The Weight Of Family Legacy: The All Too Short Life Of Mike Von Erich

Michael Hayes, I came here just for an interview, but I have my stuff in the back and if you want someone to wrestle, I’ll wrestle you. – Mike Von Erich

On June 18th, 1983, the legendary Kerry Von Erich married Catherine Murray. After spending their honeymoon in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the couple returned to Dallas as Kerry was set to wrestle “Gorgeous” Jimmy Garvin and Michael “P.S.” Hayes on back-to-back nights. Von Erich was stopped by U.S. Customs on a routine check where 18 unmarked pills were found in his pants pockets. An additional search found Kerry had hidden around 300 more pills, 10 grams of marijuana and 6 ½ grams of an undetermined “blue and white powder” in the crotch of his pants. Though a federal crime, he was arrested and taken to a local jail where, miraculously, every bit of evidence against him disappeared.

18 months later, with no evidence with which to prosecute, all charges against Kerry were dropped.

Having built his family up on the foundation of “God, country and family values” in the eyes of the public, Fritz Von Erich wasn’t about to let anything get in the way of the family business, much less a silly drug bust.

Kerry had escaped prosecution, but this was the first sign that all was not well in Von Erich Camelot. Within four years, it had all fallen apart.

Neon Knights

In the early-to-mid-’80s, the only thing in North Texas that could top the unbridled love for the Von Erichs was that which was felt for the 2-time Super Bowl Champion Dallas Cowboys. By the end of ‘83 though, the Cowboys would have finished their season by losing three consecutive games (including a Wildcard Playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams), signalling the end of an almost 2-decade run of NFL dominance. Dallas is a front-running town; there’s no such thing as a “lovable loser” in DFW. In need of a new “winner”, North Texas hitched its collective wagon to the Von Erichs. Fritz Von Erich, the patriarch of the family, was only too happy to oblige.

Having pushed his kids David, Kevin and Kerry to rock star status in North Texas, the territory (with plenty of help from The Fabulous Freebirds) exploded. The Von Erich boys couldn’t go anywhere without being mobbed. Mall and amusement park appearances had to be shut down by the police because of the sheer mass of fans hoping to get a glimpse of the brothers. “The public saw these kids grow up,” said Michael Hayes, “and they were over like Rover.” The Von Erichs ate it up; they had a free pass just about anywhere in the DFW area (and took advantage of every last perk).

But with Fritz eyeing a World’s Title run for David, a fourth Von Erich brother was about to be brought into the family business.

Into The Void

One can’t help but wonder if Mike Von Erich should have ever even become a professional wrestler. He was quieter than his older brothers, more like his mom than his dad. Kerry had the looks of a Greek god, David had the charisma and smarts, Kevin had the boyish charm and athleticism. Mike was more reserved, quieter, and not nearly as big or athletic.

Michael Brett Adkisson, better known to the wrestling world as Mike Von Erich, made his debut in May of 1983 at the age of 19, wrestling in a 6-man Tag Match with brothers Kerry and Kevin against the hated Fabulous Freebirds. Six months later at WCCW’s Thanksgiving Star Wars, he made his singles match debut before a sellout Reunion Arena crowd of 19,200 people. That night, Mike defeated Skandor Akbar, the dastardly manager of Devastation, Incorporated. It may well have been one of the last times he felt like he could just be Michael Adkisson.

With his older brother David earmarked as a possible future NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion, Fritz needed Mike to step in and, in effect, take his place. The Von Erichs wrestled a ton of 6-man Tag Matches, but they also covered the massive Texas territory (which Fritz all but ran out of Dallas), as well as made frequent trips to Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Florida. If David was going to be getting the national push Fritz was banking on, he needed a third brother to keep the wheels turning locally. Less than two months later, however, everything would take a decided change for the worse.

