Chicago was once king of the ring in pro wrestling

Behind the outsized characters and good-versus-evil narratives, promoters used TV and strongarm business deals to put Chicago on the map.

Curious City wrestling thumb
Photos courtesy Scott Teal. Headlines courtesy Chicago Sun-Times archives. Collage by Maggie Sivit / WBEZ
Curious City wrestling thumb
Photos courtesy Scott Teal. Headlines courtesy Chicago Sun-Times archives. Collage by Maggie Sivit / WBEZ

Chicago was once king of the ring in pro wrestling

Behind the outsized characters and good-versus-evil narratives, promoters used TV and strongarm business deals to put Chicago on the map.

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What is pro wrestling anyway? Is it a skilled and athletic sport? Is it breathtaking entertainment?

“It’s both,” according to pro wrestler Scott Colton, aka Colt Cabana. “It’s a genre unlike anything in the world.”

Cabana ought to know. The host of the Art of Wrestling podcast has been a professional wrestler for more than 20 years.

“I call [wrestling] improvised sports theatrics in the round,” he said. “Obviously, you have to be athletic, you have to be coordinated in order to perform these moves at the highest level. But you also have to be entertaining … in order to keep the people’s attention.”

Pro wrestling is also a sport with a long history built on sacred oaths, sleight of hand, rigged matches, outsized personalities, headbutts and body slams. In the United States it’s evolved from its early days as a carnival sideshow to a billion dollar industry. Along the way, in the mid-twentieth century, Chicago — this brawling, bruising city — once played a starring role.

An age-old activity

Wrestling’s known as one of the oldest human contact sports. Cave drawings thousands of years old show a remarkable resemblance to the holds and stances seen today in flashy televised bouts and in organized school athletics.

People have been wrestling in North America for centuries.

In the early 1800s, well before he became the U.S. President, a tall, lanky guy named Abraham Lincoln was an amateur wrestler in Illinois. He was tough, a fan of the “chokeslam,” and often dominated his opponents.

In the years after the Civil War, wrestling took on some of the professional elements that underscore the sport versus entertainment question that still surrounds it today.

If you go back into … the late 1800s, the early 1900s … [wrestlers] had to travel around the country and usually be at a carnival or a small venue, like sometimes they were in taverns or bars,” said George Schire, a historian and author of Minnesota’s Golden Age of Wrestling: From Verne Gagne to the Road Warriors.

The carnivals, with their sword swallowers, fortune tellers and games of chance crafted to prey on gullible patrons, were the perfect setting for the athletic but often rigged wrestling matches.

When the carnival came to town a wrestling bout usually involved two men locked in grappling holds and flinging each other around the canvas. It was a carnival side show of action and pathos that offered a distraction from everyday life, drawing crowds from the farmlands and prairies, little towns and big cities.

There was also money to be made. But the price of admission wasn’t the only cash people would drop.

Carnival wrestlers would often collaborate with other traveling wrestlers known as “barnstormers,” according to Scott Teal. Teal, a pro wrestling historian who publishes books about the sport, says barnstormers would “go from town to town and they’d send in guys ahead of time to start talking up the match.”

Historian George Schire says the idea was to create some buzz about the fighters, and further tempt locals with prize money if they could last in the ring with these pro ruffians. They’d also want townies to lay down bets on their hometown hooligan or maybe on the burly traveling wrestler. Sometimes they’d have a plant, perhaps a local farm kid who was there to wrestle and knew something the audience didn’t — that the outcome was predetermined.

It was show business. But it was also athletic. Because the wrestlers would take on all comers — not all matches were shams. They had to be genuinely tough guys with actual wrestling skills, Schire said, so they were able to protect themselves.

Wrestling becomes more than just a carnival sideshow

By the 1920s, wrestling was becoming more professionalized. It was moving away from the traveling carnivals and barnstorming circuits and into a more locally based system made up of small independent owners — all across the country — known in the biz as “promoters.”

Wrestling promoter Fred Kohler
Longtime wrestling promoter Fred Kohler. Courtesy Scott Teal
“You’d have promoters throughout the state and each of them had their own individual towns,” Teal said.

These promoters were people like a stocky guy out of Chicago named Fred Kohler. Kohler was born Fred Koch and started out as a wrestler. A Chicago Tribune article from Aug. 25, 1969 said Kohler began promoting wrestling bouts in the back of his dad’s tavern in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, then later at larger venues throughout the city.

Kohler was known for his imagination as a promoter. According to that same Tribune article, he once put a real bear in the ring.

He would have an outsized impact on Chicago and its upcoming golden age of wrestling — in more ways than one.

Getting organized into territories

By the early 1930s, some promoters were making serious cash. And it could get cutthroat. Scott Teal says that bigger promoters would move in on smaller promoters’ areas, putting the smaller ones “out of business.”

Pretty soon big promoters like Kohler could develop a homebase: a circuit of cities and towns, then regions and eventually an entire “territory.”

By the 1940s, there were dozens of independent wrestling territories all across the country. It could get confusing for fans, with so many different rules, different wrestlers and even different title holders.

Chicago spectators at a wrestling match in 1949
Spectators watch a wrestling match in Chicago in 1949. Stanley Kubrick / Courtesy Library of Congress

After World War II, a group of some of the biggest and most powerful promoters decided something needed to change within the world of wrestling. So they banded together to become the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), an alliance of all their territories. It was about as close as pro wrestling would ever come to the “national league” model with a centralized body making all the rules.

