Called The “Jackie Robinson Of The Wrestling Industry”, Sweet Daddy Siki Broke Down Walls And Became A Star

Ahahaha! You shoulda seen what the Cuban Assassin and I did to Archie Gouldie and Steven Pettipas last week! We beat ’em up so bad! Now they have the nerve to wanna have a street fight? Well, I’m gonna tell you one thing, Archie Gouldie: the Cuban and I grew up on street fights! – Sweet Daddy Siki

On March 23rd, 1985, Memphis television was treated to a surprise appearance by a charismatic man known around the wrestling world as Sweet Daddy Siki. A week earlier, the dastardly Tux Newman had helped Randy Savage steal the AWA Southern Heavyweight Title from Jerry “The King” Lawler; Sweet Daddy was brought in by Newman to ensure Savage held on to the belt. But a funny thing happened on the way from Point A to Point B: Newman got on the mic and referred to Siki as his “boy”.

Making his way to the interview area where Lawler, Newman and Lance Russell were arguing, Sweet Daddy turned on Tux, admitting though it might cost him his run in Memphis, no man was gonna call him “boy”. A bemused Lawler rolled with the apparent adlib, saying he’d talk to promoter Eddie Marlin and smooth everything over. Siki destroyed a contract Newman waved in his face, sending the manager running, then hopped in the ring in his street clothes and made short work of Mr. X, winning the crowd over in under a minute. Just like that, Sweet Daddy Siki, as he had in every other territory he ever worked, got himself over in a very big way.

California Dreamin’

Sweet Daddy got his start in the wrestling business in 1955 between the ages of 15-17 years old, working in New Mexico after being trained in California by Ray Ortega and multi-time regional champion Sándor Szabó. Around this time, he supposedly spent some time in the military fighting in the Korean War (calling into question his actual date of birth). The Montgomery, Texas native made his first trip to Canada in December of ‘56, foreshadowing a permanent move to the country. Still going by his real name, Reggie Siki, he spent much of the next year and a half splitting time between the Vancouver and Oregon territories, feuding with Nick Kozak for several months.

Siki made his way back to California during the summer of 1958, attending college for a time and working for NWA Los Angeles (also called NWA Hollywood). Cal and Aileen Eaton (the mother of Gene and Mike LeBell) founded the promotion under the banner of the NWA, but split from the governing body once it was discovered Cal hadn’t paid any NWA member dues since 1955. Siki was the NWA International Television Champion at the time of the renaming, holding the title for a little over three months before dropping it to Mr. Moto at the Olympic Auditorium.

At this time, Siki struggled to make ends meet. He was working, sure, but often for little to no money. He has said it wasn’t uncommon to eat from dumpsters and sleep outside due to a lack of funds.

Sweet Daddy Is Born

Shortly after his stint in California, Siki returned to Canada, working for Eddie Quinn’s NWA Montreal for a few months. This is a particularly important time in his history as it was when Reggie Siki began going by the name Sweet Daddy, the name by which he would come to be known across the wrestling world.

After a five month stay in Columbus, Ohio with the Midwest Wrestling Association, which started at the beginning of 1960, Sweet Daddy took his show on the road. Using Toronto as his base, the city he calls home to this day, Siki spent the next 19 months working in several territories, including Chicago, New York and the Carolinas. Sweet Daddy became a main event player, engaging in short feuds with legendary figures like Giant Baba, Eddie Graham and Mark Lewin, but it was a run of matches against one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time that would send his fame into the stratosphere.

The Nature Boy

By the summer of 1961, Sweet Daddy had already had several singles and tag matches with and against the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. The two men had a special chemistry in the ring together and Rogers was keenly aware of this fact. Because of their in-ring spark (and each man’s drawing power), on July 15, 1961, it is believed Sweet Daddy Siki became the first black man to wrestle for the Worlds Title.

The match, however, was not without controversy. Hearing about the event, the Ku Klux Klan showed up to protest. Threats were made, but Buddy and Sweet Daddy were undeterred. It would not be Siki’s only run-in with the Klan either, as him being married to a white woman elicited multiple threats from the hate group throughout his storied career.

The match with the “Nature Boy” wasn’t a one-off. Between July and October, Siki would have three more championship matches against Rogers, and though he’d come up short on each occasion, Siki didn’t need a belt to make him look like a star. The man had become bigger than any championship he could win.

Coming Home

Sweet Daddy’s run with Rogers led him back to Texas for a string of matches throughout the state. On February 22nd, 1963, with his status as a main event wrestler now etched in stone, he defeated Rip Hawk in Houston for the NWA Texas Heavyweight Championship. The two men wrestled again two weeks later at the “World Famous” Sportatorium in Dallas, this time in a Two out of Three Falls Match. Again, Sweet Daddy came out on top. This set up a run with the strap that lasted the entirety of his time in Texas (a little over two months), dropping it to his sometime tag partner Sailor Art Thomas before returning to Canada in April (but not before wrestling a 90 minute draw in Dallas against Lou Thesz, then the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion).

