THE NEW WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) PAPERS No. 161-2001
KENESTON WINS OVER DUDE CHICK
(Los Angeles Times, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 1938)
Dude Chick’s attempt to win back his wrestling title from Bob Keneston last night at the Hollywood Legion Stadium met with failure as Keneston gained the final fall to keep his mat laurels.
Keneston copped the first fall in 25m. 34s. with a neck swivel. Chick came back in the second round to win in 13m. 21s. with an airplane spin. Chick appeared headed for the title in the third heat, but the referee got his signals mixed and after counting Keneston out, decided that the fall should be replayed.
This suited Keneston and while the fans howled their disapproval, Keneston jumped on Chick and pinned him with another neck swivel in 7m. 23s.
In the semi-windup, Bob Wagner and Bobby Roberts battled to a 45-minute draw. Each grappler had a fall. Wagner took the first in 16m. with a cannonball drop and Roberts the second in 14m. 47s. with a reverse airplane spin.
Honors in the special event went to Mr. X who applied his X special to down Nick Bozzinis in 12m. 24s. Abe Goldberg defeated Steve Strelich in 10m. 19s. with a hammer lock and half-Nelson. In the opener, Steve Paskoff used a leg breaker to pin Bill Hall in 9m. 22s.
SUPERFLY SNUKA AND THE GROUPIE
By Irving Muchnick
For Vince McMahon, the Hundred Million Dollar Man, wrestler
Jimmy (Superfly) Snuka made for a challenging tag-team partner. The World
Wrestling Federation’s second-most-popular star in the early eighties, Snuka
was an illiterate immigrant from Fiji, prone to bouts with the law that
threatened his green card, and a drug abuser who often missed bookings. During a
Middle East tour in the summer of 1985, fellow wrestlers say, customs officials
in Kuwait caught him with controlled substances taped to his body, and he was
allowed to leave the country only after some fancy footwork.
But Snuka’s near-*Midnight Express* experience in the Persian Gulf was child’s play compared to what happened on May 10, 1983. That night, after finishing his last match at the WWF TV taping at the Lehigh County Agricultural Hall in Allentown, Pennsylvania, he returned to Room 427 of the George Washington Motor Lodge in nearby Whitehall to find his girlfriend of nearly a year, Nancy Argentino, gasping for air. Two hours later, this 23-year-old wrestling fan – who'd worked as a dentist’s assistant in Brooklyn and dropped out of Brooklyn Community College to travel with Snuka – was pronounced dead at Allentown Sacred Heart Medical Center of "undetermined craniocerebral injuries."
"Upon viewing the body and speaking to the pathologist, I immediately suspected foul play and so notified the district attorney," Lehigh County Coroner Wayne Snyder told me on a recent trip to Allentown. In ’83, Snyder was deputy to Coroner Robert Weir.
Yet no charges were filed in the case, no coroner’s inquest was held, and no evidence was presented to a grand jury. Officially the case is still open – meaning Argentino’s death was never ruled either an accident or a homicide – though the original two-month-long investigation has been inactive for nine years. Under Pennsylvania’s unusually broad exemptions from freedom of information laws, the Whitehall Township Police Department has so far refused my requests for access to the file.
Of particular interest would be two documents: the autopsy and the transcript of the interrogation of Snuka immediately thereafter. One local official involved in the investigation, as well as one of the Argentino family’s lawyers, told me the autopsy showed marks on the victim other than the fractured skull. And former Whitehall police supervisor of detectives Al Fitzinger remembered that the forensic pathologist, Dr. Isadore Mihalakis, confronted Snuka to ask him why he’d waited so long before calling an ambulance. Gerald Procanyn, the current supervisor of detectives, who worked on the case nine years ago, maintained that Snuka cooperated fully with investigators after being informed of his right to have a lawyer present, and was accompanied only by McMahon. Another investigator, however, saw things differently; he said Snuka invoked his naïve jungle-boy wrestler’s gimmick as a way of playing dumb. "I’ve seen that trick before," the investigator said. "He was letting McMahon act as his mouthpiece."
Another curious circumstance was the presence at the interrogation of William Platt, the county district attorney. According to experts, chief prosecutors rarely interview suspects, especially in early stages of investigations, for the obvious reason that they may become witnesses and hence have to recuse themselves from handling the subsequent trials.
Detective Procanyn gave me the following summary of Snuka’s story: On the afternoon before she died, Snuka and his girlfriend were driving his purple Lincoln Continental from Connecticut to Allentown for the WWF taping. They’d been drinking, and they stopped by the side of the road – the spot was never determined, but perhaps it was near the intersection of Routes 22 and 33 – to relieve their bladders. In the process, Argentino slipped on mossy ground near a guard rail and struck the back of her head. Thinking nothing of it, she proceeded to drive the car the rest of the way to the motel (Snuka didn’t have a driver’s license) and, after they checked in, picked up take-out food at the nearby City View Diner. Snuka had no idea she was in any kind of distress until he returned late that night from the matches at the Agricultural Hall. Procanyn said Snuka’s story never wavered, and no contradictory evidence was found.
Curiously, contemporary news coverage, such as the front page of the next day’s Allentown Morning Call, made no mention of a scenario of peeing by the roadside; it focused, instead, on the question of whether Argentino fell or was pushed in the motel room. Nine years later the reporter, Tim Blangger, vividly recalled that at one point in his interview of Procanyn, the detective grabbed him by the shoulders in a speculative reenactment of how Snuka might have shoved the woman more strongly than he intended.
Procacyn also claimed to have no knowledge of any subsequent action by the Argentino family, except for a few communications between a lawyer and D.A. Platt over settling the funeral bill. In fact, the Argentinos commissioned two separate private investigations, and it’s difficult to believe that Procanyn was unaware of them. The first investigator, New York lawyer Richard Cushing, traveled to Allentown, conducted extensive interviews, and aggressively demanded access to medical records and other files. "It was a very peculiar situation," Cushing told me. "I came away feeling Snuka should have been indicted. The police and the D.A. felt otherwise. The D.A. seemed like a nice enough person who wanted to do nothing. There was fear, I think, on two counts: fear of the amount of money the World Wrestling Federation had, and physical fear of the size of these people."
Even so, Cushing declined to represent the family in a wrongful-death civil suit against Snuka. The lawyer cited the fact that Snuka and Argentino weren’t married, that they didn’t have children, and that she wasn’t working, which would make it difficult to establish loss of consortium. "Moreover, Vince McMahon made it clear to me that her reputation would be besmirched. As a lawyer, I had to determine if a contingency [fee] was in order; my business decision, not my moral judgment, was no. The family wasn’t pleased. They had a typical working-class family’s anger that justice wasn’t done."
Through the generosity of Nancy Argentino’s father’s boss, the family then retained a Park Avenue law firm. The report filed by its private investigator shows that Snuka was as creative outside the ring as he was inside it. To the Whitehall police officer who responded to the first emergency call, Snuka said "he and Nancy were fooling around outside the motel room door when he inadvertently pushed Nancy and she fell striking her head." An emergency room nurse heard him state that "they were very tired and they got into an argument resulting in an accidental pushing incident. Ms. Argentino fell back and hit her head." In the official police interrogation, Snuka first floated the peed-on-the-roadside theory. Finally, in a meeting with the hospital chaplain, he said he and Argentino had been stopped by the side of the road and had a lovers’ quarrel: "He accidentally shoved Ms. Argentino who then fell backwards hitting her head on the pavement. They then arrived at the motel and went to bed. The next morning Ms. Argentino complained that she was ill and stayed in bed…. When he came home from the taping, he observed that Ms. Argentino was clearly in bad shape."
In 1985, the Argentinos obtained a $500,000 default judgment against Snuka in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. The family never collected a dime; Snuka’s lawyers withdrew from the case, stating that they hadn’t been paid, and Snuka filed an affidavit claiming he was broke and unemployed and owed the IRS $75,000 in back taxes. Since ’83, the 49-year-old Snuka has been in and out of rehab centers and has wrestled off and on both in Japan and throughout this country. His original WWF stint extended two and a half years past Argentino’s death; his most recent ended earlier this year. According to the wrestling grapevine, he’s now trying to promote independent shows in, of all places, Salt Lake City, but my efforts to track him down there were unsuccessful.
Proving negligence, of course, is different than proving involuntary manslaughter or murder. But critics of the criminal investigation find fishy the failure of the police to examine seriously Snuka’s history of drug abuse and violence against women. Former wrestling great Buddy Rogers, who’d been hired by McMahon to serve as Snuka’s TV "manager" and to get him to important matches on time, said he stopped driving with the Superfly after he brazenly snorted coke when they were in the car together. "Jimmy could be a sweet person, but on that stuff he was totally uncontrollable," said Rogers, who was also Snuka’s neighbor on Coles Mill Road in Haddonfield, New Jersey. Snuka’s wife, with whom he had four children, befriended Rodgers’ wife. "Jimmy used to beat the shit out of that woman," Rogers said. "She would show up at our house, bruised and battered. But she couldn’t leave him – he had her hooked on the same junk he was using."
Nancy Argentino’s younger sister remembered once being threatened by Snuka when they were alone at the family’s home in Flatbush. "I could kick you and put my hands around your throat and nobody would know," he allegedly said. After Nancy’s death, family members said, they received a series of phone calls from a woman who identified herself as a former Snuka girlfriend who’d tried to warn Nancy away from him. Snuka, said the woman, had once broken her ribs, and had a thing about pushing women back against walls.
Finally, there was the incident involving Snuka and Argentino at a Howard Johnson’s in Salina, N.Y., outside Syracuse, just three months before Allentown. The motel owner, hearing noise from their room, called the police, who found Snuka and Argentino running naked down the hallway. It took eight deputy sheriffs and a police dog to subdue Snuka. Argentino sustained a bruise of her right thumb. Snuka pleaded guilty to violent felony assault with intent to cause injury, received a conditional discharge on counts of third-degree assault, harassment, and obstruction of a government official, and donated $1,500 to a deputy sheriffs’ survivors’ fund. Whitehall police later decided this was all the result of "a nervous desk clerk," Detective Procanyn told me.
* * *
According to attorney Cushing, McMahon made a remark at one
point in their discussions that was at once insightful and chilling. "Look,
I’m in the garbage business," the promoter said. "If you think I’m
going to be hurt by the revelation that one of my wrestlers is really a violent
individual, you’re mistaken."
Six months after Nancy Argentino died, the Village Voice ran a prescient article entitled "Mat Madness" by the late columnist Arthur Bell, weather vane of the lower-Manhattan gay-arts demimonde. After attending a Madison Square Garden show headlined by a bout between Superfly Snuka and The Magnificent Muraco, Bell, who knew next to nothing about wrestling, commented on the spectacle’s graphic references to bodily functions and on its barely sublimated undercurrents of sexual dominance and sadomasochism. "Take my word," Bell declared, "by the end of 1984 wrestling will be the most popular sport in New York since mugging." He concluded with a vignette at the Garden stage exit, where a swarm of fans, led by a woman named Bea from West Orange, converged to taunt the wrestlers as they emerged in their street clothes.
"Hey, Superfly," Bea shouted to Snuka. "You goddam fuckin’ murderer. When are you gonna kill another girl?"
THE NEW WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) PAPERS No. 162-2001
JACK DEMPSEY THROWS LEFT HOOKS AT FINISH
(Sacramento Union, November 19, 1940)
By Bill Conlin
Jack Dempsey came back to the Memorial Auditorium last night and with him came $1,100 worth of wrestling fans, biggest house since Doc Visser resumed promotion of wrestling here almost a year ago.
The old champ, cast this time in the role of a referee, went into his now well-defined act, swung a few punches at the errant rasslers, later made a courtesy appearance at Visser’s night club and, most importantl, pocked one-third of the gate. His cut amounted to approximately $350.
Dempsey’s appearance gave the jaded Monday night wrestling clientele a hypo that took effect as soon as the one-time Manassa Mauler walked into the ring.
The fans stood up to cheer and they kept up a chorus of "Sock him, Jack" until Dempsey finally unbent and directed a few light left hooks to the stomach of Al Billings.
Billings, who had been getting a bit rough with his main event opponent, Bobby Managoff, paused to spar harmlessly with Dempsey. Wehreupon Managoff jumped into the air and kicked Billings on the ear.
Al dropped to the canvas and Managoff fell on him for the lone fall of the match. It was all over in 20 minutes, 24 seconds.
As wrestling matches go, it was strictly from standard script, but Dempsey’s presence gave the show an added zest. Everybody was satisfied, even if those light jabs Dempsey was tossing were far from genuine punches.
Dempsey, who plans to be on the Pacific Coast only a week, left Sacramento last night for San Francisco and thence will play the rassling circuit of Salinas, Oakland, Fresno, etc.
Results of other bouts were as follows:
Pantaleon Manlapig and Otto Kuss went to a 30-minute draw in the semi-windup, Otto Von Schacht threw Jack Rees in 11:34 and Billy Hansen grappled Max Krauser to a 20-minute deadlock.
John Taupin of Manteca refereed the first three bouts, with Dempsey appearing only in the main event.
CASEY LOSES FEATURE BOUT TO KASHEY IN AUDITORIUM
(Sacramento Union, October 29, 1942)
Grunt ‘n’ groan fans, usually expecting anything in the way of mayhem at wrestling matches in Memorial Auditorium, moved back a few rows last night when Pierre DeGlane and Bronco Valdez tumbled out of the ring and continued to grapple on the floor.
DeGlane finally copped the fall in 16:01 by outslugging his opponent.
In the feature match, Irish Jim Casey, a popular headliner here, lost two out of three falls to Abe Kashey, the Syrian Assassin. Rough tactics, which frequently mark Kashey’s bouts, were a little milder last night. Kashey won the first fall in 24:15, lost the second in 11:58 and copped the third in 10:20.
Jimmy El Pulpo wasted no time with veteran Dr. Freddy Meyers and took two straight falls in 19:24 and 8:20.
COX TO FACE CASEY HERE TONIGHT
(Sacramento Union, Monday, Dec. 14, 1942)
Most of the opponents who have been facing Ted "King Kong" Cox, claimant of the "world’s rough-house championship," have been handicapped by lack of power to cope with his unethical tactics, while others feared him.
But this can’t be said of Jim Casey, the "Irish Thunderbolt," who tackles him in tonight’s one hour, two out of three falls main event at the Memorial Auditorium.
While Casey perhaps has not been in the game as long as the "Lodi Dynamiter," he has had ample experience among the elite in wrestling and, what is more, knows all tricks of the trade and isn’t afraid to meet fire with fire.
The match, in which Cox’ dangerous "diamond head twist" hold and Casey’s famous Irish Whip hold will play important parts, has the fans "het up" and indications point to promoter Johnny Rogers’ enjoying one of his biggest attendances here.
Two other corking matches follow: Abe Kashey vs. Jimmy El Pulpo, 45 minutes, two out of three falls; Dr. Freddie Meyers vs. Ivan Rasputin, 30 minutes, one fall.
CASEY LOSES MAIN EVENT TO TED COX
(Sacramento Union, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 1942)
Jim Casey, the Wild Irishman, roughhoused his way to a disqualification in the first fall of the main event between he and Ted (King Kong) Cox last night in Memorial Auditorium by slugging everyone and anyone who came within reach of his brawny arms.