Shock Wave

David Von Erich had been complaining of stomach pain. He also had an important trip to Japan that he couldn’t miss. The last thing the NWA wanted to have in a champion was a guy that couldn’t make his dates. “He told me he didn’t feel like going,” said Fritz, “but he said, ’Dad, when I get there. I’ll be okay.’ I said, ’David, that’s the way it is, son. You’ve got a contract. Those people over there have sold out a building to see a Von Erich.’ And he said, ’Dad, I’m going.’”

David headed off to Japan, despite Kevin reportedly asking his younger brother to reconsider. It would be the last time any of his family would see him alive. According to the Consular Report of Death provided by the U.S. embassy in Japan, the cause of death was acute enteritis, a rupturing of the intestines. Locker room chatter chalked it up to a drug overdose with Ric Flair going so far as to say when Bruiser Brody went into David’s room and discovered him dead, he flushed all his pills down the toilet so as to not stir up a hornet’s nest back home.

“Had David not died in Tokyo,” said Michael Hayes, “he would have been the next NWA Champion.”

Three days later before a shocked and saddened Dallas crowd, a 10-bell salute was carried out in honor of David. Two days after that, on February 15th, he was laid to rest. An estimated 5,000 people turned out to say their goodbyes. It remains one of the largest funeral gatherings in the history of the Metroplex.

On May 8th, 1984, before 41,000 raucous fans in Texas Stadium, Kerry won the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship from “Nature Boy” Ric Flair on the David Von Erich Memorial Show. “David was right there next to me,” said Kerry. It was a “feel good” moment the likes of which the family would never again celebrate. Just 19 days later, Kerry lost the title back to Flair in Japan. Truth be told, with whispers surrounding David’s death, Kerry’s narrow escape from the very real possibility of a federal drug conviction and the belief that Fritz slotted the strength of his territory ahead of the health of his boys (all of whom were perceived as good, but undisciplined kids), those inside the NWA weren’t interested in any sort of extended Von Erich run with the World’s Title.

Heaven And Hell

With his oldest boy gone, Fritz doubled down on that “ol’ time religion”, bringing in a Gary Holder, a minister who would come to be known as the official World Class chaplain. Perhaps Fritz’s intent was pure of heart, perhaps it was a last-ditch effort to salvage whatever perceived “purity” the Von Erichs family retained in the hearts and minds of the viewing public.

He also began the process of pushing Mike, who was now 20 years old and being counted on to give the promotion a much needed shot in the arm. Unfortunately, Mike simply wasn’t capable of carrying the load heaped upon him by his father. Though he was billed as 220 pounds, Mike was, in actuality, somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 pounds. He reportedly used dangerous amounts of steroids to attempt to add size to a frame simply not meant to carry the same amount of mass as his brothers.

Multiple victories over The Fabulous Freebirds, “Gorgeous” Jimmy Garvin and Jake “The Snake” Roberts, some of the best heels of the era were meant to push Mike up to the same level of his brothers, but not even an NWA American Heavyweight Title win over Gino Hernandez could cover up the fact that Mike simply didn’t possess the same talent and skill of Kevin, David and Kerry. It weighed heavy on him and he responded by acting increasingly erratic, his dabbling in pharmaceuticals becoming a full-on downward spiral into a dark addiction to prescription pain pills.

Seemingly hell-bent on self-destruction, Mike’s personality underwent a complete change. Once shy and kind, he became violent and out of control. In May of ‘85, Mike was charged with two counts of misdemeanor assault against Dr. Timothy Shepherd after an altercation in the First Texas Medical Center emergency room in Lewisville, TX. A Denton County judge acquitted him of both charges.

A chronic arm issue reared its ugly head in Tel Aviv, when Mike dislocated his shoulder taking a bad fall in the ring. Upon his return to Dallas, he had surgery on the shoulder and was released from the hospital. Shortly thereafter, he developed a terrible fever (ranging from 105 °F to 107 °F depending on who you ask) which was diagnosed as a blood infection called toxic shock syndrome. At one point, doctors at Baylor Medical Center didn’t think there was any way he’d live through the night and the hospital received an outpouring of well-wishes from concerned fans. Despite going into kidney failure, Mike did pull through, but not without irreparable damage to both his body and brain.

