Wilbur Snyder Page 2
Snyder still wanted to try football, and in 1952, then coach of the Rams, Joe Stydahar suggested he needed more gridiron experience, so Snyder went to play for the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League. Edmonton beat the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for the Western Division crown in 1953,but were beaten in the finals for the Grey Cup. Two of his team mates were Gene Kiniski and Joe Blanchard, and Snyder continued to wrestle off season. Snyder made $8,000 for that season, and was offered $10,000 to rejoin in 1954,but had already made $25,000 wrestling, so he chose the mat over the gridiron. Going back to California in 1954,he was given a big push by Hugh Nichols, and matched on short notice against then champ Lou Thesz. In coming up short, he was rematched against Lou on the national CBS network match in April of Ď54,and went a time limit draw with Thesz. One side note is that the match was announced for 60 minutes, and the time got shaved 12 minutes, actually only going 48 minutes. This was caught by members of the viewing public... so much for kayfabe.
Johnny Doyle had been part of the office in California at that time, and might have been responsible for Wilbur making his move from California to the Midwest; in 1956, Snyder moved his base of operations to Chicago to work for wrestling czar, Fred Kohler. By advent of his TV show on Dumont, Fred was a chief booker of wrestling talent in the US at the time , and made a mint off of booking fees. Snyder was brought in unheralded, being put over Bill Longson, the Mighty Atlas and Hans Hermann, when the old fill in angle was used again. Lou Thesz had been scheduled to wrestle the Sheik on TV for the NWA title, and at the last minute, Sheik was scratched and Snyder brought in as a sub.Lou was incensed, as he had trained to wrestle someone quite different than Snyder. Fred Kohler finally came into the ring, and after haggling with Thesz, got him to agree to wrestle on the premise that the time limit be cut back to 30 minutes. Of course, the bout went the full 30, but went a long way to getting Snyder over with the Midwest audience. (Lou, in a private email, told me that even though Wilbur didnít have a real wrestling background, that he enjoyed working with Wilbur because of his athleticism, and his attitude of doing whatever needed to be done to make things happen.) Wilburís star finally arrived on April 7th,1956, when he defeated Verne Gagne for the prestigious USTV title. This was a MAJOR upset, as Gagne had held the belt since 1951.The match wasnít scheduled at all, as this match was held at the TV tapings at the Marigold Arena, and was supposed to be Bill Melby taking on Snyder. The match had to be changed, as Melby had sustained an injured shoulder, so Kohler subbed Gagne in his place. Being champ, this automatically became for the title. Oddly enough, Wilbur and Verne had just teamed the night before at the Amphitheatre to face the Lisowskis before 10,000 fans. In front of 1,000 fans, Snyder out powered Gagne and took the title in a one fall match. Gagne was given an immediate rematch in Chicago on May 4th,which went to a draw. The match was milked for a while as Snyder downed all challengers, finally facing Gagne again in County Stadium in Milwaukee, with Snyder losing on a disqualification in a bout refereed by Jack Dempsey. The attendance was 16,069 which paid a gross gate of $33,689.00,big money in those days. Snyder held onto the title until November, when Hans Schmidt took it from him. Snyder regained the title from Schmidt on February 19,1957,and lost it again December 14th,1957, to a man that was to play a big part in Wilburís life in the future, Dick the Bruiser. By this point, Wilbur was wrestling in and around the Detroit area, and the Ontario wrestling circuit. He came back and took the US belt away from then title hold Verne Gagne (once again!), and lost it at TV station WCPO in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Angelo Poffo. This set the US title up to be the main strap in a region that included Indianapolis, Detroit, Cincinnati, Ontario, and all points between. The conglomeration was a loose fitting group that included Balk Estes, Jim Barnett, and Johnny Doyle, who had strong ties with Vince McMahon and Roy Shire in Frisco. Besides beating Poffo to regain the title, as the 60ís came in, Wilbur had great feuds with Mitsu Arakawa, and of course, the Bruiser. The Bruiser and Snyder drew some amazing gates, particularly in Detroit. In June of 1959, they drew 16,473 at the old Olympia Stadium, to a gate of $42,723. They drew over 15,000 the next year in the same venue. Oddly enough, in 1963, during a match with Fritz Von Erich on Indianapolis TV, as Hans Hermann came to Von Erichís aid, the crowd was stunned when Snyderís nemesis, the Bruiser, came to Wilburís aid. (This would have been the equivalent of Ric Flair coming to Hulk Hoganís aid in their prime). The two became the main tag team of the Balk Estes promotion, annexing the AWA tag team belts from the Kalmikoffs in Indianapolis, on November 5,1963. They lost the belts on December 3,1963, to the Masked Terror (Jay York) and Ciclone Negro, but regained them on December 10th. On December 17th, Wilbur won a decision over AWA champ Karl Gotch, when Gotch injured his knee and couldnít continue. Snyder was awarded the AWA title, but gave it back as he didnít want to win the title on a foul.
While all of this was going on, there was more brewing behind the scenes than met the eye. Wilbur and Dick Afflis had formed a friendship, and came up with a plan to go into business for themselves. Now on the surface, Bruiser and Snyder seemed to be pretty incongruent, but they really had a lot in common. Both were ex-pro footballers. Both were college men. They also came from affluent homes, were very family oriented, and they both liked to drink beer by the caseload. They obviously were awesome athletes, and really pulled out all stops in the ring. Pioneers of hardcore, for sure!
