The Death Of Ray Gunkel & How It Catapulted Ox Baker Into Pro Wrestling Infamy

On June 30th, 1972, Ray Gunkel climbed into the Municipal Auditorium ring in Atlanta, Georgia to wrestle Ox Baker for the NWA Brass Knuckles Championship. He supposedly wasn’t even meant to be in the match. Four days prior, Baker had won the title from Beppo Mongol (who would go on to greater fame as Nikolai Volkoff). The following day, Beppo’s manager, Tom Renesto, went on television to announce his wrestler was angered at being forced to defend the title and, upon losing, had packed his bags and left the territory for Texas. There would be no return match between Ox Baker and Beppo Mongul.

Having spent a decade wrestling at or near the top of the card in Georgia, Ray Gunkel was a household name and a multi-time champion. He’d had wars with some of the biggest names in the sport of professional wrestling, brawling with the likes of Lou Thesz, Gene and Ole Anderson, Buddy Colt and a young Nick Bockwinkel.

Gunkel was also the co-owner of Georgia Championship Wrestling and wasn’t gonna let anything get in the way of business, much less a disgruntled wrestler. The title was held up and a match was booked between Gunkel and Baker to determine who would carry the championship. That Friday night, before a raucous crowd intent on seeing Gunkel take it to the dastardly Baker, the longtime Georgia wrestler came away with the win, defeating the owner of the “Heart Punch”, one of the most devastating finishing moves in wrestling at that time.  

Gunkel’s reign with the NWA Brass Knuckles Title would last just two weeks with another man famous for using the Heart Punch, Stan Stasiak, winning the title on July 14th. Though Gunkel no longer carried the hardware, his feud with Ox Baker remained hot and the men met once again on August 1st in Savannah, Georgia. Unfortunately, it was last time Gunkel would step into a wrestling ring.

After a 10 minute brawl in which Gunkel again came away the victor, he died in the locker room. An autopsy revealed the former All-American wrestler had been living with undiagnosed arteriosclerosis. This hardening of his heart’s arteries, coupled with Baker’s Heart Punch (or, “Hurt Punch” as Ox would rename it after Stasiak took issue with him using his finisher) proved to be a lethal combination. The medical examiner said the punch created a hematoma. From that a blood clot formed. When the clot moved into Gunkel’s heart, he fell out of the chair in which he was sitting, dying instantly. “If a big man had shoved him, he couldn’t have moved any faster,” said fellow promoter Aaron Newman who was sitting next to Gunkel at the time of his passing. “He straightened out and that’s all there was.”

Ray Gunkel was just 48 years old. Ox Baker had just become the most infamous pro wrestler in the world.

The Battle Of Atlanta

The promoter’s death resulted in the complete upheaval of the Georgia Territory. His wife, Ann, made clear her intentions to carry on running the promotion. Under the assumption she would simply take Ray’s place in ABC Booking, the entity under which Georgia Championship Wrestling existed, she instead found herself shut completely out of the business. Fellow co-owner and former wrestler Paul Jones (Andrew Lutzi, not Paul Frederik who would use the name from ‘61-’91) had no desire to carry on with Ann in the mix and nearing retirement, made a deal to effectively sell out to Bills Watts. Watts renamed the company Mid-South Wrestling, while Ann Gunkel started an all-new promotion call the All-South Wrestling Alliance.

For a time, it appeared as though Ann Gunkel had gotten the best of Watts and Jones, as she not only managed to keep the TV time slot on WTBS previously negotiated by her late husband, but also most of the talented roster of wrestlers. Then, Jim Barnett was brought in to run Mid-South, all but killing All-South Wrestling. Barnett, the owner of several territories in Australia, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio used his experience and pull to shut All-South out of the local arenas. With no dates to work, wrestlers defected to Mid-South. By the end of the Summer of ‘74, Ann Gunkel’s promotion was dead.

“I Like To Hurt People”

After Ray Gunkel’s death, Ox Baker and promoters alike took to marketing the wrestler as a killer. In this pre-internet era, it was an easy sell, especially considering that just over one year prior, on June 13th, 1971, Alberto Torres had died after wrestling Baker. Granted, his cause of death was a ruptured appendix which Torres had allowed to go untreated, but neither Baker nor the wrestling promoters booking him were going to let a little thing like facts get in the way of money.

With Ox now labeled as a man capable of killing your favorite babyface, his career exploded. Teaming up with Skandor Akbar, the pair defeated “Bullet” Bob Armstrong and Dick Steinborn for the NWA Georgia Tag Team Titles. He then beat Steinborn in early ‘73 in a singles match for the NWA Georgia Television Title. Working his way across the U.S., Baker hit territory after territory, wrestling fellow top draws like Bulldog Brower, Larry “The Ax” Hennig and Andre the Giant. But it would be in Cleveland, Ohio on January 31st, 1974 against yet another main event star where Ox would truly come to understand just how dangerous his heat-seeking could be.

Cleveland Is The Reason

“Big Cat” Ernie Ladd was famous all across the United States, not only because of his main event matches against the likes of Dick the Bruiser and “Superstar” Billy Graham, but also for his 8 All-star seasons in the American Football League. His ability to be either an evil heel or a beloved babyface made him a big draw throughout professional wrestling. With close to 50% of Cleveland being made up of African Americans, and with so few black men being painted as good guys during that era of wrestling, “Big Cat” was “must see” anytime he came to town.

On this night, a month after entering into a bloody feud with Johnny Powers, Ladd was on the verge of putting an end to their rivalry. Caught in Power’s finishing hold, the figure-four “Powerlock”, Ladd began to break the hold. Seeing this, Ox Baker ran to the ring, leveling Ernie with one of his heart punches. When Ladd didn’t immediately fall, Baker hit him again. And again. With each stomp or “Hurt Punch”, Ladd’s body would convulse, sending the crowd into a frenzy.

Ox Baker was going to kill Ernie Ladd and they had to do something to stop him!

The legendary Jim Cornette recounts Ernie Ladd’s telling of the tale: “The people were hot and as Ernie was laying there, he saw it and he felt it. It was going too far and he looked up and said, ‘Ox, the natives are getting restless,’ and Ox would say, ‘just a little more heat! Just a little more heat, Ernie’ and hit him with another “Hurt Punch”. Then Ernie sees the first guy pick up a chair and says, ‘Ox, the natives are getting restless! Leave with your heat,’ and Ox said, ‘Just a little more heat,’ and hits him with another heart punch. That’s when the first chair comes flying over the top rope.”

At this point, Ox realized the situation had gotten out of hand. Johnny Powers was also aware of what was happening and the men got back to back to fend off the barrage of flying chairs and fans trying to fight through the police to get in the ring. Mace and nightsticks were employed to try and control the riot, but with so many people in attendance, the police were only making small dents in the surge. The ring announcer hopped into the ring to help fend off the crowd and the flying chairs.

“Finally,” said Cornette, “the babyfaces hit the ring and that was the old deal where you fight the heels back (to the locker room). The theory is that the fans will not attack the heels because the babyfaces are doing it for ‘em. This did not exactly bear fruit that night because Powers saw an opening and took it, doing a 40-yard dash (to the back).” 

Seeing Powers take off, Baker followed closely behind. Unfortunately for Ox, he was not nearly as swift of foot. As he reached the hockey boards that separated the crowd from the back of the arena, a fan leveled Baker in the back of the head with a folding chair. Ox escaped, but hardly unharmed. “Ox had that scar for the rest of his life,” said Cornette. “He looked like he’d had a lobotomy.”

“There were chairs everywhere,” said Baker. “It was a real scene. Nobody realized in the back, they chased me upstairs with knives. They were going to cut me.”