Coming Home (Again)

Back in his adopted home of Toronto, Sweet Daddy planted his flag, spending much of the next two years in Canada, working for Stu Hart’s Big Time Wrestling (also called Wildcat Wrestling and Stampede Wrestling) and Frank Tunney’s Maple Leaf Wrestling. During this stretch, Sweet Daddy became the biggest name in Canada. Bleaching his hair, donning sunglasses and elaborate capes and robes, Siki turned himself into “the ladies’ pet and the men’s regret”. According to Rocky Johnson, Siki was “the guy you loved to hate. The Muhammad Ali of that era” of pro wrestling.

Yet another NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship match took place for Siki during this era, when he battled Killer Kowalski in July of ‘64 in a Two out of Three Falls Match. Coming out on the losing end did nothing to cap his steam, however, as he remained a top draw throughout North America for the next several years, winning a handful of regional titles and feuding with the likes of Abdullah the Butcher, Bobo Brazil and Dave Ruhl. He even found time to record a couple of albums of country music hits and return to Stu Hart’s territory to wrestle a bear. The bear won both altercations.

Passing On His Knowledge

As Sweet Daddy got into his mid-forties, he began taking fewer and fewer bookings abroad, preferring to stay local and spend time singing with his country band and at his local karaoke bar. After a 2-month tour of Japan near the end of ’84, Sweet Daddy made his way to Memphis for his final big territory stay, his now infamous run in Jerry Jarrett’s CWA.

Back in Toronto, Siki had begun training new wrestlers as well. He opened a wrestling school with Canadian wrestling legend Johnny Powers called the Johnny Powers/Sweet Daddy Siki Academy of Professional Wrestling. Siki has quoted as saying, “We will teach you how to wrestle clean and we’ll teach you how to wrestle dirty”. One of his first students, Ron Hutchison, spent ’85-’86 as one of WWF’s main enhancement talents when the company ran shows in Canada. He wrestled matches against some of the biggest names of the era, including Bret Hart, Randy Savage, and “Mr. 1derful” Paul Orndorff.

With his in-ring career winding down, Siki partnered with Hutchison and opened another school called Sweet Daddy Siki and Ron Hutchison’s School of Wrestling. Even without the flashy robes and boisterous promos, he continued to give back to professional wrestling, having a hand in the training of WWE Hall of Famer Adam “Edge” Copeland. His work with Hutchison also led to the training of Christian, Trish Stratus, Gail Kim, Beth Phoenix, Traci Brooks and several others.

A Quiet (Unless He’s Singing) Legend

Sweet Daddy’s influence on the following generations cannot be overstated. His persona was everything guys like “Superstar” Billy Graham and Jesse “The Body” Ventura would emulate to becomes legends in their own right. Bret “Hitman” Hart has been open about his love and respect for “Mr. Irresistible”, saying, “When I was trying to find myself (as a wrestler), the first character I thought of was Sweet Daddy Siki.”

These days, the 80-year-old Siki is content to sing in his local karaoke bar and enjoy his “rocking years”. His bleached blonde hair remains, as do the massive shoulders for which he was famous. He’s a kind man, far more likely to give of himself than take from another, but make no mistake about it, a bigger-than-life heel remains inside of him. Throw one of his old capes around him or get him anywhere near a wrestling ring and Sweet Daddy is born again.

Death of the Territories

The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams

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Gino Hernandez’s Star Burned Bright, But His Vices Cost Him Everything

Chavo Guerrero, crying about how “I spent two years of my life away from my family to achieve winning this belt in Tokyo, Japan.” Well, Chavo, like the saying goes, “A fool loses tomorrow reachin’ back for yesterday”. So, Chavo, you’re an idiot and Paul Boesch, you’re an idiot for making me defend this title in a rematch! – Gino Hernandez

“Gorgeous” Gino Hernandez was everything a wrestling promoter could possibly want in ‘bad guy’. At 28 years old, he’d already spent close to a dozen years in professional wrestling, working in several territories as both a babyface and a heel. With “movie star” looks and charisma, coupled with a larger than personality and promos than were drenched in a brash cockiness, Gino had the look of the total package. What hid beneath the tanned exterior, however, was a man careening down a mountain at a million per hour with no control of the wheel.

I have previously mentioned that I grew up on World Class Championship Wrestling, the Dallas based promotion that harbored the legendary Von Erich family. Born in 1977, I came to know professional wrestling during a boom period for WCCW, witnessing, firsthand, the prime years of several legendary figures in Texas wrestling, including Kerry and Kevin Von Erich, The Fabulous Freebirds, “Iceman” King Parsons and the aforementioned Gino Hernandez.

I was jumping feet first into pro wrestling fandom round about the same time Gino was making his way back to WCCW from the Joe Blanchard-led Southwest Champion Wrestling out of San Antonio. Hernandez was was coming off main event runs in both San Antonio and Houston, including winning the Southwest Champion Wrestling tag team titles five times between 1981-’83 with another dastardly heel: future Four Horseman member Tully Blanchard. As “The Dynamic Duo”, Gino and Tully had bloody feuds with the likes of Dick Slater, Wahoo McDaniel, Junkyard Dog and Ken Lucas, and were the biggest draw in San Antonio.