It might have been satisfying to the bloodthirsty fan, but referee Bud Garrison took the brunt of the attack and for awhile it was a tossup just who was the boss.
Casey came back to win the second fall and then bowed in the third.
Abe Kashey and El Pulpo each took a fall and then drew on the third. Ivan Rasputin, using an overhead hold, felled Dr. Freddy Meyers in 21:31.
AMBLING ALP BRINGS GATE OF $3,291
(Sacramento Union, February 15, 1949)
Primo Carnera, former world’s heavyweight boxing champion, proved a magnate to Sacramento’s wrestling industry last night as he attracted approximately 3,000 fans to Memorial Auditorium in a match against Dan O’Connor, Boston Irishman.
Carnera, who didn’t have too much trouble in scoring a two-out-of-three falls victory over O’Connor, brought in a net gate of $3,291.44.
The Ambling Alp tossed O’Connor with a triple headlock the first time, then came back with a toehold backdrop to provide the clincher.
Max Baer, who won the world’s heavyweight boxing title from Carnera in 1934, joined the huge Italian in the ring before the match for a reunion.
In the opener, Pete Peterson and Tommy O’Toole marked up a two-out-of-three falls tag team wrestling victory over Frederick Von Schacht and Lee Henning, Pacific Coast champion.
The card drew slightly more than the big turnout attracted by Gorgeous George last year.
CARNERA LIKES THE RASSLING DOLLARS
(Sacramento Union, February 16, 1949)
By Bill Conlin
Half the wrestling show Monday night in Memorial Auditorium was in the ring; the other half was up in Primo Carnera’s dressing room.
Max Baer, the man who knocked down Carnera 13 times back in 1934 to win the heavyweight championship, came up to pay a social call.
Although they have met once or twice since that murderous affair of 15 years ago, it has never been for more than a few moments Monday night they visited for 30 minutes.
Carnera speaks surprisingly good English and Baer, of course, speaks lots of it. They seemed to enjoy getting together. There were a lot of laughs and horseplay. There was no rancor nor hard feelings.
Mr. Carnera was very gracious to Mr. Baer, and let the latter’s two sons heft his shoes, which are curiousities indeed and very similar in size to Esquimaux kayaks.
Mr. Baer ribbed old Satchelfoot a bit and then told all within hearing distance that Primo was "a great fellow and they don’t come any better." Mr. Baer is a lot like Will Rogers in that neither has met a man he didn’t like.
Later, when we were alone, Carnera confided that Baer wasn’t too much of a puncher despite those 13 knockdowns.
"George Godfrey hit me harder," said Primo.
Barring that debatable point, Carnera impressed as a guy who has all his marbles and seemingly is very happy to be in the rassling racket.
He points out, pridefully, that he soon will go back to New York to wrestle in Madison Square Garden at $7.50 tops.
"I drew $24,000 in Detroit in a match with Gorgeous George," said Primo.
Carnera obviously is making more money now as a rassler than he did as a fighter when he had so many cuts coming out for a corps of managers that included one or two well known gangsters.
Frank Malcewicz, an old-time wrestler and one of the men who is booking Primo on his brief jaunt, up this way, took the opportunity to get in a plug for wrestling.
"Carnera never had it so good," said Frank. "He’s making more money now than he ever did in his life. Why shouldn’t he like rassling better than fighting? He’s a got a big home in Los Angeles, his wife and two children have come over from Italy, and he’s happy."
Carnera himself says:
"I was wrestling for circus when I was 11 years old on continent and I learned the holds from the old masters of Europe," he says. "But when you put it in the paper I love wrestling, please explain that I do not knock the boxing. It is just that when you reach a certain age you are too old for boxing. In wrestling you can go on to 50 or 60, like Strangler Lewis or Zbyszko."
One point emerged crystal clear Monday night, Carnera is the mat’s biggest attraction. Even greater than Gorgeous George.
Nine months ago George put a $2,100 crowd into the Auditorium. Carnera drew $3,291.44. That was the biggest house since more than 10 years ago when Doc Visser used to co-star with the likes of Gus Sonnenberg and Joe Savoldi.
WRESTLING GAME IS ON THE UPSWING
(Sacramento Union, February 23, 1949)
By Bill Conlin
The remarkable resiliency of the wrestling business is being demonstrated on a weekly basis at Memorial Auditorium. Business has never been better, at least in the last five years, and the grapplers are playing to profitable houses every Monday night.
Although the mattress shenanigans are given an occasional lift by the appearance of a swishy character like Gorgeous George, or the visit of a "name" like Primo Carnera, the game in northern California relies on the old familiar faces like Ted Cox, Sandor Szabo, Lee Henning and that ilk.
Cox, although he has been performing in Sacramento for 15 years, never fails to arouse the fans. A meanie in the ring but a shrewd business man otherwise, Cox’ antics have been the means of acquiring a large Lodi grape acreage and otherwise establishing a comfortable fortune.
Although slightly more rotund than he was back in the ‘30s, Cox still can be as fearsome a "villain" as the mat game has produced on the West Coast. He can keep the gallery gods aroused week after week, year after year.
Joe Malcewicz, who books the mat shows into Sacramento, reveals that he hopes to have Gorgeous George back ere long and also wants Primo Carnera to return.
Meanwhile, he is trying to get ancient Jim Londos up this way. The ageless Greek returned to the mat Monday night in Hollywood and won a match in 11 minutes against a character known as Red Koko.
Londos, who still holds the international heavyweight crown he won 20 years ago, is making a comeback to clean out what he calls the imposters who claim they are champs.
Although Londos is vague on his age and tries to pass himself off as a mere 50, the grapplers say that Jeemy is close to 60.
And that would be about right, considering that Londos washed dishes in the old Western Hotel in Sacramento almost 40 years ago. When he was pearl diving in Sacramento, Londos hadn’t turned to the wrestling ring, except for an occasional amateur joust, but he subsequently made a million dollars in the business.
And that, of course, beats washing dishes all hollow.
THE NEW WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) PAPERS No. 163-2001
THESZ KEEPS MAT TITLE VERSUS HAGGERTY
(Sacramento Union, September 10, 1951)
Lou Thesz defended his world’s wrestling championship last night in Memorial Auditorium by throwing Hard Boiled Haggerty with a flying scissors after taking the first fall on a foul.
Thesz was accompanied by his manager, Ed (Strangler) Lewis.
Ronnie Etchison, Sacramento favorite, won two out of three falls from Tom Rice.
Angelo Cistoldi raised the curtain by pinning Ramon Cernades, two out of three.
THESZ STAKES TITLE TONIGHT WITH TORRES
(Sacramento Union, February 23, 1953)
Sacramento gets its first world championship wrestling match in years tonight when Lou Thesz will defend his title against Enrique Torres, Pacific Coast champion.
It will be a three-faller over a one-hour time limit.
Thesz, managed by Ed (Strangler) Lewis, is a powerful box-office lure and last year his earnings amounted to more than $100,000.
Lewis was five times holder of the world wrestling crown, winning it the last time at the advanced age of 45.
The old Strangler has worked scientifically with Thesz and, unlike the Gorgeous Georges, Nature Boys, and Masked Marvels, the present champ is a solid campaigner who knows all the holds.
At 32 (sic), he’s in the prime as far as wrestlers go and gives promise of staying on top for some time to come.
Torres defeated Ray Eckert recently in Fresno to annex the state title.
Promoter Donn Shields has booked two preliminaries in support of his title match. They are:
Ben Sharpe vs. Roy McClarty, 45 minutes, two out of three falls; Ramon Cernades vs. Mike Sharpe, 30 minutes, one fall.
LOU THESZ HELD TO DRAW BEFORE RECORD GATE
(Sacramento Union, February 24, 1953)
Lou Thesz, wrestling champion of the world, was held to a one-hour draw last night in Memorial Auditorium by Enrique Torres, who holds the Pacific Coast championship. A sellout crowd, largest mat turnout in 15 years, contributed to a record gross of $4,776.05.
Thesz won the first fall in 37:45 with a flying body scissors. Torres came back to take the second flip in one minute with a body slam. Then the two well-matched warriors spun out the time without the decisive third fall. Both Torres and Thesz applied headlocks in the final minute, but the victims escaped. It was a wild finish for the packed house.
Mike Sharpe, using an arm stretch and a hammerlock, won the last two falls after Roy McClarty took the opening fall with a dropkick.
Ben Sharpe won the curtain raiser in 20:10, pinning Ramon Cernades with a body press.
STRANGLER’S MOTHER WAS WRONG
(Sacramento Union, February 25, 1953)
By Bob McCarty
Robert Friedrich was in town Monday night for the Memorial Auditorium mat show but few, if any, would have recognized the man had he been introduced at ringside by that name. But bulging Bob rated a big hand when introduced via his ring handle, Ed (Strangler) Lewis.
Why the switch in names? Well, Robert’s mother was against wrestling, fearing that her 6-1, 250-pound son might be hurt in the catch-as-catch-can business, so Robert worked under an assumed name. Looking at the Strangler today, you would have to like him over a Sherman tank if they met head-on.
Lewis is up to 275 now and says he feels great at 63. The Babe Ruth of the grunt and groaners maintains that wrestling is the greatest of all sports for conditioning and gets no rebuttals. Sane persons do not argue with the Strangler.
Lewis, who insists he has never strangled anyone, says the "Strangler" tag was pinned on him by sportswriters. Ed’s headlock was similar to Evan (Strangler) Lewis’ pet hold so the scribes passed it on to Robert Friedrich.
Lewis, who ruled the mat game for years, is now manager of Lou Thesz, the current world’s heavyweight champ, and doing right well. Thesz packs them in at every stop and Lewis is cut in for his piece.
Thesz put the SRO sign out here in his Monday match with Enrique Torres and the Mexican made Lou hustle to gain a draw. Lewis termed it a "tough match" and we are not one to argue with the man of his proportions … even if he has left town.
Lewis has a good thing going in Thesz as he has not lost a bout in three years (sic). He had 198 wins last year and a few assorted draws. But at 36 Thesz is a tyro when compared to Lewis.
Lewis, a Lexington, Ky., boy, started tossing other people in the air when he was 14 and his last airplane spin landed when he was 57. He was in 6,200 bouts. Unlike Dewey (1.000) Elliott, Lewis did not keep a record of his batting average but reports he did gross more than $15,000,000 in gate receipts.
Ed is one of those who maintains the mints make the dollar round to keep it rolling and did just that. He hinted that he moved the horses up a few lengths with some of his bobs in the good old days but insists he is older and wiser now.
He knows he has a good meal ticket in Thesz and predicts a brilliant future for the St. Louis grappler. It is difficult to knock success but for a while Monday it looked like Thesz should have been outside the ring and the Strangler in with Torres.
However, virtue was rewarded and Thesz, who is likened to one of Tennyson’s knights by Lewis, gained a draw with the challenger to keep his win streak going.
Some of the patrons called Thesz anything but a knight as he and Lewis walked to the dressing room after the match but the mat combine took the jeers – and the major portion of a $4,776 house – with a grin.
They had a date with Leo Nomellini coming up in San Francisco the next night and counted upon more catcalls – and cash.
BRITISH LORD TO WRESTLE
(Sacramento Union, Monday, Jan. 17, 1955)
Lord James Blears, monocle and all, will be in the main event tonight at the Memorial Auditorium wrestling matches.
The Englishman will team up with Jesus Ortega of Mexico in a three-fall, one-hour tag match against Enrique Torres and young Johnny Barend.
Dr. Tim Geohagen of Ireland, who claims to be the strongest man in Erin, will contest Big Bob Orton of Kansas City in the 45-minute semi-final.
Ramon Torres of Mexico and Gene Dubuque of New York are down for a 20-minute curtain raiser which will open the show at 8:30 p.m.
GIRL ACCUSES MAT STAR
(Sacramento Union, Monday, Jan. 17, 1955)
Ramon Torres, 22-year-old Oakland heavyweight wrestler, was named the defendant in a paternity suit filed by a 19-year-old Sacramento girl in Alameda County Superior Court.
In the suit, Hilda Harkow, a utility company employe who lives at 2423 P Street, charged that Torres is the father of her baby boy, born August 7, 1954, in Berkeley.
She said that Torres is a professional wrestler who earns in excess of $10,000 annually. She asked $250 a month for the support of the child, $2,000 in attorney’s fees and $500 costs.
Torres is scheduled to wrestle in Memorial Auditorium tonight.
LORD BLEARS MAT WINNER
(Sacramento Union, January 18, 1955)
Lord James Blears and Jesus Ortega rallied last night in Memorial Auditorium to win an Australian tag team match against young Johnny Barend and Enrique Torres.
Barend pinned Blears for the first fall in 12 minutes with a flying head scissors and body press. But Blears came back to nail Barend in 7:35 with an arm bar. The deciding fall was won by Blears over Barend in 6 minutes with a hammerlock.
Big Bob Orton spotted the first fall to Dr. Tim Geohagen on a sleeper hold, then came back to pin the Irish strongman twice with a body press and body slam.
Gene Dubuque went to a draw with Ramon Torres in the 20-minute opener.
A COMMONER INTERVIEWS LORD BLEARS
(Sacramento Union, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 1955)
If this piece reads more stuffy than usual, there is a reason. We’ve been hobnobbing with British nobility.
"Meet Lord Blears," said Frank Malcewicz as he ushered us into the dressing room at Memorial Auditorium. "He’s the only authentic nobleman in the wrestling ring today."
Malcewicz himself believes that the lordship business is no fake. He was being sincere.
We didn’t know whether to kiss, curtsy or cut ice. But His Lordship made it easy. He stuck out his paw for an American handshake.
"I say now," His Lordship responded, "I’m very glad to meet you press fellows. Have a seat. I will be delighted to give you an interview."
The Lord was in a state of dishabille and apologized. He had been lacing on his wrestling shoes, but he still wore shirt and tie. We had caught him in a condition of ‘alf and ‘alf.
His Lordship, due in the ring in a matter of minutes, propelled himself pell mell into the business at hand.
"Mr. Malcewicz is not quite right," he said. "There is one other genuine British nobleman in the American ring. He is my good friend, Lord Layton. Unfortunately, Lord Layton has been injured and was unable to wrestle for more than four months. He was involved in a six-man tag team match, and one of the bounders stuck a thumb in his eye. He suffered a detached retina, but he will return to the ring. He is an authentic lord. All the rest are imposters. They saw my success and they copied me.
"Myself, I am Lord James Ranicar Blears. The title has been in my family for hundreds of years. It started in 1170. My father is Lord James Edwin Blears, and, as the oldest son, I inherit the title.
"I was born 31 years ago in a little town near Manchester. I served in the British Navy and later in the merchant marine. I first came to this country in 1944 as a radio officer on the Dutch liner Nieuw Amsterdam. I made my first wrestling tour in this country in 1944 and then I came here again in 1950 and have been in the United States ever since.
"I am an American citizen now. I took out my citizenship in 1951. I own my own home in Pacific Palisades, down south in Los Angeles. It is a fine home with a swimming pool. I have many famous neighbors. Jerry Lewis of Martin and Lewis lives nearby. So does Mario Lanza. And Charles Laughton and Esther Williams.
