Dallas was a major professional wrestling city for the National Wrestling Alliance, but a
booking office wasn't operated out of Dallas as an official member of the NWA until Jack
Adkisson opened one. Adkisson (Fritz Von Erich) was the successor to Ed McLemore,
who ran Dallas from the early 1940s until his death in 1969. For years, McLemore relied
on talent from the NWA office in Houston run by Morris Sigel.
McLemore was a hardworking and respected man, born on July 3, 1905 in Texas, and
worked as a salesman during his 20s, as did his older brother Patrick. Married at 20
years of age to Rose (1905-1987), McLemore worked as a clerk for the Oriental Oil
Company, and later operated the Green Lantern Barbecue Stand at 2822 N. Henderson
McLemore used his veteran business skills to enter the wrestling world, succeeding the
longtime efforts of Dallas promoter Bert E. Willoughby and Willoughby Athletic
Promotions. Using the Sportatorium, at the Southeast corner of Cadiz and Industrial
Streets in downtown Dallas, McLemore formed the Dallas Wrestling Club.
In January 1940, McLemore applied for a license to promote boxing in Dallas under the
name of the "Sportatorium Boxing Club." The previous boxing matchmaker, Dick Griffin,
was apparently letting his license expire, and McLemore wanted to take advantage of the
possibilities in the fistic field. He wouldn't stage any programs if Griffin did, in fact, apply
and obtain a license.
Dallas wrestling luminary, Billy Edwards was killed in an auto accident on Wednesday,
January 22, 1941 in Hillsboro, Texas after a head-on collison with a truck. The Dallas
Morning News (Associated Press) report on January 23 stated that Edwards had wrestled
for 32 years and had "at least 1,000 matches." One of his highlights was the night he
went one-on-one with the legendary Jack Dempsey. He was survived by his wife Leola
Edwards and daughter Mrs. Mary A. Meyers. McLemore and Sarpolis were pallbearers.
It was announced by John D. Reed, the Texas Labor Commissioner, that a special
elimination tournament would be held and sponsored by the Dallas Wrestling Club to
determine a Texas State Heavyweight champion, according to the February 8, 1942
edition of the Dallas Morning News. The new titleholder would then meet NWA World
Champion Sandor Szabo on February 24 at the Sportatorium. Participating in the
tournament were Paul Boesch, Juan Humberto, Ted Cox, Fred Von Schacht, Bobby
Managoff, Miguel Torres, Gorilla Macias, and Ellias Bashara. Don Evans was originally
slated to participate, but he broke a leg last Thursday in Alexandria, and promoter
McLemore substituted Von Schacht.
Also in February 1942, wrestler Sol Slagel died in a car accident at the Dallas intersection
of Lawther Drive and Mockingbird Lane near White Rock Lake. He was around 34 years
of age and lived at 5506 Ross Street. Three women were also injured in the accident, all
of whom lived at his same address. They were all critically injured, according to the
Dallas Morning News (2/22/42).
McLemore hired Dr. Karl Sarpolis as his matchmaker. McLemore, like Sigel, was also at
the 1949 meeting of the NWA in St. Louis. He was also involved in the Texas Wrestling
Agency with his brother-in-law Frank J. Burke and Sarpolis, and supplied wrestlers to a
great percentage of the state. Sarpolis acted as the matchmaker in Houston and Dallas,
and wrestlers often worked their feuds between those two important cities. Karl often
made the journey between cities and worked as a referee.
R. G. McElyea was the established promoter at the North Side Coliseum in Fort Worth.
Born Russell George McElyea, the son of George William and Jessie Ophelia Denson
McElyea, on September 17, 1898 in Waco, Texas, he was a steel and wire salesman
before becoming successful in the concessions business. McElyea owned Amusement
Enterprises and provided concessions to football games and other big time sports,
including at Cotton Bowl Stadium. He promoted all of the great wrestling names in Fort
Worth on the booking circuit of Sigel, including Lou Thesz and Buddy Rogers. He passed
away on May 22, 1964.
A controversial situation arose at the Dallas Sportatorium on November 11, 1952 when
Red Berry beat National Wrestling Alliance World Junior Heavyweight Champion Danny
McShain in three falls, taking the third by disqualification. The Dallas Morning News
reported, in the following day's edition, that the championship changed hands, and that
Berry walked away with the title. Shortly after the match, NWA President Sam Muchnick
sent a telegram to Texas Bureau of Labor Statistics Commissioner M.B. Morgan, and
Morgan replied on November 13. The commissioner explained that he'd received a call
from McLemore, and McLemore described what went down in the Berry-McShain match.
