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Misc General General Archive Cleveland Sports Vault: 1/31/74. “The Cleveland Riot” at the Arena
Written by Greg Popelka

Greg Popelka

ernie laddBy 1974, the Cleveland Arena was living on borrowed time.

Its owner was Nick Mileti, who also owned Cleveland’s baseball Indians, basketball Cavaliers and hockey Barons. Mileti had just built the 20,000-seat Coliseum at Richfield, which was about to open to rave reviews.

There was no denying that the old downtown facility had outlived its usefulness. It was dim, damp, cold, and smelled of musty, stale beer. Parking was inadequate. Sometimes the hockey rink created condensation on the basketball floor which covered it. Even when dry, the floor’s ‘dead’ spots spawned complaints among basketball players.

Through its roughly four decades of service, the 10,000-seat Arena* had hosted various other events besides the aforementioned. Boxing, the circus, and the Ice cleveland arena 1962Capades drew large crowds on a regular basis. Concerts featuring acts such as Elvis Presley (1956) and Alan Freed’s Moondog Coronation Ball (1952; considered to be the first Rock n Roll concert ever) dotted the calendar.

Another sought-after ticket at the Cleveland Arena was professional wrestling. Rasslin’.

Here were some of my favorite rasslin' moves. Kids, please do not try these at home. And if not done brother-to-brother, be advised that these moves constitute ‘bullying’, and should be reported to an authority figure. Never, ever should these be performed on girls. 

Noogies, wedgies, purple nurples and horsebites are garden variety rasslin’ moves. (Purple nurples are the grabbing of a person’s nipple with your thumb and forefinger, and twisting. Horsebites are when you grab someone’s arm with both hands, and twist in opposite directions.)

Channels 43 and 61 also broadcast the Buffalo/Pittsburgh/Cleveland wrestling circuit to northeast Ohio. Thirty nine years ago, in one of the last Arena events, two of the most notable wrestlers squared off. Here are thumbnails of the principals.

Ernie Ladd (photo at top)

Heee-uge. “The Big Cat” had been a football standout at Grambling University before starring for the San Diego Chargers, the Houston Oilers, and the Kansas City Chiefs of the American Football League. He stood at 6’9” tall, and his playing weight was 315 lbs. He was a three-time All-Pro. Ladd was an exceptionally large football player for the 1960s era, and was acknowledged as being the strongest player of his time. He wrestled on a part-time basis while playing football, using the nickname, “The King” (wearing a crown). He was the first black man to be a “heel”, or villain. He generally dissed his opponents, giving them slanderous nicknames. He infamously used a taped thumb as an advantage in matches,johnny powers wrestler insisting the tape was necessary due to a football injury. When a match was looking like a loss, he’d often walk away and forfeit. To this day, such a move is called “pulling a Ladd”.

Johnny Powers (right)

Powers hailed from Hamilton, Ontario. In a world of shtick and costumes, Powers stood out as curiously straight-laced. He was also a wrestling promoter, along with other various interests such as sports merchandising and celebrity management.

A favorite was the Waffle Belly. Usually, one guy needs to hold the recipient down for this. A portion of the recipient’s stomach is exposed. While a tennis or racquetball racket is pressed to it, a hairbrush is scrubbed over it while the scrubber yells, "Waffle Belly! Waffle Belly!" When the racket is removed, a nice waffle design remains.

The backdrop:

A few weeks prior, Ladd had received an award as the 1973 professional wrestler of the year. The honor was publicly announced- with Powers looking on- just prior to an Arena tag-team match that featured Ladd and Powers against The Sheik and Pampero Firpo.

the sheik wrestlerThe Sheik (left)

Of Lebanese descent, his character was as a rich, wild Syrian. His stare was Manson-like. When active, he rolled his eyes and lolled his tongue. In the ring, it sounded like he was repeating the word “aloo” over and over; reportedly, he was simply saying the name of his hometown –Kalamazoo- in an Arabian dialect! A pioneer of “hardcore wrestling”, a style that emphasizes stunts and shock value through the use of blood and objects such as chairs which were thrown at opponents. He was known for hiding broken pencils, which he would produce during matches. Sometimes, opponents were able to take the pencil from The Sheik; his forehead bore the telltale scars. He also had an infamous fireball move- throwing fire at the eyes of the opponent. The Sheik was seriously burned during a match in Japan.