The Neon Lights Of Dallas

When Gino resurfaced in WCCW in ‘84, he immediately made enemies of the crowd and resumed a feud with the Von Erichs that dated back to ‘78 when he warred with David Von Erich over the NWA Texas Heavyweight Championship. After David’s unfortunate death in Japan in February of ‘84, a tournament was held to crown a new heavyweight champion. Hernandez beat the “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair in the finals of the tournament, winning the championship and carrying it for 401 days. It was the 5th of his 6 reigns as Texas Heavyweight Champion.

During the last half of ‘84, he paired with Nickla Roberts (who not only had a childhood crush on Hernandez, but would go on to even greater fame as Baby Doll, the valet for his old tag partner, Tully Blanchard), the two got into a heated feud with Mike Von Erich and Sunshine, resulting in a series of mixed tag matches. This included a brawl between Gino, Nickla, Mike and Stella Mae French (with Sunshine in their corner) at WCCW’s first Wrestling Star Wars event at the Cotton Bowl on October 27th, 1984.

After dropping the heavyweight title to Brian Adias in September of ‘85., Gino concentrated on previously formed tag teams with both Jake “The Snake” Roberts and “Gentleman” Chris Adams. The three men also worked together in 6-man tag matches versus the Von Erichs, but it was the combination of Hernandez and Adams, the longtime popular babyface Brit turned superkicking bad guy, that truly captured the hate and vitriol of the Dallas crowds. Again using the name “The Dynamic Duo”, Gino fed off Adams, taking his cockiness to a whole new level. He and Adams (who previously had been embroiled in a hot feud with Kevin Von Erich) redoubled their efforts against the brothers, feuding with the family for the better part of 7 months.

The pair filmed interviews in custom suits, sitting in expensive sports cars and bragging about their extravagant lives. According to legendary manager “Playboy” Gary Hart, at least where Gino was concerned, it wasn’t an act: “Gino was the kind of guy that always drove the best cars, wore the best clothes, had the best watches and went with the best women”.

The Dynamic Duo’s time together culminated in a huge blow off at the Cotton Bowl, where they lost a Hair Match against Kerry and Kevin Von Erich. I still remember belly laughing at the sight of Hernandez being carried back into the ring to get his head shaved after he’d tried to escape. Shortly thereafter, the Dynamic Duo split, with Gino turning on Adams, ultimately blinding him with “Freebird hair cream”, a hair removal product used by “Freebird” Buddy Roberts in ‘83 during his feud with King Parsons.

Flying Too Close To The Sun

With Chris Adams a top babyface once again (and Hernandez as hot as ever as a heel), the stage was set for them to have a much needed big angle for WCCW. Business was down after David’s passing and the company needed a fresh, hot angle to goose the territory. Sadly, the feud never reached its apex. After missing a couple of house shows, several phone calls were placed to his apartment. On February 5th, 1986, after hearing nothing from Gino, booker David Manning sent World Class official Rick Hazzard to the wrestler’s apartment. After getting no answer at the door, Hazzard jumped a wall to look into a window on the bedroom side of the apartment. He saw a set of feet on the floor, peeking out from just beyond the bed. Calls were made and Hazzard, along with local law enforcement and Gino’s manager, Walter Aymen, entered the Highland Park apartment. Their worst fears became a reality; Gino Hernandez was dead. He was just 28 years old.

Initially, Hernandez’s death was treated as a homicide case. A loaded gun was found near Gino, but no drugs were found on site. Hazzard supposedly told Manning when he discovered Gino’s sugar bowl of cocaine, he flushed it before the police found it. Following the autopsy report, his death was ruled as an accidental cocaine overdose.

Telephone, Telegram, Tell-a-wrestler

In pro wrestling, however, nothing is cut and dry. Though it is true Gino’s issues with cocaine ultimately cost him his life, many within the industry weren’t convinced he’d overdosed. Kevin Von Erich has said Hernandez was convinced someone was trying to kill him, even going so far as to purchase a gun for protection. David Manning backs up Kevin’s claims, saying Gino told him he needed a gun because he was being followed.

“It wasn’t like it was a secret that Gino did drugs. From smokin’ dope to cocaine to uppers and downers; it was the ‘70s and ‘80s and we all did it (but) I never saw Gino Hernandez out of control on drugs,” said Bruce Prichard, who spent years with Gino working for Paul Boesch in Houston.

Gossip flew around with reckless abandon. One claim had Gino owing money on a gambling debt. Another rumor, and perhaps the most ridiculous, was that Chris Adams had killed Hernandez for blinding him. One rumor that seemingly had meat on the bone, however, was that Gino had gotten sideways with a Houston drug dealer. Gino’s mother, Patrice Aguirre, says she remembers when a man named John Royal came to her home and, in front of Gino’s sister said, “Gino owed me a lot of money, but don’t you worry about it. I’m gonna pay for his funeral.” Royal also spoke at Gino’s funeral, giving a eulogy Bruce Prichard has described as, “just weird”.

Furthering the suspicion of foul play, Gino’s apartment had a deadbolt on the front door which, according to Manning, Gary Hart and Aguirre, he always kept locked. Additionally, the coroner in charge of Gino’s autopsy reported the wrestler had five times the amount of cocaine in his system needed to kill him. The coroner’s report also stated Hernandez was Hispanic, morbidly obese and uncircumcised. None of these things were true. Aguirre and Gino’s ex-wife, Janice Bancroft, wondered if it was even Gino’s body the coroner had reviewed, ultimately deciding to not make waves out of fear for their families. Regardless, Aguirre maintains Hernandez’s death was no accidental overdose: “As a mother, I have a lot of questions that no one has ever answered for me.”