Morgan wrote: "He [McLemore] stated that McShain threw Berry over the ropes to the
ground, then got out of the ring to the ground, picked Berry up and threw him back in the
ring. It seems that when he threw Berry back in the ring, he knocked referee Leo Voss
out, winding up by Leo Voss giving the decision to Berry on disqualification of McShain."
Morgan instructed Deputy Bill Hughes of Dallas to investigate the matter and any decision
would be upheld until that time. He also affirmed the same rules that the NWA applied:
the championship couldn't change hands on a disqualification.
On November 17, 1952, Morgan sent out a telegram announcing that the match should
have been a no contest, and McShain retained his championship. McShain, in this
telegram, reportedly used an atomic drop on Berry outside the ropes on the apron of the
ring, and "cannot be allowed to stand."
Regardless of the decrees made by the Texas Commission and the NWA, some
promoters acknowledged Berry was the new Junior Heavyweight Champion. The
Galveston News, however, reported that McShain regained his championship after
defeating Berry on November 27, 1952 at Galveston's City Auditorium. Berry's unofficial
reign ended there.
The Dallas-Houston promotional empire was running smoothly until December 10, 1952.
On that day in San Antonio, a group of united wrestlers refused to appear for a show that
was going to be taped by television cameras for broadcast. Over the next two weeks,
McLemore broke away from the National Wrestling Alliance and ended his ties with the
Texas Wrestling Agency, which claimed to own two-thirds of the Dallas office. The move
officially cut him off from all NWA talent, and, to the regular promoter may have easily
ended his or her run in professional wrestling. McLemore was not the regular gent, and
his many years in the business kept his head in the game as he plotted to take on the
NWA with his own talent. A spokesman for the Texas Wrestling Agency notified the
Dallas Morning News on Friday, December 26, 1952, that they were going to continue
booking their wrestlers in Dallas in opposition to McLemore.
On Monday, December 29, eight wrestlers (Ray Gunkel, Cyclone Anaya, Danny McShain,
Gory Guerrero, Dory Funk Sr., Red Berry, Ricki Starr, Billy Varga) filed a suit in Houston
District Court against McLemore, Sarpolis, KRLD-TV (Dallas), and the Texas Rasslin’ and
Dong King Advertising Agency. Their claim was that the television programs they were
taping were being re-broadcast in Texas and hurting their box office numbers. The
wrestlers, simply, wanted their contract with the group voided out because of the
The Houston Office named Norman Clark the new NWA representative in Dallas with
Sarpolis running as his matchmaker. They would use Pappy’s Showland as their staging
ground and run on Tuesday evenings, directly competing with McLemore. McLemore,
unwilling to step aside in any capacity, announced that in addition to his usual Tuesday
night programs at the Sportatorium, he’d be working with Maurice Beck to promote
Thursday evening shows. The move was to get the Dallas audience familiar with the new
stars he’d be bringing in. McLemore and Beck got television for Thursday evenings on
WFAA-TV, channel 8.
The talent McLemore brought into Dallas beginning on January 6 was a combination of
Jack Pfefer’s legendary crew and a series of independent grapplers. His main star was
former Olympian Roy Dunn of Oklahoma, who was piloted by the famous Billy Sandow.
Dunn claimed to have not been beaten in six years and held a version of the World
McLemore had no illusions and knew that he was at a disadvantage in the newly
developing “war” for wrestling superiority in Dallas. The Texas Wrestling Agency was
going to bring in all the old regulars, while McLemore was left with those who were willing
to accept being blackballed by the mightly NWA. Only three wrestlers remained with
McLemore after his shift, Jack O’Brien, Roy Graham, and Jack Kennedy.
On Tuesday, January 6, 1953, McLemore went head-to-head for the first time with his
former cronies with Dunn defending his title against Jack Bernard. On the other side of
the fense, it was NWA World Champion Lou Thesz vs. Mr. Moto. Both men kept their
belts, winning in two-straight falls. Filling out McLemore’s show was Graham, O’Brien,
Kennedy, Gorgeous George Grant, Tommy Phelps, Elephant Boy, and Ken O’Connor,
while Norman Clark had the distinct advantage of having Texas Champion Cyclone
Anaya, Texas Women’s Champion Nell Stewart, World Negro Champion Woody Strode,
and Texas Tag Team Champions Ray Gunkel and Ricki Starr.
