Modern professional wrestling has incorporated the bizarre and strange since the beginning of its inception. From the freakishly large, diminutively small, and everything in between, human oddities and sideshow acts have attracted audiences in droves to this genre of entertainment since the 19th-century. Amongst these are some of the most peculiar and bizarre wrestling attractions of all time!
The Beginnings of Wrestling
Modern wrestling has its roots in carnivals and circuses. Originally called Athletic Shows (AT or ATT), demonstrations would take place where all comers were invited to take part in these competitions. The wrestlers would taunt crowd members and challenge them to ‘rassle or box. But from the start, this was a racket that nearly assured the challengers rarely got the best of the wrestlers. Many times the challenger was even in on the scam.
One common strategy consisted of an audience member stepping up to the challenge and gaining a win in order to entice others to participate and increase the side bets. The wrestler would demand a rematch and with the customers urging the challenger once more, a rematch would be set. This time though, the wrestler would demonstrate his superior skills and defeat the challenger so that the AT show could recover the lost money; it was all a work.
Most of the AT wrestlers were legit and could handle themselves when needed, but there are stories that in extreme cases if an opponent was truly getting the best of a wrestler, he’d be wrangled behind a curtain where someone would knock him out with a blow on the head. He’d then come back into view of the audience and get pinned cleanly.
The show was very similar to rigged games at carnivals that seem so simple to win at, but you hardly ever see anybody win consistently or even less so, earn the big prize! There were also “Shills” in the audience who, knowing the final outcome, would place bets with audience members. The wrestlers would later get a cut. From its earliest incarnation, professional wrestling worked the marks and swindled them out of their money.
As printed in Collier’s in 1953, according to the book The Squared Circle by David Shoemaker, “Easy money, boys,” the Barker shrills. “Step up and get it, boys. You get a dollar for every minute you stay with one of these ‘rasslers. You get a dollar, a clammo, a buckaroo for every one minute! You get fifty-yes, fifty-large dollars boys-if you can throw any of these wrestlers! Who’ll try his strength and skill for fifty dollars, a half hundred-enough to buy a plow, a horse or a winter coat for the little woman?”
In many parts of the country, the carnival circuit was the only game in town. But in the cities with bigger venues, you had the top grapplers facing each other in a style that became known as “professional wrestling”- a sport that traded popularity with boxing at the time.
Even as far back as the ‘30s, pro wrestling, in the eyes of many fans and newspapers, was losing the battle of legitimacy and was not being seen as a genuine sport anymore.
But many people, even with doubts, still enjoyed what they saw.
As it appears in the book The Squared Circle, journalist Grantland Rice quoted a fan in the early ‘30s: “As far as I know the shows are honest. But even if they’re not I get a big kick out of them, for they are full of action and all the outward signs of hostile competition. It is either honest competition or fine acting and in either case, I get a real show.”
Yes, few will dispute that pro wrestling has its roots in Greek combat that was later adopted by the Romans where the maiming of competitors and even death were often the outcome. Or that the wrestling we know today has evolved from Catch-as-catch-can brought by immigrants to the new world.
Catch wrestling was a style of grappling that was a hybrid of Greco-Roman wrestling, Irish collar-and-elbow, and the violent Lancashire wrestling style. Soon, it began to emphasize on dangerous submission holds or “hooking” where shooters like Martin “Farmer” Burns, Frank Gotch, George Hackenschmidt and later the name most modern fans have at least probably heard of: Lou Thesz used these techniques on occasions when not everyone wanted to “go with the program” of the worked outcome.
Because of the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that lasted through the end of the ‘30s, wrestling promoters, just like most businesses, faced harsh economic challenges. They needed to find a way to entice customers to continue to spend their money on wrestling.
Showmanship Over Sport
Now we begin to see the transition of wrestling from worked catch-style matches to a product focusing more on showmanship, and less on substance. In other words, The McMahons didn’t start this trend in the mid-‘80s. Participants in the sport began to be measured and valued by promoters more for their drawing power and less by their grappling skills and athleticism. We begin to see a marked difference between what we now know as the heels and (baby) faces.
