S.I.C.W. AND THE LEGACY OF ST. LOUIS WRESTLING
By Dr. Abner Mality
Professional wrestling today is arguably as popular as it has ever been and is certainly at the height of its visibility. You can’t hiccup on Youtube without running into a new independent wrestling promotion. More are coming into existence pretty much every day.
But what passes for pro wrestling today doesn’t really resemble the classic grappling that was a fixture on local TV for so long. Competitors spend a lot of time blabbing and emoting like soap opera actors now and the action tends to be insane stuntwork based on high impact moves. It’s almost like Cirque du Soleil performed as combat. Which begs the question: are there any promotions left who present the same kind of fundamental wrestling like Grampa used to watch?
One name immediately comes to mind for me. That would be Southern Illinois Championship Wrestling, a small but active promotion mostly run across the river from St. Louis, MO, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi. Watching the wrestling from SICW is like going back in time. It reminds me a lot of the old AWA wrestling I used to watch as a kid in Rockford, IL. There’s no pyro, no loud rap music blasting away, no over the top graphics and bizarre camerawork. The matches take place in front of modest but enthusiastic crowds...a bit bigger than the studio wrestling crowds of years gone by, but not by much.
And the wrestlers themselves don’t look like the ultra-sculpted underwear models you might see in WWE or the tattooed hipster types so common elsewhere. They look like tough guys who just came from the bar and who will probably head right back there after the matches. There are all sorts of body types from skinny to pudgy to muscular to enormous. There are old school masked wrestlers...not Mexican luchadors, but more like classic masked men such as The Spoiler, Masked Superstar and The Assassin. In every way, the wrestlers of SICW could have very easily fit onto a card from the territory days of the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s.
Sam Muchnick and Lou Thesz
I think it’s great that there is a “time warp” promotion like this that shows the way it used to be done. For me, it’s a sure cure to boring talkfests and over the top stunt shows. I’ll talk a bit more about SICW later, but right now, I want to talk about the great tradition that it is an extension of...the fabulous wrestling tradition of the St. Louis territory and its flagship show, “Wrestling At The Chase”.
Pro wrestling was always well promoted in the St. Louis area, going all the way back to the early 20th century. The first really powerful promoter to run the area was a guy named Tom Packs who operated during the Depression years and who brought the best wrestlers and matchups to the city. As well as Packs ran things, it was really a protege of his named Sam Muchnick who turned St. Louis into one of the wrestling capitals of the world. After Vince McMahon Jr., Muchnick is usually considered the best wrestling promoter of all time.
Muchnick was a one time sportswriter that Packs hired to help him run his territory. After years stuck in a rut working for Packs, Sam struck out on his own and started to run cards in opposition to his former boss. It was soon apparent that Sam ran things honestly and treated wrestlers fairly, which wasn’t always the case with Packs. Muchnick was one of the original promoters who helped to create the National Wrestling Alliance in 1948, which for years would be the most powerful...and the most monopolistic...wrestling promotion in the USA.
Muchnick became the premier promoter in St. Louis from 1949 until the time he retired in 1982. His organization the St. Louis Wrestling Club ran things with a very simple and effective philosophy. Get the best wrestlers and have them face each other in matches that were presented as much like a sport as possible. There were few outrageous gimmicks in Muchnick’s territory. In many ways, he was the complete inversion of Vince McMahon Jr., who presented a style of wrestling full of cartoony characters and gimmicks, with lots of soap opera storytelling. Muchnick was known for his dislike of The Sheik, Ed Farhat, whose over the top bloodbaths he thought demeaned the sport.
Classic mat action at The Chase!
The St. Louis territory during Muchnick’s time was also unique in that very few tag team matches were featured and there was no tag team title there. The emphasis was on singles feuds and wrestlers. Although there were some knock down-drag out brawls for sure and occasional blood, they were the exception rather than the rule. It was straightforward pro wrestling with an emphasis on the wrestling.
In 1959, the St. Louis Wrestling Club began its weekly television series, “Wrestling at The Chase”, which has gone down in history as a legendary wrestling program. Televised from the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in downtown St. Louis, the show was the visualization of Muchnick’s successful wrestling philosophy and was consistently one of the highest rated TV programs in the area.
“Wrestling At The Chase” featured a literal who’s who of top wrestling talent during its lengthy run. Some of the stars regularly featured there were Pat O’Connor, Gene Kiniski, Dick The Bruiser, Bulldog Bob Brown, Handsome Harley Race, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, Bruiser Brody, the von Erichs, Ted DiBiase, Dick Murdoch and many more. Many of these men would go on to be World Champions, most notably Race and Flair. The “Wrestling At The Chase” TV show would be used to set up big cards at the Kiel Auditorium, which were sold out on a regular basis. Occasional spot shows would be run in smaller Missouri and Illinois towns, but the main focus was always on St. Louis itself.
With Muchnick’s retirement in 1982, things were never really the same for the St. Louis territory. A consortium of promoters including Verne Gagne, Harley Race and Bob Geigel bought the program and tried to run it, but without the same success as Muchnick. During the mid-80’s, McMahon’s WWF was exploding in popularity and trying to run all the regional promotions out of business. For a brief period, the WWF actually promoted “Wrestling At The Chase”, and sure enough, in 1985, the flagship TV show was finally canceled.
Larry Matysik & Bruiser Brody
The nefarious Attila Khan
The casual mass audience of the 80’s went head over heels for the WWF and its less serious style, but memories of “Wrestling At The Chase” and Muchnick’s brand of wrestling were never forgotten. Many grew up watching NWA Wrestling in St. Louis and nostalgia is always the most impossible emotion to erase.
