Biggest match in SoCal history?

It was May 21, 1952. American and Australian bombers had bombed Pyongyang, North Korea from dawn to dusk in one of the biggest bombing missions to that point in the Korean War. The 8th Army was preparing for possible germ warfare attacks. Riot police equipped with tear gas were on stand by at UCLA in order to prevent a massive “panty raid” that was to be conducted by several fraternities. For wrestling fans in Los Angeles however, the news of the day was the matchup between Baron Michele Leone, who claimed the Los Angeles version of the world title, and Lou Thesz, who was recognized as champion everywhere else.

Wrestling hadn’t had an undisputed champion since Frank Gotch vacated the title in 1913. Lou Thesz had already won the National Wrestling Association World Heavyweight title by defeating Bill Longson on July 20, 1948, and had been awarded the National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight title on November 27, 1949 when Orville Brown was unable to wrestle after sustaining career ending injuries in an automobile accident. All that was left was Baron Michelle Leone’s Los Angeles Olympic Auditorium World Heavyweight title. Lou Thesz was the biggest wrestler in the country. He was the wrestling equivalent to Babe Ruth.

Baron Leone MicheleBaron Michele Leone was easily the biggest wrestler in Southern California thanks to his exposure on television as one of wrestling’s biggest heels. On November 22, 1950 over 10,000 fans jammed into the Olympic Auditorium to see him defeat their hero Enrique Torres and capture the World Championship he had held for nearly four years. Up to that point it had been one of the biggest matches in the history of the territory, and one that many people did not expect to ever see eclipsed. Then came the announcement of a match with Lou Thesz.

Leading up to the event, it was quickly determined that the Olympic Auditorium, with a capacity of about 10,000 at the time, would be too small to hold the match. Cal Eaton, the Olympic’s promoter, book Gilmore Field, home of the Hollywood Stars baseball team. Even though the match was to take place on a Wednesday night, leading up to the match it was predicted that the show would draw 15,000 fans, with a gate of around $70,000. Huge numbers for the day and age.

Gilmore Field could hold about 13,000 fans for baseball. So they figured for wrestling fitting 15,000 people into the stadium wouldn’t be a problem. Ringside tickets were priced at $20.00, about $200.00 in today’s money. The match had been hyped on TV for months, but this show was not going to be televised. If you wanted to see it, you would have to show up at Gilmore Field. The fans showed up. Over 10,000 more than expected.

On a clear, somewhat cool Wednesday night, 25,256 people showed up to see the biggest match in Los Angeles history one of the biggest matches in wrestling history up that point. The gate for event was a then record $103,277.75, which is about a million in today’s dollars.

The opening match of the night saw Dr. Lee Grable defeat Ray Piret. The second bout was a midget battle, in which Sky Low Low beat “Irish” Jack Cassidy. In the third match “Wild” Red Berry and Billy Varga went to a 15 minute draw. The fourth match saw World Tag Team Champions the Sharpe Brothers (Ben and Mike Sharpe) retain their belts by defeating Vic Christy and Sandor Szabo in 11 minutes and 6 seconds when Mike Sharp pinned Vic Christy.

The semi-final match was another title unification match in which NWA World Junior Heavyweight Champion Danny McShain and World (California) Junior Heavyweight Champion Rito Romero went to a draw. Danny McShain would defeat Rito Romero four nights later at the Olympic to unify the titles.

Now came the match everyone was waiting for.

The match was best of three falls. For the first two minutes of the match it appeared that would be a technical match, then Baron Michele Leone established himself as the heel by punching Lou Thesz in the stomach with closed fists. The crowd went wild with boos. Leone responded with insults and more dirty tricks. A full thirty minutes had gone by, with neither wrestler getting a fall, then Thesz got Leone into an airplane spin that left him wobbly, hit him with a drop kick, and then finished him with a bodypress. Lou Thesz took the first fall at 31 minutes and 20 seconds.

The Baron was not done yet however. After another 6 minutes of back and forth action, Leone finished off Thesz with a neck twist. The crowd was going wild. After almost 40 years, the 2 biggest stars in wrestling were one fall from proving who the real world’s champion was.

Alas, it was not to be for fans of the Baron. It took Thesz only 4 minutes and 30 seconds to render Leone helpless with a back body flip and get the pin. The crowd erupted. Baron Michele Leone had captured the Olympic version of the title almost two years prior when he defeated Enrique Torres. Now Lou Thesz was the true world’s champion.


Los Angeles Times – May 21, 1952

Los Angeles Times – May 22, 1952

Van Nuys News – May 22, 1952

About the Author

Steve Bryant
Fan of Godzilla.

4 Comments on "Biggest match in SoCal history?"

  1. Fantastic. Stuff like this should be posted all the time. One of the best things I’ve seen on here.

  2. Kenny Clark | 01/12/2016 at 11:17 PM |

    Any film clips of this event in California?

    • I don’t think so. It wasn’t televised. It is possible some sort of footage, like a home movie, could turn up at some point, but unlikely.

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