On November 19th, 1957, Madison Square Garden was in pandemonium. A dozen scuffles and fights broke off into the aisles as spectators tried to move to the exits while others sought safety near the ring. Scores of fans were arrested, and police officers and bystanders alike were injured. It was a scene rarely seen in wrestling up until this point, and it almost led to the ban of wrestling altogether in New York.
“Something truly remarkable occurred in Madison Square Garden last week. For a few fleeting seconds, professional wrestling turned honest… and the entertainers actually tried to hurt each other! The effect on the audience was so electrifying that they went into a state of riot, and it took 67 cops to stop it.”
– LIFE Magazine, December 1957.
When Wrestling Goes Bad: The 1957 MSG Riot
The colorful Dr. Jerry Graham, who used to light cigars with $100 bills and once infamously tried to steal his mother’s corpse from a hospital, readily admits that the highlight of his career was being a part of the infamous full-scale riot in Madison Square Garden.
The press was all over this unfortunate yet very significant event at the world-famous “Mecca of Professional Wrestling.” But as time has passed, many of the details have become blurred, and the incident is now mostly forgotten. But we here at Pro Wrestling Stories got you covered! Let’s not waste any more time and dive right in…
The scene took place at Madison Square Garden, however, it was not the building we know today. This was officially the third MSG located on 8th Avenue, between 49th and 50th Streets.
Matches at MSG under Capitol Wrestling (later WWWF/WWF/WWE) were getting increasingly rowdy, and the pot was about to boil over. It didn’t matter that fans in the ’50s dressed up to attend the Garden; it nary curved their unruly enthusiasm on this evening!
The Night of the Riot
Crowd favorites French-born Canadian Édouard Carpentier and the athletic Antonino Rocca were set to face the despised heel tandem of Dick the Bruiser (billed as Dick Afflis of Chicago) and the unpredictable, bleached blond Dr. Jerry Graham.
The reported attendance was 12,987 fans, with thousands turned away, and referee Danny Bartfield would attempt his best to be the authority.
In a fascinating interview provided by the 6:05 Superpodcast, Dr. Jerry Graham, in his unique way, went into the details on how he experienced that evening which went down in glorious infamy.
“The highlight of my career was undoubtedly the riot at Madison Square Garden. I knew the timing was right, the Puerto Rican people had never seen blood on Rocca and I hit him in the eye, split his eye and they went insane.”
Dr. Graham continued, “Of course, he retaliated, ran my head into the post and blood was flowing like water… an old-time jubilee right there in Madison Square Garden! My partner Dick the Bruiser was picking up and throwing Puerto Ricans outside of the ring like a farmer picking potatoes! Then New York’s finest had to move in.
“They brought in the cavalry to close the [fans] down and that dolly was the biggest thing I experienced in my career. I was fined $3,000 for inciting a riot, but it was the first time they ever saw blood on the Latin Rocca.”
“The Doc,” as was known by his wrestling cohorts, was the founder of the legendary Graham wrestling family, which also included Eddie, “Crazy” Luke, and “Superstar” Billy Graham. Second-generation stars such as Mike Graham, Jerry Graham Jr., and “Crazy” Luke Graham Jr. followed much later to continue the Graham legacy.
In the mid-’50s, Dr. Jerry Graham had storied matches against “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers and Bruno Sammartino. But he was more of a tag team wrestler, and the bulk of his success came when teaming with Eddie Graham as “The Golden Grahams” or “Graham Brothers.”
The team regularly sold-out MSG and won many championship titles during the late ’50s and ’60s.
On repeated occasions, they went up against the likes of Antonino Rocca and Miguel Perez. Mark Lewin and Don Curtis also challenged them many times and was the team Graham has stated as his most formidable opponents. The Bastien Brothers (Red Bastien and Lou Klein) and The Fabulous Kangaroos with Al Costello and Roy Heffernan were not far behind.
In a bid to deliver non-contradicting information about this event, we will be basing ourselves on the LIFE Magazine story from December 2nd, 1957.
Throughout the last match of that evening’s card, you could cut the tension in the air with a knife. And as it was concluding, few foresaw things taking a violent turn and morphing into a life-threatening situation for the fans, wrestlers, and everyone involved.
“It is widely acknowledged that professional wrestling is the most dependable of all sports since it is pure and conscientious fakery and never doble crosses its fans with a dull, genuine exhibition,” typed LIFE writer Herbert Brean acidly on perhaps an Olympia or Royal Quiet De Luxe typewriter with a cigar clenched in his mouth. And what is that? The newly released Helvetica typeface from 1957?
The first striking image that greets the reader on page 165 of the magazine shows a bloodied Dr. Jerry Graham, who seems to have just survived a heinous back-alley mugging.
A lucky photographer snapped this shocking image above for posterity and reminded us how brutal wrestling could be.
Right beside this, in the upper right corner, we see what led to Graham’s near disfigurement. His forehead is getting driven into the ring post like a battering ram and turned into mush thanks to Antonino Rocca. Referee Danny Bartfield is seen trying to stop the mayhem but failing miserably.
“Conscientious fakery,” according to the LIFE article.
Yet, this “fake” sport instilled a riot never seen again at the famed venue.
The Puerto Rican fans loved Antonio Rocca so much they were willing to put themselves in harm’s way to fight for him and make sure neither Dr. Jerry Graham nor Dick the Bruiser continued punishing Rocca.
The hard-fought first fall was awarded to Carpentier and Rocca despite the constant cheating and interference by the heels during the match.
