#5 The San Diego Coliseum
On April 5, 1938, a packed house in San Diego saw George Zaharias wrestle Killa Shikuma to a draw. Max Baer, the former boxing world heavyweight champion, had been the match’s guest referee. Three and a half hours later, the city had its first three-alarm fire in 17 months. By the morning all that was left of the arena where over 3500 fans had gathered the night before were buckled walls, warped girders, and a maze of charred seats. San Diego’s Coliseum Athletic Club was gone.
Prior to the 1920s there had been only a handful wrestling and boxing venues in San Diego. Most notable of these venues was the Dreamland Athletic Club located at 1300 First Avenue. With the city’s growth, the need for a larger and modern arena arose.
Tommy Landis and Frank C. Higgins met at Camp Lewis during the First World War. During their time at Camp Lewis they had the idea for a grand, modern boxing arena to be built in San Diego. In August 1924, the Pure Milk Dairy Company entered into a contract with the L. V. Consaul Construction Company, on behalf of Landis and Higgins, for the construction of the “San Diego Coliseum” on their property in what was known as Culverswell’s Addition, now known as San Diego’s East Village.
Noted local architect, John Seibert, was hired to design the building. Construction of the Coliseum was completed in November 1924. While construction was being completed, the owners of the Coliseum were heavily supporting Amendment 7, which would legalize professional wrestling and boxing in California. That measure passed in the polls on November 4, 1924.
The Coliseum was scheduled to have its grand opening on November 21, 1924, but it was pushed back a week when the 1,100 ringside opera chairs that were being imported from Chicago arrived late. Finally, on November 28, 1924, the Coliseum Athletic Club was open.
The building’s opening saw a boxing event headlined by Phil Salvadore knocking out Charley Ledger in the first round of a lightweight fight. The opening was a major event in the city that was attended by a packed house and even featured a twelve piece band. The state’s first 10 round boxing match would take place at the Coliseum on January 2, 1925 when Ray Neuman of Jersey City won a decision over Vic Alexander of Mexicali.
It was nearly a year before professional wrestling made its debut at the arena. On November 24, 1925, promoter Charley Wright brought wrestling to the Coliseum. Jim Londos, one of the most popular wrestlers in history, would headline the event against Somsa Kozar. It took 55 minutes for Londos to capture the first fall, using a reverse headlock, but then he won the second fall in only 2 minutes and 10 seconds to win the match two falls to none. Wrestling would quickly become a regular Tuesday night feature at the building.
Throughout the rest of the 1920s and into the early 1930s, the Coliseum would see a who’s who of the wrestling world come through its doors. Ray Steele, Gus Sonnenberg, Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Vic Christy, and Man Mountain Dean among others frequently headlined in the building. The largest crowd to ever watch wrestling at the building (and largest crowd in San Diego’s wrestling history until WWF debuted at the Sports Arena in 1983) saw over 3,500 fans watch Jim Londos defeat Abie Coleman in two out of three falls on July, 5 1932.
James Braddock, whose life story was portrayed in the film, “The Cinderella Man”, made an appearance at the Coliseum on September 30, 1932 when he defeated Dynamite Jackson. He would later go on to defeat Max Baer to win the boxing world heavyweight championship.
Max Baer was scheduled to take part in an exhibition on April 8, 1938 and to get some extra promotion for the bout, he was made the guest referee for the April 5 wrestling match between George Zaharias and Killa Shikuma. Somehow after the event a fire started in the concession stand, with the source believed to be either a gas burner on the stove or a cigar tossed into a trash can. The fire wasn’t discovered until shortly before 1:30 a.m. when a restaurant owner across the street discovered it. By then it was too late. Nearly 150 firefighters were called in to fight the fire, but in the end the building was pretty much destroyed with $100,000 ($1,783,215 in 2018) in damages.
Linn Planter, who was the promoter of boxing and wrestling at the time, and the building’s lessee vowed that there would be “no undue delay” in rebuilding. In the mean time, boxing and wrestling events were moved to Lane Field, home of the Pacific Coast League’s San Diego Padres.
Construction had already begun by May and the Coliseum was rebuilt in less than six months total. On September 2, 1938 the Coliseum had its reopening with a boxing event headlined by Archie Moore and Johnny “Bandit” Romero, with Moore scoring an eighth round technical knockout.
