New Zealand Wrestling History Part 3 - The 1950's
Dave Cameron - New Zealand Martial Arts Magazine - (unknown)
New Zealand wrestling fans were indeed very fortunate to see many of the world's leading wrestlers visit our shores during the 1950's. Pat 0'Conner, our top amateur heavyweight star, headed off to seek fame and fortune in the United States and he did succeed in becoming our first ever World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion. He was spotted by American wrestlers Len Levy and Joe Pazandak, working out in Koolmans Gym in Wellington in the late 1940's and recommended to Tony Stetcher in Minneapolis. The rest is history. Pat became a superstar in the United States. 1950 saw the return of Earl McCready and Ken Kenneth, but also some new talent in young Australian Al Costello and the great Indian wrestler ArjanDas. Another Indian boy Prince Bhu Pinder, who had been here in the 1930's, reappeared, but he was by this time past his peak and as New Zealand fans demanded plenty of action in their matches, they would not tolerate wrestlers who simply lived on their reputations. Another giant in Frenchman Felix Miquet, saw his fans getting great matches with McCready, Das and Costello plus the speedy dropkick expert from USA, Flash Gordon. Joe Campbell, Hal Keene and Lou Stoberg made up the team for 1950. Al Costello proved the find of the season and was to prove a big money spinner in future years. He could do anything in the ring, many of his holds unorthodox and the fans always went away happy. He could sing as well and appeared in many concerts in New Zealand. He was trained as a opera singer and sang with Dame Joan Sutherland, the famous Australian opera star. After his success in winning the Silver Medal at the 1950 British Empire Games in Auckland, Pat 0'Conner headed to the United States to-further his pro-career. 1951 saw the clever ex-amateur Champion from America in Don Arnold, a real 'Box of Tricks' and this boy could really wrestle. The return of the dropkick artists, George Pencheff and Negro Jack Claybourne, plus old foes Dick Raines and Earl McCready ensured a good season for 1951. Al Costello, muscleman Pete Peter-son. Ken Kenneth, Jack Hader, Joe Benecaa and an ex-heavyweight champion of the world from the 1930's in Dave Levin completed the team. Dave Levin showed some brilliance, but was probably past his peak and slightly smaller than the others. "Dirty" Dick Raines and Al Costello were the "bad guys" and always kept the Police busy and broke the laws whenever they saw the opportunity. 1952 saw the return of the great Joe Pazandak, Earl McCready, Al Costello and Ken Kenneth and newcomers in Roy McLarty from Canada and Ivan Kameroff from the U.S.A. 1953 was the best year we saw the great Canadian star Earl McCready. He retired back in the United States and opened up a Massage Palour. Earl was a qualified masseur and had plenty of customers as his reputation was worldwide. The great Indian Arjan Das returned so we saw many of these mammoth struggles with Earl McCready and the small lighter heavyweights in Don Beitelman and Lucky Simmunovich, who provided the dropkicks and flying tackles. The huge Negro star from the United States, Bobo Wright called in and he fourteen contests here. He created lots ofattention when out walking in the cities before his bouts. A six foot eight inch Negro was quite a rarity in those days. The young Lebanese star Sheik Wadi Ayoub came in for a brief visit in '53 and had three matches here. He had a beautiful body and was here to gain experience. Ken Kenneth had a few bouts in between his American visits and another New Zealand boy in Ray Clarke was given his chance in 1953. Ray had done well in England and Canada, where the smaller 'heavies' were in big demand. 1954 saw one of the greatest showmen of New Zealand wrestling history arrive here. The Great Zorro from Holland arrived from Australia unheralded and was a sensation from the moment he stepped into the ring at the Auckland Town Hall. Like a caged lion, he pranced up and down between rounds, scowling at everyone in sight and certainly gave the referee's and Police a hard time. He was known for his beautiful red silk dressing gown - cloaks -but what a showman. And Zorro could wrestle. Years later he became a sensation at New York's Madison Square Gardens and was a sellout performer there for many years. Al Costello also went on to be a top liner in the U.S. and very big money earner in wrestling history. 1954 also saw Al Costello, Don Beitelman, Don Arnold, Bobo Wright and Ray Clarke back in action and newcomers Pat McGill, Don Kindred, an American Negro and Jack Pesek. Jack Pesek's Dad Jon was an all time great wrestler in America and did wrestle here in 1929. A good season with big houses was 1954. Some of the big name showmen and gimmick men of wrestling wanted to come to New Zealand and had reached Australia, but Walter Miller the promoter, wanted to keep the sport here free from 'gimmicks' as long as possible. The freaks and clowns of wrestling had long been part of the sport in the USA but Walter Miller had always ensured that it kept a good clean image in New Zealand. The pro's were brought in to foster the Amateur sport here, so a good image was always necessary. Gorgeous George and Primo Camera, the ex Boxing Champion wanted to come here but Walter said no. New Zealand is not ready for the showmen and freaks. 