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.”