"A title has no meaning in this country. But I had the court change my name to Lord James Blears. The lord now is part of my legal name. The judge who handled the matter got a kick out of it. He said I was being knited by an American judge and consequently was becoming the first American lord. Ripping, eh?
"Yes, I am married. I have one osn who is 6. If he lived in England he would be the Right Honourable James William Blears. Over here, I can’t call him anything but Jimmy. He’s an American, you see. Actually, his mother is an Italian girl.
Lord Blears had by this time taken off his civilian pants and was putting on his wrestling doublet. He was asked if American audiences were inclined to ridicule his regal pretensions.
"They don’t ridicule me," he replied, "because I am a very good wrestler. But they do try to antagonize me. They call me names. ‘You dirty limey,’ they say, ‘why don’t you go home?’
"American wrestling fans seem to think I shouldn’t be in this country. Of course, they don’t know I am really an American citizen.
"Over in England the fans don’t scream and shout the way they do here. They may hiss somewhat, but they certainly don’t try to tear down the balcony and throw it at you. There is a great difference in the public in England and over here.
"As for my title, I am prepared at all times to prove its authenticity. I can produce documents and statements to show that I was born a lord.
"A lot of fans, finding out that I am now an American citizen, ask why don’t I drop the title. Well, I can’t. My name is known. It was as Lord Blears that I achieved a worldwide reputation. I’ve wrestled in Australia, in South Africa, in Hawaii and all over Europe."
By this time Lord Blears was groomed for the ring. He reached in his valise and removed a monocle.
"I wear the monocle into the ring," he explained, "and then I take it off and give it some deserving fan. I have to provide a new monocle every night. It is quite an expense."
His Lordship left the dressing room and went into the arena. Sure enough, the throng yelled, "Ya big limey bum, why don’t ya go back to London?" We sat down with Frank Malcewicz. The latter has no regal blood. Originally he was just a poor Polish kid from Syracuse, but now he and his brother boss the wrestling industry in northern California, nobility and all. Real nice fellow, too. Great country, America.
THE NEW WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) PAPERS
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GENTLEMAN CHRIS ADAMS
(WrestlineLine.com, October 24, 2000)
By Denny Burkholder
Significant events have happened around "Gentleman" Chris Adams his entire career. Through the 1980s Texas wrestling scene, his training of Stone Cold Steve Austin for a career in wrestling, and his stint in WCW in the late-1990s, it’s no wonder many hold Adams in high esteem. In fulfilling some reader requests, here is Chris Adams, chronicled in Circa… and adding his own two cents to his story.
Chris Adams entered the sport of judo at a young age, taking after his father. Chris was National Judo Champion of Great Britain three times in his age class before he was 21. His brother Neil was the coach of Britain's 1996 Summer Olympics Judo team and has held numerous world, Olympic and national judo titles. In 1978, Chris left the judo to Neil and followed a friend into the pro wrestling genre. He was convinced after a strong performance by a wrestling legend.
"I'd been doing judo for a long time and wasn't really keen on pro wrestling," Adams recalls. "But I saw Dynamite Kid in the ring, and he was really, really impressive. I befriended him, pretty much. That's really what made me get into it. The promoter asked me right then and there if I wanted to do pro wrestling, and after I saw the Dynamite Kid in a match, I said 'Yeah, I'll give it a go.' From that day on, whenever I saw Dynamite Kid or Davey Boy Smith -- who was really, really skinny at that time, I think he was about 15 -- we just all became friends. We worked on the same shows throughout England."
Adams was never actually trained to be a pro wrestler. He was thrown into wrestling from judo. "I was more used to athletic contests than the showmanship of pro wrestling."
Adams learned the ropes with guys like Tony Sinclair and "Big Daddy" Shirley Crabtree in England. In 1981, Adams was talked into trying the U.S. wrestling scene by a Japanese wrestler on tour in England. Soon, Adams arrived in Los Angeles, where promoter Mike LaBell set him up with a visa.
"It was unbelievable, a kid from a small town in England jumping off the plane into LA," Adams said. "I thought the whole of the United States was like LA. That was my first impression." Adams spent his initial time in the U.S. working in Los Angeles against the likes of John Tolos and Victor Rivera. His first experience as a champion in the States was with partner Tom Pritchard, when they won the American tag team titles.
After LA, Adams did some work in Mexico and Japan. While in those countries, he added international-style matches to his repertoire. Adams returned to America and competed in Portland in 1982. He still made appearances in Mexico, trading the WWF Light Heavyweight title with Perro Aguayo on one occasion. Adams' most pivotal move came in 1983, when he traveled to World Class Championship Wrestling in Texas.
Adams was brought in as a babyface ally of the red-hot Von Erich brothers -- David, Kevin, Kerry and Mike (a younger brother, Chris, would join the scene later). The clan were the sons of wrestling legend Fritz Von Erich (Jack Adkisson), who ran WCCW successfully for several years based in Dallas.
A feud with Jimmy Garvin over the Texas North American title earned Adams lots of cheers from loyal Dallas wrestling fans. Adams traded the title with Garvin three times during the feud, which featured Garvin's valets Sunshine and Precious in prominent roles. Garvin eventually dumped Sunshine in favor of Precious, and Sunshine went to the side of Adams.
"Sunshine was his real cousin," Adams said. "He had a bit of trouble with her. They kind of made friction together." As with many famous angles in wrestling (Conquistadors anyone?), Adams once had to don a mask as the "Masked Avenger" to earn a match with Garvin. Adams' babyface push couldn't have come at a better time -- WCCW was enjoying a large fan base in Texas.
Eventually, Adams tried his hand at turning heel. With Gary Hart as his manager, Adams wrestled Kevin Von Erich at the Cotton Bowl in October 1984. Already inching toward heel status, an unexpected turn of events pushed Adams further into heeldom than even he expected.
"We had a singles match, and he beat me. Because he beat me, he turned his back and I hit him on the head with a chair. But a weird thing happened -- it really split his head open. It knocked him out for real. When he was laid by one of the corners, blood was trickling down from his head onto the mat, then from the mat to the floor. That was picked up by the news, and picked up by, you know... that really shocked everybody."
Taken aback by the mishap at first (and the angry reaction of fiercely loyal Von Erich fans), Adams soon eased into his new heel status.
"When that first happened, it was like 'Oh my God, what have I done?' you know? But after a few weeks, I really got into it. I really enjoyed it. I manipulated the crowd. It was a lot of fun. It really got me over, and got me a lot more notoriety than if I had stayed with them."
The Von Erichs have become one of the most tragic tales in wrestling lore, as David, Mike, Kerry and Chris all died tragically young for varying reasons. Adams remains friends with Kevin Von Erich to this day, but fondly recalls the rest of Jack’s boys.
"I was really good friends with Kerry, really good friends with Kevin -- we've come through all that stuff together," Adams said. "I respect him. And he's got his own family, you know, so he's kind of took on the place of Fritz in a way. I was friends with David, and I was good friends with the little kid, Chris. Chris was like a midget, but he always wanted to be like Kerry. And of course Mike. I really got along well with them."
Soon after assaulting Kevin, Adams would form a heel tag team with Gino Hernandez called the Dynamic Duo. "I first met him -- I'm not sure exactly of the date -- but he came into the office one day. He'd been a big name down in Houston, but then he came to World Class. We sort of met, got along, talked about joining up together."
Adams and Hernandez worked a gimmick for nine months where they clipped locks of hair from the heads of various opponents. The gimmick ended with a hair match against the Von Erichs in which the Duo lost the WCCW tag titles and had their heads shaved by the Von Erichs. Adams and Hernandez won their titles back a month later, but a big feud was on the horizon.
While defending the titles, the arrogant Hernandez refused to take a hot tag from the worn-out Adams. The Duo would split for good on a subsequent show when Hernandez was caught lying to the fans. Hernandez bragged about knocking Adams out in a backstage confrontation over the disagreement, not knowing Adams was on his way to the ring. Adams slapped Hernandez, who then attacked Adams with a chair and started one of the most memorable, if brief, feuds in WCCW history. While the cocky, shades-wearing Hernandez taunted the "Slimy Limey" Adams on television, Adams built up babyface heat. Adams recalls that the feud had the personal touch of himself and Gino all over it.
"Gino and I came up with all of our angles together," Adams said. "The hair and everything. Ken Mantell was booking. We would put ideas to them [Mantell and Fritz Von Erich] and they would take them to the office, talk them over and see what would be good and what wouldn't."
The big match of the Hernandez-Adams feud saw Hernandez take a container of "Freebird hair gel" from a ringside table and use the substance to "blind" Adams. Shortly thereafter, Adams did a promo for WCCW TV where -- with his eyes completely patched and his wife at his side -- Adams announced he may never wrestle again. The cameras followed as Adams was helped into a Corvette so he could go to the airport, en route back to his native England. Though the promo was intended to be a tearjerker, Adams remembers the first take being humorous.
"What happened is that I really couldn't see with those patches over my eyes," he said. "I was getting into the Corvette when they were shooting, and I actually went to get in it the wrong way, facing back. They had to re-shoot it."
Adams left for a hiatus in England. His friend Gino would not greet him when he returned to the U.S. months later. On February 4, 1986, Hernandez would be found dead in his home of an acute cocaine overdose. Hernandez was just 29 when he died.
"I went back to England, and just a few days after that, I heard that he died," Adams remembers. To Adams’ surprise, the authorities considered him a suspect at first.
"I got the news from Scotland Yard, which is the equivalent of the FBI over there. The FBI got in touch with Scotland Yard and they traced my parents down real quick, and wanted to interview me because they thought that I killed him. I mean, they quickly found out that it had nothing to do with me, but that was the initial way I found out."
Adams was never questioned as a suspect.
"They actually talked to me on the phone. They said they would call me back. They did call me back, but they apologized and told me they knew that it was nothing to do with me," Adams said.
Adams was shocked to hear of Gino's death. "I was devastated. I remember I had a little bit of an argument with my mother because she didn't realize how close we were. She didn't realize how upset I was."
Adams was aware of Hernandez' drug problem, but was not aware of how serious it was. "I knew he'd had one, you know, I knew that he could go that way, but I'd never seen it. I had never seen it with my own eyes. I heard he'd had a problem in the past. But he was pretty wild. We lived in the same condominium on Lover's Lane in Dallas together. And we both had red Corvettes that we'd race up Lover's Lane. We were pretty wild back then. He didn't really keep it to himself, it was pretty common knowledge that he had a problem. But I wasn't aware that he had a problem at that time."
Adams returned to World Class in May 1986 and continued the angle he had begun with his departed friend Gino. Adams worked his return match against Kabuki on May 4, in an angle where Adams had only 20 percent vision in his left eye and 95 percent in his left. Adams' eyesight soon would be completely restored, as the story went, by a "Rude Awakening" neckbreaker from a young Rick Rude.
"I thought he was great, he had a hell of a body," Adams recalls of Rude. "He was pretty stealthy, but I really liked him a lot. A real great guy." Adams won the WCCW world title from Rude on July 4, 1986. A few months later, Adams left for Bill Watts' Mid-South territory, which was about to merge into the NWA. There, Adams made what he feels was his biggest career mistake.
"I remember at the time, they had their own clique in the NWA and I had always been working on top. And I think it was silly -- when I look back now, I should have just held my lips, and just hung on and played the game a little bit. But the NWA took so many people from Mid-South wrestling, and then they dropped a lot of people also. And I was one of them that they took. I traveled with them and everything, and I was in some big shows. But I remember I wasn't happy with one of the paychecks, so I just got up and left. And that was the time I remember clearly that Michael Hayes said 'You might want to think about it.' But I was a hothead, and left. I guess I regret that. That was a mistake."
The next big event in Adams’ career came in 1990 when he started training young hopefuls for careers in pro wrestling. At the time, Adams was working for the USWA promotion.
"I started the wrestling school in 1990," Adams said. "At the time it was the USWA (wrestling school) because the USWA had bought out Jerry Jarrett. WCCW was bought out by Jerry Jarrett, because I remember Jerry Jarrett having a problem with Kevin (Von Erich). You know, they had World Class for so long, and it was theirs. They didn't take too greatly to being second -- not that they were second, but they didn't own it anymore."
At the USWA wrestling school, Adams wound up training "Stone Cold" Steve Austin (Steve Williams) -- a man who has become a bona fide wrestling icon since.
"We put an advertisement on the TV for the wrestling school," Adams said. "I had to hold a seminar at the Sportatorium. I think there were 500 people that showed up. I had to get six salespeople from an agency to sit at desks and take down the names. We had all these tryouts, and he was one of the guys that came out - not the first time, I think he came a couple weeks later."
Austin had all the tools for wrestling success from day one.
"I liked him because he had already got a body," Adams said. "He had long blonde hair at the time, and he looked good. And then when I gave him a tryout in the ring... he had a good feel for the business. You could just tell. He had coordination, and he looked great anyway - he didn't have to get that part. He didn't have to work on that."
Austin began competing with Adams in the USWA as his babyface
protege. Soon, Austin's feel for the bad-guy persona took over and he been
feuding with his mentor. Adams' personal life seeped into the wrestling ring at
this time, as his ex-wife Jeannie Clarke began managing Austin. Adams' wife Toni
got involved, and a wild inter-gender tag team feud resulted. There were no real
hard feelings during the feud, Adams recalls.
(More details of the inter-gender feud follow in New WAWLI Papers No. 165)
THE NEW WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) PAPERS
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GENTLEMAN CHRIS ADAMS (cont.)
"This was all my idea," Adams remembers. "My ex-wife - who is Jean - I came over from England with her. We had just actually separated and I remarried, so she wasn't my wife at the time. It was my suggestion that Steve team up with Jean - who I was still friends with - and he joined up with Jeannie. When she came on the scene it was so shocking to me - you know, in the eyes of the fans - that I'd make a mistake, and he'd win. We played for some time with Steve coming in with my ex-wife... he'd hold me, she'd whack me, that kind of stuff."
When Chris’ wife Toni joined the feud, fans went nuts.
‘When she came in, it went crazy," Adams said. Toni and Jeannie played it up for the crowd. "They had a lot of fun. Jeannie had a lot of fun whacking on me," Adams said with a chuckle.
Jeannie eventually married Steve Austin, but remained friends with Adams. They have a daughter together, who lived with Austin and Jeannie for a time before they split up years ago (and eventually divorced). Austin publicly credits Jeannie as being the one who inspired his "Stone Cold" persona while trying to persuade him to eat breakfast one morning. Austin is now remarried to the WWF's Debra (formerly McMichael).
There were no hard feelings between Adams and Austin in the beginning. Now, Adams says the atmosphere is different.
"Him and I don't really contact or speak to each other," Adams said. "It's like he's too good for everybody, I feel. It started about two or three years after they got married. He started... he disliked the fact that I would call the house to speak to my daughter. I think he began to get jealous, which is stupid, because Jean and I are very good friends, even now. We're just good friends, so it wasn't really like that. But apparently, he got a little bit jealous. But she told me he's a pretty jealous guy, period."
