweight belt.
This could have contributed to his defeat when he was beaten in 1957 by
a newcomer to the midwestern circles, Irish Mike Clancy from Boston.
Irish Mike became such a star among the junior heavyweights that he
made his home in the center of the activity in this division, Tulsa,
Okla. The Boston Irishman now works on the Sheriff's force in his
adopted home. Clancy ruled the roost among the junior heavyweights for
three years until 1958 when he ran afoul of Angelo Savoldi of
Parsippany, J.J. in the Oklahoma City Coliseum. Savoldi edged Clancy
after a Herculean battle and their numerous rematches were all-out
warfare. Angelo developed into a great drawing card and battled his
way to victories in every title defense for two years, until he ran
into one of wrestling's all-time stars, Danny Hodge, of Perry, Oklahoma.
Hodge had been a three-time National A.A.U. champion, and also a
three-time winner of the National Collegiate medal in his weight
division, something no other amateur wrestler in the country can boast.
Danny also made history by moving into boxing after finishing up his
collegiate career and after 39 amateur bouts he won the Golden Gloves
Heavyweight Championship in the famous tournaments which were held each
year in those days, at the Chicago Stadium. Hodge kayoed every
opponent and when the Chicago team met the New York Golden Gloves
winners Danny again cooled off his heavyweight opponent by a knockout
in the second round. After a short stint at professional boxing, Hodge
was encouraged to return to wrestling by the old-time champion, LeRoy
McGuirk, who was and is the promoter in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. This
move was a wise one for Danny because he fought his way straight to a
title shot with Savoldi and in June of 1960 in Oklahoma City
Danny outfought and outwrestled the very tough Angelo for the much
coveted junior heavyweight belt.
Hodge appeared unbeatable and this about tells the story to date. Just
about, that is, except that one night in 1964 Florida's Hiro Matsuda of
Japan surprised the wrestling world by defeating the heretofore
unbeatable Hodge in a televised match at Tampa, Florida. Danny
immediately took off from his wrestling duties and went into strict
training, with a picture of the tall Japanese champion pinning his
shoulders to the canvas always in his mind.
Danny had won 39 straight matches while in college, all by pins, and
the experience of being pinned himself was not a pleasant one.
McGuirk outbid promoters throughout the country to land a rematch
between Hodge and Matsuda and he succeeded in signing the bout for the
newly constructed 10,000 seat Tulsa Civic Center Arena in January of
1965. It was one of the greatest battles ever seen in Oklahoma and the
arena was a bedlam when Danny won the third and deciding fall from
Matsuda to regain the championship.
And that's where the belt rests now. Right in Hodge's home at Perry,
Oklahoma. Still a small town, Perry has about 5,300 citizens. Hodge
is one of Oklahoma's all time greats and finding someone to defeat him
for the belt looks impossible. Notable in the Junior Heavyweight
Division history are four former college stars, McGuirk of Oklahoma
State, Gagne of Minnesota, DiBiase of Nebraska and Hodge of Oklahoma
University. All held the championship. McGuirk held the belt for a
record of ten years before blindness overtook him and Hodge seems
destined to break this record.
A final footnote to the Junior Heavyweight history. It has been
impossible, in this short space, to name the many stars who have made
this division one of the greatest in wrestling. Because of the
increase in size of the heavyweights, many of whom now weigh 250 pounds
or more, the National Wrestling Alliance, which took over as the
leading organization in professional wrestling in 1947, has advanced
the weight limit of the junior heavyweight division to a hefty 220
pounds. Had this limit been in effect all the time the junior
heavyweight division has been in operation, some of those bothered by
reducing to the then required 190 pounds, might have made this brief
history considerably different.
If you want to see speed, and wrestling at its very best, don't forget
to see the junior heavyweights in action the next chance you get.
EDITOR'S NOTE: After the great story on the history of the World's
Junior Heavyweight Championship was prepared by LeRoy McGuirk and his
staff in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a shocking development took place. On May
20th, in New Orleans, Louisiana, Danny Hodge lost the World's Junior
Heavyweight Championship to Roger "Rip" Kirby. This title was clouded
in controversy for several months but the matter was resolved at the
National Wrestling Alliance convention in Mexico City on August 26th,
when that body voted to confirm that Hodge had indeed lost the title
and that Kirby had won a valid victory to become the current NWA
World's Junior Heavyweight Champion.
Article provided by Mike Rogers. Thanks to John D. Williams, it was confirmed that the dates before 1940 mentioned in this article were wrong. See World
Junior Heavyweight Title for correct dates. Thanks also to Sam Mike for the magazine cover.