The Prelude to a Wrestling Empire – The Introduction of Jim Crockett to Charlotte

By Tim Hornbaker

Jim Crockett has always been a name synonymous with professional wrestling in the Mid-Atlantic
States.  During the 1930s, he laid the foundations for his promotion in Charlotte, and sustained a
successful circuit for five decades.  His family continued the business after his 1973 death, and the
operations continued to grow until it was the backbone, and really the heart and soul of the
National Wrestling Alliance.  In 1988, it was his company that was sold to Ted Turner, creating
World Championship Wrestling, a nationally recognized organization that, for a period of time,
claimed professional wrestling dominance in the United States.

The Crockett Empire was launched in 1934 during a tumultuous period for wrestling in Charlotte.  
There was a mixture of shenanigans, ballyhoo, and controversy in the city that nearly derailed the
wrestling business altogether.  John Francis “Irish” Horan was the promoter and matchmaker for
the Southeastern Wrestling Association, an outfit that organized shows at Charlotte’s Armory-
Auditorium.  Horan had reportedly entered the town the year before, boasting impressive
credentials.  He was said to be a former boxer, lightweight wrestling champion of the world from
1918 to 1925, a celebrated trainer of the likes of Joe Banaski and Ray Steele, and more recently,
was a matchmaker of wrestling at Madison Square Garden.  

The true facts are a little different.  Horan was born around 1900 in Peoria, Illinois, and by the age
of 16, was working with a touring circus.  He did explore his athletic prowess as a bantamweight
boxer and a lightweight grappler.  For around 17 years, he was the business manager and press
agent for world famous entertainer Tom Mix, and also worked for Charlie Sparks’ “Downie’s Show.”
His boasts of professional wrestling accomplishments in the ring and time as a famous matchmaker
in New York were mostly fabricated.

However, at the time, no one in Charlotte had a clue.  The sports writers and citizens believed that
they were being represented in the grappling field by a real professional.  Horan was indeed that,
but it came very natural for him to utilize his tremendous experience in the field of publicity under
the circus tent, to go overboard with the statements about his background.  The crafty promoter
also made promises to bring in names such as Jim Londos and Jim Browning, and billed wrestlers
as champions after they had lost their titles.  Looking at the facts in this case, it all seems kind of
appropriate, but again, the Charlotte Boxing Commission, which regulated professional wrestling,
Charlotte Observer Sports Editor Jake Wade, and sports writer Fritz Littlejohn were all in the dark.

Featuring all non-heavyweights on his shows, Horan imported the likes of Frank Malcewicz, Leo
Alexander, Charlie Allen, Leo Wallick, Al Stecher, Joe Campbell, Eddie Pope, Mike Kilonis, Pinkie
Gardner, and his reported protégé Banaski.  His programs drew upwards of 3,500 fans, and on
March 19, 1934, more than 4,000 saw Banaski topple Garner in one hour, nine minutes to retain
his “Midwest Wrestling Association” light heavyweight title.  The large crowd was expecting a
scientific spectacle between two of the quickest wrestlers in the industry, but they received
something on the other end of the spectrum.

To sum it up, Wade of the Observer wrote in his report of this show that “until Banaski won he was
about as pathetic a figure as you’ll ever see.  He didn’t look as though he belonged in the same
ring with the cool and workmanlike Gardner.  Banaski looked like anything but a champion.” Fans
were very upset by the finish, and some believed whole-heartedly that it was all faked.  Regardless
of the horrible press, Horan pushed on, saying that he couldn’t do anything about the match’s
result, and advertised his next show, which was headlined by Banaski defending his title against
Charlie “Midget” Fischer on April 3.

That was an interesting bill, specifically because Fischer had upended Banaski for the light
heavyweight championship on February 28, 1934 in Columbus.  Banaski had no championship to
defend in Charlotte versus Gardner or Fischer.  Horan didn’t care.  He drew 4,000 plus for the first
title match, and expected even more for the Banaski-Fischer exhibition.  On top of that, it was
released in the press that Horan had recently gone to New York City to deal with bookers in a
talent-sharing deal to bring major names to Charlotte, including heavyweights for the first time, an
innovation he believed would tempt large audiences.

Shortly after announcing the Monday, April 3 event, problems between Irish Horan and the
Charlotte Boxing Commission surfaced.  The advertising and talent was arranged in advance, but
the commission refused to give its blessing to the show, citing the fact that there was a boxing
program at the Armory on Friday.  The commission wanted to run wrestling and boxing shows on
alternating weeks, and chairman Captain T.A. Childs said “that the reason the commission refused
to sanction the show was because it was unfair to the boxing promoters who were putting on a
show Friday night and had already secured sanction for their bill.” Additionally, the Charlotte City
Manager J.B. Pridgen and the City Council both offered up opinions on the matter, backing the
decision not to sanction Horan’s show.

