Long before Kurt Angle or Brock Lesnar ever climbed in to a professional wrestling ring, they wrestled in college — for real. There’s a long history of college wrestlers entering professional wrestling, going back a century. In a previous installment, we looked at some top collegiate wrestling stars of the 1920s and 1930s who climbed into the squared circle. Now, let’s look at some of the college greats of the 1940s who turned pro…
Leonard “Butch” Levy
Sixty years before Brock Lesnar won his NCAA title as a University of Minnesota wrestler, Leonard “Butch” Levy became the first national collegiate heavyweight champ for the Golden Gophers at any weight.
- Born: Minneapolis, 1921
- Schools: Minneapolis Marshall High; University of Minnesota
- Height/weight: 6′, 260 pounds
- Amateur accomplishments: Two-time Minnesota high school state champ (1937-1938); won the heavyweight title at the 1941 NCAAs with a 5-2 win over Yale’s Larry Pickett in the finals. Also played football for the Golden Gophers.
- Pro wrestling: After a brief pro football career, Levy launched his ring career in 1948; was a NWA Tag Team titleholder on two occasions with two Minnesota gridiron/grappling alums: first, with Verne Gagne (see below), then later, with Leo Nomellini.
- Beyond wrestling: After winning his NCAA title, Levy served in the U.S. Navy for three years during World War II.
Over the years, there have been a number of 300+ pound college heavyweights, such as Iowa State’s Chris Taylor in the early 1970s, and North Carolina State’s Tab Thacker in the mid 1980s. (There was no upper weight limit for heavyweights until after Thacker won the title; in fact, the weight class now known as 285 pounds was officially called “unlimited”.) George Bollas was one of the first super-sized college big men, tipping the scales at 325 pounds… and the first to win an NCAA heavyweight title.
- Born: Warren, Ohio, 1923
- School: Ohio State
- Height/weight: 5’10”, 325 pounds
- Amateur accomplishments: Won two Big Ten heavyweight titles (1945 and 1946); won 1946 NCAA heavyweight title by pinning Morris Chitwood of Indiana University at 14:11 in the title match, becoming the Buckeyes’ second heavyweight champ (the first being George Downes in 1940)
- Pro wrestling: Stories claim Bollas already started a pro career while still at Ohio State; he left the school in 1946; sometimes competed as the Zebra Kid (complete with zebra-striped costume). His pro career spanned two decades.
- Beyond wrestling: Bollas played football for the Buckeyes, and is in the Ohio State Athletic Hall of Fame
Born on a Minnesota farm in 1926, Laverne Clarence Gagne came to the Twin Cities to launch a great athletic career. Recruited to play football at the University of Minnesota, Gagne really made a name for himself as a wrestler for the Golden Gophers… becoming the first four-time Big Ten champ from any school… and Minnesota’s first two-time NCAA champ.
- Born: Corcoran, Minnesota, 1924
- School: Robbinsdale High School (Twin Cities); University of Minnesota
- Height/weight: 5’10”, 215 pounds
- Amateur accomplishments: Two-time Minnesota high school state champ at heavyweight (1942-1943); four-time Big Ten conference champ (175 pounds in 1943; 191 pounds in 1948, heavyweight in 1947 and 1949); two-time NCAA champ (191 lb at the 1948 NCAAs, heavyweight title at the 1949 NCAAs on a controversial referee’s decision over Dick Hutton of Oklahoma State (see below). Other college opponents: Ray Gunkel, Mike DiBiase, and Bob Geigel, all featured on this page. Wrestled at the 1948 London Olympics.
- Pro career: After a brief pro football career with the Green Bay Packers, Gagne entered the pro wrestling ring in 1949. His career spanned more than three decades, including numerous stints as world champion in the American Wrestling Association.
- Beyond wrestling: After his freshman year at Minnesota, Gagne served two years in the U.S. Marine Corps at El Toro, California during World War II.
