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History 10 - College Stars of 40s & 50s Turn Pro

Professional wrestling and amateur wrestling had very little in common after the 1930s. The pro game had turned to show gimmicks in order to attract crowds and the amateurs scoffed at what they were seeing, and turned away. However, many college stars still were willing and eager to go pro in the 1940s and 1950s..

There were two primary reasons the amateurs were willing to try the pro game: One was the desire to continue wrestling in some fashion or another, as there were virtually no opportunities to do that after college. Secondly, there was the lure of earning a decent living.

A third and more distant reason was the persona of Lou Thesz, the great champion of the 1930s and 1940s. Thesz carried the title with great dignity and was a first-class athlete in all respects: He dressed sharp, was very articulate, and looked the part of a world champion. He was one of the first athletes to endorse products, and was often seen with major Hollywood stars in the 1940s and 1950s, furthering cementing his image as a sports legend to be emulated.

Foremost among the college stars to turn professional after World War II were Verne Gagne and Dick Hutton.
As an amateur wrestler, Gagne won four Big Ten titles and two NCAA titles for the University of Minnesota. He was also a terrific college football player, good enough to be drafted by the Chicago Bears of the NFL.

After finishing third at heavyweight the year before, Gagne won his first NCAA title in 1948, at 191 pounds. The next season, he moved up to heavyweight and nicked Hutton in a sensational match in Fort Collins, Colorado. The bout ended in a 1-1 tie and was given to Gagne via referee's decision. That loss was the only one of Hutton's career and stopped him from becoming the first four-time NCAA champion in history.
Gagne was an alternate on the 1948 Olympic team at 191 pounds, losing a very close match to Henry Wittenberg, who won the gold medal in London. Hutton was the heavyweight on the team, and finished sixth, after suffering an injury that caused him to default out.

Gagne turned professional soon after returning from London and won the junior heavyweight world title in 1950. He moved up to the heavyweight class and became an instant sensation. With his good looks, dynamic style and true wrestling ability, he soon was regarded as the heir apparent to Lou Thesz as the No. 1 challenger for the world title.

Television was exploding on the public scene and professional wrestling was perfect for the format, due to its limited field of action (as opposed to a football field, baseball diamond or basketball court). Pro wrestling skyrocketed in popularity in the early 1950s, and Gagne became its biggest star. He developed a hold called "the sleeper", which was a judo submission hold, and it became the most talked-about finishing hold in the game.

How popular was Gagne? Legendary sportscaster Jack Brickhouse, who also announced games for the NFL bears and major league baseball teams the Cubs and White Sox, said Gagne was as big a star as any pro athlete in Chicago.

Thesz and Gagne had several tremendous matches, full of non-stop action and real wrestling moves. Usually, the matches went an hour and ended in a draw, whetting the fans' appetite for more. Eventually, Gagne became frustrated waiting for the NWA, the top alliance, to give him the title and he started the rival AWA and became its greatest champion. For two decades, Verne Gagne ruled supreme in the Midwest.

Hutton was raising horses in Texas in the early 1950s when he took note of the huge popularity of pro wrestling in general, and Thesz and Gagne in particular. He decided to give it a try and made contact with Lee Roy McGuirk, the former Oklahoma State star turned promoter. McGuirk hooked him up with Ed Lewis, as the old Strangler was now a trainer. Under Lewis's expert guidance, Hutton learned the trade quickly.


On November 14, 1957, a milestone in wrestling was reached in Toronto, Canada. Hutton won the NWA world heavyweight title from Lou Thesz in worked match and in the process became the first NCAA champion to become NWA world heavyweight champion! There had been AAU national champions (Earl Caddock and Ed Don George) and an Olympic champion (Henri DeGlane) at the top, but no collegiate champion.

Even though he was not a big name in the sport, Thesz insisted on the NWA giving the title to Hutton because Lou respected his wrestling background and skills to such a high degree. When the NWA bosses balked at giving the title to Hutton because he wasn't a star, Thesz forced them to give Hutton a shoot match with the big-name wrestler they wanted to give the title to. In a private match, Hutton demolished the NWA's choice in a matter of minutes and the bosses relented.

