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

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

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

A White Hat Rides Into Town   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blow Off

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

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

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

Deep In The Heart Of Texas

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

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

Going Home Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diamond Ring And Cadillac Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rise Of Sputnik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rags, Paper and Pins: The Merchandising of Memphis Wrestling

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