Chief Don Eagle: Native American Wrestling Pioneer

Chief Don Eagle was a man of immense talent. A headliner; a presence; a star who filled the ring with his being. To witness him in action, from pre-match ringside autographs to his parting smile and waves to the cheering throngs, was all a part of his extraordinary magnetism.

His life was the substance of which dreams and nightmares are composed, with wrestling screwjob finishes and a demise that leaves more questions than answers.

This is the story of the man in the regal feathered headdress.

Chief Don Eagle was a Native American wrestling pioneer of immense talent.
Chief Don Eagle was a Native American wrestling pioneer of immense talent.

Chief Don Eagle Climbs to the Top

Born in Cuaghnawaga, Quebec, Canada, to parents of Mohawk ethnicity, Carl D. Bell entered the galaxy of grunt and groan as Chief Don Eagle at the age of twenty.

He had already distinguished himself as a Cleveland Golden Gloves Novice Heavyweight Champion.

At his father’s suggestion, Joseph War Eagle, himself an established grappler, launched his career in Indianapolis, scoring a pin in 16 minutes over Red Dawson.

On the plus side, the over the rainbow-bluebirds and Mrs. Wagner’s Pie-portion of the ledger showed a rapid rise to the co-feature and headline billing on mat cards.

Perhaps, in the first three seasons inside the ropes, some promoters and bookers sought to exploit the Native American angle in their lineups of nightly performers. However, that aspect of the wrestler never became his singular drawing power.

His position as a top-of-the-bill star came from his athleticism, speed, knowledge of holds, and mat work that, even with today’s audiences, could never merit the tag of “boring.”

Drop kicks, flying mares, off-the-rope tackles, rolling short arm scissors, resounding body slams, bridges, ankle picks, piledrivers, and an arm strength full-bridge “Indian Death Lock” were his stock in trade.

He sold, could be stiff or loose, as his opponent dictated, and was never the Youngbloods, or Big Heart, punching bag to “war dance,” chuckle evoking, stereotypical noble savage.

Don Eagle’s first two years in the game showed notable victories over Ali Baba, Rufus Jones, Joe Dusek, Ivan Kalmikoff, Fred Bozic, Ray Steele, Yukon Eric, and Dick Raines.

Chief Don Eagle was a presence in the ring.
Chief Don Eagle was a presence in the ring.

Unfortunately, the Raines win via DQ cost him 17 months of inactivity due to severe shoulder and back damage that would have ended it all for a less driven competitor.

He returned rusty in 1948 but, in a preview of what was to come, still had his arm raised in victory in 18 of the 32 singles head-to-heads in which he appeared.

Adding five draws and two tag triumphs, Eagle managed a 20-9-5 log, the lowest winning percentage of his 18-year career.

Seven of the nine downers came at the hands of Orville Brown and Buddy Rogers, a pair of NWA champions.

The following campaign added Billy Goelz, Ivan Rasputin, Red Bastien, Rudy Kay, Lord Blears, Ronnie Etchison, and Yvon Robert’s scalps to his trophy shelf.

He was still, for all practical purposes, a mid-western commodity, although he did do a one-shot deal in Boston and three premier performances in Pittsburgh, where he made quick work of Gorgeous George.

He was only 24 years old and was placing enough fannies in the folding chairs that demand for his services grew monthly. The fact that his first carding with Lou Thesz in Montreal ended with Don Eagle being disqualified with the gladiators holding one fall apiece put Mr. Mohawk’s kisser on the cover of newsstand magazines.

He was the hottest of properties as 1950 rolled around.

Enter Fred Kohler, the Chicago director of operations, to go along with Al Haft, who had been the beneficiary of Eagle’s S.R.O. house packing in Ohio. The top of the heap seemed on the near horizon.

Cyclone Anaya coughed up the Illinois Heavyweight title; the formidable Fred Von Schact went down, and, with Jack Dempsey as the referee, Gorgeous George once more bit the dust in International Amphitheatre action in the “City of the Big Shoulders.”

Don Eagle: AWA Champion

Meanwhile, in the Haft Camp of the AWA, Don Evans, the Great Togo, and Frank Talaber lost to the heir apparent for the World Championship.

Finally, on May 23rd, 1950, the expected passing of the strap occurred in Cleveland, when Don Eagle bested reigning king Frank Saxton in a best of three falls battle.

He was 25. It seemed like there would be no stopping him for the foreseeable future.

Eagle’s next major defense of his AWA kingship was not slated until June 23rd in Cincinnati against Sandor Kovacs.

And then, in keeping with centuries of broken treaties and smallpox-infected reservation blanket gifts, Kohler and his fellow conspirators sprung the most infamous double-cross match to date in professional wrestling. It robbed Don Eagle of his title and weakened the AWA so that the NWA could claim unification with a belt worn for the next five years by Lou Thesz.

The notorious
The notorious "Chicago Short Count" Screwjob – a name many fans call the match between Gorgeous George and Chief Don Eagle from May 26th, 1950, at Chicago’s International Amphitheater.

Don Eagle: Victim of Early Wrestling Screwjob

Don Eagle’s May 26th, 1950 match with Gorgeous George, not ranked in the top ten as a contender, was just a televised four-bout program appearance in the regular weekly time slot. It wasn’t a dark match. There was little advance publicity. World titles were never given as freebies on the tube.

The newly crowned mat king did not wear his belt to the ring, nor did the introductions make mention of a title bout. One of the two regular program referees, Earl Mullihan, would make the calls.

The snakes were ready to strike.

