One of the all-time greats in football history, he was also one of the earliest crossover stars in professional wresting.
Real Name: Bronislau Nagurski
Stats: 6′ 2″ 240 lbs.
Back in the early days of organized professional wrestling, marketability and fame were already surpassing wrestling skill as the primary asset a wrestler could possess. During the twenties, thirties and forties, the “sport” certainly featured a much more realistic look & feel…entirely because pro wrestling was supposed to be a legitimate sport, even though it no longer was. The bottom line of professional wrestling has always been just that; the bottom line. As the stakes were raised and the popularity of wrestling grew, it became clear to promoters that, while grappling prowess & ability was absolutely a requirement for success, pure ring skill was no longer the be-all, end-all of the mat game. At least not when it came to drawing paying fans to the show, which was/is the sole purpose of presenting a wrestling card…
However, as previously noted, wrestling greatness is usually determined by a performer’s ability to draw money, and exceptional in-ring ability is not always a sure-fire ticket to success. That said, Nagurski, a ‘natural athlete’ in the truest sense of the term who never had any amateur experience as a wrestler, became a more than competent worker after his career as a football player ended. The combination of his acquired wrestling fundementals, which eventually became quite solid, and brute strength (not to mention his famous name) eventually resulted in not one, but several reigns as the World Heavyweight Wrestling champion for Nagurski, and during the thirties and forties, Bronco was unquestionably one the biggest names in wrestling and he was among the most famous athletes (of any sport) in the country…
The future NFL & pro wrestling legend was born in 1908 in Canada, but while still a toddler, his familiy moved to Minnesota and he spent the rest of his youth growing up in the States. From the start, Nagurski excelled at sports, and in particular, football. After graduating from high school, he attended the University of Minnesota and continued his amateur career in football, with great success.
Nagurski, an All-American at the Minnesota from 1927 through 1929, quickly established himself as the best defensive player in the Big Ten, and perhaps the country. A testament to his unique talents, Nagurski is the only athlete in American collegiate history to become an All-Star at two different positions, Tackle and Full-back. Understandably, it didn’t take long for the National Football League to gain an interest in the Bronco, and in 1930, his lifelong dream came true when he was approached by the legendary George Halas with a contract that enabled him to become a well-compensated pro player. Not only that, it was to be with one of the most respected & successful teams in NFL history, the Chicago Bears. Halas’ newest defensive mauler quickly proved his worth, and Nagurski was the focal point of one of the greatest defensive squads ever, one that helped lead the mighty Chicago Bears to the World championship in 1932. The next season, Nagurski’s ‘Monsters of the Midway’ continued where they left off, repeating as the 1933 World champions. The team’s back-to-back World championships and its complete dominance of the opposition placed them in an elite class of history’s best NFL squads, and the Chicago Bears of the early thirties, led by their star defensive player Bronco Nagurski, will forever be remembered as one of the greatest in the rich history of the National Football League.
On the heels of winning his second World Championship with the Bears, Nagurski (who was up for a new challenge, as well as being interested in supplementing his NFL income) made headlines with his professional wrestling debut, which, not surprisingly, he won. With his NFL career winding down, Bronco eventually started wrestling more and more, until he retired from football and began a full-time career as a professional wrestler.
Then, after a few years in the business, Bronco won his first major wrestling championship when he defeated Dean Detton and captured the Maryland version of the World Heavyweight title on June 16, 1937. Although the Maryland version of the World championship was one of several World titles being defended at the time, it was also one of the more presitigious titles of the day, and the well-known Nagurski not only benefitted from his first championship, but the title itself gained credibility by having Bronco carry it. However, when Nagurski (whose career was being handled by his manager, Tony Stecher) refused to grant a title shot to former champion Jim Londos, Bronco was stripped of the title and the championship was vacated.
