Big Time Wrestling in Detroit was one of the most successful territories under the NWA banner, captivating audiences with myriad top performers and a hardcore wrestling style never seen before. The territory’s ultimate demise leaves a mark in the minds of those who were there to be a part of it.
Jim Phillips, author of this article and one of the great wrestling historians here at Pro Wrestling Stories, is in the challenge of his life after being paralyzed on January 21st, 2023. Learn his story and how you can help him reach his goal of taking his first steps again!
Welcome back to another edition of Wrestling Territories. We hope everyone has their boarding passes ready and made it through TSA because we’re headed for Detroit Rock City and the Big Time Wrestling promotion in Detroit. Tell Doc Brown to set the dials for 1922, and hang tight, ’cause here we go!
The Rise and Demise of Big Time Wrestling in Detroit
Nick Londos first brought professional wrestling to 5920 Grand River Avenue at the Detroit Olympia in the early ’20s. The territory gained a following and became contested by several promoters over the next fifteen years.
One of the men who drew strongly during those years was a bushy eyebrowed heel, who created chaos and enforced it with a stiff right. He was none other than "Wild Bull" Curry.
"Wild Bull" Curry
Born Fred Koury, on May 2, 1913, "Wild Bull" Curry is credited with originating the hardcore style of wrestling and enraging fans all across the country with his treacherous, underhanded tactics that usually led to the beloved babyface hero laying sprawled out in a mess.
His career in entertaining the fan (or terrorizing, to be more precise) began in his teenage years when he joined a local circus to help make ends meet for his younger brothers and sisters.
Curry would take on all comers and never lost a match for sixty-five straight bouts.
He also worked as a policeman before embarking on a career in wrestling. It was then as a police officer that he earned the nickname "Wild Bull," with a story being told of him grabbing an escaped bull by the horns and wrestling it to the street, where it could once again be put back in its corral.
Curry began to train and work as a wrestler in the 1930s under the era that Adam Weissmuller was running the Detroit area. He learned his craft and focused on the role of the heel that would bring him fame as his career grew. His crazed, hardcore style and look of the wild man made him an instant bad guy with the fans.
The Wild Bull continued to create havoc in The Old Red Barn, as the Olympia became known by the local Red Wing hockey fans for the next year or so. He worked the territory until he moved onto Texas, where fans would take their hatred of him to another level.
A few of the events surrounding Curry’s exploits in Texas include:
- In 1955, a riot broke out during one of his matches against Ray McIntyre, and more than 140 fans had to be taken to the hospital.
- In 1956, Curry was jumped by a fan who was angered by Curry’s unmerciful treatment of local wrestler George Becker. Curry broke the fan’s jaw with a single punch.
- In 1958, during a match against Pepper Gomez in Galveston, there was an incident where a fan hit Curry with a pipe and then ran into the stands thinking he would be safe. Nothing would be farther from the truth. Curry chased him into the crowd and proceeded to beat him senselessly.
- Later, in 1968, this time in Worcester, Massachusetts, a fan tried jumping on his back to save his favorite hero from the abuse of Curry, only to be walloped so hard that he was knocked unconscious for two days.
Curry retired from the ring in the mid to late 1970s and passed away in 1985. He was one of the most despised wrestlers of all time, and we love him for embracing that and living the role of the heel.
The Early Days of Big Time Wrestling in Detroit
Adam Weissmuller held the reigns of wrestling in Detroit through the early years with the help of his assistant, Harry Light.
After the passing of Weissmuller at age 37 in 1937, Light worked with a man who took over the booking for a year or so before breaking off on his own to start a new promotion. Little brought on Jack Britton and booker Bert Ruby, forming The Harry Light Wrestling Office.
Soon later, they launched Big Time Wrestling and began promoting shows at the Arena Gardens in the fall of 1945.
It was under the leadership of Harry Light that Detroit wrestling grew its foundations and expanded its fan base. Once he had their attention, he held it by securing time on local Channel 7 in Detroit.
The Big Time Wrestling program drew even more fans to their ranks while cutting the production costs of promoting several live shows a month. They started working a weekly wrestling show at The Olympic and used the relatively cheap television pipeline to keep their fans on the hook.
A year later, Light forged ahead once again by joining with five other promoters across the country to form the National Wrestling Alliance.
He collaborated with the other NWA owners to advance the professional wrestling business over the next decade while he held sway over the Detroit area. But as we have learned from our study of the territories, very rarely does a good thing last, and competition will always be king in America.
Just as quickly as he grew his brand, the Harry Light Wrestling Office suffered its first significant blow when Bert Ruby broke off on his own and formed his Wolverine Wrestling promotion and ran in competition with Light.
Two years later, another outlaw promotion headed by a young Jim Barnett and partner John Doyle started to run shows at the newly opened Cobo Hall.
Fighting a promotional war on two fronts took its toll on Light, who stepped aside as the other factions took control of the old Detroit wrestling scene.
Harry Light passed away on October 29, 1971. He was seventy-three years old.
Wrestling was as hot as the Motown movement in the early ’60s in the Motor City. The NWA US Heavyweight Championship was re-christened under the NWA Detroit banner, and it became a hotly sought-after title as the decade kicked off.
Bobo Brazil, Fritz Von Erich, Lord Athol Layton, and Dick the Bruiser all battled over the title over the next four years.
The territory would get yet another managerial shake-up in the early ’60s, but this team would keep control over Detroit for the next twenty-five years.
In 1964, Francis Fleser bought out the pair of Jim Barnett and John Doyle for $50,000 to gain the Big Time Wrestling brand, which included the promotional rights to the now powerhouse venue at Cobo Hall.
