Saturday, September 1, 2012

Ben and Mike Sharpe- The First Gaijin Superstars in Japan

Note on sources: I used information from a number of websites as well as great books by Greg Oliver and John Molinaro in writing this bio. I especially encourage people to check out the books and the reference information is at the end. Mike and Ben Sharpe are known as being from Hamilton, Ontario although Ben is listed as having been born in Guelph, Ontario. Ben was born on March 18, 1916 while Mike (father of Iron Mike Sharpe) was born on July 11, 1922. Ben travelled to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin as part of Canada’s rowing team which was eliminated in the semi-finals despite having the second-best time over all in that round. Greg Oliver wrote that Ben carried the Canadian flag in the parade of athletes and shook hands with Adolf Hitler. Ben enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and was utilized as a fitness instructor as his 6’5 frame made him too big to be a pilot. Ben was posted in England and would go to watch wrestling on weekends. When his brother Mike, six years Ben’s junior, enlisted and arrived in England he was apparently bigger than Ben who reportedly talked Mike into wrestling with Ben as his manager. Mike wrestled opponents such as Lord James Blears before the war ended and the Sharpes returned to Hamilton rather than accept offers to stay wrestling in England. Their return to wrestling occurred in Ontario starting in 1946. Mike and Ben are listed as wrestling in singles matches in Windsor, Ontario in 1947. Results from Hamilton in 1948 show Mike “The Body” Sharpe defending the British Empire title against Nanjo Singh and Wladislaw Talun while Ben was wrestling the Masked Marvel (who may be Cowboy Len Hughes, a pioneering wrestling promoter of the Maritimes territory). The brothers are also seen to be teaming against Lee Henning and Dan O’Connor. Mike may have wrestled Whipper Billy Watson in Hamilton that summer and did face him at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1949. Mike and Ben were teaming at MLG by 1949 as well on shows headlined by pre-killer Wladek Kowalski and Earl McCready. They travelled to St. Louis in 1949 wrestling separately in undercard matches against opponents such as Bill Longson, Warren Bockwinkel and Mike teaming with Enrique Torres. They travelled to Memphis in 1950 and wrestled Killer Kowalski. Ben travelled to St. Louis that year as well and did team with Fred Blassie in at least one match. It was in 1950 that they travelled to San Francisco and started their run as a main event tag team. They first won the NWA Tag Team Titles on May 9, 1950 from Hard Boiled Haggerty and Ray Eckert. They held the titles until May 29 and then again from June 13 until July 7. They were perennial tag team champions in the territory, holding them ten times before they took the titles to Japan for the first time and the seeds of that eventual move were sowed when they wrestled Rikidozan in America. They teamed up against Rikidozan and a number of partners between1952 and 1953 including Mario Desouza, El Hombre Montana, Primo Carnera and Lord Athol Layton. They also main evented in Los Angeles and Hawaii between 1952 and 1953 and had matches with Bobby Bruns, the man who trained Rikidozan after running a pro wrestling tour in Japan. The Sharpes continued to main event in San Francisco into early 1954 and spent the very early part of the year facing opponents such as Enrique Torres, Bobo Brazil, Ronnie Etchison and Leo Nomellnni. In July 1953 Rikidozan announced the formation of the Japan Pro Wrestling Association and had the debut card that month before returning to the U.S. Rikidozan returned to Japan for February 1954 and ran a tag team tournament from February 19 to February 21. It was for this series that Mike and Ben first came to Japan. On the first night they wrestled to a 61-minute draw against Rikidozan and Masahiko Kimura. On the second day Mike defeated Toshio Yamaguchi and Rikidozan defeated Ben in a 2/3 falls match. The three-day tournament climaxed with Rikidozan and Kimura facing the Sharpes in a 2/3 falls match at Sumo Hall in Tokyo. The teams traded the first two falls and the third fall ended a in a double countout allowing the Sharpes to keep the NWA World tag team titles that they had transported to Japan. The first day of the tournament was shown on NHK while the second and third days were shown on NTV (Nippon TV). John Molinaro noted that television was still new to Japan but it was the images of these matches that had Japanese citizens watching at home and on “street televisions “ that had been set up in public for people who could not afford a television. Similar to the legends of Gorgeous George in America, it was this post-war catharsis of the Japanese (actually Korean) hero battling valiantly against the monster Americans (actually Canadian) that helped establish television in the country. 1954 was the groundbreaking year of the Japanese pro wrestling business that was largely built on the concept of national heroes facing gaijin foreigners. And it was Mike and Ben Sharpe who provided the gaijin foundation for that formula. The Japanese life appeared to have impacted them as well since Ben named a son Riki after Rikidozan. The two teams had rematches at Sumo Hall on February 27 and March 6. Both matches were 2/3 falls, with the Sharpes winning in the first fall and the match then going to a 61-minute draw with the Sharpes still keeping the tag titles and returning to the U.S. without the Japanese heroes having taken gold. The Sharpes teamed with Bobby Bruns against Rikidozan, Kimura and Yamaguchi on February 28 and went to draws against Rikidozan and Bruns on March 2, March 3 and March 9. They lost to Rikidozan and Yamaguchi on February 26 and defeated Rikidozan and Kokichi Endo on March 7. In July of 1954 they wrestled in All-Star Wrestling in Vancouver where they held the tag team titles. Ben also lost to NWA World Champion Lou Thesz on July 28 in a match for the title in Vancouver. In 1955 they continued their main event run in San Francisco and also spent significant time facing opponents such as Lou Thesz, Sandor Kovacs and Johnny Barend in Hawaii and also wrestled in Los Angeles. They continued to face Nomellinni, Torres and Brazil as well as new opponents such as another pair of Canadian brothers in George and Sandy Scott. In early 1956 they continued this run and Ray Stern and Yukon Eric were included as a frequent opponent in San Francisco as were the Great Togo and Tosh Togo in both San Francisco and Hawaii. Ben also won the Pacific Coast Heavyweight Title from Enrique Torres on January 28 before dropping it back to Torres on February 18. Other notable opponents included a match against Gene Kiniski and Lord Blears. The Sharpes returned to Japan in April 1956, On April 26 they defended the NWA Tag Team Titles against Rikidozan and Kokichi Endo at Sumo Hall in Tokyo. The teams traded the first two falls and the third fall ended with a referee stoppage with the Sharpes keeping the tag titles. The teams had a rematch on May 2 at Osaka Prefectural Gym. Much like in 1954, the match went to a 61-minute draw after the teams traded the first two falls. Rikidozan and Endo finally won the titles in a rematch on May 3 that also took place in Osaka. Ben and Mike regained the titles on May 10 in Sapporo. They continued to keep the titles in 61-minute draws against Rikidozan and Endo on May 19 and June 7. This series would seem to be a precursor to later patterns of Jack Brisco, Harley Race and Bob Backlund agreeing to trade their titles back and forth during Japanese tours in order to create interest and to lend legitimacy to Japanese wrestlers. It was not until 1957 that Lou Thesz would come to Japan as the travelling World Champion and it would appear that the Sharpes were the first gaijin to import championships to Japan. During this tour they also faced Rikidozan and Azumufuji on April 28, May 5, May 9, May 13, May 16, May 20, May 23, May 25, May 29, May 31 and June 3 in what would appear to be one-fall matches. Mike and Ben won six of these matches and lost five of them. The Sharpes returned to San Francisco and continued to defend the titles throughout 1956 and 1957 including against the team of Bill Miller and Ed Miller. Pat O’Connor also became a common opponent during this time and Rikidozan again faced off against the Sharpes during a 1957 U.S. tour. They worked against Enrique Torres and his brother Ramon Torres as well as Ramon and Alberto Torres. They also spent time teaming with other partners such as Lord Blears. They continued in San Francisco into early 1958 when they started working in Montreal for the rest of the year. Their opponents during this run included Pat O’Connor, Edouard Carpentier, Johnny Rougeau, Wladek Kowalski, Gene Kiniski, Enrique Torres, Paul Ballairgeon, Mr. Hito and Mr. Moto. They travelled to Memphis in early 1959 and wrestled Billy Wicks and Leo Field on February 23. Mike wrestled in Dallas through March and April and held the Texas Tag Team Titles with Ed Sharpe. Ben returned to San Francisco teaming with Billy Red Lyons among others and winning the Pacific Coast Heavyweight title from Ramon Torres on March 20. Mike returned to San Francisco in May and the brothers were teaming again, winning the tag titles from Ramon Torres and Jose Lothario and again from Enrique Torres and Rip Miller. They lost the titles in December to Alberto Torres and Ron Etchison. They also faced Al Costello and Roy Heffernan during this time. In 1960 they were based out of both San Francisco and Los Angeles and faced Joe Scarpa (Chief Jay Strongbow), Jose Lothario, Gene Lebell, Sandor Szabo, Edouard Carpentier, Dick Hutton, Lou Thesz, Steve Stanlee, The Alaskan, Sam Steamboat and Costello and Heffernan. They wrestled separately more in 1961 in L.A. and San Francisco. They both faced King Curtis Iaukea in Hawaii. Mike started wrestling primarily in Calgary, Alberta facing Domenic Denucci, Bearcat Wright, Billy Watson, Jerry Graham, Don McClarty, Ronnie Etchison and Mark Lewin. Ben Sharpe still wrestled sporadically for the next couple years including against Don Leo Jonathan in Vancouver but he did retire to run a bar and restaurant in California known as Copperwood Lodge. Mike retired in 1964 and worked in California for Anheuser-Busch. Mike was the first to pass away in 1988 when he died of a heart attack. Ben was alive until 2000 but had been in a wheelchair for fourteen years which was partially attributed to his wrestling career. He died when he developed an infection in his leg. The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams by Greg Oliver The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Canadians by Greg Oliver The Top 100 Pro Wrestlers of All Time by John Molinoro


