January 24, 1984
Smaller in size, ever big in heart
By KEN FIDLIN-- Toronto Sun
|The Whip in December 1978 facing off against Gene Kiniski on Whipper Watson Appreciation Night at Maple Leaf Gardens. -- Toronto Sun file photo
The lunch crowd is into the main course at Whipper Watson's favorite dining salon.
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Around us, scores of animated conversations are in progress, yet besides the clatter of cutlery, the only sound to break the silence is Whipper's voice.
"There are no secrets in this room," he says, nodding at one smiling admirer, waving to another. "I think that might be one reason why I enjoy it here so much."
The patrons in this cafeteria at the Bob Rumball Centre, where Whipper spends much of his time, are deaf but their hands speak at the speed of light. Eavesdropping is a fact of life.
They are Whipper's friends, the kind of people he's been helping for 40 of his 68 years. Over that period of time he has unashamedly milked his celebrity as the most famous professional wrestler ever in Canada to make life a little easier for thousands of disabled persons. He is personally responsible for raising millions of dollars for a variety of organizations, most notably Ontario's crippled children.
"People say I give a lot of my time and effort but they don't understand that I get back far more than I give," he confides. It is for precisely that outlook that Whipper will earn special recognition Thursday at the annual Conn Smythe Sports Celebrities Dinner in aid of the Easter Seal Society.
When Watson speaks in that gentle tone or wraps a little child lovingly in his mighty arms, it is difficult to imagine him in the ring rendering an opponent senseless with a gold that what was known, in another era, as the Irish Whip.
Born William John Potts in East York, the son of a soldier killed in France by a sniper just two weeks before the end of World War I, Whipper earned his nickname and his first professional wrestling purse on the same memorable evening at London's Ring Blackfriars in 1936.
"I was wrestling a Scotsman named Tony Bear and I ended the match with the whip hold. That is, I pulled him toward me, rammed my shoulder into his midsection and whipped him up over my shoulder about 12 feet in the air. As usual, it knocked the wind out of him long enough for me to get the pin. The next day in the newspaper, they were calling me Whipper Billy."
'Watson' came from the fertile imagination of a British wrestling promoter who liked the way the words Whipper Billy Watson rolled off his tongue. A star was born.
Watson, then weighing a lean mean 175, and four buddies -- Al Kormann, Tiger Tasker, Tommy Nelson and Harry Joyce -- had left Toronto for the British Isles seeking their fame and fortune on the wrestling circuit. They made a pact before they boarded a cattle boat in Montreal for the crossing that for two years any money the group won would be divided four ways. Once in England, their early lodging included three soggy days in a tent and another in a chicken coup. They pushed on to London.
"After our first matches, we were paid in cloth bags full of half crowns. We went back to our boarding house and before we paid Mrs. Poole, the landlady who had let us stay on the promise we would pay here when we got our first pay, we went to our room and took turns rolling on the bed and let the others shower us in the coins."
He was just 20 then and would continue to wrestle successfully in England for four years for returning to Canada with a reputation, a bankroll, a wife and 40 extra pounds on his 6-foot-1 inch frame. A box full of clippings was send ahead to introduce this phenom of the mat to Frank Tunney, the king of Canadian wrestling promoters.
"Frank didn't even pick up the box at customs," laughs Watson now. "Hadn't even heard of me. I had to show him what I could do before I got anything but preliminary bouts."
Watson showed and Tunney glove. Whip became the No. 1 attraction -- the quintessential good guy in a world of evil villains -- with crowds at Maple Leaf Gardens swelling from "about 800 when I started, to 10,000 at the end."
The end came 31 years and some 6,500 bouts later, on Nov. 30, 1971 when a car skidded out of control on icy Rogers Road, slamming into Whipper as he loaded a fireplace screen into the trunk of his Cadillac.
His left knee was shattered, the leg itself nearly severed. It took 3 1/2 hours of surgery at Northwestern Hospital to repair the damage, but the leg never be the same. It still gives him considerable pain.
"As bad as that day was, I remember two funny things that happened. They lady who checked me in took $500 out of my pocket and said, 'You should know better than to bring so much money to a hospital, as if I had been planning to be there. And there was the anesthetist who said he'd be with me in just a second. He was going to get a sandwich. I'm lying there with a leg that looks like hamburger and he's going for a sandwich.
"That night I remembered back to a time when I was assuring a disabled kid that I knew what it was like to be disabled and he looked me in the eye and said 'Whip, you'll never know what it's like to be disabled.' And now, in that one instant, I realized he had been right.
"I was 55 years old, probably the best-conditioned 55-year-old in Canada, wrestling and still beating men half my age. And now I was disabled.
"For 25 years I had been putting my arm around kids and telling them things would be all right. I was wrong. For 25 years I had been lying to those kids.
"Now I'm straight with them. No sugar-coating. Because life for the disabled is always going to be tough and I tell them that they'd better be good at everything they try because, to be accepted, they'll have to be better than the next guy."
Whipper knows about challenges. His mentor in wrestling from the time he was 13 until he set off for England seven years was Phil Lawson, a tough-minded instructor at the YMCA.
"He became like a second father to me. It is one of my regrets in life that I didn't realize what a fine, understanding man my stepfather (his mother had remarried to a cartage agent named Ernesto Chezzi) was until later in life. I resented him, I guess. Anyway, Phil was my father-figure and he made me work.
"He always told me that if I wanted to be a champion that it would take years of dedication. When I wanted to quit, he was there to keep me going. One of the training routine was me carrying him on my back up the Scarboro Bluffs. More than once I wanted to dump him.
"When I look back, I realize the profound effect he had on my life."
After the accident that ended his wrestling career, Whipper ballooned to over 350 pounds, a condition that continuously caused him concern.
Typically, though, Whip doesn't embark on something even as simple as a diet without making sure that somebody else benefits. Hence his latest project: Pounds for People.
Last July 7, under the scrutiny of two of his longtime friends -- Harold Ballard and Lord Athol Layton, who died two weeks ago -- Watson weighed in at 352 and pledged to shed 50 pounds by July 6, 1984. He even put up $50,000 of his own money and declared he'd forfeit $1,000 a pound to various charities if he failed to meet the goal. Meanwhile he exacted pledges from the public for every pound shed.
The other day he tipped the scales at 297, down 55 from last July and five pounds below the limit. The diet continues, however. He is still 25 pounds short of his own private goal.
So he sits and picks at the small portion on his plate and speaks in awed tones of the fine work with the deaf being done by the tireless Rev. Bob Rumball; or of his sainted mother who instilled in him a need to help others; or of the quiet generosity of people like Conn Smythe and Harold Ballard; or of his favorite Canadian, John Diefenbaker; or of the overwhelming need in any of a dozen organizations he's associated with.
He may have conquered his hunger for food, but his appetite for humanity remains boundless.