Big Time Wrestling in San Francisco was a territory that captivated audiences with red hot angles and must-see television. With the Cow Palace as its home base, promoter Roy Shire ran shows in Fresno, Las Vegas, Oakland, San Jose, Sacramento, and even Anchorage, Alaska. For years, it was one of the most profitable territories under the NWA banner. However, dwindling attendance and an unfortunate health scare would lead to the promotion’s demise.
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. Today, we’re going to head up the Pacific Coast Highway to the “City by the Bay” with a look at the NWA territory that spawned Big Time Wrestling in San Francisco and dominated Central and Northern California for years.
The Rise and Demise of Big Time Wrestling in San Francisco
The history of wrestling in California goes back to the days of the traveling carny circuit and the earliest incarnations of what professional wrestling would soon become. Due to its distance from the rest of the wrestling world, wrestling was especially localized on the West Coast, and the man that first started to close that gap was Joe Malcewicz.
Joe Malcewicz, who had once wrestled under the name “The Utica Panther,” went into promoting in the 1930s.
By 1935, he purchased the majority rights to the lease of the New Dreamland Auditorium, better known later as The Winterland Arena in San Francisco. He would start running wrestling events there shortly after.
Soon, he would gain access to the Northern California and Nevada markets, and his expansion was well underway.
Malcewicz joined the upstart NWA San Francisco in 1949, expanding his territory city-wide, solidifying his presence as THE place to work in the Bay area.
Throughout the early ’50s, he opened his doors to an influx of wrestlers through his work with 50th State Big Time Wrestling in Hawaii and Rikidōzan’s Japan Wrestling Association.
Things were going strong, but as we all know, nothing great lasts forever, and it wasn’t long before another promoter came looking to cash in on the lucrative territory Malcewicz had created.
Roy Shire Gets Involved
Roy Shire, better known as “The Professor” to fans of the San Francisco area, was a wrestler who worked for Joe Malcewicz for several years in the 1950s until he caught a pretty severe knee injury in the ring. This injury led to Shire breaking out on his own in the promoting game.
As we have seen so many times before in this series, more often than not, a promotion’s competition comes as an insurrection by former or current employees. When someone works at any place long enough, they begin to feel like they can run the business better than management. In some cases, this is true, but in all cases, it causes friction.
Shire decided it was time to try his hand at promoting and started his Pacific Coast Athletic Corp. in 1960, despite fervent objections to the California State Athletic Commission by Malcewicz.
Just as he feared, Shire immediately began running shows in direct competition against Joe M.
Shire’s was soon dismissed as an “outlaw” promotion, like so many other promotions that ran against the NWA.
Recommended read: Battle for Atlanta: How The NWA Crushed Ann Gunkel’s Outlaw Promotion
The NWA held a protective umbrella over all of its affiliates, and the name recognition alone would help many territories draw. Despite that, Shire was willing to stand alone to get his promotion over.
“Outlaw” promotions had to hustle a little stronger, sell a little more, and bump even harder to get people to take notice. Once they had their attention, they would almost always win over the audience in the end. This would be no exception to that rule, and Big Time Wrestling in San Francisco was born in the fire of that competition.
The Search for a Television Network
Like any good businessman, Roy Shire recognized the need for a notable venue and to secure television time in the local markets. He approached a new network that, like him, was getting themselves off the ground.
KTVU in Oakland had only been in operation for a few months when Shire acquired a time slot there on Friday evenings. Soon after, he started producing video for his new Big Time Wrestling show that he aired on KCRA in Sacramento.
Shire was on his way to tolling the bells of defeat over the NWA, but his next move would cement his foothold in the Northern California market.
Big Time Wrestling in San Francisco Finds a Home at The Cow Palace
No matter what city they originate from, every major promotion has a great venue as a home base for their shows. Arenas like The Kiel, The Sportatorium, MSG, The Omni, and The Cow Palace in San Francisco all have identities of their own that wrestling only helped to bolster.
Initially known as The California Livestock Pavilion, The Cow Palace has been home to significant events of all kinds since it opened its doors in 1941.
It has been the hosting home for everything from rodeo and roller derby to the Ringling Bros. Circus and two Republican conventions. It’s safe to say that the Cow Palace has seen it all. It even served as a deportation and embarkation station for soldiers headed to the Pacific during WWII.