Sins Of The Father

Undoubtedly happy to still have his son (but still with a business to run), Fritz wasted no time in marketing Mike as “The Living Miracle”, saying he would definitely return to the ring better than ever and win the World’s Title for all his adoring fans. Mike was brought out during WCCW’s October Cotton Bowl Show to wave to the crowd of almost 25,000 fans. Now just 145 pounds and still suffering from the damage the high fever had done to his brain, wrestling writer Dave Meltzer called the display, “the most disgusting promotional stunt of the year,” going on to say, “there’s almost nothing about pro wrestling that really outrages me, except for the Von Erichs.”

Fritz brought in Pacific Northwest Champion Ricky Vaughn to take Mike’s place while he rehabbed. Billed as Lance Von Erich, the son of Waldo Von Erich and a cousin of the brothers, Vaughn failed to get over with the increasingly skeptical fanbase. It is considered to be one of the worst decisions Fritz made concerning his promotion as it was perceived by fans as the Von Erichs lying to them.

The added pressure to get back in the ring sent Mike deeper into depression. One month after the Cotton Bowl show, he totalled his car on Highway 121 in Lewisville, escaping with minor head injuries. Six months later in May of ‘86, he was arrested in Fort Worth and spent the night in jail after being charged with being drunk and disorderly.

Throughout it all, Fritz turned a blind eye. A television special was planned to reintroduce the Von Erichs. More importantly, the special was meant to showcase Mike’s efforts to get himself back in the ring. Apparently, the crew finally gave up on filming Mike after spending an hour trying to get a coherent interview from him. At that point, it is said he made his way over to a friend in the gym where they were filming and began loudly re-living the details of an apparent gang bang they’d participated in the night before. Mike Von Erich was spiraling.

Falling Off The Edge Of The World

When he returned to the ring in June of ‘86, virtually all the “feel good” had been sucked from the Sportatorium. Gino Hernandez had died from a drug overdose in February. That same month, World Class withdrew from the National Wrestling Alliance after being told the NWA Champion would no longer be making regular trips to Dallas. Additionally, Kerry had just had a terrible motorcycle accident that would ultimately result in the amputation of half his foot. Lastly, “Gentleman” Chris Adams, then a top babyface and contender for the World Class Heavyweight Title verbally assaulted a flight attendant and headbutted the co-pilot of an American Airlines flight headed back to Dallas from Puerto Rico. Adams was inebriated at the time and became enraged when told no more liquor would be sold on the flight. Kevin Von Erich was forced to restrain him after the incident, and five days later Adams defeated Rick Rude for the World Class Heavyweight Title, but on September 17th, a day after being convicted of misdemeanor assault Adams was forced to relinquish the championship. A little over a month later, he was sentenced to 90 days in jail and fined $500.

Events that routinely drew 4000 fans were now drawing 1000. The Texas oil business entered into a recession, which surely played a hand in the drop in attendance, but many believe it was the loss of faith in the Von Erichs themselves that kept fans from coming out in droves like they had just six months prior.

Regardless of the reasons, Mike took the drop in attendance personally and processed the pain through more run-ins with the law. “I think he always felt a lot more pressure on him,” said Kerry, “being in a family of overachievers. Here he was, with three older brothers who were never happy unless they did their best. Mike was thrown into that life in an awful hurry.” In February of ‘87, he paid a $900 fine to a Fort Worth man after kicking in his car door. Two months later, on April 11th, 1987, Mike was pulled over by police after he was seen driving erratically on Highway 377. A small quantity of marijuana and two prescription bottles containing 78 pills, including barbiturates, anxiety meds and painkillers, were found in his car.