1955 saw the return of Zorro, Al Costello, Don Beitelman, Lucky Simunovich and newcomers in. Steve Gob, Ted Christy, Samoan Alo Leilani, Frank Marconi and Francois Miquet, brother of big Felix who was here in 1950. 1956 was the year all New Zealand wrestling fans had waited for. The return of our own star Pat O'Connor. The Wanganui boy had made it to the States and fans here were eager to see his style. They were not to be disappointed as Pat had turned into a beautiful wrestler. Pat went on through an unbeaten season of thirty bouts and I was lucky to have seen some of the best wrestling I have ever seen in a lifetime of watching wrestling. The young ex blacksmith from Raetihi had leaned his trade well so we were not surprised when he won the World Crown in 1959. Stars of 1956 season were Zorro, Al Costello, Don Beitelman, Jack Claybourne, Johnny Kostas, Ivan Laipler, Doug Dawkins and Ramon Cemandes from Argentina. 1957 saw another giant in Sky Hi Lee, the genial Texan who popped over from Australia, Negro star Ricky Waldo, Jessie James, Lucky Simunovich, Abe Zukov, Jim LaRock, the ex amateur champion of USA and Negro Luther Lindsay. Things were slowing down a bit by 1957 with less matches than in the mid 50 years. By 1958 Walter Miller was crippled up with arthritis, but was still running the wrestling office. However he finally weakened on his stance and the 'gimmick' men came in. The giant American The Zebra Kid, The Elephant Boy Tony Olivas and blonde Gorgeous George look alike George McKay all came in to show their wares. The "Zebra Kid" George Bollas was an ex amateur champion and he could wrestle, but the zebra masks were a bit much for the wrestling purists. When he first appeared against the Elephant Boy it was not uncommon for cabbages and other vegetables to be thrown into the ring. The Zebra Kid was a huge 25 stone giant of a man, but he was very agile and his hobby was playing table tennis. He was good as well and played against the Wellington Champion. The Elephant Boy and George McKay were smaller boys and great showmen, so the crowds were still coming in 1958. Chatham Island boy Abe Jacobs got his start in '58. He had been New Zealand amateur champ for a couple of years and had been working out with the professionals and he finally got his start in Hastings. Abe never looked back and eventually settled in the United States. He became a World Champion in tag events. Earlier this year Abe made a rare visit back to the remote Chatham Islands. Two top stars of the '58 season were world class boys schooled in European style of wrestling as well as the American rough tough style in "Texas" Jack Bence and Andre Drapp the body beautiful from France. When these two were on together excellent matches resulted, so all the unions were keen to match these two boys. They really brought scientific wrestling back to New Zealand. Another local boy to get his start in '58 was Anton Koolman trained Dick Hrstich from Wellington. Dick was a champion amateur and he could wrestle. Dick was another boy we lost to the United States. He later became Ray Gordon and was a successful pro in Canada and the USA. Also in '58 another New Zealand boy who made good in England and Canada returned to New Zealand. He was Ghristchurch boy Fred Wright. Fred had a couple of seasons before he retired from the sport. 1959 saw the return of Jack Bence and Andre Drapp by popular demand. Max Styne and Frank Hurley came in from Australia, Carlos Moreno came from Mexico and Harry Smith and Steve Stanlee came from the United States. Braka Cortez came in from Switzerland and New Zealand Maori boy from Gisboume got his start in pro wrestling. Keita Meretana was a relation of the great Maori grappler Ike Robin, so he had a head start in the game. Keita later went to the United States and Europe and came here to retire in Wellington. Jim Londos, the Golden Greek and one of wrestling's great champions came out over from Australia for one match in Auckland. Of course Jim was getting on in years by this time, but over in Australia the fans were still flocking to see the aging champ. He appeared at Western Springs Stadium against New Zealander Fred Wright. This was not promoted by the New Zealand Union but a rising Auckland group called the South Pacific Wrestling Association. Their boss was Ernie Pinches, a former Lightheavy Champion of New Zealand and a semi pro earlier on. The semi pro's often went on before the main bouts and featured some very colorful boys who found it hard to break in to pro wrestling through the New Zealand Union.