The Roman Gladiator Death Match

On May 4, 2018, Fidel Bravo will be defending the EWF Heavyweight title against “Uptown” Andy Brown in a Roman Gladiator Death Match. The Roman Gladiator Death Match was one of a number of different gimmick matches created by Jeff Walton and Mike LeBell for the Los Angeles territory in the early 1970s.  Then, as it is now, gimmick matches were a draw, and it was the Roman Gladiator Death Match that was responsible for one of the most historically important crowds in Southern California’s wrestling history.

The very first Roman Gladiator Death Match took place on May 1, 1970 between Freddie Blassie and his former tag-team partner Don Carson for Blassie’s Americas’ title. The rules to the match were so convoluted, they were printed on the front of the night’s program. No time limit, no disqualification, no doctor stopping the match, no holds barred, no pin falls, no referee in the ring, no surrender, loser dragged around the ring, there must be a winner. The match also called for five judges to be at ringside. The promotion would just select five fans from the audience and make them swear on a bible that they would be honest. How the judging worked is anyone’s guess, as they were never used to call the finish. Blassie would go on to win the initial Roman Gladiator Death Match.

It was the July 30, 1971 version of the match that would end up being an important match in Southern California, and in wrestling in general, history. Don Carson had won the Americas’ title from John Tolos, and this was Tolos’ chance at revenge. Demand for the match was incredible.

At that time the Olympic could hold 11,104, but that wasn’t big enough. So, for the first time ever, pro-wrestling was aired on closed-circuit television. CCTV had been used for other sporting events in the past, notably boxing, but never for pro-wrestling that still relied heavily on promoting matches that you could only see by going to the arena. CCTV would go on to change the wrestling industry, with the first Wrestlemania and early Starcades airing that way, and would morph into the pay-per-view model of business that is still going today.

For this first closed-circuit broadcast however, the card was only shown in two theaters, The Orpheum and Warrens, drawing an additional 4,120 fans (2,340 at The Orpheum and 1,780 at Warrens). Reportedly over 10,000 fans were turned away at the Olympic as well.

The match itself was a wild brawl, with the wrestlers fighting into the crowd. Tolos pounded on Carson with closed fists then beat him with a metal object. Carson was such a bloody mess that the commentator said “no wonder this type of match is banned in 44 states.” Tolos dragged Carson around the ring and it was over after only about ten minutes. The hated Tolos was once again champion.

After the match Tolos cut a promo and the crowd began throwing cans of beer into the ring, some of them still partly full. The floor around the ring was reportedly covered in beer. The crowd was not happy with the outcome of the match.

A few months prior Tolos had thrown a powder in Freddie Blassie’s eyes, partially blinding him and causing him to wear an eye patch. During Tolos’ promo Blassie came out wielding a chain and the crowd went nuts. Blassie was there to challenge Tolos to a grudge match. Smartly built up over months, and now using the largest audience to watch wrestling in the region in years for the extra push, the stage was set for the what is still today the largest attendance for pro-wrestling in Southern California, Freddie Blassie versus John Tolos at the Coliseum. That show would go on to draw 25,847 to the Coliseum.

While there would be more of them, over time the Roman Gladiator Death Match, like most gimmick matches lost its popularity, and completely disappeared by the 1980s. That was until last year when EWF brought it back for a match between Adrian Quest and Fidel Bravo to honor Jeff Walton, who they inducted into the EWF Hall of Fame. Apparently it worked well enough that they brought it back again this year. So if you want to see a gimmick match that is an interesting footnote in wrestling history, you have a chance at the EWF 22nd anniversary show on May 4 in Covina.

The Los Angeles Times
Richmond 9-5171: A Wrestling Story by Jeff Walton with Scott Walton

About the Author

Steve Bryant
Fan of Godzilla.