sharpe.michael.r said...

I loved the article. They were both great men. This I know very well because I was lucky enough for the fact that Ben was my grandfather. Or as we referred to him as "pop". I remember meeting a lot of the wrestlers mentioned here when I was a very young child. Even though my grandfather was confined to a chair he still came across as the great giant of his younger days. When I was a child I took karate lesson in Glendale Ca from an instructor, who I can't for the life of me remember his name, but he had wrestled against Ben and Mike in Japan and told my family he viewed them as great men. Unfortunately I was away at college when my grandpa passed, I was given the gold earing he wore later in life and I am very thankful I knew this man for 20 years of my life. Along with my Uncle Mike, who passed when I was 7. Ben had lost his wife (my grandma Mary) several days prior to losing Mike. He however put on a brave exterior and showed no pain like before. As I said before they were great men...again thank you for the great article...Sincerely Michael Sharpe (I am named after my uncle Mike, my dad's (Greg Sharpe) older brother who is named after Mike, Ben's brother.

puropotsy said...

Thank you so much for your kind words Mike. It means so much to be able to have something like this read by a member of your family.

Unknown said...

Hi Michael, it's great to read about your family. I've know Ben and of course Mike for a long long time. My was a good friend of Mikes sons D and K, which I've spend a lot of time with in the 80's. My name is also Mike an maybe we can get in touch. My mail address is Hope to hear from you M.Fischer