50 years ago this former pro-wrestler invented the ladder match in Calgary

Dan Kroffat, 77, stands next to a folding ladder at his home in Cochrane, Alta. Fifty years ago this month, the former wrestler invented the ladder match, which is now a staple of professional wrestling. (Nathan Godfrey/CBC - image credit)
Dan Kroffat, 77, stands next to a folding ladder at his home in Cochrane, Alta. Fifty years ago this month, the former wrestler invented the ladder match, which is now a staple of professional wrestling. (Nathan Godfrey/CBC - image credit)

In his dining room in Cochrane, Atla., Dan Kroffat watches a YouTube video of an old Stampede Wrestling match.

The 77-year-old former professional wrestler was part of the tour in the 1970s. He travelled far and wide across the Prairies with Stampede Wrestling.

"I would travel to different towns, Saskatoon, Regina, Edmonton, Lethbridge and other cities and towns as well. So it was a hectic, hectic schedule, if you will, but the show was very vibrant," he said.

"People saw us on the streets and they would come up and ask for our autographs and we were larger than life. Before the Marvel characters, if you will, the Superman, the Batman, we were those characters of that time."

During his early days as a pro-wrestler, Kroffat pitched legendary promoter Stu Hart on the idea of a ladder match. The idea is wrestlers compete to climb to the top of a folding ladder, and whoever gets there first and grabs the prize dangling above the ring wins.

One Friday night in September 1972, Kroffat gave the match a test run against his rival, Tor Kamata, in the Victoria Pavilion on the Stampede grounds.

At a certain point in the match, Dan realized he was onto something special.

"I had erected the ladder, and Tor Kamata was on the outside of the ring and I was slowly climbing up. The crowd was deafening. I knew we had control of the evening, and as I reached for the bag of money … it was a noise that I had not heard before," he said.

"The people were going crazy, and then when Tor came in and pushed the ladder over and then he hit me over the head, and he put the ladder up and started climbing up the ladder, the crowd went crazy again. And right there and then, I knew we had something that could be successful."

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Kroffat's creation. Over the past five decades, the match has been performed in wrestling competitions across the world, including in WWE championships.

'So thrilling and death-defying'

Heath McCoy, a wrestling historian and author of the book Pain and Passion: The History of Stampede Wrestling, says there's a direct line from the ladder match's days with Stampede Wrestling to its garnering of worldwide fame.

McCoy says former professional wrestler Bret Hart was one of many recruits from Stampede Wrestling into the World Wrestling Federation (WWF, which is now WWE) who went on to become big names in the sport. Bret performed in WWF's first ladder match, McCoy said, leading to the match format gaining wide popularity.

McCoy says there was somewhat of a precursor to ladder wrestling. Before the ladder match existed, a wrestling promotion in the southern United States performed a scaffold match, where a piece of scaffolding would be placed in the middle of the ring for wrestlers to battle on.

But McCoy says the ladder match had a completely unique thrill to it.

"The thing that makes it so thrilling and death-defying is that inevitably one of the wrestlers will be at the top of the ladder and the other guy will then, you know, topple the ladder, drop kick it or whatever, sending the wrestler crashing into the ring or even onto the pavement outside the ring or … crashing through the announcer's table even," he said.

"So the audience members are on the edge of their seats, you know, losing their minds, watching this gladiator battle on a ladder that's about to come crashing down."

The future of pro-wrestling

Fifty years on from its creation, the ladder match continues to be a staple at wrestling events.

Bruce Rutter, a.k.a. The Canadian Badass, is a Calgary wrestler who has been in the business for 18 years. He competed in his first ladder match earlier this year at the CanAm Wrestling triple threat ladder match in Okotoks, Alta.

Rutter was one of the three wrestlers in the match, facing off against Aron Sixx and Hillbilly Hounddog Drayco. Rutter says he had the time of his life.

"They decided to put me in between the ladder and squish me in between the ladder on the ground, on the mat of the canvas, and then Hillbilly Hounddog took Aron Sixx, the runaway rebel, and decided to pick him up and body slam him on top of the ladder while I was in between the ladder," he said.

"That was some painful spot, but let me tell you, I sold it like you wouldn't believe for the crowd."

Nathan Godfrey/CBC
Nathan Godfrey/CBC

Rutter says he came close to winning the match, but after taking a head butt, he ended up losing the champion title to Aron Sixx.

As for Kroffat, he says he can't believe it's been 50 years since his first ladder match.

"It's a little scary from the point [that] it seems like yesterday to me. The one thing about getting old is that time seems to move faster as the years go by," he said.

"My big question might be, where will the wrestling industry be 50 years from now?"

Whatever the future might hold for professional wrestling, it seems the ladder match is here to stay.

  • LISTEN | 50 years of the ladder match

With files from Nathan Godfrey and the Calgary Eyeopener