Ring relics From Adrian Adonis to Boris Zukhov, local canvas connoisseurs have city’s professional wrestling history covered
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Let’s get ready to rumble!
Forty years ago this week, tag team partners Dino Bravo and Rick Martel (Boo!) defeated Greg Gagne and Jim Brunzell, a.k.a. the High Flyers (Yay!), in the main event of a six-match, American Wrestling Association (AWA) card held at Winnipeg Arena.
The reason we know this — along with the fact that Bobby “The Brain” Heenan won by disqualification over Ray “The Crippler” Stevens earlier that evening, and that there were 6,588 paying customers in the stands — is because Elmwood resident Dave Mollard spends the majority of his spare time chronicling every professional wrestling match staged in our fair burg, and has the posters, fan magazines, newspaper clippings… even a championship belt to prove it.
“For instance, it states here that on May 18, 1972, Dr. X fought Mad Dog (Vachon),” Mollard says, holding out a yellowed advertisement, which he keeps in a three-ring binder marked “1970s,” one of a dozen such tomes he’s compiled covering over 100 years of grappling.
Here’s the (drop) kicker: despite being able to tell you that Tom Bradley locked horns with Steve Kozak at the Auditorium in downtown Winnipeg in 1947, or that the Ultimate Warrior pinned Mr. Perfect at the Winnipeg Arena in 1990, the next live wrestling match the soft-spoken insulation installer attends will be his first.
“I love wrestling but I’m not interested in going (to a match), not really. I do enjoy the history of it, and like learning the names and stuff, but that’s as far as it goes.”
Mollard, 52, grew up in northern Manitoba, near Cross Lake. Television reception there was shoddy at best, their set only picked up two channels — CBC and CBC French — so he and his younger brother always looked forward to trips “south” to visit their grandparents, when they would be afforded the opportunity to catch up on all the shows they were missing.
Their favourite, by far, was AWA Major League Wrestling, which aired on CKND-TV, presently known as Global, every Saturday at 5:30 p.m., immediately following The Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Hour. Mollard was drawn to villainous sorts such as Nick Bockwinkel and Baron von Raschke. When the show was over and host “Mean” Gene Okerlund had bid adieu till next week, he and his brother would emulate their heroes, by pretending to ram one another’s head into an imaginary turnbuckle.
Mollard’s interest in pro wrestling grew when his family moved to Stonewall in the late ’70s, and he was able to tune in on a weekly basis. Did he believe what was taking place on-screen was the real deal? You bet, he says with a laugh, though when he rewatches old matches nowadays, he can’t believe he didn’t notice the combatants openly conversing in the ring, as they discussed what move, be it a body slam or figure-four leglock, was coming next.
While it’s one thing to be a big wrestling fan — heck, this writer still has a soft spot in his heart for George “Scrap Iron” Gadaski and Kenny “Sodbuster” Jay — it’s something else entirely to convert a spare bedroom in one’s home into a shrine to all-things-rasslin’. (Yes, that is a framed jersey autographed by Kamala, Ted DiBiase and the late, great Razor Ramon, on the wall. Why do you ask?)
Like most collections, Mollard’s started small; a dog-eared, Wrestling Revue magazine here, an Andre the Giant sports card there. Initially, he scooped up every single thing he spotted. It quickly became a case of, “Where do you draw the line?” however. That caused him to concentrate on Winnipeg-centric artifacts exclusively, by utilizing the website wrestlingdata.com, which allows one to search specific matches by city, venue and date.
First, he wrote out information he turned up — for example, on Dec. 8, 1920, John Albrecht beat Tom Johnstone in a match held at the Winnipeg Industrial Bureau Exposition Building — into a set of lined, Hilroy scribblers. Following that, he went hunting for something, anything, to confirm his findings, be it an event program, ticket stub or old Free Press article.
He has garnered specimens from as far away as Europe, and as near as garage sales in his neighbourhood.
Here, get a load of these, he says, handing over a stack of action photos taken with an Instamatic camera. They’re part of a collection he bought from a woman whose mother never missed a match, back when the AWA held monthly cards at the Winnipeg Arena during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Only problem: they’re not dated in any manner, so for the time being he stores them in a shoebox labelled “unknown years,” until he’s able to study them more closely.
His oldest souvenir, a personal letter written by Jack Olson, an American middleweight champ who fought in these parts fairly often, is from 1910. Newest is a poster from a Canadian Wrestling’s Elite (CWE) event staged at Holy Eucharist Parish Centre in August, featuring Kevin “the Boston Bruiser” O’Doyle.
“I know most of the local promoters and even though I don’t go to the matches, they always make sure to put something aside for me, to pick up later,” he says, setting aside a Slurpee cup carrying an image of Outback Jack. (What’s the local connection with that one? Winnipeg’s the Slurpee capital of the world, of course.)
It’s a given ephemera such as postage stamps and paper currency carries a certain amount of value, but what about a typed newsletter for a Norland Wrestling Club bout held at the North End’s UNF Hall in 1958?
Curtis Howson, owner of First Row Collectibles at 1835 Main St., has the answer to that.
It’s a niche market for sure, Howson says, but everything has a price, and there is definitely demand for the types of collectibles Mollard specializes in.
He ought to know; in addition to hockey, baseball and Pokémon cards, First Row houses arguably the largest assortment of pro wrestling paraphernalia in Canada.
Howson, who, at 6-foot-8 towers over a life-size Chris Jericho cut-out just inside the front door, fell in love with professional wrestling as a youngster, when his father started taking him to World Wrestling Federation matches at the Winnipeg Arena. He distinctly recalls going for a pre-match meal at McDonald’s, across the street from the old barn, in the early ’90s, and spotting “Iron” Mike Sharpe two tables over, downing one Big Mac after another. He wanted to say hi, he laughs, but because Sharpe was a “heel” in the ring, he couldn’t work up the courage.
The father of three established First Row Collectibles as an online entity in 2017. He opened a bricks-and-mortar location in July, primarily because he’d run out of room at home to house all his treasures.
“Wrestling magazines, action figures, banners… all kinds of things,” he says, when asked what wrestling hobbyists gravitate toward. Among the more interesting items on hand are what appear to be stamps, but are actually teeny, thumb-sized sports cards, made available in tins of tobacco in the 1920s.
He can sell items associated with superstars such as The Rock and Brock Lesnar “all day long,” he notes, but there is a ton of local demand for memorabilia associated with hometown fighters Kenny Omega and Don Kalas, as well. Now that he has a space of his own, his intention is to invite them, along with some of the bigger names in the business, down for autograph sessions, timed around cards at Canada Life Centre.
He smiles when asked whether he ever considered stepping into the squared circle, himself, given his lineman-like stature? He trained for a spell, he admits, but lost his first time out.
“My career record is 0-1, and, now that I’m in my 40s, it will probably stay that way.”
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.