The Truth Will (Supposedly) Set You Free

John Royal, who in 2018 completed a 30 year sentence for drug trafficking disputes the claims he had anything to do with Hernandez’s murder, saying, “Gino didn’t owe me any money. I was with him until 1 o’clock in the morning the night he died. We were at a club and he was in a good mood, buying a lot of drinks and drinking a lot. I assume he was doing some drugs. Then he left with some airline stewardesses and that’s the last time I saw him alive.”

A fellow trafficker (who chose to remain anonymous) spoke to the creators of the show “Dark Side of the Ring” during the making of the documentary “The Mysterious Death of Gorgeous Gino”, stating he and Hernandez were part of a group of drug runners. Unfortunately, he said, he believes Gino’s own drinking and drug abuse got the best of him.

Fact is often stranger than fiction, but in this instance, odds are good Gino died exactly how the coroner said he died. Considering the times, it’s not all that shocking there are inaccuracies in the autopsy. Are Gino’s claims of being followed and of people wanting him dead legitimate? Perhaps, but it’s also just as likely he was suffering from cocaine psychosis and his paranoia stemmed from the increased drug abuse.

Are there plenty of unanswered questions? Of course, but one thing that isn’t up for questioning is Gino’s level of talent as a pro wrestler. In his short career, Hernandez main evented in Detroit, Houston, San Antonio, Japan and Dallas. Tully Blanchard has said he tried to get him to come to the Carolinas, where he undoubtedly would have found his way at or near the top of the card. He was just that good. As Gary Hart once said, “Gino was a lost soul, but was he was everything you could ever want (in a pro wrestler)”.

Randy Savage Unreleased: the Unseen Matches of the Macho Man

Getting Rowdy: the Unreleased Matches of Roddy Piper

Pre-hipster Portland Was A Pro Wrestling Mecca

The Pacific Northwest Championship is symbolic of heavyweight supremacy. Right now, I’ve got it and I’m damn proud of it! – Dutch Savage

Before Vince McMahon began his national push with the WWF, effectively killing the territory system, the Don Owen led Portland Territory was the hottest thing going on the West Coast throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Loaded with deep, talented rosters, Pacific Northwest Wrestling (PNW) was the highest rated local television weekly broadcast in the Portland area, running for 38 years.

In The Beginning…

PNW was started in 1925 by former Australian world middleweight and light heavyweight wrestling champion Ted Thye, who named Don Owen’s father, Herb as his assistant. While Thye was back in Australia, Herb Owen used some creative legal wrangling to have the promotion put exclusively in his name, wresting away ownership of the territory from the former champ. With Owen at the helm, the promotion started out focusing on boxing, even bringing in the legendary Jack Dempsey. Eventually, the move into professional wrestling was made, due at least in part to Herb’s sons, Don and Elton, both of whom had come aboard and began asserting their influence on the business.

One of the early rising stars for the Portland wrestling promotion was none other than a young George Wagner, who won both the Pacific Coast Light Heavyweight and Pacific Northwest Middleweight Championships during his 5+ years (1938-’43) in the territory. He would then move on to New York and become the most famous professional wrestler of that era: Gorgeous George.

After Herb Owen passed away in 1942, Don Owen took over the Portland Territory and began promoting pro wrestling exclusively in the Northwest. In 1948, Owen became one of the founding members of the National Wrestling Alliance, which established a single World Champion and acted as a governing body for wrestling companies in North America and Japan. It was during this time that the actual ‘territory system’ was created, with Don Owen controlling the Northwest.

Thanks in large part to Portland’s dedicated wrestling fans, Owen built PNW into the most popular event in the Northwest. This led to a solicitation from representatives of the Heidelberg Brewery in Tacoma, Washington, who visited Owen at his Springfield farm and offered him a sponsorship for a weekly television broadcast for his wrestling show. They were able to reach an agreement, but their timing on that particular day could not have been worse. As Owen recounted years later: “My clothes were all dirty and covered with manure. I told these guys, ‘I’m tired; I’ve been up all night with a sick cow. I haven’t got time for you.“

Despite the poor first impression, Heidelberg Wrestling (later renamed Portland Wrestling) went on the air in 1953, an hour-long weekly television show on KPTV which highlighted some of pro wrestling’s hottest talents, including “Tough” Tony Borne, Gory Guerrero & Luther Lindsay. Thus began the show’s aforementioned 38-year television run, split between two networks (KPTV and KOIN-TV), making it, at the time of its cancellation, the longest running non-news program on television.

Mad Dogs, Buckeyes And Bockwinkels, Oh My

Throughout the ‘60s, Owen continued to promote massive shows in both the Portland Memorial Coliseum and the Portland Sports Arena, the latter of which was a converted bowling alley purchased by Owen in 1968. The Portland Sports Arena also became the primary home of the PNW weekly telecast.

