Ken Kidney profiles Ireland’s first world heavyweight wrestling champion, Danno O’Mahony.
I have been absent over the best part of the summer shooting a documentary on the professional wrestling industry in Ireland. It’s been far too long so I decided to come back with a vengeance and add a second article along with Wrestling Weekly to make up for lost time!
Every week Wrestling Rewind will take a look back at a significant person or event in wrestling history. I will dive deep into the annals of time and surface with long-lost grappling treasure that has all but been forgotten.
In the course of shooting my documentary, I came across an interesting connection between the Rebel County and a piece of American wrestling history.
Even the most fanatical wrestling fan may be forgiven for holding the opinion that Dublin’s Sheamus was Ireland’s first world heavyweight wrestling champion but in fact that distinction is held by a Cork man.
Danno O’Mahony was born on the 29th of September 1912 to Daniel and Susan O’Mahony at the family farm in Dreenlomane, Ballydehob, Cork. Danno was one of eight children, seven of which were boys. The parish priest is said to have been astonished when baptising the infant Danno due to his unusual size and strength. As a child Danno was always bigger than the rest of the kids in school his age and had strength to match his abnormal size. At the age of 13 Danno left school behind to help out on the farm. He even hired himself out on neighbouring farms and road maintenance jobs, such was his work ethic and desire to help his family.
When he was 20 years old he won the Cork county championship for throwing the 56lb weight in Macroom. After the passing of his mother in 1933, Danno and his brother Flor joined the Irish army. Both men were extremely strong and quickly became known at their training camp for their sporting abilities and feats of strength. Danno broke several army records with the 56lb and other weights. His records remained unbeaten until the late 90’s, almost 70 years later. It was in the army that Danno became interested in wrestling.
After only six months in the army Danno was discovered by Jack McGrath, a wrestling promoter who was looking for a talented young wrestler that could “beat the world”. He immediately signed up Danno and managed to secure his discharge from the army. Danno’s first match was against Ed ‘Stranger’ Lewis in London’s Stadium Club on December 6th 1934. Lewis was a vetern and a multiple time world champion, one of the most well-known and respected wrestlers in the world at the time. Danno was able to draw with his more experienced opponent who was expected to win easily. Danno eventually found his stride, winning his next two bouts easily.
McGrath was suitably convinced after only three bouts to make the decision to bring the Danno to America, believing he had the strength and ability to make it to the top. In America Danno met promoter Paul Bowser who liked what he saw and signed Danno to a five-year contract worth $100,000, an astounding amount for the time. It was believed that Danno would appeal to the sizable Irish-American population in the U.S. It was at this time that Danno developed his signature move that would become known as the “Irish Whip” where he would grab an opponent by his arms and lift him over his head before driving him to the mat. In his first fight in the U.S. on January 4th 1935, Danno defeated Ernie Dusak and over the next year and a half Danno defeated all other contenders to earn himself a shot at the world title.
Eventually there was only one man standing between Danno and the world heavyweight title, Ed Don George, a former champion himself, hoping to reach the top of the mountain again. The title showdown took place in front of 60,000 spectators at Braves Field, Boston on July 30th 1935. It is estimated that the box office took in excess of $70,000.
The first 30 minutes were uneventful as George kept avoiding the Irish Whip. Then George took over and looked as if he was going to win. Danno was thrown from the ring twice. The second time the referee started the mandatory 20 count and George began to celebrate believing that he had the match won. Danno had other ideas and jumped back in the ring to beat the count. He threw George from the ring and George himself was counted out. Danno O’Mahony, a farmer from a small coastal town in West Cork had become the champion of the world. A riot ensued when a group of enraged George fans rushed the ring. It took more than 15 minutes to calm the crowd and then Danno was announced as the winner, presented with the diamond studded belt and declared the undisputed heavyweight wrestling champion of the world.
Aged only 22, having only began his career two years earlier, Danno was on top of the wrestling world. In Ballydehob on the night of Danno’s win there were celebrations all over, with bonfires, street music and plenty of drink.
Danno would go on to defend his title all over America and Canada over the next year and at the peak of his popularity was said to have fought for, and won a purse of $64,000. To put that in context the average person in Ireland earned a wage of £2 per week and £4 per week was considered to be a well-paid job. Wrestling had made Danno very famous and wealthy.
Danno, made his triumphant return home, sailing into Cobh, Co. Cork, on 18 July 1936. Upon his arrival he was welcomed by thousands of supporters. People flocked from all the neighbouring towns and villages to welcome their hero home; even the lord mayor of Cork turned out, such was of the importance of the occasion. The 50-mile journey back to his hometown of Ballydehob became a motorcar procession. People came out in every town they passed through to cheer them. Late that night they arrived in Ballydehob, but the lateness of the hour would not keep the ecstatic and proud residents of the town from welcoming and congratulating their hero.
Danno continued to wrestle in America and Ireland until he retired in 1948. After his retirement Danno frequently visited Ireland on holidays. On one particular visit, Danno was travelling from Dublin to Ballydehob with his two brothers and two friends on the night of November 2nd 1950. Danno was driving on a road he was unfamiliar with when he came upon the truck, which had no lights on, he crashed into its rear end. He suffered two broken legs, two broken ribs and an injured hip. Unbelievably, everyone else was fine, even the truck driver. He was taken to hospital but later died from his injuries when surgery was unsuccessful.
The people of Cork were in shock when the news reached of their hero’s untimely death. Danno’s funeral was one of the biggest in the history of West Cork with people coming from all over the county came to pay tribute to him.
Danno’s legacy endures to this day and a variant of his signature Irish Whip is a fundamental move in wrestling to this day. In 2002, the Irish Whip Wrestling promotion was named after him. IWW would go on to produce Ireland’s only other world champion Sheamus, who captured the WWE world title in 2010, 75 years after Danno first achieved the feat. In 2001, a life-sized statue was erected in his native Ballydehob dedicated in his honour. I had the pleasure of filming there for my documentary and I am pleased to say that his memory is alive and well in his home place.
I will be back at the weekend with a long overdue Wrestling Weekly until then let me know what you think about Wrestling Rewind by commenting below or by tweeting me @KenKidney.
Sport is Everything, Ken Kidney.