BIG BOUTS: Watson wins NWA title from Thesz, March 15, 1956
Toronto hero Whipper Billy Watson had been world heavyweight champion for two months in 1947 at what was probably his physical prime.
Nine years later, he was in his early 40s and had come back from some significant injuries through the years that had slowed him down. But, if anything, Watson was even more popular because in 1956 he was not only Toronto's top star, but a big name across Canada, thanks to television.
At the same time, Lou Thesz had been world champion for nearly eight years and was ready to take a break. In later years, he always said that he had broken his ankle skiing that winter and needed to take time off for it to heal. Thesz and Watson had some ego clashes through the years, but were on good terms and Thesz always spoke very highly of Frank Tunney.
Thesz didn't appear in Toronto in all of 1955. It was the first calendar year that he hadn't wrestled in the city since 1946. It was also the first year since weekly shows started in 1929 that Toronto did not host a world title defense.
So the fans were eager to see the champ when he finally made his return to Maple Leaf Gardens on March 1, 1956. In the main event, Thesz defended his title against Watson in front of 15,000 people. Former world champion boxer Jack Sharkey was referee. The match ended with the old low blow spot -- Watson tried to leapfrog over Thesz, but was caught with an accidental headbut to the groin, causing Thesz to be disqualified. Since the bout ended with a DQ, Thesz kept his title.
Two weeks later, Thesz and Watson were back in the main event at the Gardens, again drawing a crowd of 15,000. This time the referee was another former heavyweight boxing champ, Jack Dempsey.
Joe Perlove of the Star called the bout "one of those science and skill affairs." Nearly a half-hour into the match, Watson applied a new hold -- the corkscrew wristlock -- to Thesz's left hand. Thesz slipped out of the ring to try to break the hold, but Watson followed him out, keeping the corkscrew applied. He then bodyslammed Thesz onto the ramp -- allegedly injuring his elbow -- before making his way back into the ring just as Dempsey's count reached 10. Thesz was counted out and Watson was the new champion.
According to the report in the Star, Ontario athletic commission doctor Myron Millar examined Thesz after the match and found strained ligaments to the elbow and torn ligaments in the ankle -- maybe from the skiing injury Thesz claimed.
Watson would return the title to Thesz in November. As champion, he defended his title in every province from British Columbia to Quebec. He also held off challenges across the U.S., in such top-tier wrestling cities as St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fort Worth, Houston, Memphis, and Kansas City. He successfully defended the title against Thesz at least five times before losing in St. Louis on November 9.