Sunday, December 09, 2012

Gentleman Ed Francis

Coconut head butts. Steel-cage matches (complete with barbed wire). Exotic "lady wrestlers." Da Bull, a Wolf and a couple of Giants.

Oh, and don't forget Victor the Bear. As in grizzly.

From Kauai to the Big Island, and even to the tiny Kalaupapa peninsula on Molokai, local people ate up these spectacles and countless more as professional wrestling rode a wave of popularity in the 1960s and '70s. Fans embraced the sport with a passion matched only by what the grapplers brought to the ring night after night.

Pro wrestling already enjoyed a following in the islands when "50th State Big Time Wrestling" debuted on television in the early 1960s and sent its appeal into overdrive. The interview show kept viewers enthralled from week to week, ensuring there would be little problem packing the old Civic Auditorium, Hono­lulu International Center (now Blaisdell Arena) and other venues with fans eager to see the wrestlers they loved — and loved to hate.

The man who put pro wrestling on the airwaves was Edmund Francis, better known as "Gentleman Ed." A renowned wrestler himself, the Chicago native who grew up during the Depression came to Hawaii in 1961 with his wife and four sons, a $10,000 loan and the lofty goal of taking the sport to new heights of popularity.

Francis recounts the adventures of his two-decade stint as Hawaii's foremost pro wrestling promoter in his new book, "Gentleman Ed Francis Presents 50th State Big Time Wrestling!" (Watermark Publishing, $34.95). Many of the episodes in the memoir, written with Hawaii native Larry Fleece, seem too fantastic to be true — but in the supersized world of pro wrestling, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility.

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