Mike attempted to bribe the officer, then agreed to take a blood test. Though his blood-alcohol level of .05 percent was well under the legal limit of .10 percent, in concert with the 30 mg/L of ethchlorvynol (Placidyl), 1.1 mg/L of butalbital (a barbiturate), and 0.26 mg/L of diazepam (Valium) that was also found in his system, it all added up to a trip to the Denton County jail.

A family attorney was sent to the jail to post the $3,500 bond for drunk-driving and possession of controlled substances. It is believed that it is the last time anyone would see Mike alive. Unable to reach him for several days, his apartment was entered. There, a note was found. It read, simply, “PLEASE UNDERSTAND I’M A FUCK-UP! I’M SORRY.” Along the side of the note it read, “I love U Kerry, Kevin & your families”.

Despite the letter, despite Mike’s abandoned car being spotted at the entrance of a park near Lewisville Lake, despite a second note inside the car that read, “Mom and Dad, I’m in a better place. I’ll be watching,” Fritz went into damage control, telling fans he suspected “foul play”. A few hours after that statement, an officer and his K-9 dog located Mike’s body. He was found in his sleeping bag in a heavily-wooded area. Justice of the Peace Hubert Cunningham described the scene as “very peaceful”. Though no drugs were found, an autopsy revealed the official cause of death to be from acute Placidyl intoxication.

Mike Von Erich was just 23 years old.

Lonely Is The Word

It’s impossible to pin everything that transpired on Fritz, but it’s impossible to not allocate him his fair share of the blame. When asked in a D Magazine interview whether he believed he’d been too hard on his kids, Fritz responded in typically Fritz fashion.

“Absolutely hell no,” he said. “One time Kerry yelled at me that he shouldn’t get a beating, so I tore his butt off even harder.” As tough as he was on his kids, he loved them just as intensely. Still, one can’t help but wonder, had Mike Von Erich gone into any other walk of life besides pro wrestling, might Kevin, the lone surviving member of the family, still have at least one brother left with whom to share the memories of so many crazy times.

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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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From Hollywood Blond To Fabulous Freebird: The Story Of Buddy “Jack” Roberts

My brother Buddy Roberts is 240 pounds of hot stuff and he don’t stop ’till he gets enough! – Michael “P.S.” Hayes

As an unabashed supporter of the beloved Von Erichs wrestling family when I was a youngster, I, by default despised The Fabulous Freebirds. As I got older, I learned to appreciate what each members of that faction brought to the table, but at the time the last things I cared about were Terry Gordy’s prodigious wrestling ways and Michael “P.S.” Hayes’ seemingly endless bucket of charisma. I just wanted to punch them in the nose. The target of my 8 year old violence, of course, included Buddy Roberts, a drowned rat lookin’ sumbitch who came off as equal parts bad ass and chicken shit.

The Hollywood Blonds

Dale Hey aka Buddy Roberts broke into the wrestling business in 1965. Trained by the legendary Ivan Koloff and wrestling under the name Dale Valentine (Johnny Valentine’s little brother), Roberts worked the undercards for several years, gaining experience in a variety of territories.

In April of 1970, after a six month stay in Minnesota with Verne Gagne’s AWA, Bill Watts brought the 22-year-old Roberts to his Tri-State territory as a replacement for Jack Donovan. Watts had an idea for a tag team, but a dispute with Donovan over money left him a man short. With Roberts in tow, Watts teamed him up with Jerry Brown, a veteran journeyman looking to finally break big after several years of relatively little success. The promoter called the duo The Hollywood Blonds and in very short order, they became the most hated men in the territory, battling the likes of fan favorite Danny Hodge and Billy Red Lyons. 