But it’s important to understand that the modern wrestling product has always had its roots in the circus and carnival circuit. Gimmicks have always existed, but in these trying times, certain promoters really exploited this concept. One of these people was Jack Pfefer.
Don Fargo describes Jack in his book The Hard Way: “He stood about five-foot-five, had unkempt, dirty hair, long fingernails, and he wore clothes which had seen better days. He also had bad breath, a physical trait that earned him the nickname ‘The Halitosis Kid’ from people in the wrestling business.”
Colorful and eccentric, Pfefer was a Polish immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1921 as part of a touring opera company. A couple of years later he tried his hand in the wrestling promoting business. In 1929, he allied himself with New York promoter Jack Curley who at the time was one of the most powerful men in the industry. Along with Pfefer, they later obtained agreements with the top bookers in the East Coast where they shared talent amongst each other.
Jim Londos, who began in carnivals, was the star that was being pushed throughout the northeast to record profits at the time. He was not necessarily a skilled grappler but instead drew crowds because of his physical attractiveness and muscled physique. He’d get paired against contrasting unattractive opponents in a “Beaty vs The Beast” concept that had people coming out to the matches in a time when most because of the depression, didn’t have too much money to spend on entertainment or anything for that matter.
After a disagreement with Londos, promoter Jack Curley for awhile ended his relationship with him and his business associates. Jack Pfefer decided to leave Curley and side himself with Londos and his group. Eventually, Curley and Londo’s partners agreed to continue working together and fostered a new arrangement, but without the inclusion of Jack Pfefer.
Seeing that he was now on the outs and was not going to see any profits of this new coalition, he infamously decided to expose the business with the help of Dan Parker, the sports editor of the New York Daily Mirror.
Pfefer went on to claim that promoter Jack Curley and Jim Londos had fixed all their matches. He confirmed the editor’s suspicions that championships were decided not in the ring, but in meetings amongst promoters. The New York State Athletic Commission began to insist that pro wrestling label its bouts “exhibitions” and no longer “matches.”
This exposé was damaging to the sport for years to come, but Pfefer always saw wrestling as entertainment, and he embraced over- the- top characters in his exhibitions of pure spectacle, relying heavily on gimmick wrestlers to sell tickets. In the mid-‘30s with declining gates, promoters relied on falsified identities to generate interest in Polish, Irish, Italian, or Jewish neighborhoods. Even Lou Thesz, who was a respected shooter, began to use at the time the “ridiculous” airplane spin as his finish move.
In 1938 after Jack Curley passed away, Pfefer re-established himself on the top of the business by allying himself with Joseph “Toots” Mondt and booked increasingly bizarre characters as the decade was ending. According to The Squared Circle, he told Collier’s, “I don´t tell people my wrestling shows are on the level; I guarantee them they’re not. I’ve never seen an honest wrestling bout in my twenty years in the game. Maybe there was one, but I wasn’t there. And I’d hate to see one; it’d be an awful thing!”
He also mentions his preferences of performers, “Freaks I love and they’re my specialty. I am very proud of some of my monstruosities. You can’t get a dollar with a normal looking guy, no matter how good he can wrestle.” He continues, “Those birds with shaved, egg-shaped heads, handlebar mustaches, tattooed bodies, big stomachs- they’re for me! Dopes who wear Turkish fezzes and carry prayer rugs into the ring with them, curdled Kurds, bouncing Czechs- all those foreign novelties I import from my stable. None of these atrocities of mine can find their way out of a phone booth or sock their way out of a cellophane sack, but that’s not important. I teach ‘em their routines and ship ‘em out. The suckers think they’re hot stuff-haw.”
“Freaks” are what carnies used to call the sideshow attractions such as Siamese twins, people with deformities or unique genetic traits such as obesity or excessive hair for example. In general terms, unique looking people with unique skills that people paid money to see.
Many of Pfefer’s performers made the transition from sideshow to the wrestling ring.
Fritz Kley was a contortionist who used his double joints and flexibility to escape from opponents. “Count” George Zarynoff would tight walk on the ropes or perform acrobatic tricks. Martin “Blimp” Levy was a very large specimen of a man, with very limited ring skills but a precursor to future and better-known heavies remembered to this day. There was “Gargantua”, a german wrestler and actor Kurt Zehe who was reported to be 7’2”.