To safeguard his show, Horan obtained a restraining order from the Superior Court preventing the
commission from interfering, and a hearing was scheduled for the morning of April 3 to discuss the
case.  Through the press, Horan dropped a bomb on his adversaries, saying that the Boxing
Commission had no legal authority over professional wrestling, and that he didn’t need approval
from that body to go forward with his operations.  Horan admitted that he was “fighting this thing
through because he stood to lose money and because he felt, for some reason, the commission
had taken an unfair stand toward him.” He stated that in the past, the commission had allowed
boxing and wrestling shows to run in the same week, and he recommended the creation of city
wrestling organization to supervise the sport.

The day prior to Horan’s card, the Boxing Commission sanctioned his event, ending the need for
court action.  Childs said that the reason for the reversal was for the “best interest of the game,”
and the organization officially adopted a resolution allowing only one boxing or wrestling program a
week.  In response, Horan declared that if he could run weekly, he’d be able to secure better
talent.  People wondered how all of the controversy would affect his April 3 show, and only 2,800
fans paid to see Fischer beat Banaski to unify whatever claims the latter had with his own.  Eight
days later, another “disappointing” crowd turned out for Horan’s Armory showing, a three match
card featuring heavyweights.

The feud between Horan and the Charlotte Boxing Commission continued to brew.  The wrestling
matchmaker scheduled his next show for April 27, the same evening as a boxing program staged
by the Charlotte Athletic Club.  The Boxing Commission and the City Council both approved the
fistic event.  Horan stubbornly refused to let up on his decision despite the growing odds, calling
the judgment against him “unfair and discriminatory.” If he wasn’t approved, he planned to again go
through the courts, and was rumored to have friends in high political office, locally, which may have
held some merit.

In the days that followed, Horan’s assistant Joe Williamson announced that they’d run their
program at the ball park instead of the Armory, but couldn’t yet name the wrestlers on the bill.  
Bucking back against the rogue promoter, the Boxing Commission threatened to take appropriate
action if the wrestling show went on without approval.  Williamson told the Observer that they were
“having trouble getting the wrestlers,” and on April 21, Horan’s show was cancelled for that reason.

Horan responded to the Boxing Commission’s effort to stifle his program, saying that he was
“getting used to that sort of thing now.” The paper indicated that he “probably would be out of
Charlotte most of the summer and Mrs. Horan would carry on his promotion activities while he is
away.” On April 27, the Charlotte Athletic Club’s effort drew a “disappointingly small crowd,” and
future wrestler Al Massey beat Frank Touchberry by disqualification in the third round when he fell
to the mat without being hit.

Fritz Littlejohn of the Charlotte Observer, filling in for Wade in the latter’s regular column on May
15, 1934, broke the news to local enthusiasts about Irish Horan.  He explained that he’d heard from
Dan Parker, the renown sports writer for the New York Daily Mirror, and a man that Horan once
claimed used to negatively comment on his wrestling promotions.  Parker, according to Littlejohn,
“declares he never heard of Mr. Horan, and further avers a check-up at rassling headquarters in
New York, failed to produce anyone who knew Mr. Horan, either by sight or reputation.” Littlejohn
said that Horan, originally from Peoria, was off publicizing a circus in Canada, and wasn’t
scheduled to be back in town for the return of wrestling at the Armory.

After a six week layoff, Joe Banaski beat Myron Mynster in the May 18 Armory effort, winning in an
an hour and five minutes before a “small” audience.  Two days later, Wade admitted in the
Observer that they were all “taken us all for a gorgeous ride,” and that the “Horan myth” was
shattered.  Banaski even came out and explained that he was never managed by Horan, and
Wade also dubbed him a “cheerful liar.” The influential sports writer concluded by saying:  “Rasslin
ought to be as washed up as Horan, himself, in this town.  It never did appeal to me, as readers of
this column know, and now that Horan has been completely exposed, I think a lot of other fellows
will lose their zest for it.  The rasslers have been as guilty as Horan for the fakeries that have been
staged, the lies that have been told.”

On May 28, 1934, the North Carolina Athletic Commission “permanently blacklisted” Irish Horan
from engaging in the promotion of professional athletics in the state.  It was noted, about this time,
that Commission President C.W. Stockard of Greensboro “thinks highly of Jim Crockett, the
Greensboro mat promoter, and apparently believes that wrestling, as it is being conducted there, is
all okay,” as stated by Wade in his column.

