Although this fan went into the ring AND broke free from the grasps of one of wrestling’s greatest shooters, what makes this story worthwhile is the chain of events that happened afterward.
What follows is arguably one of the greatest stories in the history of professional wrestling.
No Sugar Tonight: The $1000 Sugar Hold Challenge
A bit of scenery is necessary here before I paint the main subject of this portrait. To do this, we must enter into the Wrestling Time Mobile and set the dial for 1981, destination Kentucky.
What will we find there?
Well, to pinpoint our location, we’ll probably need to hop out of the Time Mobile and into a rental car (of course, it must be a 1981 Chrysler Cordoba, replete with Corinthian Leather) and head towards Lexington. There, we will find the headquarters of International Championship Wrestling, a “renegade” territory (not sanctioned by the National Wrestling Alliance) that existed for six short but very eventful years.
The promotion was founded and owned by the Poffo Wrestling Family: Angelo, the patriarch of the Poffo Wrestling Family (and a wrestler par excellence in his own right), and his sons Leaping Lanny Poffo and Macho Man Randy Savage.
ICW ran shows in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas, in opposition to several established National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) territories.
These events would be run at local civic centers and arenas, one of them being the Frankfort (Kentucky) Civic Center, which will become more significant later in this story.
Angelo occasionally donned the tights, albeit under his masked “Miser” persona, possibly as a concession to his age (then 56), but perhaps equally as likely due to his frugality.
To compete against their larger and senior competition, the smaller rogue promotions oftentimes would come up with a ‘hook’ to sell tickets and increase their fanbase. In our story, the said hook was “The Sugar Hold Challenge.”
All one had to do with this challenge was break the Suger Hold. If you could, you’d be enriched with a prize of $1,000.
Sounds pretty easy, right? But, as Judge Judy always tells us: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
So, what exactly is a Sugar Hold?
The title of the Sugar Hold is quite misleading, as there is nothing sweet about it.
According to WWE.com, “The Sugar Hold application begins as a typical full nelson, but the competitor executing the hold forces his opponent face down on the canvas, then presses his knees into the upper back. With his entire body wrenching in pain and without the use of any limbs, the opponent is forced to concede the matchup as all but won.
Here is an example of it being applied:
Despite being an incredibly painful (and arduous) maneuver, the Sugar Hold has mostly been lost to time as other submission holds have gained more prominence in recent years. Back in 1981, however, it was frequently applied by a 280-pound gentleman by the name of Bob Roop.
Who Was Bob Roop?
For many, Bob Roop is known for his Maya Singh persona as part of Kevin Sullivan’s Army of Darkness faction for the Eddie Graham-owned Florida territory (CWF). However, Mr. Roop made his bones (and probably broke a few as well) in many of the territories and represented the United States Greco-Roman wrestling team in 1968.
Roop is also a fine writer, and we are fortunate to have had him write for our website. You can read his work with us here.
The other protagonist in our story? A most unlikely one.
Enter William (Bill) Harding, a 19-year-old, 150-pound teenager from Frankfort, Kentucky.
Who Was William Harding?
William Harding discovered wrestling at a young age, aided a bit by the fact that his father was a local police officer, who happened to work security for the Jerry Jarrett owned Continental Wrestling Association (CWA), more informally known as the Memphis Territory.
William would often accompany his dad to the shows, usually held at the nearby Frankfort Civic Center, and met many of the stars of the territory, including Jarrett and Tojo Yamamoto.
Harding, although in many ways your typical 19-year-old young man, was unique in several aspects. One was his self-discipline, honed by his years in the martial arts (karate and judo). The other was his keen analytical nature, which, as we will see, played an integral part in the outcome of this story.
While just about any other 150-pound teenager would recoil in sheer terror at the thought of being in the ring with an Olympic wrestler outweighing them by approximately 130 pounds, Harding, upon learning of the challenge, used logic in place of fear.
He carefully sketched the hold, and much to his initial consternation, could not envision a viable escape, despite the very deep and careful scrutiny of his drawing. Logic, as powerful as it is, cannot always paint the entire portrait by itself.
Thankfully, there is this thing called serendipity, which sometimes can paint things that logic cannot touch.
Young Mr. Harding had left his sketch on his ottoman to get a snack, and upon returning, had a serendipitous moment. By viewing the drawing from a standing position, he saw all the things he couldn’t while seated.
Thanks in large part to his judo training, Harding ascertained that the Sugar Hold was virtually identical in mechanics to a standing hip toss. The major difference was that the combatants were prone as opposed to standing.
In his mind, the person ‘trapped’ in the hold actually had the advantage, albeit unbeknownst to all but William Harding.
Bob Roop, William Harding, and the Night of the Infamous $1000 Sugar Hold Challenge
What you might be asking is, what did young Bill’s friends and family think about him attempting this challenge? It might be best you hear it from the man himself, as spoken to yours truly and Dan Sebastiano on episode 12 of the Dan & Benny In the Ring podcast.