WWII veteran and 1950 Rose Bowl Champion Shag Thomas was given a chance in the wrestling business thanks to Don Owen and PNW. Owen didn’t believe in segregation and backed up his beliefs by putting the Heavyweight TItle around Thomas’ waist in 1960 and ‘66. Shag spent a decade in Portland, retiring in ‘69 after winning a total of 18 championships.

In 1962, Owen gave Maurice Vachon the nickname “Mad Dog”, a moniker he would use for the rest of his career. “During a match I went outside the ring and started to turn everything upside down. A policeman tried to stop me and I hit him too,” said Vachon. Afterwards Owen told him, “You just looked like a real mad dog out there.”

Between 1963 and 1964, Nick Bockwinkel made a splash in Portland, winning both the NWA Pacific Northwest Heavyweight and Tag Team Championships. It was in Portland where the future 4-time AWA World Champion would hone his craft and become one of the very best to ever step inside the squared circle. Also making his mark in the Northwest during the mid-60’s was Stan “The Man” Stasiak, who won the first of his six PNW Heavyweight Championships in 1965, leading to a streak of popularity in Portland than lasted for more than 15 years.

Jesse “The Body” Had Time To Bleed

Several future WWF stars of the ‘80s made big names for themselves with PNW in the ‘70s. Legendary names like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, “The Model” Rick Martel and Jesse “The Body” Ventura all held titles while in Portland, helping to make the territory one of the hottest of the era.

Portland was just the second promotion Jesse Ventura ever worked, arriving a year after leaving the Mongols, a San Diego-based outlaw motorcycle gang. Wrestling as Jesse “The Great” Ventura, the former Navy SEAL had extremely bloody feuds with 7-time PNW Heavyweight Champion Dutch Savage and “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka (another future WWF superstar), winning the Heavyweight Title on two occasions.

The popularity of the promotion during the ‘70s allowed Owen to expand into Washington, regularly running house shows promoted by Savage. The shows increased Owen’s hold on the Northwest and opened up new avenues to greater viewership and an even larger talent pool. During this era, “Playboy” Buddy Rose, one of the most underrated performers in wrestling history, began to take his place as the number one heel in the territory. From 1976 to 1985, Rose used his exceptional mic skills, coupled with his quality in-ring work, to become the most hated man in the Northwest. In addition to winning heavyweight and tag team gold a combined 20 times while in Portland, Rose was also highly respected by his peers for his ability to get them over with the crowd. In Roddy Piper’s autobiography, he credits Rose as the guy who got his name established in pro wrestling.

As the ‘70s turned into the ‘80s Rose’s hold on the Portland Territory remained strong. Between 1982-’83, “Playboy” is credited with having drawn more money than any other wrestler at any other time during the company’s long history. Not only was he wildly popular (hated) with fans, he also continued to get new talent over, working with the likes of Matt Borne (of Doink the Clown fame), pre-”Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig, Billy Jack Haynes (before he went off the rails) & “Iceman” King Parsons. Each man had money-making runs with Rose, angles which helped them take the next step in their careers with other promotions. Concerning Parsons, a good working relationship between Owen and Fritz Von Erich resulted in the biggest run of his career, after he and “Gentleman” Chris Adams were sent to work for World Class Championship Wrestling in Dallas.

The Rise Of The Machine

Unfortunately, the ‘80s also brought the talent raids perpetrated by Vince McMahon, who, after purchasing the WWF from his father, was hellbent on taking his flashier brand of pro wrestling nationwide. To do so, McMahon needed to substantially beef up his roster and introduce new, younger faces to the masses. The talent raids accomplished this goal while simultaneously weakening the territories, making McMahon’s takeover that much easier. The loss of so many top talents made it virtually impossible for the territories to remain on top, especially with WWF’s improved production value and overwhelming global reach.

Owen continued to run shows, even creating a few new stars along the way in Brian Adams (Crush of WWF fame), Art Barr and Scotty the Body (who would go on to much greater fame in ECW, WCW and WWF/E as Raven), but declining attendance (along with WWF’s national expansion and the loss of Tom Peterson’s, their main television sponsor) forced the Owen family to sell PNW to Sandy Barr in 1992. The Don Owen-owned PNW’s final television broadcast took place in December 1991. Shortly thereafter, it was replaced on KPTV by syndicated WWF programming.

Years later, Don Owen spoke about the end of his run, saying, “It was hard to end that tradition. But it was time to close up and get on with something else. And the talent pool was getting smaller with the big boys (WWF and WCW) taking it all.”

After The Fall

Sandy Barr continued promoting for five more years, before shutting down Championship Wrestling USA in ‘97. He retained the rights to the name until 2007 with various incarnations of the promotion, fronted by names like Len Denton, Don Coss, Ivan Kafoury and Roddy Piper, popping up here and there. None of them, however, were ever able to recapture the magic of the original PNW. Luckily for wrestling fans in Oregon and Washington, several independent promotions have since carved out a name for themselves, most notably DEFY Wrestling (est. 2017) and DOA Pro Wrestling (est. 2008).

Don Owen treated fans in the Northwest to more than six decades of entertaining pro wrestling, but likely got out of the wrestling game at the perfect time. At almost 80 years of age at the time of Sandy Barr’s acquisition of PNW, Owen knew the wrestling business was changing, quickly. After years away from the industry, he was asked his thoughts concerning the then-current pro wrestling product. Unsurprisingly, Owen was less than complimentary, saying, “Today’s wrestling really pains me. There’s no wrestling, just a lot of screaming and flying around.”

