Through the 1940s and into the ’50s, there was wrestling being staged in nearly every
city with a population of over 10,000 including Amarillo, Waco, Corpus Christi, Galveston,
Abilene, Wichita Falls, Lubbock, Beaumont, and Nacogdoches. Morris Sigel ran the Gulf
Athletic Club out of the Milam Building in Houston. He was also involved in the Texas
Wrestling Agency with his brother-in-law Frank J. Burke and Dr. Karl Sarpolis, and
supplied wrestlers to a great percentage of the state. Sarpolis acted as the matchmaker
in Houston and Dallas, and wrestlers often worked their feuds between those two
important cities. Karl often made the journey between cities and worked as a referee.
Each of these powerful promoters were affiliated with the National Wrestling Alliance and
everything was running smoothly until December 10, 1952.
On that day in San Antonio, a group of united wrestlers refused to appear for a show that
was going to be taped by television cameras for broadcast. Ed McLemore of Dallas was
the television czar in those parts, and he was going to be crippled by the loss of the
major talent. Instead of working to make deals that might have raised the pay for
wrestlers, or even cancelled television programs outright, McLemore declared war. This
conflict had major implications for all parties, and immediately dissolved the partnership
between McLemore and the Houston office run by Sigel.
Over the next two weeks, McLemore broke away from the National Wrestling Alliance and
ended his ties with the Texas Wrestling Agency, which claimed to own two-thirds of the
Dallas office. The move officially cut him off from all NWA talent, and, to the regular
promoter it may have easily ended their run in professional wrestling. McLemore was not
the regular gent, and his many years in the business kept his head in the game as he
plotted to take on the local establishment with his own talent. A spokesman for the Texas
Wrestling Agency notified the Dallas Morning News on Friday, December 26, 1952, that
they were going to continue booking their wrestlers in Dallas in opposition to McLemore.
On Monday, December 29, eight wrestlers (Ray Gunkel, Cyclone Anaya, Danny McShain,
Gory Guerrero, Dory Funk Sr., Red Berry, Ricki Starr, Billy Varga) filed a suit in Houston
District Court against McLemore, Sarpolis, KRLD-TV (Dallas), and the Texas Rasslin’ and
Dong King Advertising Agency. They claimed was that the television programs they were
taping was being re-broadcast in Texas and hurting their box office numbers, and that
they wanted their contract with the group voided out because of the violations.
The Houston Office named Norman Clark the new NWA representative in Dallas with
Sarpolis running as his matchmaker. They would use Pappy’s Showland as their staging
ground and run on Tuesday evenings, directly competing with McLemore. McLemore,
unwilling to step aside in any capacity, announced that in addition to his usual Tuesday
night programs at the Sportatorium, he’d be working with Maurice Beck to promote
Thursday evening shows. The move was to get the Dallas audience familiar with the new
stars he’d be bringing in. McLemore and Beck got television for Thursday evenings on
WFAA-TV, channel 8.
The talent McLemore brought into Dallas beginning on January 6 was a combination of
Jack Pfefer’s legendary crew and a series of independent grapplers. His main star was
former Olympian Roy Dunn of Oklahoma, who was piloted by the famous Billy Sandow.
Dunn claimed to have not been beaten in six years and held a version of the World
Heavyweight Title, which had origins in Wichita, Kansas. McLemore had no illusions and
knew that he was at a disadvantage in the newly developing “war” for wrestling superiority
in Dallas. The Texas Wrestling Agency was going to bring in all the old regulars, while
McLemore was left with those who were willing to accept being blackballed by the mightly
NWA. Only three wrestlers remained with McLemore after his shift, Jack O’Brien, Roy
Graham, and Jack Kennedy.
On Tuesday, January 6, 1953, McLemore went head-to-head for the first time with his
former cronies with Roy Dunn defending his title against Jack Bernard. On the other side
of the fence, it was NWA World Champion Lou Thesz vs. Mr. Moto. Both men kept their
belts, winning in two-straight falls. Filling out McLemore’s show was Graham, O’Brien,
Kennedy, Gorgeous George Grant, Tommy Phelps, Elephant Boy, and Ken O’Connor,
while Norman Clark had the distinct advantage of having Texas Champion Cyclone
Anaya, Texas Women’s Champion Nell Stewart, World Negro Champion Woody Strode,
and Texas Tag Team Champions Ray Gunkel and Ricki Starr.
With the battle in Texas growing, it seemed that Clark had enough protection with hooker
Lou Thesz and shooters Gunkel and Starr making normal appearances. But Clark didn’t
feel protected himself, filing for a restraining order against McLemore, feeling that he was
in danger personally. In April 1953, both Dallas promotions issued challenges to their
rival group, firmly standing behind their wrestlers in case a real shoot match was to go
McLemore bought promotional space in the April 21, 1953 Dallas Morning News,
reaffirming the title claims of Dunn. The piece claimed that Dunn won the World Title
from Everette Marshall on November 1, 1940 in Wichita, and that he had defeated [NWA
World Champ] Lou Thesz. The following was written in that promotional section: “Thesz
is associated with a St. Louis wrestling group which has refused to employ Roy Dunn’s
services because Dunn won’t take orders. Thesz meets only Alliance stooges, many of
whom he has beaten many times. The National Wrestling Alliance is a self-serving
organization who named Thesz champion behind closed doors in a meeting in September
of 1949. Dunn won his title in the ring.”
