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Wrestling’s wildest night: The 1945 Columbia riot revealed

Things got ugly fast when fans tried ripping the heel’s head off.

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Wrestlers and ringsiders have always shared a unique bond that often brings both sides together, sometimes too close for each other’s liking. But for 20th-century heels, that typically meant bad news when engulfed by a sea of enraged fans.

WWE Hall of Famer Larry Zbyszko has openly discussed getting stabbed in the buttocks not long after turning on his mentor and Northeast legend, Bruno Sammartino. Ken Patera, whom I had the pleasure of speaking with this past summer, regaled me with stories from the road where his matches ended in riots and how patrons literally took a stab at him on several occasions.

While such raucous behavior was a staple in wrestling’s early days, it still was shocking to see how unhinged crowds would become despite knowing that pro wrestling wasn’t a legitimate sport. And such was the case one fateful night in Columbia, SC.

The Columbia Record, April 4, 1945 -

On April 3, 1945, the masked Black Phantom and rising young hopeful Abe Yourist engaged in warfare that almost imploded Columbia’s famous Township Auditorium. In their first meeting weeks earlier, fans scrambled to get to safety as both men fell to the floor and began fighting through the crowd, resulting in a count-out. A rematch between the two was scheduled at the auditorium several weeks later, giving attendees enough time to steady their nerves for the sequel.

But what unfolded took everyone, including the Phantom and Yourist, by storm and quickly became the talk of the town.

During the rematch, the Phantom tied Yourist’s head between the ropes in an attempt to choke his opponent to death. After referee Jim Coffield was unsuccessful in restraining the masked villain, Coffield took matters into his own hands, specifically, his fist, punching the Phantom in the jaw. The two then tumbled to the floor, where all hell broke loose.

According to reports, fans made a mad dash toward the ringside area, with spectators coming down from the balcony to get in on the action. On-duty police tried to prevent fans from getting in the ring but were no match for the onslaught of an angry mob. Meanwhile, Yourist and Phantom tried to take cover inside the squared circle. Instead, they found themselves fighting off a hostile band of ring invaders.

During the melee, the Phantom barely escaped with his mask, much less his head, as it had become torn during the fracas as fans clawed and tugged at his dome. According to The Columbia Record, at least ten police officers had to restrain fans, in what the newspaper called “the largest number (of police) ever called upon to quiet disturbances by the antics of the wrestlers.”

As for the result, Yourist won by disqualification. But based on his ability to slink off into the night, the real winner may have been the Phantom, who managed to escape with his head intact.

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