The Meteoric Rise & Stunning Fall Of Fred Kohler’s NWA Chicago Wrestling Empire

On June 29th, 1961, the NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion Pat O’Connor stood across the ring from “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. In front of a raucous Comiskey Park crowd of 38,622 fans, the men wrestled a Two out of Three Falls Match that lasted 21:30 minutes and ended with Rogers picking up the final pinfall, becoming the NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion for the first (and only) time.

The main event was not the only big match of the night, with a “who’s who” of pro wrestling dotting the impressive wrestling card. In addition to O’Connor and Rogers, the Comiskey Park show also boasted top drawing names like Sweet Daddy Siki, Moose Cholak, Antonino Rocca, Johnny Valentine and a host of others. It was the apex of professional wrestling in Chicago and the best it would ever get (from a promoting standpoint, at least) for Fred Kohler, the man who, by then had been putting on wrestling shows in the Chicagoland area for over 35 years.

Within 4 years time, it would all be gone.

Age Of Innocence

Fred Koch and his twin sister were born on January 6th, 1903. A native Chicagoan, Koch took an interest in professional wrestling from a very young age thanks to shows his father Fritz would put on at the club he owned on the North Side of Chicago, Koch Club. It is believed Fred promoted his first wrestling events in his father’s club.

Koch was the captain of his Lane Tech High School football team and spent his free time working at the YMCA. After high school, Koch worked as a die machinist, a job he would keep even after deciding to become a professional wrestler. It was during a stretch wrestling in Iowa he was given the name Fred Kohler (likely a take on a Hollywood actor of the same), the moniker by which he would be known until his death in 1969.

Whir

As Kohler took more interest in putting on wrestling shows, his in-ring activity diminished. With the formation of Fred Kohler Enterprises in 1925, it all but stopped and Kohler went all-in on wrestling promotion. Running shows in opposition of local promoters Ed White and Joe Coffey, Kohler carved out a spot for himself in what was becoming a very popular sport, thanks in no small part to the gaggle of wrestlers being loaned to him by two out-of-state Midwest promoters: Billy Sandow and Al Haft.

Haft is probably most famous for being one of the original five men to create the National Wrestling Alliance (more on him shortly). Sandow might be best known for his time managing Ed “Strangler” Lewis and once offering to pay $10,000 to heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey if he’d get in the ring with Lewis. The two fighters never met in a ring.

I Am One

By the mid-’30s, Kohler was running shows regularly while turning a tidy profit for his efforts. His foothold in Chicago was further secured after a Chicago Stadium event in November of 1936 in which 9,736 people turned out to see Everett Marshall defend his World Heavyweight Title against Ali Baba.

Using the massive appeal of his promotion, Kohler negotiated a partnership with fellow promoter Ed White. Running shows together, the duo all but took over Chicago. In December of 1941, Joe Coffey passed away at the age of 71. Less than a year later, White decided to retire. Fred Kohler now ran all of Chicago.

Seek And You Shall Destroy

Kohler’s next big move concerned a television deal with regional station WBKB. On July 10th, 1946, Wrestling From Rainbow Arena began airing weekly on Wednesday evenings. Less than two months later, on September 6th, 1946, WBKB the station became the first commercial station to broadcast outside the Eastern Time Zone. The timing couldn’t have been better for Kohler and thanks in no small part to the station, his World Champion (and according to Dory Funk, Jr., the inventor of the Spinning Toe Hold) Walter Palmer, became a local household name.

Seven days after WBKB became the first commercial station in the Midwest, WGN Incorporated (a holding of the Chicago Tribune Company) submitted an application to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for a permit to build and operate a television station. Test broadcasts began less than a year and a half later on February 1st, 1948 and on September 13th, 1949, just a little over three years after Kohler went on the air with Wrestling From The Rainbow Arena, Wrestling From The Marigold debuted on WGN-TV. With two television programs running on Wednesday and Saturday nights and his live events taking place every Friday, Kohler’s wrestling empire blanketed Chicago and all its outlying outreaches.

