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.”

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

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Colonel DeBeers Was A Lot Of Things, But A Shade Of Gray Wasn’t One Of Them

I wanna get to the heart of my complaint against dirty sports in America: the use and abuse of anabolic steroids by Scott Hall! The man has obviously overstepped his bounds and he is dirty, filthy and eaten up with anabolic steroids! – Colonel DeBeers

On November 12, 1988, WCWA Heavyweight Champion, “The Modern Day Warrior” Kerry Von Erich put his title on the line against the hated AWA heel, Colonel DeBeers, in Las Vegas, Nevada. At some point during the match, DeBeers managed to lock onto Kerry’s right boot, and as he’d done hundreds of times before, the colonel gave the babyface opponent’s leg a nice twist. However, when Von Erich’s boot came completely off, revealing nothing but a stump below his ankle, DeBeers knew this was something entirely different from all the other times he’d applied an ankle lock. Immediately, he turned his confusion towards the referee while Kerry rolled under the ring and reattached his boot. 

Two and a half years prior, Von Erich had been involved in a horrific motorcycle accident that, ultimately, resulted in the amputation of his right foot. A prosthetic was made which allowed him to continue to wrestle, but virtually no one in the business knew of his amputation. Based on his reaction, Colonel DeBeers was most certainly not one of the few people “in the know”.

Almost surprisingly, this would not be the craziest thing Colonel DeBeers would be involved in during his 20+ year wrestling career.

What’s A Wiskoski?

I’ve previously written about the American Wrestling Association and the wealth of top tier heel wrestlers the company had its disposal in the ‘80s and early-’90s, scribbling at length on their greatness and need for a transcendent babyface to keep the company relevant as Vince McMahon went national and began steamrolling over the ‘Territory System’.

Casual fans of pro wrestling know names like Nick Bockwinkel, “The Living Legend” Larry Zbyszko, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and The Nasty Boys. Bockwinkel became the face of the AWA, while the other men I’ve mentioned spent large swaths of time on the national stage with the WWE/F and/or WCW. One heel that often falls through the cracks when discussing AWA heels, however, was regional bad guy, Colonel DeBeers, who, during a time when pro wrestling was fighting to become more “kid friendly”, doubled down on “evil” to the point where some have argued he went too far.

DeBeers got his start in 1973 and was trained by Lord Littlebrook and Harley Race. Wrestling under his real name, Ed Wiskoski, he spent several years working in Florida and the Midwest, winning several regional titles, including the NWA Central States Championship in ‘75. As champion, he turned himself into a big enough draw around Iowa, Kansas and Missouri that it landed him an opportunity to face Terry Funk, then the NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion in a Two Out of Three Falls Match. He came up one fall short, but Wiskoski was off and running. 

After a month-long tour of Japan with AJPW, Wiskoski moved on to the Northwest, working the next two years (summer of ‘77 – summer of ‘79) for Don Owen and his Pacific Northwest Wrestling promotion. There he formed a formidable tag team with “Playboy” Buddy Rose, winning the PNW Tag Team Titles on several occasions. He also added two PNW Heavyweight Championship reigns to his wrestling resumé, feuding with Portland legend Dutch Savage.

In close proximity to San Francisco, Wiskoski also worked for Big Time Wrestling, winning the NWA San Francisco U.S. Title and tagging with Rose and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper to capture the NWA San Francisco World Tag Team Championships three times. 

During the five years that followed, Wiskoski went on a territory-hopping tour that would land him back in the Midwest and Florida, and also New York, Mid-South, Canada and Germany. He even found his way back to Portland for another main event run, working part of the time under the name Mega Maharishi Imed, but in February of ‘86, he joined the AWA, taking on the new name and character that would make him more infamous than famous.

The Face Of Evil In The AWA

In the mid-’80s, the race-related political unrest in South Africa was a regular topic of discussion on the nightly news. The apartheid system enforced racial discrimination, separating people based on their race and features. Wiskoski, assuming the name Colonel DeBeers, the “heir to the De Beers Diamond Mines”, became the pro wrestling embodiment of everything that was appalling about the racial segregation that had been a fixture in South Africa for centuries.

