July 3, 2013
"The Bearman" Dave McKigney: 25 years later
By ANDREW CALVERT and GREG OLIVER - SLAM! Wrestling
It has been 25 years since "The Bearman" Dave McKigney died in Newfoundland and Labrador when his van left the road to avoid a moose. But his story is so much richer than just the end, from growing up poor in Toronto, to working the Ontario circuit, to promoting shows across the province. Come with us on a wonderful ride, revisiting the Bearman!
In Ontario in the early 1950s the small town wrestling scene was peppered with shows promoted by Red Garner. Garner, a long-time wrestler billed from Richvale, Ontario, had taken to training young prospects and was using them in shows around the area. Garner had a garage in the Richvale area of Richmond Hill where the trainees included Wally Sieber a.k.a. Baron Von Seiber (later Waldo von Erich) and a young Dave McKigney a.k.a. Jean Dubois.
Garner would promote shows around Toronto, the towns of Uxbridge, Cobourg, Newmarket, and other spots within distance of the city. It's here that the future Canadian Wildman would learn his craft and begin a long tenure as the prominent bear wrestler in professional wrestling for the next 30-plus years.
In those days there were a few animal wrestling gimmicks, notably Tuffy Truesdell who wrestled both bears and alligators on the circuit, including in Toronto, as well as some others doing the bit across the Southern U.S.
McKigney looks to have started the wrestling bear angle around 1958 with the first mention on July 7, 1958, in Cobourg listing Terrible Ted versus "Some Foolish Wrestler" -- likely McKigney.
McKigney's story starts a few years earlier, circa 1949, when the future Wildman, as a lean and muscular 17 year old, was competing in the amateur wrestling ranks in the Toronto area.
It was a rough-and-tumble life McKigney led, said Tom Rusk, who wrestled as Red Hawk. "He was just a kid when we met, because he was younger than me. I was just about, oh, I guess, 18, 19. He was just a kid, and he was living in this upstairs place, the guy let him live there for free and keep an eye on the store."
According to Rusk, McKigney actually slept in the middle of the ring -- likely a boxing ring -- with just a pillow and a cover. "When my brother and I heard of this, we went down and we popped in and we saw him. We said, 'Look it, we'll tell you what, Dave, if we can come down and work out, we'll work out with you and we'll also teach you how to wrestle, and we'll bring some food down for you.' He thought that was great. So every time we went down, we brought a couple of loaves of bread, some meat and some vegetables and stuff like that so he could eat. And we taught him the very few moves that he ever knew."
Through Rusk, McKigney met other wrestlers, including Garner, and start appearing on shows around Toronto billed as "The Flying Frenchman" Jacques Dubois or sometimes just plain Frenchy Dubois.
In addition to the future Waldo Von Erich and promoter Garner, others on these cards included Ed "Killer" Mangotich (a.k.a. Gori Mangotich), Al (Aledo) Orlando, Hassan Bey (Georgio Stefanides, a future Maple Leaf Gardens referee), Ron "Wildcat" Osbourne, Calvin Cosburn, Stoney Brooks, and area regular and sometime promoter Les Lyman, among others.
In the late 1950s McKigney, along with Garner, would appear in Western Canada both as singles and as a tag team. McKigney, now adopting the Jean/Gene Dubois moniker, would cross over and work throughout the U.S. alongside Terrible Ted, sometimes wrestling the bear himself or handling Ted versus another wrestler while Dave worked another bout on the card.
In 1967 McKigney appeared alongside Whipper Billy Watson and his son Whipper Jr. (Phil Watson), who were promoting cards in some of the smaller towns around Toronto. Working with the Watsons may have planted the seed for Dave to promote his own shows. Whipper Jr. would continue to promote shows in the early 1970s sometimes working in tandem with McKigney, as well as working on Dave's shows up into the mid-'80s.
To give an example of how the towns were divvied up, Johnny Powers was once given the town of Sutton, Ontario, to promote, by Frank Tunney. "It took me three maps to find it at that time," Powers said of the tiny hamlet outside of Newmarket. His next town was the slightly larger Galt, which is now part of Cambridge.