“I told my friends about it,” Harding explained. “They told me I was crazy. I told my grandmother about it, she begged me not to do it. I told my grandfather about it, he said, ‘No, you’re not gonna do it.’ I told my Dad about it; he absolutely forbade me from even going down there.”
So, given the advice of his peers and the profound wisdom of his elders, he did the right thing and stayed home, yes? Well, if he did that, our story would end right here. But it doesn’t.
The infamous Sugar Hold Challenge took place on June 3rd, 1981, at the Frankfort Civic Center. Let’s turn the wheel back over to William Harding as he recounts that fateful night.
“When I went there, there were about three or four matches before they even got to it. They did [the challenge] right before intermission, so I didn’t watch the other matches. I just kept my head down and kept focused on what I was going to do.
“When they finally called us down there, there were four of us. We all had to sign waivers. The first guy that got in there was probably about Roop’s height. Rather skinny, wearing black jeans, this silky black shirt, and he was being kind of a smart aleck. So, when they laid down there and Bob put the Sugar Hold on him, and the referee said ‘Go,’ this guy was done in three seconds.
“And he screamed. And he was waving his hands, and Bob let it go, and he got up; he was just so disgusted.
“You don’t disrespect these guys because they’ll make you pay for it, big time,” Harding continued.
“The guy in front of me that was going third, I think he was in the Army, and he was talking about what he was gonna try to do. He was a little nervous after seeing that first guy, but I was rather worried about him because he said he was in the Army. I thought, ‘Okay, this guy’s got combat training, so he might know what to do.’ He actually lasted about fifteen seconds before he submitted!”
The moment of truth finally arrived.
“I got in the ring, and I walked over there to him. I didn’t even look Bob in the face, ’cause all I saw was, he was wearing, and I’m sure you’ve seen it, that uniform of his, with the Olympic rings on it, and the USA boots, and I’m thinking, ‘Geez, this is really happening!’
“I just laid down on the mat, and I remember hearing the referee and him giggling. Bob said, ‘Well, okay then.’
“He got down on the mat and put me in the Sugar Hold, and it’s one of those instances right there where time kind of stands still, and you see the dust floating in slow motion in front of you, and I’m just watching the referee because when the referee says go, I’m going between the g and the o. After all, I had to get that first move off before he could do anything.
“You’re starting from the Sugar Hold. You’re in the submission hold, and the referee says, ‘Go!’ and I just went as hard as I could. I twisted my body, and I brought him over face-first into the mat.
“[Roop] didn’t go all the way over, but he went over far enough where I could spread eagle on the mat with my legs, and I got my right arm down enough where I could lean into it, so I actually had him in an exaggerated armbar.
“The crowd just changed immediately. Everybody was kind of laughing at me when I got in the ring. They thought it was hilarious! Here’s this puny guy getting in the ring after they’ve seen these other guys and all of a sudden: shock!
“Here’s an MMA crowd now, on their feet, jumping around, and I’m looking up to see what’s going on. I’ve still got him in the armbar, and the referee keeps asking me if I want to give up. Now, I’m trying to figure out what I’m gonna do because he’s still on top of me.
“I put my right arm down, I start pressing up like a push-up, and I got all the way up with him on my back. The idea was, I was gonna try to get my legs out from underneath him and switch it to a full armbar and lock his arm up like I planned to do in the first place. And, as soon as I got to the top of the push-up, the one arm pushes up.
“I could hear him,” Harding maintained. “[Roop] was saying to the referee, ‘D***, this boy’s strong!” and just a microsecond before I’m going to get my legs out, he grabs my left leg and flings me around, trying to get me back into the starting position; except I went too far.
“What happened was, I landed on my back, and as soon as I landed on my back, I kicked my legs up, and I scissor-locked his head.
“So now, neither one of us are in a really comfortable position because my nose is literally around 8 inches from my right knee, my head is locked up in his arm, I’ve got him in a scissor lock, and all I can do is push back against his arm and try to slip my head out while I’m crushing his head.
“This goes on for, I don’t know, fifteen or twenty seconds. I hear him say to the referee, ‘Get this boy off of me; he’s killing me!’
“I finally got my head to slip out of his arm, I roll him over to the side, and I kicked away from him. I actually think I kicked him right in the chest to try to get away from him.
“I jumped up, and then I realized what happened. I threw my arms up, everybody in the place is screaming, you know, they’re jumping up and down, Bob’s still on the mat, the referee’s still on the mat, I turned around. I looked at the audience behind me, they’re all jumping up and down, and I turned back around, the referees on his feet, and this is where it all goes haywire.
“He’s going, ‘No, no, no, you didn’t beat the time limit! You didn’t win!'”
Haywire? Absolutely. Several other words come to mind, such as melee, brouhaha, clusterf… well, we won’t go there.
In any event, William Harding’s victory was nullified! The explanation? Harding didn’t beat the time limit. All fine and dandy, except for one thing; a time limit was never part of the challenge!