For the first few months in the AWA, he wrestled against the likes of The Midnight Rockers, Brad Rheingans and Wahoo McDaniel, earning the hate of every last fan that watched him wrestle. But it was his blood feud with the legendary “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka that turned him into the most hated man in the Minnesota-based promotion. In July of ‘86, Snuka was one of the biggest babyfaces in pro wrestling. Having worked all across the U.S., Jimmy was known far and wide and for a time in the mid-’80s was widely considered the most popular WWF wrestler not named Hulk Hogan.

Dialing up his hateful rhetoric, DeBeers tapped into something beyond heat, grabbing the fans hook, line and sinker. Snuka would prevail in their series of matches, but the colonel turned himself into pro wrestling’s face of racism, a heat-seeking endeavor that not only kept him in the wrestling magazines (then a primary method for a fans to learn about wrestlers outside their region), but also under the employ of the AWA for over four years.

Goin’ Goin’ Back Back To Cali

Shortly after the demise of the AWA, Herb Abrams’ California-based UWF came into existence. Flawed as it was, it was still a place to work and DeBeers was one of the veterans signed for the first series of television tapings. The first televised show from Abrams’ UWF aired on September 24th, 1990 and the pro-Apartheid heel wasted no time in infuriating every last person possible. After spending close to two decades in the wrestling industry, the man was an expert on garnering attention from a crowd, and the brand new promotion for which he was employed needed just that.

Entering the ring prior to his match with Billy Jack Haynes, DeBeers turned his attention to referee Larry Sampson, a black man, and bellowed, “I will not have a black man refereeing my matches”! Just like that, everyone in the building hated the Colonel’s guts. This led to even more heat with fans after he tried to attack the very same referee a few shows later, leading to a short feud with another major regional name of that era: “Iceman” King Parsons. Though the UWF’s run was marred with failure, the colonel remained one of the few bright spots. He was detestable and reviled; he was everything he was trying to be.

Smart, not “smart”

Over the years, it’s been debated that Col. DeBeers went too far with some of his promos and actions. Some say he did more damage with his words than he did good in trying to parody this type of evil character. In my youth I watched Baron Von Raschke goose-step around a ring, Randy Savage damn near murder Ricky Steamboat by crushing his windpipe and Abdullah the Butcher carve up every last babyface hero I ever had. All these men worked to make you and me feel something more than that which can be expressed by simply booing. They needed our hearts.

DeBeers went down the same road as these men and when such a road is traveled, there are likely going to be times when a line or two is crossed. Did he go too far? Perhaps, but I miss the days when promotions thought enough of their fans to know we’d be smart enough (no, not “smart” enough) to hate the right wrestlers. The color gray is as boring as can be. The Colonel DeBeers character was a lot of things, but it was never a shade of gray.

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Wendi Richter And The Swerve That Set The WWE Women’s Division Back Three Decades

Moolah has seen her day. They couldn’t even put her face on a can of dog food to sell it and she knows it! – Wendi Richter

Captain Lou Albano was on a plane to New York, headed back from Puerto Rico. The longtime wrestling manager struck up a conversation with the people sitting next to him on the flight, talking shop and discussing ways they could work together on something. The two people, 2-time Grammy Award Winner Cyndi Lauper (who was on the cusp of releasing the smash record She’s So Unusual) and her manager, David Wolff, enjoyed Albano’s banter and seemed interested in seeing what might come of a working relationship.

When it came time to do a video for the first single off the record, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Albano was cast as her stepdad. The song was massive, reaching #1 in 10 countries (including the U.S.), leading to a partnership with the World Wrestling Federation that set off the “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling” era, a boom period for wrestling seen just one other time since.

At the same time, 23-year-old Wendi Richter had just re-signed with the WWF after stints in Japan, the AWA, Mid-South and Stampede. Now a 4-year veteran of several territories, she was being brought back to the WWF, thanks in no small part to her former trainer, Lillian Ellison, aka The Fabulous Moolah, the longest reigning wrestling champion in the history of the business.