It was all over the map, literally, said Phil Watson.
The last part of the 1960s, and into the early 1970s, McKigney would work extensively in the Northeast U.S. with the then-WWWF. Farkus would join him as The Wolfman under the tutelage of Freddie Blassie, while McKigney working as Jean Dubois on the undercard. In the summer he would come back around Ontario and wrestle the bear around the circuit while going back to the U.S. in the winter months.
In 1971, after trying out his promoting hand around southern Ontario, McKigney tried a show at Varsity Arena in Toronto, not far from the Tunney stronghold of Maple Leaf Gardens. Tunney hurried to put together a card to run opposite the Varsity show on what was to be an off-night for the MLG card. The MLG show drew over 15,000 to see the The Sheik versus Big John Quinn while the McKigney show drew just over 600 to see a main event of The Mongol versus John Difazio, who subbed for an absent (and Tunney regular) Tony "Cannonball" Parisi.
"While visiting Dave one time at his home in King Township, he was mincing no words, in regards to the Tunneys going out of their way to put him out of business," recalled Baker. To his recollection, McKigney vowed "one precious thing that they can never take away from me is this land and the home that sits on it."
The Tunney-McKigney feud lasted for years, and is a big part of the narrative of the book, Drawing Heat, by Jim Freedman, an anthropology professor at Western University in London, Ontario.
In 1972 McKigney began a long association with the Michigan and Ohio promotions, appearing to facilitate their forays into Southwestern Ontario during the summers. At this time The Sheik was the star of Frank Tunney's Maple Leaf Gardens shows as well as running Detroit, while the WWA highlighting Dick the Bruiser was running opposition in the Detroit area. The stars of the WWA alongside some of the Ontario guys would become regulars in the area for '72 and '73, most notably both in Windsor and London, as well as smaller locales like Chatham, Leamington, and Woodstock.
Goldie Rogers once addressed the Bearman's promotional skien: "He runs towns they wouldn't even pay attention to, but because he's there, in their territory, he's blacklisted."
Dave himself would appear on Tunney's shows in Toronto and continue to use any and all stars of the era. Tony Parisi, Luis Martinez, Ron Doner, and Terry Yorkston would all appear both at MLG and on the circuit as regulars over the years. In addition Parisi, Yorkston, and The Love Brothers would also promote in their own areas during this era, Parisi in Niagara Falls, Yorkston in Hamilton, and the Loves in St. Catharines.
Johnny Powers gave his thoughts on Dave McKigney: "He was a carnival guy, but he worked his ass off to give value for the money," said Powers. "He was unique. He never had the talent to go up the food chain well, but as a grassroots promoter, he gave a lot of boys some off-season money ... He filled in a gap. He'd go into the towns, beat the bushes real hard, and he spent his money, and he made sure the boys worked hard and didn't just walk through a match."
While the landscape in Southern Ontario was bustling with small town wrestling shows in the mid 1970s McKigney would continue to be the main man on the promoting side. Touring tirelessly as Big Bear Promotions, or sometimes Big Time Wrestling through the summer with his bear in tow, and cards full of stars including the midget wrestlers, the ladies, and occasionally worldwide stars such as Andre the Giant. At one point they even tried TV based out of London, borrowing the Sheik's mobile set-up.
With a lengthy schedule for a summer, Ricky "Soulman" Johnson said that McKigney booked his talent far ahead. "We usually started in May with Dave, and went to the end of September. I'd know [my dates] in February. He'd still book other shows in between."
Most of these posters were produced at the Uxbridge Printing Co. in advance of the summer tour, sometimes they would be made on the run when dates changed. I have seen a few that had no date printed just the box so they could be written in as things changed. In the earlier days most of what was billed took place, but as Dave was planning well in advance there were substitutions of course. In spite of that he always maintained a strong card and the fans would continue to come out.
The man who designed so many of McKigney's posters was Conrad Gargus, who was the son of McKigney's wife, Lee. His sister was woman wrestler Rachael Dubois.
