by Mark Long
Maple Leaf Wrestling/Queensbury Athletic Club (a.k.a. “Toronto”)
Ivan Mickailoff (1929-1938)
Jack Corcoran (1930-1939)
Frank Tunney (1939-1983)
Jack Tunney (1983-1986)
Eddie Tunney (1983-1986)
STATES & PRIMARY CITIES:
Ontario (Toronto, London and Hamilton)
British Empire Heavyweight Championship (1941 -1967 )
Canadian Open Tag Team Championship(1952-1961)
United States Heavyweight Championship (1962-1977)
International Tag Team Championship (1961-1977)
Canadian Heavyweight Championship (1978-1984)
NWA World Heavyweight Championship (1949-1984)
WWF Heavyweight Championship (1984-1995)
WWF World Tag Team Championship (1984-1995)
WWF Intercontinental Championship (1984-1995)
While many top wrestlers journeyed to Toronto to take part in wrestling shows, professional wrestling in The Queen City truly began in 1929 when Ivan Mickailoff began running weekly shows at the Arena Gardens. While many believed Mickailoff’s efforts to be folly, he rebounded from early struggles to steadily grow his audiences from hundreds each week, to thousands, within a year. Mickailoff (a Siberian former wrestler who once lost a match to Dr. Benjamin Roller in 1916), had been rumored to have promoted wrestling matches in Miami, Florida, and had been an ally of Boston promoter Paul Bowser and was able to book top stars such as Toots Mondt, Strangler Lewis, Jim Londos and World champion Gus Sonnenberg. Despite his struggles for a year and a half, Ivan found that his success had caught the eye of others who sought to compete with him. One of these competitors was Jack Corcoran, a former boxing promoter who began match-making after receiving a wrestling license for the Queensbury Athletic Club in 1930.
Just a year later, Corcoran reached an agreement to become the match-maker at the newly built Maple Leaf Gardens which opened at the corner of Carlton and Church. Mickailoff and Corcoran battled to run Toronto, but Ivan inadvertently allowed his wrestling license to lapse in October 1932, and the Ontario Athletic Commission chose not to renew it. Mickailoff, thus promoted his farewell show in Toronto, drawing more than 9,000 spectators before he moved his operations to Winnipeg. He returned to Toronto in 1934 to serve as a matchmaker for a free show which drew an estimated 10,000 at the Exhibition Coliseum. In 1935 Mickailoff became the matchmaker for the Arena Athletic Club, which was granted a license and operated out of the Mutual Street Arena. The following year Ivan booked Ali Baba before a hot crowd of 5,000 and followed it up by matching Ali Baba against the newly crowned World champion Everett Marshall before 5,100 fans. Mickailoff had come all the way back to where he was now out drawing Corcoran at the Maple Leaf Gardens. However, there were now three licensed promotions in the city, which contributed to attendance being spread too thin. As the size of crowds declined, Ivan believed he was being forced out of the city, but he found further success in 1938, bringing in the popular Masked Marvel and Ed Don George. Soon thereafter, however, Mickailoff decided not to compete in Toronto anymore and asked for a refund of his wrestling license fee. Jack Corcoran had won the wrestling war for the city of Toronto.
Corcoran had hired the Tunney brothers to help him in his efforts, Frank as his secretary and bookkeeper, and John as his matchmaker. After winning his battle for Toronto, Corcoran suffered from health problems and was forced to sell the promotion to the Tunney’s in 1939. Less than a year later, John Tunney died unexpectedly from influenza, and Frank was left to promote the territory by himself. With the assistance of Paul Bowser, Jerry Monahan and Jack Ganson, Tunney booked stars such as Wild Bill Longson, who helped to keep the promotion in the black during Tunney’s early struggles. Those struggles ended with the rise of Whipper Watson. Watson had wrestled in England and Ireland and had sent his press clippings to Tunney, but Frank was unimpressed. After Watson made his Maple Leaf Gardens debut, however, Tunney was bombarded with criticism for not pushing the budding star. Thus, on May 1, 1941, Frank booked a tournament, won by Watson, who would become a two-time world champion and was so popular that Tunney estimated that Whipper drew five million paying customers over of the course of his three decades main-eventing in Toronto. Tunney eventually decided to cut Watson in on the business. Tunney, along with Montreal promoter Eddie Quinn, invested in the St. Louis territory and this affiliation allowed them to book the NWA champion in Toronto and Montreal for years. Under the steady hand of Tunney, Toronto enjoyed decades of success, hosting multiple world championship matches and serving as the barometer for the popularity of the professional wrestling business. In 1955, Tunney enjoyed his biggest gate for a tag match between Watson and Yvon Robert vs. the Mills Brothers which garnered 14,000 fans for a gate of $25,000 (the modern equivalent of $230,175.00 in 2020 currency). Tunney had also invested in the Indianapolis and Detroit territories and was well respected amongst NWA members and was elected the NWA President in 1960.
From 1969 through the late 1970s, the territory was dominated by the reign of the Sheik, who was undefeated for 127 matches at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Sheik helped to book the territory (along with George Scott) and brought it back financially after a dip in attendance during the mid 1960s. In 1978, Tunney entered into a working arrangement with Jim Crockett Promotions. Jim Crockett, Jr. began sending talent to work in Toronto, and eventually Crockett (and George Scott) became partners in the Toronto promotion (now known informally as Maple Leaf Wrestling). When Frank died in 1983, the business was run by Frank’s son Eddie and Frank’s nephew Jack Tunney. The two continued to work with Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic Wrestling and the National Wrestling Alliance until 1984 when the Toronto promotion switched promotional its allegiance to the WWF in the midst of its national expansion. Jack Tunney became the president of Titan Sports Canada, the local branch of the WWF in Canada, and served as the figurehead, on-air president of the WWF until 1995. The WWF held a number of major events in Toronto including Wrestlemania VI on April 1, 1990 at SkyDome in front of 67,678 fans. The WWF had continued to run television broadcasts in Toronto under the name Maple Leaf Wrestling but discontinued its affiliation with the Tunney’s in 1995 and held its final show at the Maple Leaf Gardens on September 17, 1995.
Gary Will – Ivan Mickailoff: “The man who made wrestling in Toronto”
Gary Will – A Brief History of Pro Wrestling in Toronto