by Johnny K. Death
The Phoenix Madison Square Garden held wrestling from 1929 til 1979 but stood as a warehouse, ironically called Arizona Jobber Supply, until it was torn down in spite of massive protests in 2005. This is the story of the arena through one man's eyes, who has written more about this building than any one individual.
JKD: What can you cell us overall about the Phoenix Madison Square Garden?
DP: The building was a two level arena with a balcony, hard wood floors and a capacity for maybe 3,000 people. Aside from wrestling, it also housed concerts, dances, religious revivals, boxing and other events. Wrestling was always what it was known for though and there was a lot of history there. At least in the high rise being erected where the building stood, they are supposed to put in a small museum about the arena. There were a few other promoters who ran wrestling in Phoenix in the 1980s and 1990s and called their arenas Madison Square Garden as well, either to capitalize on nostalgia or in tribute to the original building, but the original stood at 7th Avenue and Van Buren.
JKD: You wrote a book called Riot at the Garden?
DP: It was originally printed and sold at shows in other buildings after the arena closed down. A guy named Tim, who runs a couple nostalgic sites, reprinted it and is selling it on line now. Ordering info at http://www.riotatthegarden.com and it is still available. He wanted to reissue it so I told him go ahead and knock yourself out. he also added several pictures, where the original book was text only.
JKD: Didn't a wrestler get killed in the ring there?
DP: Technically, yes. A guy named Jim Wright in the 1960s. During a tag team bout he had a fatal heart attack while standing on the ring apron. He fell off the ring and hit his head hard on the arena floor. Either the head blow or the heart failure alone would have killed him, but the combination did him in fast. In fact several wrestlers who appeared there later died in other locations from heart attacks in the ring or in the locker room afterward. Luther Lindsey, Ray Gunkle, Ike Eakins, Ali Pasha, Mike DiBiase, Tony Romano, and a few others. Alberto Torres worked shows there and died from ring injuries in the midwest a long time later. A referee named Bob Sallee shot himself a few years after the arena shut down. Another referee, Firpo Zybysco, was knifed in a bar in Phoenix when he tried to break up a fight. In some ways, this might make the plot for a good horror film. It was like the arena was the kiss of death for some people and bad luck latched on to them after appearing there.
JKD: When did you see your first matches there?
DP: We moved to Arizona when I was a kid in 1969 and I saw matches on Channel 21. This station later became an all religion station and remains so today but at one time it was where the wretslign shows were aired. My father started taking me down there in 1971. Of the cards I saw, the first card had Jody Arnold vs Ron Protchard, Tito Montez and Bob Lueck vs The Comancharos, Commi Kasha vs. Kiko Torres and Nano Ortega vs. Chuck Hondo. All of the bouts were 2 out of 3 falls then.
JKD: Who all appeared there?
DP: Oh my God. Argentina Rocca, Don Arnold, Dick Hutton, Kangaroo Bob Carson, Lou Thesz, Jerry Graham, the Funks, Karl Von Brock, a little known Hawaiian wrestler named Charlie Kalani who later became famous as Professor Tanaka, Duke Keomuka, Chuck Karbo, Johnny Kostas, Cowboy Bob Ellis, Bearcat Wright, Sweet Daddy Watts, Billy Varga, Fred bLassie, Mildred Burke, Rose Evans,. Maria Vagnone, Ann Casey, Mr Wrestling, Don kent, Eddie Sullivan, Jimmy Kent, Tokyo Joe, Shag Thomas, Ripper Collins, Gorgeous George, the Fullers, Gorgeous George Jr., Buddy Colt, The Comacharos (aka The Hells Angels, Chris Colt & Ron Dupree), Ben Justice, Gory Guerrerro, Charro Azteca, Brute Bemis, Killer Kane, Chief Golden Hawk, Centrella Negra, Flama Roja, Bronco Lazar , Tony Hernandez, El Mustang, El Santo, Blue Demon, Logger Larson, Whipper Watson jr., Roberto Pico, Pancho Pico, Bobby Mayne (Jaggers), Apache Gringo, Kurt Von Steiger, Frankie Caine (Great Mephisto), Billy Anderson, Pistol Pete Marquiz, Monty Ladue, Paavo Ketonen, Lord Carlson, The Gorky brothers, Fritz Von Eric, the Great Scott, Ian Campbell, Ed Blair, James Blears, Les Thatcher, Bob Geigel,, Johnny Mann, Don Curtis, Jackie Frisco, Circulo, The original Assassins, the original Medics, Buddy Wayne, Mike Mazurki, the Christy brothers, Maniac Mike Gordon, The Spoiler, Shirley Stemple, Tonah Tomah, Bambi Ball, Roy McClarity, Mongol; Lu Kimm, Jose Lothario, Navajo Frank, Daisey may, Jane Sherill, Kikop Toprres, Henry Pillusso, Tito Carrion, Freddie Barron, Tito Copa, Warren Bockwinkel, John Shane, Luis Martinez and and on and on.