Ox later said once he got to the back of the building, he opened the door to what he thought would be a safe place. What he found on the other side of the door was fellow wrestler Gypsy Joe and an unnamed woman. After relaying what had happened, Gypsy pulled out a knife of his own, offering it to Ox for protection. Said Baker, “I was more scared of his knife than I was theirs!” Read the full, insane story at SteelBeltWrestling.com

The Stars At Night Are Big And Bright

Ox spent the next several years capitalizing on his heat. Wrestling against Larry Hennig in Minnesota, Jack Brisco and Dusty Rhodes in Florida and even renewing his feud with Ernie Ladd, Baker was a top draw wherever he went. “Dusty and I sold out 12 weeks,” said Baker. “After I left Florida, they didn’t sell out for another year.” 

After losing a series of matches against Grizzly Smith (the father of Jake “The Snake” Roberts) in Florida, he made his way to Texas to work the massive territory run out of Fritz Von Erich’s Dallas office. Baker beat up on a young Gino Hernandez in Fort Worth, took Jimmy Snuka’s NWA Texas Heavyweight Title away from him in Houston, then defeated Captain USA (the future Big John Studd) for the NWA American Heavyweight Title, setting up a showdown against the NWA World’s Champion, Harley Race. 

On October 21st, 1977, before a capacity crowd in the Sam Houston Coliseum in Houston, Texas, Baker came up short against Race, but the fact he had the match at all was proof of just how big he’d gotten in the sport of professional wrestling.

After finishing up his time in Texas, including a Claw vs. Heart Punch Match against Fritz Von Erich in Dallas, Baker became a sort of special attraction a la Andre the Giant, working short stints all over the world. He’d brawl with The Sheik in Detroit for a few weeks, then head to Tennessee and Alabama to wrestle for NWA Mid-America, followed by a stay overseas in Australia for Ron Miller’s World Championship Wrestling. From there he might wrestle in New Zealand before finding his way back to Texas for another set of matches against the Von Erichs, followed by a run in Oklahoma and Louisiana for Bill Watts. 

Never staying in one place too often prevented fans from tiring of Baker’s limited in-ring abilities, allowing him to make use of his best attributes: his promo and his look.

Hollywood Ending

The latter of said attributes helped get Ox Baker into Hollywood and between ‘80-’87 he acted in three movies, including John Carpenter’s classic “Escape from New York”. During rehearsals for the movie, Baker gave Kurt Russell’s stuntman Dick Warlock a beating. When filming began, Warlock offered Russell the following words prior to their fight scene: “good luck.”

Director John Carpenter enjoyed working with the wrestler, saying, “Ox Baker was very kind to me. He was a great ‘old school’ wrestler–the kind I grew up watching.”

Around this same time, Baker also had a hilarious moment with Bob Barker on The Price Is Right. His brush with Hollywood didn’t slow his wrestling schedule, however, as Ox remained a regular on the road through the Summer of ‘88.

The Legacy Of The Ox

After a career in which he’d turned himself into one of the most hated heels of the era, Baker finally walked away from the ring, returning only sporadically for special events and one-offs. 

He opened Ox Baker’s Wrestling School and became a respected trainer, having a hand in teaching Mark Calaway (The Undertaker) and Bryan Clark (who wrestled as Adam Bomb in WWF and Wrath in WCW). Baker also put out a cookbook, two documentaries on his life and returned to Hollywood, filming two more movies before his death, Chilling Visions: Five Senses of Fear and Pinwheel (which was released in 2017).

Ox Baker was never going to be confused with Lou Thesz or Pat Patterson. He was, however, the prototypical pro wrestling monster: a slow-moving, deliberate heat-seeker of a vicious heel with the gift of gab. He won championship gold all across the U.S., holding versions of the Heavyweight Title in nine different wrestling promotions while wrestling “on top” for close to two decades.

Baker passed away in 2014 at the age of 80, leaving behind a colorful legacy of brutality all across the pro wrestling landscape. Said legendary wrestling writer Bill Apter after learning of Baker’s death, “Ox was one of the sweetest people you would ever want to meet.”

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From Hollywood Blond To Fabulous Freebird: The Story Of Buddy “Jack” Roberts

My brother Buddy Roberts is 240 pounds of hot stuff and he don’t stop ’till he gets enough! – Michael “P.S.” Hayes

As an unabashed supporter of the beloved Von Erichs wrestling family when I was a youngster, I, by default despised The Fabulous Freebirds. As I got older, I learned to appreciate what each members of that faction brought to the table, but at the time the last things I cared about were Terry Gordy’s prodigious wrestling ways and Michael “P.S.” Hayes’ seemingly endless bucket of charisma. I just wanted to punch them in the nose. The target of my 8 year old violence, of course, included Buddy Roberts, a drowned rat lookin’ sumbitch who came off as equal parts bad ass and chicken shit.

The Hollywood Blonds

Dale Hey aka Buddy Roberts broke into the wrestling business in 1965. Trained by the legendary Ivan Koloff and wrestling under the name Dale Valentine (Johnny Valentine’s little brother), Roberts worked the undercards for several years, gaining experience in a variety of territories.

In April of 1970, after a six month stay in Minnesota with Verne Gagne’s AWA, Bill Watts brought the 22-year-old Roberts to his Tri-State territory as a replacement for Jack Donovan. Watts had an idea for a tag team, but a dispute with Donovan over money left him a man short. With Roberts in tow, Watts teamed him up with Jerry Brown, a veteran journeyman looking to finally break big after several years of relatively little success. The promoter called the duo The Hollywood Blonds and in very short order, they became the most hated men in the territory, battling the likes of fan favorite Danny Hodge and Billy Red Lyons. 

By 1972, The Blonds had added Sir Oliver Humperdink as their manager, only increasing their heat with fans. The tag team would last through the end of 1979, enjoying 12 regional tag title runs for NWA Tri-State, NWA Hollywood, NWA Florida, CWA, Mid-Atlantic and NJPW. When asked about the pair, legendary commentator Jim Ross summed them up rather succinctly, saying, “The Hollywood Blonds of Roberts and Brown were one of the most underrated tag teams ever in the business.”

Going Solo

Nearing the end of his run with Brown, Roberts all branched out as a singles competitor, wrestling in the CWF and feuding with legendary names like Jerry Brisco, Rocky Johnson and Pedro Morales (against whom he unsuccessfully challenged for the NWA Florida Southern Heavyweight Title).

After one of his final runs in NJPW as a member of The Hollywood Blonds, Roberts moved on to Texas, once again assuming the name Dale Valentine and getting himself into blood feuds with Al Madril, Bruiser Brody and Austin Idol over the NWA Texas Heavyweight Title. It was during this time he had the first of what would become a historic number of wars with The Von Erichs.  

The Freebirds Are Born

In 1980, Bill Watts would again give Roberts a helping hand up the next rung of the ladder to superstardom. Having already paired 20-year-old Michael Hayes and 18-year-old Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy together as The Fabulous Freebirds, Watts brought Roberts into the mix with the hopes of maximizing each man’s talents. Gordy and Buddy were both brilliant wrestlers; Hayes, however, left much to be desired in the ring. What “P.S.” did possess though was the gift of gab and an innate ability to infuriate the crowd with little more than a sideways glance. With “Bam Bam” and Buddy “Jack” (so named because of his love of Jack Daniels) in the ring and Hayes at ringside, The Freebirds exploded onto the wrestling scene. 

