50 years and counting, Cleveland shows it's still a champ in the world of wrestling
On Jan. 31, 1974, about four months before the famous "Ten Cent Beer Night" riot at a Cleveland Indians game put Cleveland fans in the national spotlight, another melee broke out at the old Cleveland Arena on Euclid Avenue.
It happened towards the end of a professional wrestling match.
Johnny Powers, the beloved star of the Cleveland-Buffalo-Akron-based National Wrestling Federation, or NWF, had just “turned heel,” the wrestling term for going from a good guy, a "babyface," to a bad guy, or a "heel."
In a turn of events that was shocking to an audience that still largely believed in the veracity of the storylines portrayed in professional wrestling, Johnny Powers had pulled a fast one on the popular wrestler and former NFL star, Ernie “Big Cat” Ladd, serving him up to the villainous heel, Ox Baker, for a brutal beating.
It was all scripted. The wrestlers were all in on it. The fans were not.
“I had the match with Ladd, and I had Ox Baker run in, and I did a turn on Ernie,” said Powers, in a 2013 interview with The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina. “They called it the worst riot of all time. Fans were so angry at me. There were 300 chairs flying. My local security left the building, and even the riot police would not come in.”
The fake, albeit convincing, beating of Ladd sent the thousands-strong Cleveland audience into hysterics, and they rushed the ring, forcing police to get involved and Powers to flee the arena.
“Ox has still got the 14-inch scar on top of his head from taking a chair," said Powers in the same interview.
Many are familiar with the famous June 4, 1974, riot at Municipal Stadium on "Ten Cent Beer Night" at a Cleveland Indians game. That event perhaps proved more about the power of alcohol than the power of sports devotion. But the riot after Johnny Powers' heel turn showed off the fervor of sports fanatics that night. They weren't fighting for fun, they fought for Ernie Ladd.
This was the power of the independent wrestling circuit in the 1970s, the so-called wrestling territories, that preceded the popular dominance of World Wrestling Entertainment, more commonly known as WWE.
Vince McMahon's sports entertainment behemoth has become one of the most popular spectacles on the planet, creating a parade of superstars that cross over into the world of mainstream entertainment. Dwayne Johnson, John Cena, Dave Bautista and many more before them, all got their start in the WWE.
But before that, the United States was carved up into territories, and each had their own promotion. Wrestling is perhaps the only sport that straddles the line of entertainment and athletics so evenly, that leagues are called "promotions."
The National Wrestling Federation: From Cleveland to Japan
Bob Palmer is retired now, but as a 17-year-old kid, he worked as a wrestling journalist, photographer, ring announcer or whatever was needed to put on the show, working with the likes of Johnny Powers, Ernie Ladd and Ox Baker, but also legends including Johnny Valentine, Abdullah the Butcher and countless others, who helped put Cleveland on the map, and then went on to mainstream national success with other promotions.
"I put the programs together that we sold at the arena. I did ring announcing for a while. I actually went [to] pick up some of the guys from the airport," said Palmer, "the Love Brothers, Hartford and Reginald Love. I had a '70 Maverick, and I went to pick them up. The guys could hardly get in the car! They just went, 'nice car, man....' Okay, I'm a kid. What do you want? I was I was 18 years old at the time!"
Powers was from Hamilton, Ontario, and teamed up with a promoter from Buffalo, Pedro Martinez, to bring the promotion, the NWF, to prominence in the steel belt.
"Johnny Powers was the one that was the promoter, but he was also the North American champion," said Palmer. "We brought in a lot of big names. We brought in Bruno Sammartino, Abdullah, you know, we had so many– Ernie Ladd! In fact, Abdullah and Ernie had a big feud!" Palmer proudly shows off pictures he took from the old days, of large men with colorful names and big hair grappling in the ring.
"Championship Wrestling with Johnny Powers" aired on WUAB locally and made Powers a star in Cleveland. He would go on to lead another promotion after the NWF went out of business, the International Wrestling Association which was also started by his friend and partner, Pedro Martinez.
Powers would go on to join Antonio Inoki, among Japan's most famous professional wrestling stars, and become a fixture on the Japanese circuit for years. But before that, he ruled the Buffalo-Cleveland-Akron territory and blazed trails in the exhibition of professional wrestling.
