On Apr. 2, 1975, at halftime of an ABA game between the Utah Stars and the Indiana Pacers, an Alaskan brown bear came out onto the court to wrestle some people and entertain the Indiana crowd. The creature's name was Victor—or, rather, Victor the Wrestling Bear.
Chet Coppock, the sports director at local CBS affiliate WISH-TV, was Victor's opponent that night. He wanted to give the interspecies bout more juice, so he came onto the court in a wrestling outfit pro wrestler Dick the Bruiser had given him, with a pair of Flas Gordon-esque "slave girls" at his side to emphasize his role as the heel. Victor, sporting a weight advantage of atleast a quarter-ton, won easily. The crowd loved it.
Victor's gift was not kept hidden from the public. Truesdell drove across the country, displaying him at sports shows and county fairs and asking crowds if anyone wanted to tangle with him. If no one wanted to get in the ring with Victor, Truesdell would wrestle the bear himself; if there was a volunteer, Truesdell would serve as the referee. Of course, anyone who challenged the behemoth first had to sign a waiver that Truesdell could not be held legally responsible for what happened. As noted in Sports Illustrated's piece on Victor: "It costs Tuffy about 5% of his gross to obtain various types of insurance, but it is financially impossible for him to afford the premiums he would have to pay to actually insure the people who choose to climb into the ring and take on Victor. You wrestle him at your own risk."
You might think that would have been enough of a disincentive, but the bear wrestled thousands—possibly tens of thousands—of people from the time he was born in the early '60's. Search "Victor the Bear" or "Victor the Wrestling Bear" and you'll come across accounts of dozens of people trying to hold their own against him, many of them famous. Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, who appeared with Victor in the movie Paint Your Wagon, allegedly did it; so too did then-SI writer Frank Deford ("He pinned me in about eight seconds"); there was NFL coach Rod Marinelli and football players Dick Butkus, Jim LeClair and Vince Papale, who walked away from his match with six stitches. ("That was probably the most stupid thing I've done"); there were wrestlers, including Rowdy Roddy.
The record Victor amassed over the course of his career was probably quite impressive, though no one will ever know what it actually was, as the one offered by Truesdell was apocryphal and changed radically over the years. George Ellison of Smoky Mountain News recalled seeing a poster that ("with a little exaggeration") claimed his record was 2000-0-1, and that's one of the more conservative estimates. In 1981, the Associated Press had Victor at 10,000-0; in 1977, the UPI reported that he was 15,000-0; in the 1970 feature on him by Sports Illustrated, Truesdell had the audacity to claim that Victor was 50,000-0-1. The tale of the tie changed over the years too. At one time, it supposedly came from pro wrestler Don Leo Jonathan, then from pro wrestler Moe Baker. In later years, it was said that a professional football player ran around the ring for so long that Victor eventually just laid down.
In truth, Victor met defeat a handful of times, but those victories were either disregarded by Truesdell or outright invalidated. If Truesdell was protective of Victor's record, it was because he depended on the bear to make a living, and an undefeated force of nature, a creature so dominant that no human could ever dream of bringing down, is an easier attraction to sell than a bear that only wins most of the time.
Truesdell, from Goshen, Ohio, knew a thing or two about wrestling. He earned the nickname "Tuffy" when, at age 6, he overwhelmed a bully who was picking on him—in Frank Deford's 1970 piece, he noted that Truesdell despised his real first name, "Adolphus"—and went on to become a middleweight belt holder. Eventually, Truesdell discovered that it was more lucrative for him to wrestle animals than other human beings, so he decided to wrangle up some four-legged opponents to take on the road with him. Only, it wasn't bears he was gathering… it was alligators. Long before he entered the bear racket, Truesdell dabbled in wrestling that was even more dangerours. Truesdell decided to give up that living after a particularly nasty run-in with "Rodney the Wrestling Alligator," who left him with 40 stitches.
He shifted his attention to bears and scooped up an orphaned bear in northern Ontario. Named Victor, he became one of the family and, when he was big enough to wrestle, Truesdell took him on the road with him. Eventually, the bear got more famous than he was, and Truesdell decided to stock up on bears, raising and training them on a farm he purchased in Pleasant Plain, Ohio. He even stocked up on the number of “Victors” he had and, it's at this point, that the linear narrative of Victor the Bear gets a bit complicated. Victor was really two or three bears—at least.
The first Victor died of a heart attack at the age of 17, in the mid-'70's. "We almost left the business then," Truesdell's wife Lee recalled to the Sylva Herald & Ruralite in 1985. "Tuffy was so hurt by Victor's death." Even so, they stayed in the business. Victor II assumed his predecessor's namesake and kept the act alive, improbable win-loss record and all: Victor the Bear was wrestling people well into the '80's. But his act didn't age as gracefully as he did. Society was becoming more sympathetic to animals, and more concerned about their living conditions. People were now looking at Victor, with his muzzle and his removed fangs and his removed claws, and wondering if the bear was actually living a good life. Sue Pressman, a director at the Humane Society of the United States, stated in 1981 that Victor was "being exploited in the most obnoxious way possible."
1981 was a bad year for Victor the Wrestling Bear. After thousands and thousands of matches with nary a single serious injury, two finally occurred within a few weeks of each other. A 24-year-old came away with a fractured ankle and damaged cartilage and ligaments after Victor started wailing on him for no explicable reason. And then there was the more serious incident. In September, an Army corporal by the name of Charles G. Smith was wrestling Victor when his left hand managed to slip inside Victor's muzzle. The bear chomped down with his back teeth and bit most of his left pinky finger clean off. Smith sued Truesdell and won; Truesdell didn't even show up to court. Victor lost his wrestling license in Virginia, several venues turned him away when a request was made to accommodate him, and protesters picketed against his treatment, but because Victor wasn't being physically mistreated, and because the people he was wrestling were volunteers, the federal government claimed it lacked the legal authority to end his wrestling career. It was just as well, since Victor's career didn't last much longer anyway.
Tuffy Truesdell died at the age of 84 on Mar. 30, 2001. His tombstone is emblazoned with the image of a smiling bear. These days Victor and Tuffy are little more than a nostalgic memory. Maybe humans shouldn't be in the business of making grizzly bears wrestle other humans. As awful as it was that Victor bit off an Army corporal's finger, it did serve as a reminder that Victor, as docile as he was, was still a wild animal.
A wild animal that was really good at wrestling people.
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