Pampero Firpo (right)

pampero firpo wrestler“The Wild Bull of the Pampas”. Holder of several titles over the years. A heel for most of his career, although converted to a “face” (“babyface”, or hero) for a time after being fireballed by The Sheik.

During the tag-team match, The Sheik produced a set of brass knuckles and pummeled Ladd, who crumpled to the mat. The Sheik and Firpo commenced to doubling up on Powers. Powers stretched to receive a tag from Ladd- unfortunately for him, Ladd had walked away from the ring to clear his head. Powers, enraged, screamed at the "wrestler of the year" and verbally destroyed him for not having his back. Powers left the ring, approached Ladd, and punched him. He pulled Ladd into the ring by the hair and applied of flurry of fists, elbows and kicks. The crowd booed lustily as Powers left.

The Sheik descended upon Ladd once again and in a fascinating turn of events, Firpo turned on The Sheik! The match had featured a historic “double turn,” including an incredible turn by the babyface Powers!

Powers went off on Ladd in the media the next day. Here Powers had worked all year long, and had done well. Ernie Ladd had only been around a few weeks, and HE gets the wrestler of the year honors?!?!

About a week later, Powers faced off against Ladd, and Ladd administered a thorough beating. During a rematch a few days later, Powers was in a must-win situation- win, or lose his title belt. With Firpo as the special guest referee for the fight, the match was going Ladd’s way. Suddenly, Powers slugged Firpo, earning a disqualification (which came without the penalty of losing the belt). Ladd then pinned Powers. The ruling, however, was that the match was over when Powers hit Firpo, and the title was retained by Powers.

So here we arrive at the January 31 showdown.

Four thousand wrestling fans were on hand for the highly anticipated match between Ernie Ladd and Johnny Powers. It would be fought as a ‘Texas Uncle’ (one that could only be won with submission holds- not by decision). Additionally, Ladd stood to win $5,000 from Powers if he could extract himself from the latter’s signature hold.

During the match, Powers eventually had Ladd trapped in his hold- the “Powerlock”. It was not looking good for the former football player… until, in a surprise, it became clear that he was about to escape! Before he could, however, something unexpected happened…

ox bakerA newcomer, Ox Baker, suddenly stormed the ring. Baker was a bushy-eyebrowed, Fu Manchu’d, bald wrestler who had a move that was said to have killed two people. It was his deadly ‘heart punch’. Baker smacked Ladd, and Powers broke loose. Baker sized up Ladd and applied the ‘heart punch’! Powers stalked the two, and Baker laid into Ladd.

A fan rushed the ring, tossing a chair. Powers was there to knock it away. Baker continued his assault on Ladd, and fans began to approach the ring. A couple were said to have brandished knives. They were enraged. Plastic cups and chairs began flying into the ring. Powers and Baker were trapped. Powers made a run for it, breaking through the angry mob. He made a bee-line for the hockey boards, escaping to safety. Baker followed.

When the police arrived, the tension had already lifted. Authorities were alarmed, especially since the very night before, hockey star Gordy Howe had gone into the stands after some disorderly fans…

Reflecting on the incident years later, Ox Baker explained that they hadn’t realized how worked up they’d gotten the fans. Normally, the heel only goes so far until the face bursts the bubble. On the night of “The Riot”, Baker continued to attack. Fans actually thought Baker was trying to kill Ladd (as opposed to Beer Night at the Stadium later that year, when a bunch of crazy drunks got out of control). Powers and Baker ended up with dozens of stitches, yet were relieved that they made it to the locker room before being more seriously injured.

The whole story pretty much ended there. All future matches were moved to the new Coliseum, where the suburban clientele was much tamer. Baker and Ladd had a video of the disturbance, which you can see here. They played it in various other venues in states such as Indiana and Georgia as they stirred up interest at new venues.

I never performed a swirlie. That’s just mean, and dangerous. Do people really do that- hold a recipient upside down so his hair sits the water in a toilet bowl as it is flushed? 

The cheek-to-cheek is another one to avoid. It’s where the recipient is held on the ground, face-up but blindfolded. Someone drops trou and squats over the recipient, who is suddenly released. When he pops up, he goes 'cheek to cheek'. 

Thanks for reading. Sources included; Wikipedia.

* Google map image of the site of The Cleveland Arena. It was located on Euclid Avenue, on a site currently occupied by the American Red Cross:

Cleveland Arena site


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