By Jim Phillips, Columnist
Welcome back, Bruthas and Sistas, for another look back at the business we love. This week I wanna head up the Pacific Coast Highway to the City by the Bay with a look at the NWA territory that spawned Big Time Wrestling and dominated the Central and Northern California area for years.
The history of wrestling in California goes back to the days of the traveling carny circuit, and the earliest incarnations of what professional wrestling would evolve out of. The wrestling environment was especially localized out on the West Coast, due primarily, to the sheer logistics of it’s distance from the rest of the wrestling world. The man that first started to close that gap was Joe Malcewicz.
Malcewicz, who had once wrestled under the name “The Utica Panther”, went into promoting in the Thirties, and in 1935 he purchased the majority rights to the lease of the New Dreamland Auditorium, better known as The Winterland Arena later, and started to run wrestling events there shortly after. He soon gained access to the Northern California and Nevada markets, and his expansion was well underway.
He joined the upstart NWA in 1949, and expanded his territory city wide across San Francisco, and solidified his presence as THE place to work in the Bay area. Throughout the early Fifties he opened his doors to an influx of wrestlers through his work with 50th Big State in Hawaii and Rikidozan’s Japan Wrestling Association. Things were going strong, but as we all know, nothing great lasts forever and it wasn’t long before the another promoter came looking to cash in on the lucrative territory Malcewicz had created.
Roy Shire, the man better known as “The Professor” to the fans of the area, was a wrestler that worked for Joe M. for several years in the Fifties, until he caught a pretty severe knee injury in the ring and decided to break out on his own in the promoting game. As we have seen so many times before in this series, more often that not, a promotion’s competition comes as an insurrection by former, or current employees. When someone works at anyplace long enough, they begin to feel like they can run the business better than management. In some cases this is true, but in all cases it causes friction.
Shire decided it was time to try his hand at promoting, and started his Pacific Coast Athletic Corp. in 1960, despite fervent objections to the California State Athletic Commission by Malcewicz. Just as he feared, Shire immediately began running shows in direct competition against Joe M. Like so many other promotions that ran against the NWA, Shire’s was dismissed as an “outlaw” promotion. As much respect as I have for the NWA, I have that much more for any promotion that was willing to stand alone and get themselves over. The NWA held a protective umbrella over all of it’s affiliates and the name recognition alone would help them draw. “Outlaw” promotions had to hustle a little stronger, sell a little more, and bump still harder to get people to take notice. Once they had their attention, they would almost always win over the audience in the end. This would be no exception to that rule, and Big Time Wrestling from San Francisco was born in the fire of that competition.
Like any good businessman, Shire recognized the need for a notable venue, and to secure television time in the local markets. He approached a new network that, like him, was getting themselves off the ground. KTVU in Oakland had only been in operation for a few months when Shire acquired a time slot there on Friday evenings. Soon after he also started producing video for his new Big Time Wrestling show that he aired on KCRA in Sacramento. Shire was on his way to tolling the bells of defeat over the NWA, but his next move would cement his foothold in the Northern California market.
Every major promotion, no matter what city the originate from, has a great venue that they use as a homebase for their shows. Arenas like The Kiel, The Sportatorium, MSG, The Omni, and The Cow Palace in San Francisco, all have identities of their own that wrestling only helped to bolster.
What was originally The California Livestock Pavilion, The Cow Palace, has been home to major events of all kinds since it opened it’s doors in 1941. It has been the hosting home for everything from rodeo and roller derby, to Ringling Bros., and two Republican conventions. It’s safe to say that the Cow Palace has seen it all. It even served as deportation and embarkation station for soldiers headed to the Pacific during WWII. Roy Shire took up his residence there in 1961, with an event that was headlined by a blond haired heel that would become Shire’s centerpiece, and possibly the second most hated wrestler in California, after Fred Blassie.
Ray Stevens was born all the way on the other side of the country in West Virginia in 1935. He started working in professional wrestling only fifteen years later, when he was still a youth. He worked the NWA territories and held the Tag Titles with Shire, when they worked as the Shire Brothers. Seeing the talent of the young man early on, it was a only natural to bring him out to Big Time in 1961, just in time to lead the charge against Malcewicz’s NWA. Shire premiered his show at the Cow Palace with Stevens main-eventing his against “Cowboy” Bob Ellis. Stevens had taken the nickname of the “Blond Bomber” because he had become know for his Bomb’s Away knee drop finisher off the top rope to the neck of his prone opponent. It sealed the match and no-one was kicking out of it. The match sold out the Cow Palace, and drew nearly seventeen thousand fans. This was the end for the NWA and it folded the next year. Joe Malkewicz died only months later from a heart attack. He was sixty-five years old.
Shire’s Big Time continued to dominate their northern market into the 60‘s in the wake of their rival promoter’s passing. As they began 1962, a worthy opponent for Stevens made his presence known, and the two would have sell out the Cow Palace many times during their feud.
