Submitted by Pat Laprade
Johnny Rougeau has been one of the most popular wrestlers to ever come from the Montreal territory, only behind Yvon Robert and on par with Edouard Carpentier. His peak was between 1966 and 1972, although he had started to become popular at the end of the 1950s. He holds the crowd attendance record for wrestling at the old Forum before they renovated the arena and added seats. He holds the third best wrestling attendance in the history of the Forum and the second biggest ever in Montreal. His last name is royalty in the province of Quebec with his brother and three nephews all becoming wrestlers.
As a promoter, he has three of the best 20 attendances in the history of Quebec wrestling. And when you look at the biggest draw in the history of the province, based on pretty much the same system Dave Meltzer uses at a worldwide level, he’s fifth in Quebec, behind Yvon Robert, Killer Kowalski, Hulk Hogan and Edouard Carpentier, four Hall of Famers.
Born Jean Rougeau on June 9, 1929, he started his wrestling career in 1951. Rougeau was proud of his convictions, and when he was given convincing arguments, he could get involved in multiple projects as demonstrated by the numerous careers he juggled. It’s no surprise, therefore, that he decided to help create the first trade union at Coca-Cola in the 1950s. The move ultimately cost him his job. His uncle, Eddy Auger, wrestled in the Detroit territory at that time. When someone got injured, Auger called his nephew. Rougeau had played hockey, but also trained as an amateur wrestler when he was a teenager. He had done a few matches here and there in the late 1940s, but didn’t pursuit wrestling at the time. Out of work, Johnny decided to accept his uncle’s invitation.
It was the beginning of an incredible career.
At the time, it was difficult to break into the Montreal territory as Eddie Quinn found Rougeau, like many local guys, to be too small. Nevertheless, he finally made his Montreal Forum debut on January 30, 1952. He wrestled semi-regularly in the preliminaries throughout 1952 and 1953. When not wrestling at the Forum, he would do upper mid-cards and main-events for promoter Gerry Legault at the Exchange Stadium. It was common in those days for the prelim guys at the Forum to main-event around town for other promoters.
Quinn and Yvon Robert, the biggest wrestling star Quebec has ever known and part owner of the territory at the time, were in a position to decide which French-Canadian would be part of the show. They could make you a hero or a zero. Robert, in particular, was determined to maintain his position, even late in his career. Over the past decade, only Larry Moquin had kept an enviable place in the organization. Robert was in his early forties and knew his wrestling career was nearing its end. Clearly, he would get to choose who would take his place and he had the choice between many young up-and-comers like Maurice Vachon, Guy Larose (Hans Schmidt), Sammy Berg, Tony Angelo, or even Yvon’s own brother, Maurice Robert.
Robert ultimately chose Johnny Rougeau.
The first step was the Junior Heavyweight title, held at the time by a veteran named Harry Madison, who had represented Canada in freestyle wrestling at the 1932 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. On June 8, 1953, in front of a sold-out Exchange Stadium, Rougeau won the title. The special referee for the match was none other than Yvon Robert.
Then, three months later, Rougeau wrestled in his very first main-event at the Montreal Forum. On September 9, Rougeau, 24, teamed with Yvon Robert and Larry Moquin, the three French-Canadians as they called them, against Ernie Dusek, Hans Hermann and Al Mills. The show drew 8,000 fans. Three weeks later, the rematch drew 9,000 fans. In the newspapers, he was already called the guy who would most likely replace Robert. Quinn made him wrestled in all of his core cities like Montreal, Quebec City and Ottawa. For the next few years, Rougeau would team with Robert or with Manuel Cortez, who was the office’s policeman. On February 1st, 1956, a double main event of Killer Kowalski vs. Buddy Rogers and Robert and Rougeau against the Dusek brothers drew 10,000 fans.
One knock I’ve heard about Rougeau was that aside from Detroit when he first broke in the business, he only wrestled in the province of Quebec and didn’t have an international career. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Although he was mainly wrestling in Montreal, he also wrestled in the United States and had quite a success out there. His uncle, Eddy, who was wrestling in the United States under the name of Pierre LaSalle, was so well liked and respected in the business that he opened many doors for his nephew. In 1952, working for Al Haft in the Ohio region, Rougeau was one of the most popular wrestlers, battling Joe Scarpello and Ed Francis over the MWA Junior Heavyweight title on top, and also having a feud with Roy Shire. Haft liked him so much that he brought that feud to another territory he was promoting at the time, West Virginia, where Rougeau and Shire would do main-events or at least featured matches.