Adams competed in various independents in the 1990s, including Global in Dallas. In 1993, he booked an overseas tour in Nigeria, which was financially backed by Pepsi. Adams toured Africa in search of fitting venues for wrestling matches. He eventually settled into soccer stadiums – many of which surprisingly had WWF posters decorating the locker rooms when he found them. Jimmy Snuka, the Iron Sheik, Kevin Von Erich, Tommy Rogers, and Iceman King Parsons were among the talent Adams took to Africa.
Adams rounded out the mid-1990s working for various independents, including the much-hyped AWF in 1995. Backed by a millionaire, the AWF fizzled out when it didn’t prove itself a huge moneymaker right away. Then in 1998, Adams secured a spot in the very successful World Championship Wrestling.
"I just talked to Terry Taylor, a real good friend of mine," Adams said. "He was in a position in the office where he couldn't do much - his hands were tied, to a point by (then-WCW head Eric) Bischoff -- but it was mainly a financial deal for me. I wasn't too happy about the way they were using me, but then again, they were paying me. So it's like weighing the situation in each hand."
"I was disappointed in them, to be honest," Adams continued. "There seemed to be a lot of chiefs and no Indians. Back in the World Class days, we'd let angles run. Like in the WWF now, you can follow -- it's like a soap opera. In WCW, they'll start an angle one week and finish it the next. And it's like, 'What's going on?' It was amazing to me - like a huge, corporate mess-up. With such potential and such great workers, but it seemed to lack the direction of a planned-out soap opera. And I never knew why. They had so many guys that they could have used. A lot of people say 'Well, this guy didn't get over, and that guy didn't get over.' Anybody can get over if the TV uses them right. And with a company like WCW, you have no say-so. It's very corporate, very big."
Adams says WCW was not receptive to ideas from the talent, and if they said they were, that would change at the booking meeting. Adams was released by WCW in December 1999. "JJ (Dillon) called me and asked me if I'd go on a nightly contract," Adams remembers. Adams declined the offer and was released from WCW.
Today, Adams is focusing his energies on providing safe equipment for use by ‘backyard" wrestlers. Through www.wrestlingrings.com, Adams hopes to persuade teens to stop taking unnecessary risks.
"A lot of people are getting injured," Adams said. "They're doing it on the bed, they're doing it on concrete, and mattresses outside, or they're doing it in makeshift rings, which are really dangerous. My friend and I came up with the idea of supplying them a ring, which is affordable -- it's $3,250 for a 15' by 15' ring. It's a steel ring, just like the real thing. It's a safe, real place to do what they're doing."
Adams incorporates the supplies with an instructional video he made in 1990.
"My training tape is really very basic," he said. "I don't do any of the flying, and I don't advise that anybody does anything that they see on TV. Some of those guys in the WWF do some awesome things. This is more of a ground-up deal."
Adams expects people to argue that he is encouraging the unsafe practice of wrestling at home. He disagrees.
"We've had some flak like 'Oh, you're encouraging people to wrestle.' But it's really not us that's encouraging them to wrestle. We're just giving them a safe place to wrestle. It's the TV programs that are encouraging them to wrestle," Adams reasons.
"My daughter lives with me here, she's six. She watches the Powerpuff Girls. They do karate and stuff like that. When she's done watching that on TV, she'll come and start chopping me and kicking me, and I see the way that the TV persuades the kids to do different things. The ring, in my opinion, is the safest place they could do it. But it needs to be, you know, properly watched over by parents, and it just needs to be treated with respect."
"A lot of people are getting injured by doing silly things - diving off the roof onto tables and silly stuff like that," Adams continued. "We're trying to say 'Do this in a ring.' We're expecting flak from some people, but sometimes that can make for good publicity too."
Adams is still active in some Texas independents, and cannot put a time table on when he might finally call it a career.
"I feel great right now. I don't party like I used to. When I start to hurt or when I start to stiffen up and feel I can't do it, then I will quit. But right now, I feel good."
Adams has plans for a weekend wrestling camp to begin after the New Year. If Adams’ record is to be trusted, he just might find the next big wrestling mega-star amongst his latest crop of hopefuls.
HAKU GETS CIRCA-ZIZED ON WRESTLELINE
(WrestleLine.com, January 23, 2001)
By Denny Burkholder
Sorry, I couldn’t resist. All kidding aside, though, Haku is nothing to sneeze at.
And since Haku spent the better part of the past decade in WCW as "Meng," it’s highly possible that most current fans either never knew him as anything else, or have simply forgotten where Meng came from. The man’s name is Uliuli Fifita. I like to think of Uliuli as the Tongan so nice they named him twice. And now, he gets Circa-cized.
Haku has been wrestling for just about 23 years. In his travels, he has competed in Canada, Puerto Rico, Japan, Mexico, and the United States, not to mention the numerous countries he visited while touring the world with the U.S.-based WWF and WCW. He worked under an assortment of names, including Tonga Fifita, Prince Tonga (Japan), Tama Tonga, King Kong Tonga, and the name with which he gained his greatest pre-Haku notoriety, King Tonga. As King Tonga, he found his professional stride in Quebec against opponents such as Dino Bravo, in Puerto Rico’s WWC, and then as a WWF newcomer in 1985.
King Tonga’s first match at Madison Square Garden in November 1985 happened on the same card as the Wendi Richter swerve, where the Fabulous Moolah (under a mask as "Spider Lady") scored a tainted WWF Women’s Title victory over the popular Richter, who had earlier refused to sign a contract extension without consulting her lawyer. So began the end of one WWF career, and so began the start of a new one. King Tonga scored a victory over a masked Mr. X – who in the WWF in 1985 really could have been anybody, except this time it probably wasn’t Moolah.
King Tonga wasn’t the large, menacing terror that characterizes Meng, and the current Haku incarnation. He was about the size of a Jimmy Snuka, carrying very little extra weight. Like Snuka and the Samoan family, he wrestled barefoot – par for the course for most "Island" wrestlers through the years. He was agile and quick when he had to be. But even at his modest size, Tonga preferred power and martial arts styles of wrestling, with a dash of fundamental mat skills tossed in for good measure. Outside of your standard dropkick fare and the obligatory leap from the top rope, Tonga didn’t go aerial unless he was against someone he couldn’t overpower. His favor toward muscle maneuvers would prove beneficial to him later on, and in hindsight may have extended his career.
King Tonga’s first Wrestlemania performance was brief and forgettable. He just barely avoided being the first man eliminated from the Wrestlemania II NFL-WWF 20-man battle royal when his feet hit the floor a fraction of a second after Chicago Bear Jim Covert’s did. Tonga spent a few months establishing his name and aligning himself with the likes of Ricky Steamboat and Siva Afi in tag team bouts. Then in the summer of 1986, he got a surprise push at the expense of Big John Studd.
Studd was positioned as a top heel against no less important faces than Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan. He was managed by Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, and his right-hand man in that stable – King Kong Bundy – was fresh off a Wrestlemania-headlining feud with Hogan. Studd’s shtick for years was that nobody could bodyslam him, and in the unlikely event that they might actually do it, he would offer them $15,000 cash. Slamming Studd put you on an elite list with Andre and Hogan, and guaranteed a huge pop from the 1986 fans. Here comes King Tonga.
Studd worked a handicap match against two jobbers on WWF Superstars of Wrestling (the jobbers were Rick Hunter and Jim Powers, if you’re keeping score), and the $15,000 bodyslam challenge stip was in effect. No big deal, since this kind of Studd squash was standard fare for WWF TV. Studd predictably ran through the jobbers and won the match, but the fun wasn’t over. King Tonga – of all people – came to the ring to try his hand at slamming the towering Studd. Tonga scooped and slammed Studd with incredible ease, popped the unsuspecting crowd, and served notice to WWF fans for the first time that he was deceivingly strong for his size.
The instant push against Studd was good for a series of rematches in which Tonga never emerged a clear victor, but his face was now on the WWF map – mission completed. At August 1986’s catchy-named "Big Event" – which drew 70,000 in Toronto, Ontario, on the power of a Hulk Hogan-Paul Orndorff title match – Tonga wrestled to a time-limit draw with Don Muraco. Hints of an impending name change were evident, as Gorilla Monsoon and the announce team seemed torn between calling him "Tonga" and "Haku."
He then resumed bouncing around the card and teaming with Siva Afi and other mid-carders until he found a permanent tag partner in WWF returnee Sam "Tonga Kid" Fatu. Sam is the brother of Solofa "Rikishi" Fatu, which lends historical significance to Haku’s recent joining of forces with Rikishi in the WWF, if you’re into that whole "historical significance" sort of thing.
As Tonga Kid, Sam Fatu had been a player in Snuka’s feud with Roddy Piper in 1984 and 1985. Upon his return, a pairing with King Tonga seemed like a natural progression. Sam Fatu was renamed Tama (perhaps suggested by Fifita, who had also used that name before). King Tonga was reborn as Haku (for good this time), and the duo began the legacy of the Islanders tag team. Soon thereafter, they turned heel against the Young Stallions (Powers and Paul Roma), adopted Heenan as their manager, and carved out a nice piece of the hot WWF tag team scene for themselves.
There was no shortage of competition for Haku and Tama – the British Bulldogs, the Rougeau Brothers, the Can-Am Connection of Rick Martel and Tom Zenk (and later Strike Force, with Martel and Tito Santana), the Stallions, and the Killer Bees all had their go-around with the Islanders. And that was just the babyfaces – the Islanders were in competition for top heel status with a peaking Hart Foundation and newcomers Demolition. The Islanders never won the WWF tag team title, but due to their hard work against solid opponents and their association with Heenan, they stayed in the spotlight better than many teams.
Probably the biggest strike against them was the fact that WWF announcers – everyone from Monsoon to Jesse Ventura to Lord Alfred Hayes – seemed to be having an incredibly difficult time agreeing on the Islanders’ names. The first six months or so, they were called every possible variation of their actual monikers – "Toe-muh," "Taa-muh," "Hoe-koo," High-ku." Of course, "Tonga Kid" and "King Tonga" slipped through more than a few times by haphazard commentators.
The Islanders were most notorious for their feud with the British Bulldogs, during which they aided Heenan in "dog-napping" mascot Matilda and holding the pooch hostage from Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith in early 1988. The feud climaxed with a ridiculous six-man tag match at Wrestlemania IV in which they teamed with Heenan to defeat the Bulldogs and "Bird Man" Koko B. Ware, with Heenan pinning Ware. But alas, all good things must come to an end, and eventually, the Islanders were no more.
Sam Fatu left the WWF again, and Haku remained a solo heel in Heenan’s stable. Heenan had also managed "King" Harley Race in the WWF, and in Race’s waning days in the company, there was an angle where Heenan chose a replacement "King" during Harley’s injury hiatus. That man was Haku, who once again found the title "King" attached to the front of his ring name – only this time, he had a crown to wear, a regal robe, and a team of jobbers carrying him to the ring on his throne. The proverbial "passing of the torch" happened at Royal Rumble 1989, when Race returned to officially give Haku the one-on-one rub.
Haku finished the legend off with his signature thrust kick, which is no longer his finisher, but a staple of his repertoire nonetheless. From there, King Haku became a very solid mid-carder, and at that time, the title of WWF "King" meant a steady winning streak. What little high-flying Haku had done with the Islanders and before was now gone in favor of a martial arts and power-based moveset.
In 1989, the WWF saw fit to completely kill what little credibility the already hokey "king" gimmick had, and made Haku job the crown to "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan. The dignified king of the WWF was no longer a wrestling legend such as Race or a formidable heel like Haku. It was the beloved, cross-eyed, wood-sporting Duggan. Haku, however, moved on to bigger and better things. His longtime association with Heenan had draw him together with Andre the Giant, and the two teamed as the Colossal Connection to defeat Demolition for the WWF tag team titles in December 1989. That would become Haku’s only WWF title reign, and amazingly, Andre’s only championship in the WWF besides the double-Hebner world title shmozz against Hogan in 1988.
Haku and Andre held the straps until Wrestlemania VI, where they jobbed the titles back to Demolition at the Sky Dome on Toronto. Haku would later call this his career highlight, and one needs only look at the videotape to see why. First was the honor of teaming with the legendary Andre in his last Wrestlemania appearance ever. Second was the fact that he was the lucky heel opposite Andre when the big man turned babyface at the end of the match, ending his WWF career as a fan favorite, the way many prefer to remember him. Haku was the key player opposite Andre the Giant in his last big Wrestlemania moment. As if all that wasn’t enough to make it memorable, the pop when Demolition regained the tag titles was absolutely tremendous – without question the height of Demolition’s popularity. Haku was surrounded by energy and greatness during this match. He helped put together a memorable payoff for not only a feud, but also a career. Andre might also have been the last person Haku ever sold a single headbutt for, but I’d have to research that one a little more to be positive.
Of course, once you hit your peak, there’s nowhere to go but down. Haku would continue as one of Heenan’s top heels that year, but didn’t make any impact comparable to that of the Wrestlemania payoff. It was in 1990 that he was first paired up with Sionne "The Barbarian" Vailahi as a tag team. The future "Faces of Fear" of WCW fame were known in the WWF as simply "Haku & The Barbarian." They didn’t do much of anything, unless you consider jobbing to the Rockers something special. It was 1991 when Haku finally left the WWF, though he did participate in the 1992 Royal Rumble as a one-shot replacement for the injured Brian Knobs. Haku would not return to the WWF full-time until the 2001 Royal Rumble – much bigger, much nastier, and with a much more impressive head of hair.
Haku arrived in WCW in 1994 and was renamed Meng, and the rest is history. The current version of Haku looks to be a continuation of what he evolved into as Meng, which is a ruthless and monster more concerned with maiming than winning. At nearly 42 years of age, he’s moving a little slower, but his style still revolves around power moves and martial arts chops and kicks – that much has remained the same. In WCW, his thrust kick was demoted from finishing move to a setup for his "Tongan death grip" nerve hold. He used both moves in his first WWF stint, only in the opposite order.
Haku is now paired off with Rikishi, the brother of his first successful tag partner. Nearly 16 years after his WWF debut, and his subsequent runs through WCW, Japan and other areas, his reputation as a humble and personable locker room presence has stood the test of time. Perhaps Haku will never win the big one, and perhaps he’s a bit basic compared to modern wrestlers. But he’s well liked around the industry and he’s more than capable of adapting to the WWF style.
Let’s see where Haku goes with this run.
THE NEW WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) PAPERS No. 166-2001
REED WINS HAWAIIAN MAT CROWN
(Honolulu Star-Bulletin, January 6, 1966)
Ron Reed of Baltimore captured the Hawaiian heavyweight wrestling championship at the Civic Auditorium last night when Luther Lindsey was unable to continue after a head butt.
Reed had won the first fall with a reverse rollover and press, while Lindsey took the second with a dropkick and press.
Nick Kozak, 222-pounder from Houston, lifted the U.S. heavyweight belt from Killer Kowalski when he took the third fall of their match with a reverse rollover and press.
Kowalski won the first fall with a knee to the throat, plus a press, and Kozak evened the match with an airplane spin.
Joe Scarpa and Dick Steinborn were given the referee’s decisions over Ripper Collins and Beauregarde after each team won a fall.
