Wrestling with History: Douglas County Fair and American Legion Were Venues for Pro Wrestling Events

Herald Archives The 1968 lineup of professional wrestlers booked to the Douglas County Fair included (top, clockwise, Miss Betty Niccoli, Miss Jean Antone, Gorgeous George, Jr., and Pancho Rosario.

By Michael Boyink

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It started in 1912.

Or, at least, that’s the first time it’s mentioned in the Herald.

Herald Archives
In 1956 the Fair was held at Ava’s City Park and included professional wrestlers Penny Banner, Billy Raborn, Betty Hawkins, and Rocco Perez.

“Perhaps the most interesting wrestling match ever held in our little city will be pulled off at the Wilson Opera house. Saturday night January 13th. The match will be between two of our home boys, Heiner Mays and Arthur Baker. Both of these boys have been in the professional wrestling game for some time, and the match will no doubt be very interesting. They promise to give a square deal and a fair, square, wrestle to a finish.”

It hints at other wrestling matches, but as far as the Herald is concerned, professional wrestling doesn’t enter the picture again until the 1950’s.

Several times during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s both the Douglas County Fair and the American Legion hall featured professional wrestlers. The names and promotional photos were listed alongside events including tractor pulls and gospel music groups.

The wrestlers were always in pairs – two women and two men. The women would face off. The men would wrestle each other. Then there would be a mixed team event involving all four wrestlers.

According to Wikipedia, the 1950’s were the “television years” of professional wrestling, with matches beginning to be televised to the newly-popular black and white televisions in American homes.

From 1948 to 1955 each of the three major television networks had professional wrestling shows.

Critics also claim this is the era that “gimmick characters” became popular, changing the nature of the sport from being athletic-based to performance-based.

Wrestler names listed in various Herald ads and articles included:

Penny Banner

Rocco Perez

Billy Raborn

Betty Hawkins

Kay Noble

Red Donovan

Cowboy Bob Clay

The Great Bolo, Masked Man

Farmer Jones 

Mike Dibiasse

Red McKim

Ann Casey

Jessica Rogers

Chuck Karbo

Georgous George Jr.

Pancho Rosario

Jean Antone

Betty Niccoli

Mr. Ito

Paula Kaye

Vicki Williams

Terry Lathan

Angelo Savoldi

Arne Skaaland

Branding Iron Tom Bradley

Fran Gravette

Mabel Legett

Rita Davidson

While the vast majority of the wrestlers that came to Ava were circuit performers from out of town, a 1954 Herald article mentions a “former Douglas County man, Neil Warren, now of St. Joseph” wrestling against “Jack Barnard of Dallas, Texas in a two-out-of-three fall feature.”  Online resources show Warren had 74 matches in his career, but little other data is recorded.

Professional wrestling saw an overall decline until the 1980’s when Hulk Hogan became the face of the World Wrestling Federation. His role in reviving the industry was known as “Hulkmania.”

But as popular as Hogan and other wrestlers made professional wrestling, it never returned to Ava. 1975’s “Mr Ito” was the last mention of professional wrestling found in Herald archives.