Disarm

Between the respective debuts of Kohler’s television shows, Sam Muchnick, Orville Brown, Tony Stecher, Harry Light, Paul “Pinkie” George and Kohler’s old buddy, Al Haft came together to create the National Wrestling Alliance. The idea was to unite the territories under a single governing body in an effort to share talent and create a single, worldwide recognized world champion. Orville Brown was named the first NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion and set out to consolidate the various heavyweight championships being defended throughout the territory system.

In September of ‘49, Kohler joined the NWA and his version of the World Heavyweight Championship was abandoned (Chief Don Eagle was his final champion).  

Where Boys Fear To Tread

By 1950, professional wrestling became the most popular thing on television. With its characters, long-running stories and relatively inexpensive production costs, television channels were only too happy to broadcast it nationwide. Perhaps no wrestler took better advantage of the exposure than Gorgeous George. Developing a persona replete with flamboyance and charisma, George carried the U.S. television viewing audience on a thrillride they were only too happy to take with the “Human Orchid”.

George made his way to Chicago in the Spring of 1950 to wrestle for Kohler’s promotion. He stayed for several months, wrestling the likes of Hans Schnabel and Frankie Talaber before sell-out crowds and riveted TV audiences.

While working in Chicago, George was involved in a controversy involving Kohler and his former champion, Chief Don Eagle. Kohler asked the gorgeous one to “shoot” on Eagle and pin him for the American Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Championship while he was in Chicago defending it against George. Kohler was looking to weaken his (former) friend Al Haft and his AWA promotion in the hope of gaining more ground for his own promotion.

Just a few months later in December of ‘50, Kohler resigned from the NWA. Leonard Schwartz, Al Haft, Toots Mondt, and Paul Bowser had begun competing against him in Chicago and when the NWA didn’t step in to prevent it from happening, Kohler walked away from the governing body, returning in February of the following year after NWA president Sam Muchnick was able to broker peace between the rival companies.

Rocket

The good feelings between Kohler and the NWA would last a little over two years, until a decision to create a new Unites States Heavyweight Title for his Marigold show would once again put him at odds with the entity.

In September of 1953, 27 year old Verne Gagne was crowned the first NWA United States Champion (Chicago version).

Kohler’s logic was sound (and would be duplicated by several territories). The NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion couldn’t be everywhere all at once. Why not retain a local champion to build up in the eyes of the fans for the months when the NWA Champion was elsewhere? The NWA disagreed with his decision and then-World’s Champion Lou Thesz refused to wrestle for Kohler’s promotion as long as the U.S. Title was active.

With the success and reach of the DuMont Network, Gagne’s star shot into orbit. A former two-time NCAA wrestling champion and NFL player, Gagne’s good looks and athletic ability made him the face of the sport of professional wrestling. This did nothing to improve relations between Kohler, Thesz and the NWA. Verne would hold the championship for three years.

Tales Of A Scorched Earth

The DuMont Network abruptly cancelled Johler’s Marigold show in 1955. One year prior, the Rainbow Arena show had been cancelled. Pro wrestling had reached a saturation point and fans were tuning out. The cancellation hurt Kohler’s wallet, costing him somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 USD annually (around $480,000 in today’s money).

Undeterred, Kohler began making moves to expand his promotion across the U.S., running shows in Las Vegas and territories formerly controlled by Los Angeles. He pushed into Denver and Albuquerque, making even more noise within the NWA, but when he bought the promoting rights to Indianapolis from Billy Thom for a rumored $15,000, Kohler’s goal appeared clear (at least to Sam Muchnick): Fred Kohler was trying to go national.

It got more contentious between Kohler and the NWA when an antitrust suit was brought against the governing body. The NWA was accused of using television as a way to shut out competition from ever entering their territories and ultimately led to the NWA Consent Decree of 1956 in U.S. v. National Wrestling Alliance.

