By Jim Phillips, Columnist
Happy Thursday, Bruthas and Sistas, and welcome back to this week’s edition of Wrestling Territories. I hope everyone has their boarding passes ready, and made it through TSA, cause were wheels up at Portland International Airport, headed for Detroit Rock City and the Big Time Wrestling promotion. Tell Doc Brown to set the dials for 1922, and hang on, cause here we go.
Nick Londos first brought professional wrestling to 5920 Grand River Avenue at The Detroit Olympia in the early Twenties. The territory gained a following and became contested by several promoters over the next fifteen years. One of the men that drew strongly during those years was a bushy eyebrowed heel, who made creating chaos, and enforcing it with a stiff right, was one “Wild Bull” Curry.
Born Fred Koury, on May 2, 1913, Curry is credited with originating the hardcore style of wrestling, and enraging fans all across the country with his treacherous, underhanded tactics that usually led to the beloved, babyface hero laying sprawled out in a mess. His career in entertaining the fans, or terrorizing to be more precise, began in his teenage years when he joined a local circus to help make ends meat for his younger brothers and sisters. He would take on all comers and never lost a match, for sixty-five straight bouts. He also worked as a policeman later in his life before he started wrestling. It was then that he earned his nickname of “Wild Bull”, with a story being told of him grabbing a escaped bull by the horns and wrestling it to the street, where it could once gain be put back in its corral.
Curry began to train and work as a wrestler in the Thirties, under the era that Adam Weissmueller was running the Detroit area. He learned his craft and focused on the role of heel that would bring him fame as his career grew. His crazed hardcore style, and look of the wild man made him an instant bad guy with the fans. Many heels during those days, also used their foreign nationalities to make them an easier foil to the homegrown American wrestlers. This is seen predominately in the Northeast and Northern territories, with the influx of immigrants around the time of the World Wars that were ripping apart the globe and casting families to the winds. The Wild Bull continued to create havoc in The Red Barn, as the Olympia became to be know by the local Red Wing fans, for the next year or so. He worked the territory until he moved onto Texas, where the fans would take their hatred of him to another level.
Just a few of the events surrounding Curry’s Texas exploits include; He and Ray McIntyre had a match where a riot broke out and more than 140 fans had to be taken to the hospital. There was also an incident where a fan hit Curry with a pipe, and then ran into the stands, like a true tough guy, thinking he would be safe. Nothing would be farther from the truth, as Curry chased him into the crowd and proceeded to beat him senseless, which let’s be honest, probably didn’t take very long. Known for his brick of a right hand, he broke the jaw of one fan who decided to try him in Texas, and still later in 1968, yet another fan tried jumping on his back in order to save his favorite hero from the abuse of Curry, only to be hit so hard he was knocked unconscious for several hours. Just by looking at Wild Bull Curry, and watching his wrestling tactics, a person would have to be of the mentally unbalanced persuasion to even try to have a go at him. To paraphrase Dave Chapelle’s Rick James…..”adrenaline is a helluva drug.” Hahahaha. Curry retired from the ring in the Seventies and passed away in 1985. He was one of the most hated wrestlers of all time, and I love him for embracing that, and living the role of the Heel.
Weissmueller held the reigns through these years and with the help of his assistant, Harry Light, they kept wrestling going in Detroit. After the passing of his mentor in 1937, Light worked with the man that took over the booking for a year or so before he decided to break off on his own and start a new promotion. He brought on Jack Britton, as well as booker Bert Ruby, and he formed The Harry Light Wrestling Office. They launched Big Time Wrestling and started promoting shows at the Arena Gardens in the Fall of 1945.
It was under the leadership of Light that Detroit wrestling grew it’s foundations and expanded it’s fan-base. Once he had their attention, he held it buy securing time on local Channel 7 in Detroit. The Big Time Wrestling program drew even more fans to their ranks, while cutting the production costs of promoting several live shows a month. They started working a weekly wrestling show at The Olympic and using the relatively cheap pipeline of television to keep their fans on the hook. Then a year later he forged ahead once again by joining with five other promoters across the country to form the National Wrestling Alliance. He worked in collaboration with the other NWA owners to advance the professional wrestling business over the next decade, while he held sway over the Detroit area. But as we have learned from our study of the territories, very rarely does a good thing last and competition will always be King in America.
Just as quickly as he grew his brand, the Harry Light Wrestling Office suffered it’s first major blow when Bert Ruby broke off on his own and formed his Wolverine Wrestling promotion and ran in competition with Light. Two years later, another outlaw promotion headed by a young Jim Barnett, and partner John Doyle started to run shows at the newly opened Cobo Hall. Fighting a promotional war on two fronts took it’s toll on Light, who stepped aside, as the two other factions took control over the old Detroit wrestling scene. Harry light passed away the day before Hell Night, 1971. He was seventy-three years old.
Wrestling was as hot as the Motown movement in the early 60‘s in the Motor City. The NWA US Heavyweight Championship was re-christened under the NWA Detroit banner, and it became a hotly sought after title as the decade kicked off. Bobo Brazil, Fritz Von Erich, Lord Layton, and Dick the Bruiser all battled over the title over the next four years. The territory would get yet another managerial shake-up in the early Sixties, but this team would keep control over Detroit for the next twenty-five years.
In 1964, Francis Fleser bought out the pair of Barnett & Doyle for fifty thousand dollars. to gain the Big Time Wrestling brand, which included the promotional rights to the now powerhouse venue at Cobo Hall. He began to run multiple weekly shows through their TV outlet at Channel 7, as well as weekly events at Cobo, with everything centered around his booker, and son-in-law.
