The Coal Miner’s Glove Match
Story by Ted Shorack
Photo by Erik Bender
On a Friday night in 1972, professional wrestlers Apache Bull Ramos and Dutch Savage traded blows for more than 30 minutes at the Cow Palace in Eugene, Oregon. The nearly 300-pound Ramos eventually maneuvered away from Savage and climbed up a slim ten-foot pole on a corner post. At the top of the pole sat the coal miner’s glove, a welding glove with a steel bar taped across the knuckles.
In a hurry to put it on, Ramos lost the glove over the ring’s ropes. Fans threw it back inside where it landed on Savage. A diving Ramos stole the glove from the formidable six-foot-three Savage and the two fought for it during the remainder of the match. “He chased me around [with the glove] for quite a while until I finally got it off of him,” Savage says. “One punch— it was done.”
The now former Eugene wrestling venue couldn’t accommodate everyone that night. Savage recalls the police closing the doors to lock out upset fans who hadn’t gained admission. “You couldn’t get a flax seed in between people with a sledgehammer,” he says. “That’s how many people were in that arena.”
The miner’s glove was used in a wrestling match for the first time that night, but it wouldn’t be the last. This extreme version of brass knuckles drew blood and enticed a higher level of excitement than wrestling’s well-known pile drivers and sleeper holds. The glove became a popular weapon of bodily destruction and fans were thrilled to see it put to good use.
Until the 1980s and early 1990s, professional wrestling was promoted out of regional territories. In contrast to today’s World Wrestling Entertainment wrestlers who sport salon hair and abnormally large muscles, matches such as Savages were much less refined. Depending on the venue, a bale of hay might be a seat and front row meant you were close enough to feel the spray of a wrestler’s sweat. The air was thick with cigarette smoke and refreshments might only be popcorn and a drink.
During the era of the coal miner’s glove, Portland Wrestling was a common term used for the region that included Oregon cities such as Klamath Falls, Medford, and Coos Bay. On Saturday nights, wrestlers fought at the main event in the Portland Sports Arena located in north Portland. These bouts were broadcast by the local KPTV station. Until his death in 1982, announcer Frank Bonnema welcomed station viewers with “Live from the Portland Sports Arena, this is Portland Wrestling!”
During much of wrestling’s twentieth century presence in Oregon, promoter Don Owen ran the sport out of Portland along with Savage and Don’s brother Elton, who each owned a third of the territory at the time of the glove’s inception. Portland was mainly Don’s responsibility, and Elton and Savage promoted the sport in other Oregon towns, developing wrestling talent from the rural pockets of loggers and longshoremen throughout the state.
The glove match concept was originally conceived by Savage, who was inspired by his upbringing in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where coal miners worked nearby. He was initially reluctant to use what he considered a gimmick because he felt his talent spoke for itself. Besides, he thought, there were already other ruses in play, including two wrestlers being chained together or tied by leather straps as they fought an opposing team. These stunts were held to draw bigger crowds because it added an element of challenge to the match. In spite of his reservations about gimmicks, Savage decided to develop the glove idea after discussing it with Elton. “You’re out of your mind,” Elton told Savage.
Don wasn’t easily swayed in the glove’s favor either. “What if it lays an egg?” Don asked, meaning it wouldn’t draw a crowd. “Of course its gotta draw,” Savage replied. “Common sense properly applied, its gotta draw.”
Although Savage’s first idea was to toss the glove in the air like a jump ball in basketball and have wrestlers go after it, he decided against that and thought placing it on a pole sounded better. On the night of the glove’s debut, Savage remembers Elton entering the arena with a skinny pole before the audience arrived. He laughs about it now. The thin piece of steel seemed like it would easily bend under the weight of Ramos or himself.
Shortly after the success of the infamous Eugene match, Savage remembers Don hosting a match with the glove in Portland. “The word of mouth [during] those days from the wrestling community went everywhere,” he says. The fire department and the police were called because fights broke out outside the building, and according to Savage, the men once again found themselves closing the arena’s doors. Some might call the style of wrestling the glove was used in a farce because the wrestlers played out scripted matches between good and evil. One wrestler took the role of the “heel,” and posed as the match’s villain. Heels were seen as an opportunistic and always on the wrong side of an argument. The heel’s opponent was known as a “face,” now often referred to as a “baby-face.” He was the hero everyone cheered for no matter what happened. Often before or after a match between such opponents, the arena’s announcer would find himself physically caught between the two, their mouths moving like motors as each tried to lob greater insults at the other.
Even though the storylines were ramped up, the sport’s physical toll was undeniable. Savage remembers breaking chairs and damaging concrete blocks with the glove that helped him fight more than 30 undefeated matches during his career, but he says every bone in his body has been broken and he now has a deformed spine.
