Name: Sandor Szabo
Year Inducted: 2013
Part wrestler, part businessman, part humanitarian and
part ham, Sandor Szabo represented the fusion of serious wrestling and show
business. More than any other pro, he popularized suplexes and throws from
Greco-Roman wrestling, where below-the-waist holds are barred. His halch
hold, a quick double-arm suplex, was a devastating finisher in a match. He
laid claim to being the longest-running wrestling hero based on the West
Coast, where his career there, always as a headliner, extended for three
decades. “My association with him was just great, and to me, he was just a
first-class guy. He was synonymous with wrestling in Southern California,”
said Gene Kiniski, a regular opponent in the 1950s, who said Szabo’s
charisma reached beyond his Hungarian fans. “He had a good amateur
background, and the guy was a technician in the ring.”
Hobnobbing with Hollywood types was about the last
thing one could have expected when Szabo was born January 4, 1906, in
Kosice, then part of Hungary. The city was overrun in World War I` and
became part of Czechoslovakia. His parents spirited their seven children to
Budapest and Szabo later learned to box and wrestle in return for bread
during lean war-torn years.
He was a top-flight Greco-Roman wrestler, winning a
bronze medal at 82 kilograms (about 180 pounds) at the European
championships in 1926 and a gold medal a year later. Szabo came to the
United States as a member of the 1929 Hungarian Greco-Roman national team
and saw enough to make it his permanent home.
Szabo debuted as a pro in October of 1930 and promoters
pushed him to the moon as a hunk of a man with legitimate wrestling
credentials and also an appeal to ethnics. Szabo stayed mostly on the East
Coast and in Canada, wrestling the likes of Jim Londos and Ed “Strangler”
Lewis until 1935, when he took his first trip west. He brought wife Lillian
and made Santa Monica, California, his base of operations for the rest of
his life. His name was synonymous with the Pacific Coast title, which he
held 13 times from 1937 to 1951.
In June 1941, Szabo won the first of his world
championships, beating Bronko Nagurski by DQ for the National Wrestling
Association belt in St. Louis as an eleventh-hour replacement for Ruffy
Silverstein. He’d eventually achieve an unparalleled grand slam as the only
wrestler to hold the National Wrestling Association title, the Boston-based
American Wrestling Association world title, the Montreal version of the title,
and the Minneapolis version of the NWA title.
Hungarian dissidents rose up against Soviet bloc control in 1956, Szabo, who
became an American citizen in August 1938, helped many of them escape
persecution and enter the United States. His sponsorship of some of the
estimated 200,000 refugees who fled Hungary earned him a letter of
commendation from President Dwight Eisenhower.
As the 1950s rolled on, Szabo lived a comfortable life
on the West Coast, pulling in about $50,000 annually, by his estimate,
through wrestling, bit parts in TV shows and movies, singing gigs, and real
estate investments. He opened a wrestling school for youths and would-be
pros in Westwood, California—Cowboy Bob Ellis was among his trainees—and was
assistant booker to Jules Strongbow for the Los Angeles territory.
Szabo would wrestle, off and on, until 1963. On October
13, 1966, he suffered a fatal heart attack at his home.
- Steven Johnson and Greg Oliver