For the obvious reasons of human safety and animal cruelty, bear wrestling hasn't been in vogue for several decades. But up until the 1980s, bear wrestling was the stuff of amateur wrestling matches and basketball halftime diversions. Here are some surreal tableaus of humans getting the crud smacked out of them by much larger, much stronger animals.
First off, the above image — which was snapped in 1902 by R.H. Trueman — comes to us from Library and Archives Canada's strange photo collection. As the site oh-so pithily notes of this match-up:
The practice of keeping bears for amusement — common in the 19th century — has thankfully fallen out of fashion, making this image very difficult for contemporary Canadians to relate to. Add to that the apparent disinterest of the bear in his obviously unhappy "wrestling" partner, and you have a very strange image indeed.
A fantastic photo, certainly, but bear wrestling was not an isolated phenomenon of the Victorian era. In 1970, Sports Illustrated ran a fascinating profile of former alligator wrestler Tuffy Truesdell and his wrestling bear Victor, who frequently throttled volunteers unwise enough to challenge him:
It costs [Victor's owner] Tuffy about 5% of his gross to obtain various types of insurance, but it is financially impossible for him to afford the premiums he would have to pay to actually insure the people who choose to climb into the ring and take on Victor. You wrestle him at your own risk. Since Victor has had the pleasure of about 50,000 different opponents by now, the lack of insurance is obviously not a prevailing deterrent. Occasionally, when Victor first gets to town, there is some public reluctance to match muscle with him. When that happens Steve Renfrow, a young man learning the bear business who travels with the Truesdells, serves as a "stick," which is an old carny euphemism for confederate. He comes out of the crowd and volunteers so that his bravery will inspire others. By the end of Victor's stay in a town much greater demands are placed on his services, since many young men come back for a return bout, invariably bringing along a girl friend, wife or other members of the family who will be impressed by bravado.
Statistically, it is safe to say that Victor has a better record than even the Harlem Globetrotters, something on the order of 50,000-0-1. One time a professional wrestler on the West Coast named Don Leo Jonathon did hold Victor to an honest 10-minute standoff. At that time both Don Leo and Victor weighed 350 pounds. Victor, who is 11 years old, now carries about 450 pounds on his 6-foot frame. Don Leo, in the intervening period, has failed to keep pace.
The footage of Victor wrestling above comes from matches with professional grappler Victor "The Destroyer" Beyer and a bout from 1981, against what appears to be a bunch of extras from Roadhouse.
It's unclear what happened to Victor — he's certainly passed away since the 1970s — but this semi-outdated site has some warm and fuzzy accounts from Victor's sparring opponents.
(Also, these bottom photos, via ABA Memories, accompanied a 1975 basketball game whose program promised the following: "Victor will be at the game to take on such noted wrestlers as Chet Coppock, sports director at WISH-TV, Reb Porter at WIFE radio and several other special opponents. If time permits, Victor will also wrestle a couple of fans.")
Semi-related: Octopus wrestling.