A Feud For The Ages
Forget Flair vs Steamboat, never mind Mosca
vs Studd, The Sheik vs Tiger Jeet
maybe, but the biggest feud in Maple Leaf Wrestling history may well have been
the continuing battle of Whipper Watson and arch-enemy Nanjo Singh.
From their first bout in 1941 to their last in 1966 the
rivalry would carry over three decades and lead to the creation of one of the
most recognizable hallmarks of MLW at Maple Leaf Gardens – the Ramp! – But more
on that later.
The feud found its beginning way back in the history of MLW.
Frank Tunney had taken over for his brother John who had passed away suddenly
in January 1940 leaving young Frank to forge ahead on his own – with his new
soon- to- be- star of the city – Whipper Watson.
Whipper, after winning a tournament to decide a number one
contender for the World Title in 1941 would see his star power begin to rise.
In February 1942 he would enter into a battle with the hated Nanjo Singh and
take the British Empire Title from Singh in April 1942 to begin his first of
nine reigns as Champion.
Nicknamed the ‘Hooded Hindu’ or ‘Hindu Killer’, or variously
‘Horrid Hindu’ or ‘Turbaned Terror’ or several other monikers, Singh had been
wrestling since the early 1930’s. Said to have come from India via Vancouver he
first showed up In Toronto in 1938 and was already earning the fans hatred
using the feared Cobra Hold to finish off his opponents. He debuted for matchmaker Jack Corcoran
(Corcoran preceded John Tunney as Toronto Promoter) billed as a student of the
great Gama the famous Indian wrestler.
In those days it wasn’t unusual for the fans to engage in
some ‘spirited’ involvement at the Wrestling matches with frequent riots and
cases of wrestlers – and referee’s – being attacked after an unpopular
decision. Some wrestlers could earn the fans wrath just by showing up, Nanjo
Singh was one of those wrestlers. In 1940 after putting Ottawa native Leo
Giroux to sleep with the Cobra, Singh would have to be escorted to the dressing
room to escape the fury of the fans. It was one of many occasions that Singh
would see this played out over his career of infuriating wrestling fans.
In addition to the Cobra which was said to be his original
move, Singh would pray in the corner before a bout and use the villain tactics
of eye-gouges, biting, and foreign objects to further enrage the fans. Later
area heels Tiger Jeet Singh (no relation) and The
Sheik (Farhat) would borrow much of the act getting mostly
the same reaction at MLG.
The two would first meet in early 1941, but it was in Dec
1941 when the seeds were planted for the feud of the ages. During a bout with
George Lenahan, Whipper unveiled his new finisher the
Canadian Avalanche, said to be invented by Watson and his mentor Phil Lawson.
Described as a standing leg lock, forward body roll, and jumping leg stretch,
Watson finished off Lenahan with his new move when
Nanjo watching from the sidelines tore into the ring. Singh walked right into a
right cross and hit the canvas in a daze but continued to go at Watson until
they were separated.
On the next card in Jan 1942 Singh would interfere in
Watson’s bout vs Gus Sonnenberg. Singh was sitting at
the press table for the bout and started taunting Watson. At one point in the
bout Watson hit the floor and Singh attacked. In what was described by long
time (and often tongue in cheek) Wrestling Reporter Joe Perlove,
it was ‘just a little less than a split second’ before the fans converged on
Singh for going after their hero. Singh ended up under the ring (more on that
later too) while the fans pelted him with anything they could throw. With the
action on the floor referee Al ‘Bunny’ Dunlop would count out Watson costing
him the much anticipated match-up with the well versed Sonnenberg.
For older fans we may remember Watson as an elderly gent,
with his many charity events such as the Snowerama’s
(Sledding fundraisers) and Annual Sports
Dinners, but back in the day Whipper was a fast, high flying star on his way to
becoming the number 1 star in all of Canadian Wrestling history. Nanjo, like
Watson, had come up through the light-heavyweight division and was said to have
(as Watson had) held a European Light Heavyweight Title prior to his arrival in
Having set up the grudge bout the two rivals would meet on
the next card and end up brawling on the floor before being counted out. The
new game in town was now ‘hissing the Hindu’ as reported by Perlove
and Singh would have to constantly battle the fans on his way in – and out- of
the ring. He would also make it a habit
to hide under the ring to escape the abuse which now included pop bottles being
flung in from the upper rows at MLG.
At one card Singh was said to have packed the ringside with
his ‘gang’, about 400 hundred supporters from the Dundas-Parliament section of
Toronto – in order to combat the influence of Watson’s East end supporters
(Watson was the pride of East York).