After being cut from his junior high basketball season, Richard Heron Avis Hutton embarked on a successful wrestling career. A big bear of a man, Hutton just missed out on becoming the first four-time NCAA wrestling champ… decades before Pat Smith, Cael Sanderson, Kyle Dake and Logan Stieber. (From 1928 to the late 1960s, college wrestlers could not compete as freshmen at the NCAAs… except for a brief time immediately after World War II, which allowed Hutton to win a national college title in his first year of competing at Oklahoma State.)
- Born: Amarillo, Texas, 1923
- Schools: Tulsa Webster High; Oklahoma State University
- Height/weight: 5’10”, 245 pounds
- Amateur accomplishments: Runner-up at Oklahoma state tournament; three-time NCAA heavyweight champ (1947-1948, 1950) who lost the 1949 NCAA title on a questionable referee’s decision in the championship match with Minnesota’s Verne Gagne, his only loss in college. Wrestled Gagne, Ray Gunkel and Mike DiBiase in college. Placed fifth at the 1948 London Olympics.
- Pro wrestling: After graduating from Oklahoma State, Hutton re-entered the Army for a two-year tour… then launched his pro wrestling career, becoming a world champ in 1957 by defeating the legendary Lou Thesz.
- Beyond wrestling: Served in the U.S. Army twice — first, immediately after high school during World War II, then a second time after college.
Although in his pro wrestling career he was known as “Texas” Bob Geigel, this hirsute Hawkeye was very much Iowa born and bred.
- Born: Algona, Iowa, 1924
- Schools: Algona High School, University of Iowa
- Height/weight: 5’11”, 230 pounds
- Amateur accomplishments: Runner-up at heavyweight at the 1942 Iowa high school state tournament; two-time NCAA qualifier and 1949 NCAA All-American, placing third at 191 pounds; wrestled Verne Gagne in college. Earned letters in football and wrestling in high school and at University of Iowa.
- Pro career: Made his pro debut right out of college, in 1950. Career as a wrestler, manager and promoter spanned decades.
- Beyond wrestling: Served in the U.S. Navy for four years during World War II.
Joe Scarpello. The most decorated wrestler to come out of the University of Iowa in the 1940s, Joseph J Scarpello was the Hawkeyes’ first four-time Big Ten champ (second only to Verne Gagne in the conference) and first four-time NCAA All-American.
- Born: Omaha, 1923
- Schools: Omaha Central High School, University of Iowa
- Amateur accomplishments: Three-time Nebraska high school state champ for Omaha Central (1940-1942); four-time Big Ten champ at 175 pounds (1947-1950); four-time NCAA All-American (1947-1950); two-time NCAA champ at 175 (1947 and 1950); 1949 NCAA runner-up. Alternate for U.S. team at the 1948 London Olympics.
- Pro career: Climbed into the ring in 1950, launching a 25-year career. Tag-teamed with Verne Gagne.
Pro wrestling fans recognize the name DiBiase from Ted “Million Dollar Man” DiBiase and Michael DiBiase II — the stepson and step-grandson (respectively) of this guy, “Iron Mike” DiBiase, the Nebraskan who made a name for himself in amateur and pro competition.
- Born: Omaha, 1923
- Schools: Omaha Technical High; University of Nebraska – Lincoln
- Height/weight: 6′, 230 pounds
- Amateur accomplishments: Two-time Nebraska high school state champ at Omaha Tech; 1946 AAU national champ while still in high school; two-time NCAA qualifier. Wrestled Dick Hutton in college
- Pro career: Jumped into the pro ring in 1950. Died of a heart attack after a match in Amarillo at age 45.
A multi-sport athlete, Ray Gunkel earned letters in football and wrestling at Purdue University in Indiana.
- Born: Chicago, 1924
- School: Purdue University
- Amateur accomplishments: Two-time NCAA All-American (including a heavyweight finalist at the 1947 NCAAs, losing to Oklahoma State’s Dick Hutton in the finals, 5-3 in overtime); two-time AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) national champ (1947, 1948).
- Pro wrestling: Gunkel entered pro wrestling in 1948 (with boxing champ Jack Dempsey serving as his manager), and was an active participant (as wrestler and manager) right up to his death in 1972.