"I used to design all these posters. This is my layout and design. This traditional wrestling with this head, that's my style," Gargus said, laughing at how similar they all were, and almost every poster had his sister's photo. "We didn't have pictures [of the other women], but we had this great picture of Rachael with the belt."
"While I was at school, I promoted the wrestling in the summer. I helped Dad promote the wrestling in the summer," said Conrad, who is still in the printing business. "That was since I was 16 years old. I did all the advertising for him. I was like a silent partner. I owned a piece of the business. I was a working partner. When I wasn't involved in the promotions, I was a non-partner. So for anything I contributed to, I was paid for."
The Wildman was a true hands-on promoter, lining up the shows with maps of Ontario open on the desk, working to book up the empty hockey arenas in the summer months. He would haul the ring in a big pickup truck and move from town to town with hundreds of miles of road in between. The promotion also tried programs over the years, some were 'promotionally enhanced' to say the least, featuring stars that never had set foot on a Big Bear Show. Still McKigney would prove to be a honest and reliable businessman who always had a place on his shows for many of the older stars that were preferring to stay local at the ends of their careers.
Each summer would usually highlight a single wrestler, defending the Big Bear North American Title and McKigney would enlist some of the wrestling world's best to head up the summer tours. Archie "The Stomper" Gouldie, fresh off a successful run for Stampede would rule the 1974 season battling the likes of Bobo Brazil, Angelo Mosca, and "Killer" Tim Brooks over the belt.
As the years progressed, old friend Waldo Von Erich would take the belt as well as area regulars Billy Red Lyons, Tony Parisi, and the wild Chris Colt. Colt would prove to be a big attraction for McKigney from his first appearances in the mid-'70s right into the 1980s with his hardcore style that fit right in on the Big Bear circuit.
Dave would continue to appear on the MLG shows while promoting his brand of mayhem around the circuit right up until 1979. After an MLG bout in Jan 1979 versus Sweet Daddy Siki, McKigney would never again be seen at Maple Leaf Gardens. Subsequently he would find himself subject to on-going scrutiny from the Ontario Athletics Commissioner of the time Jim Vipond. Vipond was a long-time sportswriter who covered wrestling for the Globe in Toronto and was a close friend to the Tunneys. While Frank seemed to work with Dave over the years, nephew Jack -- who had taken the reigns somewhat in the late 1970s -- seemed to have a different outlook.
Gargus said that Orser's death changed everything. "The year that things turned, that's the year that Lynn Orser, that first year was the year that Lynn Orser was killed by the bear," he said.
Each of the three bears that McKigney had over the years had different personalities, said Gargus.
"Terrible Ted was a one-man bear. He would wrestle Dad and no-one else. We never touched him. You could barely pet him," he said, with his sister adding that it was fun to throw grapes to Ted.
It seemed like Smokey was going to be a small bear, "so that's why dad left the teeth and claws in." It had to be put down. "Smokey was put down because he just wanted to go up and jump onto people," said Gargus. "Basically he was scaring people because he was friendly."
"People ask what it was like to wrestle a bear. It was like a mean dog," said Gargus.
Even though most of the wrestling regulations were dropped from the old days, Tunney may have used them to put a hold on Dave as MLG never held the battle royal bouts nor mixed tag bouts as was often seen on the Big Bear shows.
In 1980, Dave found a foothold in London, Ontario, promoting regular shows with the likes of the Davidson Brothers, Eddie Mansfield, Don Kent, and the young upstart team of John Bonello and Randy Scott. The success -- albeit small -- would not go un-noticed. Around that time the Tunneys would run opposition by re-introducing their circuit, which had been mostly dormant since the 1960s. London and Kitchener most notably, as well as spots like Kingston, St. Catharines, and Hamilton would start to see Tunney shows, sometimes on the same day as one of Dave's cards. At the peak of the Tunney-Mid Atlantic affiliation it was tough to compete against cards with the likes of Ricky Steamboat and Greg Valentine, and Big Bear Promotions faced an uphill climb.
