Friday April 6, 2012

May 2, 1973, was a warm night in Pittsfield, according to the Farmer's Almanac for that year. It got up to 82 degrees during the day. But if it was warm outside the Pittsfield Boys' Club that night, it was positively steaming inside.

In the feature match of the night, Chief Jay Strongbow squared off against "Classy" Freddie Blassie in a World Wide Wrestling Federation bout that was part of a five-match card.

Strongbow had already wrestled at The Club five times in the previous three years, winning all of his bouts. Just seven weeks before, Strongbow had dispatched Mr. Fuji, one of the WWWF's baddest bad guys, at The Club.

Blassie would fare no better. After a few preliminary moves, Strongbow went into his "war dance," a sort of shuffling maneuver that carried him around the ring, his head bowing up and down. Blassie pounded away at Strongbow, but the man billed as "The Greatest Indian Athlete Since Jim Thorpe" was seemingly impervious.

And all the while, the Boys' Club audience of more than 1,000 rapped their hands against their open mouths in the classic Indian war cry: "Woo-woo-woo-woo!" The Chief seemed to draw strength from the audience, and as the whoops grew louder, he began to move around the ring faster.

The "war dance" usually ended with Strongbow suddenly whirling toward his opponent, giving him a few patented "tomahawk chops" and eventually engulfing him in a "sleeper hold" that inevitably subdued the bad guy.


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Blassie, no fool, realized he couldn't win. According to newspaper accounts, he leapt out of the ring. When Strongbow followed, Blassie picked up the press table, scattering reporters hither and yon, and hurled it at him. Blassie fled back into the ring, and Strongbow, in hot pursuit, picked up the press table and followed the Classy One back into the squared circle and began to pummel him with the table, much to the delight of the crowd.

It was all too much for the referee, who stopped the fight and declared both wrestlers disqualified. The crowd howled in anger.

Just another night of 1970s pro wrestling in The Club.

Professional wrestling is now the purview of giant venues and pay-per-view specials. But in the 1970s, it was a purely regional sport, and Pittsfield was a regular stop of the WWWF (now known as the WWE).

The organization may have been dubbed the "World Wide" Wrestling Federation, but the WWWF's world was bounded by Central Pennsylvania in the west, Northern New Jersey in the South and the New England states in the north and west.

But a host of wrestling greats passed through the doors of the Club. The names are very familiar: Strongbow, Ivan Koloff, The Iron Sheik, Gorilla Monsoon, Bob Backlund, Ric Flair, George "the Animal" Steele, Blassie, the Fabulous Moolah, Killer Kowalski, Andre the Giant, Sky Low Low, Professor Toru Tanaka.

In the Northeast, the WWWF was the real deal. And their biggest star was Chief Jay Strongbow.

Strongbow, who died Tuesday at the age of 83, was in the middle of, and at least partly responsible for, the "Golden Age" of pro wrestling in Pittsfield.

"The Chief is Pittsfield's favorite wrestler," wrote then-Eagle sports reporter Mike Meserole of that bout with Blassie. "He is able to throw the entire Boys Club crowd into a hooting, yelping frenzy simply by going into his war dance."

"In those days," noted wrestler Jake "the Snake" Roberts in a 2004 interview, "there wasn't much television. You had to win over the crowd every night. And The Chief was the master of that. He was a fan favorite in every small town in the Northeast. There's a reason he was one of the original members of the [WWF] Hall of Fame. He helped build it."

He was huge in Pittsfield. In 1973 alone, Strongbow visited Pittsfield six times, according to Eagle files and the database on thehistoryofwwe.com. In 1974, he wrestled in the Boys' Club five times. In 1975, he was there two more times. In all, Strongbow wrestled in Pittsfield 21 times from 1970-77.

And he lost very few times. In fact, Eagle files and the History of WWE website show only one defeat: to Larry "the Ax" Hennig on Jan. 10, 1974. Despite freezing rain, more than 600 fans showed up. In what an Eagle correspondent called "a big upset," Hennig and Strongbow bumped heads in the middle of the ring during a raucous match. Both were stunned, but Hennig staggered toward the ropes and pulled himself up to win the match.

"I don't remember that night, sorry," said Hennig from Florida, where he is now a successful realtor. "We wrestled quite a few times in the 1970s. But I will say this: The fans loved him. He could just stand in the middle of the ring with his arms crossed and they would just go wild.

"And he was a good man," continued Hennig. "He took a lot of wrestlers under his wing and helped them. He was also a promoter, and he would put a newer guy on a card to get him some exposure, which he didn't have to do."

Of course, the fans in the Boys' Club demanded a rematch. And so they got it: On March 13, Strongbow and his good friend Gorilla Monsoon defeated Hennig and Stan "the Man" Stasiak in a best two-of-three tag team match, 2-1.

On Nov. 29, 1973, Strongbow and another wrestling icon, Andre the Giant, wrestled before a crowd of about 1,700, against then tag-team champions Mr. Fuji and Tanaka. The match ended in a double disqualification, when all four wrestlers entered the ring to fight.

Strongbow, in fact, was one of pro wrestling's great tag-team fighters. He won the belt four separate times, with three different partners: Sonny King, Billy White Wolf and his "brother" Jules Strongbow.

And just as Jules Strongbow was not the Chief's brother, well, Strongbow was not the Chief's real name. He was born Joe Scarpa, in Philadelphia. In 1947, at the age of 20, he began wrestling under his real name. But sometime in the 1960s, he became "The Pride of Pawhuska" (a real town in Oklahoma of about 3,600 people).

According to a wire interview in 1994, Scarpa's good friend Gorilla Monsoon heard that WWWF promoter Vince McMahon, Sr., was looking for an Indian wrestler for his Northeast circuit. Monsoon told Scarpa, and a few months later, the Chief was born.

"A gimmick is what you make of it," said Strongbow in a 1994 interview when he was named to the then-WWF Hall Of Fame. "Saying you're a pilot doesn't mean you can fly a plane. You have to learn to fly the plane, as well. Same with the Indian gimmick."

He is also a member of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame.

As wrestling grew bigger, so did Strongbow. Pittsfield was an infrequent stop by the end of the 1970s, and was nearly off the tour by the 1980s. Pro wrestling had entered the television era.

Today, Strongbow's "Indian gimmick" would be considered terribly politically incorrect. The "war dance"; inducing the crowd to whoop, allegedly like Indians; the "Tomahawk chop", etc.; would probably not play too well these days.

"An Italian-American posing as an Indian?" asked Eagle editorial writer Bill Everhart, rhetorically. "Today, there would be a huge uproar, and he'd be apologizing to the Native American community for mocking them."

But then? The Chief was huge.