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I'll Bet My Barber Shop

C. Nathan Hatton
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One of Canada's greatest wrestlers during the teens and twenties was George Walker. A native of Ottawa, Walker had an extremely successful amateur career, culminating in championship laurels at the Empiad Games of 1911. Walker decided thereafter to apply his skills at the professional level, taking money matches across the country. Later in his career, he made his way to Australia, where he became a pioneering force in that country's mat game. Long before his days down under' though, a young George Walker learned an important lesson in underestimating his elders, courtesy of an old hand at the wrestling business.

A short time after turning pro, Walker took up residence in the remote northern Ontario town of Fort William. Its location at the head of Lake Superior made it an important economic hub first amongst early fur traders, and later for the shipping and transport of western grain to all points east. Both Fort William and its neighboring city Port Arthur also boasted a large Finnish population with an active interest in the sporting world. For a natural middleweight like Walker, the mid-sized city provided an excellent base of operations. The local sporting community of Fort William was in need of a hometown wrestling hero.

When Walker arrived in Fort William in 1912, the wrestling game had been a dead issue in the city for well over half a decade. Within a year, he had exhumed it from its grave and helped make it one of the major sporting past-times of the lakehead region. Walker defeated, or at minimum made impressive local showings against some of the greatest grapplers in the lighter divisions, including world champs Waino Ketonen and Walter Miller. It must have been with some curiousity then, that wrestling fans regarded the announcement of Walkers next opponent in the late spring of 1915: George Garrett.

George Garrett's name was one not entirely familiar to wrestling fans of the region, excepting those rather long in tooth. Years earlier, he had been a grappler of some note, winning local matches against strong competition, and allegedly gaining a fall against the Terrible Turk (or at least someone bearing that infamous moniker) in St. Louis. By 1915 though, George Garrett had long since left the full-time grappling business behind to focus on a career as proprietor of a Fort William barber shop. At nearly 60 years of age, he was strongly built, albeit not in the classically Greek sense, but without question well beyond the point in life when even most retired athletes consider a comeback.

No doubt realizing that the general public considered the near-geriatric Garrett to be a long shot, Walker offered to throw him three times in an hour. In a further show of confidence, Walker boasted that in all likelihood the contest would not last forty minutes, let alone sixty. Garrett took the young champions boasts as an insult and replied that he would be willing to bet his barber shop, three pairs of shoes and all of the clothing he owned minus those on his back, that things wouldn't go as planned. Numerous backers also appeared to reinforce the wrestling barber's claims that he wouldn't go down that easily.

After negotiations, the Walker-Garrett contest was confirmed to take place at the Rex Theatre in Fort William on April 30, 1915. In the weeks leading up to the contest, Walker occupied himself by wrestling exhibition matches in the twin cities, while Garrett commenced training of a less public nature. Likely owing to the undercurrent of animosity surrounding the match, the Rex was packed by the time action commenced at 8:00 pm. Following four preliminaries, the principal antagonists took to the mat.

During the opening fall, Walker came on strong, and looked as though he might make good on his promise to down the old veteran thrice in under an hour. After 23 minutes and 45 seconds, he pinned the barber's shoulders flat to the mat. After a few minutes rest, fortunes changed considerably. Garret came out like a juggernaut, roughing Walker about the mat and inexorably bearing in on him. By the eighteen minute mark, Garrett had Walker down on his back and close to defeat. In a remarkable show of strength and endurance, the young champion went into a bridge, supporting not only his own frame, but that of his two hundred-plus pound opponent, for a full five minutes. His efforts proved fruitless, for Garrett managed to finally force him to the mat at exactly 23 minutes.

After the second fall, Walker immediately offered protest to referee Fred Paju that Garrett had deliberately injured him by using a hold intended to break his collar bone. The referee did not reverse his decision, and Walker was forced to quit the match owing to injury, prior to the commencement of the third fall. Garrett was declared the winner.

The next morning, Fort William Daily Times-Journal sportswriter J.V. Eberts commented, "[The match] was just a case of youth and strength and skill against weight and skill and greater strength." An incensed Walker was not willing to let it go at that, and immediately fired off the following challenge:

"I hereby challenge George Garrett to a wrestling match to take place next Friday evening at the Rex theater, the match to be open, that is, neither man be placed under any handicap and the match to be under any rules agreeable to Garrett and no holds barred."

Walker was clearly embarrassed by his loss to a man twice his age and long retired from full-time professional competition. Adding to his anger was his contention that Garrett had been in contravention of Police Gazette rules, which forbade gouging and general foul play. Garrett, perhaps owing to cold feet or the excitement over one last big payday, agreed to wrestle Walker in an even falls, no-holds-barred contest, but only if a $1000 purse could be produced. He expressed doubts that any 158 pounder could put his shoulders to the mat in two out of three falls, but also stated that his intention in their initial encounter was merely to prove that he was too good to be bested in an extreme handicap contest. While his dream of a $1000 purse was soon put to rest, the match was nevertheless confirmed for May 20th.

Seeming to take Garrett more seriously this time, Walker enlisted the aid of four wrestlers to help train for the bout. Mornings were devoted to road work, and afternoons to wrestling with his quartet of sparring partners. Taking a page out of Hackenschmidt's book, Garrett confined his road work to very long, early morning walks. By match day, both men were fit and confident. Walker was quoted as saying, "I never felt more certain of winning a match in my life. I just want to show the people that I know just as much about [the] wrestling game as Garrett and probably a little more." Garrett replied by saying, "There is nothing to it. I'll make Walker look like a kid."

In what was evidently a case of going to the well once too often, George Garrett quickly found himself overwhelmed by a younger adversary who was hungry to prove his earlier loss a fluke. Despite carrying 220 lbs. to Walker's 168, Garrett never was able to put Walker into a state of retreat as he had a month earlier. Walker took the first fall in 21 minutes and the second in 20:30. Following the one-sided contest, the fans pressed toward the mat and demanded a speech from the victorious grappler. Walker obliged, offering to throw Garrett three times in half an hour for a purse of up to $500.00. Likely now realizing that his wrestling days were behind him, Garrett never took up the gauntlet.

In later years, the often-vocal grappler would frequently be drawn into newspaper shouting matches with members of the sporting public or potential opponents. While Walker had a stellar record and a large army of followers, he also managed to draw the ire of a good many people, some of whom were eager to get under his skin by bringing up his embarrassing loss to the aged George Garrett years earlier. It is likely a contest that he never forgot.

In any sporting endeavor, athletes must eventually yield to the pressures imposed by father time, regardless how considerable their strength, speed and skill may have been at the apex of their careers. George Garrett was no different. Still, young athletes on the ascent should be cautious in regarding the wily old war horses as mere paperweights to be brushed aside on the march to glory. This was a lesson that George Walker learned the hard way at the hands of the old barber.

Copyright 2005 Charles Nathan Hatton