If you were a pro-wrestling fan in Toronto during the early 1960's and were fortunate enough to attend the weekly cards at Maple Leaf Gardens you would have been witness to many historic bouts and classic wrestlers.
The year 1963 was a more than a special year for the grunt & groan set in the city with the series of World Title bouts between soon to be ex NWA champion Buddy Rogers and former and future champ Lou Thesz. The bouts in Jan -Feb '63 would lead to the formation of the WWWF and the emergence of Toronto regular Bruno Sammartino as a major force in the wrestling world.
In Toronto, besides the many NWA Title bouts, there was a flurry of activity around our own major belts. On the tag side there were the international Tag Titles defended regularly and held by many teams from 1961 through 1977. The singles scene during 1963 was highlighted by our U.S. Title. The title was introduced in 1962 when Johnny Valentine appeared on the scene billed as U.S. champ and would become the catalyst for many heated feuds through the '60s. In the 1970's the belt re-emerges and becomes intertwined with the Sheik and his Detroit area U.S. Title.
Back in the 60's however, the main names battling over the U.S. belt besides the soon to be seven time champion Valentine would include a pre WWWF champ Bruno, Professor Hiro (Taro Miyaki), The Beast (John Yachetti), and a cohort of Valentine from his days in Calgary - John Paul Henning.
Henning would prove to be a major player in the Toronto wrestling wars during 1963 appearing on most of the weekly shows from February to October. He would see his share of main events solo vs Valentine as well as bouts for the International Tag Titles with partner Seaman Art Thomas -with whom he earned the tag belts by beating Valentine and Bulldog Brower in July '63.
Henning (no relation to Toronto stalwart Lee 'Bulldog' Henning) had started wrestling in the 1950's but as recollected by Historian J.Michael Kenyon he would move up a notch in the 1960's aided by his alliance with superstar Valentine
"Perhaps his ticket to fame was an extraordinary working relationship he had with Johnny Valentine, one of the great heels of the day. The two first hooked up in some knock-down, drag-out duels while working for Stu Hart in the mid-1950s, but their affinity for creating mayhem together really came in handy for Muchnick. And, as so often was the case in wrestling's halcyon era, after a lengthy period of feuding, the two wound up being tag-team partners -- also for Muchnick.
"At any rate, when Buddy Rogers got the NWA strap, he defended it four times against Henning -- twice in St. Louis and twice in Dallas -- in 1962.”
JMK adds "Suddenly, beginning in 1960, and for an approximate five-year stretch, John Paul Henning became one of the hottest properties in the wrestling business. With his activities mostly centered in St. Louis (he might well have been living in northern Kentucky even then, because he took dates with Barnett & Doyle, in Indianapolis and Detroit, etc., even while becoming a Sam Muchnick mainstay in St. Louis), he branched out as a headliner in Toronto, Houston-Dallas and southern California, to name a few of the places where he starred, circa 1960-65"
Back in Toronto Henning would first appear on the Feb 7 1963 card beating Stan Stasiak in a quick 59 second bout. The main event on that night was the re-match between Thesz-Rogers that solidified Thesz' claim to the NWA Title. Henning would go on to work on successive cards near the bottom or middle of the show , beating the likes of Duke Noble, Mike Valentino (later Baron Scicluna), as well as Fred Atkins. Atkins role was that of the 'tester' evaluating newcomers to the area. Henning looks to have passed the evaluation of the tough Atkins as a couple as cards later he would join forces with Valentino to challenge Valentine and Brower for the Tag Titles.
In May of 1963 Henning would challenge Valentine on the undercard of a NWA Title bout of Thesz vs Brower. Valentine was the U.S. champ but the bout , a non-title affair, would go to a 30 minute draw. Two cards later they would meet again in a Title bout, this time Valentine getting the win after 26 minutes of action.
On June 6 Henning would return to face Atkins, but this time billed as the U.S. champ. It was said that he had won the belt from Valentine in Seattle. Valentine had evidently been injured at some point as he turned up on the Jun 13th card with his arm in a cast to attack The Beast during his bout vs Bulldog Brower. The first defense of the title would end in success for the new champ and he would be rewarded with an NWA Title bout vs Thesz on June 20.
As was often the case for the big bouts Frank Tunney would appoint a special referee for Henning's title bout, veteran Pat Flanagan. With a crowd of 4,000 fans on hand Henning would wrestle over 22 minutes with the champ before Flanagan would count him out of the ring, unable to return.
As Mr Kenyon explains, Henning had faced champs before, and his success in Toronto was par for the course in his career.
"There was a sort of Zelig quality to Henning's work, too. Even when he wasn't on top, he seemed to show up on important cards. When Dick Beyer (as The Destroyer) and Gorgeous George had the first of their mask vs. hair bouts in Los Angeles (November 1962), Henning was in one of the preliminaries. When Thesz reaffirmed his title win over Buddy Rogers at Toronto in February 1963, Henning was on the card -- as he was the next month when Thesz scored his oft-referred-to win over Bruno Sammartino, also in Toronto."
"Henning parlayed that Maple Leaf Gardens popularity into the match in question, the June 20, 1963 title go with Thesz. Counting the four title goes with Rogers, this would have been Henning's fifth. And he would have two more with Thesz, on January 7, 1964 in Dallas (I saw the match, but have absolutely no memory of it -- further indication of why I still wonder how Henning became so in demand at the top venues in the land), and their third (and final) meeting,, a November 20, 1964 show-topper at the Kiel in St. Louis."
The Thesz bout would kick of a series of main events for Henning, moving into a tag bout teamed with Whipper Watson vs The Beast & Sweet Daddy Siki and then a defense of his U.S. Title against challenger The Beast.
On July 11 before a crowd of 3,500, Henning would lose the belt to former champ Valentine who was now a 3 time title holder. The loss wouldn't affect his popularity though as he would rebound on July 25th to team with Thomas to unseat Tag champs Valentine and Brower. In the U.S. Title re-match on the next card, Valentine would again emerge victorious in a 29 minute bout.
The two foes would go at it two more times over the belt with the final meeting ending when Henning couldn't answer the refs count and was declared unable to continue. Valentine would continue to trade off the title and battle the stars including Thesz on Oct 10 while Henning and Thomas would lose their tag belts on Oct 17th to the team of Brower and Dr Jerry Graham.
This would mark the end of Henning's tenure in Toronto. While he would continue to wrestle around the world for the next few years his career would take a marked turn as he reportedly became an evangelist as JMK explains
"Gary Howard, who profiled JPH for SLAM! Wrestling, agreed with the evangelist portion of the story, saying that Henning felt "the Lord" had healed him after a bad car wreck near Denton TX in the spring of 1966. Thereafter, at least for a few years, Henning appeared in various religious "revivals" around the country. I've never seen or heard much else about the later years of his life."
Special thanks to Roger Baker for the use of his photos once again & to J Michael Kenyon for his help