No time was wasted bringing wrestling back to the rebuilt venue. On Tuesday September 6, 1938, Ed “Strangler” Lewis was booked for a match between Ivan Rasputin and Abe Kashey. Rasputin won in two out of three falls. Former world champion Gus Sonnenberg was on the undercard.
Linn Planter would continue as promoter until 1943, a job he had held since 1925. Hugh Nichols, a former wrestler and current matchmaker for the Hollywood Legion Stadium, then took over as wrestling promoter. In 1953 Nichols petitioned the California State Athletic Commission to allow him to move wrestling in San Diego to Wednesday nights. This was opposed by the Olympic Auditorium’s promoter Cal Eaton, as the live San Diego broadcast would be viewable in Los Angeles on the same night Eaton ran wrestling at the Olympic. The commission allowed for the move in a rare defeat for Eaton. By 1954, wrestling was back on Tuesdays at the Coliseum.
On December 15, 1956, Hugh Nichols committed suicide at his home in Los Angeles. Reportedly, Nichols pulled the trigger on a shotgun with his toe and his wife later found the body. According to friends his health had been failing. Nichols was 58.
By the late 1940s and early 1950s television networks began airing weekly boxing matches from Madison Square Garden in New York and other major arenas. The Coliseum found it difficult to compete, and there would be long stretches with no boxing at the arena. Professional wrestling continued however, with stars such as Buddy Rogers, Sheik Lawrence, The Demon (Jack O’Brien) and Billy Darnell passing the Jack Pfefer version of the world title around in San Diego in the late 1940s. The 1950s would see Baron Leone, Enrique Torres, Great Togo, Pepper Gomez, Leo Garibaldi, Sandor Szabo, and Freddie Blassie all make regular appearances.
In April, 1962, Dick Beyer received a phone call from Jules Strongbow to go out to Los Angeles to wrestle, with the idea that he would be a heel as Dick Beyer. When he got there, to his dismay he learned that he would be wearing a mask and be known as The Destroyer. While he initially objected, Strongbow convinced him to try it for a few weeks, and if he didn’t like it he could take it off. On April 27, 1962, Dick Beyer made his debut as The Destroyer at the San Diego Coliseum with a victory over Seymour Koenig. The Destroyer was an instant hit.
By summer, The Destroyer was feuding with Freddie Blassie, who had recently held the Los Angeles version of the world title. Blassie regained his world title from Rikidozan on July 25, 1962 in Los Angeles. Two days later, the San Diego Coliseum witnessed The Destroyer defeat Blassie to capture the world title. Beyer would hold the title for 287 days before losing it back to Blassie in Los Angeles.
The Destroyer reclaimed the title for a third time by defeating Bob Ellis, who he lost the title to two months earlier in Los Angeles on November 13, 1964 at the Coliseum. That would be the last world title change in San Diego until Chris Jericho defeated The Rock to win the WCW World Heavyweight title and then later Stone Cold Steve Austin to win the WWF World Heavyweight title on December 9, 2001 to unify the two belts.
While wrestling continued to be a regular part of the Mike LeBell’s Los Angeles territory through the 1960s, wrestling alone didn’t generate enough money and the building owners began to fall into debt. During late 1960s, the building tried to stage a comeback by holding weekly professional boxing to join the weekly wrestling events. By the early 1970s, they went as far as promoting the “old San Diego Coliseum” as the ”New Coliseum” with biweekly boxing and weekly events. None of these efforts were successful.
In August 1974, under the weight of staggering debt, the building closed and was put up for sale. In April 1975, the Coliseum Athletic Club was acquired by the Navarra family (the owners of Jeromes furniture business). The building was reopened to boxing and wrestling, but the rebirth was short lived. On December 19, 1979 the last boxing event was held in the building. After 55 years it was the end of an era.
The building was turned into a warehouse for Jeromes and all of the interior features were removed and the building interior was remodeled. By the 2010s the East Village section of San Diego was making a comeback and the Navara family leased the property to SD Coliseum MQ, LLC, which is part of a project called Makers Quarter. In late 2016 they held an event in the building called One Night Only that featured amateur boxing.
The interior of the Coliseum Athletic Club is currently being remodeled again, and is scheduled to reopen this year as a Punch Bowl Social, which is a chain of entertainment centers that feature bowling alleys, pool tables, karaoke, arcade games, several bar areas, live entertainment and separate dining areas. The company has said the San Diego location will “reflect the edgy, gritty and bold atmosphere of its new neighborhood and it will incorporate the building’s 1920s mission architecture with its rich, past boxing history.”