With subsequent bouts ending in dis-array, Frank Tunney
would set up a re-match on Feb 5 1942 with what we would know now as a cage
match. With a ‘wire enclosure’ around the ring there would be no escape for the
hated Singh, constantly on the run from both Watson – and the fans. In the lead
up Watson would demand Singh be searched so there would be no more coat-hangers
as in a previous bout.
In front of over 6,000 fans and enclosed in the cage the two
would battle it out for almost 20 minutes before Nanjo flung Whipper into the
cage entangling the hero somewhat outside the ring and leading to a count out.
Sam Yanaky an area promoter who was acting as Nanjo’s manager would attempt to
interfere in the bout before being beset on by the now constantly irritated
In response Hamilton promoter Sammy Sobol would attempt to
help Watson extricate himself from the fence before Singh knocked him off the
outside. Singh would once again hide under the ring till the unpopular decision
died down, and in trying to get to the dressing room would be met by Sobol’s
younger brother Eddie who would take up the fight. Just another night in the
Maple Leaf wrestling wars
With the win over Watson, Singh earned a bout with British
Empire champ Earl McCready. Whipper would not wrestle but be on hand to
challenge the winner. Another Canadian star Yvon Robert would be on the card to
validate his World Tile reign, as recognized in Montreal at the time. Singh
would end up beating referee Dunlop’s count to emerge victorious over McCready
in a bloody bout to become the new British Empire title holder.
The very next day Frank Tunney announced that Nanjo’s first
defense of his new title would be against Whipper to which Nanjo was said to
have agreed on the terms that he receive $1000 over the usual percentage. Tunney estimated they would draw a minimum of
12,000 to see the bout. A few days later it was announced that a special appointment
of referee Fred Bourguignon of Ottawa was secured for the match-up. Bourguignon
was a noted referee on the Ottawa cards and a former wrestler himself.
This bout would be especially brutal, even by the previous
standards set by these two. Whipper, in a very unfamiliar role, would become just as
aggressive as his hated foe, and the bout would end up a bloodbath in front of
the less than spectacular turnout of 5,000 fans on hand. As with previous bouts Whipper
would end up on the floor and the fans would seize the opportunity to ‘try and
tear at least one leg free’ from Singh before Watson got back in and went
straight to strangling his adversary. Singh would end up being stretchered out
and was reported to have gone to St Micheal’s hospital just down the street
from the Gardens for treatment of facial injuries. Manager Sam was again caught
in the middle when he tried to argue with Whipper after the bout and Whipper
knocked him flat before the fans made his exit another treacherous route.
When the next card was announced, Singh was due to defend
his title against Roland Kirchmeyer much to Watson’s dismay. Watson proclaimed
he would never again wrestle in Toronto until he was given another chance at
beating Nanjo. He was said to have turned down a chance to wrestle in the semi
in order to appear in Montreal for promoter Eddie Quinn on that night (in
reality Whip was in Hamilton taking on John Katan). Singh would use his Cobra
hold to subdue Kirchmeyer only to be then matched up against former World champ
Lou Thesz for the next round of battles the following week.
Thesz was undefeated in Toronto and they would play up
Singh’s earlier boasts of one day winning a world title for India and beating
Thesz would be the next step. Whipper would find himself matched against
another former Champ – Ed Don George.
The card billed as Parade of Champions would see the
famously stiff Thesz rattle Singh from pillar to post before ref Dunlop
disqualified Nanjo for repeatedly kicking Thesz while he was down. The fans, so
happy with the decision -and in marked contrast to previous bouts - would
forget to attack Singh on his way out. Whipper meanwhile would beat Don George to
set up a future meeting with Thesz.
Singh would keep busy cultivating his image as the heel of
the century including attacking a radio announcer (Rex Stimers: for publicly calling
Nanjo ‘punch drunk’) and being tossed out of a couple of local establishments
in Toronto. In between he would take on others including Vic Christy and
The Angel before being set up in a re-match with Watson. In the lead up to this
one it was said that the two had engaged in a battle inside Tunney’s private
office and demolished the place.
When they finally met again on Apr 30 1942 in yet another
grudge bout, Whipper would emerge victorious and claim the British Empire
Title, with which his name would become synonymous with for the better part of
the next 25 years.
Nanjo got his re-match on May 15th getting pinned
by Watson, but not before another violent outing including Nanjo snatching
Whipper’s new belt (presented by Toronto Controller Fred Hamilton) and using it
as a weapon on his hated rival. Whipper would get the last laugh using the
ref’s belt to handcuff Nanjo and lay a beating on him much to the crowd’s
Prior to the May 20 card with Whipper taking on The Angel,
Nanjo was at it again. This time he was picketing in front of Maple Leaf
Gardens with a sign proclaiming ‘Wrestling officials unfair to Nanjo Singh’.