Neff Maiava and The Bandit shared falls, then The Bandit was disqualified for gouging.
NICK KOZAK, RIPPER COLLINS IN DRAW BOUT
(Honolulu Star-Bulletin, January 13, 1966)
Nick Kozak and Ripper Collins wrestled to a standoff in the main event of last night’s wrestling card at the Civic Auditorium.
After each man had won a fall, they fell out of the ring together and failed to make it back before the count of 20.
In the tag match, Nick Bockwinkel and Lord Blears took two out of three falls from The Bandit and Fuji Fujiwara.
The deciding fall came when Bockwinkel used an abdominal stretch to force The Bandit to give up.
John Barend used a surfboard submission hold to defeat Ron Reed, while Neff Maiava employed a dive off the ropes and head butt to down Joe Scarpa.
RIPPER COLLINS BEATS REED FOR TITLE
(Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Thursday, Jan. 20, 1966)
Ripper Collins lifted Ron Reed’s Hawaiian heavyweight title last night by taking two out of three falls at the Honolulu International Center Arena.
Reed won the first fall with a reverse cradle, but Collins captured the second by applying the boots to his foe’s head and stomach. Reed then missed with a flying dropkick and Collins subdued him with an atomic drop.
Ray Stevens and Pat Patterson retained their world’s tag-team championship when Kenji Shibuya and Nick Bockwinkel were disqualified after each team had captured a fall. The latter pair provoked the referee’s wrath when they threw Patterson over the ropes.
Johnny Barend pinned Bearcat Wright, but the referee awarded the match to Wright because his opponent used the ropes in gaining an edge.
Nick Kozak successfully defended his United States championship against the Golden Terror.
Gil Ane downed Fuji Fujiwara when the latter was disqualified for using illegal karate tactics. Each wrestler had won a fall.
Alberto Torres and Joe Scarpa wound up in a draw.
BAREND LAYS KOZAK OUT WITH CANE
(Honolulu Star-Bulletin, January 27, 1966)
There was extra-curricular action in the wrestling ring last night at Civic Auditorium.
Nick Kozak was supposed to meet Ripper Collins in a feature match. But before things got under way, Johnny Barend sneaked into the ring and attack Kozak with a cane. Kozak was rendered hors de combat and Nick Bockwinkel had to substitute for him. He and Collins split two falls and no one could get a second pin before the time limit.
In the six-man tag match, the trio of Neff Maiava, Kozak and Bockwinkel defeated Barend, Collins and Beauregarde.
Beauregarde took the first fall from Maiava with a body press, but Maiava returned the compliment with a head butt and press. Collins and his cohorts were then disqualified for using the ropes to choke Kozak.
The Golden Terror downed Gil Ane. The Terror took the first fall with a roll over. Ane retaliated with a body slam. A shoe to the stomach, plus a press, gave the Terror the deciding fall.
Dean Higuchi and Fuji Fujiwara drew in their match.
RIPPER COLLINS, BEAUREGARDE DISQUALIFIED
(Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Thursday, Feb. 3, 1966)
Ripper Collins and his valet, Beauregarde, were disqualified, as usual, at the Civic Auditorium last night and thereby lost their tag team match with Lord Blears and Nick Bockwinkel.
Blears took the first fall from Beauregarde with a double leg lock, but Collins pinned Blears with an atomic drop. Then the villains threw Bockwinkel over the ropes and were banished from the ring.
Johnny Barend captured the U.S. title belt by taking two of three falls from Nick Kozak. Barend used an atomic drop to take the first and third falls, while Kozak won the second with a backbreaker.
Harold Sakata, otherwise known as Tosh Togo or "Oddjob" of the James Bond movies, defeated Dean Higuchi. After they split a pair of falls, Higuchi missed a flying tackle and was counted out.
The Golden Terror and Neff Maiava each took a fall, then wrestled to the time limit draw.
TAG TEAM MATCH IS STANDOFF
(Honolulu Star-Bulletin, February 10, 1966)
Ripper Collins and Tosh (Oddjob) Togo grappled to a standoff against Neff Maiava and Gil Ane in a tag team wrestling match at Civic Auditorium last night.
Collins scored the first fall, pinning Ane with an atomic drop. Then Maiava subdued Collins with head butts to even the score. Time ran out before the third fall could be marked up and the match ended in a draw.
The final event of the night also ended in a draw when both Nick Bockwinkel and Johnny Barend were counted out of the ring on the third and decisive fall.
Bockwinkel took the first fall with a submission hold and Barend squared matters with an atomic hold on the second fall.
In preliminaries, Nick Kozak scored two straight falls to defeat Beauregarde and Dean Higuchi won on a disqualification against the Golden Terror.
LOU THESZ VICTOR IN MAT BATTLE
(Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Thursday, Feb. 17, 1966)
Former world’s heavyweight wrestling champion Lou Thesz won by a disqualification over Dick the Bruiser Afflis last night in one of the feature matches at the Honolulu International Center Arena.
After each matman had gained a fall – Thesz with a flying scissors and the Bruiser with a knee to the stomach – the Bruiser was disqualified for taking on the referee instead of the former titleholder.
Johnny Barend won clear title to the alleged U.S. heavyweight crown by taking two of three falls from Nick Kozak. Barend took the first fall with an atomic drop, Kozak the second with an old-fashioned airplane spin, and Barend the third with an elbow smash and press.
Ray Stevens and Pat Patterson successfully defended their version of the world’s tag team championship by defeating Cowboy Bill Watts and Rene Goulet.
The first fall went to Watts over Patterson with a body slam, then Patterson got the nod over Watts when the Cowboy missed a flying tackle and hit the turnbuckle. Stevens applied the clincher with a bombs away on Goulet.
Nick Bockwinkel also was disqualified in his match with the Golden Terror – he pulled off the Terror’s mask after they had split falls.
Time ran out on a tag match between Neff Maiava-Dean Higuchi and Ripper Collins-Oddjob Tosh Togo after each pair had captured a fall.
BAREND, BOCKWINKEL IN DRAW
(Honolulu Star-Bulletin, February 24, 1966)
Nick Bockwinkel and Johnny Barend wrestled to a draw in a professional wrestling match last night at the Civic Auditorium.
Bockwinkel took the first fall with an abdominal stretch and Barend the second with an atomic drop. Time ran out before either matman could gain the decider.
In the six-man tag team match, the team led by Johnny Barend defeated Neff Maiava’s crew. Maiava took the first fall over Barend but he and his partners were disqualified when they threw all their opponents out of the ring. Barend took the deciding fall over Bockwinkel.
The Golden Terror used a body slam and a half-crab to subdue Beauregarde. Fuji Fujiwara and Dean Higuchi wrestled to a draw.
Illness prevented the appearance of Japan’s Kenji Inoki, who had been booked.
THESZ, LINDSEY BATTLE TO A DRAW
(Honolulu Star-Bulletin, March 3, 1966)
Former world champion Lou Thesz and Luther Lindsey wrestled to a draw in one of the triple main events last night on the Civic Auditorium mat card.
Thesz took the first fall with a body scissors, but Lindsey was awarded the second with a flying arm lock. Time ran out before either grappler could gain the deciding three-second count.
Ripper Collins defeated the Golden Terror when the masked wrestler was counted out for the third and deciding fall. Collins took the first fall with an atomic drop and the Terror countered with a half-crab submission hold.
Johnny Barend and "Oddjob" Togo took two out of three falls from Nick Kozak and Lord Blears in the tag match.
Neff Maiava defeated Lou (Shoulders) Newman in a preliminary match when the referee disqualified Newman for receiving off-the-mat aid from Johnny Barend.
THE NEW WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) PAPERS No. 167-2001
THE BIG CAT, ERNIE LADD, REMEMBERED
(WrestleLine.com, March 5, 2001)
By Denny Burkholder
On the gridiron or in the ring, "Big Cat" Ernie Ladd was one of the elite.
Throughout the 1960s, Ladd was an imposing threat as defensive tackle for the American Football League’s San Diego Chargers, Houston Oilers and Kansas City Chiefs. He stood 6’9" and reportedly weighed anywhere between 275 and 315 lbs., and in 1966 was the highest paid lineman in pro football. All this while working part-time as a professional wrestler.
Ladd was originally recruited to play for the Chargers in the AFL. One of his recruiters at the time was Al Davis, the current President of the General Partner of the Oakland Raiders NFL franchise (and affectionately dubbed "Darth Vader" by Raiders faithful).
Davis has since commented to SportsLine.com regarding Ladd. Davis said: "He was the most dynamic force in football. He had no peer." Those are strong words coming from NFL royalty such as Al Davis. Likewise, Ernie Ladd remembers Davis and the rest of the San Diego coaching staff from that day with similar regard.
"I thought it was a great coaching staff," Ladd recalls. "They were all young and they were fresh. They had a great owner in Barron Hilton. My fondest memories are that they were workaholics. They believed in you coming to camp in shape. And they believed in you working hard once you got to camp. They also believed in preparing you well, and did a great job scouting their opponents. All you had to do was get mentally strong and physically strong, and they would do the rest. Al Davis was an asset to the receivers, and an asset to the team along with his motivation."
Ladd’s entry into pro wrestling while remaining a marquee name in the AFL was sparked by two major catalysts: the desire of wrestling promoters to boost business in California, and Ladd’s cocky dismissal of pro wrestlers as legitimate tough guys. Ladd remembers his first humbling experience with pro wrestling very well.
"I was a highly publicized athlete in 1961 and wrestling wasn’t doing that well in San Diego," Ladd remembered. "So they needed a drawing card. And I was a tremendous leader, and the press kept talking about that. It was great publicity, so some wrestlers came down and challenged me. And I told them I didn’t want to be bothered with those wrestlers. I’d go down and I’d beat some of them up."
What happened next surprised the football star. "They invited me down so I could beat some of the wrestlers up, and it happened the other way around," Ladd said. "They stretched me out on the mat. That angered me, and I couldn’t do nothing about it. I was not in my arena. Football was my arena, not wrestling. And so that left me with a taste in my mouth that I wanted to be an accomplished wrestler."
After a few years of training and working out the kinks in the ring, Ladd gained fame and fortune in wrestling to match his success on the football field. But it wasn’t an easy road – when Ladd started out in wrestling, there was still a segment of ignorant fans and wrestlers alike that didn’t take kindly to black athletes performing in the ring. But Ladd doesn’t make excuses.
"There was a time that I felt I was treated different," he recalled, "but I was on both sides of the fence. I was treated different because my skills were not good, and I was black." Still, the ignorance would persist even after Ladd had improved as a wrestler.
"When my skills got developed well, I was treated different again because some think that I robbed the box office, because I was paid very well and I was a premiere black talent," Ladd said. Despite what some apparently thought, Ladd was well worth his paycheck, because he had become one of the best draws in the business.
"I gotta demand a price more than the average guy," Ladd said. "I have walked out on a packed house because a guy didn’t want to pay me."
Lately, a few wrestlers have pointed to racial discrimination as a reason they felt they were held back in various promotions. As a black wrestler from a time when racism was much more pronounced, Ernie Ladd does not totally buy that excuse.
"When you bring race into this matter, first of all, you need to develop your skills," Ladd explained. "See, many people come to wrestling because they failed in a lot of areas, and they took a shortcut and figured they could be an entertainer. I mean, a wrestler. But if you don’t have skills, it’s not because you’re black, or because you’re white or blue or green. You just don’t have the skills to cut the mustard. If you think your skills are actually better than what your skills are… a promoter judges your skills on how he draws at the box office. Not how well you wrestle on the mat.
"Every wrestler that’s on the card should have a value," Ladd continued. "Wrestling doesn’t function like most jobs. Wrestling functions if you can be a box office, if you can draw people to the arenas. There’s an old saying – ‘every 18 inches, there’s a fanny being entertained by a great piece of talent.’"
By the 1970s, two names that always put fannies in seats for wrestling matches were Ernie Ladd and Andre the Giant– especially if those men were fighting each other. Ladd and Andre feuded in territories all over the country for years. While Ladd never scored a decisive victory over the Frenchman, working with Andre was an experience most wrestlers will never forget. Ladd is no different.
"My first impression of Andre the Giant as a person?" Ladd asked. "Biggest man, biggest hands, biggest feet I ever saw. You know, it’s always a challenge to compete with someone that size. In his own way he was a great guy. He was very powerful. It was always challenging to confront him."
Ladd worked as both a football player and wrestler for years until finally giving up the pigskin for a full time career in the ring. Today, a pro football star of Ladd’s caliber will almost always earn more money on the field than he would in the squared circle. This was not the case for Ladd in the 1960s. Ladd left football for wrestling partly because he was making more money in wrestling than he could in football. Looking back, Ladd is confident that if he’d earned more as a football player, he still would have eventually chosen wrestling. Ladd enjoyed entertaining fans in the close confines of the arena.
"I had a great enjoyment for wrestling," Ladd said. "The people are matters of feet away from you. You can entertain people close-up. You can look at them, in people’s eyes. In a football stadium, the people sitting up in the crow’s nest, you can never see them up there. Let alone, you can’t see the people in the front row seats because you’re too focused on the football field. But as a wrestler, the people at ringside, you can look in their eyes and see the anger, and the frustration, and the joy. That’s everything. And as a wrestler, it’s your job to raise the level of intensity, to raise the level of joy, and it takes a rare professional to be able to do these things. And I was very good at it."
Ladd was good in the ring, but some would argue his true calling was on the microphone. Ladd cut heel promos better than most in the 1970s. He called himself the "king of wrestling," but "king of promos" was probably much more fitting. Ladd enjoyed cutting promos on opponents as much as he enjoyed wrestling them.
"It’s fun both ways," he said. "You had to have a love for interviews, because if the interviews were not good, during my era, you were not a good box office. You had to have dialogue, but you also had to have talent. You had to be able to sell tickets."
Ladd noted that many people made the mistake of relying entirely on the promoter to "push" them or promote them to fans, when in reality, it was just as much the responsibility of the wrestler himself.
"You were your own greatest promoter," Ladd said. "Vince McMahon could market a product. Most talent – whether you’re black, white, blue, green, red, yellow, or purple – during my era, if you couldn’t market yourself, you didn’t get over. And it was nobody’s fault but your own. But if you brought something to the table, in most cases, you could take something off of the table. When I say take something off of the table, I mean money. If you didn’t bring any talents or skills, you had no value. If the promoter would leave you off the card and you had no value, it’s your fault. Not the promoter’s fault."
Some wrestlers get themselves over with the help of a calling card or gimmick. Ever the heel, Ladd’s gimmick was a taped thumb, which he jammed into the throat of his babyface opposition every chance he got. Fans hated him for it, and thus, it helped get him over. While the taped thumb is associated with him, Ladd admits it was not entirely his idea.
"Amazing thing about it," Ladd recalled, "I saw a guy with a thumb taped called Crazy Luke Graham. That intrigued me. That excited me; it really fascinated me. I guess you could say I was kind of like a thief. I stole that from Luke Graham. You know, one of the great things about wrestling is you travel all over the world. You see people with various things that you want. So you become a thief and steal it, unless it’s his trademark finish. But that was something that I got from Luke Graham. That was not Ernie Ladd’s. That was from Luke Graham."