A notable incident in 1983 at Scarborough Arena saw the Wildman break his leg during a tag bout with Bobo Brazil. McKigney would make it to the end of the bout before collapsing outside the ring. He still grabbed the microphone and declared revenge and that he would be back. The following cards McKigney was on the sidelines in a cast and crutches but still found a way to get involved as the action spilled out of the ring. The show would always go on.
In addition to the Ontario circuit, McKigney would venture to the Maritimes promoting shows in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in 1984. With the emergence of a powerful WWF with designs on North American dominance in 1984 the smaller shows got fewer and fewer. The summer tours were shorter and it was getting tougher to survive in the Hulkamania era, especially with the WWF sending shows into Peterborough, Lindsay, and Newmarket, all choice spots for Big Bear shows in the past.
Problems would arise again on the Maritimes tour with two young fans being injured while in the ring with the Bear. Dave would once again find his business in peril at the hands of the Sports Commission upon his return to Ontario.
Duncan McTavish (Matt Gilmore) shared a memory of McKigney and the bear in 2006. "That was his living, the bear. He was at my place when I said to him and my son, 'I want you to go down to Queen's Park to talk to Monte Kwinter. Take the bear with you but don't take him out of the cage, just leave him in there.' So they left him in there. In the meantime, I called Monte Kwinter's office and he said he couldn't do nothing about the bear being reinstated because it was before the courts. I said, 'Well, it's a simple solution. The Bearman can't earn a living if he doesn't wrestle the bear. If the bear can't wrestle, then the Bearman can't feed him. And if he can't feed him, he's going to shoot the bear on the city hall steps.' Then I called the radio and TV stations. He made more money with the bear that year than if he had have wrestled him! When my son and the Bearman got down there, they arrested them and put them in the cell under Queen's Park, but they hadn't done nothing. They were just there. The bear was allowed to travel in the cage. They didn't take it out."
Danny Marsh worked intially as Danny Littlewolf for McKigney, but when he was asked to face Terry S.R. -- another name a young Sabu used -- he was the heel Danny Davis.
"He might have had three matches in him when he came to Dave," said Marsh. "What a great kid he was back then." Naturally, Marsh followed the progress of the suicidal, homicidal, genocidal Sabu. "I love Terry to death to this day. In the ring, that was my highlight, saying I had a part in creating Sabu."
Dave would pack up and try Newfoundland again in 1988 only to meet a tragic end along with Adrian Adonis and Pat Kelly when their vehicle crashed en route to a show on July 4. The full details of the crash, including memories of most of the talent on the tour, are included in the reprint of Drawing Heat, put out by Scott Teal's Crowbar Press imprint. It's worth seeking out, if only for some of the last photos ever of Adonis, drinking beer with the crew, on the ferry from Labrador to the mainland.
McKigney's death was on the front page of Newmarket Era newspaper, the publication that served the area north of Toronto where he had lived for years. The iconic Whipper Watson, who lived in nearby Sharon, was quoted as saying that McKigney was "tougher than the average wrestler" and "pretty rugged. Anybody who can wrestle a bear has to be pretty tough."
The funeral was at Roadhouse and Road Funeral House on Saturday, July 9, 1988. He was survived by his eight-year-old son David, and grown stepchildren Rachel Rose, Conrad Gargus, and Carrie Orser.
Little David McKigney was raised by Rolly Duguay, who drove the bus for the shows and who had an auto shop in downtown Toronto where all the boys used to hang out for beers. Davey Jr. lives in Calgary now, is married and has a child.
While spending most of his career billed as a Wildman or a Beast, McKigney is fondly remembered as a giving and generous man. As a promoter he was selfless, often working the openers and rarely winning, giving the spotlight to others as is rarely see in the wrestling business.
The last word goes to Roger Baker:
"Another pleasant memory that I will always remember of my friendship with Dave, happened one night at the Newmarket Arena were Dave had a show, I had my wife and two children with me, Dave spotted us, and he invited me into the dressing rooms to meet the boys, then to my utter surprise and pleasure, he asked me to to be his ringside announcer, and timekeeper, that's the kind of guy Dave was to you if he considered you a friend."