By 1972, The Blonds had added Sir Oliver Humperdink as their manager, only increasing their heat with fans. The tag team would last through the end of 1979, enjoying 12 regional tag title runs for NWA Tri-State, NWA Hollywood, NWA Florida, CWA, Mid-Atlantic and NJPW. When asked about the pair, legendary commentator Jim Ross summed them up rather succinctly, saying, “The Hollywood Blonds of Roberts and Brown were one of the most underrated tag teams ever in the business.”

Going Solo

Nearing the end of his run with Brown, Roberts all branched out as a singles competitor, wrestling in the CWF and feuding with legendary names like Jerry Brisco, Rocky Johnson and Pedro Morales (against whom he unsuccessfully challenged for the NWA Florida Southern Heavyweight Title).

After one of his final runs in NJPW as a member of The Hollywood Blonds, Roberts moved on to Texas, once again assuming the name Dale Valentine and getting himself into blood feuds with Al Madril, Bruiser Brody and Austin Idol over the NWA Texas Heavyweight Title. It was during this time he had the first of what would become a historic number of wars with The Von Erichs.  

The Freebirds Are Born

In 1980, Bill Watts would again give Roberts a helping hand up the next rung of the ladder to superstardom. Having already paired 20-year-old Michael Hayes and 18-year-old Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy together as The Fabulous Freebirds, Watts brought Roberts into the mix with the hopes of maximizing each man’s talents. Gordy and Buddy were both brilliant wrestlers; Hayes, however, left much to be desired in the ring. What “P.S.” did possess though was the gift of gab and an innate ability to infuriate the crowd with little more than a sideways glance. With “Bam Bam” and Buddy “Jack” (so named because of his love of Jack Daniels) in the ring and Hayes at ringside, The Freebirds exploded onto the wrestling scene. 

Taking on wrestlers like Ted DiBiase, Buck Robley and Junkyard Dog, The Freebirds became the hottest heel faction in the territory. When they blinded JYD, the three men legitimately feared for their lives. “I’ve never felt my life more threatened than in that era with Junkyard Dog,” said Michael Hayes. “We had our cars destroyed, people would fill up water pistols with Liquid-Plumr and you would fight your way from the ring to the locker room. It wasn’t a question of if you were gonna get your ass whipped. The question was how badly and would you make it back to the locker room.” During their short run, the trio carved out a path of destruction over four States, winning the Mid-South Tag Team Titles and holding them for three months before losing them and a series of Loser Leaves Town Matches that resulted in the trio moving on to Georgia Championship Wrestling. “Our last night in the territory,” said Hayes, “undercover police officers found a man in the crowd with a Saturday night special and a bullet in it with the word “freebird” engraved on it.”

The Freebirds made an immediate impact in Georgia, winning the NWA Georgia Tag Team Titles in a match against The Assassins and Mr. Wrestling I and Mr. Wrestling II in October of 1980. After a controversial double disqualification in a match between Austin Idol and Kevin Sullivan resulted in titles being stripped away from The Freebirds, they would defeat The Brisco Brothers and the team of Robert Fuller and Stan Frazier in a tag team tournament to reclaim the then renamed NWA National Tag Team Titles. Said longtime wrestling writer Bill Apter, “The Freebirds were sports entertainment before Vince McMahon ever had the thought in his mind.”

Roberts would go off on his own shortly after the win, even spending some time away from pro wrestling. Hayes and Gordy continued to work as The Fabulous Freebirds for the remainder of their 2-year run in Georgia. The trio again met up in late-’82, again working for Bill Watts as part of his Superdome Extravaganza show in New Orleans. By December of ‘82, The Freebirds were all in Dallas and business was most definitely about to pick up.

Badstreet

The Von Erichs were not only superheroes in the eyes of the Texas fan base, they were also “our boys”. Young fans loved them because of their looks, muscles and rock star appeal. Older fans loved them because their father, Fritz Von Erich, was wise to present his family as a wholesome, churchgoing lot. All fans simply assumed David, Kevin and Kerry were all destined for NWA Heavyweight Title stardom. The problem the boys had was they didn’t have anyone to work with in Dallas. They would continually chew up and spit out everyone brought into the territory to wrestle them, their stiff wrestling style the usual culprit.