There were two problems with those statements. Although Dunn had claimed the World
Title during the 1940s in a promotion suppored by Billy Sandow, he didn’t win a
championship from Marshall on November 1, 1940 in Wichita. The NWA meeting that
named Thesz champion happened in late November 1949, but it was true that the
Alliance did decide on him being champion following the injuries of reigning champion
Orville Brown in a car accident from a board room at the Claridge Hotel in St. Louis.
The promotional segment continued: “This Tuesday, McLemore’s opposition has
announced a Texas Heavyweight Championship bout between Ray Gunkel, the alleged
Texas Heavyweight Title Holder, and Duke Keomuka. Promoter Ed McLemore
announces that he will give $1,000 in cash to anyone able to get the synthetic champion
Lou Thesz, and the winner of the Texas Heavyweight Championship bout Tuesday night,
to meet Roy Dunn. Dunn agrees to beat both alleged champions in the same night and
to donate his share of the purse that night to any reputable charity.” “Mat Fans! Don’t
be foiled again!” was written at the bottom of the advertisement.
Norman Clark issued a rebuttal statement on behalf of the NWA in the April 28, 1953
edition his wrestling program “Dallas Wrestling.” He pleaded with fans to not be deceived
by the McLemore group, and that the attempt to "insult" the intelligence of wrestling fans
was not coming from Clark or Sarpolis. He stated that the best wrestlers jumped to
Clark's operations at Pappy's Showland in January because they wanted a "fair deal."
In reference to Dunn - "How and where and when did he win the “title?” Well we aren’t
told much about it except that he is supposed to have beaten Everett (sic) Marshall in
1940! The truth of the matter is that Lou Thez (sic) won the title from Marshall on
February 23, 1939 and Marshall did not have a title to lose in 1940! To make it positive,
Lou again defeated Marshall on March 24, 1939 in Houston!”
The program continued to damage the credibility of Dunn as “World” Champion, then
Clark, Sarpolis, and Gunkel offered up a challenge of their own: “Last week the promoter
in this other place went to the newspaper with a story. He would, he said, give a
thousand dollars to anyone who could arrange a match between his “champion” and the
winner of Ray Gunkel and Duke Keomuka last week. The match, he said in his quoted
statement could take place on this Tuesday night and it could be either at Pappy’s
Showland or in the other place. When Ray Gunkel won last week’s match he went to Doc
Sarpolis and insisted that he pick up that challenge." With a $1,000 bet on the line, the
"match" was advertised, but Dunn didn't show up to accept.
Muchnick mentioned the Dunn-Gunkel situation in a May 1953 letter to Phil Solomon of
Hollywood, stating that "Gunkle (sic) accepted the challenge publicly and was in the ring
waiting for Dunn before the television cameras and Dunn did not even show up."
The Dallas war had Wichita connections, seeing that was where Dunn and Sandow were
based, and in Wichita, another NWA affiliate was dealing with them. Orville Brown was in
his own territorial battle with the independent combination. At one point, like the Dallas
challenge of Dunn by Gunkel, there was a point in which Brown was going to send
wrestling sensation Dick Hutton against Dunn, if the latter accepted. Of course, he did
not. On December 5, 1953, NWA President Sam Muchnick sent a letter to Brown after
getting a call from Ed "Strangler" Lewis earlier in the day, and noted that the rumor he'd
heard was the "most ridiculous thing I have ever heard."
Apparently, Brown wanted to challenge Dunn again, but this time with Lou Thesz. The
temptation to try to discredit Dunn, the former Olympian and reputed shooter, with an
even bigger talent was being attempted once again. Muchnick wasn't having any of it,
telling Brown that in the school he was brought up, the "champion never challenges a
challenger." He told Brown that he should instead ignore Dunn and Sandow completely,
and wondered why Orville wasn't winning the promotional war. Sigel was "outdrawing
McLemore in Dallas 4 and 5 to 1," Muchnick pointed out, and wanted Brown to commit all
the NWA resources to toppling his adversary. "You won't win any fights with the
champion doing any challenging," Muchnick added.
Telling Brown that he wasn't completely sure if what Lewis told him was correct, Muchnick
agreed to send Thesz into Wichita on the scheduled date. But if Brown was going to
challenge Dunn with Thesz in any fashion, Muchnick was going to pull the NWA champion
Copyright 2010 Tim Hornbaker
|NWA Dallas Wrestling War 1953-'54