TOUGHER THAN A BEAR
By Vern May
There are few among us that have gone toe to toe with a bear and lived to tell the tale. There’s only one that we know of locally who can truthfully say he grappled one into submission – Langley’s Don Leo Jonathan. Jonathan, now 84 years old, will be honored by All Star Wrestling on July 24 at the Cloverdale Fairgrounds as the league recognizes four of the all-time greats in B.C. wrestling.
Originally from New Harmony, Utah, Don Leo first visited B.C. as a child, travelling with his father – a pioneering professional wrestler who was known by the name “Brother Jonathan”. After serving in the U.S. Navy, Don Leo followed in his father’s footsteps and would go on to eclipse his father’s fame in campaigns around the globe.
When he arrived in Vancouver in December 1963, he was only scheduled to stay for three weeks while awaiting the start of production on a movie role which would take him back to California. The film fell through and in the meantime, Jonathan and his family fell in love with the Pacific Northwest and decided to settle here.
During his 31 year career, Jonathan appeared in more than 3,000 matches, securing numerous championships along the way – including eighteen title reigns as Canadian tag team champion between 1964 and 1978 and Pacific Coast Heavyweight champion five times. His battles against the likes of Gene Kiniski, Dutch Savage, Kenji Shibuya and others in the PNE Agrodome are legendary.
But perhaps his greatest matches were against the late Andre the Giant, including their May 31, 1972 showdown in Montreal which was billed as the Battle of the Century. The battle inspired rematches across the country, including a few on the west coast. Even a decade later, as Andre rose to significant international fame, he still pointed to the match with Jonathan as the greatest of his career.
But for the “Mormon Giant”, memorable matches during his career weren’t only against men. He found himself matched against bears during his time in B.C. rings. In fact, he would face off against Trotsky, a Russian black bear on three occasions between 1965 and 1968. Their showdown on Chilliwack on April 2, 1968 still stands out as the first time in history that a wrestler defeated a bear through the conventions of the contest – by pinfall.
“The bear was heard to pin. You could feel him turning inside his hide,” admits Don Leo. “A lot of guys don’t get to feel real power. But when you get your hands on a bear, you feel it. The power they have … is just so phenomenal.”
In addition to Jonathan, other honorees at this year’s Wrestle Reunion event are Ed “Moondog” Moretti, Bob Steele and the late Roy McClarty. The induction ceremony will be hosted by recently retired wrestler-turned author “Mr. Beefy Goodness” Vance Nevada, a name familiar to fans of the current generation of mat fans.
All Star Wrestling is a Vancouver-based professional wrestling league which has presented live action in British Columbia and Washington State since 1949. The franchise has been headed by Surrey promoter Mark Vellios since 2007. Fans can get more information on this year’s honorees and the event line up at the circuit’s Facebook page All Star Wrestling Inc.