This series of articles aim to cover the times when pre-determined professional wrestling matches became all too real. This will not cover stiff shots that were delivered in the course of battle (such as Stan Hansen knocking Vader’s eye out of it’s socket) or backstage brawls (Chris Jericho/Goldberg, Adrian Adonis/Dan Spivey etc.) but true moments when the punches were no longer pulled and shit got real!
Wayne Munn vs. Stanislaus Zbyszko
Zbyszko was a Polish strongman, packing 260 pounds of muscle onto a frame that was only 5’8″. Zbyszko wrestled across the world in supposedly legitimate matches against legends like The Great Gama (more on him later) and Frank Gotch in bouts that would at times last two to three hours.
Eventually promoters started to see that making the contests “a work” or predetermined would add excitement to the matches as well as help keep drawing talent strong and Zbyszko was chosen to be one of the top names. This led to Ed “Strangler” Lewis putting him over for the “Catch as Catch can” heavyweight title in 1921. Zbyszko’s reign proved to be a failure at the box-office and so promoters Billy Sandow, Toots Mondt and Lewis (aka “The Gold Dust Trio”) decided to find a new golden boy. In the interim they booked Lewis to regain the title.
In 1925, Wayne Munn was scheduled to win the “Catch as Catch can” version of the World’s heavyweight title. Munn had garnered fame as a Nebraska football player and that along with his 6’6″ frame attracted the Trio to him. With their support Munn captured the title from Lewis that January, ending “The Strangler’s” reign of over 1000 days.
Munn’s lack of a background in submission fighting and amateur wrestling came back to haunt him less than three months later when he was scheduled to defend his championship against Stanislaus Zbyszko . Zbyszko was told to make Munn look good before losing, in order to bolster Munn’s legitimacy and drawing power. Competing promoter Tony Stecher paid Zbyszko off secretly, however, and the bout on April 15th, 1925 saw Munn taken down at will and pinned over and over before the ref had no choice but to count the fall and award the title to Zbyszko. He would keep it for only a few weeks before Stecher’s brother Joe won the title to complete the plan.
Munn ended up dying in his early 30’s of a kidney issue. Meanwhile Zbyszko went on to discover WWWF star Antonio Rocca while visiting South America, and later trained NWA legends Johnny Valentine and Harley Race. He lived to the ripe old age of 88.
Danno O’Mahoney vs. Dick Shikat
Danno O’Mahoney was born in Ireland and served in the military where he honed his wrestling and boxing skills. He was discovered by American wrestling promoters who were looking for an Irish star to draw in New York and was given a hurried lesson in the pro game. O’Mahoney was signed to a big money contract and given a push to match. Despite debuting in December of 1934, he was booked to win the National Wrestling Association’s World title in June of 1935 and the AWA (not Verne Gagne’s promotion) title only a month later. He successfully defended the “Unified World title” until he was to meet up with Dick Shikat.
Shikat was Prussian born and served in the German Navy during World War 1. He was a skilled Greco-Roman wrestler and he transitioned that to the pro game, where he toured Europe and the United States. Toots Mondt took a liking to him and started pushing him by the late 20’s as an American based attraction. This led to Shikat defeating Jim Londos to claim one version of the World’s title. He would eventually lose the title back to Londos but he wasn’t finished going for the top prize in the sport and received headline match ups across the land. This led to March 2nd, 1936 and a NWA title defense by O’Mahoney against Shikat.
Promoter Jack Pfefer convinced Shikat to shoot on O’Mahoney and take the title despite not having permission or the blessings of other promoters to make such a switch. Shikat attacked O’Mahoney from the start and used armlocks and takedowns to dominate the match. Every time the champion escaped, he was almost immediately recaptured in another hold. Finally a hammerlock was tightly applied to O’Mahoney and he twice submitted but the ref stuck to the script and didn’t end the match. Finally Shikat promised to break O’Mahoney’s arm if the match wasn’t stopped and O’Mahoney loudly shouted “Yes, He’s killing me! Stop it, I tell you!” and the ref had little choice but to order the title change.
The NWA did not recognize the title change, and the promoters soon developed a rule that the World champion must have legitimate talent to defend himself in order to prevent a situation like this from occurring again. That is a big reason why the legendary Lou Thesz carried the title many times and for long periods soon after this event.
Masahiko Kimura vs. Rikidozan
Rikidozan was born in Korea with the name of Kim Sin-rak in 1924. He moved to Japan early in life and soon after Kim began training as a sumo wrestler. He started competing in sumo in 1940 under the name of Mitsuhiro Momota in order to escape the Japanese discriminating against his Korean background. Momota ended up quitting sumo in 1950, some sources claim it was due to the discrimination that followed him due to his heritage, while others claim it was simply to begin a more lucrative career in pro wrestling.