Having established himself as one of the “sport’s” top box-office draws, Bronco bounced back by gaining another very prestigious World championship, the National Boxing/Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Title, on June 23, 1939 in Houston, TX. Furthermore, Nagurski not only scored another big victory, he did so by defeating the preeminent wrestler of the day, the great Lou Thesz, to win his second World title…an accomplishment that was, to say the least, no easy task. Over the course of the following nine months, the famous NBA-NWA World Champion (and the promoters who had Nagurski wrestling on their card) enjoyed a great deal of success as he traveled the country defending his version of the World title. And, while there was other claiments to the World Championship of wrestling defending their belts at the same time as Bronco, his stature amongst the public was nearly unrivaled, and the man who The Ring (once the most popular wrestling/boxing magazine in the country) referred to as “the true World champion” was, indeed, respected by all.
The rugged Nagurski eventually lost his NBA-NWA World title to Ray Steele on March 7, 1940 in St. Louis, MO., and spent the next year enjoying the reduced schedule of a non-champion. However, almost one year to the day since his loss of the title, Nagurski regained the NBA-NWA World championship from Steele in Minneapolis, and he again became the reigning World Champion of wrestling. Then, several months later, Nagurski was upset by Sandor Szabo on June 5, 1941. Although no one could’ve known it at the time, the loss, which took place in St. Louis, MO., would mark the end of The Bronco’s run as the (singles) World Heavyweight Wrestling champion. It did not, however, end his career, and Nagurski continued on as one of the top box-office draws in the business.
In October of 1946, Nagurski, by now a seasoned ring veteran, gained some measure of revenge when he captured the National Wrestling Alliance’s Pacific Coast championship (San Franscico) by defeating Sandor Szabo (pictured), the same man who had taken Bronco’s World title five years earlier. During their respective careers, Nagurski and Szabo met numerous times in the ring, with each man taken his share of victories (and championships) from the other. After dropping the NWA Pac-Coast title to Billy Hansen several weeks after his win over Szabo, Bronco regained the once-prestigious title by defeating Len Hall on October 1, 1948 in Oakland, CA. However, just three weeks later, Szabo once again scored a win over his popular rival, and regained the Pacific Coast title (for the tenth time in career at that point) as a result of his victory over Nagurski.
As the forties became the fifties, Nagurski entered his third separate decade in the wrestling business. Considering the punishment his body had taken during his career as a Chicago Bear and then as a World champion wrestler, it’s not surprising that the battered Nagurski began to slow a step or two in the ring. Still, in the wrestling business, experience can often overcome youth, and Nagurski remained a top name (and champion) in the business.
After years as a singles performer, The Bronco returned to ‘team sports’ when he formed a highly successful duo with one of the brightest young stars in the business at the time, former NCAA champion Verne Gagne. Their team, which ambodied youth & experience as well as science & power, became a big draw within the AWA. This was even more the case after the popular duo won the AWA World Tag Team title on December 26, 1957 by defeating the hated team of Johnny Valentine & Chet Wallich. Nagurski and Gagne enjoyed a great deal of success during their lengthy reign as the AWA tag champions before they finally lost their title belts to the brother combo of Doc and Mike, The Gallaghers on March 22, 1958 in St, Paul, MN.
With decades worth of intense physical punishment finally beginning to take a toll of his body, the battered Nagurski made the decision to retire in 1960 after one of the most memorable athletic careers of modern times. After three decades in the wrestling business, Nagurski hung his wrestling gear up and returned home to a quiet life in rural Minnesota. Nearly thirty years later, on Jan 8, 1990, the two-sport Hall of Famer passed away at the age of 82.
Considering his many acomplishments as a football player (both amateur and pro) it’s not surprising that Bronco Nagurski is a member of the NFL Hall of Fame. In another tribute to his longterm impact, the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) votes on the annual Bronco Nagurski Award, an honor that is given to the top amatuer defensive football player in the country. And, while his accomplishments on the gridiron were truly extraordinary, it should not be forgotten that his many contributions to pro wrestling were equally important…
We at WrestlinBiographies.com posthumously induct this genuine two-sport legend and one of the key figures from the “Golden Age” of wrestling, former multi-time World Heavyweight Wrestling champion Bronco Nagurski, into the H.O.W. Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame……
By Steve Slagle