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Whipper Billy Watson -- 1916-1990
By KATHLEEN GRIFFIN and FRANK ZICARELLI -- Toronto Sun

The Whip in 1983. -- Toronto Sun file photo

  Whipper Billy Watson, well-known humanitarian and five-time world wrestling champion, died yesterday. He was 74.

He suffered a heart attack last Wednesday and was admitted to an Orlando, Fla., hospital near his winter home in Sebring.

He never regained consciousness.

"He died peacefully," said his wife, Eileen, in a statement.

Funeral services will be held in Toronto, she added.

Born William Potts in East York in 1916, the Whipper was one of Canada's most famous professional heavyweight wrestlers.

He spent more than 40 years of his life doing volunteer work for Ontario's disabled children and was personally responsible for raising millions of dollars for various charities.

"From all the people who have related little personal incidents to me, you'd swear no man could ever have lived that long," a teary Bob Rumball, Watson's friend of 25 years, said yesterday. "We're going to miss him."

A longtime supporter of the annual Easter Seal fundraiser in Toronto, Watson often made his entrance with a Timmy or Tammy - a child chosen every year to symbolize handicapped children - hoisted on his broad shoulders.

"It was always the highlight of the evening when he'd come out with Timmy or Tammy - or both - on his shoulders," recalled Sun corporate sports editor George Gross yesterday.

Gross was on the committee planning an honorary dinner for Watson's 75th birthday in June.

"It's a tragedy," he added.

"He made people feel better just being around him. He had that magical effect," said Al Fraser, executive director of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Known in wrestling circles as the Irish Whip, Watson earned the nickname in London after performing a manoeuvre that saw him whip an opponent into his mid-section, bend over and throw the unlucky foe over his back.

He was forced to retire in 1971 because of an automobile accident. After stopping to help someone on an icy Rogers Rd., another car skidded out of control and pinned Watson against one of the stopped vehicles, shattering his left knee and nearly severing the leg.

Having already donated much of his time to charity during his career, Watson unabashedly used his celebrity status to raise money for charitable organizations after he retired.

The World Wrestling Federation paid a solemn tribute to Watson during yesterday's matinee of Hulkamania at Maple Leaf Gardens. The ring bell was rung 10 times in his memory as more than 16,000 mat fans stood in silence.

"Billy was a marvelous man and a great athlete," said WWF president and longtime Toronto promoter Jack Tunney, whose legendary uncle, Frank Tunney, was accorded the same honor at Maple Leaf Gardens when he passed away in 1983.

Watson, who seldom broke the rules, was a box-office hit at Maple Leaf Gardens during his illustrious mat career.

Perhaps Watson's most memorable bout involved Gorgeous George, a notorious villain whose showmanship is currently embodied in Hulk Hogan. Watson pinned George, who was forced to cut his golden hair.

"He was such a tireless worker," said Tunney. "He was an all-around gentleman. He'll be greatly missed because he was very unselfish."

Watson leaves his wife, Eileen, and three children - John, Phil and Georgina.

RELATED LINKS

  • Whipper Billy Watson story archive