Now known as Rikidozan, he was made into a huge star by defeating one American after another in battle. With World War II still fresh on the Japanese minds, seeing Rikidozan conquering the red white and blue helped cauterize some of the wounds of inferiority that remained after Japan’s surrender in 1945. His success allowed him to form the Pro Wrestling Alliance in 1953 and reign as its top star. His first major feud came against Masahiko Kimura.
Masahiko Kimura was born in 1917. He began training in Judo at the age of 9 and by the age of 18 he was deemed a 5th degree blackbelt in the sport. Kimura ended up traveling the world taking on challengers in legit competitions. The most famous of these bouts is a win over Gracie Jiu-Jitsu creator Helio Gracie. Gracie’s corner tossed in the towel to end the bout while Helio was trapped in an armlock.
Rikidozan brought Kimura into the world of pro wrestling and prepared him for a major feud at the top of the PWA. Rikidozan was scheduled to face Kimura on December 22nd 1954 with the Japanese Heavyweight title at stake. The plan was for the match to end in a draw to set up a series of rematches.
During the course of the actual bout, things broke down after Kimura delivered what appeared to be an accidental low kick to Rikidozan’s groin. Rikidozan quickly responded with a series of very real kicks and punches that looked to knock out Kimura. After the barrage that ended this bout, all the planned rematches failed to materialize and the men would never face off again. Rumors floated around that Kimura hired the Yakuza to seek revenge for Rikidozan breaking script and embarrassing him.
Rikidozan would go on to worldwide fame by defeating Lou Thesz and other famous wrestling stars. His success allowed him to dabble financially in nightclubs, hotels and boxing leagues. He also trained future legends Antonio Inoki (much more on him later) and Giant Baba.
In December of 1963 Rikidozan was living it up at Tokyo nightclub when a member of the Yakuza stabbed him with a urine-soaked knife. From there the story goes that Rikidozan kicked the mafia man out of the club himself and continued partying without seeking medical help. Another version states Rikidozan did seek a doctor and was told the wound was not serious. Either way an infection formed and on December 15th Rikidozan died of peritonitis – an inflammation of the tissue surrounding vital organs.
The man known as the “Father of Puroresu” was dead at 39. His murderer was found guilty of manslaughter and spent seven years in prison. When he was released, he went on to become a mob boss.
Lou Thesz vs Karl Gotch
Lou Thesz is a name that few wrestling fans would fail to recognize (at least those who come from the pre-World Wrestling Entertainment era.) A product of St. Louis, Thesz was a talented Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestler as a teenager and he broke into the professional ranks in 1932 while only 16. He soon went under the tutelage of “Strangler” Lewis, who taught Thesz the art of “hooking” or using submission holds to hurt your opponents if necessary. Thesz’s pro career took off fast and by 1937 Thesz became World champion at the tender age of 21.
Thesz’s legit background and box office power kept him at or near the top of wrestling for the next 30 years when he finally surrendered the World title for the last time in 1966 to Gene Kiniski. Two years before that match though, Thesz experienced an event that may have almost ended his reign prematurely.
Karl Gotch was Thesz’s scheduled foe on May 2nd of 1964. Gotch was a respected worker in his own right, having competed in the 1948 Olympics at both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. He turned pro in the 50’s and enjoyed success in his native Europe. However his lack of flair held him back from becoming a superstar in the United States. Nonetheless, by the 60’s Gotch was still winning regional titles and working with top names. He and Thesz had worked together without incident several times before the encounter of note- with Gotch putting Thesz over.
However this match would prove to be a little different.
With the World title at stake, the men were battling in a working fashion when Thesz went for a German suplex and Gotch blocked it by leaning forward. Somehow this motion managed to break several of Thesz’s ribs. Thesz felt he was being double-crossed and quickly locked on a very real armlock that made Gotch submit.
Thesz would be out for months healing his ribs, but his point had been made. Gotch and Thesz would actually wrestle several more matches over the years, and even teamed up in Japan where Gotch was known a “The God of Wrestling” for his very influential working style.
Gotch would go on to become a WWWF tag champion, among other honors, meanwhile Thesz defied age and was still winning top titles into his 60’s as he was the living embodiment of wrestling excellence and promoters used him to give their titles more credibility. Thesz finally slowed down in the 1980’s but ended up working one final match at age 74 against his student Masa Chono.
Next time…Antonio Inoki becomes a legend himself as he battles several men under very real situations. Plus Eddie Graham teaches the marks a lesson on how tough being a pro wrestler is, a famous wrestler loses his finger fighting a fan and more!