When he passed away at 101 in 2007, he was recognized as the oldest professional wrestler in the world. Coleman was born Abe Kelmer on September 20, 1905, in Żychlin, Poland.
“He was asked why so many Jewish boys became wrestlers, and he said there was nothing else for them in this small town of Poland,” recalled his niece, Miriam Bly of Kew Gardens.
Although he was only 5'3” tall, he weighed 200 pounds and had 18-inch biceps and wrestled in approximately 2,000 matches.
A highlight of his career was in the 1930s when he defeated “Golden Greek” Jim Londos in a Mexico City bullring in front of 60,000 spectators. Another was slamming 465-pound Man Mountain Dean.
He also wrestled the Casey Brothers, Dusek brothers, George Temple (Shirley Temple’s brother) and “Gorgeous George.”
Bly said actor Mickey Rooney would often carry Coleman’s bag, and he appeared on The Jackie Gleason Show twice.
“My uncle did not want to wrestle him,” she said of the Gleason appearance. “He said he knew how to fall, but then did not.
“My uncle was muscular, very strong, and would love to arm wrestle,” Bly continued. “If he would see a man that was built very well, he told him that he would make a terrific wrestler.”
Coleman was a man of determination and had a sharp memory, and he is remembered for his sincere nature.
“He was the sweetest and kindest man in the world, and everyone who met him loved him,” Bly said.
Coleman played soccer, swam and pursued gymnastics in Europe. After leaving Poland in 1923, he moved to Winnipeg, Canada, and stayed with his brother Simon and worked his farm.
Many family members, however, were not as fortunate as Coleman.
“There were 13 siblings and seven left Europe in the 1920s,” Bly said. “All that remained in Europe perished in the Holocaust, which included children and grandchildren.”
He relocated to the U.S. in 1925, staying with his sister Rose, or Bly's mother, and then stayed with his brother Alex in Asbury Park, becoming an ice cream factory employee.
Coleman was recognized by well-known wrestling promoter Jack Curley.
“He was paid $25 for the first match in Manhattan’s 71st Regiment Armory, which he won in 1929,” Bly said. “Then in 1930, he went to Australia for two months, and that was where he originated the dropkick from watching kangaroos.”
His career took him to Denver, Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, Amarillo, Corpus Christi, and Mexico City, to name a few.
“He drove to all these places, knew their distance from New York, and also knew the number of spectators in the audience of every match,” Bly said. “He remembered this into his very late years.”
Bly’s earliest recollections of Coleman’s wrestling matches come around age 10.
“I was thrilled watching my uncle, the celebrity,” she said. “We used to spend our summers in Coney Island where he wrestled.”
In addition, he was a regular at the Sunnyside Arena and at Madison Square Garden. In 1936, he met his future wife June Miller by landing in her lap after being tossed from the MSG ring.
According to Bly, he made lots of money and spent just as much.
“In his heyday he lived in Manhattan hotels, and always wanted to go back to the popular Hotel Piccadilly,” she said.
Later on in his career, he became a referee for the New York State Athletic Commission, a state Motor Vehicle Commission employee, and a wrestling judge. He retired in 1975.
Coleman had an active lifestyle in Forest Hills. At first, he rented a studio at The Traymore at 110-34 73rd Road and then rented a one-bedroom for $300 a month at Tilden Arms at 73-20 Austin Street. The T-Bone Diner was a favorite stop.
“He loved steak and soup, and would eat two meals a day,” said Bly. “He was also a steady customer at OTB, where he would sit in the smoking room with retired gentlemen.”
Perhaps one of his most significant victories occurred during his routine late-night walks while in his mid-80s.
“Two young men approached him from behind and put a weapon in his back,” Bly explained. “One said ‘give us your money old man,’ which was when he gave one guy a karate chop in the neck, and he was knocked out on the ground. The other guy ran away. He told his family, ‘How dare they call me an old man!’”
In 2002, he became a resident of Meadow Park Rehab in Flushing.
“He was a celebrity and they treated him royally,” said Bly. “When people stopped swimming he still swam, and I guess all the exercise he did in his youth paid off. He had good genes.”
Today, Bly is a steward of two cartons of Coleman’s memorabilia, and among her hopes is to see a plaque dedicated outside of his Forest Hills residences.
“That would be great,” she said.