In the second fall, Rocca elevated Dick the Bruiser onto his shoulders for a backbreaker hold similar to the Torture Rack Lex Luger often used years later.
Once The Bruiser submitted, the match would end in clean two-straight falls. However, the dastardly Dr. Jerry Graham would have none of that and decided to interfere once again, viciously targeting Rocca.
At 10:55 PM—five minutes before the 11:00 PM curfew New York had on wrestling at the time—the referee called the match and claimed the babyfaces the victors. Time to go home. Right?
With The Bruiser joining in on the commotion, Graham continued pummeling Rocca even after the contest had been decided. The referee could do nothing to stop the violence and was being ignored. Rocca soon discovered blood trickling down his forehead and wasn’t shy in showing this to the fans.
A fuming Rocca lost his temper, and the passionate fans saw red and followed suit in defense of their hero.
Who cared if Carpentier and Rocca had won? Rocca was now severely injured. They had to do something!
“As the crowd roared,” LIFE writer Herbert Bream continued, “Rocca seized Graham and began bashing his head against the ring post. This also produced real blood. Garden police tried to come to Graham’s aid, but they could not cope with the mastodons.
“The crowd had been lively, throwing paper cups into the ring, but not abnormally demonstrative. Now stimulated by what was probably the first honest competition they had ever seen, some hundreds surged forward toward the ring.”
Rocca continued the onslaught on Graham as the angry fans began arming themselves to storm the ring. Soon unrest took hold of the Garden.
Violence-tinged revenge was in the air. The fans wanted Graham and Bruiser’s blood.
Yelling, fights, and scuffles everywhere.
Some fans were fleeing, others were seeking out the wrestlers. All of this took place as chairs broken carelessly were hurled any which way passed them. No one was safe.
Pieces of the dangerous projectiles were being broken off with destructive intent.
Bottles once filled with thirst-quenching beverages or perhaps inebriant brew were now turned into potentially deadly weapons.
The heels, in turn, could not escape. Rocca stopped attacking Graham, but he and Carpentier had no choice but to push people away and help their foes. Nobody could back down now!
The Bruiser, a former lineman for the Green Bay Packers and legit tough guy, lived up to his namesake, taking on anybody who dared approach him.
Bodies landed with a sickening thud as they were tossed like ragdolls onto the closest seats and press row. A one-person wrecking crew against the army of furious Puerto Rican fans who were determined to break bones and bleed the big man any way they could. They wanted to give the heels “una paliza” (which translated to English means: “a beating”)
When things looked their bleakest, the New York police finally arrived to assist the MSG security and the 101 ushers and ticket takers that had pitched in to help. Only after Rocca addressed the fans in Spanish (he was of Argentinian and Italian descent) to please cease and desist were all wrestlers able to find a way through the frenzied crowd and escorted by New York’s finest back to the safety of the locker rooms.
But not before Rocca was raised by a sea of hands above the multitude as if he was the general who’d just led his people in conquering a vile enemy.
LIFE reports that it took 67 boys in blue to stave the crowd finally, and thank goodness that they did.
Aftermath, Fines, and Suspensions
When tallying up the damages, it’s uncertain how many people needed medical assistance. LIFE Magazine reported two officers were hurt, 300 chairs damaged, and even Dr. Jerry Graham’s $500 sequin-encrusted purple robe was cruelly stolen.
After whipping the crowd into a frenzy, Graham’s head was split open, and an estimated 500 people were actively involved in the rioting. Dick the Bruiser barely escaped with his life (but would have probably gone down fighting against the attacking horde if needed)!
Hefty fines for the wrestlers totaled $2,600 (roughly $25,313 in today’s dollars), but an unfazed Rocca, who was reported to be making $100,000 a year, said, “I am sorry about the whole thing. Commissioner Helfand is a great American.”
Carpentier, Rocca, Afflis, and Graham were suspended until they paid their fines in full.
A pervading myth is that the New York State Athletic Commission prohibited Dick the Bruiser from ever wrestling in the state again. This has been retold countless times in newspaper articles, books, and even by Bruiser himself when alive. But after chatting with writer and wrestling historian Scott Teal, we can confirm that this is untrue.
Also, by looking at the records, Dick The Bruiser was indeed at their next show on December 9th, 1957, where he defeated Donn Lewin in 9-minutes and 32-seconds.
During the hearing and after the wrestlers were fined, there was a call to ban wrestling in the state of New York. Instead, a compromise was reached. It was decided that children under 14 were barred from attending the live shows. This was a ban that stood for nearly 20 years.
Just like Dr. Jerry Graham, Dick the Bruiser loved the press he got over the years and greatly embellished the events.
“I was in the biggest riot of all-time for wrestlers,” The Bruiser boldly claimed in LIFE Magazine twenty years after the event. “50 police were hurt in this riot. Athletic Commission of New York fined me $3,000 and I was banned. I haven’t been back to New York since.”
In 1964, Dick the Bruiser and Wilbur Snyder purchased the NWA Indianapolis promotion from Jim Barnett and renamed it the WWA (World Wrestling Association). Although an independent promotion, they had a working relationship with the AWA and operated until 1989.
Throughout his career, Dick the Bruiser is almost inseparable from his often tag team partner, The Crusher. They are known as one of the most formidable tag teams in all of wrestling history.
To learn more about the 1957 MSG Riot, we recommend Scott Teal’s Wrestling in the Garden: The Battle of New York, available exclusively from Crowbar Press. It is a comprehensive and exhaustive record of all cards at Madison Square Garden from November 24th, 1875, to December 26th, 2016.
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- 4 Times a Fan Unexpectedly Ambushed a Wrestler