With muzzles over their mouths, their claws removed and their front teeth taken out, surrounded by the ring ropes and a curious crowd, bears once found themselves in the thick of pro wrestling promoters' drives to increase ticket sales.
It's a story that played out again and again from as early as the 1800s. In a world already populated by giants and sideshows of the human variety, promoters thought to add to the menagerie of oddities in the ring by pitting bears against wrestlers.
And suddenly, a showcase of athleticism and theater became something more dangerous, more exploitative, more unsettling to watch unfold.
The animals are said to be natural wrestlers. The stories Bobby the Brain Heenan and Classy Freddie Blassie tell of their own experiences with the massive beasts speak to how surprisingly well the bears took to the mat game.
Man-versus-bear matches were still an absurd exhibition, but the bears learned more moves than one would expect: the full nelson, flying mare, collar-and-elbow tie-up.
Today, you won't often see that kind of bout unless it's in some backwoods, unofficial capacity. Regulations, a heightened awareness of animal rights and likely a fear over lawsuits stemming from something going terribly wrong has all but wiped out that niche from pro wrestling.
The phenomenon's first take off isn't that surprising when you consider wrestling's circus roots. Early wrestling contests were often a part of traveling carnivals. The powerhouses of the squared circle worked alongside bearded ladies, trapeze artists and any number of animals.
It didn't take long for some promoters to start envisioning large paying crowds encircling the ring to see those animals climb inside with the men.
Note: In addition to the books and newspapers quoted throughout the article, the following pieces proved invaluable as well: "The Twisted and Terrible History of Men Fighting Bears," which Sarah Kurchak wrote for Vice Sports, and Peter Blecha's HistoryLink.org article entitled, "Barackman, Mervin (1894-1977) and His Wrestling Bears."
Back when pro wrestling was a more stripped-down affair, when men wore plain black trunks and grapplers executed nothing remotely close to a moonsault, promoters looked for ways to add spectacle to the sport.
Bear wrestling had first been a popular spectacle in Europe. The Europeans watched bruin take on man the mid-1800s, but it wasn't until later that century that the Americans welcomed bears into the ring.
In taverns in New York, promoters put on wrestling exhibitions with semi-tame bears. The showdowns eventually moved to country fairs and carnivals and, in 1877, to New York's French Theater.
That year, Thiebaud Bauer was set to clash with a bear named Martin.
A Frenchman with a thick, midnight-black mustache, Bauer was not only one of the first wrestlers to ever don a mask (he was known as the Masked Wrestler of Paris), but as David Shoemaker notes in Squared Circle: Life, Death and Professional Wrestling, Bauer was also "one of the pioneers of the man vs. bear match."
That December night, $250 was on the line in a 2-out-of-3 Falls contest. Tim Corvin wrote in Pioneers of Professional Wrestling: 1860-1899 that Martin "was muzzled and had mittens on his front paws."
The bear tried to throw the Greco-Roman specialist to the mat. And after 15 minutes' worth of tussling, Bauer earned the victory. The path to that point is not what most would expect.
Blecha wrote, "Bauer reportedly swore up a storm while chasing Martin, finally succeeding in grasping the exasperated animal and flinging the poor creature to the floor."
1877 appears to be the boom year for bear wrestling. Brooklyn's Daily Eagle wrote about a wrestling card that year that featured a "Pyrenean Bear, who wrestles all comers under the rules." The Gilmore Gardens promoted a fight between Pete the Wrestling Bear and his trainer, Adrian.
That was also the year a businessman named Emil Regnier brought in two bears to wrestle at New York City's Athletic Hall.
Wrestler William Heyster fought a bear in what ended up being a standstill. The animal's disinterest in the combat for show led him to neither attempt to throw Heyster nor allow himself to be thrown.
Regnier himself then took on another bear with a more decisive result. George Gipe described the climactic scene for Sports Illustrated: "As the crowd cheered and the sawdust from the stage filled the air. Regnier finally managed to roll the animal over on its back and hold its head and shoulders to the platform."
Eventually, New York was not the only bear-wrestling hub. In the Pacific Northwest, Mervin Barackman, a man sometimes billed as "Bear Trainer," made his name and money on the backs of animals such as Billy the Bear and Big Andy.
In the '30s, Barackman, a wrestler himself, traveled from town to town to exhibit his wrestling bears.
Grapplers from that area, including Cyclone Mackey and Dr. Karl Sarpolis were among those to face the animals between the ropes. The act slid from Walla Walla, Washington to Seattle to as far as Texas at one point.