Portland Wrestling Vol. 4

Portland Wrestling Vol. 1

In Your Face: 1970s Portland Wrestling Documentary

Hulk Hogan And The Death Of The AWA

I am the people’s champion! They saw me beat Nick Bockwinkel! Just when I was ready to clamp down and take it home, Bobby Heenan interfered! Payback is due! – Hulk Hogan

By the late ‘80s, after years of declining interest, subpar rosters, and an inability to change with the times, the American Wrestling Association (AWA) was all but dead in the water, ultimately shutting down in 1991.

Did it have to be that way? Had Verne Gagne, rather than digging in his heels, gotten with the times (or hired someone to get with the times for him), would the AWA have had a puncher’s chance at not only surviving, but thriving into the ’90s and beyond?

When The AWA Thrived

From the early ‘60s into the late ’70s, the AWA was a very successful wrestling promotion. Verne Gagne, an amateur wrestler and alternate on the ‘48 U.S. Olympic Team not only ran the promotion, but was its most recognizable champion. From August 1960 to May 1981, Verne held the AWA World Title 10 times for a total of 4,677 days (almost 13 years), feuding with legendary names like Gene Kiniski, Larry “The Axe” Hennig and “The Crippler” Ray Stevens.

During that era, Gagne took his promotion from a local Minnesota show and expanded into several large markets, including Chicago, San Francisco, Denver and Las Vegas. His success in these areas made the AWA an extremely popular ticket, and his live shows regularly brought crowds by the thousands.

“I Want My MTV”

Then the Eighties happened. The “everything, all the time, right now” generation had no time for a long time. Don’t wanna sit through a 12 round fight? “Iron” Mike Tyson knocks everyone out in under three rounds! NBA games too slow? Have no fear, the “Showtime” Lakers are here!

Gone were the days when you could keep a kid’s attention for more than three minutes; Nintendo, Coca-Cola and Hostess made sure of that.

In the Sixties and Seventies, pro wrestling venues were smoke-filled, darkly lit and full of an older demographic. When the mid-’80s rolled around, young, loud and stuffed to the gills with cocaine and TV dinners, Verne wasn’t prepared.

Prior to Vince McMahon’s talent raids, the AWA boasted some of the biggest names in the business. Consider that in 1984, WWF’s number one babyface (and arguably the biggest draw in the history of the industry), Hulk Hogan, number one manager (and the greatest manager of all time), Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, number one color commentator, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, and number one announcer, “Mean” Gene Okerlund had all been, just a short time prior, under the employ of the AWA.

What if Verne had worked with someone capable of marketing Hogan the way Vince and the WWF were able to do for the better part of a decade? What if he’d played ball with Hogan on merchandising, rather than trying to strong-arm or steal from him by selling his shirts at shows while Hulk was away on a Japanese tour? What if he hadn’t gone out of his way to keep the belt off Hogan, actually going so far as to say he wasn’t good enough to carry the AWA Title? Finally, what if Verne hadn’t angered Hogan enough to where, once Vince came calling, he was more than willing to not only jump ship, but do so without finishing up his scheduled dates with the AWA, effectively killing most of the territory?

How much different does the first WrestleMania look without Hogan in the main event? Does WrestleMania I even take place without Hogan on the WWF roster?

Greg Gagne Wasn’t The Answer

Verne’s stubborn nature (Greg Gagne’s words, not mine) cost the promotion dearly when it came to the acquisition and retention of marketable talent, forcing the promotion to rely on burly animals like The Crusher and Mad Dog Vachon, men who could draw a promotion all kinds of money for much of the previous two decades, but were dinosaurs in the eyes of the glitzy ‘80s pro wrestling fan. Beer bellies and cigar breath simply wasn’t gonna cut it anymore.

Sure, the AWA still had a contingent of die hard wrestling fans, many of whom attended every local show possible, but selling a guy a program and a beer is a far cry from selling a guy a program and a beer, while selling his kids t-shirts, action figures and foam fingers. This is where I believe Gagne was greatly in need of someone to put a fresh set of hands on his product, and by ‘someone’ I don’t mean his son, Greg. If you need history to be told through the eyes of a blind man, call Greg. Otherwise…

Hulkamania Ran Wild…Away From Verne

Consider that had Hulk and Verne been able to work together the way Hogan ultimately did with Vince, the AWA would have been all but set (creatively, at least). In Nick Bockwinkel, Larry Zbyszko, Col. DeBeers and later, Curt Hennig, the AWA was loaded with main event level heel talent, all of whom had quality promo skills and could work circles around most in the ring. Hogan was a superhero, his job was to look unbeatable. Surrounding him with these four pros, men capable of bumping all around the ring for him while retaining every last bit of their heat, would have carried the promotion for years. And let’s not even get into the next wave of guys (Shawn Michaels, Scott Hall, Leon White aka Vader) that ultimately left the AWA for greener pastures…

Without Hogan, did Vince have the leverage to buy off television stations, preventing them from airing other promotions’ shows? Who was Vince’s second choice had Hogan not gone to New York? Would he have stayed in-house and tried to go national with Jimmy Snuka or Sgt. Slaughter? Would he have looked to another promotion, possibly WCCW and Kerry Von Erich? Neither Snuka nor Kerry had Hulk’s promo and Sarge didn’t have the jacked, “bigger than life” look Vince so coveted. Whatever he would have decided, the WWF roster would have looked (and sounded) decidedly different.