Roy Shire took up his residence there in 1961, with an event headlined by a blond-haired heel that would become Shire’s centerpiece and possibly the second most hated wrestler in California, after Fred Blassie.
Ray Stevens was born on the other side of West Virginia in 1935. He started working in professional wrestling only fifteen years later when he was still a youth. Working the NWA territories, he would hold the tag titles with Shire when they worked as The Shire Brothers.
Seeing the young man’s talent early on, it was only natural to bring him out to Big Time Wrestling in 1961, just in time to lead the charge against Malcewicz’s NWA San Francisco.
Shire staged his first show at the Cow Palace on March 4, 1961. Headlined by a bout between Mitsu Arakawa and Bill Melby, the event recorded an attendance of 16,553.
Three days later, a show staged by Malcewicz attracted 2,841 people.
This marked the end for the NWA San Francisco, and it folded the following year. Joe Malcewicz would die only months later from a heart attack. He was sixty-five years old.
Also at Shire’s first show was Ray Stevens against “Cowboy” Bob Ellis. Stevens had taken the nickname of the “Blond Bomber” because he had become known for his Bomb’s Away knee drop finisher off the top rope to the neck of his prone opponent. It sealed the match, and no one was kicking out of it.
Shire’s Big Time continued to dominate their northern market into the 1960s due to their rival promoter’s passing.
As they began 1962, a worthy opponent for Stevens made his presence known, and the two would have sold out the Cow Palace many times during their feud.
Pepper Gomez was no stranger to the wrestling fans of California and Mexico. Trained by Blackie Guzman, he had his first match in El Paso, Texas, in 1953.
He went on to tour most of the Big Time promotions from Vancouver to Texas, and he was a highly decorated champion in Texas in both the singles and tag rankings.
Gomez was also an avid bodybuilder and regularly performed feats of strength that usually ended in him having someone repeatedly punch him in the stomach as hard as they could.
Other stunts included having someone jump off a ladder onto his stomach as he lay on the ground beneath them! He once even had a VW Beetle drive over him, which would garner him the nickname of the “man with the cast-iron stomach.”
Ray Stevens would put him to the test during their feud and convince Gomez to let him jump off the top of a ladder to prove his stomach wasn’t as strong as he said.
In true heel fashion, this led to Ray using his Bomb’s Away finisher and causing Gomez to spit blood when Stevens landed on his neck instead of his stomach.
They worked that angle to a fever pitch and a match at the Cow Palace in 1963, where the finisher was supposed to be Gomez using the ring bell to level his rival and win victoriously without the referee noticing.
It’s a classic spot that has been used many times in the ring before and still is today. Only, Gomez was a little closer than he thought and potatoed Stevens with the ring bell, knocking him out!
They took Ray to the hospital, still unconscious, after they realized that he wasn’t just selling and was hurt.
Gomez was fined $5,000 by the State Athletic Commission, while the two still had high-selling, well-attended matches after that.
Stevens wouldn’t have another top-level run in Big Time until 1965.
The Blond Bombers – Ray Stevens and Pat Patterson
Pat Patterson was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1941. He began working in the professional wrestling business as a boy at the age of fourteen. Eventually, he worked his way down the West Coast and into Big Time in San Francisco in 1965.
Shire quickly saw the potential in the tag team Ray Stevens had with Patterson. With their hair dyed blond, the two became known, simply enough, as The Blond Bombers.
They captured their first tag team championship from The Destroyer and Red Lyons in the Spring of 1965 and held them for a year and a half.
The Bombers would see gold together on many occasions in various territories.
Patterson left for a short run in Japan, and when he returned, he feuded with Stevens, who had turned face in his absence. They battled over the NWA US Heavyweight Championship in a colorful Texas Death Match in the summer of 1970, which left them both a mess and Stevens the victor of the gold.
Ray Stevens left the West Coast for the chilly winds of Minneapolis and the AWA not long after in 1971. It was there that he earned his nickname of “Crippler” after breaking the leg of Dick Beyer, who was working under the mask of Dr. X. As some of you may remember, Beyers also worked in the WWA as The Destroyer.