But this move wasn’t necessarily about improving the sport. Richard Vicek, author of Bruiser: The World’s Most Dangerous Wrestler, said the NWA was “a monopoly-like umbrella organization for professional wrestling.”

These promoters wanted to control pro wrestling in the United States.

“By working together they would maximize all their profits, all their hold,“ said current NWA owner William Corgan, “and they would be able to shut out anybody else making a challenge to them on any kind of local or regional level.”

It was a racket. And in 1949 Fred Kohler and his Chicago operation would join its ranks at just the right moment.

Television makes Chicago king of the ring

Kohler may have started his operation in his father’s bar, but he was now booking shows in premier venues throughout Chicago. He had the top wrestlers under contract and the Illinois State Athletic Commission — the governing body for all pro sports in Illinois — in his pocket, according to the book National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly that Strangled Professional Wrestling by Tim Hornbaker.

He was now running pro wrestling in Chicago and in 1946 he brought the sport to television in a show called Wrestling From Rainbo. It was a huge hit.

Wrestling at Marigold Arena in Chicago
An advertisement for a wrestling match at Marigold Arena promoted by Fred Kohler in 1957. Courtesy Scott Teal
Neighbors on the block would gather at the home of the family with a television on wrestling night. Stores in downtown Chicago put TVs in the windows so people could watch wrestling. Television was a great promotion. Kohler’s show, with its flashy maneuvers and athletic moves, was an early version of what you can see today in professional wrestling.

At first, some promoters worried that televised wrestling would eat into box office sales. TV had the opposite effect. In time, Kohler was putting on a second local, weekly show, then a third.

The TV shows were “cheap” and easy to produce, said former wrestling promoter Bob Brooks, who described two-camera shots with one camera getting the width of the ring and the other catching a more close-up view.

But even with the NWA as a governing body — and the growing popularity of television — wrestling was still a local business, airing on local TV. It needed something bigger.

In 1949, Fred Kohler did something that seems normal these days. He brought his new TV wrestling show into living rooms across America, through a contract with the DuMont Television Network.

DuMont was a budding network with semi-national reach. Kohler called the show Wrestling from Marigold. Locally it aired on WGN.

The ‘Golden Age’ of Chicago wrestling

“Chicago was it during those years,” said historian and author Richard Vicek. “Fred Kohler called the shots … He decided which wrestlers were going to get the big promotion. Who’s going to win or lose, who’s going to be brought in, who’s going to be sent walking.”

Into the early 1950s, Kohler was on top of the wrestling world. And his energy and vision brought attention and top wrestlers to the Windy City.

Kohler knew wrestling’s history and that meant he had to bring his TV audience drama and dash in bigger doses. What better way than to return to wrestling’s earlier days featuring matches between heroes and villains — or in wrestling parlance “babyfaces” and “heels”?

One of these early babyfaces Kohler brought to a national audience was Verne Gagne.

Verne Gagne and Johnny Valentine
Left: Babyface Verne Gagne demonstrates a sleeper hold. Right: Fred Kohler and wrestler Johnny Valentine, who alternated between being a babyface and a heel. Courtesy Scott Teal

Gagne’s son, Greg Gagne, said his dad had a childhood dream to be a wrestler, but was also a successful football player. He was drafted by the Chicago Bears, but let go by Bears owner George Halas.

Kohler recruited Gagne to wrestle and according to Greg Gagne, his dad refused to do some of the wild things Kohler wanted him to do, like dress up like a martian and be lowered from the ceiling down to the ring.

“He told him ‘no’ … I want to go down to the ring, and you can bring these guys in — everybody here in the locker room. I’ll wrestle them one at a time, two at a time, three at a time. And if I can’t beat them all, I’ll quit.”

No one would get in the ring with him.

Verne Gagne and Dick the Bruiser wrestling
Verne Gagne and Dick the Bruiser. Courtesy Scott Teal
Gagne’s physique and genuine wrestling talent helped him win over audiences. And Kohler’s national reach helped make Gagne a star.

But if wrestling was going to continue as a morality play between the heroes and the villains, the babyfaces needed some heels: wrestlers like Bill Afflis, aka Dick the Bruiser.

The headline from a 1955 article in Wrestling Life, which Kohler published, boasted about Dick the Bruiser: “The Romans had their great gladiators… Medieval history had its mighty torturers… and we have The Bruiser.”

Bruiser was a hulking brickhouse of a man barreling down on his opponent, ignoring the rules of the ring as he squared off to clobber his foe.

And he didn’t sound nice, either. With a “voice like a ruptured foghorn” and a temperament to match, Dick the Bruiser was foreboding. Fans loved to hate him, wrote author Richard Vicek.

Chicago’s ‘Golden Age’ comes to an end

Kohler seemed unstoppable and so did Chicago’s ‘Golden Age’ of wrestling – until the winter of 1955. That’s when the DuMont network, embroiled in financial crises, canceled Kohler’s Wrestling From Marigold show. Within a year, the DuMont network would fold.

Without the show, Kohler’s bread-and-butter was largely gone, along with his power and influence over the pro wrestling industry. Then, in the spring of 1957, WGN — his longtime Chicago broadcast partner — also cut its ties with Kohler.

As his business was going down, so was Chicago’s influence in the wrestling industry. But what Fred Kohler created on television during that golden age of professional wrestling — bawdy matches, over-the-top theatrics, heroes versus villains — is still the stuff of wrestling theater today.

Joe DeCeault is a senior producer of podcasts for WBEZ. Follow him @joedeceault