Taking on wrestlers like Ted DiBiase, Buck Robley and Junkyard Dog, The Freebirds became the hottest heel faction in the territory. When they blinded JYD, the three men legitimately feared for their lives. “I’ve never felt my life more threatened than in that era with Junkyard Dog,” said Michael Hayes. “We had our cars destroyed, people would fill up water pistols with Liquid-Plumr and you would fight your way from the ring to the locker room. It wasn’t a question of if you were gonna get your ass whipped. The question was how badly and would you make it back to the locker room.” During their short run, the trio carved out a path of destruction over four States, winning the Mid-South Tag Team Titles and holding them for three months before losing them and a series of Loser Leaves Town Matches that resulted in the trio moving on to Georgia Championship Wrestling. “Our last night in the territory,” said Hayes, “undercover police officers found a man in the crowd with a Saturday night special and a bullet in it with the word “freebird” engraved on it.”

The Freebirds made an immediate impact in Georgia, winning the NWA Georgia Tag Team Titles in a match against The Assassins and Mr. Wrestling I and Mr. Wrestling II in October of 1980. After a controversial double disqualification in a match between Austin Idol and Kevin Sullivan resulted in titles being stripped away from The Freebirds, they would defeat The Brisco Brothers and the team of Robert Fuller and Stan Frazier in a tag team tournament to reclaim the then renamed NWA National Tag Team Titles. Said longtime wrestling writer Bill Apter, “The Freebirds were sports entertainment before Vince McMahon ever had the thought in his mind.”

Roberts would go off on his own shortly after the win, even spending some time away from pro wrestling. Hayes and Gordy continued to work as The Fabulous Freebirds for the remainder of their 2-year run in Georgia. The trio again met up in late-’82, again working for Bill Watts as part of his Superdome Extravaganza show in New Orleans. By December of ‘82, The Freebirds were all in Dallas and business was most definitely about to pick up.

Badstreet

The Von Erichs were not only superheroes in the eyes of the Texas fan base, they were also “our boys”. Young fans loved them because of their looks, muscles and rock star appeal. Older fans loved them because their father, Fritz Von Erich, was wise to present his family as a wholesome, churchgoing lot. All fans simply assumed David, Kevin and Kerry were all destined for NWA Heavyweight Title stardom. The problem the boys had was they didn’t have anyone to work with in Dallas. They would continually chew up and spit out everyone brought into the territory to wrestle them, their stiff wrestling style the usual culprit.

In The Freebirds, the Von Erichs finally had guys both willing to take an ass kicking, but also dish one back out. Texans are a different sort of folk and for all the oil money and conservatism, at our core we’re basically still just a bunch of grimy people willing to fight you as quickly as we are to give you a home cooked meal and the shirt off our back. So, when Terry Gordy slammed that cage door on Kerry Von Erich’s head Christmas Day 1982 in front of 18,000 strong in Reunion Arena, every last Texan wrestling fan was ready to die to get our hands on those Freebird bastards! It was that real.

Instantly becoming the hottest feud in pro wrestling, the Von Erichs and The Freebirds went to war, and for the next 3 and a half years left buckets of blood all across the State of Texas. At the center of it all was Buddy “Jack” Roberts, the one member of the Freebirds without a single redeeming quality. Even while hating his guts, a fan could still find some humor in Michael Hayes. In Terry Gordy, you had a guy who almost came off like a big puppy dog trying to figure out the size of his paws. Where Buddy Roberts was concerned, however, there simply wasn’t a thing in the world to like about him.

He only amped up our hatred of him in ‘83 when he got himself into a dust up with “Iceman” King Parsons, cutting the hair of the fan favorite. Their feud culminated in a Hair vs. Hair Match with Roberts attempting to cheat to secure the win, only to have Parsons wrestle away the jar “Freebird Hair Removal Cream” and apply it to Buddy “Jack”. You would think the embarrassment of having his hair fall out would have satiated fans, but when Roberts secured a wig to his head with boxing headgear, thereby preventing us from basking in his shame, it only served to make us hate him (and The Freebirds) that much more.

Wearing Out Their Welcome At Every Stop

The Freebirds territory hopped for most of their run together. Dallas was certainly where they were the hottest, but they also had short runs in the WWF, AWA and CWF, always returning to Texas to pick right up where they left off with the Von Erichs.

By the summer of ‘86, however, Buddy and Co. saw the writing on the wall in Dallas. David Von Erich had passed away in ‘84, Gino Hernandez died of an apparent overdose in February of ‘86, the Lance Von Erich experiment was failing miserably and business was down. The Freebirds made the jump to Mid-South, reuniting, once again, with Bill Watts, diving headfirst into a whole new series of feuds with fresh opponents like The Rock N’ Roll Express and The Fantastics. Roberts also began wrestling more in a singles capacity, winning the UWF Television Title from Terry Taylor on two occasions over a year-long feud that proved to be one of the hottest in the territory.

In late-’87, The Freebirds returned to World Class, but their union was short. Roberts and Gordy turned on Hayes, who turned babyface and teamed up with the Von Erichs against his former Freebird brothers and Roberts’ former foe-now-friend, “Iceman” King Parsons. Buddy also began dialing back things in the ring, bringing in the Samoan SWAT Team and acting as their manager in matches against the Von Erichs and the tag team comprised of Michael Hayes and Steve “Do It To It” Cox. “You have your list of people you’ve learned from coming up in this industry and Buddy took us under his wing,” said SWAT Team member Rikishi Fatu. With Roberts as their manager, the SST were a dominant force, winning the World Class Tag Team Titles three times and the Texas Tag Team Titles once before leaving for the NWA’s Jim Crockett Promotions. 

By late-’88, Gordy and Hayes had also left World Class for Jim Crockett Promotions. Roberts, 13 years older than Hayes (and 15 years older than Gordy) decided to stay behind in Dallas with his wife Janice, working another five months before retiring in May of ‘89.

Free As A Bird

In Buddy Roberts, The Fabulous Freebirds had the glue that held the whole faction together. Michael Hayes was a loudmouth and Terry Gordy was a wrestling prodigy, but “Jack” was the real heat magnet. He bumped around the ring with reckless abandon, earned every last bit of vitriol from the fans (the hard way) and was likely the heart and soul of The Freebirds. Buddy’s viciousness gave bite to everything Hayes and Gordy did. Without him, the faction wasn’t the same.

“He was the guy who took the beating,” said Mick Foley after learning of Roberts’ passing in 2012. “He was the guy who dropped the fall, but somehow maintained his heat. He would do anything to make his matches exciting – including the rumored dropping of the first elbow off the ring apron. He could make anyone and anything around him look better. If someone around him was bad, he could make them look good. If they were good, he could make them look great. And if something was great – like The Fabulous Freebirds – he could help turn greatness to legend.”

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Pomp And Circumstance: The Brilliance Of Gorgeous George

I was 11 years old in 1988. I’d become a bit too much for my mom to deal with, so she shipped me off to live with my dad for awhile. By that time, I was already knee deep in my wrestling fandom and was a regular TV viewer of WWF, NWA, AWA and WCCW. Kerry and Kevin Von Erich were my heroes.

One evening, my dad and were wandering through the local Winn Dixie doing our weekly grocery shopping when I stumbled across some wrestling VHS tapes, one of which was an AWA tape with the Road Warriors on the box. The other VHS was called Wrestling’s Greatest Villains: The Golden Years and had a list of a bunch of black & white matches from the fifties and sixties on the box’s cover. I wanted the Road Warriors tape. My dad convinced me to also get the tape of the black & white wrestling, saying he’d watch it with me. I’d never known him to be a wrestling fan; him saying he’d sit down and check it out with me sounded pretty cool. We grabbed the tapes and headed for the check-out line.