Fleser began to run multiple weekly shows through their TV outlet at Channel 7 and weekly events at Cobo, with everything centered around his booker and son-in-law.
"The Sheik" Ed Farhat
Edward Farhat was born in Lansing, Michigan, in 1924, but the incarnation of his personality that he would forever become known for was born twenty-five years later.
First wrestling as The Sheik of Araby, he debuted in the Chicago market and spent a short time in Texas and New York before coming back to his home state of Michigan to make his bones in the business.
Building on the groundwork laid down by Wild Bull Curry, The Sheik became feared for his crazed in-ring tactics, and he increased the use of the concealed foreign object.
A heel to the hilt, The Sheik would choose his moment and then brandish the object, usually a pencil, and dig it into the forehead of his screaming opponent.
Initially managed by The Grand Wizard of Wrestling, The Sheik would play games with whoever he faced. He would also remain tranquil as he placed a mat in the ring and go through prayer rituals before each match.
As much as The Sheik was hated, the Detroit fans loved his longtime nemesis, Bobo Brazil.
Bobo Brazil was born Houston Harris, only a month after Farhat in 1924 in Little Rock, Arkansas. He lived for a short time in East St. Louis before following what he thought would be a baseball career in the Negro League to Michigan.
When that didn’t go as planned, Harris went to work in the steel mills, where he was noticed by another wrestler, who encouraged the young Harris to try his hand at the business.
He took up the training, soon realizing that wrestling was his calling. He started working at Big Time Wrestling in Detroit in the mid-’60s when he ran headlong into the diabolical Sheik.
Their chemistry was instant, and the two would go to sell out Cobo Hall on several occasions as they battled over the NWA US title for decades to follow.
Brazil went on to a storied career and broke racial barriers at every promotion he worked.
Although many recognize Ron Simmons as the first African American Heavyweight Champion, having captured the title during his time in WCW, Bobo Brazil won the NWA Heavyweight Title almost thirty years before when he won the belt against Bruno Sammartino in 1962.
Brazil retired in 1993 and was inducted into the WWF Hall of Fame in the Class of 1994 by "Big Cat" Ernie Ladd. He died four years later, at the age of 73, after suffering a series of strokes.
You can learn more about the life and times of wrestling pioneer Bobo Brazil here.
Big Time Wrestling – The Later Years
1964 also saw longtime Detroit and mid-western wrestler Dick the Bruiser splinter off and start his own promotion in Indiana that ran in competition with Big Time Wrestling in Detroit. Suffice to say, it was another thorn in the side, promotionally, for Fleser.
The Sheik continued to tour the States and into Canada while he was working out of Detroit. This put more money in his pockets and brought attention to the Big Time Wrestling territory through his wild behavior and the name it was garnering among the fans.
After taking the belt off of Bobo Brazil for the last time in 1976, The Sheik bounced around between adversaries.
The one thing that can hurt a heel is not having a babyface that the fans love to work against. The Sheik worked several would-be opponents during this time, one of which was a local boy that rose to the top of Big Time Wrestling just before it closed its doors.
The Mighty Igor
Richard Garza never sought to be a professional wrestler. Born in Dearborn in 1931, the strapping young man took to bodybuilding. He won the Mr. Michigan title in 1954 and participated in both the Mr. America and Mr. Universe competitions.
In an excellent example of the day and a wonderfully funny break-in story, Bert Ruby approached him with a job offer when he watched Garza knock wrestler Brute Bernard out cold after an argument. No modern-day training camp was needed for the man that would be billed as The Mighty Igor.
He worked the majority of his career in the mid-west and spent some time in the AWA as well, capturing the AWA Heavyweight title from Mad Dog Vachon and building on his Mighty Igor character.
He can be best described as Hillbilly Jim meets Ivan Putski. He used his own spin on the Polish Power idea by being more soft-spoken and performing feats of strength to ingratiate himself to the fans, which helped maintain his babyface persona. Well, we all know the bloodthirsty Sheik was having none of that.
The two battled into the late ’70s over the NWA US title. He would be the last man besides The Sheik to hold the Detroit version of that title.
Garza was rushed to the hospital after suffering a major heart attack in 2002. He died shortly after his arrival there. He was seventy years old.
The Final Days of Big Time Wrestling in Detroit
Things started to go downhill for Big Time Wrestling in Detroit in the late ’70s, and it finally closed shop with its last show at the Michigan State Fairgrounds Coliseum in 1980.
Their NWA US Heavyweight Title was retired, and the promotion closed. It was only a matter of a year before the WWF juggernaut marched into Detroit and took over its regular bookings.
The Sheik continued after the demise of Big Time Wrestling Detroit, worked in Japan during the ’90s, and made his presence felt, in apropos fashion, at the new home of hardcore wrestling at ECW in 1994.
He would later train his nephew Sabu, along with Sabu’s tag partner, "The Human Highlight Reel," Rob Van Dam, both of whom would take that promotion by storm and hold its fans captivated by their death-defying wrestling style.
Edward "The Sheik" Farhat died from a heart attack in his home in 2003 at seventy-eight.
Like many great wrestling promotions of the past, Big Time Wrestling lives on via scratchy Internet feeds, the rare VHS tape, and in the memories of those who were there to be a part of it.
We hope that one result of this series is that people, especially younger fans, search out these archived pieces of footage from all the territories we have examined. Our wrestling history truly is gold.
Learn more about the rise and fall of Big Time Wrestling in Detroit:
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