What Might Have Been For The AWA

If WCW taught us nothing else, it was that the market would bear two successful promotions. Even ECW, using mostly smoke and mirrors (and a lot of Vince’s kickback money) was able to thrive in the Nineties as a somewhat viable third promotion. Certainly, with proper management and greater attention to what fans wanted to see, the AWA could have just as easily been in this mix. Fans like having options, and history has proven time and again that with competition, all involved up their game making for a better overall product.

There is no doubt Verne Gagne should be remembered for all he did for professional wrestling. Not only did he run a successful promotion for more than 30 years, he also trained some of the biggest names the industry has ever known, including Iron Sheik, Ricky Steamboat, Curt Hennig and “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. His immense contributions to wrestling cannot be overlooked.

That’s what made his inability to move with the changing climate rather than becoming resistant to it so frustrating. Verne’s knowledge could have been useful to so many other future performers. Unfortunately, for him, for the fans, for the industry as a whole, it wasn’t meant to be.

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The Night Skandor Akbar Made Me Rich

Sign the contract, put yourself in that squared circle and prepare to get mashed, mauled and maimed, because the General is coming to town with Devastation, Incorporated! – “General” Skandor Akbar

I was 12 years old the first and only time my dad took me to the “World Famous” Sportatorium in Dallas. After having seen the World Class Championship Wrestling shows on television for so many years, and having only been to one other live wrestling event, a WCCW show at my 3rd grade gym in 1985, the idea of seeing guys like Kerry & Kevin Von Erich and “Gentleman” Chris Adams live and in person had me more than a little fired up.

I wish I could remember the exact date of the show but I do remember it was in 1989, very likely right before WCCW folded and was sold off to Jerry Jarrett and the USWA Promotion. I’d always been a huge Mid-South and World Class fan, always preferred the stiffer wrestling style to the more ‘Hollywood’ style the WWF was doing at that time, and I’d been pushing for my dad to take me to a show for years.

Walking up to the Sportatorium from the parking lot was eye-opening, to say the least, as it was nothing like how it was depicted on television. Located in the heart of Dallas, off Industrial Blvd., the legendary sports arena had fallen into a state of disrepair, a fact that did not go unnoticed by any of our travelling party. Once inside, our group, consisting of myself, my dad and a couple of his buddies (one of whom was former Texas Rangers catcher Geno Petralli) picked up a few beverages and some popcorn and took our seats about halfway up the bleachers. We also grabbed some french fries while at the concession stand, a particularly funny truth considering years later it was said that once the Sportatorium was closed and the fryers were finally emptied out, several rats were found stuck to the bottom, hidden from view by years of old, unchanged cooking oil. Regardless, those were tasty fries, and hey, I’m likely impervious to rabies!

Heatseekers In The Stands

As the matches got up and running, my dad and his buddies decided to cheer for all the heels, a decision that did not go over particularly well with the hardcore “rasslin’” fans in attendance. While I only recall a few of the wrestlers on the bill that night, I can remember quite clearly the old man sitting in front of us exclaiming, “You boys are booin’ the wrong guys. That can get you hurt around here.” This was real life to those fans; they were not playing around.

Some time passed, with all of us having a good go of it, laughing and booing and messing around with some of the other folks around us, most of whom actually proved to be good sports about the whole thing. Then Skandor Akbar walked to the ring, leading his stable, Devastation Inc.

Perhaps it was his gimmick that so incited the old school fans (and/or his penchant for throwing fireballs in the face of babyface wrestlers). Maybe it was little more than all those years he’d spent on the other side of the ring from “our boys”, The Von Erichs. Whatever it was, he was as hated as hated could be with the Dallas crowd. They legitimately despised him and he played it for all it was worth. As he stalked a path back and forth at ringside, chomping away on one of his cigars, the crowd took on an entirely different energy. It was at this moment that one of my dad’s buddies, himself a stogie chewer, said to me, “I’ll give you $50 if you’ll walk down there and hand that guy one of my cigars.” $50 was a weekend of mowing lawns in the hot Texas summer. He’d barely finished his sentence before I was on my way down the bleachers, cigar in hand.

That Was A Lot Of Food!

If you’ve never seen the layout around the ring of the old Sportatorium, there were no big, fancy barricades like what you might see at a WWE show; just a single piece of rope, strung up to separate the crowd from the wrestlers. So, I’m there by the rope trying my best to get Akbar’s attention, but of course, he’s paying me no mind because everyone else is yelling at him too. As the match continued on, Akbar began to pace back and forth, finally spotting me as he turned to say something to the crowd. When my eyes met his I held the cigar out and yelled, “It’s for you, take it.“ In one motion, he tossed away his old cigar, grabbed the one in my hand, bit a piece off the end and popped it in his mouth, before turning back around to yell at the referee in the ring.

