By Tim Hornbaker
Television revitalized and ultimately revolutionized professional wrestling. The regeneration
of support behind the wild and wooly mat sport ended the drought seen in many parts of the
country during the war time years. Actually going back to the aftermath of the double-cross
on unified champion Danno O’Mahoney in 1936 and the kayfabe-breaking stories released
by Dan Parker, wrestling had declined heavily in many territories. Madison Square Garden,
once the center of the grappling universe, lost pro wrestling for a number of years as a
In the early days of TV, arm chair spectators resting in their living rooms were besieged by
wrestling telecasts from all over the country. There were the more graphic proceedings from
Texas and the colorful antics of Gorgeous George and “Baron” Michele Leone emanating
from Southern California. Kinescopes (motion picture film made of the TV projection) of out-
of-state action padded the television schedule around the festive live programming, and in
some cities, at least five nights a week were covered by grappling action.
Highlighting the superstars, their high-flying maneuvers, and the distinct personalities,
television compelled fans to attend live arena shows. However, at the same time, without a
strict management of wrestling on TV in a particular area, the medium had a seriously
adverse affect on house numbers. The saturated market in the Los Angeles area collapsed
on unsuspecting promoters, seeing their weekly gates drop at the Olympic Auditorium to
under $2,000 in comparison to averaging upwards of $6,000 months before. Hugh Nichols
at the Legion Stadium in Hollywood was facing such a decline that his weekly intake was
lower than his rent at the arena.
Drastic changes in the way wrestling was shown on TV were implemented. Certain high-
quality main events were withheld from broadcast, and more attention was given to enticing
people to attend live events. In addition, booker Johnny Doyle laced the shows of his
partners, Nichols, Mike Hirsch, and Cal Eaton, with top name talent. His membership in the
National Wrestling Alliance protected the territory and gave him leverage over any potential
renegade operations. With the Eaton’s connections to the State Athletic Commission and
the Governor, there was an iron curtain protecting their combine. And business began to
The intensity of the common “backstage” quarrels between promoters was turned up to the
highest notch it could go, leaving wounded egos and jealousy running high. Doyle
capitalized on the opportunities TV presented and not only secured high-paying contracts
with stations that made him rich, but expanded his operation to the point in which he was
sending wrestlers to as many as 17 different clubs. 98% of all grapplers in the region were
booked through his office. Nary a major decision was made by anyone in the region without
first consulting Doyle.
Politicking became one of Doyle’s specialties. He was juggling at least a dozen promoters at
a time, responsible for keeping recognizable wrestling talent going through each city, and
maintaining, if not improving, the individual gate numbers. He was also working with station
managers, the press, and the umbrella of the NWA, which by the early 1950s was expanding
to control all aspects of professional wrestling in North America. Additionally, let’s not
overlook the fact that Doyle lived to be social, enjoyed the nightlife, and was pursuing every
avenue of indulgence.
The syndicate’s KTLA (channel 5) wrestling broadcast on Thursday nights from the Long
Beach Municipal Auditorium was the most popular on TV between 1950 and 1951 with a
viewing audience of 750,000. Interest skyrocketed even further when, on June 28, 1951, a
new gimmick was introduced on the regular KTLA program. A “Beat the Champ” feature was
implemented that evening that would continue in the following weeks, and see former
amateur champion and Army sergeant Joe Pazandak take on all challengers in defense of a
jackpot of money. If a challenger was able to pin Pazandak within 30-minutes, they’d win the
prize, an amount starting at $1,000 the first week, and rising $100 each week thereafter if
Pazandak was able to remain undefeated. Once the jackpot reached $2,500, KTLA would
donate the money to charity.
Known as “The Champ,” Pazandak became the face of the popular series, and a new
cultural phenomenon was launched.
Pazandak, 37 years of age, was schooled, in part, by Tony Stecher in Minneapolis, and
attended the University of Minnesota. He was also one of the trainers behind budding
superstar, Verne Gagne. At the right place at the right time, Pazandak was receiving a huge
push with the “Beat the Champ” series, and week after week, people were going to tune in to
see if one of his professional or amateur challengers were able to finally end his run at the
top of the heap. All combatants were accepted, as long as they passed a California State
Athletic Commission physical exam, and the list to get their hands on Pazandak was long.
Beating Pazandak was another thing altogether. As one newspaper columnist noted, he was
capable of mixing showmanship and genuine grappling, and did so flawlessly. With that
sound skillset, he’d be comfortable against opponents of all backgrounds. Excitable
publicists called him and Lou Thesz the top two heavyweights in the game. In his first week
on the throne, Joe topped Hans Schnabel and then went over Sam Menacker. By week
three, now defending the $1,200 prize, Pazandak pulled double-duty for the TV cameras,
beating Tom Rice and Rey Urbano.
Former Navy wrestling champion and San Diego night club bouncer John Venus Jr.
challenged him on July 19, 1951 and, along with Bud Curtis, was defeated. Two weeks later,
he was held to a 30-minute draw by youngster Leo Garibaldi. The Swedish Angel and Alex
Kasaboski were his victims on August 16 and Ray Stevens and Bob Corby lost out on the
$1,800 prize the following week. Pazandak’s streak was gaining some real steam.