After we got the groceries put away and fixed a couple of plates for dinner, we sat down in front of the TV and put his tape in the VCR. For the next 80+ minutes, I was given a glimpse of professional wrestling from a bygone era. That night, for the very first time, I was treated to matches by Killer Kowalski, Freddie Blassie and Buddy Rogers, but it was the appearance of Gorgeous George that left me captivated. It certainly didn’t hurt that my dad’s face lit up the second he saw him.

A Star Is Born

George Raymond Wagner was born March 24, 1915 in Butte, Nebraska to a poor farming family. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, George dropped out of Milby High School in Houston, TX and worked various jobs to help support the family. He also began competing in the carnival circuit, earning a reported 35 cents per wrestling victory.

By 1932 and at the age of 17, Wagner went to work for promoter Morris Seigel, wrestling for the next 9 years under his real name. While working in Portland in 1938, Wagner won his first championship, the Pacific Northwest Lightweight Championship. It was the first of four reigns he had with the title, carrying it for close to 21 months between May of ‘38 and November of ‘43.

In 1941, the name and character Gorgeous George were born. Having married Betty Hanson in 1939 in a Portland, Oregon wrestling ring (then taking the show on the road, “marrying” several times more during wrestling shows), George was looking for something to take his persona to a new level. According to Betty, said something took place after George overheard a woman in the wrestling crowd exclaim, “oh, isn’t he gorgeous!” Wagner asked Betty’s mother, Elsie Hanson, a talented seamstress, to make him some extravagant robes. He grew out his hair, bleached it blonde and curled it, putting it up with gold plated bobby pins (or, as he called them, “Georgie Pins”).

George then put together an elaborate ring entrance that not only included the throwing of flowers, but also a manservant (Jeffries) to disrobe him and carry his bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume to the ring and a beautiful woman (his wife, Betty) to spray the perfume around the ring. When the referee would check George for illegal foreign objects (see what I did there), he would recoil in horror, shouting, “get your filthy hands off me!” Gorgeous George all but created pageantry in professional wrestling. 

Hollywood

Wrestling all along the West Coast and thanks in no small part to the post-World War II television era, Gorgeous George became one of the most recognizable figures in the United States. It has been said he did more for establishing television as a viable entertainment option than any other person in history. So popular did he become with the American public, it is believed he was, by the end of the ‘40s, the highest paid athlete in the world.

With fame came a responsibility to his character and the wrestling business, one George took very seriously. As author Joe Jares wrote in his book Whatever Happened To Gorgeous George?, “On camera, in the ring or wherever, he usually stayed in character, with a little put-on routine for every occasion. Performing the Gorgeous George kiss, he would gallantly take a lady’s hand and bend down to touch his lips to it, but he would turn his wrist and kiss the back of his own hand instead.  He would sit in the lobby of a hotel and shriek until the manager had brand-new sheets and pillowcases put on his bed, then he’d have his room sprayed by his valet. He would pull the same sort of act in restaurants, even to the point of having other customers sprayed.”

Holding the Los Angeles version of the World Heavyweight Championship for 699 days between March ‘47 through February ‘49, “The Beautiful Bicep” turned pro wrestling into one of the most popular sports in North America. After losing the championship to Enrique Torres, George went on the road, wrestling in territories all across the U.S. and Canada, including for Sam Muchnick in Missouri, Nick Gulas and Roy Welch in NWA Mid-America and Frank Tunney’s Maple Leaf Wrestling in Toronto. It was actually in Toronto when Gorgeous George had what is, perhaps, his most famous match: a Hair Match versus Whipper Billy Watson. On March 12. 1959 in the Maple Leaf Gardens, 20,000 people saw George’s golden locks shaved from his head. Millions more watched on television from the comfort of their living room.

Peeling Away The Facade

Doctors forced George to slow things down in the early-’60s. He returned to California and bought a cocktail lounge and a 195 acre turkey ranch. In his final match, he again lost his hair, this time to The Destroyer in a Mask vs. Hair Match in the Olympic Auditorium.

His retirement was hardly a smooth one, as financial troubles and the divorce from his second wife led George down a lonely path. Over the years, “The Sensation of the Nation” had developed a drinking problem that only worsened in the final years of his life. He was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver in ‘62, the main contributing factor to his retirement. Less than a year and a half later, on December 24, 1963, he suffered a massive heart attack. Two days later, Gorgeous George was dead. He was just 48 years old.  

Decades Ahead Of His Time

“The Model” Rick Martel, “Adorable” Adrian Adonis, Goldust, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and scores of other wrestlers all gleaned parts of their respective gimmicks from the trailblazing ways of the “Toast of the Coast”. Randy Savage’s theme song? It’s called “Pomp and Circumstance” and it was used by Gorgeous George 40 years prior to Savage’s first appearance in the WWF.

Muhammad Ali said on many occasions that through watching Gorgeous George he developed his persona of a loud, brash, fighter who could “talk ‘em into the building”. It is said that George once told Ali, “A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous.” Even the Godfather of Soul, Mr. “Please Please Please” himself, James Brown, once said Gorgeous George’s bigger than life presence “helped create the James Brown you see on stage”. Imagine directly influencing two of the coolest men (and arguably the greatest in their respective fields) to ever walk God’s green Earth. 

Gorgeous George was pop culture before pop culture was even a thing.

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From The Gridiron To The Squared Circle: The Warring Ways Of Wahoo McDaniel

Tully Blanchard, I can beat you. You’re the National Heavyweight Champion, you’re coming to Cincinnati and I know you and JJ Dillon have something cooked up, but I’m just gonna go out there and do what I do best: win matches! – Wahoo McDaniel

Training Camp had just started for the New York Jets and their young rookie, quarterback Joe Namath, the first overall pick in the American Football League Draft. The man who would become “Broadway Joe” was in camp following a 29-4 career in Alabama, lucrative contract in hand. Several of the veteran players weren’t thrilled about the rookie’s payday. Included in this gaggle of jealous veterans was 5-year pro football linebacker and resident tackling madman, Wahoo McDaniel.

Catching Namath on the warm-up track, McDaniel tripped the young QB, sending him sprawling. Namath, to his credit, simply dusted himself off and continued his running. Even as a rookie, Joe had already learned an important lesson: Wahoo McDaniel was not the man to mess with, regardless of who was right or wrong.

From Humble Beginnings

Edward McDaniel grew up in Bernice, Oklahoma and was a handful from the very beginning. A fighter even during his early years, McDaniel wasn’t the conforming type and looking back on his life, it’s clear a “normal” job was never gonna work for him. When his family moved to Midland, Texas during his early teen years, Wahoo (a nickname he got from his father, whom everyone called “Big Wahoo”) got heavily into sports, playing baseball, football and wrestling. One of his middle school baseball coaches was actually George H.W. Bush, the future 41st President of the United States.

Bud Wilkinson recruited Wahoo to the University of Oklahoma where he played 31 games between ‘57-’59 as a 200 pound punter, wide receiver and running back. During that time he also set the record for the longest punt in Oklahoma Sooners history, a 91 yarder. His wild ways continued throughout college, and was regularly caught out drinking and partying well past curfew. Antics aside, Wahoo still managed to letter in both football and wrestling, despite his claims of not being “a very good rassler in college”.

Speaking on McDaniel’s wild ways, legendary pro wrestling manager Jim Cornette recounted a now famous tale, saying, “On a bet, he ran from Norman to Oklahoma City, which is like 26 miles, and followed that up by drinking a quart of motor oil to win another bet.” 