There were also many regional wrestlers who were as good as anyone else, but tended to stick to the southwest almost exclusively for their careers. Jody Arnold comes to mind. Also John Ringer, Benny Mendeblis, The Lumberjacks, Cowboy Bob Yuma, Hercules Stevenson and Paul Harvey were some of them.
There is a site in homage to Arizona wrestling at Arizona Wrestling Legends I do not recall the URL off the top of my head. You can find it in search mode which lists a pretty big group of people who appeared in Arizona from World War II to the 1980s, but it should be noted this is not a list limited to the Garden. It includes people working the Arizona-Mexico border and promotions coming in from other areas, at other buildings. The New Mil Wrestling Indy website at http://www.angelfire.com/oh/nmpw also has some old photos from people int he Garden on the page and so does the Wrestlign Then & Now site as I have covered this arena beofre in their fanzine pages and provided some old stills for the galleries. Billy Anderson, Donny Anderson, Afa & Sika and some others who appeared there also have webpages while the Obsessed With Wrestling page has a load of photos of some of the people who once worked their in their galleries.
JKD: You wrote about a massive riot at The Garden?
DP: That was a bloodbath with Pancho Pico and Ben Justice versus the Coman charos, but there were many other riots down there. When he was going as Chbnris Colt, some time later, Comancharo #2 caused yet another riot down there, when he was on an acid trip and though he saw spiders crawling up the cage in a cage bout. he jumped out of the ring and started picking off fans and security right and left. Spunick Monroe or his brother, I forget which, had his head laid open by a chair thrown at him by a fan, according to a tale I heard. Jody Arnold grabbed his championship belt and started swinging it to clear a path to the dressing room after a riot one time. Fans back then got crazy. It wasn''t like now. They took that stuff real serious. It was so bad at one time there was this swinging wire gate that was put up when the bad guys entered the ring, keeping fans from the bar and concession stand from getting at them, which was swung shut when the wrestlers entered or left the ring and opened once they made their way down the aisle. The balcony was great for projectiles too. Again, people took wretslign reallys eriously back then. The hispanics in the crowd always went crazy when one of their heroes got mishandled.
JKD: Tito Montez was always a major draw there, right?
DP: Yes. He would be the one who woudl usually take on anglo villains. He would usually be drawn up into long feuds with them and finally beat them in a cage. the only person to ever beat him in a cage was Jody Arnold. Montez beat Don Arnold, Kurt Von Steiger, Jimmy Kent, Don Kent, Bearcat Wright Woody Farmer,Chris Colt and many others in a cage. He was a cage bout champion sort of like Dory Funk Sr claimed to be the Texas Death match champion in Texas.
JKD: Who are some of the others who appeared there? You seem to have left out several?
DP: Well, okay. Tony Barbetta, Fidel grimo, Paddy Ryan, Rick Renaldo, Ray Stevens, Roy Shire, Baby Blimp, Wally Steel, Fred Williams, The Mighty Jumbo, Wilson Kolbreaker, Jerry Woods, Pedro el Grande, Gordon Darnell, Ali Bey, Super Argo, Bill Melby, Chuck Hondo, Bill Kirk, Danny Kroffat, Al madril, Salvador Dominguez, Zombi Palacio, Tom Ramirez, Frankenstein the Monster, Paco Nunez, Coyo Castro, As Charro, Marilyn Bender, Barbara Starr, Tanya Stevens, Princess Inez, Blackjack Jim, Tony Bernardi, Great Gonzalez, Jimmy Garcia, Mayor Danny, Jimmy Justice, Danny Johnson, Ricky Thompson, Ron Pritchard, Bob Lueck, The Hornets, The Isarelites, Bruce Kirk, Haystacks Calhoun, and again on and on.
JKD: Didn't the Comancharos-Chris Colt & Ron Dupree, by whatever names, cause a lot of headaches for promoters?