Things Go Astray After the Challenge
Initially, William Harding challenged Bob Roop to an immediate rematch; Roop declined, pointing out to Harding that he (Harding) had ruptured some blood vessels in his eye in the course of the previous tussle.
Harding asked the referee to point out the timekeepers, who were seated at ringside. The “officials” that Mr. Harding expected to encounter were actually a couple of kids who more closely resembled Bill and Ted in search of their next excellent adventure.
When one of them told Harding that he failed to beat the time limit, William mentioned that he didn’t see a time clock, nor were they wearing watches. Without another word, they stood up and left. I guess that excellent adventure couldn’t wait!
Harding’s next move was to go back into the ring and grab the mic.
What wrestling fan wouldn’t want to be standing in the middle of the ring, mic in hand? My first inclination would have been to lean my head back and say, “Finally…,” although, at the time of this incident, The Rock had recently celebrated his 9th birthday and was concerned about the trials and tribulations of 3rd grade.
Harding cut right to the chase and shouted, “Where’s My Money!?”
At this point, Bob Orton Jr. entered the ring and casually suggested to William that if he didn’t walk away, several of his body parts would be permanently relocated.
Ever resolute, Mr. Harding once again grabbed the mic and demanded what was rightfully his.
At this point, Harding was escorted out of the ring by the arena manager and two of the local law enforcement officials working security that evening.
He was detained in a storage room, although he was able to speak to Sam Harrod, the local sheriff, who asked William for his side of the story.
At some point, Mr. Harrod returned with Angelo Poffo, who ‘generously’ offered Mr. Harding $250 for his troubles.
Harding declined this offer, as well as a second counteroffer for $500.
At this point, Mr. Poffo left the room (but not the building).
A short time later, Sheriff Harrod came back into the arena’s makeshift detention facility (aka storage room) and escorted young Harding into the ring.
The crowd, which had been booing since Harding was led out earlier, immediately cheered upon his reappearance.
In the ring were Angelo Poffo, Sheriff Harrod, the referee, and Bob Roop.
Poffo announced that due to a ‘miscommunication’ about the time limit, they had decided to award Harding the $1,000 payoff. However, said payoff was accomplished via check and not the bag of silver dollars originally promised.
In hindsight, I am sure that this was Poffo’s way of protecting his promotion and appearing magnanimous instead of admitting that the challenge was conquered. Any long-time wrestling fan knows that a clean finish is as rare as a four-leaf clover or an Elvis sighting at Burger King.
So, you might ask, what happened to all the players in this story?
Angelo, Randy, and Lanny Poffo ran the ICW promotion for several more years until it ceased operations in 1984. Angelo Poffo passed away in 2010.
His two sons, Leaping Lanny Poffo and Macho Man Randy Savage (Poffo), were mainstays on the wrestling scene for many years, Savage arguably being one of the all-time greats.
Sheriff Harrod continued protecting the citizens of the great state of Kentucky for several more years.
Bob Orton Jr. wrestled for many years after and is the father of Randy Orton, another who has indelibly made their mark in the sport of wrestling.
Bob Roop wrestled until 1988, when his career was cut short due to injuries suffered in a car accident. He currently lives in Michigan and is regularly active with the Boy Scouts.
William Harding, the star of this story, is alive and well and currently living in Trenton, Kentucky. Mr. Harding spent many years as a martial arts instructor and was involved with the Appalachian Mountain Wrestling (AMW) promotion.
So, what did Bob Roop have to say about William Harding and the Suger Hold Challenge?
“What happened is [Harding] got away!” Roop explained years after the event. “[William’s] shoulders were very narrow. If it had been Godzilla, a 300-pound guy, no problem. But the smaller guys, my arms are long enough that in order to clamp and you get in this armpit and you make this tight, a guy needs fairly wide shoulders or a big thick chest and back. This guy was a martial arts guy so he’s very limber and he’s also small, and I couldn’t crank the hold. It didn’t fit, it wasn’t a good fit, and he got away.”
Author’s Note: Mr. Harding actually addresses this during his appearance on Dan & Benny In the Ring. He completely disagrees with Mr. Roop’s position and vehemently asserts that the hold was broken through technique, not because of his size or lack thereof.
Controversy surrounding a professional wrestling event? Imagine that…
As a postscript, before one gives Mr. Poffo too much credit for his charity, it should be noted that his desire to pay William Harding the full prize may have been enhanced just a tad by virtue of his conversation with Sheriff Harrod, who informed him that if he didn’t pay in full, he would be spending the evening at the local Steel Cage Motel. Said motel had very few amenities, no room service, hell, not even a key. Excellent security, though!
As for the Sugar Hold Challenge, it was never mentioned again. William Harding singlehandedly changed the course of wrestling history.
William Harding and Bob Roop reunited on the 37th anniversary of the Sugar Hold Challenge at a Championship Wrestling from Florida (CWF) reunion show in Lutz, Florida, in 2018. They had an amicable breakfast and reminisced about the events of that amazing evening.
Oh, and there is no truth to the rumor that Roop requested no sugar be placed on the table.
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