In The Freebirds, the Von Erichs finally had guys both willing to take an ass kicking, but also dish one back out. Texans are a different sort of folk and for all the oil money and conservatism, at our core we’re basically still just a bunch of grimy people willing to fight you as quickly as we are to give you a home cooked meal and the shirt off our back. So, when Terry Gordy slammed that cage door on Kerry Von Erich’s head Christmas Day 1982 in front of 18,000 strong in Reunion Arena, every last Texan wrestling fan was ready to die to get our hands on those Freebird bastards! It was that real.

Instantly becoming the hottest feud in pro wrestling, the Von Erichs and The Freebirds went to war, and for the next 3 and a half years left buckets of blood all across the State of Texas. At the center of it all was Buddy “Jack” Roberts, the one member of the Freebirds without a single redeeming quality. Even while hating his guts, a fan could still find some humor in Michael Hayes. In Terry Gordy, you had a guy who almost came off like a big puppy dog trying to figure out the size of his paws. Where Buddy Roberts was concerned, however, there simply wasn’t a thing in the world to like about him.

He only amped up our hatred of him in ‘83 when he got himself into a dust up with “Iceman” King Parsons, cutting the hair of the fan favorite. Their feud culminated in a Hair vs. Hair Match with Roberts attempting to cheat to secure the win, only to have Parsons wrestle away the jar “Freebird Hair Removal Cream” and apply it to Buddy “Jack”. You would think the embarrassment of having his hair fall out would have satiated fans, but when Roberts secured a wig to his head with boxing headgear, thereby preventing us from basking in his shame, it only served to make us hate him (and The Freebirds) that much more.

Wearing Out Their Welcome At Every Stop

The Freebirds territory hopped for most of their run together. Dallas was certainly where they were the hottest, but they also had short runs in the WWF, AWA and CWF, always returning to Texas to pick right up where they left off with the Von Erichs.

By the summer of ‘86, however, Buddy and Co. saw the writing on the wall in Dallas. David Von Erich had passed away in ‘84, Gino Hernandez died of an apparent overdose in February of ‘86, the Lance Von Erich experiment was failing miserably and business was down. The Freebirds made the jump to Mid-South, reuniting, once again, with Bill Watts, diving headfirst into a whole new series of feuds with fresh opponents like The Rock N’ Roll Express and The Fantastics. Roberts also began wrestling more in a singles capacity, winning the UWF Television Title from Terry Taylor on two occasions over a year-long feud that proved to be one of the hottest in the territory.

In late-’87, The Freebirds returned to World Class, but their union was short. Roberts and Gordy turned on Hayes, who turned babyface and teamed up with the Von Erichs against his former Freebird brothers and Roberts’ former foe-now-friend, “Iceman” King Parsons. Buddy also began dialing back things in the ring, bringing in the Samoan SWAT Team and acting as their manager in matches against the Von Erichs and the tag team comprised of Michael Hayes and Steve “Do It To It” Cox. “You have your list of people you’ve learned from coming up in this industry and Buddy took us under his wing,” said SWAT Team member Rikishi Fatu. With Roberts as their manager, the SST were a dominant force, winning the World Class Tag Team Titles three times and the Texas Tag Team Titles once before leaving for the NWA’s Jim Crockett Promotions. 

By late-’88, Gordy and Hayes had also left World Class for Jim Crockett Promotions. Roberts, 13 years older than Hayes (and 15 years older than Gordy) decided to stay behind in Dallas with his wife Janice, working another five months before retiring in May of ‘89.

Free As A Bird

In Buddy Roberts, The Fabulous Freebirds had the glue that held the whole faction together. Michael Hayes was a loudmouth and Terry Gordy was a wrestling prodigy, but “Jack” was the real heat magnet. He bumped around the ring with reckless abandon, earned every last bit of vitriol from the fans (the hard way) and was likely the heart and soul of The Freebirds. Buddy’s viciousness gave bite to everything Hayes and Gordy did. Without him, the faction wasn’t the same.

