Wrestling as a sport has been around since the Greeks and Romans first set down rules for grappling over 2000 years ago. It remained a sport until the mid-19th century when carnival sideshows began featuring choreographed ‘wrestling competitions.’ However, Greco-Roman wrestling – sometimes dubbed ‘amateur wrestling’ – was a featured part of the 1896 Olympics.
In the mid-1930’s, choreographed or ‘professional’ wrestling became more popular. It declined during World War II but gained a resurgence in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, due in large part to television. This has been called the First Golden Age of Wrestling. (A second Golden Age occurred in the 1970’s and 80’s with the reemergence of ‘side-show’ wrestling under the WWF and Vince McMahon. That is a story for another time.)
Boise was not immune to the phenomenon. Throughout the 1950’s, the old fairgrounds at Fairview and Orchard was a popular venue for the wrestling circuit. My parents were both wrestling fans and we often traveled to Boise for the matches.
One wrestler in particular, Tony Borne (born Anthony Osborne in Columbus, OH in 1926) became a close family friend and my godfather. Tony worked across the country but was most popular in the Pacific Northwest, under promoter Don Owen, and in the mid-South regions.
Throughout the 1950’s, he was very popular with crowds, only occasionally adopting a ‘bad guy’ persona. In late 1958, he teamed with another veteran wrestler, Joe Tomasso. At the time, Joe wrestled while wearing a mask, with the moniker “The Bat.”
In 1959, Tony and “The Bat” won the U.S. tag-team championship title. Tony had previously won the tag-team title with Lonnie Mayne, his most enduring partner.
Today, no one disputes that professional wrestling is, and was, loosely choreographed. By ‘loosely’, I mean that matches were not scripted move-by-move as a dance might be, but certain moves were expected from certain wrestlers as defined points in the match. And in general, the outcome was pre-determined. (So much for the ‘championship title.’). However, in the 1950’s, this was almost universally denied by wrestlers, managers, and promoters.
As Tony’s friend, I was often allowed into the dressing rooms at the fairgrounds – even at the age of 12 or 13. However, I was always shooed out when the promoter came in to ‘talk to’ the wrestlers.
‘Knowing’ or at least suspecting that matches were staged did not prevent some fans from reacting emotionally toward the wrestlers.
I well remember one incident in late 1959 or early 1960 at the fairgrounds. Tony and Joe (as The Bat) had adopted a ‘bad guy’ persona, creating some emotional ire from fans. In this particular match, they were wrestling against Salt Lake City’s popular Bill Melby (also a family friend) and another wrestler I don’t remember.
After the match, which Tony and Joe ‘won’, I was standing near the tunnel between the stands waiting to follow them back to the dressing room, as I often did. Suddenly, a man jumped out of the stands, knocking me down. I saw that the man had a knife in his hand and I yelled something.
The man’s goal was to stab Joe, but Tony heard me and turned toward the man. Tony raised his hand to protect Joe, and the man severely slashed Tony’s palm. I think that was the most blood I had ever seen at that point in my life. It took several stitches to close the wound. Sheriff’s deputies assigned to the event quickly arrested the assailant.
In the early 1970’s, Tony retired from wrestling and became a successful Realtor in Portland, Oregon. As an adult, I often traveled to Portland to visit him and always enjoyed his company.
His son, Matt, followed his father into wrestling. In 1981, Tony again entered the ring to appear in one match with Matt. Tony died in Oak Grove, Oregon in 2010.
Joe Tomasso continued to wrestle until 1976. He died in 1988.