"Johnny ran what I believe was the inspiration for WrestleMania," Palmer said. "He called it the Super Bowl of wrestling, and he held it down at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. And it was three rings set up, first base, home plate and third base. And they had matches going on all at one time, brought in 50 wrestlers from all over. The main event was Johnny Powers against Johnny Valentine."
Powers, whose real name was Dennis Waters, passed away at the age of 79 in December of 2022. But to Clevelanders, he will always be remembered as Johnny Powers.
The NWF was eventually purchased by Antonio Inoki, the Japanese superstar he had worked with overseas. In Japan, the NWF name and championship belt that went with it was highly coveted. When Johnny Powers wrestled there, he was prominently billed as the NWF champ.
Inoki even came to wrestle in Cleveland for a NWF show shortly before purchasing the promotion. When Inoki bought the NWF, he simply took the belt back to Japan with him, never to put on a show in the United States again.
After the departure of the NWF overseas in 1974, Johnny Powers briefly re-partnered with Pedro Martinez to run the IWA, or International Wrestling Association, which competed with one of the biggest and most famous promotions of all time, Jim Crockett Promotions, in the Southern territory, wrestling in Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia.
Eventually, Powers even sued Crockett for preventing the IWA from getting a foothold in the region by blocking their access to arenas. Powers ultimately lost in court and sealed the end of his era as a territory runner.
As the 1980s came, so did the rise of the WWE, and Cleveland wrestling fans found themselves in the wilderness, without a charismatic star to lead a successful promotion in their territory.
JT Lightning: the godfather of Cleveland Independent wrestling
It would be more than two decades before someone took up the mantle. In stepped JT Lightning and Cleveland All-Pro Wrestling.
Kayden Reinke is a fan of Cleveland wrestling who has been attending shows with his grandfather for years. He never got to see a Cleveland All-Pro show, but he's well aware of the importance it played on the Cleveland wrestling scene.
"I missed out on attending a Cleveland All-Pro show by a year. But there was one guy in particular at that company who was the owner and ran it, JT Lightning, who is considered like the godfather of Cleveland Independent wrestling," said Reinke.
Cleveland All-Pro Wrestling ceased operations in 2011.
Lightning, born James Haase, was a Cleveland wrestler who trained and mentored others, as well as running his popular independent promotion, which flourished at a gym called Turner’s Hall, in Lakewood, for over 15 years. Lightning passed away in 2011 from cancer, a major loss to the Cleveland wrestling scene.
Lightning's Cleveland All-Pro Wrestling also helped to birth other promotions. Premier Championship Wrestling was another independent promotion that ran shows out of Turner's Hall from 2015 to 2021. Their shows also featured staff and wrestlers from Cleveland All-Pro Wrestling, as well as show techniques that JT Lightning had perfected.
Bobby Williams was a friend and student of Lightning who worked closely with him for Cleveland All-Pro Wrestling. Williams ran the website, worked in booking, and was also the head referee for the promotion. Williams recently wrote a book chronicling Lightning's life and career, “There’s your boy: JT Lightning.”
"JT Lightning was like no other promoter out there. He was always straight forward on what he wanted. If he did not like something, you would know! I owe him so much for all that he has taught me," said Williams. "Not only as a referee, but as a wrestler and a booker. I learned more working under him than I had from anyone else. I miss him every day."
Wayne Palmer, no relation to Bob, is a wrestling fan who has been attending shows in Cleveland and taking pictures at wrestling events for over 60 years.
"If you know anybody about Cleveland wrestling, they'll talk about it. Turner's Hall, Johnny Gargano started there, as a matter of fact. And he still has fond memories of starting at Turner's," said Palmer.
Gargano, the wrestler he references, is one of a few Cleveland independent circuit wrestlers to break it big nationally. Gargano is now wrestling for the WWE under its internationally popular show, "Raw."
He was trained by Lightning and then wrestled for his promotion, as well as the promotions which took the reins from Cleveland All-Pro Wrestling, Premier Championship Wrestling and Absolute Intense Wrestling.
Started by John Thorne, Absolute Intense Wrestling, or AIW, began under the wing of Cleveland All-Pro, with the blessing and support of JT Lightning, who himself wrestled in their first show.
Wayne Palmer has been shooting photos at AIW events since the they began. He remembers how John Thorne started AIW all those years ago.
