On April 2, 1975, an American Basketball Association game between the Utah Stars and the Indiana Pacers stowed away its cheerleaders and half-court money shots to host a very unique halftime event. The promotional program promised: "Victor will be at the game to take on such noted wrestlers as Chet Coppock, sports director at WISHTV, Reb Porter at WIFE radio, and several other special opponents." And: "If time permits, Victor will also wrestle a couple of fans."
Victor, it should be mentioned, was a bear. A big Alaskan brown bear. And he was part of a little-storied and ignominious American era of modern bear wrestling.
The history of the sport (i.e. not the Roman punishment) of halftime bear wrestling in America is astonishingly contemporary. In a country that prides itself on taming nature by picking a fight with everything (and everyone) on it, it wouldn't be surprising to find out that wrestling bears is as American as bearing arms. But for most of U.S. history, duking it out with these ursine savages was left to other animals. In the 17th and 18th centuries, frontier carnies would often pit bears against other bears, but also bulls and even lions. These animal opponents bears would kill in seconds, their lithe feline skulls crushed under massive paws to prove once and for all that they walked into the wrong broadleaf and/or coniferous woodland.
But, sadly, there are no tales of bros in tricorn hats and frilled shirts duking it out with 500 pounds of salmon-strong destruction. The sport of human-bear wrestling only came into being in the mid-19th century in Europe, where gentlemen welcomed the chance to get their stovepipe hats crumpled by the weight of a meaty paw. And let's be clear, it was never a fair fight -- for either of them. Fighting bears suffered the ignominy of being declawed, defanged, malnourished and drugged up to their bear tits before they ever set paw into a ring.
One of the earliest records on American bear wrestling took place in 1877. A big black bear by the name of Pete wrestled his trainer in a packed Gilmore Garden in New York City. After the sold-out spectacle circuses and private trainers alike started debuting rassling bears all over the continent from Los Angeles to Nova Scotia. But bear wrestlemania only hit its stride in 1950 with the arrival of Terrible Ted, a 600-pound black bear. He challenged several big-name wrestlers of the '60s, handily holding his own against these famous beefcakes. But the problem with professional wrestlers is that they know what they're doing -- and what they're not doing is risking their career by charging chest-first at a half ton of bear. Bouts would often end with small tussles while wrestlers attempted to run out the clock -- and outrun the bear. Not the spectacle you pay for when the poster promises the ultimate fight between Man and Nature.
What Terrible Ted did to elevate the freak show sport was to popularize audience participation. Fight promoters started to realize that, in every town, there were at least a few dudes in plaid shirts who would think "I can take that bear." Did the bears always win? Does an amateur bear wrestler shit in a bag?
Though Terrible Ted did lose one amateur bout against a burly welder by the name of John Szigeti. That match even landed the bad boy bear of bear wrestling in county jail. Not because he hit the guy with a folding chair after the bell, mind, his trainer had just skipped town after reneging on a massive bet.
Surprisingly, bear wrestling remained popular as time marched on into the modern era. And that brings us back to the biggest celebearty of them all, Victor The Wrestling Bear. His trainer, ex-gator wrestler "Tuffy" Truesdell, had found the brown bear cub (named after a distinctive V-shaped tuft of white fur) in Northern Ontario. His mother had accidentally been shot by a redneck hunter. A better luchador origin story he couldn't have asked for, as this runt of the litter grew up to be a real beast of a wrestler, six feet of raw honey-glazed muscle challenged by tens of thousands of amateur tough guys who sought their minute of fame (and the fights never lasted more than a minute) by jumping in the ring with Victor. If they won, they'd earn eternal glory. If Victor won, he got a bottle of Coca Cola. And Victor drank a lot of coke.
Which brings us to the main ticket, the Hall of Fame fight, where Victor The Bear, a bear, rose to national fame during a minor league ranked basketball game. Unfortunately, there exists no footage of this insane bit of '70s Americana, so all we can offer is a reenactment clip from the documentary Semi-Pro, by Will Ferrell.
After gaining fame at the Stars vs Pacers match (how he was never booked to do the same for the Chicago Cubs and/or Bears feels like a missed opportunity), the ultimate ursine fighter also had the privilege of going toe-to-claw with plenty of human celebrities. According to legend, Victor duked it out with the likes of basketball hotshot Fly Williams, whooped the butt of football star Dick Butt and pinned none other than Rowdy Roddy Piper. And on the set of Paint Your Wagon, Victor even had a few duels with Lee Marvin and a young Clint Eastwood. He also made appearances on several late-night TV shows, including the Johnny Carson Show, Donahue, The Ed Sullivan Show and Let's Make a Deal, enthralling audiences not with his witty anecdotes but the anticipation of maybe seeing Johnny Carson getting his face ripped off by a frenzied bear just for the ratings.
But Victor The Wrestling Bear wasn't as invincible as his trainer pretended to be. Ironically, he had to share the title with multiple Victors. Turns out that having a bear enter kill-mode in a ring every other night is a burden these beasts can't bear (sorry). The first Victor The Wrestling Bear died of a heart attack in the mid-'70s but was quietly replaced by several other grizzled ringers. Fortunately for the last Victor, he was able to retire in good health. His last opponent couldn't claim the same. In September of 1981, while wrestling a young Army corporal, Victor was presented with an unexpected treat when the soldier managed to put a mitt into his muzzle. At which point, the man's carnivorous competitor bit his left pinky clean off, "licking and chewing on the fingertip" until his trainer fished it out of Vic's maw. The mutilation caused trainer Truesdell to lose his wrestling license. Not that he'd have much use for it, as it also earned the last Victor the career-ending reputation of being the Mike Tyson of rassling bears.
But retirement had been inevitable. By the late '80s, bear wrestling had finally fallen out of favor, these feral fight cards often picketed by animal rights protesters. With enough pressure from the likes of PETA, specific legislation was passed in states needing to tackle the issue of townies trying to tackle wild bears. In 1996, the Alabama government passed a bill specifically banning bear wrestling in an 82-2 vote -- which is also the ratio of Alabamans who have lost a loved one or pic-a-nic basket to their native black bears. Since then, bear wrestling has been made illegal in 19 more states, according to PETA.
Did that mean that the age of bear wrestling has finally come to a close? Not quite. In 2009, a strip club and bar owner openly hosted a bear versus drunk college dudes wrestling match, with any victors (R.I.P. Victor) taking away a paltry thousand bucks. That college carnage bear, Ceasar, again came into the news when a 19-year-old wrestling douche managed to pin down the last of the brawling bears. But Ceasar also hit the headlines when he mauled one of the caretakers hired by his master Sam Mazzola, the Bear King of Ohio, to death. And there's a likely chance we'll run out of bear wrestling trainers long before we run out of wrestling bears. One year later, Mazzola was found dead at his home as well. Not by bear, but by choking on a sex toy -- proving once again that the life of a bear tamer is fraught with unexpected dangers. (As for the bear from Semi-Pro, he killed one of his trainers mere weeks after the film was released in 2008.)
And that Alabama law that outlawed bear wrestling? It was repealed in 2015 after being deemed frivolous, the House ruling that sensible judges would simply classify having a bear enter a fight ring specifically to get pinned by some drunk trucker trying to impress his lot lizard as outright animal abuse. At least, if the bears lose. Which they rarely do.
Cedric Voets is a writer, comedian and definitely not a shaved bear. Do follow him on Twitter.
Top Image: R.H. Trueman/Library and Archives Canada