New York, New York

His hard-charging nature got him drafted in the 2nd round of the AFL Draft by the Los Angeles Chargers and he spent the first of his eight pro seasons with the Houston Oilers, winning the AFL Championship in 1960. He then spent ‘61-’63 with the Denver Broncos before joining the New York Jets via a nine player trade in ‘64. Then-Broncos head coach Jack Faulkner told Wahoo, “if he went to New York and prospered, he’d make a fortune”. With the Jets, he became an instant celebrity, due in no small part to the pro wrestling-style interviews he gave reporters. Truth be told, the hard-hitting linebacker arrived in the Big Apple at the perfect time. Former New York Giants great and future hall of famer, linebacker Sam Huff, had just been traded to the Washington Redskins. When asked about Huff leaving town, Wahoo went full “pro wrestler”, saying, “This place ain’t big enough for me and Huff. It’s lucky for him he moved.”

The gritty New York football fan, took immediately to Wahoo mouthing off then backing it up by flying around with reckless abandon, and took to chanting his name after he’d make a tackle. The Jets PA announcer picked up on the connection between McDaniel and the fanbase. Instead of “Tackle made my McDaniel,” the call became, “Tackle made by…guess who?”, giving the fans the opportunity to shout “WAHOO!”

McDaniel’s growing fame in New York not only made him more recognizable among football fans. In 1961, Wahoo had taken up pro wrestling training as a way to stay in shape in the offseason while also putting a few extra dollars in his pocket. Said Wahoo, “Jim Barnett, who books rasslers out of Indianapolis, called me and said he wanted an Indian rassler. So, I met with him, liked the deal and now I’m a pro rassler.”

By ‘64, and at the height of his fame in pro football, the proud member of the Choctaw-Chickasaw tribe began commanding higher payouts at wrestling shows, working for Vince McMahon, Sr. in the WWWF and wrestling against the likes of Boris Malenko and Dr. Jerry Graham.

Around this time, Wahoo added around 40 pounds to his frame, which was fine for professional wrestling, but many believed hindered his football career. As one AFL coach said, “at 205 pounds Wahoo could move with authority, but not at 240. The tackles can cut him off on the wide stuff. He can’t handle much responsibility on passes. He’s a good blitzer and is strong on running plays that come straight at him. But he’s a harum-scarum type, and you can’t build a solid defense around him.” Wahoo scoffed at such statements, but coupled with his aforementioned hazing of “Broadway Joe”, Jets management deemed the linebacker expendable, leaving him unprotected in the expansion draft the following season. He was selected by the Miami Dolphins.

McDaniel played three more seasons of pro football, retiring from the league at the end of the ‘68 season after being traded to San Diego (with whom he would have the odd distinction of both starting and ending his career w/o ever playing a down) following a brawl in which he knocked two police officers unconscious. In his final game with Miami, his team was shredded to the tune of 31-7. The opponent: Joe Namath and the New York Jets who would go on to win the ‘68 Super Bowl. McDaniel, who, by that time had been wrestling in the off-season for 8 years, went “all in” on pro wrestling.

The Stars At Night Are Big And Bright

With his focus now squarely on wrestling, Wahoo’s previous years of off-season work put him immediately in the main event picture, regardless of the promotion for which he was employed. “Six weeks before the football season began, I rassled every night. From January 1 until training camp I had 160 matches, sometimes two on Thursdays,” said McDaniel. “I’ve gotten to be pretty good. I’m just now a main eventer. It takes five years to be a good pro football player and about that long to be a big-time rassler.”

A profanity-laced tirade concerning a payout directed towards Phil Zacko, then part owner of Capitol Sports, a group that owned half of the WWWF, not only changed plans to make Wahoo a main eventer in New York, but facilitated Chief Jay Strongbow’s creation/arrival in the WWWF. Had it not been for McDaniel’s hard line stance on what he believed to be “right and wrong”, Strongbow might have remained Joe Scarpa for the entirety of his career.

Instead, Wahoo went to work for Ed Francis and James Blears and their Big Time Wrestling in Hawaii, getting himself into a short feud with Luke Graham. Wahoo did well in Hawaii, but the experience he gained on the island likely meant more than his win/loss record, because after moving on to his next territory, the massive Fritz Von Erich-run Big Time Wrestling in Texas, McDaniel’s career shot into the stratosphere. Spending the next 2 ½ years in Texas, he went to war against some of the biggest names in the industry, winning and defending multiple championships against the likes of Johnny Valentine, Killer Karl Kox and Mil Mascaras, and challenging NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion Dory Funk, Jr. on multiple occasions.

His years in Texas set up another main event run, working for Verne Gagne’s AWA in Minnesota. Feuding with Dusty Rhodes, “Superstar” Billy Graham, Nick Bockwinkel and Ray Stevens, McDaniel continued his push towards the very top of the sport of professional wrestling. When asked about Wahoo, Graham said, “When I took a chop (from Wahoo), I’d only take one, and then I’d go down. I’d tell Wahoo, ‘‘Now you can start working on me. Take over from down here, buddy. One’s enough for this boy.’ I wasn’t about to stand there and trade chops with a buzz saw. He’d always laugh at me and tell me a few little chops weren’t going to hurt me. I’d tell him, ‘’The way you throw them they do.’ At least I knew I wasn’t going to get chopped to death lying on the mat.” 

His wars with Graham were some of the hottest of that era, propelling Wahoo to his next stop (and the territory where he would become one of the biggest names in the industry): Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling. 

Carolina In My Mind

Upon his arrival in the Carolinas in ‘74, Wahoo reignited his feud with Johnny Valentine from several years prior in Texas. Battling over the NWA Mid-Atlantic Title, the two men sold out venues throughout the territory. McDaniel also teamed up with Paul Jones for a program against Gene and Ole Anderson, resulting in the pair claiming the NWA World Tag Team Titles. In the summer of ‘75, however, Wahoo would begin a blood feud against (arguably) his greatest rival: “Nature Boy” Ric Flair.

Warring over the NWA Mid-Atlantic Title, Wahoo and Flair traded wins and reigns for the better part of two months, a sign of things to come for the men. The ebb and flow of their blood feud would make money and draw sellout crowds for parts of the next 10 years. One such battle resulted in 42 stitches above Wahoo’s eyes after Flair hit him with a table leg, not realizing there was a nail sticking out of the end of it. “He and Harley Race were the toughest guys I ever met in my life,” said Flair.

Wahoo spent four years in the Carolinas, next moving on for a run in Florida for Eddie Graham’s CWF and a return to Minnesota for Verne Gagne’s AWA. In both territories, he was a main event mainstay, wrestling champions like Harley Race and Nick Bockwinkel. From the summer of ‘78 through the spring of ‘82, McDaniel would territory hop, making his way around the globe, including Japan for his first run with New Japan Pro Wrestling.

Between ‘81-’85, Wahoo would hold the NWA United States Title on five separate occasions. He was stripped of the title three of those times, leading to a vicious heel turn in ‘84 that would fuel white hot battles against Dusty Rhodes, Ricky Steamboat and Barry Windham. When asked about Wahoo’s heel turn, Jim Cornette once said, “When he turned heel in the Carolinas and the fans would try to attack him, he would knock them out with his chops. He’d knock ‘em over rows of chairs.”

After switching back to babyface, Wahoo went on another long run with Ric Flair over the NWA World’s Heavyweight Title. Flair always found a way to hold onto the championship, but his battles against McDaniel are the stuff of legend. “Wahoo was just an incredibly tough guy,” said Flair. “Not just the way he wrestled, but the conditions he wrestled under. He wrestled hurt, he wrestled sick. I remember he had a vasectomy at four o’clock in the afternoon, then wrestled at 8 o’clock that night. Wahoo would wrestle under any conditions. He had an incredible work ethic. He wrestled long matches and was as tough as anybody in the ring.”