Son of Peter and Agnes, Raymond Fred Gunkel was born on February 16, 1924. He
grew up in Chicago, where his father was a city police officer. He attended Purdue
University and was a very successful amateur wrestler, winning two AAU Heavyweight
Titles in 1947-’48, becoming a two-time All-American and placing second in the 1947
NCAA Tournament as a heavyweight. Coached by Claude Reeck, Gunkel was joined on
the team by a young freshman during his final year named Bernard Herman, who was
from St. Louis. Herman would later become Ricki Starr, Gunkel’s teammate in Dallas in
1953. Gunkel also played fullback for Purdue.
Gunkel trained under the legendary coach and champion wrestler Billy Thom, making his
professional debut in 1948. Gunkel was a large, gifted wrestler, and it was very obvious
to many promoters that he was going to be a top headliner for many years. His potential
was even seen by former boxing champion Jack Dempsey, who became Ray’s manager
for a time. Gunkel joined the Texas circuit and gained great success for promoters Sigel
and McLemore. In September 1951, he beat Duke Keomuka for the Texas State Crown.
He would win the championship on two other occasions, with his final reign lasting from
February 1953 to May 1954.
With the battle in Texas growing, it seemed that Clark had enough protection with hooker
Lou Thesz and shooters Gunkel and Starr making normal appearances. But Clark didn’t
feel protected himself, filing for a restraining order against McLemore, feeling that he was
in danger personally. In April 1953, both Dallas promotions issued challenges to their
rival group, firmly standing behind their wrestlers in case a real shoot match was to go
down. First, McLemore bought promotional space in the April 21, 1953 Dallas Morning
News, reaffirming the title claims of Dunn.
The piece claimed that Dunn won the World Title from Everette Marshall on November 1,
1940 in Wichita, and that he had defeated [NWA World Champ] Lou Thesz. The following
was written in that promotional section: “Thesz is associated with a St. Louis wrestling
group which has refused to employ Roy Dunn’s services because Dunn won’t take
orders. Thesz meets only Alliance stooges, many of whom he has beaten many times.
The National Wrestling Alliance is a self-serving organization who named Thesz champion
behind closed doors in a meeting in September of 1949. Dunn won his title in the ring.”
There were two problems with those statements. Although Dunn had claimed the World
Title during the 1940s in a promotion suppored by Billy Sandow, he didn’t win a
championship from Marshall on November 1, 1940 in Wichita. The NWA meeting that
named Thesz champion happened in late November 1949, but it was true that the
Alliance did decide on him being champion following the injuries of reigning champion
Orville Brown in a car accident from a board room at the Claridge Hotel in St. Louis.
The promotional segment continued: “This Tuesday, McLemore’s opposition has
announced a Texas Heavyweight Championship bout between Ray Gunkel, the alleged
Texas Heavyweight Title Holder, and Duke Keomuka. Promoter Ed McLemore
announces that he will give $1,000 in cash to anyone able to get the synthetic champion
Lou Thesz, and the winner of the Texas Heavyweight Championship bout Tuesday night,
to meet Roy Dunn. Dunn agrees to beat both alleged champions in the same night and
to donate his share of the purse that night to any reputable charity.” “Mat Fans! Don’t
be foiled again!” was written at the bottom of the advertisement.
Norman Clark issued a rebuttal statement on behalf of the NWA in the April 28, 1953
edition his wrestling program “Dallas Wrestling.” It began: “For the past several months
you wrestling fans in Dallas have been subjected to a propaganda barrage unequalled in
the annals of sport. A devillish diatribe designed on the concept that you, the wrestling
fans of this area, are a bunch of morons who can be convinced by charges and
challenges instead of ability and performance. The effort to insult your intelligence has
not come from promoter Norman Clark or matchmaker Doc Sarpolis who have stuck
steadily to their jobs to provide you with the best wrestling in the country and your
response indicates that you like the type of wrestling you are getting.
“Bet let us look at the source of this propaganda of desperation, the other place
promoting wrestling in Dallas. In January when the country’s best wrestlers moved to
Clark and Pappy’s Showland because they wanted a fair deal, the promoter at the other
place was sold on the idea of presenting a man as “champion.” Sight unseen, he grasped
at the idea and proceeded to try to humiliate the very man he had truthfully told you was
the logical, legitimate and recognized champion of the world. When this so called
“champion” appeared here, the Dallas fans refused to accept him. They took one look at
his all too apparent lack of ability and helped him achieve his one distinction in
Dallas…he has drawn the fewest people and the least amount of money ever taken in at
a Tuesday night wrestling show in Dallas!