Let’s go a little more in-depth and look at SOME of the special attractions that pro wrestling has had in its rich and diverse history. Because not every match can be a three falls 90-minute technical masterpiece, right?
Many of these attractions surely guaranteed a full house because they were not something people could see all the time, others became mere curiosities that didn’t quite leave their mark and fizzled into obscurity.
The Angels With A Face Only A Mother Could Love
Scott Beekman in his book entitled Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America talks about this. “The most popular conversion of freak show attraction to wrestling involved individuals with facial deformities or, more frequently, simply spectacularly unattractive countenances. The trend began with the importation of Maurice Tillet, who became known as “The French Angel.” Tillet suffered from acromegaly, a glandular dysfunction that left his facial features bloated and distorted. His abhorrent appearance proved to be an enormous box office draw.”
Promoter Paul Bowser made Tillet the first AWA champion in 1940 and was crucial in keeping the promotion afloat during the dark time of World War II.
“The fans crowded arenas to get a look at him and when the aberrant animal ambled down the aisle their curiosity was well satisfied,” wrote Paul Boesch in his autobiography, Hey, Boy! Where’d You Get Them Ears? “The Angel was difficult to wrestle. His size and his balance, along with a certain clumsiness that created an unorthodox defense, made you wary when you entered the ring with him.”
Jack Pfefer, always the opportunist had close to ten other “Angels” from different so-called nationalities appearing nationwide. The most successful was “The Swedish Angel” Phil Olaffson.
Later in the ‘50s, “Lady Angels” like Geneva Huckabee began to appear. She was promoted as “The World’s Ugliest Girl Wrestler.”
From a promotional Arena Flyer:
The Lady Angel, Only One Alive
The Only Girl Bald-Head Coming From Europe
The Horror-Face- She Makes Women Faint,
Children Cry, Oh Mother Look-A Lady Angel
You also had “Lady Angel” imitations like Yulie Brynner and Jean Noble who were controversial almost 25 years before Luna Vachon entered the picture.
It was not (and still isn’t) uncommon for a gimmick that worked to be copied by another promoter in another area of the country. Before, regions were more isolated from each other compared to today and fans could more easily be convinced that these copies were the genuine article. News traveled a lot slower too.
Women Wrestlers And The Mighty Mites
During the Great Depression, promoters started featuring women wrestlers as a means to attract male customers. Their skills on the mat were minimal during this time, but women tussling and rolling around in skimpy outfits proved to be a good draw for the gates.
Appearance, not ring skills, were key to success, much like many of their male counterparts of the time. But it was even more for women as Jack Pfefer was quoted saying, “A girl that has a swell shape, a good-lookin’ face and wants to be in pictures should foist be a ‘rastler,” which appears in the book Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America by Scott Beekman.
Even though these women drew crowds, few promoters felt comfortable having them as titleholders. This is where Mildred Burke, a skilled wrestler found success and is credited as the first female champion of the worked era. She would successfully defend the belt for almost twenty years and stands out as a true woman wrestler in a decade bloated with gimmicks of monsters, phony foreign invaders and carnival gimmick performers.
Wrestlers who happened to be little people, or as they were called at the time “Midgets” or “Mighty Mites”, were also starting to gain their footing in professional wrestling. They too began in the carnival circuit and in Vaudeville. Their peak was during the ‘50s and into the ‘70s. Stars such as Sky Low, Little Beaver, Lord Littlebrook, and Little Tokyo were superb performers regardless of their diminutive size. Even though they were usually booked as comedic relief in the undercard, they took their roles very seriously, and the bumps suffered were just as severe as any “normal” sized wrestlers.
In the ’30s, you also had big draws that didn’t rely on distorted facial features or acrobat-like gimmicks. The “Dirty” Dusek Brothers (Rudy, Joe, Emil, and Ernie) wrestled under various combinations and were known also as “The Riot Squad” – not to of course be mistaken with WWE’s Ruby Riot, Liv Morgan, and Sarah Logan.
Although most of their matches ended in brawls outside of the ring, the real forefather to many tactics used by heels today came from Jack Pfefer’s protege Ted “King Kong” Cox.