Tunney remarked ‘He must be a cry-baby’ and wondered aloud if Singh was doing it to
increase or decrease attendance for Whippers next title defense.
When Thursday came around, Nanjo once again got involved by
hitting Watson when The Angel tossed him outside the ring. As per the norm, the
Gardens faithful attacked Singh and he made his retreat again to his new home
away from home – under the ring. This time Toronto’s finest went after him and
escorted him safely back to the dressing room. Tunney would later admit (not
without a touch of truth) that ‘He’s caused a lot of trouble but he’s also
created a lot of interest and drawn crowds’.
June 1942 Sharkey & Singh
Turofsky Photo:Courtesy Roger Baker
When the next re-match came around on June 18 1942 Tunney
would appoint former Boxing champ Jack Sharkey to be the third man in the ring.
Tunney would note that if Nanjo gets out of hand he may be stopping a ‘lethal
punch to the chin’ from Sharkey. They would also bring back the wire enclosure
– the cage, but Whipper would remain champ and the feud would cool off with the
two being matched against other grapplers.
Whipper would lose the title to McCready in October and
Nanjo, if not enjoying the crowds
approval, was certainly helping bring in the fans and thus was awarded a main
vs World Champion Bill Longson only to lose to ‘Wild Bill’ in a 20 minute bout.
On Jan 28 1943 new Empire champ John Katan (had won from
McCready) failed to show for his main event bout vs Watson. Nanjo got the sub
and Watson got the win, once again taking the championship. The drama would
play out over the next few months with Watson losing his belt to Robert and regaining
it soon thereafter. While the feud would die down, both Watson & Singh
would remain vital to the Toronto Wrestling scene and over the next few years would
have occasional cage bouts and special referees whenever they were matched.
Fast forward to 1948, Watson is still champ five years later
and had also added the tag of ‘Former World Champ’ to his resume when he beat
Longson in St Louis for the NWA (National Wrestling Association) belt in February
1947. Watson would lose that belt to Thesz in April 1947 but returned to
Toronto the ultimate home town hero.
Back to business in Toronto in May 1948 the next match-up
between Singh & Watson would include the wire fence as well as a new
stipulation of removing the curfew and time-limit. With a large crowd of 11,000
on hand, the hated Singh would end up with the win by count-out. As Whipper was
being stretchered out Singh would taunt the ex-champ and the fans as usual
would try to tear him apart again. When a crowd including Police and the other
wrestlers on the card tried to protect Singh he dashed under the ring until
they could form a wall to enable the new champ safe passage to the back. The
fans would learn new tricks too including lighting papers on fire and throwing
them under the ring to ‘smoke him out – like a porcupine’.
After beating a visiting Gorgeous George, Whipper was
awarded a re-match to regain his crown.
This time however there would a new
development, one that would impact wrestling at the Gardens over the next five
June 1948 Bloddied Whip on the new ramp
Turofsky Photo: Courtesy Roger Baker
In order to provide safe passage for the constantly harassed
Singh, Tunney announced there would be a ramp set up from the entrance way to
the ring. An ‘escape hatch’ as described, it would serve exactly the purpose
for which it was created. After Watson was declared the winner and new champ, Singh
would attack Phil Lawson in the ring. Watson would save his manager and Singh
would then hightail it across the ramp, safe above the
heads of the surging ringside crowd.
The feud now in its 7th year would continue on
and off right up to the early 1950’s. The newspaper ads of the time would depict
cartoon caricatures of the wrestlers and in the different political climate of
the day Nanjo would be depicted as a turban wearing snake going up against the
crown wearing Watson.
Whipper would lose and regain his crown several times along
the way and then on March 15 1956 would beat Lou Thesz at MLG to win the NWA
(National Wrestling Alliance) World Title. Watson would vacate the British
Empire title at this point and go on to defend the NWA title on home ground 16
times over the year before losing the belt back to Thesz in St Louis on
November 9 1956 . That same year Nanjo would wrestle his last bout in Toronto
on April 4 losing to Pat O’Connor before an extended leave from the area.
On Jan 22 1958 Nanjo would be arrested in Philadelphia for
the murder of his wife Betty who had been found beaten in their apartment above
a bar Singh was operating in the city. He was eventually found guilty of second
degree and sentenced to 8 years
Sept 1966 Nanjo hides!