A truck driver and regular guy William Bowman stepped up to the plate on September 6 at
the Auditorium in Long Beach and “The Champ” pinned him. Two other amateurs, J.P Smith
and Juan Ortega were also defeated on September 13. Adding the challenge of former
military wrestling champions to the drama, the promoters booked Pacific Fleet Navy
champion Joe Green and California state amateur titleholder Henry Swanlund, and neither
were able to make a dent in his record. Established pros Red Berry, Kola Kwariani, and
“Baron” Michele Leone couldn’t beat him either, although the latter gave him his toughest
challenge on November 1, 1951.
The $2,500 jackpot rolled back to square one after the October 11 program, and began
again at $1,000 the week after. $1,500 was donated by KTLA to the Community Chest.
“Beat the Champ” was a major success, reportedly having one of the highest Hooper ratings
of any hour program on television. The heavily hyped feature would be shown after one or
two of the regular Long Beach matches, and start around 10:45 p.m.
Surviving the tests of Rube Wright, Enrique Torres, Sandor Szabo, Dave Levin, and Don
Arnold, Pazandak was on his way to another unbeaten streak straight to the $2,500 pot.
This time around, Johnny Doyle booked NWA World Heavyweight Champion Lou Thesz as
his final opponent on January 31, 1952. After 30-minutes, Pazandak survived the ordeal
and another $1,500 was donated to charity. For the third time, the series began with a
$1,000 jackpot the following Thursday.
Since the summer before, “The Champ” had been in Long Beach every week for the
televised wrestling program. When he was not booked for the regular February 28, 1952
show, it came as a surprise to faithful followers in attendance. Even though “Beat the
Champ” was listed in the television guide of the local newspaper that day, it is not clear
whether or not old video was shown or if this was the first evidence that KTLA had axed the
segment altogether. The next week, KTLA offered “In This Corner,” the 1948 boxing film
starring Scott Brady at 10:45 p.m. as a replacement for the popular wrestling feature.
Shockingly, there wasn’t a widespread announcement proclaiming the end of the series, or
the reasoning behind it. Politics of some sort may have played more of a role than a decline
in the ratings.
Pazandak was missing from his usual role on TV, but the management of another station
was monitoring the situation closely, and looking for a way to capitalize. It didn’t take long for
a decision to be made regarding “The Champ,” as KECA (channel 7) announced on
Saturday, March 15, 1952 that starting that evening, a block of sports programs would run
beginning at 7:00. The first show would feature Pazandak in a “Pot of Gold” or “Wrestling
Jackpot” segment, where he’d accept the challenge of two competitors. Using the same
formula as the KTLA series, the program on KECA wouldn’t be able to call the show “Beat
the Champ” because the rights were owned by KTLA.
At 7:45, a “Wrestlers’ Roundtable” would be shown from a conference room, and wrestlers,
managers, and even promoters would discuss the ins and outs of the sport. After that,
KECA completed their evening of sports action with boxing programming.
KTLA continued to offer their Thursday night spectacle from the Long Beach Auditorium,
and Dick Lane called the action, but it was without the heat generated by Pazandak and the
drama of the “Beat the Champ” program.
These changes coincided with another with another major happening that had
consequences for Doyle’s office and even the National Wrestling Alliance. Throughout the
territory, it was common knowledge that Doyle and his partners specifically tailored their
booking arrangements to favor the shows they had more of a financial interest in. That
meant Hollywood, San Diego, the Olympic Auditorium, Long Beach, and Ocean Park were
always given the prime wrestlers and attention. Their responsibilities to affiliated promoters
running smaller arenas were considered less important, and by February 1952, a coup of
sorts was being mulled over by a quartet of men who were fed up.
The neglected businessmen were Ernie Steffen at the Wilmington Bowl, Phil Solomon at the
Valley Garden Arena, Tige Clinton at Santa Ana, and Claude Bridges from Pomona.
These promoters felt they had other options, including the creation of their own,
independent booking agency, and possible membership in the NWA. With better talent
coming through, they’d supply their own needs for a television show without having to seek
approval from the Southland syndicate. Solomon wrote a letter to NWA President Sam
Muchnick seeking membership in the organization, but was told that because he was just a
promoter, he wasn’t allowed in the group. Only bookers were in the NWA. Incidentally,
though, Doyle was the Chairman of the NWA Membership Committee at that same time, and
would’ve seen to it that any outsider from his territory seeking membership be denied.
Steffen reached out to Hardy Kruskamp, a veteran of 20-years and manager of Primo
Carnera, and inquired about the possibility of starting a new booking office to supply them
talent. Kruskamp talked the situation over with Sandor Szabo, who was also working for
booker Joe Malcewicz, and Szabo agreed to put up around $5,000 to get the operation into
To obtain talent, Szabo and Kruskamp planned to work closely with Malcewicz in San
Francisco, and this new system had all the potential in the world. Wanting to play by the
unwritten “rules,” Kruskamp went to Los Angeles and met with Doyle. He told him that he
wanted to buy the rights to the four small arenas from the syndicate, but Doyle replied by
saying he had nothing for sale. Kruskamp reportedly offered $1,000, and Doyle countered
by offering Kruskamp a job. Hardy turned it down.
