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.”

Advertisements

Baby Doe: From Johannesburg, South Africa To Armourdale, Kansas?

Writer’s note: the following story concerns an arm of professional wrestling formerly, and, perhaps, currently in some areas, called midget wrestling. As we evolve as a people, so too does our language. The term ‘midget’ is not a medical term, nor was it ever recognized as an acceptable descriptor. Point of fact, the term was created by carny asshole P.T. Barnum and, as such, has no place here. Instead, I’ll be employing the use of the preferred terms ‘little person’ or ‘dwarf’. Far be it from me to tell anyone how to speak. I won’t, however, participate in language that is considered harmful by so many. Thanks very much and thanks for reading. – IFO 

From 1940 through 1948, Orville Brown was a top draw in the Midwest, working for the Midwest Wrestling Association and winning the promotion’s world title a record 11 times. When the National Wrestling Alliance was formed in 1948, Brown was recognized as the governing body’s first ever heavyweight champion, spending the next year working to unify the various world titles across the U.S. and winning the American Wrestling Alliance Heavyweight Championship from Frank Sexton in March of ‘49. Sexton had previously unified the AWA title (then considered the 2nd most important championship in the U.S.) with the Maryland version of the World Heavyweight Championship.

On November 1st, 1949, however, Brown’s in-ring career ended in tragic fashion. Around 1 AM in the morning, Brown and another wrestler were involved in a car crash in which his 1949 Cadillac sedan ran under a stalled tractor-trailer. The wreck forced the champion to relinquish the NWA World’s Heavyweight Title. Lou Thesz, then the National Wrestling Association World Champion, was awarded the championship, furthering the unification. Thesz would hold the championship for 2,300 days. Brown would begin promoting wrestling shows for the MWA, a role he would retain through 1958, until the promotion was taken over by Bob Geigel.

From Humble Beginnings, Come Great Things

In 1957, Brown commissioned famed Kansas City sportswriter Bill Grigsby to write the life story of two women wrestlers. One of the women, Baby Doe, was a dwarf from Johannesburg, South Africa and her tale reads like a pro wrestling odyssey. 

A Russian woman living in Egypt met a travelling seaman and a romance ensued. The coupled married, moved to Johannesburg and had a baby. Her real name was Anna Lee Brown, but for the purposes of this article she will be referred to by her wrestling name: Baby Doe. In 1948, at the age of 8 years old, Baby Doe survived a horrific car accident; her parents, however, would not be so lucky, resulting in the child being placed in an orphanage until the age of 16, at which time she was forced to leave the facility and strike out on her own. Up to that point, and because of her physical differences, she was treated like an oddity, picked on by other children and often forced to complete many of the menial tasks at the orphanage. However cruel the treatment, Baby Doe persisted, her resolve resulting in the acquisition of a great deal of physical strength and a tough-as-nails fighting style.

Homeless for the first time, Baby Doe wandered the streets of Johannesburg. One day, she found herself in front of the Johannesburg Palace of Sports and an idea came to her concerning a way to improve her lot in life while putting her muscles to good use. Happening upon a promoter inside the palace walls, Baby Doe inquired as to when the next elimination tournament for little people would take place. No such thing existed, but Baby Doe convinced the promoter with whom she was speaking of its merits. A tournament was arranged, advertising a week-long series of contests between 32 of the greatest small women wrestlers from all across the globe. Baby Doe won the whole tournament, setting her off on her wrestling journey that would next lead her to Lisbon, Portugal.

Stranger Than Fiction

In September of 1956, before a sellout crowd of 32,435 spectators in the Lisbon Palace of Sports, Baby Doe went toe to toe with the Women’s Little Person World Champion, Maria de Francisco, defeating the champion and becoming the “darling of European royalty”. After several months in Europe spent defending her championship, Baby Doe was booked for her first North America tour.

Her first show was set to take place in Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas. 

Wait, umm, Kansas?! 

Needless to say, Johannesburg to Lisbon to Kansas by way of European royalty is quite the odd travel itinerary. 

It’s made even odder by the fact the entire story is a complete fabrication. Yes, you read that right. Everything you’ve just read about Baby Doe is pure fiction straight from the mind of Bill Grigsby.

Turns out, Orville Brown not only tasked Grigsby to write the life story of Baby Doe, but also to create the life story of the champion wrestler from thin air. On January 3rd, 1957, Baby Doe entered the ring to wrestle Caroline Bennett, who herself had amassed quite the win-loss record across the Southwest. All was well until a man sitting ringside recognized Baby Doe from Armourdale, Kansas, a neighboring district in the lower part of the Kansas river valley. Despite his protestation, the match went off without incident.

Baby Doe’s star remained on the rise, to the point where Tommy Zaharias, retired wrestler, promoter and brother to George Zaharias, the husband of Olympian, LPGA champion golfer and Port Arthur, TX native, Babe Didrikson, actually kidnapped the women’s wrestling star away from Orville Brown to take on tour for his own monetary gain. So infuriated was Brown at the loss of his star, he filed a police report and a warrant was issued for Zaharias’ arrest. Thinking better of his decision, Zaharias sent Doe back to the Midwest, but not before getting her bookings to wrestle at the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, Tennessee and Jimmie Thompson’s Arena in Alexandria, Louisiana. In both matches, she defeated Caroline Bennett. 

And Then, Nothing

Little is known about Baby Doe after her return to the Midwest. She continued to wrestle through at least part of 1957, working a series of matches for Fred Kohler’s promotion in Chicago against the aforementioned Caroline Bennett, losing all three recorded matches. After April of ‘57, however, little else is known about the wrestler. Did she make her way back to Armourdale and walk away from wrestling? Did she continue wrestling under a different name for a time?

According to her niece, Carla Price, Baby Doe married a man by the name of Herbert Lloyd Beacham, had three children (all boys) and spent the rest of her years in the Kansas City area. Though little else is known about her career, one thing is certain: Baby Doe serves as a reminder that, in the weird, wonderful world of professional wrestling, the lines between fact and fiction are often drawn with invisible ink.

A Beauuutiful Life

As for Bill Grigsby, the man responsible for crafting Baby Doe’s tale, she would not be the only wrestler for whom he created a life story and character. Canadian wrestler Lionel Giroux was given the “Grigsby treatment”, adopting the character Little Beaver and becoming one of the top drawing little people in wrestling history. Haystacks Calhoun, born William Dee Calhoun of McKinney, TX was yet another wrestler created from the pen of the longtime Kansas City sportswriter. Calhoun remains one of the most recognizable “giants” in pro wrestling lore and traveled the globe for 30 years as a “special attraction”.

Wrestling Classics Volume 1 DVD

Wrestling Classics Volume 2 DVD

Wrestling Classics Vol 6: Midgets & Monsters DVD

Pre-hipster Portland Was A Pro Wrestling Mecca

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

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

In The Beginning…

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

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

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

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

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

Mad Dogs, Buckeyes And Bockwinkels, Oh My

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

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

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

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

Jesse “The Body” Had Time To Bleed

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

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

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

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

The Rise Of The Machine

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

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

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

After The Fall

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

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

Portland Wrestling Vol. 4

Portland Wrestling Vol. 1

In Your Face: 1970s Portland Wrestling Documentary