“He was the guy who took the beating,” said Mick Foley after learning of Roberts’ passing in 2012. “He was the guy who dropped the fall, but somehow maintained his heat. He would do anything to make his matches exciting – including the rumored dropping of the first elbow off the ring apron. He could make anyone and anything around him look better. If someone around him was bad, he could make them look good. If they were good, he could make them look great. And if something was great – like The Fabulous Freebirds – he could help turn greatness to legend.”

WWE Money in The Bank Briefcase

WWE 2K20 – Xbox One

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From The Gridiron To The Squared Circle: The Warring Ways Of Wahoo McDaniel

Tully Blanchard, I can beat you. You’re the National Heavyweight Champion, you’re coming to Cincinnati and I know you and JJ Dillon have something cooked up, but I’m just gonna go out there and do what I do best: win matches! – Wahoo McDaniel

Training Camp had just started for the New York Jets and their young rookie, quarterback Joe Namath, the first overall pick in the American Football League Draft. The man who would become “Broadway Joe” was in camp following a 29-4 career in Alabama, lucrative contract in hand. Several of the veteran players weren’t thrilled about the rookie’s payday. Included in this gaggle of jealous veterans was 5-year pro football linebacker and resident tackling madman, Wahoo McDaniel.

Catching Namath on the warm-up track, McDaniel tripped the young QB, sending him sprawling. Namath, to his credit, simply dusted himself off and continued his running. Even as a rookie, Joe had already learned an important lesson: Wahoo McDaniel was not the man to mess with, regardless of who was right or wrong.

From Humble Beginnings

Edward McDaniel grew up in Bernice, Oklahoma and was a handful from the very beginning. A fighter even during his early years, McDaniel wasn’t the conforming type and looking back on his life, it’s clear a “normal” job was never gonna work for him. When his family moved to Midland, Texas during his early teen years, Wahoo (a nickname he got from his father, whom everyone called “Big Wahoo”) got heavily into sports, playing baseball, football and wrestling. One of his middle school baseball coaches was actually George H.W. Bush, the future 41st President of the United States.

Bud Wilkinson recruited Wahoo to the University of Oklahoma where he played 31 games between ‘57-’59 as a 200 pound punter, wide receiver and running back. During that time he also set the record for the longest punt in Oklahoma Sooners history, a 91 yarder. His wild ways continued throughout college, and was regularly caught out drinking and partying well past curfew. Antics aside, Wahoo still managed to letter in both football and wrestling, despite his claims of not being “a very good rassler in college”.

Speaking on McDaniel’s wild ways, legendary pro wrestling manager Jim Cornette recounted a now famous tale, saying, “On a bet, he ran from Norman to Oklahoma City, which is like 26 miles, and followed that up by drinking a quart of motor oil to win another bet.” 

New York, New York

His hard-charging nature got him drafted in the 2nd round of the AFL Draft by the Los Angeles Chargers and he spent the first of his eight pro seasons with the Houston Oilers, winning the AFL Championship in 1960. He then spent ‘61-’63 with the Denver Broncos before joining the New York Jets via a nine player trade in ‘64. Then-Broncos head coach Jack Faulkner told Wahoo, “if he went to New York and prospered, he’d make a fortune”. With the Jets, he became an instant celebrity, due in no small part to the pro wrestling-style interviews he gave reporters. Truth be told, the hard-hitting linebacker arrived in the Big Apple at the perfect time. Former New York Giants great and future hall of famer, linebacker Sam Huff, had just been traded to the Washington Redskins. When asked about Huff leaving town, Wahoo went full “pro wrestler”, saying, “This place ain’t big enough for me and Huff. It’s lucky for him he moved.”