Fortunately, there was a smaller “sister” promotion to the St. Louis Wrestling Club that kept the flame alive...and is still doing so today. Southern Illinois Championship Wrestling was a small promotion that got its start in 1975 with promoter Herb Simmons. Simmons was a protege of Sam Muchnick in the same fashion that Muchnick studied under Tom Packs. SICW never ran St. Louis itself but instead focused on nearby small towns across the stateline in Illinois such as Dupo, Belleville, Collinsville and East Carondelet. Simmons had the blessings of Muchnick and also the assistance of Larry Matysik, the very popular TV voice of “Wrestling At The Chase”.
Matysik was one of the most underrated TV wrestling commentators, who should be mentioned in the same breath as Gordon Solie and Jim Ross. He had a very good understanding of the “Muchnick Method” of promoting and made sure Herb Simmons followed the same blueprint. The SICW shows would feature some of the bigger St. Louis names like Dick the Bruiser and Bruiser Brody on their cards and then fill out the rest of the shows with local talents who adhered to the classic, no frills style.
After Muchnick retired and the St. Louis Wrestling Club folded, SICW continued to run shows in its small sphere of influence. While the rest of the wrestling world “evolved” into sports entertainment and wild stunt shows, SICW continued the old “good vs. evil” style of booking. Larry Matysik was the voice of the promotion’s local TV and Youtube show right up until his unfortunate death a couple of years ago. Herb Simmons continues to be the guiding force of SICW and you’d have to say that people like the “time warp” shows he puts on...some cards have drawn more than a thousand people, which is terrific for any local promotion.
The massive KOWALSKI
I first became aware of SICW when I saw their Youtube shows a few years back. Youtube wrestling shows are a dime a dozen these days, but there was something super endearing about the simple presentation of SICW. In fact, Billy Corgan’s NWA is using the same presentation with their studio-based wrestling...I wonder if he is a SICW fan as well? I would bet on it, since the NWA did a wrestling show recently at the Chase...the first wrestling show there since the mid-80’s.
The hub of the SICW universe is the East Carondelet Community Center in East Carondelet, IL. This is where the TV is taped and most of the action takes place. It’s a cozy, oldschool environment that fits the tone of the promotion. It’s also pretty black and white in terms of presentation. The baby faces are really good guys. In most other modern wrestling promotions, the lines between good and evil are so blurred as to be non-existent. Not here. The good guys are true blue and honest to the core and rely on what used to be called “scientific wrestling”. Although you still see plenty of fisticuffs and the babyfaces definitely have their boiling point.
As for the heels, there are no “tweeners” in SICW. The bad guys are rotten to the core. And nobody is more rotten than Travis Cook, the manager who drives everybody up the wall with his devious shenanigans. Real managers are hard to find in today’s wrestling. There are a lot of hot female valets and retired wrestlers filling the role. But Travis Cook is a real manager in Bobby Heenan/Jimmy Hart tradition. In the territory days, he would have been as big as those names I just mentioned. But only in SICW can a guy like this thrive today.
The SICW heavyweight champion right now is a Middle Eastern wildman called Attila Khan. I suspect the closest Mr. Khan has come to the Middle East is a falafel bar in St. Louis, but he sure fits the bill as a classic “Sheik” like character. WWE and even AEW are too “woke” for characters like this to work, but Khan is perfect as the crooked champ you love to hate. Another great oldschool villain in SICW is the massive thug known only as Kowalski. This guy has got to be the reincarnation of the late, great Yukon Moose Cholak, who was well known to fans of Chicago wrestling. Wearing suspenders and a derby and smoking a cigar, Kowalski is right out of a time warp. He weighs 459 pounds and says he will pay a dollar a pound to anybody who can bodyslam him. Naturally, when anybody gets close to doing that, he does something to mess it up. Surprisingly, this big monster can move fairly well when he wants to.
SICW has only recently instituted a tag team title. Much like its inspiration the St. Louis Wrestling Club, they keep the emphasis mostly on singles action. But they have been starting to feature teams more and more. The current champs are a heel team known as The Professionals, composed of Mauler McDarby and Shawn Santel. As you might guess, they are another “throwback” team that looks like they could have come straight out of 1978. They’re not musclemen or high flyers, but boy, they know how to cheat and brawl. And sometimes, that’s all you really need to get a crowd going.
“Wrestling At The Chase” was similar to the AWA in that there were very few “turns” in the booking. That means, not a lot of heels became faces or vice versa. Now SICW is a bit different in this regard as they do a bit more in terms of “turning” their wrestlers. For example, Iron Man Ken Kasa seems to split his time equally between working for Travis Cook and feuding with Cook’s stable. And formerly clean cut good guy Sean Vincent has recently went to the dark side. But the turns are not really overdone.
As for moves in the ring, don’t expect to see any Young Bucks style spot monkey stuff in SICW. There ARE guys who fly high, such as Billy McNeil, but that’s done very judiciously. And while the matches are hard hitting, blood appears very rarely. This is not a promotion where you see crap like light tubes being broke over somebody’s head 10 times every show or dollar bills getting stapled to foreheads. That stuff is so overdone, it’s ridiculous. Not in SICW.
The Covid pandemic certainly posed a challenge to SICW, like it did to almost every promotion big or small, but in 2022, things seem to be getting back on track. Their program is not only available on Youtube, but also on Roku and on local St. Louis and Southern Illinois TV channels. TV tapings are back on schedule and recently SICW drew over 1000 fans to a charity show in Belleville, IL that featured local favorites Bobby and Jimmy D. Herb Simmons has found a simple formula that works and Southern Illinois Championship Wrestling is safe within its own bubble, where the “Muchnick Method” still works like a charm. If you want to take a trip back in time and relive wrestling in the style of the territory days, this promotion should be your #1 destination.