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ladd closed out his wrestling career as a star in the Mid-South territory in Louisiana, working with promoter Bill Watts. Mid-South thrived in this era, featuring established greats like Ladd as well as promising young newcomers like Ted DiBiase and Junkyard Dog. Ladd worked closely with Watts to help build the Mid-South territory during this period, while also competing as a wrestler, and later manager. He appreciated the experience of helping Mid-South succeed.
"I probably was Watts’ first big star," Ladd remembers. "And it planted some seeds and some ideas on how to take wrestling in Louisiana in the Mid-South area to the next level. And I was probably the mouthpiece and the brainpower behind that, along with the guy giving me the opportunity to do what I do best."
Ladd is no longer involved with the pro wrestling business today, but he has many great memories of his time as a wrestling giant. When pressed to pinpoint the memory he holds dearest in terms of how it changed his career, Ladd speaks of former wrestler and promoter Pedro Martinez, with Buffalo, New York, as the setting.
"He called me some bad names," Ladd said. "He was a much older guy, and a guy that I probably wanted to beat up at the time. He was a promoter, ex-wrestler. But he gave me a wrestling education that I’ll never forget. He has passed on, but I loved him dearly. He was a great, great, great guy for the wrestling world. And I probably cherish the moments, the conversation I had with him the very first time I met him above all other incidents."
Ladd is keeping busy these days and still travels a lot. He recently helped out on the successful campaign to elect George W. Bush President of the United States. Ladd served on the Office of Diversity. He has known the Bush family for over 30 years.
"It’s been a great relation," Ladd said. "They’re honorable people. The father is a very good man. His wife, Barbara – she has great charisma. She’s a fascinating lady to be around. I don’t think George Bush, Jr. will be a good president, I think he’s gonna be a great president. And I can tell this because he’s smart. In many ways, people underestimate him. He surrounds himself with great talent. And he expects quite a bit out of all of the great talent he surrounds himself with. He is a great coordinator. He is a great leader as far as I’m concerned."
A man of the Lord, Ladd also enjoys spending time with ministry, and has gone into prisons to spread the gospel.
"That’s probably one of my most enjoyable moments is to be able to go into prisons and to be able to share with people that have broken the law an opportunity to repent, and turn their lives around," Ladd said. "It’s very exciting to me, and most enjoyable and most rewarding."
Ladd thinks the first step to redemption is to prioritize.
"A man needs to get his priorities straight," Ladd said. "Your priorities are put God first in your life, your family second, and your occupation third. We need to change our lives, and give our lives to the Lord."
From the "Big Cat" on the gridiron, to the hated, heel "king of wrestling," to helping spread goodwill to those looking for spiritual guidance, Ernie Ladd has always taken pleasure in connecting with people. Once known for his fierce temper and imposing stature, the Ernie Ladd of today gets his kicks from helping others in need.
And if you’re the recipient of Ladd’s attention, that sure beats a taped thumb to the throat.
THE NEW WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) PAPERS Nos. 168-2001 & 169-2001
EVEN AT 85 YEARS OF AGE, LOU THESZ IS TOUGH
(WrestleLine.com, May 17, 2001)
By Denny Burkholder
Even at 85 years of age, Lou Thesz is one of the toughest men you will find anywhere.
To the casual wrestling audience or younger fans, his name may ring a bell. Jim Ross calls it out on TV, every time Stone Cold Steve Austin jumps on a wrestler rebounding from the ropes - that’s the Lou Thesz press. How ironic that such a basic wrestling move has become synonymous with a man that mastered every complicated hold in the book, and boasts victories over the most famous and celebrated of his contemporaries.
In terms of pure wrestling ability and stamina, Lou Thesz is arguably the best pro wrestler of the twentieth century. He made his debut in 1935, and wrestled his final match 55 years later in 1990 at the age of 74. You name the legend, he conquered them – Gorgeous George, Buddy Rogers, Verne Gagne, Bruno Sammartino, Rikidozan. The list goes on forever. Lou Thesz beat them all. And although he no longer follows the business he helped define for many decades, Thesz holds great respect for one of the WWF’s current superstars – your Olympic hero and mine, Kurt Angle.
I recently had a telephone conversation with the former multi-time world champion, in which Thesz discussed his friendships and rivalries, and told a few interesting stories about what went on outside of the ring with guys like Buddy Rogers and Rikidozan (including the reason Thesz refused to job to Rogers, and Rikidozan’s affiliation with the mafia in Japan).
Denny Burkholder: You were the youngest undisputed heavyweight champion ever at the age of 21, correct?
Lou Thesz: Well you know, I had some wonderful, wonderful coaching with Ed "Strangler" Lewis and Ray Steele, George Tragos. These are the people that were very kind and very generous and gave me the knowledge. It was a labor of love for them, and also for me. When (then undisputed world champion) Everett Marshall was on the road, what they actually did was they were booking him night after night. We were getting ready for him two or three weeks prior to that. But I was doing concentrated training. We went after it, and everything worked out very well. I had really good gray matter behind me with Ed "Strangler" Lewis and Ray Steele. These are guys who really knew what they were doing.
DB: Now I've read interviews you've done in the past, and you said that Everett Marshall turned to the referee at one point and said he couldn’t believe what kind of stamina you had.
LT: Well that was it, we were training for long-distance, you know. You wrestle for one hour, two hours, three hours without a stop. That’s the way they conditioned me. I’m not really responsible for a lot of things, because I had the will to do it and the love to do it. But they’re the people that led me to the water and I just happened to be there to drink it.
DB: Now you mentioned George Tragos helped train you, and Ed "Strangler" Lewis was your mentor.
LT: Yeah, he is. And another man who was really instrumental was Ray Steele, out of Lincoln, Nebraska. These are names that a lot of people have forgotten because it was a long time ago. But he was a great wrestler, a great hooker. He went to Japan and beat everybody with the judo and martial arts. He was just a super guy. And hooking, he knew how to hurt people (laughs). Anyway these were the people that befriended me, and they were very kind to me. They helped me a great deal. I really enjoyed the trip, the whole thing. And physical discomfort? Yes (laughs). I tell a lot of the young wrestlers out there, look, if physical discomfort’s gonna bother you, don’t wrestle. Do something else.
DB: Well I would imagine with someone like Ed "Strangler" Lewis training you for the ring, you probably got stretched out a few times.
LT: Oh sure, absolutely. The guy was a super wrestler and a great strategist. A very bright man. He was a bridge player, you know, and a fellow by the name of Goren - he was really the guru of all he contract bridge players - he rated Ed "Strangler" Lewis as one of the ten best in the world.
LT: I told Ed, I said, 'That's wonderful, what a great accomplishment.' He always called me Hunky, for Hungarian. He said ‘Naw, Hunky, I’m not that great. It cost me a million dollars to learn.’ (laughs) But he was a wonderful man. Very easy to be around. He could read people very well. He played poker, played bridge. He had a lot of bottom - a lot of intestinal fortitude. He was a brand new guy every day. One day we were up in Iowa somewhere, and we were doing a one-night stand - you get to bed at two o’clock, and get an eight o’clock flight, you know what I’m saying? Very little sleep. And he told me, he said ‘What a wonderful day, Hunky.’ I said ‘Ed, it’s raining!’ (laughs) But his sight was very bad, he couldn’t see very well. He didn’t know. He was a fun guy to be around. It was a privilege, and I was just very lucky to have a man of that character be with me.
DB: Now a lot of wrestlers tell stories about when they first started out, you know, there’s a lot of trainers that will try to discourage the person or try to turn them away. Basically test what kind of guts you have before they really start giving you the knowledge you need.
LT: Well they did that with some people… with all people, actually, because many people think that they want to be a wrestler, but they really don’t know what they’re saying. Getting back to physical discomfort. If that discourages you… and Tragos was a wonderful man, and also a good strategist. But one time we went down to a place, and they had a heavyweight down there that was very good. At that time they were trying me out to see what I could do, and how well I could operate under stress. This young man had a pretty good track record. And I went in, and I was so uptight. I lived in terror of ever disappointing George and the people that had been helping me. And so I went out there, and I was so uptight, and the adrenaline was slowing. I hooked this guy and I beat him in 32 seconds. So the match was over, and we were driving back to St. Louis, and I asked George ‘How was the match?’ He said ‘Eh, it was all right.’ And I said ‘What do you mean all right? I beat him in 32 seconds!’ He said ‘If the guy had wrestled, you don’t beat him at all.’ (laughs) You couldn’t get a swelled head around George. You know, sometimes victories upset young people and they begin to believe their own publicity. But you couldn’t do that around George. In that way he was quite humorous. He never did smile or laugh; nothing was funny. They used to call him Ice Water. Not to his face, but behind his back. (laughs) He was some kind of a man. Unbelievable guy.
DB: Now you mentioned the hooking style a couple of times. The title of your book is Hooker. Today, that’s a term that isn’t used so much. You hear "shooter" a lot.
LT: Yeah, It’s actually the same thing, except to be a hooker, it’s kind of a post-graduate course, you know? They have performers, wrestlers, hookers, and shooters. It’s just a matter of shoptalk. In the dressing rooms, the pecking order was really an automatic thing. The non-wrestlers would sit on one side of the room, and the really sophisticated wrestlers would sit on the other side. No one told them to do that. It was just a normal thing. They were attracted to each other, you know?
DB: The hooking style is more submission-based, is that correct? Newer fans may not know exactly what the difference is.
LT: Oh yeah. You’re right on target. It’s how to hurt people. How to make them concede. Mentally and physically, you know. That’s the name of the game.
DB: Now today, if you tried hooking in the WWF, you’d probably be fired, would you not?
LT: (laughs) Well, they’ve got a young man up there that can do it. Maybe not specifically hooking, but...
DB: I’ve heard you’re pretty high on Kurt Angle.
LT: Boy, you picked my brain! We’re very close. Wherever he wrestled around North Carolina, and all up and down the coast, I would visit the matches. He’s a super kid. Well, I shouldn’t say he’s a kid - he’s a hell of a man. He’s got himself a 20, 21-inch neck. And when I was 21, I had a 21-inch neck also. But of course, with your neck and your abdomen and so forth, you can control your opponent very easily. With your head, you can control him. A lot of people really don’t understand what I’m saying, but you can control a man with just your head, move him where you want him and so forth, you know? Another thing that helped me a lot, I was ambidextrous, you know. And that helped a hell of a lot, because if you switch horses in the middle of the stream, it really discourages and upsets a lot of people. If you’re a southpaw and you can go back and forth, it puts you in a pretty good position.
DB: I want to talk about Rikidozan. Your first match against Rikidozan?
LT: I was wrestling for his group, but I first wrestled him in Hawaii. I didn’t even know he existed, as a matter of fact. I wasn’t interested in Japanese wrestling. I was too busy with my own country. But he was a really tough guy on his feet, because sumo wrestlers don’t have any mat experience at all, because they don’t have any mat wrestling. Of course, with freestyle or Greco, the way I was schooled, the ultimate thing is to get them on the mat and pin them. But he was very, very headstrong, and you couldn’t discourage him. I banged him around a little bit, and cut him up a little bit. There was a little bit of blood there, but it wasn’t mine, it was his.
When I finally got him on the deck, then he belonged to me. But prior to that, he was very tough on his feet. I gave him a lot of credit. I told him later, I really admire you for being headstrong, and for not being discouraged. And he said, ‘Well, that’s the way we worked in school.’ He didn’t get discouraged about anything, but I took him off his feet, and that was the end of the ball game. But after that, rather than be unhappy with me or something, he gave me some trophies, and its really strange. He was just a good friend. He learned his wrestling, freestyle wrestling, in Germany. He came through the United States, stopped in Hawaii, and that’s when I wrestled him. After that, we wrestled several times in Japan and had sellout crowds in the ballpark. Forty, fifty thousand people. But I complimented him about the sumo experience that he had. He put me in with, I trained with the sumo wrestlers, and I really enjoyed that. They were a great bunch of guys. Riki was a super guy, and I’m just so sorry that he left us, because he should not have. He was a very innovative, bright guy. And Ed Lewis was, too. Some of these people will surprise you about the gray matter, you know. You think they’re just big pug uglies, but that isn’t true. And Rikidozan was a bright guy. But he had a little ego problem, and that’s why he died.
He bought a nightclub called the Chè Paris, of all things, in Japan. The Japanese mafia is really strong over there, and Riki was a part of that, too. They really liked him. But this guy that was in there one night, he was drinking and drinking. So Riki got unhappy with him and physically threw him out of the place, out in the street, you know. And about a month or two later, the guy was stewing over this, and he couldn’t handle it - he was drinking, of course. Anyway, he came in and Rikidozan was talking with a bunch of people, and he owned the place. And he walked behind him and (stabbed him). If Riki had gone to the hospital immediately, he would have been all right, because we had antibiotics at that time. But he didn’t - he wanted to be Mr. Tough Guy. So he stayed up there, and a thing called septicemia set in - the blood gets completely destroyed, it’s blood poisoning. Acute blood poisoning, and even antibiotics wont touch it. And of course, he died the next day. And that was terrible. If he had gone to the hospital, he’d have been all right.
DB: I do remember a story about the first time or two that you wrestled Rikidozan. You impressed him so much by basically roughing him up that you became very respected in Japan as one of his friends, as somebody that HE respected.
LT: That’s very true. He arranged all the tours; I didn’t travel with the other wrestlers. He had me staying at some really wonderful tea houses, where the rooms start probably at a thousand dollars a day, you know. He really babied me and took care of me. And I told him one time, I said, ‘Riki, you don’t have to do that for me, that’s not necessary.’ And he opened a little Halliburton attaché. He opened it up, and he must have had a couple million dollars in there. He said, ‘You’ve been very good to me,’ and he said, ‘Do you need any money?’ I said, ‘No, you’re paying me very well! Your bookkeeper is paying me very well.’ He said, ‘No, but if you want some extra money, take whatever you want. We’ve got enough.’ And you know, when you get a guy like that, you go the extra mile for him. Of course, I wouldn’t take any more money. I said, ‘No, Riki, you’re paying me very well now. Don’t give your money away; put some money away. You’re gonna get old too!’ (laughs)
He was a very unusual personality, and he had a lot of guts. You couldn’t discourage that guy. I did a lot of crazy things with him, to get him off his feet. I finally convinced him that he was existing only from the neck on up. I cut him up, I cut both of his eyes, and all of a sudden, you reach a point where the person you’re competing with thinks he exists only from the neck on up. Because that’s the only thing they can feel. And that’s how you get them off their feet. But it was an adventure. We discussed that later, and I said it was just part of the strategy. I didn’t want to hurt you or cut you up. I just had to get your attention, where I wanted him. Your attention was up above, and I wanted you off your feet so I could handle you.
DB: Well another great, legendary world champion on these shores was Buddy Rogers, and I know you had a great rivalry with Buddy Rogers for a while.
LT: Well Rogers, he was a performer, not a wrestler. We had some wrestlers, but he wasn’t one of them. And he was a good show person, and drew a lot of money. I think at one time he was probably the most colorful wrestler we had in this country, or maybe in the world at that time. He was German, you know, and my mother is German. I speak German. And we had a good relationship, but I had to keep him under control, because he’d get a little bit lively with doing business. So I kept my eye on him, and kept my thumb on him in the ring.