His good look and charisma allowed him to become popular quite fast. He also wrestled in Indiana until March 1953 where he had a tag team run with his uncle. Once Robert picked him to be his replacement, he brought Rougeau to Hartford, Burlington, and Boston, all New England towns where Robert was already well known. Being Robert’s heir had its advantage as Rougeau was also booked in Tampa for Cowboy Luttrell in February 1954 and from his first match, was said to have made a big hit with local fans. So much that only five days later, he main evented in Miami against TV champion Verne Gagne. The February-March Florida trip became an annual gig for Rougeau as he went back in 1955, this time working more towns, staying much longer and wrestling mainly on top. He would also wrestle in Massachusetts and in Texas that year. He was rapidly climbing his way up.
Back in Montreal, and although he was 6’ 1” and 215 pounds, he was still seen as a small guy by Quinn, who didn’t make him wrestle at the Forum that year. So, he went to work in the same New England cities he had done before, but then moved to Baltimore and in the states of Virginia and South Carolina. He was so popular that in a Baltimore newspaper, it was said that Rougeau was the wrestler with the most fan clubs throughout the United States and Canada. In a Virginia newspaper, a story was written about Rougeau getting a shot at Robert’s title back in Canada in June and putting over Rougeau as a promising prospect. That title shot never happened.
That same summer, he did the Montreal Alouettes football team training camp and actually made the team. But for various reasons, including not getting along with the coach, he decided to leave one week before the start of the season. At the beginning of 1957, he made his debut in Minneapolis for Wally Karbo and Dennis Stecher. In a very short period of time, newspapers were calling him the new sweetheart of Minneapolis, a young television star, and said that even Hard Boiled Haggerty liked him. As a matter of fact, Rougeau teamed with Haggerty during that run, feuding with the Kalmikoffs on top, also featured in the state of Wisconsin. It was working so well that at one point, it was Verne Gagne who teamed with Rougeau against the Russians. He left Minnesota in April to come back to Montreal. Since his last match at the Forum, Edouard Carpentier had made a name for himself and Quinn understood that smaller guys could draw. Rougeau came back and wrestled at the Forum for the first time in over a year. Robert was retiring and he still wanted Rougeau to be his successor, thinking the territory needed a Quebecer and not only a Frenchman.
Rougeau was now billed as a heavyweight and he drew 12,000 fans against Killer Kowalski on July 10, 1957. One of many rematches between the two was held on November 13, 1957 and drew 12,698 fans. That same feud moved to Boston where the two were immediately put in a main event program. Rougeau was hugely popular and easy to work with. That’s probably why so many people wanted to partner with him or help him out. Johnny Rougeau would say that Yvon Robert polished his style and that he improved when he was under the tutelage of the former champion. Robert taught him the tricks of the trade, even the Japanese arm lock, Robert’s famous submission hold he used to win so many matches, a sign he was passing the torch. In Quinn’s territory, he was now used in main events teaming with guys like Carpentier and Pat O’Connor or feuding in singles with Killer Joe Christie. He was also used a lot in Ottawa.
In the spring of 1959, though, Rougeau crossed the Atlantic and wrestled in France for the first time. It was Rougeau’s thinking to not overexpose himself. That’s why he would leave the territory from time to time in order to comeback stronger. Working for the great promoter Raoul Paoli, who had started his promotion in the 1930s with Henri Deglane, he main evented the Palais des Sports in Paris on April 6, 1959, against Felix Miquet. The match drew a record of 20,000 fans. Rougeau stayed in Europe for a few months after that, wrestling in France, Germany, Belgium and Sweden. Back in Montreal in August, he teamed with Carpentier and Pepper Gomez against Kowalski, Boris and Nicoli Volkoff and drew 11,200.
Business was starting to get tough in Montreal and Quinn lost his weekly wrestling TV program in the fall of 1960. Just before that, Rougeau and Buddy Rogers would draw 12,366 fans on April 13 and teaming with Bobby Managoff against Rogers and Kowalski, Rougeau drew another big crowd with 10,099. Around the same time, Robert officially became Rougeau’s manager. It was in 1961, under Robert’s management, that Rougeau won the Montreal title for the first time, defeating Hans Schmidt. After having been successful in the United States, Rougeau finally sat on top of the Montreal territory.
But being a man driven by projects, Rougeau started to open up to other businesses. In the early 1960s, he became friends with René Lévesque, a former journalist-turned-politician who ended becoming one of the most popular Quebec Prime Ministers of all-time. Rougeau held different jobs for him, working as his bodyguard, his confident and his most fervent militant. After winning the title, Rougeau bought the Mocambo, a downtown Montreal night club that wasn’t doing well. Rougeau’s perseverance eventually made it the most successful club in Montreal. Artists from all over the world came to perform, including the likes of Chubby Checker, Nat King Cole, Fats Domino and Liberace, as well as the who’s who of Montreal local performers.
