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Going back to wrestling's debut at Maple Leaf Gardens
By GREG OLIVER - Producer, SLAM! Wrestling


With Ring of Honor announcing a show on August 3rd live from Toronto's Mattamy Athletic Centre on Saturday at the Border Wars iPPV, it's time to look back at the very first wrestling show at the venue as it used to be known: Maple Leaf Gardens.

Located at Carlton and Church in downtown Toronto, Conn Smythe, the owner of the Leafs, oversaw the building of the arena over a six-month span in 1931, costing a reported $1.5 million. The Gardens opened on November 12, 1931, and the Leafs lost to the Chicago Blackhawks, 2-1. The Leafs and Toronto Raptors of the NBA moved to the Air Canada Centre, located at Bay and Front, next to the Union Station transportation hub in 1999, and after the Toronto Rock lacrosse team moved out in 2001, the building was only occasionally used. However, since MLG had been designated a historical venue by the city, its future was very much in question.

ROH'S CANADIANS COMMENT
On Sunday, May 5th, Ring of Honor held a TV taping in Toronto. Before it began, two of the Canadians on the ROH roster, Michael Elgin and Kevin Steen, commented about the announcement of a show at Mattamy Athletic Centre -- the old Maple Leaf Gardens -- on August 3rd.

"It's a big deal. Growing up, I never got to see wrestling there, but I always heard about the great wrestling at the Gardens," said Elgin. "It's going to be exciting, especially because Toronto is a hometown for me. It's always great to come back here and wrestle. Definitely in a place like Maple Leaf Gardens, it's going to be something big."

"I don't watch hockey, and I never really did," said Steen. "It's cool because it's a cool venue, and I was driving by it yesterday after the show. There's so much history there. Even if I'm not a hockey fan, it's almost like sacred ground. It's really cool. I'm looking forward to it."
Loblaw Companies bought the property and eventually settled on a design with a grocery store on the main floor, and a liquor store and clothing store above. In a unique partnership with Ryerson University, the rest of the building would be for the university's use. With a gym, and courts for basketball/volleyball on the second floor, the third floor was set to become a hockey arena again, complete with the original roof above.

In September 2012, the Ryerson Rams hockey team christened the Mattamy Athletic Centre -- Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment refused to allowed Ryerson to refer to the building as Maple Leaf Gardens.

As far as professional wrestling goes, back in 1931, the rights to run the sport in Toronto were held by Jack Corcoran, and he promoted under the Queensbury Club name. Previous events had been held at locations like the Arena Gardens and Massey Hall.


With the opening of "Conn Smythe's Cashbox" (as it would be known), Corcoran set a date of November 20, 1931 for his first show at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Corcoran had obviously planned ahead for the move to the bigger building. For one, he had booked Jim Londos, who was recognized as one of the World champions at the time (the title had splintered between competing promoters, and various states recognized different variations of the belt).

But he also built a worthy challenger in Gino Garibaldi.


Gino Garibaldi.
The Italian star was born Gino Curcuru and debuted in pro wrestling in 1928, having survived a cave-in when he toiled as a coal miner. Three brothers would follow: Chick (who died in the ring in 1961), Tony (a lightweight) and Ralph (the best wrestler of the brothers). Later, Gino's son, Leo Garibaldi, would wrestle as his tag team partner and develop into one of the best wrestling minds as a booker in Atlanta and Los Angeles.

In Toronto, Garibaldi worked seven matches against six different opponents, building to the bout with Londos. The Toronto Globe said that he was "fully entitled to his match with the champion" after beating Vanka Zeloniak, Abe Kashey, Earl McCready, Jim McMillan, Jim Clintstock, and George Zaharias twice. "His match with McCready was voted one of the cleverest, most interesting exhibitions of real wrestling ever seen here, while his two tilts with Zaharias, providing less orthodox wrestling, were numbered among the most sensationally exciting wrestling features in the Toronto history of the sport," recapped the Globe.

The newspaper also previewed the World title match: "Comparing Garibaldi to Londos, it is found that they are not unlike in some reports. Both are remarkably well-built, clean-cut athletes, without the bulging muscles of some of the heavyweight wrestlers. Both are fast and very clever. Garibaldi is taller and some fifteen to eighteen pounds heavier and is the more aggressive of the pair. He has added to his repertoire of wrestling tactics the flying tackle, introduced by the former football players and in this respect differs from Londos. The champion has no use for the tackle in his own style of attack and avers that he has a perfect defense for it."


With the anticipation building, even the switch-over to the concrete floor was noted by Toronto Star sports editor W.A. Hewitt (father of legendary broadcaster Foster Hewitt): "The ring and lighting arrangements at the Gardens for this bout will be superior to anything ever seen in Toronto. The building will be heated and everything done for the comfort of the wrestling fans."

As well, the match was broadcast on the radio by CFCA, the action called by Foster Hewitt. Nestle's Milk Products (Canada) Ltd. sponsored the show.

It turns out all the pre-planning, hype, and press worked, and wrestling's debut at Maple Leaf Gardens was an unqualified success.

