Upon bumping into this list of famous Mormon wrestlers last night, we were immediately intrigued by the story of Don Leo Jonathan, who grappled under thenom de sport “The Mormon Mauler.” Yet as we hacked our way into Jonathan’s sweaty tale, we came to realize there was a more intriguing narrative thread to explore—namely, the fact that he wasn’t the first Mormon wrestler to compete under that aggressive nickname. A good two decades before Jonathan lost his championship belt to Killer Kowalski, a wrestler named Dean Detton was known near and far as “The Mormon Mauler.” And he was arguably one of his religion’s most important ambassadors to the American mainstream.
Though Mormonism was already more than 100 years old by the time of Detton’s heyday, the faith was still regarded with tremendous suspicion outside Utah. The tabloid press was quite fond of portraying Mormons as sinister weirdos, while Hollywood did its best to stir up anti-Mormon sentiment with a series of seedy exploitation films.
Then came Detton, perhaps the first Mormon athlete to gain international fame. A former football player at the University of Utah, the Mauler (aka “The Mad Mormon,” depending on a promoter’s taste) was permitted to win the heavyweight championship, a feat that involved crushing wrestlers who embodied ethnic and racial stereotype that Americans seemed to fear even more than clean-cut Mormons. And though Detton was eventually converted into a heel after being ordered to lose to the eminently more popular Bronko Nagurski on two occasions, the Mauler’s career no doubt convinced millions of American wrestling fans that the strangers from Utah were not so strange after all. Without Detton’s trailblazing, for example, we do wonder whether it would’ve taken the Romney family a few more years to establish its national political might.
Alas, Detton’s story did not end well, or in satisfactorily Mormon fashion. Years removed from the ring glory, he took his own life in the kitchen of a bar he owned in
Daytona Beach, FloridaHayward, California.