Thursday Nights at the Gardens

by Lorne Taichman

Thursday night was wrestling night at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Gardens, a sad, shabby, featureless building located at 60 Carlton Street in downtown Toronto, was the home of the Toronto Maple Leaf hockey team. The “Leafs” won eleven Stanley Cup trophies playing at the Gardens. For hockey, the main floor of the arena was flooded and cooled to form a clear sheet of ice.  For wrestling however, a four-corner boxing ring was set up in the center with an elevated ramp leading from the ring to an exit on the side. This raised ramp allowed wrestlers to enter and exit without having to come in direct contact with angry, boisterous fans. The fans were there to see good versus evil, and those colossal forces, embodied in the wrestlers themselves, were clearly on display at the fights. The good guys fought clean, obeyed the rules; the bad guys fought dirty and never abided by the rules. 

Occasionally, on Thursday nights, my father took me to see the fights. I had no special interest in wrestling, but I was delighted to accompany him to one of his favorite haunts. My father loved wrestling. What is surprising is that this mild mannered, basically shy man would climb into the ring with the wresters and slug it out. I don’t mean that literally; he didn’t really enter the ring but if you saw him watching a match you would see why I say he was there alongside these gladiators. He followed each punch and every head lock with contortions of his own body. He would grimace and twist, kick out a leg, clench his fists as the fighters slugged each other. His gaze was riveted on the action. He was transfixed. There was no other display or activity that held him so entranced. He didn’t need to know the names or backgrounds of the antagonists. The mere sight of a match on the TV would stop him in his tracks and within a moment his jaw would be clenched, his body tense and his focus there in the pit. At the time I didn’t think it odd that this soft spoken, gentle man would so enjoy seeing two grown men pummel each other. I wonder what my mother thought of his going to watch fights and what she thought of his taking his son along. I cannot recall any resistance on her part.

The attendees at the fights were mostly men, working class Joe’s, dressed in the heavy clothes, grey windbreakers, featureless pants and unadorned caps. There was the occasional woman, but it was unusual. My father would often meet friends there. It didn’t seem pre-arranged. They just met by chance, fellow travelers on that strange violent road.

The best seats in the house were located on the ground floor. Occasionally we got to sit in that section, and when we did, I too would wait alongside that entrance ramp to get a close look at the wrestlers. I recall fans throwing peanuts at a bad-guy wrestler, Fred Atkins, I believe it was, as he made his entrance. I can still see the peanuts ricocheting off his darkly tanned, muscular chest as he snarled at the screaming fans. It was a good show. Usually we sat in the bleachers. 

The names of the wrestlers were quite creative. Whipper Billy Watson, a good guy, a Canadian, rather chunky in his build, famous for his sleeper hold and twice world champion. Bruno Sammartino, an enormous, muscular, clean fighter whose obituary recently appeared in the NY Times.  There was Yukon Eric, Killer Kowalski, Bobo Brazil, Bulldog Brower, The Masked Marvel, women wrestlers, midget wrestlers, even midget women wrestlers. There was an Israeli wrestler. I don’t recall his name and could not locate it on the internet. He was a clean fighter and when he entered the ring he would neatly drape a small white towel embossed with a blue Star of David over the top rope. Of course, we rooted for him. 

Unlikely as it may seem, there was a brief moment on those Thursday nights that was somewhat magical. After the announcer had introduced the wrestlers to the cheers and jeers of the expectant crowd, the referee would motion the combatants to the center, examine their hands and nails, give them brief instructions, and send them back to their respective corners. At that moment the lights in the arena were turned down and the overhead lights turned up full to light up the stage. All attention was directed at the ring and, I swear, there was a momentary glow that seemed to emanate from the pale white tarmac, an iridescent shimmer to the air above it. For that and only during that moment, the crowd hushed. The two combatants then slowly approached and at the right moment lunged at each other, usually grabbing the back of the opponent’s neck and attempting to go for a side head lock, a full nelson or a hammerlock, anything to immobilize the other and gain an advantage. 

Wrestlers were not allowed to strike with a closed fist. They could use a forearm or an elbow but not a fist. You could not choke or pull hair. If a part of a wrestler’s body was outside the ropes, the referee patted the wrestler on the shoulder, and he was supposed release his hold and move backward. Of course, bad guys never followed those rules. They struck with closed fists, often choked, pulled hair and never broke cleanly at the ropes. No matter how egregious the bad guy’s actions were, the referee would never disqualify the offending player. It was a fine show – good versus evil and evil often won. A fight between two good guys was boring. I don’t recall ever seeing a fight between two bad guys. It was widely held that the fights were fixed. It didn’t matter. We were not there for truth. We were there for victory over evil. 

In thinking back to those Thursday nights at the Gardens, I am struck by how strange it was that my father took me, his pre-teen son, to those events. I cannot imagine taking my children or grandchildren to such a spectacle. My father came from a different time. He lived through two world wars, a Holocaust, a time of overt antisemitism, poverty and a fiercely competitive marketplace to make his living. Perhaps the fights were a way for him to deal directly with some of the tensions and stresses he lived through. Perhaps the fights were the way he saw the world. He did live through times when evil was present and danger did lurk about. There were many corners of his life with which he struggled. Only now, many years after he is gone, do I appreciate them. The other day as I was surfing through TV channels I flashed through a wrestling match. Too bad he was not here to enjoy it. Had he been, I would have stopped the surfing and joined him in watching a good match. 


Lorne Taichman was a physician-scientist at Stony Brook University for over three decades. This essay was written in early 2019 for a class in Advanced Autobiography coordinated by David Grogan. Lorne has been a member of IRP/LP2 for about eight years.