Photo by Roger Baker
Just about 8 years later in August 1966 during an extended
series of cards at the now defunct Maple Leaf Stadium (Ballpark on Toronto’s
shores), Nanjo would return to Toronto to interfere in a tag bout between
Whipper & Bulldog Brower vs Tiger Jeet Singh and Fred Atkins. The feud was
on again. The following week at the top of the card, and once more for the
British Empire Title (Whipper was billed as Empire champ from 1959-1967
inclusive) Whipper and Nanjo would revisit the rivalry of the old days.
While both wrestlers
were nearing the end of their careers and were both up in age, they would match the ferocity of their earlier bouts
albeit in a short contest when both men were counted out of the ring at the
4:31 mark. Both Whipper and Nanjo would return to Maple Leaf Stadium on
September 18th for a re-match before some 6,000 fans with the bout
ending in a disqualification win for Watson.
Toronto Photographer Roger Baker who covered the meeting at
the Ballpark and reported on bouts for the magazines of the day remembers: “They had a showdown at the Maple Leaf Ball
Park, a riot ensued as a result of Singh receiving outside assistance, I
covered this event, and Singh tried to hide out under the ring because of all
the heat. I went under the ring and got a shot of Singh, exhausted and scared
as hell of the fans who tried to get him; they got his young accomplice and
really worked him over, there were a number of Toronto's finest trying to get
the fans off of the young wrestler, who had aided Singh”.
In usual ‘Wrestling folklore’ the young wrestler who was
billed as Mohan Singh was said to be Nanjo’s son and Tiger Jeet said to be Nanjo’s
brother. At this point Nanjo would have been about 49 years old while ‘brother’
Tiger, though he looked older, was only about 18 and could have easily also been
It’s interesting to note that at this time that Tiger Jeet
was the main heel in the area (under the tutelage of long time star Fred Atkins)
and a similar persona to Nanjo. The cards featuring Nanjo vs Whipper were
alternated with cards featuring Tiger and Fred save for the first re-appearance
on Nanjo back in August.
Sept 1966 Nanjo has a snack!
Photo by Roger Baker
As in the old days Nanjo could incite the fans like no
other. During the riot at the Ballpark several police officers were assaulted
and one 18 year old fan was charged with three counts of assault on an officer.
For their 3rd bout in Oct 2 1966 Whipper would
soundly defeat Nanjo and the feud would devolve with Nanjo going on to teaming
with Tiger as well as Mohan Singh before making his last appearance on Nov 17
In a 1969 article with Tunney celebrating 30 years in
Wrestling, he would remark on The Sheik, the new heel aggravating fans at MLG.
‘He’s the nuttiest wrestler we’ve had around here since Nanjo Singh’.
Describing Nanjo as the best (therefore the worst) heel ever to antagonize an
audience in the 30 year history of wrestling at the Gardens and Whipper as the all-time
hero really sums up the drama played out over the decades. Tunney goes on to
say that ‘The people must have sensed that Nanjo was the genuine article. I
mean he and Whip really disliked each other. There’s showmanship in wrestling
but they didn’t need it. I’ve seen Nanjo go after Whip in the office after the
matches were over “.
Tunney relates how he originally brought Singh in because he
had heard he bit off another wrestler’s ear in Kansas City. “In fact there was
only one way to cool Nanjo off and that was to let him know the cops were
coming. He was scared of them. He was the greatest I ever saw.
He would do anything; you were always scared to death when he was working, for fear of what
he might pull off. He’d pick up anything loose and hit his opponent with it.
You’d never put up with a guy like him if he wasn’t such a big draw”.
Sept 1966 Joe Gollub(r),Tiger Tasker(in ropes)
Mohan Singh(white-facing camera)
Photo by Roger Baker
Tunney’s propensity for promoting is related in a telling
anecdote: “The Late Lionel Conacher,
when he was athletic commissioner, fined him $100 for some caper. We had a
picture taken of him (Singh) with 10 sawbucks and it made the papers. Connie
phoned up and said if he’d known we were going to get $1000 of publicity out of
it, he’d have fined him a grand”.
When Whipper was hit by a car in Dec 1971 effectively ending
his wrestling career, the headline ‘Whipper Watson beaten at last’ was followed
by: ‘Nanjo Singh couldn’t do in a decade of trying…”
Nanjo’s name would continue to pop up whenever the stories
of Wrestling at Maple Leaf Gardens would be related even making it into a 1982
article on the then current scene with his name dropped as a grappler ‘nearly
forgotten about’. In 1995 in an article titled ‘First time since 1939 storied
Tunney name not part of Wrestling’, Nanjo, his legacy of infuriating fans, starting
riots, and being a general troublemaker, would get a fitting mention as the first
name in a series of ‘detestable villains’ who had opposed Whipper over his
career as the hero of Toronto.
Special thanks to Roger Baker for providing photos - and inspiration - for this article
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