Edward Farhat was born in Lansing, Michigan in 1924, but the incarnation of his personality that he would forever become intertwined with was born twenty-five years later. First wrestling as The Sheik of Araby, he debuted in the Chicago market and spent a short time in Texas, and New York before coming back to his home state of Michigan to make his bones in the business. Building on the groundwork laid down by Wild Bull Curry, The Sheik became feared for his crazed in-ring tactics and he proliferated the use of the concealed foreign object. Heel to the hilt, The Sheik would choose his moment, and then brandish the object, normally a pencil, and dig it into the forehead of his screaming opponent. Originally managed by The Grand Wizard of Wrestling, The Sheik would play games with whoever he was facing by employing the same strategy as that of today’s Tetsuya Naito, and remain tranquilo as he would place a mat in the ring and go through a prayer ritual to Allah before his match.
As much as the Sheik was hated, his longtime nemesis, Bobo Brazil was loved by the Detroit fans. Bobo was born Houston Harris, only a month after Farhat in 1924, in Little Rock, Arkansas. He lived for a short time in East St. Louis, before following what he thought would be a baseball career in the Negro League, to Michigan. When that didn’t go as planned, he went to work in the steel mills, where he was noticed by another wrestler, who encouraged the young Harris to try his hand at the business. He took up the training, and he soon realized that wrestling was his calling. He started working at BTW in the mid-Sixties, when he ran head long into the diabolical Sheik. The chemistry was instant, and the two would go to sell out Cobo Hall on several occasions as they battled over the NWA US title for decades to follow.
Brazil went on to a storied career and broke racial barriers at every promotion he worked for. While many recognize Ron Simmons as the first African American Heavyweight Champion, capturing the title during his time at WCW, it is a often overlooked fact that Bobo Brazil won the NWA Heavyweight Title almost thirty years earlier when he took that belt from Bruno Sammartino in 1962. Brazil retired in 1993, and was inducted into the WWF Hall of Fame in the Class of 1994, by “Big Cat” Ernie Ladd. He died four years later at age 73, after suffering a series of strokes.
1964 also saw longtime Detroit, and Mid-Western wrestler Dick the Bruiser splinter off, and start up his own promotion in Indiana that ran in competition with Big Time Detroit. This will be covered in next week’s territories, but sufficed to say, it was another thorn in the side, promotionally, for Fleser.
The Sheik continued to tour the States and into Canada while he was working out of Detroit. This put more money in his pockets, as well as brought attention to the BTW territory, through his wild behavior and the name it was garnering among the fans. After he took the belt off of Bobo Brazil for the last time in 1976, The Sheik bounced around between adversaries. The one thing that can hurt a heel, is not having a babyface that the fans love to work against. The Sheik worked several would be opponents during this time, one of which was a local boy that rose to the top of Big Time just before it closed it’s doors.
Richard Garza never started out to be a professional wrestler. Born in Dearborn in 1931, the strapping young man took to bodybuilding and won the Mr. Michigan title in 1954, as well as participating in both the Mr. America, and Mr. Universe competitions. In what is great example of the day, and a wonderfully funny break-in story, Bert Ruby approached him with a job offer, when he watched Garza knock wrestler Brute Bernard out cold, after an argument. No modern-day training camp needed for the man that would be billed as The Mighty Igor.
He worked the majority of his career in the Mid-West and spent some time in the AWA as well, capturing the AWA Heavyweight title from Mad Dog Vachon, and building on his Mighty Igor character. It can be best described as Hillybilly Jim meets Ivan Putski, as he used his own spin on the Polish Power idea by being more soft spoken, and performing feats of strength to ingratiate himself to the fans, which helped maintain his babyface persona. Well, we all know the bloodthirsty Sheik was having none of that. The two battled into the late Seventies over the NWA US title. He would be the last man besides the Sheik to hold the Detroit version of that title. Garza was rushed to the hospital after suffering a major heart attack in 2002. He died subsequent to arrival there. He was seventy years old.
Things started to go downhill for Big Time Detroit in the late Seventies, and it finally closed shop with it’s last show at the Michigan State Fairgrounds Coliseum in 1980. Their NWA US Heavyweight Title was retired, and the promotion closed. It was only the matter of a year before the WWF juggernaut marched into Detroit and took over it’s regular bookings.
The Sheik continued on after the demise of Big Time Wrestling Detroit, and worked in Japan during the Nineties and made his presence felt, in apropos fashion, at the new home of hardcore wrestling at ECW in 1994. He would later train his nephew Sabu, along with Sabu’s tag partner, the Human Highlight Reel, RVD, both of which would take that promotion by storm, and hold it’s fans captivated by their death defying wrestling style. Edward “The Sheik” Farhat died from a heart attack in his home in 2003 at the age of seventy-eight.
As I’ve done this series, there have been a few promotions that I was unable to see as a youth, and I consider that unfortunate. I would have loved to have been able to have seen the product out of Detroit in the Seventies. Like all the rest of those great promotions, it only lives on scratchy Internet feeds, on the rare VHS tape, and in the memories of those that were there to be a part of it. I hope that one result of this series is that people, especially the young fans, search out these archived pieces of footage from all the territories we have examined. Our wrestling history truly is gold Bruthas and Sistas….DIG IT!!
Additional photo credit: Dave Drason Burzynski