In the 2008 Will Ferrell movie Semi-Pro, which centers on a fictional ABA basketball team, there's a scene where Jackie Moon, played by Ferrell, wrestles with a grizzly bear at halftime of a game. It's an absurd, ridiculous, preposterous scene, and it was, believe it or not, based on a real promotion. 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.
"I mean, my God," Chet Coppock said. "We're 35 years removed from this, and I still have people who when I go to Indianapolis will see me and go, 'You know, I still remember the night you wrestled Victor the Bear.'"
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 Flash Gordon-esque "slave girls" at his side to emphasize his role as the heel. Victor, sporting a weight advantage of at least a quarter-ton, won easily.
The crowd loved it.
Victor was rarely unsuccessful in wrestling. He was de-clawed, de-fanged, fitted with a muzzle and drugged out of his mind, but he could still throw down anyone who stood before him, and he knew a few professional moves to boot. Victor was often listed as being eight feet tall and 650 pounds wide, although those figures varied greatly over the years. A 1970 feature in Sports Illustrated listed him at six foot, 450; two years earlier, the Milwaukee Sentinel had him pegged at 527 pounds; in the '80's, some outlets had him at 800 pounds. However much he weighed, it was more than enough to make him an unbeatable wrestling opponent. Most of his matches barely lasted a minute, and when he finished, Victor would race over to his owner, Tuffy Truesdell, and receive a fresh bottle of Coke, which he would inhale in a manner of seconds.
Victor's gift was not kept hidden from the public. Truesdell drove across the country with the ursine grappler, 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 Rowdy Roddy Piper ("Oh, I hated him. It wasn't a good night for Rod"), Don "The Lawman" Slatton, Gary Hart, Gorgeous George, Wahoo McDaniel, and Dick Beyer (who was disqualified for throwing an illegal punch at the bear). Even streetball legend Fly Williams took a shot at it. ("He was 8-feet, 11-inches. I lost.")
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 say 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. In 1977, an Olympic wrestler named Jeffrey M. Hunt pinned Victor for 10 seconds, causing Victor's trainer at the time, George Allen, to comment, "I can't believe it happened." In 1981, Wayne Boyd, a 34-year-old former collegiate wrestling champion, vanquished the bear. And so too, in the mid-'80's, did Olympic canoer Mike Herbert. But those victories were either disregarded by Truesdell or outright invalidated. Take for instance the case of Herbert, who decided to wrestle the bear when he was listening to the radio in his car one day and heard that anyone who could take Victor down would win a free Camaro. Herbert did his part, using his strength to actually lift Victor into the air and onto his back, but that wasn't exactly part of the plan. As he explained it to the Los Angeles Times in 1987:
"The trainer was pretty peeved because nobody had ever beaten the bear before, so he let him loose and he attacked me from behind. Hit me a good whack. Good thing they take their claws off and put a muzzle on him. That old bear was pretty mad. They don't like to be on their backs, I guess. Well, I picked him up again, tossed him down and plopped on him. I beat him twice in one night. The place really went crazy then.
"The promoter and the trainer took off. But I had all those witnesses and a bunch of people signed petitions and so they set up a grudge match. But this time, I had to pin him for three seconds to win. The other times I only had to do it for one second. So I wrestled him again, and the first time it was a draw and the second time they said I only had him pinned for two and a half seconds."
He never got his Camaro.
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 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 beltholder.
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 dangerous. In Gary Howard's book The Rassler from Renfrew, Harry Hart—the son of wrestler Frankie Hart—recalled his encounter with Truesdell. "Tuffy owned and wrestled an alligator and his 'opponent' stayed in a tank under the Truesdell's bed. Dad took us to one of Tuffy's matches, and he literally risked his life every time he performed... His wife told mom that she wanted to get rid of the reptile because Tuffy was starting to have nightmares about it. It would slosh around under their bed and he would wake up in a panic."
"I needed a new angle to keep alive my wrestling career," a 40-year-old Truesdell told the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1956. "Other guys wrestled bears, I thought I would try my hand with gators. Wrestling humans was a pleasure. There's no pleasure mixing with gators, but it's a living."
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 one up when a friend of his told him that a mother bear had accidentally been shot to death in northern Ontario. Truesdell drove 500 miles and hiked another seven miles before he found the bear's cubs. There were two of them: a boy and a girl. The girl had already frozen to the death, but the boy cub, which had a V-shaped splotch of white fur on its chest, was still alive. Truesdell picked the cub up, tucked him inside his jacket, and drove back home.
Victor 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. 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, which must have happened 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. ("The thing just got out of control.") 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, a horrible incident that left the man with an unmoving stump of a digit. "As the bear was licking and chewing on the fingertip," Smith's lawyer recalled, "the trainer walked over, scooped up the finger, handed it to him and said get out."
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 that was about all that was done to him. 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.
There's something oddly fitting about the way Victor's career ended. In 2010, "Caesar the Wrestling Bear," the spiritual successor to Victor, mauled its caretaker to death and had to be euthanized. Then there's this. You know the bear that wrestled with Will Ferrell's Jackie Moon in Semi-Pro? You know how the bit in the movie was that the bear got out of control and started attacking people? Well, not even two months after that film was released, the bear used in that film bit his trainer on the neck, killing him.
Maybe it's because of incidents like that that Victor's legacy is almost nonexistent these days. He was famous enough to have been on the Mike Douglas Show, the Johnny Carson Show, Donahue, To Tell the Truth, The Ed Sullivan Show and Let's Make a Deal, and yet these days he's little more than a nostalgic memory. Tell someone that the bear-wrestling scene in Semi-Pro was based on an actual promotion, and they probably won't believe you. Maybe that's the way it should be. Maybe humans shouldn't be in the business of making grizzly bears wrestle other humans, and maybe it's incidents like what happened to Caesar and the bear from Semi-Pro that highlight that. 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.
David Pincus writes for Sports Illustrated Extra Mustard; you can find him on Twitter @Reetae_.