Flair would go on to say, “To me, he was the one guy most responsible for me getting my career off to a good start. He was probably the most influential person in my career for the first 10 years. I respected him so much. If something was going down in the business, I’d always ask Wahoo’s opinion. He was responsible for bringing me down to the Carolinas. I asked him all the time and learned an awful lot about working from him.”

Going Out With A Bang

Wahoo continued to work as a main eventer for much of the next four years, slowing down in 1990 after a long run with AWA Heavyweight Champion Curt Hennig and a bloody feud with the “Raging Bull” Manny Fernandez. So violent were his wars with Fernandez, ESPN refused to air their Indian Strap Match from Superclash III. 

McDaniel’s hard-partying ways ultimately caught up to him, but even after becoming a diabetic, he refused to dial things back. “You couldn’t tell him (anything) back then,” said Ric Flair. “He’d say, ‘‘No, don’t worry about it, I’m fine.’ When he got diabetes, instead of quitting drinking, he’d double up on the insulin and drink just as much. I’d say, ‘’Chief, let’s go work out,’ and he’d say, ‘’Boy, I’ve been working out 30 years, I don’t need to work out any more. I’m tired of working out.’”

By the mid-’90s, health complications due to diabetes forced Wahoo to finally slow down. He ultimately lost both kidneys to the disease and was awaiting a kidney transplant when he passed away in 2002. Though perhaps not remembered in the same breath as wrestlers like Flair, Dusty and Harley, the “Nature Boy” bristles at such a thought, saying, “I’m sad that not enough people knew enough about him or remember him. What bothers me is here we have probably the greatest athlete to ever be in our sport – the best athlete period to ever be a professional wrestler. Wahoo was such a legend to my generation. He’ll always be that. That’s what saddens me the most. It’s called fleeting fame.”

Over the course of his 35 year career, Wahoo is said to have wrestled more than 3,500 matches, winning championships in 12 different territories (including 19 different runs w/ various regional heavyweight titles) while becoming the most popular Native American in the history of professional wrestling. “He was universally respected in the wrestling as one of the toughest guys in it,” said Jim Cornette. “Nobody fucked with Wahoo McDaniel.”

Wahoo McDaniel Record Book: 1962-1996

1967 Topps #82 Chief Wahoo McDaniel Wrestler ROOKIE PSA 8 Graded Football Card

United States Championship: A Close Look at Mid-Atlantic Wrestling’s Greatest Championship

Sputnik Monroe’s Main Event Win Over Jim Crow – Pt. 2

Read Sputnik Monroe’s Main Event Win Over Jim Crow, Pt. 1 here.

Win if you can, lose if you must, always cheat, and if you have to leave the ring, leave tearing it down. – Sputnik Monroe

A White Hat Rides Into Town   

A few months prior to Monroe, Billy Wicks had arrived in Memphis, becoming a fan favorite. As an Army veteran, a former Boy Scout and the Gulf Coast Heavyweight Champion, Wicks was as “All-American” as it got; a tough-as-nails catch wrestler with good looks and a blue collar style which perfectly suited a main event southern babyface. Almost immediately, Wicks began feuding with Gorgeous George, who, at the time was almost certainly the most famous pro wrestler in the world (and one of Muhammad Ali’s early influences). The men traded Gulf Coast Heavyweight Championship wins in a “best of three” series of matches that ended 1-1-1 with Wicks retaining the belt. Wicks’ popularity soaring throughout the Southern States.

As if he needed any extra steam in Memphis, the babyface was also Elvis Presley’s favorite wrestler (and sometime trainer). With all his stars aligning, Billy’s path was clear: he and Sputnik Monroe were about to make history.

At the very same time Billy Wicks was ascending as the top “good guy” in Memphis, Monroe was ramping up his heelish ways to a fever pitch. Purposefully losing matches by attacking referees and openly cheating for wins in matches against the likes of Joey Maxim and “Spider” Galento, Monroe had the crowds ready to pounce. They were eating out of the palm of his hand.

When the wrestlers finally met in April 6th, 1959, fans were desperate to see Sputnik finally get what he had coming to him. What they were treated to was a 90-minute, two out of three falls match in which Monroe came out the victor. When the two men met the following week, Monroe again came away with the victory. The crowd was livid; promoter Buddy Fuller was ecstatic.

Fuller began using his weekly television to push a tournament to crown the first Tennessee Heavyweight Champion. Throughout the Spring on into June, Fuller would promote the tournament, making it the focal point of his television. As the tournament went on, the possibility of yet another Wicks-Monroe collision became more and more likely. Their semi-final matches were such a hot ticket, the show was forced to be moved from Ellis Auditorium (10,000-seat capacity) to Crump Stadium (25,000-seat capacity) to allow for the additional spectators. Both men won their respective matches; their clash the following week would stoke a fire that would burn throughout the summer.   

With all due respect to Elvis Presley, Wicks and Monroe had now become the hottest ticket in town. Arguably as recognizable as “The King”, the men packed houses every single week during the summer of ‘59. On June 29th, Billy Wicks finally got his revenge on the dastardly Monroe, winning the finals of the NWA Tennessee State Championship Tournament and becoming the territory’s new champion. His time atop the mountain would last until the two men locked horns on August 3rd before 10,000 fans at Russwood Park, when (with the help of fellow heel Treacherous Phillips) Sputnik would steal the title away in a Two Out of Three Falls Match.

The following week, Billy Wicks beat Treacherous Phillips all over the ring to set up a rematch with Monroe that would set an attendance record which would stand for more than 30 years.

The Blow Off

On August 17th, 1959, Billy Wicks and Sputnik Monroe would all but put an end to their feud, doing so in record breaking fashion. Once again wrestling at Russwood Park, the men drew 13,749 paying fans to see their blow off match. Another 5,000 unpaid fans were said to have watched the battle after destroying the park’s outfield fences. Boxing legend Rocky Marciano was brought in as the special guest referee to ensure Monroe couldn’t cheat his way to victory. 

In the end, Sputnik escaped with his title, albeit via typically nefarious methods. After the two men’s match got completely out of hand, Marciano was forced to rule it a “no decision”, allowing Monroe to retain the championship. Monroe then confronted Marciano and was quickly and decisively dropped by a right hand from the former boxing champ.

Several months later, Wicks and Monroe would actually team up to wrestle The Corsican Brothers in a series of matches. Proving, once again, that he was not to be trusted, Sputnik turned on Wicks, beating him down and setting up another short series together. It would be their last major angle together, as shortly thereafter, Monroe lost the championship to The Mighty Yankee and left the territory.

Deep In The Heart Of Texas

After territory hopping for a few months, Sputnik found his way to Texas where he stayed for five years. He won the NWA Texas Heavyweight Championship in Houston in late-’61 and feuded with The Sheik and the legendary Funk Family. According to Dory Funk Jr., Terry Funk wrestled his first ever match against Monroe. Sputnik then worked his way up to Oklahoma and Arkansas to wrestle against Danny Hodge in a series of matches in ‘65.

He returned to Texas in late-’67 to work in Dallas for Big Time Wrestling, feuding with Eddie Graham and Jack Brisco before heading down to Houston to rekindle his blood feud with The Funks.

Going Home Again

Married and living in Louisiana, Sputnik used his home base to wrestle for an endless number of territories the remainder of his career, working as both a singles and tag team wrestler throughout the South. Teaming with Ron Fuller and Norville Austin he won tag team gold on several occasions, including the NWA World Tag Team Title in ‘72. He stayed active in the ring until 1976, when he decided to (mostly) call it a career, only climbing into the ring for one-offs and special events. 