With his involvement in politics and entertainment, Rougeau remained popular, one of a few with Carpentier and Buddy Rogers. When Channel 2 decided to drop wrestling, Quinn approached channel 10 and by September of that year, he was back on TV. This time, he wasn’t presenting new matches or live events. He gave the station a master tape of something like 20 to 25 hours of wrestling. However, Johnny Rougeau was one of the wrestlers most often featured on it. During that time, in 1962, Johnny also wrestled a series of shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City, but for whatever reason wasn’t really pushed. When Quinn finally retired, Yvon Robert started his own promotion, running a few shows at the Montreal Forum beginning in July 1963, but mainly using the Paul-Sauvé Arena. Rougeau wrestled on a semi-regular basis for Robert, until Robert later closed down his promotion in November 1964.
Rougeau sold his club and since he had been featured so much even in those last years, he wanted to get back into wrestling full time and the only thing making sense for him was to start his own wrestling company. On May 6, 1965, at the Paul Sauve-Center, All Star Wrestling was born. The first move after that was to get on TV. To do so, he took Quinn’s master tapes, which Robert inherited at Quinn’s death in December 1964, without either asking Robert’s permission or offering him a partnership and went to Channel 10 to pitch his new show. The show was approved and “On the Mat” started in 1966. Since Rougeau could not wrestle and have his name on a promoter’s licence at the same time as this was prohibited by the athletic commission, he made Bob Langevin his promoter, a role that Langevin had also played for Eddie Quinn a few years before.
Rougeau’s weekly arena was now the Paul-Sauve Center which could only fit 7000 fans. That said, Rougeau was the main star and he sold it out many times. This new wrestling venture allowed Johnny to bring back his brother, Jacques, into the mix. Jacques had wrestled a little in the late 50s, but didn’t think it paid good enough to keep going. Between 1965 and 1967, the promotion got more and more followers. The main stars besides the Rougeaus were Hans Schmidt, Carpentier, Rogers, Baron Von Rashke, and Maurice Vachon. Johnny won the Montreal title on two occasions during that time, once against Schmidt and once against Vachon.
Rougeau would reach new heights in 1968-69. In the span of three months, he would draw more than 50,000 fans at the Forum. It actually started when Jacques took Oreal Perras, who was wrestling under the name of Red McNulty, and transformed him into a Russian named Ivan Koloff. Johnny Rougeau saw money in him especially with the Cold War that was still strong in the 1960s. On April 22, Rougeau and Koloff drew 17,348 fans on the very last show at the Montreal Forum before some big renovations added seats. It was the biggest crowd ever recorded at the Forum until then. Upon its reopening, Rougeau and Koloff beat that number with a sellout of 20,890, the biggest crowd in North America that year. Yvon Robert was the referee for both matches.
To end the year, Johnny and Abdullah the Butcher drew 13,000. Rougeau’s success continued in 1969 as he drew more than 10,000 fans on four consecutive shows, two in Montreal and two in Quebec City. He’d face Abdullah the Butcher and Ivan Koloff in singles action and also teamed with his brother Jacques. On February 17, 1969, Rougeau and Abdullah drew 17,000. For the second year in a row, it was the largest crowd in all of wresting in North America. All in all, Rougeau’s promotion drew more than 10,000 fans in the province of Quebec on seven occasions in 1969, something the territory had not seen in a decade.
It continued in 1970 when Johnny drew more than 10,000 three times, including against Danny Lynch and Chris Tolos, who were not drawing cards in Montreal. On March 30, 15,239 came to see Johnny reclaim the title against Abdullah. It was Johnny’s first reign in two years, but his fourth since 1965. It’s also worth noting that the Forum wasn’t used every month during the 1960s and 1970s, therefore, drawing big crowds was something even rarer. That said, the weekly shows at Paul-Sauve were doing great and it was a lot because of Johnny’s popularity.
By then, the relationship between Robert and Rougeau fell into disarray, with Robert angry that Rougeau had not included him in this new venture, even though he’d helped him when he started and booked him on his shows in the past years. On the other hand, some speculate that Robert owed him money from the shows he wrestled on. Whatever the case may really be, the animosity lasted for many years. Robert didn’t want to work for Rougeau afterward; he refereed matches, occasionally, because the fans were asking for him and he didn’t want to disappoint them. But it’s clearly the main reason why he went to meet with Maurice Vachon about starting Grand Prix Wrestling.
Grand Prix started in June 1971 and two months later, on August 2, 1971, Johnny decided to call it quit. The reason wasn’t Grand Prix Wrestling though, but junior hockey. In 1969 he had bought a team and participated in the first season of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL).