“Yet, the promoter at this other place was stuck with him. He had called him a “champion”
and he couldn’t call someone else “champion” the next week, so he decided to make the
best of a bad bargin. How? By challenging the best, most capable, toughest man he
could find, he honestly knew who that man was because he had rightfully been telling you
Dallas fan (sic) his name for years…Lou Thesz. And what about the “champion” he
selected? How and where and when did he win the “title?” Well we aren’t told much about
it except that he is supposed to have beaten Everett (sic) Marshall in 1940! The truth of
the matter is that Lou Thez (sic) won the title from Marshall on February 23, 1939 and
Marshall did not have a title to lose in 1940! To make it positive, Lou again defeated
Marshall on March 24, 1939 in Houston!”
The program continued to damage the credibility of Roy Dunn as “World” Champion, then
Clark, Sarpolis, and Gunkel offered up a challenge of their own: “Last week the promoter
in this other place went to the newspaper with a story. He would, he said, give a
thousand dollars to anyone who could arrange a match between his “champion” and the
winner of Ray Gunkel and Duke Keomuka last week. The match, he said in his quoted
statement could take place on this Tuesday night and it could be either at Pappy’s
Showland or in the other place. When Ray Gunkel won last week’s match he went to Doc
Sarpolis and insisted that he pick up that challenge.
“Doc looked over the statement and said, ‘Well it says right here that he will give a
thousand dollars to anyone who can sign the match and if you are willing then we will
have it next week. I’ll take the thousand and give it to a good charity.’ So the match
between Ray Gunkel and the “champion” was advertised. We think the “champion’s”
appointer was talking way over the ability of his “champion” and there is a possibility that
he may not appear to fulfill the requirements of his own challenge even though Ray is
ready.” The extra added attraction was scheduled for the night’s show, Gunkel vs. Roy
Dunn. Dunn didn’t show up to accept.
McLemore, in addition to maintaining the Dallas promotion, expanded his operations to
include Tyler, Marshall, Laredo, and Del Rio.
On Saturday, May 22, 1954, terms were agreed to by all parties that ended the wrestling
war in Dallas. Under their new compromise, McLemore received 50% of the money
brought in by the Dallas promotion, while splitting half of the lucrative wrestling film
business with Sigel.
McLemore told the DOJ that he lost over $80,000 during the conflict with Morris Sigel and
the NWA, which was one of the reasons why he made peace. The new peaceful combine
would resume Dallas promotions together on June 1 at the Sportatorium, ending the
Pappy's Showland operations.
In June 1954, Gunkel and Keomuka (Martin Tanaka) filed suit against McLemore,
claiming that McLemore hadn't paid them as much as guaranteed in their contracts.
They wanted the contracts terminated.
The Paris News (Paris, Texas) reported on December 20, 1950 that a local businessman
named Thad Davidson had purchased the Paris wrestling franchise and would begin
promoting after January 1, 1951. He obtained the Fair Park Coliseum for wrestling. Mae
Young and Eva Lee, who had brought wrestling to the city, were going to Beaumont to
stage shows there.
Only on November 15, 1950, the Paris News reported that professional wrestling was
coming to the city with two lady grapplers, Eva Lee and Mae Young becoming co-
promoters. They began staging shows on Tuesday, November 23 at Barrett's Skating
Rink. They planned to stage shows with wrestlers featured in Houston and Dallas.
In February 1959, McLemore was negotiating to start up studio wrestling in Dallas, based
on the success of the genre in other parts of the country. According to the February 11,
1959 edition of the Dallas Morning News, "studio wrestling works like this: The sponsor
buys the air time and rents the studio. The matches are staged before a small audience
but thousands watch it at home and in clubs. The purpose is to stimulate interest in
wrestling and lure crowds out to the regular weekly matches in the large arenas. The
regular matches are not televised." Sam Muchnick was in town as part of the 20th
anniversary celebration of McLemore's promotion. The formula for studio wrestling had
been perfected by Jim Barnett and Johnny Doyle.
The live Dallas studio wrestling show came to fruition for McLemore, debuting on
Saturday, April 18, 1959 on KRLD-TV (channel 4) at 5:00 p.m. Maurice Beck was the
Longtime wrestler Jack Kennedy (Lloyd Kennedy) died in Dallas County on July 22, 1979.
Research by Tim Hornbaker
|Dallas Wrestling Territory