The AWA outlawed the Bomb’s Away finisher not long after this incident, but The Crippler’s legend was born.
He went on to work for the WWF and eventually returned to the AWA, where he finished out his career and retired from active competition in 1992.
Ray Stevens is considered by many to be one of the best wrestlers of his generation. He certainly lived up to the old adage of being able to have a match with a broomstick and being able to put the broom over!
He passed away in his sleep, from a heart attack, at his home in 1996. He was sixty years old.
Recommended read: The Crippler Ray Stevens – One of Wrestling’s Finest Heels
Pepper Gomez also worked for the AWA in the late ’60s and then ventured out to Indiana and worked for Dick” The Bruiser” and his World Wrestling Association there. He retired from the ring in 1982 but continued to work until his death in 2004. He passed away due to a gastric infection following an operation at seventy-seven.
Pat Patterson left the Big Time Wrestling in San Francisco territory in 1977 and went to the AWA, where he shortly reunited with Ray Stevens as The Bombers before Stevens became The Crippler.
Patterson made his way through Japan and into the home where he made a name for himself, the WWF. In this humble writer’s opinion, his Boot Camp match with Sgt. Slaughter there in 1981 was, and is, one of the best of his career.
Patterson is credited for creating the Royal Rumble, many wrestling fans’ favorite event of the year. After winning two and participating in many of the 18-man battle royals in Big Time, one only has to wonder if that little promotion was where he first had the idea for such a unique version of the battle royal match.
Pat had a strong run in the Attitude Era along with Gerald Brisco as Vince Kennedy McMahon’s stooges, as Vince so readily threw them in harm’s way for his entertainment and ours as well.
Patterson also has the distinction of being the first person to hold the Intercontinental Championship, which he won in a tournament that is more legend and rib than reality.
Did you know?: In September 1979, Pat Patterson won a tournament in Rio de Janeiro to become the first Intercontinental Champion for WWF/E. While Patterson’s tournament “victory” is widely listed in wrestling title and match histories, the tournament itself never actually took place. Nevertheless, he will always have the honor of being the first in a lineage of great workers to hold that belt.
In August 1968, Big Time Wrestling in San Francisco became a member of the NWA. Roy Shire would serve as vice-president of the organization in the early 1970s.
After KTVU canceled Big Time Wrestling in 1970, Shire secured a deal with the Sacramento station KTXL, airing Big Time Wrestling at 7 P.M. on Saturday evenings. The show featured Hank Renner as a play-by-play announcer, with Pepper Martin later joining him as color commentator.
In 1970, the promotion also expanded into Anchorage, Alaska, though attendance was not strong enough to support regular appearances.
The Final Days of Big Time Wrestling in San Francisco
By the late 1970s, attendance began to dwindle. The Big Time Wrestling program lost ratings and sank until it was liquidated and removed from television in 1979.
Like so many of the rest, Big Time Wrestling in San Francisco closed its doors as its stars began to drift out to higher exposure jobs in other markets.
The following year, Roy Shire suffered his first heart attack in 1980, and he retired from promoting shortly after that in 1981.
The AWA swooped in and took over the shows at the Cow Palace, but they too eventually knuckled under to the WWF in California and back home in Minnesota.
In 1992, at the age of seventy, Shire suffered a second and ultimately fatal heart attack.
Sadly, as we have seen many times before, the territory eventually succumbed to competition as companies fought over control of the wrestling map.
With a revolving roster that also included the talents of “Cowboy” Bill Watts, Andre the Giant, “High Chief” Peter Maivia, Bobo Brazil, Rocky Johnson, Moondog Lonnie Mayne, Dick Murdoch, Jimmy Snuka, “Superstar” Bill Graham, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, The Guerrero Brothers (Chavo Sr. and Mando), Buddy Rose, Don Muraco, and countless others, Big Time Wrestling in San Francisco and its alumni helped bring professional wrestling out of the tents and into people’s living rooms in a big way.
Well, there we have it, brothers and sisters. We hope you have enjoyed our look back at the San Francisco territory, a promotion that brought happiness to many. 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. As we always like to say, our wrestling history is gold!
A lot of great Big Time Wrestling in San Francisco footage can be found on YouTube here.
Learn further about Big Time Wrestling in San Francisco:
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