I was there the night Brigham “The Battling Bishop” Houston’s winning streak finally came to an end. It was the evening of Oct. 13, 1939. I had just been ordained a teacher the Sunday before. To be honest, I wasn’t that interested in wrestling, but I had been to a match when visiting cousins in California, and so Brother Matheson decided that qualified me to sell programs in exchange for a ringside seat. Wrestling didn’t normally come to Parowan, but The Battling Bishop and his record win streak had gained such popularity in Mormon country that the promoter decided to hit the same circuit of small towns the circus made.
There was a big divide among the ward members between those who considered wrestling an acceptable entertainment and those who didn’t. It seemed strange to me that the same family that’d turn out for the circus would avoid a wrestling match, but I suppose we all have to draw the line somewhere. My parents were fine with it.
It wasn’t a sell out, but we mostly filled the rickety wooden stands under the big top, and I managed to unload all of my programs and get to my ringside seat for the undercard, which featured some hastily recruited local boys. The crowd quickly got into the spirit of things and were soon cheering and booing and throwing popcorn. I wasn’t much interested in the local boys. Even with my limited experience, I knew they were trying to get too cute and fancy with their moves.
The middleweight bout was much better. I don’t think the audience quite appreciated the speed at which Hindu Joe and Miklos Lukacs wrestled, but I was fascinated by the acrobatic way they hurled each other across the ring. Hindu Joe took the first two falls, but Lukacs fought back and won the match by scoring three falls in the final two rounds.
Finally, it was time for the main event. Everyone suddenly stood and applauded as Brother Houston entered the tent. He raised his arms high towards the big top as he strutted in and then stopped to allow a few of the sisters present to run their hands through his massive beard. He stepped under the ropes and made a circuit of the ring to show off his satin cape embroidered with a brace of crossed pistols set over a large beehive.
I’m not sure who started it (I think it may have been me), but before long the crowd was chanting “Bish-op! Bish-op! Bish-op!” Brother Houston ate up the attention. He bowed and flexed and pointed and danced a little jig. Every movement he made was met with cheers and whistles. This went on for a good ten minutes. Finally, the crowd settled down.
The promoter took to the ring–a worried look on his face–and announced. “I’m sorry to disappoint you fine ladies and gentlemen but our challenger for the evening hasn’t showed up.”
This was met with boos and hisses. The promoter quieted the crowd back down. Just as he was about to say something, a man stood up in the middle of the stands, and said, “Yes, he has.”
Now, all my friends say that this was just part of the showmanship. But I swear that when that man stood up I was looking right at the promoter (and remember I was there on the front row), and he was as surprised as the rest of us–genuinely surprised because there was a reluctance to his acceptance of the challenge that I don’t think was faked.
Well, the challenger entered the ring to much confusion on the part of the crowd. Partly because of the unexpected introduction, partly because he was an older man with shoulder-length white hair and a short white beard. But then he took off his shirt, and the crowd gasped. While not as tall or heavy as The Battling Bishop, the challenger was quite muscled. Not with the fake bulges you see nowadays. Nope. His muscles were well-defined and ropy, like a sailor or a cowboy.
The referee glanced at the promoter a couple of times, but he just shrugged, so the referee brought the two wrestlers together and started the match.
Now, I have seen some pretty good professional wrestling matches since then but none that can hold a candle to that one. Those two worked the ring with both power and grace, matching acrobatics with raw athleticism as they fluidly moved among a succession of flying kicks, a bevy of clotheslines, all manner of elbows, strikes and chops, and a multitude of drops.
They kept the match close, exchanging takedown for takedown. But in the final moments of the final round, the challenger simply picked the champion up, slammed him down, and pinned him to the mat. The referee glanced at the promoter, who shrugged. The referee counted out the pinfall, and just like that The Battling Bishop’s win streak came to an end.
The crowd murmured and grumbled as they left, but I was ecstatic. What a match! The Battling Bishop had been magnificent. But the challenger had been otherworldly. There was a joy and vitality to him–almost a glow–that I have never seen in any other person over the years. Not in the most accomplished professional athletes or the most charismatic actors or even any of the brethren, a few of whom I have been privileged to meet. You know, the first time I saw Arnold Friberg’s painting of the prophet Abinadi in King Noah’s court, I stopped dead in my tracks. Abinadi looked just like the old man who brought The Battling Bishop’s win streak to an end.
There’s more to the story, though. It was hard to hear what with all the crowd noise, but I’m quite certain that right after he got pinned, I heard Brother Houston’s raspy voice croak, “Thank you, brother. It’s good to see you again.”