No contemporary comparison with the McMahon-Hart duplicity comes close to the Chicago assassination.

Don Eagle was cut down without cause or warning. He was a young Native American. He was expendable.

The deed was captured on film with Russ Davis calling the match. The champion dominated George, whose lone offense was a combination of eye gauges and kidney shots of the loosest variety before begging for mercy and submitting to the vaunted death lock to end fall one.

Don Eagle was once more in control when he propelled himself to the floor via a glancing flying shoulder block, only to be counted out with a speedy ten by Mullihan to even the falls at one per contestant.

Not long into the deciding fall, executioner Kohler’s trap was sprung.

Three quick short rolls using the middle rope for leverage, with a tight grip of the strand, into a backyard cradle, let Mullihan give a quick count with one of the champion’s shoulders clearly off the mat. The Marvelous Mohawk had been gut shot. All hell broke loose.

Watch Don Eagle vs. Gorgeous George in Chicago, May 26th, 1950:

Realizing the travesty, the former boxer slugged “Evil Earl” and also managed to snare his collar with a free hand as Mullihan fled the ring, ripping his sweaty shirt down its side.

Another shot landed on the back of his shoulder blades as he struggled up the aisle to the locker room, and spectators began pelting the ring with debris.

A riot ensued.

Gorgeous George, clearly shaken, fought his way from the ring with police assistance.

The ring ropes were torn down, chairs flew, and Russ Davis’ closing words to his crew were, “Let’s get out of here.”

In a legitimate lawyer’s present hearing, the Illinois Athletic Commission suspended Don Eagle for 60 days and fined him $400.00. It was not a work.

Al Haft and his associates continued to recognize Don Eagle as AWA World’s Champion. He held this honor for two years and wore his belt when working outside the territory.

This writer witnessed his magic on seven occasions in Newark, Teaneck, Asbury Park, the “old Garden” in New York, and Patterson. He defeated Gene Stanley and the Golden Terror, drew with Pat O’Connor, Roland Meeker, and Antonino Rocca, one of 11 out of 11 even meetings during their careers.

In tag team work, he teamed with Rocca to best O’Connor and Hombre Montana and combined with Chief Big Heart to outlast the Tolos Brothers.

The Sad Decline and Demise of Don Eagle

There were more severe injuries as Chief Don Eagle met the best from coast to coast. They took their toll so that, in the final three years in the ring, he appeared only 34 times.

And yet, despite these painful interruptions, his numbers over 18 years tell the tale of a ring rarity. A .845 winning percentage in singles matches, a .702 rating in tag competition, 917 victories, and only 75 setbacks before being forced to surrender to broken bones and torn muscles at age 38.

Not much is documented about the next three years in the life of Don Eagle. His final bold newspaper print recorded his death on March 17, 1966, allegedly by his own hand. He was 41.

Wrestling Revue reported Eagle’s death, stating that it appeared he died from a self-inflicted wound.

Other newspaper reports at the time indicated that he had been forlorn over construction project setbacks: namely, a Logan County (Ohio) Indian village, an expansion program in the Zane Shawnee Caverns, and a $12 million Indian Center near Montreal.

Those close to Eagle do not believe that his death was by his own hands, Billy Two Rivers being one of those people.

Skeptics of his death noted that it could have been a murder, connected to the death of his wife, Jean Eagle.

A devoted follower of his career can only speculate what went through his mind back on the Reservation in Caughnawaga, Quebec, over the last three years of his life. Perhaps, just like the sleek racing dog that spends his prime attempting to catch the rabbit, only to discover it was only a mechanized stuffed toy, he was utterly disillusioned with his ring years.

Or, then again, dismay came from knowledge of this chase and his inability to be a part of it anymore.

Perhaps, foul play was at hand. Theories still remain.

We dive into further details on the life and passing of Chief Don Eagle in our article, Gorgeous George and the Don Eagle ‘Chicago Short Count’ Screwjob.

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The late Bill McCormack was a longtime contributor to Evan Ginzburg’s "Wrestling- Then & Now" newsletter. Bill lived in New Jersey until July 1998, when he moved to Florida. He attended Seton Hall Prep School and followed his stint there by attending Montclair State University, where he pursued his Bachelor’s Degree. After attaining that goal, he received his Master’s at Farleigh Dickinson and ultimately his Doctorate in Education at Seton Hall University. According to McCormack, “I wanted to teach (history) and coach….” And he ultimately coached track, baseball, football, cross-country, and wrestling. He also worked for the Milburn Item as a reporter/columnist. In 1973, McCormack won the New Jersey Press Association’s “Best Sports Columnist for a Weekly Newspaper.” Despite his universal love of sports, McCormack’s passion was professional wrestling. He had been a fan for over a half-century. According to him, “It went back before I owned a television. I used to go to my uncle’s, where they put the chairs up in rows. They turned all the lights off. It was like a movie theater. They had an old Dumont television with a green dial. The matches were coming out of Marigold in Chicago. Jack Burkhouse was announcing, and Gypsy Joe, Karl Schmidt, and gosh knows who else was on those cards. I was a little boy and couldn’t wait for Sunday nights to go down and watch the wrestling. If I was good all week, I was allowed to watch.” And watch he did, and he wrote about his pro wrestling memories in dozens of beautifully written articles, like the one written above. Evan Ginzburg and prolific author Jeff Archer (of "Theatre in a Squared Circle") agreed in describing McCormack as “wrestling’s finest writer.” And while Bill may be sadly gone, his memories and gorgeous prose now have a chance to reach a vast new audience through Pro Wrestling Stories.