Monroe would still return to Memphis from time to time, always to much fanfare. In his final match, a one-on-one battle against his chief rival, Billy Wicks, Sputnik would get the sendoff he deserved. On March 7th, 1988, before a raucous Mid-South Coliseum crowd, Monroe and Wicks locked horns one last time; Wicks picked up the victory.

Into his later years, Monroe was still being kissed on the cheek by women far younger than he and thanked for all he’d done for race relations. Younger generations had heard stories about him from their parents and grandparents and knew of his importance to the Memphis area. When asked how it made the old time heel feel to receive such adoration, Monroe said simply, “It’s hell to see the toughest son of a bitch in the world cry when that happens.”

Roscoe “Sputnik Monroe” Brumbaugh passed away on November 3rd, 2006 after a battle with lung cancer. He was 77 years old and left behind a legacy worthy of remembrance and celebration. Upon learning of his death, Dory Funk Jr. said, “I am saddened to hear of the passing of Sputnik Monroe. He was one of our family’s best friends. I learned much about the wrestling business by knowing and working with Sputnik Monroe.”

Sputnik Monroe’s Main Event Win Over Jim Crow – Pt. 1

It’s hard to be humble when you’re 235 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal with a body that women love and men fear. – Sputnik Monroe

27-year-old Rock Monroe had just completed a long drive from Washington State to Mobile, Alabama. It was December of 1957 and he was in town to work for Buddy Fuller’s Gulf Coast Championship Wrestling, a promotion that, at this point in history, was only about a year and a half old. Somewhere in Mississippi, the exhausted wrestler had picked up a black man looking to hitch a ride in exchange for helping with the drive.

According to Gulf Coast wrestling historian, Mike Norris, “He offered the guy some money (to) help him drive so he could rest.”

Alabama would not desegregate for another four and a half years, meaning Monroe’s arrival to the wrestling show, side-by-side with his new friend wasn’t met with many happy faces. Said Norris, “Monroe heard the crowd grumbling about him being with a black man, so he grabbed (the man) and kissed him on the cheek.” Other stories have him kissing the man on the mouth. Either way, the reaction he received changed wrestling history.

A woman within earshot of the wrestling heel began slinging a variety of insults at the pair, cursing them and carrying on. Eventually, she ran out of obvious insults, piling on with, “you’re a damn Sputnik”. Though mild by today’s standards (and equally corny), the U.S. was knee-deep in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. In this era of post-McCarthyism, “Sputnik” was akin to calling someone a communist, and with the “better dead than red” ethos very much in full practice stateside, this was potentially dangerous rhetoric, particularly in the Deep South.

After spending more than a decade as a journeyman pro wrestler, Monroe smelled money.

Diamond Ring And Cadillac Man

Embracing his new name, Monroe crafted a public persona that infuriated conservative whites. After his move to Memphis in early ‘59, it was not uncommon to find the cocky Monroe in a variety of “blacks only” bars, dressed to the nines, mingling and handing out free tickets to patrons. Often draped in a long purple robe and carrying a diamond tipped cane, the “diamond ring and Cadillac man”, was living his life to the fullest. 

His attire, coupled with a not-before-seen flamboyance in that part of the country, also made him a target of police. Monroe’s look (jet black hair with a dyed white streak parting the middle of his head, made him an instantly recognizable figure and he was arrested a variety of times on ridiculous charges. Monroe usually lost the case against him, paid whatever fine was levied against him and went right back to thumbing his nose at the status quo.

One arrest in particular saw Monroe charged with “mopery” for hanging out in a black-owned bar. To represent him in the case, Monroe hired a black attorney, Russell B. Sugarmon Jr., setting off a firestorm among the more close minded citizens of Memphis. This was the first time a black man represented a white man in a Memphis court. Ultimately, Sputnik was fined $25 by the presiding judge, but his stance was clear: no one was going to dictate to the wrestler how or with whom he should spend his time.

The heel’s heat-seeking ways knew no limits. Former NWA Heavyweight Champion, Dory Funk Jr. recounts a particularly hilarious tale:

“Sputnik Monroe was dressed to the hilt, black suit, white shirt, and red tie. Around his waist was the Southern States Heavyweight Wrestling Championship Belt. Sputnik had won the belt the night before in a 16 man tournament in Memphis, Tennessee. Now he was celebrating with his friend, fellow wrestler Greg Peterson. He’d had a few drinks and was at the Memphis state fair looking for attention and notoriety the best way he knew how. Sputnik was looking for a fight.

He headed straight for the booth featuring TV tough guy Gene Barry who at the time was playing the part of Bat Masterson. When Sputnik got there, he tried his best to get close to the TV star, but there were bodyguards and security all over the place. There was no way he would have a shot at Gene Barry.

Sputnik was juiced up and wanted to fight somebody; that’s what he came here for. He looked around and found a cowboy and insulted him. The cowboy looked at Sputnik and said, “I know you, I watch you wrestle on TV all the time. I ain’t going to fight you.”

Not easily dissuaded, Sputnik insulted the cowboy’s wife. The cowboy still wouldn’t fight the great professional wrestler. He said, “You’re just trying to sucker me into trying you.”

Sputnik turned around and punched the cowboy’s horse in the nose. In a second, the cowboy was all over Sputnik and a hell of a fight broke out and was busted up by Memphis Police.

According to Sputnik, the only reason (he) got a lick on him was because cowboy blind sided him and he didn’t expect it. Sputnik challenged him to come to the arena on Monday night and face him in the ring on TV. There, Sputnik could atone for his embarrassment. The cowboy’s answer came back. “I know Sputnik Monroe let me stay with him at the fair so he could sucker me into the ring in front of all the wrestling fans and humiliate me. No way, I am not going to get in the ring with Sputnik Monroe; he’s too tough for me.””

The Rise Of Sputnik

Sputnik’s attitude and flamboyance, coupled with his attitude towards the South’s Jim Crow laws, quickly turned him into the biggest heel in the territory to a large segment of the Memphis population. To another group, however, he became a hero.

Wrestling had been down in Memphis and segregation wasn’t helping the problem. The lower bowl of the Ellis Auditorium, the section deemed as “whites only”, was regularly empty. This didn’t improve much when Monroe arrived. The small area where blacks were allowed to sit, however, was always packed to capacity to see Sputnik do his thing. Understanding how ridiculous the segregation laws were (while also understanding how empty seats hurt his wallet), Monroe decided to do something about it. He started by bribing the ticket sellers to oversell the area of the upper bowl of the auditorium. They complied, selling close to a thousand extra seats to black fans.

Promoter Roy Welch was incensed, leading to Monroe upping the ante one more time. Staring down Welch, the police and the owners of the auditorium, Sputnik said he would not wrestler should the fans be forced to leave the show. “There were a couple of thousand blacks outside wanting in. So I told management I’d be cutting out if they don’t let in my black friends. I had the power because I’m selling out the place, the first guy that ever did, and they damn sure wanted the revenue.” Welch backed down (or was complicit, depending on who tells the tale). From there on out, Monroe would not wrestle on integrated shows. The result: the name Sputnik Monroe came to carry far more weight than simply that of a champion pro wrestler.

It wasn’t long before the white youth of Memphis embraced Sputnik as well. Said Monroe, “There was a group of wealthy white kids that dug me because I was a rebel. I’m saying what they wanted to say, only they were just too young or inexperienced or afraid to say it. You have a black maid raising your kids and she’s talking about me all of the time, so I may not be in the front living room, but I’m going in the back door of your goddamn house, feeding your kids on Monday morning and sending ’em to school. And meeting the bus when they come home. Pretty powerful thing.”