"[W]hat pleased the Gardens management was that there were 15,800 paid admissions, and many other thousands were turned away after the early sell-out," wrote W.A. Hewitt in the sports history book Down The Stretch. It set a new attendance record for a Toronto indoor sports attraction, topping a boxing bout -- also promoted by Corcoran -- of Johnny Dundee vs. Jimmy Goodrich, which had 14,300 fans at the Coliseum. Tickets ranged from 50 cents to $3, and the reported take for the London-Garibaldi show was $13,000 -- then a record for a Toronto wrestling show.

The match itself, aside from the length of it, sounds like it could fit in today with the referee "calling" the bout on the advice of ringside doctors, and Garibaldi unable to continue.


Jim Londos.
"Londos matched skill with a worthy opponent, worked his way out of some very difficult situations, came back coolly when his own favorite holds failed, and finally, after one hour, five minutes, and seventeen seconds of grappling, slammed the Italian challenger to the mat for what proved to be the only fall of the bout," reported the Globe. "Garibaldi wanted to continue after the ten-minute rest interval, but appeared badly shaken and was forbidden by the Ontario Athletic Commission doctors, Jim Barton and 'Mac' Crawford, to return to the ring."

It was a back and forth battle, perhaps a little more fast-paced than expected and the Globe report by W.T. Munns describes it beautifully: "Speed played an important part in the work of both men, the rivals applying holds with amazing dexterity and regaining their feet or leaping out of danger with a rapidity and grace that was reminiscent of the speed and latent power of a panther in action. There was none, or at least very little, of the slam-bang style that characterizes the work of such mat villains as George Zaharias. The wrestlers of that type are as different to Londos and Garibaldi as they went to work last night as are longshoremen in bruising fist battles to a pair of expert swordsmen in a rapier duel."

Garibaldi was the fan favourite. "He still has it, and he will, or should be, more popular than ever when he returns here," predicted Munn.

"Both used 'figure four' holds, wristlocks and headlocks more than any other offensives, and once or twice each tried the leg splits and body scissors. Garibaldi tried one method of attack which Londos refuses to include in his wrestling repertoire, the flying tackle," wrote Munn, describing the finish:


Gino has adopted "football's gift to wrestling," and has perfected it so that there are few he cannot hit with his flying charges, but Londos was always on the watch for it, and was not to be caught napping. Just twice did Garibaldi connect with his tackle, and each time the champion turned to break the force of it. Once Londos, though struck, did not even leave his feet; the other time he was knocked off balance, but was out of Garibaldi's way like a flash, practically twirling his way to his feet again.

Several times, as Garibaldi applied reverse headlocks, Londos, using a wonderful sense of balance and leverage, remained on his feet and attempted to counter with crotch-holds in effects to lead up to his particular speciality, the aeroplane whirl and body slam. Gino was not to be caught off guard and in such situations either shifted his position or rolled backwards, taking Londos with him.

At about the thirty-minute mark the first fall appeared to be only a matter of seconds. Londos, making use of his first decisive advantage of the bout, till then, darted in for a crotch-hold. Garibaldi proved to be of sterner stuff than the majority of the champion's opponents, for two aeroplane whirls and body slams failed to weaken him, and he rolled free. A few minutes later Gino, in a spectacular rebound from the ropes, caught Londos and bowled him over. They had been wrestling some forty-five minutes when Londos again appeared ready to toss the Mussolini adherent, but a tackle stopped his rally and sent him back into his shell. Then Garibaldi broke his headlock with one of the most exciting moves of the bout, sending the titleholder hurtling through the ropes, but without doing any damage.

There was plenty of fast, exciting action crammed into the minute preceding the fall. Londos used three flying headlocks, and then a tackle missed by Garibaldi proved his undoing. Londos seized the opportunity, resorted to his aeroplane whirl, and slammed Garibaldi heavily to the mat twice in quick succession. The courageous Italian appeared badly injured and collapsed as he descended the steps.


The Star even sent Alexandrine Gibb, who wrote the "No Man's Land of Sport" column offering "News and Views of Feminine Activities" to the show. "The girls were somewhat horrified after the first rough and tumble show but recovered in time to admire the artistic efforts of Mr. Jim Londos and his capable company," Gibb wrote. "There were ladies there who never witnessed wrestling matches before. Some of them didn't know whether to laugh or cry about the rough treatment that was being meted out in the white ring."

Here's the rest of the card: George Zaharias beat Paul Harper in 37 minutes; Joe "Toots" Mondt was awarded the decision over Hans Bauer after 30 minutes; Arthur Dick threw Alex Kasaboski in 15 minutes, 33 seconds.

Naturally, Corcoran was back a week later at Maple Leaf Gardens with another wrestling show.

TICKET DETAILS

Tickets for Ring of Honor at the Mattamy Athletic Centre go on sale for Ringside Members today, Wednesday May 8th at 10 a.m. EST through Ticketmaster.ca and a pre-sale password will be distributed to those who qualify. If you would like first chance to get these tickets, then click here.

Tickets for the general public will be available on Ticketmaster.ca starting Friday May 10th also at 10am EST and then at the Mattamy Athletic Centre box office starting Monday May 13th.

The price for tickets was not released.


RELATED LINKS
  • Feb 11, 1999: Wrestling made Maple Leaf Gardens great
  • Feb 17, 1999: Fans remember Maple Leaf Gardens
  • Ring of Honor website

    Greg Oliver is the Producer of SLAM! Wrestling. He can be emailed at goliver845@gmail.com.