“Rock ‘n’ Wrestling”, however, was about to put the women at odds in a very big way, leading to one of the biggest feuds, and, ultimately, shoot matches in the history of North American women’s pro wrestling.

She Bop

Wendi Richter first broke into pro wrestling in 1979 at the age of 18 when she joined the Lillian Ellison School of Professional Wrestling, making her in-ring debut the same year. At 5’8” and “150 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal”, Richter came by bookings easily (provided Moolah allowed it). At that time, women’s wrestling ran almost entirely through The Fabulous Moolah. She controlled bookings and paydays, meaning she also controlled how much money ended up in her pocket prior to the other women receiving their money. Her upfront rate was 25%, but Richter always assumed she kept more.

Wendi had extended runs in several Midwest and Deep South territories, often working with Joyce Grable, the pair twice teaming up to win the NWA Women’s Tag Team Championship. A 2-week booking in New York in the Spring of ‘82 (including a tag match in Madison Square Garden with Moolah as her partner) gave Richter a taste of the WWF. After spending the remainder of the year working all across the U.S. and Canada, the Dallas, Texas native made her way back to New York just after Christmas, finishing out the year with five tag team wins with Moolah again as her partner.

Her star on the rise, Richter signed a deal with Vince McMahon in late-’83, finished up her bookings and joined the WWF roster in late-March of ‘84, immediately teaming up with Peggy Lee, a fellow student of Moolah’s school. Three weeks later, on April 19th, she had a Dark Match vs. Moolah for the women’s title. She lost, but the message was clear: Richter was about to get pushed to the moon.

Money Changes Everything

When Richter signed with McMahon, she told him her pay was to go directly to her, not Moolah. Vince agreed, cutting off one of Moolah’s major streams of revenue. Wendi Richter was on the verge of becoming a breakout star and with the help of MTV and Cyndi Lauper, Vince McMahon had designs on making her the Hulk Hogan of women’s wrestling. Using MTV’s growing mainstream appeal, the WWF shot Richter out of a cannon, featuring her in vignettes with Cyndi Lauper promoting her July 23rd Main Event bout with The Fabulous Moolah on a show that would air on the music channel called “The Brawl To End It All”. The program drew a 9 share, meaning 9% of all televisions in the U.S. tuned in to see Wendi Richter become the new WWF Women’s Champion. The match was a massive success for MTV, the WWF and women’s wrestling. Everyone involved was ecstatic. Well, everyone involved except Moolah (despite the massive payday from Vince).

By putting Richter over, without complaint, she, according to legendary wrestling manager Jim Cornette, “got Vince McMahon’s loyalty for life”, but Richter tells a different tale. “Moolah was jealous of me because I was younger than her,” said Richter. “When I won that championship, everyone was up on their feet and cheering. Someone had finally beaten her after 28 years.”

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Wendi and Moolah wrestled no fewer than 20 more times over the next three months with Richter winning each time. The Women’s Champion had become a household name and was a featured wrestler on WWF merchandise, reigning supreme for seven months. Richter, however, didn’t believe she was being paid like a champion. “The men were being paid far more than the women, but I was the only one saying anything,” said Richter.

“Every time I saw (Vince) I brought up payoffs,” she would later say. “I wasn’t ugly or yelled or anything like that. I always told him, ‘Vince, I need to make more. I’m not bringing home enough to justify being on the road like this.’”

McMahon, in an effort to take Wendi down a peg, took the title off her, Richter losing it to another one of “Moolah’s girls”, Leilani Kai, whom also had a hand in training Richter. The women wrestled 8 more times prior to the first WrestleMania with Kai winning 7 of the matches. Leilani, however, was not going to be the face of women’s wrestling, not in Vince McMahon’s eyes, at least. Having served her time in Vince’s doghouse, Richter (w/ Cyndi Lauper in her corner) was given another run with the WWF World Women’s Title, defeating Kai (w/ Moolah in her corner) at WrestleMania I.