Memphis wrestling exploded. Shows that barely drew prior his arrival were now selling out. According to John Dougherty, a retired Memphis radio disc jockey, “When (Sputnik) came to Memphis, wrestling shows were averaging 300 people a night. By the time he started wrestling, 7,000 people were coming out to see him. He could’ve run for mayor and could’ve been elected. That’s how big he was in this town.”

Memphis sportscaster Johnny Black echoed the DJ, claiming, “If you would have had some kind of election about who was the best-known face in Memphis at that time – Sputnik, Elvis or the mayor – Sputnik would have been real close to Elvis.”

Thanks for reading Part 1 of a 2-part post on the legend of Sputnik Monroe. Tune in next Wednesday for the exciting conclusion, “same Bat-time, same Bat-channel”!

Memphis Wrestling History: Cards, Matches and Results 1970-1985

Rags, Paper and Pins: The Merchandising of Memphis Wrestling

Sputnik, Masked Men, & Midgets: The Early Days of Memphis Wrestling

Baby Doe: From Johannesburg, South Africa To Armourdale, Kansas?

Writer’s note: the following story concerns an arm of professional wrestling formerly, and, perhaps, currently in some areas, called midget wrestling. As we evolve as a people, so too does our language. The term ‘midget’ is not a medical term, nor was it ever recognized as an acceptable descriptor. Point of fact, the term was created by carny asshole P.T. Barnum and, as such, has no place here. Instead, I’ll be employing the use of the preferred terms ‘little person’ or ‘dwarf’. Far be it from me to tell anyone how to speak. I won’t, however, participate in language that is considered harmful by so many. Thanks very much and thanks for reading. – IFO 

From 1940 through 1948, Orville Brown was a top draw in the Midwest, working for the Midwest Wrestling Association and winning the promotion’s world title a record 11 times. When the National Wrestling Alliance was formed in 1948, Brown was recognized as the governing body’s first ever heavyweight champion, spending the next year working to unify the various world titles across the U.S. and winning the American Wrestling Alliance Heavyweight Championship from Frank Sexton in March of ‘49. Sexton had previously unified the AWA title (then considered the 2nd most important championship in the U.S.) with the Maryland version of the World Heavyweight Championship.

On November 1st, 1949, however, Brown’s in-ring career ended in tragic fashion. Around 1 AM in the morning, Brown and another wrestler were involved in a car crash in which his 1949 Cadillac sedan ran under a stalled tractor-trailer. The wreck forced the champion to relinquish the NWA World’s Heavyweight Title. Lou Thesz, then the National Wrestling Association World Champion, was awarded the championship, furthering the unification. Thesz would hold the championship for 2,300 days. Brown would begin promoting wrestling shows for the MWA, a role he would retain through 1958, until the promotion was taken over by Bob Geigel.

From Humble Beginnings, Come Great Things

In 1957, Brown commissioned famed Kansas City sportswriter Bill Grigsby to write the life story of two women wrestlers. One of the women, Baby Doe, was a dwarf from Johannesburg, South Africa and her tale reads like a pro wrestling odyssey. 

A Russian woman living in Egypt met a travelling seaman and a romance ensued. The coupled married, moved to Johannesburg and had a baby. Her real name was Anna Lee Brown, but for the purposes of this article she will be referred to by her wrestling name: Baby Doe. In 1948, at the age of 8 years old, Baby Doe survived a horrific car accident; her parents, however, would not be so lucky, resulting in the child being placed in an orphanage until the age of 16, at which time she was forced to leave the facility and strike out on her own. Up to that point, and because of her physical differences, she was treated like an oddity, picked on by other children and often forced to complete many of the menial tasks at the orphanage. However cruel the treatment, Baby Doe persisted, her resolve resulting in the acquisition of a great deal of physical strength and a tough-as-nails fighting style.

Homeless for the first time, Baby Doe wandered the streets of Johannesburg. One day, she found herself in front of the Johannesburg Palace of Sports and an idea came to her concerning a way to improve her lot in life while putting her muscles to good use. Happening upon a promoter inside the palace walls, Baby Doe inquired as to when the next elimination tournament for little people would take place. No such thing existed, but Baby Doe convinced the promoter with whom she was speaking of its merits. A tournament was arranged, advertising a week-long series of contests between 32 of the greatest small women wrestlers from all across the globe. Baby Doe won the whole tournament, setting her off on her wrestling journey that would next lead her to Lisbon, Portugal.

Stranger Than Fiction

In September of 1956, before a sellout crowd of 32,435 spectators in the Lisbon Palace of Sports, Baby Doe went toe to toe with the Women’s Little Person World Champion, Maria de Francisco, defeating the champion and becoming the “darling of European royalty”. After several months in Europe spent defending her championship, Baby Doe was booked for her first North America tour.

Her first show was set to take place in Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas. 

Wait, umm, Kansas?! 

Needless to say, Johannesburg to Lisbon to Kansas by way of European royalty is quite the odd travel itinerary. 

It’s made even odder by the fact the entire story is a complete fabrication. Yes, you read that right. Everything you’ve just read about Baby Doe is pure fiction straight from the mind of Bill Grigsby.

Turns out, Orville Brown not only tasked Grigsby to write the life story of Baby Doe, but also to create the life story of the champion wrestler from thin air. On January 3rd, 1957, Baby Doe entered the ring to wrestle Caroline Bennett, who herself had amassed quite the win-loss record across the Southwest. All was well until a man sitting ringside recognized Baby Doe from Armourdale, Kansas, a neighboring district in the lower part of the Kansas river valley. Despite his protestation, the match went off without incident.

Baby Doe’s star remained on the rise, to the point where Tommy Zaharias, retired wrestler, promoter and brother to George Zaharias, the husband of Olympian, LPGA champion golfer and Port Arthur, TX native, Babe Didrikson, actually kidnapped the women’s wrestling star away from Orville Brown to take on tour for his own monetary gain. So infuriated was Brown at the loss of his star, he filed a police report and a warrant was issued for Zaharias’ arrest. Thinking better of his decision, Zaharias sent Doe back to the Midwest, but not before getting her bookings to wrestle at the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, Tennessee and Jimmie Thompson’s Arena in Alexandria, Louisiana. In both matches, she defeated Caroline Bennett. 

And Then, Nothing

Little is known about Baby Doe after her return to the Midwest. She continued to wrestle through at least part of 1957, working a series of matches for Fred Kohler’s promotion in Chicago against the aforementioned Caroline Bennett, losing all three recorded matches. After April of ‘57, however, little else is known about the wrestler. Did she make her way back to Armourdale and walk away from wrestling? Did she continue wrestling under a different name for a time?

According to her niece, Carla Price, Baby Doe married a man by the name of Herbert Lloyd Beacham, had three children (all boys) and spent the rest of her years in the Kansas City area. Though little else is known about her career, one thing is certain: Baby Doe serves as a reminder that, in the weird, wonderful world of professional wrestling, the lines between fact and fiction are often drawn with invisible ink.

A Beauuutiful Life

As for Bill Grigsby, the man responsible for crafting Baby Doe’s tale, she would not be the only wrestler for whom he created a life story and character. Canadian wrestler Lionel Giroux was given the “Grigsby treatment”, adopting the character Little Beaver and becoming one of the top drawing little people in wrestling history. Haystacks Calhoun, born William Dee Calhoun of McKinney, TX was yet another wrestler created from the pen of the longtime Kansas City sportswriter. Calhoun remains one of the most recognizable “giants” in pro wrestling lore and traveled the globe for 30 years as a “special attraction”.

Wrestling Classics Volume 1 DVD

Wrestling Classics Volume 2 DVD

Wrestling Classics Vol 6: Midgets & Monsters DVD