E: Bengal Engblom

Bengal Engblom

By Ron Historyo

We have to start somewhere so lets  have a look at Portsmouth. The October 1936 bill (above) is the first match I can find with Bengal Engblom featured.   The second bill (April 1937) illustrates that in six months the promoter John Mortimer hoped that the fans didn't notice the discrepancy of billed from Finland and billed from the USA. Standard Practice. I  could not better the October 22nd 1936 date as the earliest. Could have been his debut as a wrestler even.

It was a showman's start. Flanagan knocked him out, chiefly because he spent all his time making ugly faces and prancing about the ring riling the crowd. Sort of makes me think of Leon Arras. 

Engblom arrived in England on the 11th October. 1936 What I can tell you is that the real name is Bengt Emil Engblom and he was born 22nd February, 1910, in Nyland, Finland. His town of birth is difficult to read but I think it is Karis. Nyland contains Helsinki and is the southern part of the country, a long history of border changes  belonging to Sweden and also Russia later. Documents suggest that he went to Quebec in Canada in August 1927.

Engblom came to England on a Canadian passport only given to him in the previous month.  I found a report that he did Greco Roman Wrestling in Finland as a youth, but have no evidence that he ever wrestled in the USA or Canada before giving wrestling in Britain three years of his life.

His hobbies were also fishing and golf. Engblom was a tough trail blazer of a wrestler for guys that came many years later. Often the heavyweights dominate history and even the game itself before the days of TV. For most wrestlers, if you were five feet eight inches, heavy middle or light heavy was perhaps the ultimate fighting weight when mature. Think of Rocco and a younger Billington, think of earlier guys like  Vic Hessle and   Billy Riley or Johanfesson. There were exceptions, of course, like Assirati who had the bone structure. Even Bulldog Bill Garnon was not as big as you think, again five eight.

Some had the bones of a Farmers Boy, others were smaller in bone structure but tough nuggetts. Engblom was all of this. I will also say at this stage, as far as I know, after a brief spell as Bengal Engblom in America in 1939 I don't think he used this name again. The name on our wrestling bills was to be almost exclusively for Britain. 

From 1940 onwards in America he was to be known as Paavo Ketonen with a few spelling variations and not to be confused with Padvo Peltonin. (Told in another story).

Promoter Percy Felton had him as Champion of Finland. I could ask, at what weight and did they have pro wrestling there in any case?

His origins other than what I have described are a bit of a mystery and this is confirmed in a book entitled "Say Uncle" by Jake Shannon. It is the story of catch as catch can and Ultimate Fighting.  In the book on page 71 there is a strong suggestion that Engblom (Ketonen) was trained in Wigan and was one hell of a Hooker.

It seems Karl Gotch knew of him and that when he got back to America, he did not get along with the promoters and would not play along too well. Consequently he spent a lot of time doing fairground booth stuff, and not only that,  got involved in boxing.

Engblom got about the length and breadth of the country from Dundee for Relwyskow to Exeter at the other end of the country for Harry Williams, who at least had him as Light heavyweight champion of Finland. And below a clue as to his Ring Persona, The Fiery Finn.

To be fair Engblom was relatively headlining at some our biggest wrestling halls. The match at Belle Vue with Ben Sherman billed as for the Light heavyweight championship of the world. In those days the Kings Hall would have been packed to the rafters . These were the ghosts that Rocco and Jones followed.

Before I end his career in England, let me say that I have not pushed the kayfabe. Of course he had great bouts and incidents and worked well with people like Ali Baba, with the prayer and carpet routine to provoke a response. Bengal Engblom won some and he lost some and he was here to fight our middle size wrestlers, not our biggest heavyweights.

I would score him in our top twenty of foreign visitors for the 1930's. Only by working forward do we learn that this guy did not fade away into insignificance. As a historian I like to make use of the archive of wrestling bills I have collected. They tell their own story. In Belfast, promoter William Bankier decides to bill him from Denmark against the great Louis Pergantes. In Preston "The Wonder Wrestler" and the spurious claim of being undefeated even though he did lose the first match that I found after his arrival.

I just don't quite think we have Engblom clocked in history as quite the size of player that he was.

It was to be the 12th of September 1939 when Benny Engblom returned to Canada on the SS Drottningholm. He was bound for Toronto, but he did not sail from England. He was taking with him his English wife, Doris, and they sailed from Gothenburg. As best as I can tell they did not marry in England and I could speculate that they had married in Scandinavia. They moved almost immediately from Canada to Detroit, the documentation describing him as five eight, blonde hair, blue eyes and cauliflower ears. I believe that it was here he did his final bouts as Bengal Engblom.

And one of my justifications that Britain had lost a good wrestler is the fact that in 1947 I found him on bills that were packing out Madison Square Garden. Don't be fooled though, this was Madison Square Garden, Phoenix, Arizona. By now of course he was Paavo Katonen.

Many newspaper write ups claimed him to be a former World Light Heavyweight Champ. This may be right although thus far I cannot find him winning or losing such a title. (Maybe it was on his own promotion). Engblom ran wrestling schools and was also a wrestling and boxing promoter. In 1958 he even tried to get Henry Cooper over to have a rematch with Zora Folley. He went up against Angelo Dundee as a coach who said that is was impossible to outsmart Ketonen.

One of his close wrestling promoter associates was bearded Rod Fenton who was also over  in Britain in 1938 and 1939. As a promoter and referee he also kept on wrestling on the odd occasion right into 1961. My research tells me that in the end this ex prize fighter leaned towards boxing. It is there that you will find him later in life. (The Capitol Boxing Club). 

Wrestling Heritage is about British Wrestling and men who wrestled in Britain. Any hard core historian or family member could find much more about Engblom's later life. His big success was in Arizona which is where he died in Maricopa at the age of almost 89 . The year was 1999 (28th January)  He also promoted in Seattle.

If I could have seen Bengal Engblom just the once, I think I would go for that 1939 match at Belle Vue with Ben Sherman.

Three years and as they say in the Westerns, he was just passin' through.

Reviewed 28/02/2022