Wendi again held the title for seven month, defeating Kai and Moolah on multiple occasions. She was the biggest name in women’s wrestling, but still didn’t feel like she was being paid accordingly. Without Moolah in her corner, Richter was on an island. Yes, she was talented and gorgeous and everything McMahon wanted in a women’s champion. She was also making too many waves at a time when Vince was positioning Hulk Hogan as the face of the industry. Unable to come to terms on a new contract, a decision was made to take the belt off Richter, this time for good.

True Colors

Penny Mitchell became a professional wrestler in 1982. Yet another of Moolah’s “girls”, she was booked in several territories, gaining experience and honing her skills. The WWF was one of the territories she worked, signing with the promotion on a full-time basis in July of ‘84. Less than a year into her WWF run, Mitchell was repackaged as The Spider Lady, working under a mask to conceal her identity. The new look put her on a collision course with Wendi Richter, the two women engaging in a month-long feud that reached its apex on November 25th, 1985.

Before a capacity crowd in Madison Square Garden, The Spider Lady was getting her shot at the title against the recently unbeatable Richter. In those days, heels and babyfaces still dressed in separate locker rooms. When The Spider Lady entered the ring, that was the first time Richter had seen her that day, but after having worked with her eight times prior to this night, she knew something seemed off. Penny Mitchell was the same size as the champion. The woman standing across the ring was noticeably shorter. “I knew at that time I’ve gotta protect myself,” said Richter. 

When the bell rang, Richter repeatedly went for The Spider Lady’s mask, trying to remove it. The quality of the contest sailed downhill quickly. When The Spider Lady finally got the champ in a pinning predicament, everything went off the rails. “The referee counted ‘1’, I kicked out, had my shoulder up and he counted ‘2, 3,’” said Richter. The now former champion had just been swerved, but things were about to go from bad to worse.

Knowing she’d been double crossed, Wendi Richter went for The Spider Lady’s mask, ripping it off her head and revealing The Fabulous Moolah. Grabbing her by the hair as Moolah attempted to run away, Richter went into a series of odd-looking work/shoot moves, throwing the new (old) champion around the ring, slamming her down to the mat, then hooking and pinning her in much the same way Moolah had just done her. 

Furious, the former champion left the ring and went back to the locker rooms, searching for McMahon. When no one would tell her where he was, she grabbed her things, left the arena for the airport and didn’t return to the WWF/WWE until 2010, when she was inducted into the company’s Hall of Fame.

Change Of Heart

Richter disappeared from the wrestling business for a time, resurfacing on the Independent scene in ‘87. She also worked for WWC in Puerto Rico and the AWA, winning those promotions version of the women’s title. Her feud with Madusa Miceli in late-’88/early-’89 was one of the hottest angle going in the AWA during that time. By the end of ‘89, however, Wendi Richter was all but done with professional wrestling.

It’s impossible not to wonder what might’ve been for women’s wrestling had Richter continued working for the WWF. Would she have become the Hulkster of the division? Would Hollywood have come calling the way it did for Hogan? What would a feud between Wendi and Sensational Sherri have looked like? What about Wendi and Madusa on the WWF stage?

Richter was the “chosen one”. Had she and Vince been able to reach an agreement and continued to build the division, I can’t help but think we might have been able to avoid the six and a half years (2/21/90-12/12/93, 12/13/95-9/14/98) the women’s championship title was either deactivated or simply forgotten.

Regardless, the former 6-time women’s champion is fine with how everything turned out. “It changed my career; it changed my life,” said Richter concerning her ending in the WWF. Speaking to Sean Mooney on his Primetime with Sean Mooney podcast, she would go on to say, “I started going to college and I just thank the Lord that I did that. I make far more (as a physical and occupational therapist) than I ever made in wrestling and I get to sleep in my own bed. I couldn’t have that when I was wrestling on the road.”

Oh, and what became of Penny Mitchell? She wrestled for another two years, but never again as The Spider Lady.

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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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