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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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.

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