Scott Beekman comments, “He tore shirts off referees, used ringside props (water bottles, buckets, and chairs) on his opponents, often continued beating on his on his opponents as he dragged them to the dressing rooms, bled regularly, squirted ‘ammonia’ in other wrestlers’ eyes, and taped his knuckles to signify added punching power. He went on to win a version of the world title, wrestling as The Masked Marvel.”
The Big and Tall
In the ’50s and ’60s, we saw the emergence of super heavyweights like Happy Humphrey and Haystacks Calhoun.
Steve Slagle of wrestlingbiographies.com wrote, “Almost immediately, Calhoun enjoyed a position as one of the major superstars at the tail end of the ‘Golden Age of Wrestling,’ a time during which the ‘sport’ was a staple of the popular new entertainment outlet of television. As charismatic as he was heavy, the mammoth Calhoun made a lasting impression on a huge percentage of the U.S. population, even those who did not necessarily follow professional wrestling.”
Sometimes called “Squasher” Humphrey but mostly referred to as Happy Humphrey, it is said that he averaged 750 lbs throughout his career, and on one occasion, went over 900 lbs. They would weigh him on meat scales at rendering facilities. Both he and Haystacks (who averaged 600 lbs) battled several times in Madison Square Garden during the ‘60s
A young 17-year-old Harley Race in 1960 befriended Happy Humphrey and was hired as his driver for $5 a day plus room and board. He even wrestled him on multiple occasions and earned $25 each time. Race recounts that normal shower stalls could not accommodate Humphrey and that he had to assist him by having him lay naked on the ground where he would proceed to apply liquid soap on him, then scrub him with a mop and lastly rinse him off with a garden hose. Stories of Humphrey getting stuck in phone booths and theater seats have been heard over the years.
The McGuire Twins were born Benny and Billy McCrary but changed their last name (per Nick Gulas’ suggestion) to McGuire after announcers overseas in Japan and Australia were having problems pronouncing McCrary. They are in the Guinness Book of World Records as the Heaviest Twins with Benny averaging 814 lbs and Billy a “slimmer” 784 lbs.
Gory Guerrero trained them, and Gulas booked them for most of their careers, including their tour of Japan where Benny recalls in Hiroshima he got stabbed in the stomach by an older Japanese man with a bayonet. Even though he was seriously injured and needed stitches, he was told a normal-sized man would’ve probably died. One time Ed Francis, the promoter of Hawaii, needed to remind an upset Tony Marino on why the McGuire Twins were the main event that night, instead of him. He explained to Tony as documented in The Wrestling Archive Project, Volume 1 written by Scott Teal, “Eighty percent of the people are here to see the McGuire Twins. They know you’re gonna be here from one week to the next, but the twins are only gonna be here for a week or two. They’re here to see them.”
Man Mountain Mike was billed at 6’4” and 623 lbs. He teamed with Haystacks Calhoun and unfortunately was wrestling “Iron” Mike when DiBiase suffered a fatal heart attack in the ring. The early ‘70s saw him dominate battle royals in Florida’s CWF where he entered a feud with Buddy Colt who surprisingly managed to eliminate the “Man Mountain” in one of these matches.
Calling Andre The Giant merely a special attraction would be insulting and unworthy of how huge an influence he was and continues to be in the sport, but indeed he might have been the last of this one-of-a-kind type performer that constantly traveled to different territories as a must-see commodity.
Maybe the most mythologized wrestler/attraction and perhaps even human being of all time, Andre was guaranteed money at the gates for promoters. People looked forward to when they could catch a glimpse of “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” His billed and official height and weight are often contested, but what is not in question is his legendary status in the sport (and ability to drink anybody under the table!).
Silo Sam also called “Big” John Harris had a billed height of around 7’7” but it’s estimated he was at the most 7’5.” – still very tall! He had a short 6-year career and had brief stints in several promotions. He’s perhaps remembered by the ‘80s generation as the jealous boyfriend who chases Pee-Wee Herman in the 1985 movie Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.