I stood there for a moment, still shocked he’d actually taken the cigar, then turned to look up at my dad and his friends. What I saw, however, was not their smiling faces. Instead, I locked in on a very angry crowd, and they were all looking right back at me. A trickle of boos became a wave, which made me laugh, nervously. After a moment, thinking the worst had passed, I went to take a step back up the bleachers to my seat, only to find that step met with a beer shower, followed by the contents of what felt like the entire Sportatorium concession stand area. I was being pelted from all sides and I was honestly loving every second of it. There I was, a 12 year old kid, and for one night only, I had become the biggest heel in that wonderfully dilapidated old arena.

After a few seconds, the food throwing subsided and I made my way back up the bleachers to my dad and his friends. They all had a good laugh. The old man sitting in front of us had a nice laugh at my expense as well. The matches from that night have long since faded from my mind, a byproduct of time (and way too many “late nights”), but that moment with “The General” and the subsequent food bath I received for my treachery remains as fresh as any memory I hold dear.

That $50 spent pretty well, too.

Kerry Von Erich Texas Tornado T-shirt

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Today’s Heels Could Learn A Lot From Larry Zbyszko

I am Professional Wrestling’s living legend. I don’t care about you people, Billy Robinson or his Empire Championship. 1001 holds? I have 1001 records from coast to coast! I am number one! — “The Living Legend” Larry Zbyszko

I absolutely loathed “The Living Legend” Larry Zbyszko when I was a kid. He was smug, a braggart, cheated each and every time the opportunity presented itself, and topped it all off by never running out of things to say to make fans despise him. In short, he was one of the greatest wrestling heels in the history of ever and doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his genius.

Underrated Genius

I’ve been watching pro wrestling for over 30 years and during that time, I’ve seen few wrestlers I’ve wanted to choke more than Larry Zbyszko. Yet, when it comes time to start naming some of the greatest bad guys to ever lace up the boots, fans and experts alike are quick to throw out names like “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.

Both men entertained me for more hours than I could ever begin to count, but as great as they were, they each retained the same redeeming quality: Ric and Roddy were hilarious. Sure, they did some awful things, but they were almost so charming in how terrible they were being, I couldn’t help rooting for them. With Larry Zbyszko, that sort of thing was never an issue. I never did anything but hate that dude and I’m quite sure he’d be pleased to know that.

No Cheering, Spudhead!

There simply wasn’t a thing about Larry that made you cheer for him. He wasn’t a cool “shade of gray”, he wasn’t trying to impress the crowd with his wit and in-ring ability; he was just a complete prick.

Watching Larry’s old matches now, I marvel at how well he worked a crowd. When I was a kid, I wanted to punch him in the face every single time he’d stall on the outside of the ring, roll back in, then roll right back out to stall some more. It was infuriating stuff.

So good was he at being a heel, I’ve heard there were even wrestlers who would get angered at his in-match antics. When you’re getting the guy in the ring with you to lose it, you’re really doing work!

Zbyszko did everything he could to be a despicable human being, and regardless of how ‘smart’ you thought you were to the business, he still found a way to reel you in.

Old School Will Always Be Cool

I’m a bit too young to have seen “The Living Legend” in the WWWF, but his feud with Bruno Sammartino is legendary. Universally abhorred (with heat as white hot as you can get it), Zbyszko really took off when he turned on the popular babyface and mentor Sammartino, attacking him with a chair, leaving him bloody and broken in front of a sea of hardcore Bruno fans. This set the stage for a feud that accounted for many sell out crowds throughout 1980, culminating in their most famous match together, the Shea Stadium Steel Cage Match in which Bruno finally got his revenge in front of more than thirty six thousand fans.

I’m most familiar with Larry Legend’s work in the AWA and NWA/WCW. As a kid growing up in East Texas, I was afforded a good many wrestling options on my television each week. Everything from World Class to Mid-South, WWF to NWA could be seen weekly thanks to superstations like USA and TBS, and a local channel out of Dallas, KXTX.

When you consider the talent those promotions sported during the early to late-80’s, it’s more than a little overwhelming. Many of the all-time greats were plying their craft at the highest of levels then, and I had the honor of seeing them all.

I got up close to The Freebirds, Jimmy Garvin, The Four Horsemen, Bobby Heenan, and countless other heels, but none of them elicited a hate from me like the hate I felt when I watched Larry Zbyszko. If you’ve never yelled at your television screen, then you don’t really know how much fun it can be to get totally taken in by a wrestling bad guy. Larry Zbyszko was that guy for me.

Larry Legend Is The Measuring Stick

I wonder, if more of today’s wrestlers were willing to go that extra mile at being a heel and placed more emphasis on being legitimately hated, could wrestling reclaim a bit of what’s been lost since fans decided it was cooler to be a jerk than to be a superhero?

I know times have changed, but I still say there’s a place for the bad guy who just wants to be a loathsome character. Baron Corbin is doing a great job being just that, although wrestling fandom has changed so dramatically, I’m not sure he’ll ever truly be appreciated for his level of brilliance.

Perhaps, it’s just a sign of the times, but I believe many of today’s wrestlers would do themselves an enormous favor by going back and watching as much of Larry Zbyszko’s work as they can possibly find.

The WWE might not ever go out of its way to tell the ‘Universe’ how amazing “The Living Legend” was, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t.

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