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”!