His partner wouldn’t do the same. Behind Kruskamp’s back, Doyle went to San Francisco
and met with Szabo, offering him a sweet deal that would keep him from working in
opposition. Szabo agreed, and cancelled all plans of working with Kruskamp as an
independent. Kruskamp’s preliminary dealings with Sam Muchnick about gaining NWA
membership were also faltering majorly.
Any optimism for Kruskamp and the four small arena promoters in that endeavor were gone.
But there was light at the end of the tunnel for the latter group. After consultations with
Doyle, a new arrangement was agreed upon that would better support their promotions, and
including the rotation of the Sunday “Wrestling Workouts” between four different arenas,
giving each facility a four-week run on television before shifting to the next building. Valley
Gardens, Ocean Park, South Gate Arena, and the Wilmington Bowl would be involved in the
Another concession made by Doyle was to shift the “Pot of Gold” jackpot wrestling series,
formerly known as “Beat the Champ” from the KECA studios on Saturday nights to the
Wilmington Bowl and the South Gate Arena, again using a monthly rotation basis. This
would help alleviate talent shortages for arenas in Visalia, San Bernardino, Pomona, and
Valley Gardens in North Hollywood on Saturdays. Beginning on April 22, 1952, “The
Champ” Joe Pazandak would be starring in Wilmington.
Kruskamp was the only one without a guaranteed spot and affiliated himself with Nick Lutze
in some small-time promotions. His primary money-maker, Primo Carnera, ex-boxing
heavyweight champion and for years a top wrestling attraction, was alienated from Doyle’s
office, and struggling to find work. Reportedly, Carnera’s name went out NWA-wide,
blacklisting him, and some Alliance bookers wanted Primo to remain inactive for up to six
months as punishment after he’d appeared for Lutze on March 28, 1953.
As for Szabo, he was rewarded when he returned to Southern California as Doyle had
promised. Because he’d backed out of the Kruskamp deal, Szabo was given the honor of
handing the undefeated “Champ” Joe Pazandak his first loss in two years on April 18, 1952
at Santa Monica, and then on May 6, 1952, officially took over the “Pot of Gold” jackpot
feature on KECA-TV. Pazandak was said to be leaving for Australia and Szabo was
awarded the championship spot because he had been the only man to defeat him. It should
be noted that Szabo’s victory over Pazandak on April 18 wasn’t for the jackpot “title.” The
jackpot was only defended on KECA television and the Santa Monica show wasn’t broadcast
on the station. Pazandak never lost the money prize in the ring.
On May 6, 1952, from the Wilmington Bowl, Szabo successfully retained the $1,800 prize,
pinning Hilo Lee Kolima and holding Hans Schnabel to a 30-minute draw. Szabo,
interestingly, would also hold ownership in the California Wrestling Office, securing a
position that would keep him active in wrestling for many years. To think, if he’d turned
Doyle down, his role in the business would’ve turned out so much differently.
Frank Pasquale, on May 13, promoted the “Pot of Gold” jackpot show from the South Gate
Arena and would for four weeks in total. He later told the Department of Justice that the
syndicate only paid him $25 a week to broadcast the program. Steffen, at the Wilmington
Bowl, where the telecast ran from June 10, 1952 until March 10, 1953, claimed that he was
initially paid $25 a week, but protested, and saw a raise to $50. The booking office took the
dominant share in all proceeds, which were substantial.
A few side notes:
The ABC Television Network created “Meet the Champ” in January 1952, and this wasn’t an
extension of the popular “Beat the Champ” wrestling show. This program featured champion
boxers from the armed services and was shown on 35 stations across the country.
There is some confusion that the “Beat the Champ” championship was the main television
title of the Southern California NWA office, and this is just not true. It was a TV gimmick for
KTLA and then KECA broadcast the same program under a different name in 1952-’53.
When it was taken off the air as of Tuesday, April 7, 1953, the formula remained off the air
entirely until KCOP started its own “Beat the Champ” in September 1955 with Hard Boiled
Haggerty as the defending champion. KCOP may have bought the rights to the show’s
name from KTLA.
In the interim, CBS had a national Saturday afternoon wrestling show that premiered on
February 6, 1954 at Hollywood Legion Stadium, and featured an “International TV” Title.
This was the main championship of the program and it had no lineage to “The Champ” Joe
Pazandak and the famous “Beat the Champ” show. Wilbur Snyder was one of the wrestlers
to hold that particular distinction.
The more harmful wrestling wars in Southern California were right around the corner, and
people like Pasquale and Steffen would again find themselves fighting a system that heavily
favored their opposition. Doyle was also on the outs within a short time, and became a key
figure in the Government’s investigation of anti-trust violations by the NWA. It would be an
odd position to be in since he’d been at the forefront of isolating rouge wrestlers and
promoters in Los Angeles for such a long period of time. He’d apparently seen the light.
Or was he just affected by the same corrupt policies he helped enforce. Can you say
|Southern California Shenanigans and Beat the Champ