DB: Was it true that you wouldn’t do the job for Buddy Rogers?
LT: Oh no, I would not, because one time we were going to Louisville, Kentucky. I was in the army at the time. And he picked me up in St. Louis - this was long ago, of course. And he was gonna drive me to Louisville, Kentucky. And he said, ‘Wow, were gonna wrestle each other, We got that big, fat slob, Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis.’ Ed was like my father, my uncle, my brother, he was everything wrapped up in one, and I loved the man. I said, ‘What did you do before you decided to become a wrestler? Because apparently, you’re not a wrestler.’ He said, ‘I was a police officer.’ I said, ‘Maybe you better go back and get a job, and walk the beat somewhere, because you’re off base, and you just said the wrong thing to me, buster.’ And I said, ‘Anything unkind you had to say about Ed Lewis, you better not try it out on me. It’s not going to work.’ That’s the thing that cost him all those years, it cost him a fortune, and it cost him my friendship. About a year or two before he died, we mended fences. But I never trusted him. He said the wrong thing about the right man, because without Ed "Strangler" Lewis, none of us would have been here to even wrestle, and try to earn a livelihood doing it.
DB: Now wasn’t it true that at some point in the sixties, part of the formation of the World Wrestling Federation was a dispute over Buddy Rogers holding the world title?
LT: Oh, they had so many controversial things. In New York, they had about three or four people that are financially interested in promotions, and it was just a ball game, you know? It got to the point that I really kind of wiped them all off the maps as far as I was concerned. I did what I wanted to do. If I didn’t want to do it, they couldn’t do anything about it.
DB: Didn’t Sam Muchnick and Vince McMahon (Sr.) once try to arrange a world title match between you and Bruno Sammartino?
LT: Oh, sure, I was ready to do it. I said, ‘What are we talking about money?’ He said, ‘Well, that’s no problem.’ I said, ‘Well, let me talk about the problem then.’ And so we started talking, and they said, ‘We know were gonna have a million-dollar gate.’ I said, ‘Okay, Ill get ten percent off the top, nothing gets deducted. So now were talking about a hundred thou.’ And what about the match, and so forth. So we ended up, and we had about a half million (dollars) for the match at stake at that time. So he said, ‘We’ll go ahead and make the match.’ I said, ‘UP FRONT. I want the money UP FRONT.’ He said, ‘We can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Well then you can’t do it.’ Toots Mondt was one of the manipulators, so he called me into the men’s room. He said, ‘I personally will give you another twenty-five thousand.’ I said, ‘Toots, you don’t have enough money in your pocket to buy my coffee this morning.’ And he didn’t, he was broke. No way.
And I said, ‘If you people have some front money, and you can give half of it up front before the match, and right before the match, before I get in the ring, I want the rest of the money.’ And they said ‘We just cant do that.’ So I told Sam Muchnick that what they want is what they’re not going to get, because they don’t have the money. But Sam told me something that he should not have done. He said, ‘I book the champion; that’s my job. If I order you to go in and wrestle him, that’s what you have to do.’ I said, ‘Well okay, why don’t you go ahead and make the match.’ He said, ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m gonna to beat him.’ (laughs) He said, ‘You can’t.’ I said, ‘The hell I can’t!’ He said, ‘You cant do that.’ I said, ‘I’m telling you up front, I’m being honest about this thing, but you are not, and neither are the other people.’ So much for that.
DB: You said you were demanding the money up front - was that more or less a safety precaution against these promoters that you weren’t used to dealing with?
LT: Sure, they were thieves. Of course.
DB: Now in the territories you were used to working, would you do that?
LT: No. They wanted a victory over me. And I had it figured out – it’s gonna cost them a half a mil to do it. I wrestled Sammartino one time after that in Toronto.
DB: Right, and Frank Tunney promoted that.
LT: Yeah, Frank Tunney. Now there was a great promoter. Frank Tunney, Eddie Quinn, Tony Stecher, Sam Muchnick - to me, they’re the cream of the crop. I really enjoyed working with those people.
DB: And you beat Bruno in Toronto, correct?
LT: Yeah I beat him in about... 25 minutes, I think it was.
DB: Did you ever have much experience wrestling Verne Gagne?
LT: Verne and myself wrestled I think three times. He was a great wrestler, and Olympian. We had a lot of mutual respect. We wrestled some 90-minute draws. He was a super wrestler. We had maybe some problems years and years ago, but every time we see each other, we just sip a little of the grape. Great guy, and I really enjoy his company.
DB: Another wrestling legend, Johnny Valentine, passed away within the past couple of weeks.
LT: Great guy, great guy. Not a sophisticated wrestler, but probably the gutsiest wrestler I ever saw. He had more intestinal fortitude in his hip pocket than most of them have up front. I really liked John a lot. He was not a great wrestler, but he really enjoyed wrestling. We wrestled several times, and he’d get some kind of a half-hook on me, and he’d say, ‘Now I gotcha,’ you know? And it'd take me maybe three or four minutes to work out of it. But I really enjoyed him; he was really a very, very nice person. Very sharp person, and a hell of a chess player. We broke bread together, and sipped a little of the grape together.
DB: Getting back to the performance aspect of wrestling - the performers vs. the wrestlers vs. the hookers - you’ve got guys like Gorgeous George back in the golden age, and he kind of revolutionized what is today known as "sports entertainment."
LT: Oh yes, he did, and he did a great job. And a lot of people don’t know this, but he actually did some wrestling. A lot of people thought he was just a show person, but that’s not true at all. The problem he had, he really wasn’t a heavyweight. He only weighed about 180, and he wasn’t big enough for the big boys. But when he came in with the Gorgeous George thing - and I’m gonna drop a name on you, but Bob Hope, I know Bob real well. I went on one of his sets one time, where they were doing "Fancy Pants." He asked me a question, and he said, ‘This guy Gorgeous George, could he wrestle?’ Now that’s shoptalk. If Bob didn’t know someone who knew something about wrestling, he wouldn’t say ‘Could he wrestle.’ Because they just don’t do that. It just doesn’t come out. But anyway, I said, ‘Yes, as a matter of fact, he could.’ And I said he’s not big enough for some of the big boys that knew their hooking and so forth, but I said he’s very confident. And he was. I wrestled him in Chicago one time, at Wrigley Field, and he did a crazy thing where he would bounce you from the back, like a bronco or something, and then do a forward roll and send you over. And he did that with me, but I’d seen him do it before, and as he was balling himself up, I kept him going.
DB: Now that type of a performer has become the rule as opposed to the exception. Is that part of the reason that wrestling doesn’t appeal as much to you?
LT: Yes, well, it’s choreographed tumbling, is what it is. It’s not really related to wrestling. It’s not a sport; it’s show business. I think that’s fine, but personally, I’m not going to get involved in it. If I did that, I think I should be convicted of treason for doing a thing like that and ignoring the help that I got from Ed "Strangler" Lewis and Ray Steele and all my wonderful friends. I wouldn’t live with myself.
DB: Do you think there’s a chance that the sporting style of wrestling will return?
LT: When it gets bad enough, it’ll get better. Then they’re gonna have some very strict rules, and yes, it’s a possibility. I may not be here to witness it. You know, I’m 85 now. But it’s a possibility that that could work. Everyone likes to see a contest. That’s why baseball draws well, and that’s why football is doing good. Because it’s a contest, people want to see it. And I do, too. Any time I know that there’s a tournament or something – martial arts or something, I love it. I go, and I have a hell of a time and meet with the guys later. I really enjoy it. But it’s a contest, and that’s why I like it.
DB: Let’s talk about your book, Hooker, a little bit. What motivated you to start this book?
LT: Well this fellow by the name of Kit Bauman, he was a wrestling fan and a real guru. I met him in Fort Worth, Texas, one time at one of the matches. He wanted to do a book, and I was so busy at the time. That was about 25 years ago, and I just didn’t have the time. But I tried to get to it, and I ran into him again. I took a whole bunch of tapes and interviews, about people, and the wrestling game, and so forth. About 40 or 50 hours, I gave him. And out of that, he put a book together. He did it very well, as if I was dictating for him. In fact, he was here about a week ago. But I enjoyed doing it. I had some really good reviews on the book. We’ve been at this thing now for several years. And it’s really strange, in the past couple of weeks, we have a major publisher that is beginning negotiating with us.
DB: That’s good news.
LT: Yeah, it is. And I really feel very, very good about it.
DB: I know that your last match was in 1990 against (Masa) Chono.
LT: Yeah, I was 74 at the time.
DB: I’ve read interviews where you’ve said you were old enough to have known better than to do that.
LT: But I did it anyway. (laughs)
DB: You had your hip replaced before that, correct?
LT: Oh yeah, sure, I had a hip replacement.
DB: What was it like stepping into the ring with someone you had trained that was so much your junior?
LT: Well, he spent some time in Germany also. I was living in Norfolk, Virginia. Chono was gonna be coming through, and I coached him for a couple weeks. So we did that, and I really enjoyed his company. He’s a charming man, a very nice guy, and a big guy. We wrestled, and he actually got me with the same thing I taught him. I used a Greco Roman backdrop. A crazy thing where you bridge out - in Greco Roman wrestling, bridging your neck is so important. That’s why I emphasize, I had a 21-inch neck, and that’s very necessary not only to keep yourself from getting injured, but to keep yourself from getting killed, for Christ’s sake. Because it’s very easy to break a neck, you know.
DB: It’s probably the worst injury to have, is it not?
LT: It is, because you become not functional, you know? I’ve seen some people that had broken vertebrae, and they just never seem to recover. No matter how sophisticated the medication is, the treatment, they just don’t make it. But anyway, it’s just part of the game. You do the best you can to take care of yourself.
DB: A couple more things to touch on that are a bit more modern. Stone Cold Steve Austin is one of the most popular wrestlers right now. He’s kind of brought your name back to the forefront every week on wrestling by using the Thesz press in every match.
LT: I’m very flattered that he’s doing that. I’m really very flattered about that. I met him up there in D.C. And he’s a very nice guy. I had no idea that he was going to use that at that time, and I don’t think he did, either. But he’s doing it. I’d like to polish it a little bit for him. The old guys, they’re always a smart ass. They all gotta say something like ‘If you did it like this, it might a little better,’ you know.
DB: Well I think you have that courtesy, since the move is named after you.
LT: Well, that really is very nice of him. I’ve never contacted him since then, but I do appreciate the significance of him using that as a finishing hold. But he’s a good athlete, and they have other good athletes. Like Kurt Angle is a hell of a wrestler, and a damn good athlete.
DB: Actually, Kurt Angle just had a match on pay-per-view a little over a week ago, called an Ultimate Submissions match. The WWF put him and Chris Benoit in the ring, guaranteed 30 minutes, and whoever got the most submissions on their opponent before it was over won. And it was considered one of the best matches of the year so far.
LT: You know, it’s a strange thing, I don’t know what’s going on in the wrestling business. But I heard about that. I have a friend here from Germany that’s into wrestling, and he told me about that. Who won the thing, Benoit?
DB: Yeah, they actually went into overtime because they were tied, and Chris Benoit got him about two minutes into it with a cross face.
LT: Well that’s great. When you get people like that, and they’ve devoted their lives to it, they really enjoy wrestling, that’s my pick of the litter. Because he and Chris, and people like that, they really perpetuate wrestling. The people that don’t believe that they will should get in the ring with them, and try your luck with them.
DB: Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, you know… guys like Bret Hart, who’s retired now – those are the guys who perpetuate the sporting end of it.
LT: Oh absolutely. I admire them. I have nothing but good things to say about them. They’ve done their homework, and I always admire people that do that. It’s personal pride, also. Pride and workmanship. As long as you give a damn what you’re doing – if you’re selling popcorn, or wrestling. If you do a good job, try to do the best you can.
DB: One last thing to touch on that just happened in the past few months. Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation have purchased World Championship Wrestling.
LT: Well that was in the cards, you know. I knew that was coming up.
DB: Does this hurt the business?
LT: Well, it’s just going to be a single person doing it. But in the past couple of years, one single person has been doing it anyway. McMahon’s been doing it alone. And the man in Atlanta, what’s his name again?
DB: Well Ted Turner owned the company, but it was Eric Bischoff running things.
LT: Bischoff is not a wrestling person. He doesn’t know anything about wrestling. Nothing. But his boss had the deep pockets. He’s a very nice man; I met him years ago. He’s a good guy. But they were on the way out. They just didn’t have anybody to count them out, that’s all. They had nowhere else to go. But they had a man in there, Bischoff – he doesn’t know one wrestler from the other one. He’s a television person. If they were producing a movie or something, maybe they can get something done. But as far as being able to sell a bill of (wrestling) goods to the general public, he doesn’t know which end is up. He had the reigns to steer the horse wherever he wanted to go, but he took it right down the tubes. And not only myself, but a couple other dozen wrestlers – we all discussed it, and we decided that his days were numbered. And that’s exactly what happened.
DB: As somebody who has a lot of experience dealing with several different promoters, is it going to hurt the wrestlers to have Vince McMahon being the only real shot at glory?
LT: It won’t help, but if anyone is… McMahon is wired for money. And if anyone is going to draw him money, he will get the mileage out of them. The wrestlers today are bright enough to take care of themselves. In some cases I’m sure it’ll put some of the wrestlers in a poor negotiating position, but the ones that really have it, the guys that can really get out there and cut the mustard, they’re gonna be fine.
DB: So basically it’s the old theory that anyone with talent will make it.
LT: No question about it. When you know that you’re in demand, it’s very easy to negotiate. You just tell them what your bottom line is. I did that all over the world. I did that in Australia, New Zealand, everywhere. And if they didn’t come up with the money that I wanted, I said ‘Bye!’ (laughs) That’s the way it goes.
DB: If you could have had one match with somebody that you never got a chance to wrestle, from any generation, who would it be?
LT: Oh, the guy in England that professed to be the greatest wrestler of all time. There was someone over there that said he was a world-beater and so forth. And I tried to contact him, and had other people contact him. Promoters from all over Europe, everywhere. And he would never answer when they called. That’s the only one that ever challenged me, where down in my guts, I think I want to find out if he’s a better wrestler than I am.
DB: This was a guy from your era?
LT: Before my time, even. But maybe four or five guys – Kurt Angle is one, of course, that can cut the mustard. But most of them, I would say no.
DB: Do you see a lot on Ric Flair? He’s been hailed as one of the best wrestlers of the past century.
LT: A repetitious wrestler. You see one match, you see ‘em all.
DB: That’s been said about him also.
LT: Yeah, he did some wrestling up around Minnesota. Johnny Valentine is one who was not only a better performer, but had a lot more bottom and would defend himself. But Ric is a good man. He’s done very well for years and years. But he doesn’t have the bottom that some of them have. If you get him in real competition, that’s another ball game.
DB: And by "bottom," you mean guts?
LT: Guts, yeah.
DB: Well I’ve never heard anything about Johnny Valentine lacking in that area.
LT: Oh no, no, he’s the boss there! (laughs) In Florida, I saw him two or three times. When he goes to the post, he cut these people up. Cut ‘em like he had a big machete. Blood all over the damn place!