Big Andy, one of Barackman's bears, eventually made the headlines outside of the ring. In 1933, as the Seattle Times reported, the bear "was discovered on a woman's front porch snacking on a kippered herring." Still apparently in a fighting mode, Big Andy took a swipe at the police officer trying to corral him.
Years later, the phenomenon wasn't just continuing, it was spreading. Audiences in California, the Midwest and beyond witnessed wrestlers charged with working with these muzzled opponents.
Eventually, bear wrestling became popular enough to attract celebrities. In 1943, for example, comedian and actor W.C. Fields got into the act. As noted in the Milwaukee Journal that year, Fields had his doubts about whether he could up hold physically in the contest.
He said of his pre-match training, "Wrestling with that bear's going to be a cinch compared to making an athlete out of me."
And while there were cases of novelty acts taking on bears, it was an endeavor legitimate star wrestlers endured as well. Bears were a big enough attraction to have promoters ask talented rising athletes to risk themselves in there with a beast.
One of these most famous beasts was Terrible Ted, a behemoth billed as being 7'0" and 680 pounds. Ted became one of the most prolific bears in the ring. The Leader Post noted in 1959 that the bear had "competed in more than 500 matches."
That number jumped to a purported 1,500 by 1969, as seen in a report for the Windsor Star.
Dutch Mantell (known to WWE fans today as Zeb Colter) once had Terrible Ted fight his battles for him. In 1987, Wendell Cooley sought to challenge Mantell for the Continental Championship Wrestling title. The champ proposed that the would-be contender go through a fearsome opponent first:
Ted was how promoter Dave McKigney (aka the Bearman) made his mark on the business.
McKigney plucked him from a bankrupt carnival. The bear would go on to face a variety of foes, including Bunny Dunlop in Toronto, the rotund Great Antonio and McKigney himself. A pair of men who eventually made their way into the WWE Hall of Fame, Bobby Heenan and Superstar Billy Graham, both tangled with Ted—or at least another bear going by the name.
While working in San Francisco, Graham found motivation to leave that territory after being asked to take on a bear. He lamented in his autobiography, Superstar Billy Graham: Tangled Ropes, that the ridiculous nature of getting pushed around by a bear killed his heat as a heel. These were comical shenanigans to the outsider despite the danger
He doesn't remember the experience fondly.
Graham said, "I can still feel the beast's coarse, wiry fur, smell its foul breath, and hear it snorting through its muzzle as it looked me dead in the eyes. Ted wasn't a happy bear, and I wasn't a happy wrestler."
The run-ins with the bear Heenan discusses in Bobby the Brain: Wrestling's Bad Boy Tells All paints a vivid picture of what the animal could do in the ring.
He was asked to tag team with Baron von Raschke against Ted. Heenan says, "You're not going to believe it, but the bear could work."
Heenan wrote that Ted could perform a monkey flip and a flying mare. At the end of one bout, he wrapped a towel around the bear's neck and pantomimed choking him. The bear, amazingly enough, would lie down, selling the move like any other wrestler.
Like Graham, the man who would go on to manage Andre the Giant wasn't happy with how things unfolded, though.
As Heenan tells it, the bear matches often occurred in winter. The bears, who would much rather be sleeping, would sometimes feel the ice under the padded floor of the arena. That often led to the animal urinating.
The wrestler would then find himself soaked in urine, adding a new layer of humiliation.
Blassie's own battles with bears sound a lot like Heenan and Graham's. In "Classy" Freddie Blassie: Listen, You Pencil Neck Geeks, the hard-nosed grappler admitted he was "scared to death" facing off against the large animal. He describes it as rancid-smelling and diseased, noting how matted its hair was.
The truth is blurry about how long McKigney led the original Terrible Ted to arenas around the country.
As Andrew Calvert and Greg Oliver wrote for Slam! Sports, "McKigney looks to have started the wrestling bear angle around 1958 with the first mention on July 7, 1958, in Cobourg listing Terrible Ted versus 'Some Foolish Wrestler'—likely McKigney."
Nearly 20 years later, Terrible Ted took on Tracy Smothers.
It's a strange sight made stranger by how seriously renowned wrestling commentator Gordon Solie called the action: He wasn't playing it like some sideshow; he tried to make it sound like a battle of two gladiators.
Solie described Ted as "550 pounds of supple muscle." Earlier, he had credited the bear with countering one of Smothers' moves, Solie treating Ted as he would any other oversized participant in the squared circle, like a showman and an athlete.
Flash ahead to 1995, and Carlon Colon is supposed to be tangling with Terrible Ted in this grainy video. That would make him at least 41 years old—the tail end of the lifespan of a bear in captivity.
