St. Joseph News-Press – March 8, 1994
By Allen Seifert
It was an era when Gust Karras owned Friday night.
His wrestling matches at rickety old St. Joseph Auditorium were such fixtures that other events – from basketball games to bingo nights – were scheduled around them.
Wrestling fans came from everywhere to jam that old arena to the rafters. A match between Sonny Myers and Lou Thesz, or Ronnie Etchison and Orville Brown, or a tag team showdown between the hated Dusek brothers and Myers and Etchison were major sporting events.
Ronnie Etchison, one of the cornerstones in that old Karras wrestling empire, died last week at the age of 73.
Karras was from the era when men like the Zbyszko brothers, Stanislaus and Wladek, from Andrew County, dominated his sport. A match might last for hours. Before becoming a promoter, Karras made his money wrestling all comers on the carny circuit.
Once he settled in St. Joseph, Karras not only began promoting wrestling, but teaching those old carnival skills to people like Etchison and Myers and Larry and Joe Hamilton. St. Joseph became, because of these competitors, known as the wrestling capital of the nation, if not the world.
St. Joseph became a wrestling mecca. Not only did Etchison and Sonny Myers and Larry and the Hamiltons call it home, but so did Thor Hagen and Cowboy Bob Ellis and Bob Brown and Rufus R. Jones and the Mongolian Stomper and Bob Geigel and the midget Lord Littlebrook. The latter had his own gym, where he developed and promoted midget wrestlers like Little Tokyo among others.
These were not men with masks and painted faces. These were not men who strutted like roosters spewing threats into a microphone. There was still a thread of authenticity running through it. Fans loved it, and Karras’ flair for setting up matches kept them coming back time and again.
Etchison began his professional career in 1939 after training under Karras, and immediately became a fan favorite. It was a career which took him to every state in the Union, as well as Canada, Japan and Australia – from Madison Square Garden to Candlestick Park.
Dependent upon Karras for bookings, Etchison took the world championship belt from Orville Brown one winter night at the old Auditorium in 1947. Before his career officially came to an end, he had met and defeated virtually every heavyweight wrestler then active.
That list of victims would read like a Who’s Who of matdom, from Orville Brown to Bob Brown, Harley Race to Joe Dusek, Antonino Rocca to Verne Gagne. To list the titles he held or shared would fill an entire chapter of a very thick book.
Included among his opponents was Joe Louis, the vaunted Brown Bomber, who went three rounds to a draw with Etchison with more than 4,000 fans packed into the old auditorium.
Etchison made two holds famous during his long career – the Giant Swing, in which he took a groggy opponent by the heels and swung him in a circle, and the Missouri Stump Puller, an off-beat leg lock he “adapted” from the overall-clad Haystack Calhoun.
During his outstanding career, Etchison was never too busy to help a younger wrestler learn the tricks of the trade. In a tiny, sweat-soaked gym under the auspices of the omnipresent Karras, Etchison helped develop latter-day mat stars like Ed Wiskoski and Mike George and the Junkyard Dog and many more.
He, along with the others, put St. Joseph on the wrestling map. No matter where he competed he always insisted that his correct hometown be listed. Etchison was as proud of St. Joseph as he was of the successes he achieved in a tough, tough business.
Today’s pro wrestlers are a pampered lot in a field where showmanship beats a good headlock. St. Joseph has lost a true champion who proved his mettle time and time again.