Whipper Billy Watson (July 25 1915 – February 4 1990), born William Potts, was a Canadian professional wrestler and two-time world heavyweight wrestling champion.
Frank Tunney estimated that Whipper Watson drew more than five million people in main events of shows in Toronto. As one of the most popular wrestler’s in the city’s history, Watson spent 31 years entertaining fans. His debut at Maple Leaf Gardens was on October 3, 1940, and his last match was held on November 28 1971.
Watson was born William John Potts in East York, Ontario (now part of Toronto), on June 25
to an English born father, John Potts and a Canadian born mother, Alice Mary Wilken. Watson began wrestling in Toronto under his real name. He was a member of the Scarborough Athletic Club in the mid-1930s and was wrestling on what were billed as amateur wrestling shows in Toronto.
Exposure to wrestling
For four years as a teenager, Watson sold the Toronto Daily Star
at the corner of Danforth and Dawes Road. He was convinced by his brother George to play hooky from piano lessons one Saturday to attend a wrestling session at the All Hallows Anglican Church gymnasium. The event changed Watson’s life forever and he furthered his wrestling training with Phillip Lawson at the Bowles Athletic Club and later the Central YMCA.
In 1936, wrestling as Bill Potts, Watson appeared on cards at British Consols Stadium in Toronto that were advertised as amateur wrestling shows. In June of that year, he went on a tour of the United Kingdom along with fellow Toronto wrestlers
Tommy Nelson, Al Korman, and Ken "Tiger" Tasker and their manager, Harry Joyce. The wrestling of England often involved hard-nosed shooting and he was sidelined for six months with a fractured shoulder and numerous broken ribs. It was on this tour that William Potts became Billy Watson. Booked by former Olympic Gold Medalist George de Relwyskow, Watson traveled through England and Ireland.
Star attraction at Maple Leaf Gardens
After four years abroad, Watson and his wife returned to Canada, and he began wrestling at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto under 27-year-old promoter Frank Tunney. Watson made his Gardens debut in the opening match of the October 3
. Newspaper reports in November said Watson was frustrated with not getting a main event match in his first six appearances at the Gardens. He appeared in one Gardens main event in February 1941 but his big push came two months later. According to storyline, Watson filed a lawsuit against Tunney for breach of contract, claiming that he had been signed to wrestle a main event against Masked Wolf. When Tunney held an open tournament to determine the number one contender for the world title on May 1
, Watson entered -- filing a copy of his entry form with the Ontario Athletics Commission so that Tunney couldn't claim he didn't enter -- and then won four matches in one night to win the tournament.
From that point on, Watson was positioned as legitimate main event performer, a position that was cemented during Watson's feud with Nanjo Singh, which began in January 1942. Watson soon became a crowd favourite and within a few years, was a mainstream celebrity and one of Toronto's most popular citizens.
Watson defeated Nanjo Singh for the British Empire title on April 30
. He feuded with Bill Longson
, Lou Thesz
, Yvon Robert
, Gene Kiniski
, Gorgeous George
, and The Sheik
, among many others. Watson earned a reputation as someone who was willing to lose clean in the ring. He earned an “everyman” image and Watson went on to hold the city of Toronto’s regional title and the British Empire title on a regular basis.
Tunney cut Watson in on the business side of things. Their combined booking efforts resulted in large fortunes for the two of them. With connections to St. Louis promoter Tom Packs, Watson’s notoriety resulted in Watson ending Longson’s four year title reign with a victory at the Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis on February 21, 1947. The territory of St. Louis became a home away from home for Watson. More than 10,000 St. Louis fans watched local hero Lou Thesz beat Watson for the world title on April 25, 1947. After Packs retired in 1948, Tunney bought into the territory in St. Louis and this resulted in many more matches for Watson in the city.
Watson became one of a small group of wrestlers to have membership in the National Wrestling Alliance. In 1955, Watson expanded his business ventures by purchasing the Seattle territory from Bob Murray. Wrestlers from Toronto such as Doug Hepburn and Sky-Hi Lee wrestled for Watson in Seattle. Ken Kenneth ran the day-to-day operations for Watson and imported wrestlers from San Francisco to compete in Seattle. The territory folded a few months later.
On March 15, 1956, Watson ended Thesz’s six year reign as World Champion in front of 15,000 fans. Former boxing champion Jack Dempsey was the referee in the match. Watson traveled throughout North America and took on legends such as Gorgeous George, Pat O’Connor, Dick Hutton, Bobo Brazil, Hans Schmidt, Fritz Von Erich, Killer Kowalski and Buddy Rogers. Thesz regained the title from Watson on November 9, 1956 in St. Louis.
Outside of wrestling, Watson considered playing football for the Edmonton Eskimos in the 1950s.
Watson tested the waters of politics as the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada candidate in York East in the 1965 federal election. Watson placed second with 32% of the vote, falling about 2,500 votes behind Liberal Party of Canada candidate Steve Otto.
Watson also promoted his own soft drink brand.
The end of the road
On November 28
, he teamed with Bulldog Brewer at the Gardens to beat Diego the Sundowner and Man Mountain Cannon in less than five minutes. Watson was hit by an out-of-control car while placing a fireplace screen in the trunk of his car on November 30
on Rogers Road in Toronto. After a three hour surgery at Northwestern Hospital, his knee eventually recovered, but Watson could never wrestle again. Although he nearly lost a leg, he continued his fundraising activities into his retirement.
Watson was well-known for his contributions to charity. He raised millions for campaigns such as the Easter Seals and was responsible for having 150,000 children join a safety club. He made many public appearances across Canada in support of crippled children and held an annual Easter Seals skate-a-thon at the Gardens. For a number of years, he was director of the Ontario Society for Crippled Children.
His legacy is well-remembered in York Region where he lived. W.J. Watson Public School in Keswick, Ontario is named in his honour. His campaign to build The Whipper Watson Therapeutic Pool at Southlake Regional Health Centre is illustrated in a mural in the facility. Over the course of the next twelve years, Watson gained 130 pounds to weigh 350 pounds. He died on February 4, 1990 at an Orlando hospital after suffering a heart attack at his winter home in Florida.
- Finishing and signature moves
Championships and accomplishments
- *NWA British Empire Heavyweight Championship (Toronto version) (9 times)
- *NWA Canadian Open Tag Team Championship (12 times) - with Pat Flanagan (1), Yvon Robert (1), Hombre Montana (1), Tex McKenzie (2), Antonino Rocca (1), Pat O'Connor (1), Yukon Eric, (2), Bobo Brazil (1), Bernard Vigal, (1), and Ilio Dipaolo (1)
- *NWA International Tag Team Championship (Toronto version) (9 times) - with Yukon Eric (1), Bill Soloweyko (1), Billy Red Lyons (1), Bruno Sammartino (1), Johnny Valentine (2), Bulldog Brower (2), and Mark Lewin (1)
- *NWA World Heavyweight Championship (1 time)
- *NWA World Heavyweight Championship (1 time)1
- *NWA Canadian Tag Team Championship (Vancouver version) (1 time) - with Dan Miller
- *NWA Canadian Heavyweight Championship (Calgary version) (1 time)
- *Stampede Wrestling Hall of Fame
- *Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame (Class of 1996)
1The World Heavyweight Championship of the National Wrestling Association is not to be confused with the World Heavyweight Championship owned and sanctioned by the National Wrestling Alliance. The National Wrestling Association and all championships it recognized were completely separate from the National Wrestling Alliance and it's various championships.