Grappling with the Fox Valley’s pro wrestling history

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    Wrestling fans of yesteryear cheered on the superstar tag team of Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant as they faced three opponents in a handicap match.

    It wasn’t Wrestlemania. It wasn’t Madison Square Garden. Hell, it wasn’t televised.

    The match unfolded in the cozy Lourdes High School gymnasium in Oshkosh as the main event of an American Wrestling Association show. The superstars now synonymous with the industry squared off against Adrian Adonis, Jerry Blackwell and future Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura on Nov. 6, 1981.

    Yeah, things were a little bit different back then.

    WWE returns to the Resch Center on Thursday night for a non-televised event as part of its holiday tour. Pro wrestling has long been an entertainment staple in the region, and the events of yesteryear shine a light on how the industry has changed. But the Fox Valley has always crowded ring side with cheers for the faces and choice words for the heels.

    Valley Review took a look at the local cards of the past and in many cases, it’s a story of legendary names in unexpected places.

    Online sources show pro wrestling in the Fox Cities as long ago as 1902 when Emil Klank grappled with Otto Zuehike at Menasha’s opera house. 

    In 1922, wrestling was a key feature at Appleton’s armory and in January of that year, fans were treated to a legitimate, world renowned superstar. Stanislaus Zbyszko arrived to defend his world heavyweight title. The Polish strongman and wrestler is an inductee in the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. Generations later, pro wrestler Larry Zbyszko took on the surname as a tribute.

    Stanislaus Zbyszko defeated George Hill on Jan. 23, 1922. His Appleton armory win came by referee stoppage after an hour and five minutes.

    And yeah … today’s matches don’t carry on quite like they did in the old days. 

    Hill returned to the armory on Feb. 9, 1922 for a match with Yussiff Mahmout. It was called a draw after the grapplers hit their two-hour time limit.

    Waverly Beach in Menasha got in on the action. On Sept. 11, 1922, Madison’s Jimmy Demetral defeated Stanley Dowzinski 2-0 in a 2 out of 3 falls match.

    Wrestling was a regular attraction in 1938 at Menasha’s S.A. Cook Armory. 

    On March 16 of that year, a crowd of 300 saw Texan wrestler Speedy Franks defeat Rowdy Pocan. Austrian Louis Kodrick was on the card that night and defeated Johnny Princippi by disqualification.

    And let’s fast forward to the 1980s. 

    When we think of wrestling in high school gyms, we think of singlets, headgear and two points for a takedown.

    Our thoughts don’t wander to Scott Hall and Shawn Michaels. 

    Both were on the card when the AWA arrived at the Appleton East High School gym for a show on July 18, 1986. 

    The Midnight Rockers consisting of Michaels and Marty Jannetty — later known as simply the Rockers in the WWF — defeated Larry Zbyszko and Ryuma Go. Hall wrestled in a tag team with Curt Hennig — prior to his Mr. Perfect days.

    The AWA returned to Appleton East four months later and a heavyweight title match was on the card. Champion Nick Bockwinkel maintained his title in defeating Zbyszko.

    Neenah High School had some big-time matches of its own.

    On Nov. 12, 1986, AWA brought a 10-man battle royal that included Jannetty, Michaels and Brian Knobbs, who would go on to make up half of the Nasty Boys in the WWF.

    The WWF would go on and snuff out the smaller, regional promotions of the day. They, too, played at smaller venues, though not necessarily high schools. Kolf Sports Center on the UW-Oshkosh campus was a semi-regular stop and they brought in many of the big names including Andre the Giant, Macho Man Randy Savage, Jake “The Snake” Roberts and the Undertaker.

    Don’t expect to see Kolf’s grand return to the tour itinerary.

    It’s a different game today. Everything is bigger — the arenas, the spectacle of it all.

    And we do mean everything. 

    It’s worth noting that in 1981, the most expensive seat to take in the tag team of Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant in a tiny high school gym was $8.

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