THE NEW WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) PAPERS
AN INTERVIEW WITH THE UNDERRATED NICK BOCKWINKEL
(WrestleLine.com, July 11, 2001)
By Denny Burkholder
Back when the WWF, NWA, and AWA were the Big Three, there were a handful of world champions that dominated the wrestling world for over a decade. Bruno Sammartino and Bob Backlund in the WWF. The Funk brothers and Harley Race in the NWA. And Nick Bockwinkel and Verne Gagne in the AWA. Bockwinkel in particular is regarded as one of the more technically gifted world champions in recent decades, and was one of the most well-traveled when it came to defending his gold in different territories.
I spoke with Nick Bockwinkel last week via telephone from the Las Vegas Wrestling Academy. Here is that conversation:
DENNY BURKHOLDER: I interviewed Terry Funk about a year ago, and he was telling me about the experience of having a legendary father in wrestling.
NICK BOCKWINKEL: I’ll tell you a terrific story before the evening’s over about how I got Terry in Japan. A nice rib. Terry loved to rib, loved to pull pranks. His dad loved to do that. Terry tried to pick up on it. Dory Funk [Jr.] didn’t do it as much as Terry did. There was something he was doing to me for a set-up. Four-week tour, but I finally got him. You’ll enjoy hearing it.
DB: I was wondering if you could elaborate about Warren Bockwinkel [Nick’s father, also a pro wrestler].
NB: My dad would have been 10 years younger than Dory Funk Sr. I’m going on 67 right now. And Terry, what the hell he’s doing still wrestling, God only knows, that’s all I can say. God bless ya, Terry! You’re insane, but you were insane all along, so what difference does it make?
DB: You wrestled in high school?
NB: I wrestled in high school, and intended to wrestle in college. I actually got a scholarship, football and wrestling, to the University of Oklahoma, which was at that time both number one in football back in 53 and 54, and also was one of the top wrestling colleges. But I never got the opportunity to wrestle, because in the first year, late in the fall – my freshman year – I blew out a knee. Then in spring practice I blew out another knee. Then the cruel world of college football, they said "Oh, even though we said you would get your scholarship for four years if you got injured, that’s not true." The excuse they gave me was that I had hurt myself in high school and I never told them. So I never got the opportunity to wrestle in college. But I went home from college and my dad says, "Well, you know, we’ll start training you and start wrestling preliminaries here in Southern California. We’ll get you started wrestling preliminaries, and you can work your way through college."
DB: When was your first match?
NB: My first rookie match was in a place called Valley Garden Arena in Sun Valley in California, pretty close to the San Fernando Valley. That would have been in 1955. It started there, and I wrestled in and around California. Back in those days, you had territories, and the Los Angeles territory was one of the premier territories to work. The reasons for it were your distances to travel to wrestle each night. On Monday nights you went to the Hollywood Legion. Tuesday night was the longest trip of 140 miles to San Diego. Wednesday night was the Los Angeles Olympic Auditorium in downtown LA. Thursday night was, for me, 95 miles up to Bakersfield. Friday night was the Santa Monica Arena. Saturday night was 75 miles out to San Bernadino. And then on Sundays they even had workouts at Santa Monica Arena. So as far as traveling went, you had one of the shortest traveling territories - as far as trips went – anyplace in the country. Everybody really wanted to work there, so I was very fortunate to start there. I was just a preliminary guy going to UCLA. It was very, very nice.
DB: I know Ray Stevens had a lot of popularity in California.
NB: Ray Stevens’ popularity was in San Francisco. But he did work in Los Angeles even before I did. Ray was two years younger, but Ray started when he was about 15 years old. He was a friend from 1960 – ’59, I first met Ray – and then over the years of course, when we teamed up in the AWA, which was just dynamic. We were very much a natural team. When Wally Karbo and Verne Gagne said "We want to team the two of you up," they said, "Any problems with you?" And I said, "No, not at all." He was great. Through the 60s, 70s and 80s, Ray was, as far as I was concerned, the most premier wrestling talent in the profession. He was, a far as I’m concerned, even better than me. Now a lot of people get perplexed by that because I was the individual AWA Champion four times, let along tag team champion three times with him. And if he was better than me, why wasn’t he world champion? It’s because Ray was the biggest kid in the world. He loved to play with toys. He accomplished what he did, so to speak, running at 53 throttle. I concentrated very hard, and in my concentration I guess I made up enough of the difference that I achieved the individual championship.
DB: Well you had a lot of success with Ray Stevens as a tag team partner. You took on the Crusher & Dick the Bruiser. Who were some of your favorite opponents?
NB: Oh, The Crusher & Dick the Bruiser, Verne Gagne, Billy Robinson, you just name it. There were some great teams. There were the high flyers, [Jim] Brunzell and [Greg] Gagne. There was Tito Santana. Just so many dynamically good wrestlers that we had the opportunity to wrestle. At one time, the AWA had just such an abundance of premier talent. It was hard to believe that one organization had that much talent. And that’s why I think a lot of people really felt bad when the AWA went by the wayside. Simply because they had even better talent than the WWF ever had.
DB: What’s interesting to me is that when I get feedback regarding Nick Bockwinkel, people tend to talk more about your team with Ray Stevens and your feud with the Crusher and the Bruiser than they do about your matches with Verne Gagne. I always found that interesting.
NB: Well, because first of all, usually, tag matches are far more exciting than individual matches. And because Stevens and I were such a terrific team, and we understood the nature of the beast as much as we did, we naturally had some dynamically exciting tag matches. The Crusher and The Bruiser were two of the favorites. They were the grunt and groan, beer drinking, cigar smoking, everyday, Polish, hard working, blue collar stiff. And they had a tremendous following. The Bruiser was just that. He was not smooth. He was not articulate. But yet, as a talent in the ring, he was absolutely superb. The Crusher wasn’t as good as The Bruiser, but they made a tremendous team. Consequently, the matches they had with Stevens and myself were just dynamic. We just tore the houses down. That’s what was so nice through that whole era. We had so many guys that we wrestled. Ray and I were tag team partners for only about a five-year period. Maybe not even that long. The fact that we established such a tremendous reputation speaks for the fact of how good the team was.
DB: I have to ask you the prerequisite Verne Gagne question. Your careers are joined at the hip, so to speak.
DB: When was the first time you met Verne Gagne, and what was the first impression you got?
NB: Well the first time I met Verne Gagne I was 16 years old. It was up in Buffalo, New York. I was in high school, and my dad had Verne over on a Sunday afternoon for dinner, because Verne was coming through that territory, which was the Toronto wrestling territory. Just across the river from the Toronto wrestling territory was the Buffalo, New York wrestling territory. Verne was making a swing through. He was a new, young star popular off of TV. We’re talking about 1951 or 52. So that was the first time I met Verne. By the time I went to wrestle in the AWA, I was a veteran. One of the things about the second generation - and Dory will tell you this, and Terry will tell you this – you have an extra bit of moxie. You understand the nature of the beast. When I say the nature of the beast, by that I mean the personalities. The egos. The entire structure of the profession. How people think; how they feel – whether it’s the promoter, the matchmaker, the other wrestlers, the seconds in the arena. Whoever it might be. And to have all that mentally out of the way I think is a testament to why Dory Jr. was as successful as he was, and Terry Funk was as successful as he was, and I was as successful as I was. That was because we had so much of the inbred, handed-down natural education and knowledge. When you’re 14 years old and sitting in a dressing room, and you’re hearing ALL the bullshit going on, and you’re hearing all the intelligent conversation going on, and you’re hearing all of the assholes that are exploiting about themselves, and who’s humble and who’s not, who’s real and who isn’t. By the time you wind up taking in a few of those dressing rooms, it’s amazing how much insight you have into the profession before you ever put the boots on and get ready to go in the ring. See, it takes other guys 5, 6 years after they start just to see everything you’ve already seen.
DB: Terry actually told me that he was three years ahead of everybody else before he wrestled his first match.
NB: And to a great extent, he’s correct, because of the grasp you have. And for him, even more so, because he already got a chance to watch his brother. So Terry not only got a chance to watch his father – and his father was not only a wrestler, his father was also a promoter, so he’s seeing things from the wrestling end, he’s seeing things from the promotional end – he’s seeing his brother as his brother starts, and all the problems that his brother is having. So there’s no question that when Terry finally put the boots on to go into the ring, he was as he said, four or five years ahead of anybody else who was starting at the same time.
DB: Now as far as the AWA World Title goes, it was pretty much you and Verne in the 70s. Everybody else was pretty much a challenger for the whole decade.
NB: Pretty much so, yeah. Verne was the AWA at that time.
DB: Did you ever catch criticism for being a two-man show from other promoters or wrestlers?
NB: No, not really, because most of the other promoters knew and understood the nature of the beast. They knew that, of course, a lot of the control was in Verne’s hands. If anything they were very sympathetic to me, and realized that as far as they were concerned, maybe Verne’s ego was a little large and consequently had to be satisfied a lot more than others. I did have a couple of strong offers to move over to the NWA, with a pretty good impression that I would have a nice, good chance at becoming the NWA Champion. But I was very comfortable with where I was. I saw no reason to make the move.
DB: I know you were very well traveled when you were the AWA World Champion. I’ve seen matches from the past of you versus Jerry Lawler, matches from Texas…
DB: In fact, didn’t you own 11 percent of Houston [wrestling territory] at one point?
NB: That is correct. [Promoter] Paul Boesch was kind of like an uncle to me. I’ve got a picture with me, Paul Boesch and my dad in Long Beach, New York, in the summertime of 1938 or ‘39, when I was about four or five years old. So I’d known Paul all those years. The other thing, too, is that Paul respected me because of my beliefs and my attitude about the business. Him and my dad were very good friends. And Paul, at that time, felt that maybe the business was going to continue going the way it was back then, where you had all the regional promoters. And so he had asked if I was interested in purchasing into Houston, because he knew that at some point, he was gonna have to turn it over to somebody. He had a nephew by the name of Peter Birkholz, and so it was all intended that myself and Peter Birkholz would wind up owning the town eventually. So I had 11 percent, and at about the same time – this would have been in the late 70s, early 80s – Vince [McMahon] was making his move, so to speak. Things changed, and I sold my 11 percent back to Peter Birkholz.
DB: Now this was while you were AWA Champion, right?
NB: This was while I was AWA Champion. Nobody knew this. When I say nobody knew it, Peter Birkholz knew it, and Paul Boesch knew it. No one else knew it, and as far as I was concerned, nobody else was going to know it.
DB: Do you think Verne would have been upset?
NB: Well, ultimately, it was my intent – at that time, Paul Boesch had brought me into Houston, and Joe Blanchard brought me into San Antonio. So all of that Southern Texas country, which had always been strong NWA, was now both NWA and AWA, because I had wrestled there many, many times in both the San Antonio area and the Houston area. So that was a big feather in the AWA’s cap, and in Verne’s cap. At the time I did not have a big head about it, and I don’t have a big head about it now. But I realize now I must have been doing one hell of a job, because they don’t bother to bring in a competing champion unless that champion has something to offer their towns. Which meant that even though Terry Funk and Harley Race were great champions, they also felt that I was. I look back now and I realized what a standard that I had set. I’m more proud of it now than at the time, because at the time I was too busy doing it!
NB: And the fact that Memphis was an NWA country, and here I went and wrestled there ALL the time as the AWA Champion. I also wrestled in the Carolinas, and Georgia. That was pretty much unheard of. I was the first person to establish that factor. And yet the NWA never wrestled in the AWA country, and that was because I don’t think Verne Gagne wanted anybody to really see anybody else. But the fact that these other promoters felt that way about me, needless to say I look back now and I consider that a tremendous compliment. I was happy to be able to do it.
DB: Along the lines of traveling to different territories, you wrestled and AWA vs. WWF title-for-title match against Bob Backlund that went to a one-hour draw.
NB: Yes, that was in Toronto, Canada. There’s another one that you might say is a feather in our cap. Everybody wound up hating Vince because he had invaded all the other territories, and yet the AWA was kind of slowly in the process of sort of doing the same thing. And of course, Gagne never saw himself as the person that he felt Vince McMahon was. But you gotta figure that the AWA was in Salt Lake City, Denver, Phoenix, Tuscon, San Francisco, and I had gone and wrestled in all these other places as the AWA Champion so that it was established in Texas and all these other areas. So I wrestled Bob Backlund, it was AWA vs. WWF in Toronto, Canada. And the match wound up being an hour draw.
DB: Now today, the WWF is promoting WWF vs. WCW, and it’s kind of lost its luster, because the McMahons own it all.
DB: Did you ever, in your wildest dreams, see this day coming?
NB: Well, you know, ironically, even though I kind of thought Terry Funk was always just raising hell and being a character, he was very, very profound in the sense that back in the very early 70s I remember on one of our trips to Japan, he said, "You know, in 20, 25 years, there’ll only be one or two territories in the country. It’ll all just be one or two offices." And he was right. That is exactly what has happened. It’s sad… I feel bad that the old territorial system didn’t survive because it really added a lot of different flavor. It’s kind of like going to a place that’s got 35 different restaurants. Now all of a sudden, we’ve only got one restaurant to go to. Maybe the food’s still good, but dammit to hell, we all did enjoy the choice of having those 35 restaurants.
DB: Do you think that with the flood of good workers who are shut out of the WWF and WCW going to the indies, that the territorial system has a chance of rising again?
NB: I hear that quite a bit. I don’t know if it ever can. But it all depends. There’s so many people that say, "Hey, it’s gonna swing back around." And it very well could. So you just don’t know. I mean, like I mentioned to you earlier, I’m talking to you from the Las Vegas Wrestling Academy, which was just opened up by a fellow by the name of Gary Mills. Gary has just opened this up, and all those pounding noises that you heard a little bit earlier were guys in the other part of this gym pounding their bodies on the mat, and still want to do it. You have so many bits of talent that are not being utilized that are great talents. Even in this school here, they’ve got half a dozen guys that are terrific. Jimmy Snuka’s son, and another four or five guys here that are, to me, already very good professionals. So I would like to see the territorial thing come back into fashion again as long as it could be profitable for the boys and whoever was promoting it.
NB: Oh yeah, there’s no question about it. I mean, I love
the business. And people have said to me "Nick, could you still be in the
business if you wanted to?" Yes, I could. Vince has offered me a position a
couple of times. I worked for him for about a year and a half, and then he had
some changes. I think there’s no question that if I really wanted to work
within the profession, that I could. The only thing is I don’t have the desire
to travel that much. I’ve got a lovely wife who I’m having enough of a
struggle meeting on the golf course as it is right now. So I’ve got my
toughest opponent right here at home. I’m still in the life insurance and
investment business, and I still have what we call your book of clients that you
have to take care of, and make sure everything’s going correctly. I’ve done
that now for going on 12 years. But the commissioner thing was great before. It
was usually a couple of weekends out of each month. I had to fly to Atlanta or
wherever the WCW people wanted me to go. I really enjoyed that when I was doing
(to be continued in New WAWLI Papers No. 171-2001)
(RETURN TO WAWLI PAPERS INDEX PAGE)