Having stable family lives allowed them to pull a coup when they left the Estes promotion (while still champs) and form their own promotion. While it was illegal to hold a promoterís license and wrestle, there was nothing that said you couldnít wrestle for your wives. And there was nothing to stop you from dictating business to said wife to run the promotion. Dick and Wilbur held their first card on April 24th,1964,at the old Southside Armory in Indianapolis. They defended their tag team title, going to an hour draw with the Millers. During this time, Dick had been competing for the Eaton booking office in Los Angeles, and had taken the WWA title from Fred Blassie April 22, so the Bruiser and Snyder promotion was held under the WWA banner, even after Dick lost the strap in LA. Bruiser and Snyder, incidently, were using the LA TV tapes until they got around to making their own. (See WWA archives for more on this.)
In 1965, Bruiser, who had bought out Fred Kohler in Chicago, went into partnership with Verne Gagneís Minneapolis office, and the two co-booked Chicago for many years. The problem for this, as far as Snyder was concerned, was that being sandwiched between two giant egos was very detrimental to his career standing. Whereas Snyder had been a monster drawcard in the region, he soon found himself relegated to upper middle card status. In his own promotion, he had but one single reign as WWA champ when he beat Mitsu Arakawa on September 30,1967. He had 2 defenses against Johnny Powers that drew well, and a dismal crowd of 2,758 paid, with a gross gate of just $5,930,to see him defend the belt against NWA champ Gene Kiniski. I suspect that that figure was tainted by bad weather, as the December 8th date might suggest, as they drew nearly 6,000 on December 27, 1967 to see Blackjack Lanza take the title from Wilbur, when he couldnít answer the bell for the 3rd fall after a piledriver from Jack. The next year and a half, Snyder met Lanza 6 times in Indianapolis main events, and innumerable on the circuit, including a one hour draw on March 15th,1969. Snyder and various partners were also contenders for the tag team title. Through the 60ís, Snyder also made several lucrative trips to Japan. He had a bad habit of doing so AFTER he won the tag team title, and a phantom title change was usually in the cards.
In the 70ís, Championship Wrestling, Inc. had made a few million dollars with their promotions in Detroit and Indianapolis. The usual gate for Indianapolis in 1973 and 74 was over 10,000 heads, which was $40,000+ per date, and all of the small towns like Champaign, Terre Haute, Ft. Wayne (not so small), Elkhart, Hammond and the like were doing massive business. By the mid 70ís, however, business had dropped, and things had gone back to normal. Snyderís matches became less intense, too, and for many, it seemed like he was phoning his part in. Part of it had to be due to boredom, how enthused could he get against the Ox? Part of it was due, no doubt, to age creeping in, as well as his 2 Ĺ packs of cigarettes a day habit. During this time, Snyder had other business holdings, and had also developed a passion for tennis that lead him to buy a house in Carmel, Indiana that had a court in the back yard. His son Mike, and his daughter Cindy (who was/is married to ex-AWA tag champ, Steve Regal) had blessed him with grandchildren, and the desire to travel and to put out top notch every night probably just wasnít there. Still, when the mood hit him, the old fire was still there. Lou Thesz had come to the WWA in 1975 for a brief period, and at several house shows these two teamed up and worked like a couple of 20 year olds. They had some classic bouts with then tag champs the Legionnaires that, for some odd reason, never played Indianapolis. An Indianapolis main event against the Ox for the belt had Lou refereeing, and Snyder making Ox work harder than he had worked for a long time. In the late 70ís and early 80ís,he teamed a lot with Bruiserís son in law, Spike Huber, and held the WWA tag belts on 3 occasions. By the early 80ís, you could see Snyder get frustrated with some of the "talent" he had to work, so in the summer of 82, he sold his interests in the WWA to Bruiser, and retired to his homes in Carmel and Florida. One story is that he had held on to some property he bought in the 50ís in Hawaii, and had sold it for a princely sum. Iím sure whether that was true or not, he had a healthy stash to keep the wolf away from the door. In 1984, he tried to co-promote the AWA in Indianapolis with Gagne, but despite having TV and bringing in familiar faces like Heenan (before he jumped ship), Bruiser Brody, and the Blackjacks, it was a total bust.
Snyder was 6í2", or 6í3", or 6í4", depending on what bio you read. He, at 250 lbs., was able to do dropkicks, leapfrogs, flying headscissors, ankle headscissors, backdrops over the top rope and other moves usually reserved for the lighter weights. His high spots off of the ropes usually were elaborate, and involved 2 or 3 changes as to who the aggressor would be. His armdrags were spectacular, as well as his ankle legscissors and flying hammerlocks. His main finish was the abdominal stretch, or "cobra twist", which, unlike Ric Flairís figure 4, meant the end of the match was near, either by submission, or by outside interference. Sped up just a bit, Snyder would have fit right in with todayís "grapplers". Sadly, heís just a footnote on wrestling history. For those who are into older wrestling, you might try and check some of the tapes out that are available of Snyder. If you can put yourself in the mindset of the time, I think youíll be entertained by "The Worldís Most Scientific Wrestler".
In 1991,while in Florida, Wilbur was diagnosed with lymphatic leukemia, and was hospitalized one week when he suffered a fatal heart attack December 25, just 8 weeks after the Bruiser had passed away.
Special love and thanks to: Lou Thesz for his input, and to George Lentz (and others) for the encouragement. Also, Scott Tealís Whatever Happened To..........for reference material.
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