The public support for Crockett was followed up with the announcement in the June 12, 1934
edition of the Charlotte Observer that Crockett and Bill Lewis were planning to petition for a license
to promote in the city.  Lewis, at the time, was the frontman for the duo, and well known for his
outgoing personality.  The former wrestler was preceded by a sterling reputation, and had turned
Richmond into a prominent wrestling city, while Crockett had started in the business early in the
decade in his hometown of Bristol.  By 1934, his operations had expanded throughout Virginia,
Tennessee, and North Carolina, with Greensboro being his largest town.  Although the duo
promised top names like Jim Londos, Rudy Dusek, and Joe Savoldi, getting approval from the
Boxing Commission wasn’t a given.

In fact, Lukie Tenner and Joe Williamson, Horan’s former Lieutenant, were both considering filing
applications for a permit to promote in Charlotte.  The Charlotte Boxing Commission denied Lewis
and Crockett during their June 18 session, and approved the license of Williamson, who was
planning a show for July 9.  During the meeting, Chairman Childs asked the latter promoter
whether wrestling was or wasn’t on the level.  Williamson answered, “Some of it is.”

Lewis sent a letter to Wade of the Observer, which was printed verbatim in the July 1 paper.  He
wrote:  “I cannot understand why the Charlotte boxing commission will not permit me to promote
wrestling in Charlotte.  I understand the present promoter has told the commission he can get
some good wrestlers through me.  This is not so, and he cannot show any of the wrestlers working
for me.  I am now putting on wrestling shows in Richmond, Virginia Beach, and Roanoke.  The
Richmond sports writers will tell you that I am the only man who has been able to popularize the
sport there.  In 10 shows in Richmond, I have had only one substitution.”

A war over talent and the hearts and minds of Charlotte wrestling fans seemed to be on the
horizon, and it all came down to whether or not Williamson could find suitable wrestlers.  As the July
9 date approached, the promoter announced that he’d have to push the event back to July 16,
then announced that Al Stecher would be facing Leo Alexander in the main event.  Several other
bouts were planned, and it seemed that Williamson was going to be able to revive wrestling

Not so.  On Tuesday, July 10, Williamson told the Boxing Commission that he was calling off his
program, leaving the door open, once again, for Crockett and Lewis.  And they took advantage of
the situation, refilling for a permit to promote in Charlotte.  The Boxing Commission approved their
application on July 16, 1934, and sanctioned their initial wrestling offering set for August 10,
featuring heavyweights at Robbie’s Field.  Crockett explained to the board that he was going to
move to Charlotte, leaving his brother in charge of the business in Greensboro, and “planned to do
some real promoting here,” according to Gene Lawing’s report in the Observer.

In the days leading up to the inaugural event, Crockett announced that he had Bill Middlekauff and
Stan Sitowski in the two-of-three-fall main event, but then replaced the former with Herman
Hickman, an ex-football star at the University of Tennessee.  The problems seemed to continue
when the Friday, August 10 show was postponed until the following Monday due to bad weather.  
Yet another substitution was needed on the undercard, but Crockett kept in good spirits, and
presented his first Charlotte wrestling show at the Armory on August 13, 1934.

Fritz Littlejohn of the Observer estimated the crowd was somewhere between “800 to 1400
persons,” and the audience watched Hickman beat Sitowski in a “pleasing performance.” Crockett,
the obvious perfectionist, took a different stance, saying:  “The main bout disappointed me a little,
but I guess it was a fair show.”

Lewis was a traveling man, and reportedly went to New York for real, unlike Horan, to secure a
talent sharing deal that would keep top-notchers moving through Charlotte.  Crockett and Pete
Moore, whom he shared the ownership of a circus, also increased their territorial size when they
invaded Tampa in 1935.  Attendance at his shows fluctuated, like any other city, but by the end of
his first year in Charlotte, Crockett had endeared himself to the local audience, sports writers, and
people of influence, stabilizing his promotion for the long run.  Crockett had successfully breathed
life into a town burned out by Irish Horan and swayed cynical fans to return to the Armory to see
the hottest action in the region.

Speaking of Irish Horan, whatever became of him?  Well, he moved on to the automobile stunt
driving business, teaming with Lucky Teter for awhile, then going out on his own.  His “Hell Drivers”
toured the country from June to October, running about a 100 live “thrill” shows annually.  Horan
became the celebrated voice of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and was known for announcing
the Indy 500 until his death of a heart attack on May 2, 1958.  In the entertainment business for
upwards of 40 years, Horan had seen and done it all, from the smallest stages in the smallest
tents, to venues of all shapes and sizes across the country, and ultimately to the biggest racing
spectacle there was.  His flair for the dramatic and colorful approach to everything he did certainly
was exposed during his stay in Charlotte, but little did he or anyone else know at the time, was that
his collapse opened the door for the Crockett Empire to begin, and “Big Jim” made the best of the
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