The decision was done at the last minute since the Montreal Forum wasn’t even booked for what was sold as Johnny’s last match. The show sold-out Paul-Sauvé, as Johnny was victorious against Mr. X. It was also the right timing since another Rougeau was getting in the business. Jacques’ eldest son Raymond had just started and was already making noise. Johnny was so happy that his nephew was following the family tradition that on Ray’s first match, he chose to be by his side, booking Jacques in another town. Same thing with Raymond’s first TV match, as Johnny was the one accompanying him to the ring. Since Johnny had two daughters, Raymond was the son he never had.
If 1971 still belonged to the Rougeaus, 1972 would be the year of Grand Prix Wrestling, except for two shows. Seeing his promotion losing ground to the competition, Johnny came back from retirement. His return on June 12, 1972 against The Sheik drew 15,000 fans, the largest crowd All Star Wrestling would do at the Forum that year. Johnny then decided to hold the biggest show ever done in the history of Quebec wrestling.
For the first time, a wrestling show would be held at Jarry Park Stadium, home of the Montreal Expos. The stadium could fit 8,000 more seats than the Delorimier Stadium that Quinn was using in his time. It was a Rougeau celebration where Johnny main-evented against Abdullah the Butcher, Jacques defeated The Sheik for the title, while Raymond beat Don Serrano for the Junior Heavyweight title. The show drew 26,237 fans, the largest crowd at the time in the history of Quebec wrestling and only 103 fans short from being the largest crowd in all of wrestling that year, finishing a close second to Dory Funk Jr against Fritz Von Erich at Texas Stadium. From a business stand point, it was Montreal’s first 100,000$ gate with 101,650$.
However, Grand Prix was too strong and the following year, it beat All Star’s number when 29,127 fans to see Mad Dog Vachon beat Killer Kowalski, the only show ever to beat Rougeau’s. Johnny kept wrestling until 1973 when he retired for a second time. He had also sold his hockey team, started doing color commentating and hosting a wrestling radio show. By January 1974 though, the Vachons had left Grand Prix and the shareholders couldn’t work well together. All Star and Grand Prix promoted a few joint shows and it was the end for Grand Prix. Johnny and All Star had won the war. Johnny came back in the ring on June 30, 1975, drawing 12,464 fans against Tarzan Tyler at the Forum, the biggest crowd for an All Star Wrestling show in over a year-and-a-half.
Two months later, he would win the Montreal title or a seventh and last time. With the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics approaching and his eager to get back into hockey, he sold All Star in the spring of 1976. A few months before, in February, he teamed with his brother and nephew one last time and with a double main-event that also included Jean Ferre against Abullah the Butcher, the show drew 11,000 fans. Two months later, on the last All Star Wrestling show held at the Forum, Ferre and Koloff drew 10,000 spectators, the last time Rougeau would promote a large crowd at the Forum.
Soon after he sold the promotion, Channel 10 cancelled On the Mat after 10 years. It was truly the end of an era.
In hockey, as in wrestling, Rougeau commanded respect. Journalists, players and the management on other teams all appreciated his frankness and well-defined ideas. It was his initiative, for example, that sent the league’s young players back to school. In 1981 he was named president of the QMJHL, a title he would keep until his death. A trophy is now awarded in his honour to the team that finishes first in the regular season.
On May 25, 1983, Johnny Rougeau, 54, died after battling cancer. More than 7,000 attended his funeral three days later, one of the biggest in pro wrestling history. Only icons like El Santo, Giant Baba and Mitsuharu Misawa were honoured by more. He was inducted in the Quebec Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2004 and in the QMJHL Hall of Fame in 2015.
Because of Johnny, the name Rougeau has been synonymous with the Montreal territory for more than 60 years. His brother Jacques, his nephews Raymond, Jacques Jr and Armand, his niece Joanne, and three of his grandsons were all involved in wrestling at one point and to this day. Johnny Rougeau main-evented more than 20 shows that drew at least 10,000 fans in the province of Quebec only. When he retired for the first time in 1971, he was holding the assistance record in Montreal, but also in Chicoutimi with 7,900, Sherbrooke with 8,062, Trois-Rivieres with 4,300 and Quebec City with 13,000.
He was not the best technical wrestler out there, but Yvon Robert wasn’t either. He was more of a brawler who could sure also hit a dropkick right on the nose. Rougeau relied on his charisma, his talking ability and on how well he could read a crowd. He had the look, the flashy jackets, he was a crowd pleasure, and women loved him. He was very smart and was a savvy promoter who knew what to do to make a buck. The fact he could move very quickly to main-event status and could become popular so fast in territories he never worked before is very telling.
If that’s not enough to be in the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame, I don’t know what is.