Pepper Gomez was no stranger to the wrestling fans of California and Mexico. Trained by Blackie Guzman, he had his first match in El Paso, Texas, in 1953. He went on to tour most of the Big Time promotions from Vancouver to Texas, where he was especially over. He was a highly decorated Champion in Texas in both the singles and tag rankings. He was also an avid bodybuilder and would regularly perform feats of strength that usually ended in him having someone repeatedly punch him in the stomach as hard as they could, actually having someone jump off a ladder onto his stomach as he lay on the ground beneath them. He once even had a VW Beetle drive over him, and that would garner him the nickname of the “man with the cast iron stomach”. Stevens would put him to the test during their feud and convince Gomez to let him jump off the top of a ladder to prove his stomach wasn’t as strong as he said. This led to Ray, in true heel fashion, using his Bomb’s Away finisher and caused Gomez to spit blood when Stevens landed on his neck, instead of his stomach. They worked that angle to a fever pitch, and a match at the Cow Palace in 1963, where the finisher was supposed to be Gomez using the ring bell to level his rival and win victorious without the referee noticing. It’s a classic spot, that’s been used many times in the ring before, and still to this day. Only, Gomez was a little closer than he thought and actually potatoed Stevens with the ringbell, knocking him out. After they realized that he wasn’t just selling and was really hurt, they took him to the hospital, still unconscious. Gomez was fined five thousand dollars by the State Athletic Commission, while the two still had high selling, well attended matches after that, it wasn’t until 1965 that Stevens really had another top level run in Big Time.
Pat Patterson was born in Montreal, Canada in 1941, and also began working in the professional wrestling business as a boy, at the age fourteen. He worked his way down the West Coast and into Big Time San Francisco in 1965. Shire quickly saw the potential in the tag team with Stevens and had Patterson dye his hair blond and the two became known, simply enough as The Blond Bombers. They captured their first tag team championship from the pair of The Destroyer and Red Lyons in the Spring of 1965, and held them for a year and a half. The Bombers would go on to see gold together on many occasions, in various territories. Patterson left for a short run in Japan, and when he returned he feuded with Stevens, who had turned face in his absence. They battled over the NWA US Heavyweight Championship in a bloody Texas Death Match in the Summer of 1970, that left them both a mess, and Stevens the victor of the Gold.
Ray Stevens left the west coast for the chilly winds of Minneapolis and the AWA not long after in 1971. It was there that he earned his nickname of “Crippler”, after breaking the leg of Dick Beyer’s, who was working under the mask of Dr. X. As some of you may remember, Beyers also worked in the WWA as The Destroyer. The AWA outlawed the Bomb’s Away finisher not long after this incident, but the Crippler’s legend was born. He went on to work for the WWF, but returned to the AWA to finish out his career, and retired from competition in 1992. Ray Stevens is considered by many to be the best wrestler of his generation, and lived up to the old adage of being able to have a match with a broomstick, and put the broom over. He passed away in his sleep, from a heart attack, at his home in 1996. He was sixty years old.
Pepper Gomez also worked for the AWA in the late Sixties and then ventured out to Indiana and worked for Dick”The Bruiser” and his World Wrestling Association there. He retired from the ring in 1982, but continued to work until his death in 2004. He passed away due to a gastric infection following an operation at the age of seventy-seven.
Pat Patterson left the Big Time San Francisco territory in 1977 and also went to the AWA where he shortly reunited with Ray Stevens as the Bombers, prior the Stevens becoming The Crippler. He made his way through Japan and into the home that he really made a name for himself, the WWF. His Boot Camp match with Sgt. Slaughter there in 1981 was, and is, one of the best of his career, in my opinion. Patterson is credited for the creation of the Royal Rumble, my personal favorite event of the year. After winning two, and participating in many of the 18-man battle royales in Big Time, one only has to wonder if that little promotion was where he first had the idea for such a unique version of the battle royal match. Pat had a strong run in the Attitude Era with cohort, Gerald Brisco as Vince’s stooges, that VKM so readily threw in harm’s way for his entertainment, and ours as well. He also has the distinction of being the first person to hold the Intercontinental Championship there, that he won in a tournament that is more legend and rib, than reality. Nevertheless, he will always have the honor of being the first in a lineage of great workers to hold that belt. All the way back to my youth watching Savage, Honky Tonk Man, Steamboat, The Hammer, and so many other top tier workers fight over that belt, it gave it more significance to me than the title carried by the anointed champ, Hogan. It was, and still remains the working Champ’s title. I met Pat at the CAC gathering in May of 2018, and he was so nice, with ample time to talk and answer questions. He is without one of the great minds in this business.
Like so many of the rest, Big Time Wrestling closed it’s doors in San Francisco as it’s stars began to drift out to higher exposure jobs in other markets. The Big Time Wrestling program lost ratings and sank until it was liquidated in and removed from television 1979. The next year Roy Shire suffered his first heart attack in 1980, and he retired from promoting shortly thereafter in 1981. The AWA swooped in and took over the shows at the Cow Palace, but they too eventually knuckled under to the WWF in California, as well as back home in Minnesota. Shire suffered a second, and ultimately fatal heart attack in 1992, at the age of seventy.
Big Time Wrestling, and it’s alumni helped bring professional wrestling out of the tents and into people’s living rooms all throughout Central and Northern California, as well as into Las Vegas and the Nevada area. Like we have seen so many times before, they too eventually succumbed to their competition, and fell by the wayside as the major companies fought over control of the wrestling map.
Well that wraps it up for another week here at Wrestling Territories. I hope you all enjoyed our look at the San Francisco territory, and learned a few things along the way. We only have a couple more installments left before we head to Florida, and make our march up the East Coast to New York. I’ve got a few surprises in store for ya’ll between now and then, though, so get ready. I’ll see you all back here next week, but until then….our wrestling history is gold Bruthas and Sistas…DIG IT!