DP: Well, they singlehandedly got wrestling kicked off Channel 5 when they figured they would get a lot of heat by burning an American Flag on TV. It got them heat alright and got them kicked off the air, but they sold out the arena that Friday. They were uncanny individuals, both dead now. Dupree, he died of a heart attack in the ring in Tacoma, Washington. Say, there is another one for the death by heart attack list. I knew I was forgetting someone important. Colt died several years later, or so it goes, but no one seems to know for sure from what and where he is buried. They say from AIDS and in his last days he became a born again Christian. If so, it rounds out an odd ending to an odd life.
JKD: Tony Hernandez was a big draw there?
DP: Yes he was. He may also be seen as the Tijuana Jail Boss in the film Losing It that was out in the 1980s, as well as varied Mexican films. Henry Pillusso was also a big draw in Phoenix and he made many movies in mexico as well.
JKD: Did you have any favorites when you were a kid or a teenager?
DP: Tito Montez, Cowboy Bob Ellis, the Comancharos and Jody Arnold.
JKD: Did you ever work matches at the Garden?
DP: Now you step into an area where I do not speak of as when you interview Dale Pierce, you get Dale Pierce, and when you interview the wretsling personality, you get that personality. The two never mingle. No, I never did appear at the original garden, but took photos down there, did programs and magazine articles down there and met my contacts who got me in down there, but I started right after the Garden closed.
JKD: They had a load of bloody feuds down there?
DP: Cowboy Bob Yuma and Hercules Stevenson had a long and loody feud. Yuma wrestled the last bout ever at the Garden. These two stayed mainly in the southwets but their matches were tremendous brawls and bloodbaths. This feud could have gone anywhere and been a main event. The pleople loved Yuma and just hated Stevenson. Plus both were so good on the mike, especially Stevenson. All he had to dow as grab the mike and people were already booing him because they knew whatever he said, they were not going to like it.
Likewise, Tito Montez feuded with everyone. Don Kent, The Comancharos, Jody Arnold, Don Arnold, Bearcat Wright. His matches were hardcore twod ecades before hardcore wretsling was a word.
Going way back in time, the great Rocca versus Rogers feud also expanded into Phoenix for some bouts.
Bobby Mayne, later known as Bobby Jaggers, also had a long and bloody feud with Kurt Von Steiger. Stunning, even shocking was he and Jody Arnold managed to turn a neo Nazi into a hero.
Mr. Wrestling and Paul Harvey had some wild and bloody bouts just before the Garden shut down.
The Comancharos had a long-running feud with Ben Justice and Pancho Pico, going several months straight, which is the main topic of Riot At The Garden. these four met in every type of bout known to mankind at the time.
Super Argo and Maniac Mike Gordon also had a hot feud which ended when Argo beat Gordon in a beard versus mask bout and Gordon got shaved.
JKD: Wasn't there a wedding in the ring with a wretsler?
DP: Mr. Wrestling married in the ring, for real, long before the WWF was staging bullshit weddings on TV. The thing is, his marriage did not last.
JKD: Going back to Chris Colt, didn't he work drunk one night and walk into the ring with a joint in his hand?
DP: It was a regular cigarette, he forgot he was holding. Seem to think John Ronger did that once also, with a regular cigarette I mean.
JKD: Don Arnold was the subject of a WT&Now special issue a few years back. Wasn't he a big draw there?
DP: The issue touched on it somewhat. He was a main eventer for a logn while there. the odd part is for most of his career and in other parts of the country, he was a fan favorite, but was always heel in Phoenix pretty much. The people just hated this guy. Then when Jody Arnold came along as his "nephew" he was able to start a career and carry on the tradition.
JKD: There were some really tough people who came through there who could straight shoot?
DP: Johnny Kostas and Ray Gordon were two of the toughest wrestlers to ever step into a ring, according to those who knew them. Warren Bockwinkel, Nick's father also.
JKD: Are you sad to see the Garden go?
DP: Of course I am. I am living in ohio and could not take part in the protests back in Arizona to try to save the building, but I think saving the place was a losing cause. The city took a lot of heat for tearing down the building, but again theya re supposed to have some sort of small museumw ithin, to indicate where the Garden stood. Of course I am glas to see some preservation in the form of the museum that is pending,b ut am sorry to see the old building go down. All that history has been shot in the ass. What can I say?
JKD: Why did they stop holding wrestling there if it was such a hot draw, way back in 1979?
DP: I believe the woman who owned the building sold it and that ended that.
JKD: Anythign else youw ould liekt o say about the Phoenix Madison Square Garden?
DP: The arena is gone, but the memories live on.