Story: O'Connor, Patrick John

Page 1 - O'Connor, Patrick John

O'Connor, Patrick John

1924–1990

Shearer, blacksmith, wrestler

This biography was written by Ron Palenski and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Patrick John O’Connor, known as Pat and sometimes publicised as ‘Irish Pat’ in American wrestling, was born at Raetihi on 22 August 1924, a son of sheepfarming parents John Frederick O’Connor and his wife, Isabella McPhee. He was educated at primary schools in Raetihi and nearby Orautoha, and at Feilding Agricultural High School. After working as a shepherd for his father, he saw war service in the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

O’Connor, who was six feet tall and weighed 13 stone 3 pounds, excelled at wrestling. He later attributed his skill to the strength gained from working as a blacksmith and playing senior club rugby (in Wanganui and, later, Wellington), and to his experience at shearing sheep on his parents’ property: ‘if you think it’s easy to wrestle one of those squirming, twisting, 200-pound sheep to the ground and then clip it – just try it’.

After the 1947 New Zealand championships he was persuaded to move to Wellington, where he was coached by Anton Koolman. O’Connor won the national heavyweight title in 1948 and 1949, and at the 1950 British Empire Games in Auckland he won the silver medal in the heavyweight division. Later that year he took up an offer to train at a gymnasium attached to the University of Minnesota and signed for a series of bouts in the United States and Canada.

O’Connor had his first professional bout in the United States within six months, and soon graduated from down-card fights to the main event. Within three or four years he was ranked third in the world in his division. He was the ‘darling’ of the sport’s many television followers, ‘with big blue eyes and a square jaw … decidedly handsome … the strong, silent type who hates to talk about himself’. For all the hyperbole, O’Connor was a serious wrestler in the classic style. He was contracted to the National Wrestling Alliance, which had determined to have ‘scientific’ wrestlers as champions in a sport which had more ‘garlick than gardenias’ associated with it. He realised that ‘fast, spectacular and scientific wrestlers’ attracted ‘big money’ and strove to stay in that group.

On 9 January 1959, in St Louis, Missouri, O’Connor beat Dick Hutton of Oklahoma for the National Wrestling Alliance world heavyweight title. A year later, when the rival American Wrestling Association was formed, O’Connor was also recognised as its champion. However, the Association stipulated that O’Connor defend his title within three months or have it withdrawn. Because he was contracted to the Alliance, he refused the demand.

O’Connor defended his Alliance world title, sometimes as often as five nights a week, throughout the United States and Canada for more than two years. He eventually lost it in Chicago on 30 June 1961 to American Buddy Rogers before a crowd of 38,622 – reputedly the second largest in American professional wrestling. He continued on the professional circuit until the early 1980s, but gradually became a lower-card wrestler. He was also a referee and wrestling promoter in the American Midwest, and a hunting guide in Wyoming. On 7 July 1953, in Chicago, O’Connor had married an American, Remember Carly Ford, with whom he raised three daughters. They divorced in 1968.

Although he became an American citizen in 1958 and lived the rest of his life in the United States, O’Connor maintained close contacts with New Zealand and always considered himself a New Zealander. He was intending to visit for a wrestling promotion when he died, at St Louis, on 16 August 1990. He was survived by his daughters and his partner, Julie Browne.