"Actually, JT Lightning gave him a chance to run a show at Turners Hall, which was JT's home base in Cleveland. And then they moved to Peabody's," said Palmer, referring to the now defunct Peabody's Downunder, a staple of the Cleveland bar and live music scene.
"They ran shows in Peabody's, downtown Cleveland, and it was standup shows where people stood up for the whole show and only a couple seats. And then they they moved around and they finally had to get bigger venues because they got the audience to attract four to five hundred people."
Absolute Intense Wrestling has now been putting on shows for 18 years. Starting with just a few shows per year, AIW now puts on monthly events at locations across Northeast Ohio.
AIW follows a similar model to the one perfected by Lightning’s Cleveland All-Pro, which features local wrestlers, along with a smattering of hall-of-famers, notable retirees and international pros.
A recent event at the Westside Bowl in Youngstown featured appearances by WWE superstars Raven and Carlito. Fans turned out to get their memorabilia signed by their sports idols and also to find new idols in the stable of talent who fight for AIW.
Wrestlers among us
AIW isn't the only independent promotion working in Ohio, or even just in the Northeast Ohio region. Cincinnati has several functioning independent promotions, as does Toledo and other cities across the state.
Elyria's Mega Championship Wrestling has been in business for nearly 25 years, having put on shows in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania, some featuring stars who are now the faces of the Absolute Intense Wrestling promotion like Derek Dillinger and Joseline Navarro.
The thing that makes it so magnetic for fans is the interaction, something the independent promotions like AIW are bringing back from the heyday of the territories.
"I love indie wrestling. You know why? The wrestlers actually interact with the audience," said Wayne Palmer.
Bob Palmer shared a similar sentiment from the days of NWF in the 1970s.
"At the live shows, they were going right through the crowd. The heels would get into it all the time, threaten to hit everybody," said Palmer, "then the good guys would come up. As they were walking up, the kids would come up, they'd sign autographs. Very approachable, the wrestlers were always approachable."
At a recent AIW event in Eastlake, Bob Palmer got a chance to approach one of them again, for the first time in nearly 50 years.
He came to see an old friend, Lawrence Robert Shreve, aka Abdullah the Butcher, who made his name wrestling in Cleveland in the 70s with Johnny Powers for the National Wrestling Federation, before going on to a decades-long career as a wrestler all over the world, landing him in the WWE Hall of Fame. Shreve was signing autographs along with fellow WWE Hall of Famer, the legendary Larry Zbyszko.
Palmer reminisced with Shreve and his family, who accompany the now wheelchair-bound former star to events. People wore "Abdullah the Butcher" hats and got forks signed, an homage to the move he's most recognized for– scratching his own forehead with a fork until he bled. The scars from this peculiar signature move are clearly still visible on the forehead of the 82-year-old.
Both Wayne Palmer and Bob Palmer have been wrestling fans since they were kids. Kayden Reinke watches wrestling with his grandfather.
"He takes me to all these shows. He's been going with me as long as I've been attending shows. It has brought us closer together. One thousand percent." said Reinke, "We've just been attending shows all over the Midwest, primarily AIW. This has been our home base since May of 2012."
Reinke and his grandfather were at AIW’s recent Cleveland show together to see their favorite AIW stars and meet WWE Hall of Famer, D-Von Dudley, who was at the event signing autographs.
"We do our memorial tournament every year for JT Lightning because of what he did for the Cleveland scene in general for the Cleveland All-Pro. Going on to help AIW in the early days," said Reinke.
Tradition is a big part of the independent wrestling scene in Cleveland, sustained for over 50 years, from the days of Johnny Powers through the currently thriving Absolute Intense Wrestling. AIW is now gathering fans across the nation via a streaming deal with Fite.tv, a website that shows a variety of fight sports, martial arts and other events.
Some, like Wayne Palmer, have immersed themselves in the ever changing promotions. Others, like Bob Palmer, didn't stick with the new promotions that came through, preferring to remember the good old days.
"What an amazing time. I could write a book about all the characters and all the people, and it was a good time, a very good time. I feel sorry for all you young people who never got to experience it. All you know now is WWE!" Palmer said with a belly laugh.
Absolute Intense Wrestling gives people a similar experience. The chance to walk among their idols, to talk to them, and even touch them.