The match is proof that shoots did exist even into the 1950s, on rare occasions. "Dick was the best mat wrestler I ever met," said Thesz decades later. He was about six foot tall and weighed 245 pounds, and he was very, very quick on the mat. He toyed with most of the big-name pros at that time. But he wasn't real colorful and never really was able to make it big at the box office."

Hutton never forgot the great favor Thesz did for him in making the NWA give him the title. They remained close friends the rest of their lives. Hutton passed away in 2004, two years after Thesz.

 In the 1950s, Thesz, Hutton and Gagne were the best pure wrestlers in the game, along with the lesser-known Joe Scarpello. Ruffy Silverstein, Ray Gunkel, George Bollas, Bob Geigel, Bill Miller and Pat O'Connor were close behind.

Silverstein was NCAA champion for Illinois in 1937 and was still working the pro circuit in the 1950s. Gunkel was third in the NCAAs for Purdue University in 1947 at heavyweight and won two AAU national titles. Scarpello and Geigel were teammates the University of Iowa, where Scarpello was a two-time NCAA champion at 175 pounds and a four-time All-American. Geigel placed third in the NCAAs at 191 pounds in 1948, losing in the semifinals to Gagne. Bollas won the NCAA heavyweight title for Ohio State in 1946.

Bill Miller was a Big Ten champion and fourth place NCAA placewinner in 1951 for Ohio State, while O'Connor was British Commonwealth champion from New Zealand in the late 1940s. O'Connor took the NWA world heavyweight championship from Hutton in 1959 in a worked match and became one of pro wrestling's biggest draws of the era. Miller had a long run as Dr. X and Big Bill Miller.

In addition, Dick Beyer fashioned a sensational career in Japan and America as The Destroyer. Beyer had wrestled and played football at Syracuse University, winning several regional titles as an amateur. Fritz Van Goering had a long run in the 1950s as a villain and knew all of them very well, from gym workouts and in the ring.

"When I was going strong, there were a few guys like Hutton and O'Connor that could really go out and wrestle," said Von Goering." Dick or Pat hooked me, I'd pat'em on the arm and they'd switch to something else and we'd keep wrestling. I knew my place. I was a tough guy outside the ring but nowhere near in their class as a wrestler.
"When Hutton first got the NWA world title and was booked in Ohio, everyone ran every which way. Buddy Rogers, guys like that, wanted no part of Hutton at all. I had to work an entire week of matches with Hutton once because no one else would do it. I got beat up pretty good but I also learned a lot about what real wrestling was."

Rogers was a showman per excellence who had a long run as world heavyweight champion. He was full of braggadocio when talking to fans or a talk show host, but he wanted nothing to do with Thesz or Hutton in a real match.

Thesz liked to tell of the time a well-known pro with a solid amateur background challenged Joe Scarpello to a shoot in Ohio. Scarpello took the challenge seriously and, according to Thesz, wiped up the mat with the opponent.

"Scarpello could really go to post when it counted," said Thesz with a chuckle,"and the other fellow became a believer real quick."

Von Goering said Thesz and Hutton were the best two men he ever faced in his 25-year career. Picking between them would be very difficult, he said. But if he had to make a choice it would be Thesz. "Lou just knew too much and had been around too long," said Van Goering. "He was the man, no question about it."

But Gagne and Hutton were among the best to ever climb in a professional ring, throwbacks to the days of Caddock and Stecher. And two more Oklahoma products, named Hodge and Brisco, were about to join them.

For a wide range of gift shops items  — including books, posters, videos and trading cards for wrestling  — be sure and check the web site of the International Wrestling Institute and Museum (641-791-1517) in Newton, Iowa. The web site is: www.wrestlingmuseum.org

Story By Mike Chapman, Newton Iowa

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