Silo Sam as Big John Harris in Memphis. One of the strangest feel-good vignettes you’ll ever see:
El Gigante, later known as “Giant” Gonzalez, was former Argentine basketball player turned wrestling attraction and Sasquatch bodysuit wearer. He was billed as 8’0” tall, but was closer to a “mere” 7’7”. This is the same height a wrestler from the ‘50s called Paul Bunyan (Max Palmer) was estimated to have reached as well.
Gonzalez was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in the third round of the 1988 draft but was unable to adapt physically to the demands of the NBA due in part to knee problems. Hiro Matsuda was asked to train Gonzalez but says that his heart wasn’t in the business. The Giant was reportedly offered a guaranteed contract of $350,000 and believed that because of his size, he was sure to succeed and therefore needed minimal training. He was wrong, and in the then-WWE, he was only offered the minimum contract and a percentage of the gate. In 1993 he was managed by Harvey Wippleman and feuded with The Undertaker. He dwarfed “The Dead Man” but was never able to defeat him. In an ironic twist, Gonzalez in 1993 had a role in the show Baywatch where he played a carnival sideshow giant.
In 1995 when Paul Wight (who we know now as The Big Show) was introduced as The Giant in WCW and claiming he was the son of the legendary Andre The Giant, people definitely paid attention. It kind of made sense because if Andre would have had a son, he’d be huge, right?
The Giant made an immediate impact by joining Kevin Sullivan’s Dungeon of Doom stable and defeated Hulk Hogan via disqualification at that year’s Halloween Havoc pay-per-view. From joining the nWo, to battling Steve Austin in a cage in WWE, to standing up for pro wrestling and taking undefeated boxing champion Floyd Mayweather’s best shots, Big Show is big in name and in the entertainment he’s delivered to his fans.
To the younger fan, he is their giant and their special attraction. With a height of 7’0” and weighing in at around 385lbs, Show is one of the most athletically gifted giants the sport has been fortunate to have. After having hip surgery in 2018 and a hamstring injury this year, the seven-time world champion has made only brief appearances. Nonetheless, at 47 years young, Big Show has given no indication that he intends to retire. He has appeared in numerous television shows and films including the recent comedy, “Fighting With My Family”.
Let us not forget Rodney Anoa’i known to most as the monstrous Yokozuna! A sumo wrestling character managed by Mr. Fuji that easily averaged 550 to 600 lbs throughout his career. Yoko was feared for his infamous “Banzai Drop” where he would leap off the second rope onto his hapless opponents to finish them off.
Yokozuna Finishes Crush:
The Great Khali is billed at just over 7 foot tall and began his wrestling career in 2000 for Roland Alexander’s APW promotion in northern California. Perhaps the last dominant giant of the modern era. He won the WWE Heavyweight Championship in 2007 from Rey Mysterio in quick fashion with an obscene height and weight advantage over the high flying luchador. He is semi-retired and occasionally makes brief appearances for WWE.
A special mention goes to The Oddities AKA The Parade of Human Oddities who appeared in the late ‘90s. They seemed like an homage to the strange gimmicks used by pro wrestling over the years, almost as if they had invoked the spirit of promoter Jack Pfefer and gave it an adrenaline boost for The Attitude Era. They even used the clips of the 1932 horror film Freaks.
The Oddities had a variety of weird and wacky members including Golga who was an odd masked wrestler (John Tenta), the always unpredictable Luna Vachon, also Kurrgan and Giant Silva both seven-foot giants in their own respect. The green tonged turnbuckle eating George “The Animal” Steele was even enlisted to help them in their feud vs the Headbangers.
The Oddities Entrance Video:
This was only but a brief look at pro wrestling’s roots in carnivals and sideshows and the interesting characters that have played a huge part in this form of entertainment over the years. The next time you see something oddly carnivalesque on the television or the Internet and you say, “That’s not wrestling!”, you’d be right because it isn’t. It´s entertainment- what pro wrestling has always been about.
In February 1977, the Wrestling Weekly magazine posed the question: “The Freaks: Good or Bad For Wrestling?” To that, we say, “Very good!”
You can learn more about Jack Pfefer and his freaks in this 1968 New Zealand Sports Digest. Some of the stories written in the digest are written in kayfabe so it was not used as a source for this piece, but nonetheless, it’s a heck of a fun read.
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