Regardless, that name is famous as it comes in the world of bears in the wrestling ring. Years later, Dean Ambrose would refer to himself at this generations's Terrible Ted in a promo for Florida Championship Wrestling.
Severed Thumbs and Honey-Smeared Trunks
The only ursine grappler with a more famous list of foes than Terrible Ted was Victor the Wrestling Bear.
Billed as being anywhere from 400 to 800 pounds, Victor reportedly went on a winning streak that would catch even Andre the Giant's eye. As Lodi News Sentinel claimed in 1976, the bear was said to have won over 10,000 matches.
And George Ellison of Smokey Mountain News noted that at least two of those came against wrestling legends Gorgeous George and Wahoo McDaniel.
The Destroyer (real name: Dick Beyer), a member of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame, was among Victor's most notable opponents, one of the unlucky men to experience Victor's mat acumen firsthand.
As the masked man locked up with the animal, the crowd appeared to be unsure of how to react. Perhaps they feared for the Destroyer's safety; perhaps they were simply stunned this exhibition was actually taking place.
In terms of in-ring action, there's little to discuss. Victor just seemed to be toying with the wrestler.
Even so, a trainer came to reward the beast. He handed Victor a bottle of Coca-Cola, which the bear happily chugged down.
Gary Hart, who became famous as the manager for the Great Muta and others, faced Victor as well. This time, the action was mostly on the mat, with Hart trapped under the bear's girth. Like so many of these matches, it's slow, and compared with the action-packed collisions wrestling fans are used to, surprisingly boring.
Don't tell that to Danny Hutchins, though.
Lexington, North Carolina's Dispatch detailed an incident in 1981 that the wrestler would never forget. Victor had already taken on four other comers that night in Chesapeake, Virginia. Hutchins' night ended with him in the hospital.
As he tried to slip out of a hold, Victor rolled onto him. Hutchins said, "The bear put all of his weight on me. It was like he snapped or something." Victor's weight broke the man's ankle and damaged several ligaments in his kneecap.
As one would guess, this was not the first time that Victor had hurt someone.
Charles G. Smith, an Army corporal, accidentally slipped his hand past the bear's muzzle. It takes no psychic to figure out what happened next. As David Pincus wrote for Deadspin, "The bear chomped down with his back teeth and bit most of his left pinky finger clean off."
Freddie Blassie had seen his own share of danger in a match against a bear. He recalled in his autobiography that his massive opponent fell atop him as well.
Blassie said, "During a previous match with a wrestling bear, another guy had accidentally slipped the muzzle down. Once the bear was able to use his teeth, he bit the wrestler's thumb off. I was thinking about this when the bear sat on me—eight hundred pounds of dead weight."
Still, wrestlers agreed to do these matches. Some of them were the struggling low-card nobodies who would take on any assignment. But some were bigger names, from Graham to Blassie. Hall of Famer Roddy Piper once ventured into this odd world.
The late Piper battled Victor as well. He told IGN, "Oh, I hated him. It wasn't a good night for Rod."
Hot Rod went into more detail about that matchup in an appearance on the Electric Morning Show on 92.9 WBPM-FM. He talked about the bear sitting on his hind legs, drinking a pint of Wild Turkey.
The trainer had taken the animal's front teeth, but Piper was still apprehensive about challenging him.
That feeling worsened when he realized the trainer had smeared honey onto the back of his trunks. So when the action began, he had to worry not just about angering the bear and avoiding an injury but also about the bear pulling off his shorts and trying to find more honey somewhere between his cheeks.
These bouts faded away not long after Smothers' encounter with Ted and Piper's run-in with Victor.
John Cena isn't being asked to tangle with a bear. Those animals aren't a part of WrestleMania or Ring of Honor.
Bear wrestling is not something one will see in a sanctioned wrestling environment. It's instead an underground, antiquated enterprise.
As a barometer of how much society has changed in that regard, read the fine print of the video hyping Smothers' most recent bear match. The retired wrestler is billed as going back into the bear-grappling business for a 2015 event dubbed "Olde Wrestling Extravaganza!"
In the YouTube clip in which Smothers promotes the bout, part of the description reads,"A real, live, bear will not be wrestling. The act is illegal under the Ohio Revised Code (sec. 959.15) Olde Wrestling is a theatrical production featuring fictional characters and professional wrestling bouts, a live bear will not be present."
One has to imagine Piper, Blassie and the others who faced the real thing would have loved for this to have been the case during their time.
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