The glove’s brutality can be witnessed in Savage, a PBS documentary focused on a match between Savage and a heel known as The Iron Sheik. Throughout the match Savage and the Sheik ripped the glove off of each other and smashed its steel bar into one another. Both were bloodied, but when the Sheik bounced off the ropes and ran into the glove on Savage’s hand, the match abruptly ended. The impact immediately dropped Sheik to the ground with his arms and legs sprawled out. A skeptic might look at the footage and suspect Sheik was selling a knockout, but Savage looks to have not pulled his punch away to lessen the blow.
Even though Savage developed the glove and was the undisputed master with it, the weapon was used in other matches as well. Garret Miller witnessed one of these matches as a junior high school student in 1980. The bout, which was held at the Grand Theatre in Salem, Oregon, would be Miller’s first and it promised a showdown betw
between “Playboy” Buddy Rose and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.
As a heel, Rose was a target of hatred for Oregon fans. Although he briefly wrestled as a face in the early 1980s, Rose is notoriously remembered as a bad guy who sported a large belly and a mop-top of bleached hair. Piper would later go on to national fame as a wrestler. He was billed as coming from Scotland and wore a kilt to the ring. The fans cheered him on regardless of what he did. Both had other wrestlers at their sides as part of a tag-team bout.
Not unlike the first match in Eugene, the coal miner’s glove flew out of the ring in all the excitement, this time landing in the theater’s balcony. Miller recalls thinking it was comical when the wrestlers stopped their skirmish and begged for the glove to be tossed down.
“Somebody was nice enough to throw the coal miner’s glove back into the ring. The match continued, and everybody got bloody and beaten up,” says Miller, who admits the crowd’s shrieks and the violence made him nervous. “I actually said a little silent prayer: ‘Lord, if you let me get out of here alive, I promise never to come back here again,’” he says.
But the draw was too much for Miller and he became hooked on the sport, asking his parents’ permission to go again the following week. He began taking photos at the events and submitting them to wrestling magazines, soon turning his dedication and admiration into a job as a freelance photographer.
The thrill and excitement of the glove might have been too much for one fan who jumped in the middle of a Southern Oregon match. Savage remembers being without the glove during the moment the man entered the ring. One of the other wrestlers had grabbed the glove when the fan came right at him.
“[The wrestler with the glove] caught the guy in the ribs and busted two of his ribs with it,” Savage says. “Down he went—the guy wanted to sue [the wrestler].” Luckily the promoters owned the area inside the ropes. “Once you get inside those ropes, you’re our property.”
The glove may have helped sustain the fans’ enthusiasm because it wasn’t overused. It was only brought out once or twice a year whenever “the heels were getting too bold,” says Savage, indicating a part of the storyline the glove contributed to.
The fans in Oregon were a dedicated bunch. Savage maintains that the Portland territory outdrew the East Coast matches per capita, with smaller Oregon populations filling just as many seats as territories with higher population densities. “We gave them so much bang for their buck that they appreciated what we did,” he says. “There weren’t any other fans like them in the entire country.”
After Savage retired from wrestling in 1982, there were attempts to use the glove in more battle royal and tag-team matches—which it wasn’t initially used for—and in other territories, but it didn’t draw as big a crowd. The glove flopped in other areas because the wrestlers had no idea what they were doing with it, Savage says. “Here’s one thing you can do with an original: You can imitate it, but you can’t duplicate it.”
While proud of the coal miner’s glove, Savage remembers how he got his start in wrestling. Brute strength was important for wrestlers to have, but a new recruit often had to put his smarts to use rather than rely on physical strength. “Either you were good enough to cut the mustard or you weren’t,” Savage says.
Savage maintains he rarely had to use his muscles because he used his brain to win. But in bouts where smarts weren’t enough, Savage says he still remembers the arm locks and holds that made it possible to beat any one of his opponents by cutting off their windpipe with a flexed forearm or bicep.
When his brother introduced him to the sport, Savage says he was walked around the ring like a lawn mower with his hands on the ground and his legs held up. The beating left him with blood in his mouth or “strawberry on the back of [his] tongue.” The lesson taught him a wrestler had to be smart in the ring.
What Savage experienced as a wrestler became less common later on, especially after his retirement. The sport went through changes in the 1980s, becoming more centralized and less based on physical skills. Aspiring wrestlers went to wrestling schools instead of what Savage calls “breaking into the business,” which meant challenging an established wrestler before continuing on. The wrestlers of this new era were more muscular machines than anything else.
In 1991 Don Owen shut down Portland Wrestling after Portland TV stations began broadcasting national wrestling matches from Madison Square Garden in New York City. Wrestlers could make more money there, and as a result talent was getting harder to come by in the Oregon territory.
The coal miner’s glove is part of wrestling lore now, and is known as a weapon of Oregon’s wrestling days. In Savage’s old black-and-white pictures of glove matches, blood drips from the wrestlers’ foreheads, and it’s not hard to imagine these violent fights brought a higher level of excitement to the entire production. Nowadays, many national fans have heard whispers about the coal miner’s glove match, but many might not know how it began.