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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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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