Local man preserves Detroit wrestling through photographs
May 8, 2013
ROYAL OAK — In the summer of 1965, Dave Burzynski brought his Brownie camera along for his first Big Time Wrestling show at Cobo Arena.
During one of the matches, Burzynski, now 58, began booing wrestler Killer Karl Kox. Kox, whose real name was Herb Gerwig, was at that time one of professional wrestling’s most popular heels — a term used to describe the sport’s antagonists.
As the 10-year-old Burzynski aired his disapproval for the man, Kox turned and pointed directly at him.
“It scared me,” Burzynski recalled. “It drew me in.”
Throughout the rest of the night, Burzynski snapped photos of the matches from his seat. He was so excited to see how they turned out that, when he returned to his eastside Detroit home, he opened up the camera — not realizing the film first had to be developed.
“My first time at Big Time Wrestling and my photographs are dead,” he said recently while sitting in the backyard of his Royal Oak home.
But that summer evening began a nine-year span for Burzynski of traveling to Cobo Arena every other Saturday night and chronicling the scripted battles between good and evil.
In fact, from 1965 to 1974, Burzynski said he only missed two shows; both were because he was working in Los Angeles for a month.
But as the memories of Detroit’s wrestling history fades with the repurposing of its most famous venue into a large ballroom, Burzynski has worked to archive the larger-than-life characters whom Detroiters loved to cheer and sneer.
Burzynski, who became an official photographer for Big Time Wrestling, has compiled old photographs into books and is currently working on a documentary about wrestling in Detroit.
He and colleague Brian Bukantis, of Fraser, who was also a wrestling photographer, have created the website wrestleprints.com just for nostalgic wrestling fans.
“Through national publications that were popular in the day, Cobo Arena became as legendary as Madison Square Gardens, when it came to pro wrestling,” said Bukantis, who edited a book made up of Burzynski’s best photos, “This Saturday Night II: Return to the Cobo.” It was published last year.
“Every top wrestler in the world passed through the halls of the Cobo,” Bukantis said.
Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, professional wrestling was regionalized, Burzynski said. The New England area had its own wrestling league and so did the West Coast. For Michigan and Ohio and other states in the Midwest, the league to belong to was Big Time Wrestling, owned by Ed Farhat, who wrestled under the name the Sheik.
Fans filled Cobo every other Saturday night to see Sheik duke it out with his rival Bobo Brazil. Bukantis refers to Cobo Arena as “The House the Sheik built.”
“For many years, that arena was sold out every two weeks,” said Bukantis. “Wrestling outdrew anything, including the Pistons.”
Simultaneously, Burzynski witnessed the toll the sport took on the wrestlers’ bodies.
“Day after day, you are going through these painful moves to entertain a crowd who thinks it’s all fake,” he said. “The outcome may be predetermined, but the things you have to go through in the ring are real.”
Burzynski said that wrestling was a closed society. The only way into the league was through association. Luckily for Burzynski, his family shared a duplex in Detroit with Leaping Larry Chene, another popular wrestler from that time.
“I just got enamored with that,” he said. “I was just drawn into it. Like any other thing that someone may become passionate about, I became passionate about wrestling as a kid.”
At 15, Burzynski became an official photographer for Big Time Wrestling, taking photographs of in-ring action and backstage friendships between two wrestlers scripted to be enemies. During that time, he also was writing stories for several wrestling magazines, including Wrestling Revue, the largest wrestling publication of the ’60s and ’70s.
Burzynski became part of the action when he decided to start managing wrestlers in 1974 as Super Mouth Dave Drason.
“They rile up the crowd, they drew heat and that’s what I wanted to do,” he said of managers.
By 1977, attendance to local wrestling events was on the decline.
“People just found other sources of entertainment, and promotion started to die,” he said.
Also at the time, the new promoter of the World Wide Wrestling Federation — today known as World Wrestling Entertainment — Vince McMahon, was moving westward from its East Coast territory. Along the way, it was buying up local talent and creating a national wrestling league that was slowly putting the local brands out of business.
The local favorites that stayed with Big Time Wrestling were turning into relics, and the organization dissolved in 1980.
Burzynski found full-time work with AT&T while managing wrestlers part time for smaller promoters throughout southeast Michigan. He stepped away from the business completely in 1992.
About 10 years ago, Bukantis bought the rights to Wrestling Revue and filed every single article of the magazine, beginning in 1959, inside his garage. He invited Burzynski over to show him the work.
“It was as if we were both back in the early ’70s — instant rapport,” he said. “We both lamented the fact at what pro wrestling had become and things went from there.”
The two decided to restart the magazine but not to cover current wrestling. The focus would instead be on wrestling memories. It included a column written by Burzynski, called “Cobo Confidential,” featuring in-depth stories on his memories.
From that day in Bukantis’ garage, the ideas have evolved into a website, two photo books and several documentaries.
“I think it’s important to never forget the heyday of pro wrestling, especially in Detroit,” Bukantis said. “Pro wrestling in Detroit has a long history. It goes far beyond what is on TV today, and I feel it is important to remember these pioneers.”
As for Burzynski, the books, the website and the reincarnation of Wrestling Revue have offered him an avenue to reunite with the wrestlers who, in their prime, brought fans to their feet in anger and excitement.
“Once I started writing and stuff and meeting old fans again, it just kind of sucked me back in,” he said.
Two years ago, he met for the first time Killer Karl Kox, the man who instilled terror in the 10-year-old boy seated at Cobo Arena. Burzynski told Kox, who died not long after they met, about his very first trip to Big Time Wrestling and how he feared Kox was going to crawl out of the ring and come after him in the seats.
“I told him the story and he said, ‘I did my job then,’” Burzynski said.
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