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

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

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

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

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

The Neon Lights Of Dallas

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

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

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

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

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

Flying Too Close To The Sun

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

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

Telephone, Telegram, Tell-a-wrestler

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

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

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

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

The Truth Will (Supposedly) Set You Free

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

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.