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In city's wrestling prime, no holds were barred

In the Athens of America, it stands to reason that wrestling would attract some devotees. But over the last century, Boston's wrestling fans have seemed at times less Greco and more Roman, demanding blood from their gladiators.

"Boston was a city the wrestlers tried to get out of as quickly as possible," said Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter in Campbell, Calif. "Whether true or not, it had a reputation for fan violence."

To be fair, assaults were not chronic in Boston's storied wrestling history. But there was one tense night in 1971, when Blackjack Mulligan was set to face beloved champion Pedro Morales in Boston Garden.

"People really lived or died with Morales," said Sheldon Goldberg, of Roslindale, owner of New England Championship Wrestling and wrestling historian, who was in attendance that night. "The people were so demonstrative in their affection for him. They would go crazy, and they hated Blackjack Mulligan."

Here's what Goldberg remembers: A male spectator wielding a knife hopped the guardrail as Mulligan climbed into the ring. The fan stabbed Mulligan in the thigh, opening gushing wounds. The crowd, many of whom initially froze, realized the episode wasn't part of the show when Gorilla Monsoon, a wrestler then known as a "good guy," raced to attend to Mulligan, who, according to wrestling logic, he should have hated. Towels on Mulligan's wounds quickly reddened as he was carried from the ring to receive 100 stitches at the hospital.

The assault led to pat-downs at Garden wrestling events and the installation of plexiglass barriers around the ring, Goldberg said. In another incident, the hated Stan Stasiak was hit in the leg with a dart, and a massive green net was installed to block objects thrown toward the ring.

The annals of wrestling in the Hub contain similar mayhem, but mostly of a more orchestrated variety.

Garden of earthy delights

When Tex Rickard built the Boston Garden in 1928, it was in the image of New York's Madison Square Garden, of which he was president. The link forged between the two cities played out vividly in pro wrestling, as The Hub would become a leading stop for Vince McMahon Sr.'s World Wide Wrestling Federation (later WWF, then WWE).

Save for a few lamps above the ring and a spotlight, it was pitch black in the Boston Garden on wrestling nights. No air conditioning. Scents from cigars, concession-stand pizza, and popcorn tickled the nose. When the house light went down spectators could see the haze of smoke in the spotlight. Fans had to strain to hear the announcer over shoddy speakers. The good guys defeated the bad guys.

Throughout the first half of the century, wrestling was seen by Boston Garden promoters as the "kid brother" of boxing, said Brian Codagnone, associate curator at The Sports Museum at the FleetCenter.

"They were both taken seriously," Codagnone said of wrestling and boxing. "But it was almost like a parallel course. Wrestling went a different way."

Wrestling followed a path toward spectacle and away from sport, Goldberg said.

"It's not treated like any semblance of a sport anymore," Goldberg said of pro wrestling. "It's more like a concert."

The spectacle will draw fans to "Wrestlefest" Saturday at Suffolk Downs. But before Vince McMahon, there was "Papa Paul," who brought Boston close to being the mecca of pro wrestling in America.

'Papa Paul' and the ethnic bases

Paul Frank Bowser, who Goldberg said had many local sportswriters on payroll, dominated Boston's sports headlines in the 1930s. He was tagged "Papa Paul, the greatest showman since Barnum."

"If it weren't for the lively news and feature concoctions which are emerging from the publicity mill of Paul Bowser, there'd be nothing on the sports pages except a lot of agate box scores and race charts," wrote Victor O. Jones in the July 27, 1935, Boston Daily Globe.

Bowser was a farm boy from Pennsylvania turned iconic matchmaker who booked cards at Boston Garden, Boston Arena -- now Northeastern University's Matthews Arena -- and Fenway Park.

Bowser sold tickets by promoting wrestlers like pro football player Gus Sonnenburg, "Crusher" Steve Casey, who Goldberg said owned the "Crusher Casey's" bar in South Boston, and a 20-year-old Irish solider named Danno O'Mahoney, who newspaper accounts said appealed mainly to South Boston's Irish.

Records indicate that 40,000 to 45,000 fans packed Fenway Park July 30, 1935, to see O'Mahoney defend the title against Olympian Ed Don George with boxing legend James Braddock as the referee. No larger crowd would gather to see a wrestling match in North America until 1986.

Wrestling had a strong Irish Catholic fan base at the time, reflected not only by the champions who saw great success here -- O'Mahoney, Casey -- but also in the first televised wrestling Bostonians saw.

"Bedlam From Boston," a weekly Bowser production taped in the WBZ-TV studios on Soldiers Field Road, aired on WISH Channel 38, a station owned by the Archdiocese of Boston, Goldberg said, adding that proceeds from some Fenway Park wrestling events benefited the fund of Cardinal Richard James Cushing, Archbishop of Boston from 1945 to 1970.

Wrestling would later hit it big with Boston's Italians. When Bowser died in 1960, protgs Abe Ford and Tony Santos promoted bouts in smaller venues between stars from Vince McMahon Sr.'s New York-based World Wide Wrestling Federation, including Italian weightlifter Bruno Sammartino.

McMahon Sr. crowned Sammartino his champion and made Boston Garden one of his leading tour stops. Tickets were hard to come by in 1980 when Sammartino met his apprentice-turned-nemesis Larry Zybysko in the Garden. A Globe story recalled the opening of ticket sales immediately after the 1980 bout between the two ended indecisively.

"Never count a creep out in this big-time wrestling," the article read. "Not when he can put 16,000 more people in the building next time."

After the bout

Sammartino attracted so many Italians to the Garden that some North End restaurants were kept open late so Sammartino could dine after a match.

"I really did love Boston," Sammartino said in a radio interview transcribed in the book "WrestleRadio U.S.A." by West Roxbury's Ed Symkus and Vinnie Carolan. "After the matches, I would go to the North End. . . . The [restaurant] owner came from Europe, too. He'd keep the place open and it was just great."

The North End wasn't the only place hopping on the weekends wrestlers were in town. Garden fans would huddle near the exit after shows in an attempt to spot grapplers leaving for parties at Sam's Beef and Ale and The Bradford Hotel in the Theater District, or at The Madison Hotel, which connected to the Garden.

"After the shows we'd go in the bar at the Madison, and here's all your Celtics sitting there," said Dorchester-born Pete Doherty, who wrestled as "The Duke of Dorchester." "We'd all be shooting the breeze with them, buying rounds."

Perhaps the postmatch parties in the Hub were another wrestling tradition to fall with the Garden. Today, many wrestlers would rather stay in their Logan Airport hotel rooms surfing the Internet than go out drinking, Goldberg said.

The final wrestling event at the Garden, dubbed "A Night to Remember," took place May 13, 1985. But thousands still turn out about five times a year for WWE events at the FleetCenter, carrying on a 100-plus-year local wrestling tradition that has thrived just below the surface in one of the country's greatest sports towns.

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