Simultaneously, Kohler (with the backing of several other promoters) was once again running afoul of the NWA concerning the World’s Heavyweight Championship. Many of the promoters thought it was time for Gagne to get the title and believed Thesz’s time had passed. The following year, in August of ‘57, Montreal promoter Eddie Quinn went so far as to walk out of the annual NWA meetings, and using a disputed match between Thesz and Édouard Carpentier declared Carpentier the new NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion. He then took it a step further, offering several promotions the opportunity to beat Carpentier with their local favorites so they too could lay claim to having the World’s Champion in their ranks.

Killer Kowalski defeated Carpentier in Boston, claiming himself the World’s Champion. Freddie Blassie won the title from Édouard in Los Angeles. Verne Gagne beat Carpentier in Omaha, Nebraska, also laying claim to the NWA World’s Heavyweight Title, and after two years of trying to work out a mutually beneficial deal between he and the NWA, left its umbrella entirely, forming the American Wrestling Association (AWA), a wildly successful promotion based in Minnesota that would run for over 30 years.

In early 1960, Quinn went a step further, making a move into Chicago by entering into an agreement with the owner of Chicago Stadium James D. Norris and purchasing an hour of television time from a WNBQ for a Saturday program. Kohler attempted to purchase commercial time on the hour of programming as a way to mitigate any potential losses, but the station declined. Unrelenting, Kohler purchased a half hour of programming time starting at midnight.

By August, the Quinn-Norris partnership was discontinued. Kohler, however, continued to pack houses, selling a record 156,543 tickets to his 13 major wrestling shows in 1960. With Bearcat Wright as his top draw for the year, and thanks to some creative wrangling that resulted in Kohler signing Killer Kowalski away from Quinn, Kohler’s promotion appeared unbeatable.

With the NWA in disarray and Sam Muchnick in poor health, Fred Kohler was voted president of the National Wrestling Alliance in August of 1961. At the time, Kohler was the primary booker for “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers and had just put on the previously mentioned Comiskey Park show before 38,622 people, a record that would stand until 50,123 fans packed Texas Stadium on May 6th, 1984 for WCCW’s David Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions show. 

In November of ‘61, he unsuccessfully moved for the NWA board of directors to vote to dissolve the organization.

Kohler served as president for a year, but problems would arise within his own promotion that were about to force him into a series of decisions that would cost him his business.

Landslide

Kohler added Jack Pfeffer as a partner in 1963. This would prove to be a tactical error that would cripple his business. Pfeffer, best known for revealing secrets of professional wrestling as a form of revenge against former wrestling promotion partners in New York, all but ruined Chicago. Rather than booking Bobo Brazil, Buddy Rogers and Fritz Von Erich, Pfeffer would bring in wrestlers and give them sound-alike names like Hobo Brazil, Bummy Rogers and Franz Von Erich. His decisions killed the territory.

Now struggling at the gates, and with no television money coming in, Kohler was forced to make a deal with Vincent J. McMahon on an exchange of talent and tapes. McMahon’s Capitol Wrestling, which had left the NWA earlier in the year, was promoting Buddy Rogers as the World Wide Wrestling Federation Champion. By partnering with McMahon, Kohler was forced to once again step away from the NWA. Unfortunately, the partnership with WWWF didn’t result in an improvement in Kohler’s business, which led to him selling off percentages of the promotion to Dick the Bruiser and Wilbur Snyder out of Indianapolis. The following year, he was bought out entirely by Bruiser, Snyder and the man he once tapped as his champion: Verne Gagne.

For the first time in 40 years, Fred Kohler was no longer a part of the professional wrestling business.

Blew Away

Fred Kohler spent the last few years of his life running a machinery business before pulling up stakes and moving to Arizona. He would die a short time after on August 24th, 1969 at the age of 66.

Kohler left behind a legacy of innovation and dominance match few men in the history of professional wrestling can claim. He was a key figure during the “Golden Age” of television and arguably the most successful promoter of his era. For the better part of four decades, Kohler sat atop a midwestern wrestling empire and should be remembered for both his eye for talent and his skills as a “big show” booker.

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