The gritty New York football fan, took immediately to Wahoo mouthing off then backing it up by flying around with reckless abandon, and took to chanting his name after he’d make a tackle. The Jets PA announcer picked up on the connection between McDaniel and the fanbase. Instead of “Tackle made my McDaniel,” the call became, “Tackle made by…guess who?”, giving the fans the opportunity to shout “WAHOO!”

McDaniel’s growing fame in New York not only made him more recognizable among football fans. In 1961, Wahoo had taken up pro wrestling training as a way to stay in shape in the offseason while also putting a few extra dollars in his pocket. Said Wahoo, “Jim Barnett, who books rasslers out of Indianapolis, called me and said he wanted an Indian rassler. So, I met with him, liked the deal and now I’m a pro rassler.”

By ‘64, and at the height of his fame in pro football, the proud member of the Choctaw-Chickasaw tribe began commanding higher payouts at wrestling shows, working for Vince McMahon, Sr. in the WWWF and wrestling against the likes of Boris Malenko and Dr. Jerry Graham.

Around this time, Wahoo added around 40 pounds to his frame, which was fine for professional wrestling, but many believed hindered his football career. As one AFL coach said, “at 205 pounds Wahoo could move with authority, but not at 240. The tackles can cut him off on the wide stuff. He can’t handle much responsibility on passes. He’s a good blitzer and is strong on running plays that come straight at him. But he’s a harum-scarum type, and you can’t build a solid defense around him.” Wahoo scoffed at such statements, but coupled with his aforementioned hazing of “Broadway Joe”, Jets management deemed the linebacker expendable, leaving him unprotected in the expansion draft the following season. He was selected by the Miami Dolphins.

McDaniel played three more seasons of pro football, retiring from the league at the end of the ‘68 season after being traded to San Diego (with whom he would have the odd distinction of both starting and ending his career w/o ever playing a down) following a brawl in which he knocked two police officers unconscious. In his final game with Miami, his team was shredded to the tune of 31-7. The opponent: Joe Namath and the New York Jets who would go on to win the ‘68 Super Bowl. McDaniel, who, by that time had been wrestling in the off-season for 8 years, went “all in” on pro wrestling.

The Stars At Night Are Big And Bright

With his focus now squarely on wrestling, Wahoo’s previous years of off-season work put him immediately in the main event picture, regardless of the promotion for which he was employed. “Six weeks before the football season began, I rassled every night. From January 1 until training camp I had 160 matches, sometimes two on Thursdays,” said McDaniel. “I’ve gotten to be pretty good. I’m just now a main eventer. It takes five years to be a good pro football player and about that long to be a big-time rassler.”

A profanity-laced tirade concerning a payout directed towards Phil Zacko, then part owner of Capitol Sports, a group that owned half of the WWWF, not only changed plans to make Wahoo a main eventer in New York, but facilitated Chief Jay Strongbow’s creation/arrival in the WWWF. Had it not been for McDaniel’s hard line stance on what he believed to be “right and wrong”, Strongbow might have remained Joe Scarpa for the entirety of his career.

Instead, Wahoo went to work for Ed Francis and James Blears and their Big Time Wrestling in Hawaii, getting himself into a short feud with Luke Graham. Wahoo did well in Hawaii, but the experience he gained on the island likely meant more than his win/loss record, because after moving on to his next territory, the massive Fritz Von Erich-run Big Time Wrestling in Texas, McDaniel’s career shot into the stratosphere. Spending the next 2 ½ years in Texas, he went to war against some of the biggest names in the industry, winning and defending multiple championships against the likes of Johnny Valentine, Killer Karl Kox and Mil Mascaras, and challenging NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion Dory Funk, Jr. on multiple occasions.

His years in Texas set up another main event run, working for Verne Gagne’s AWA in Minnesota. Feuding with Dusty Rhodes, “Superstar” Billy Graham, Nick Bockwinkel and Ray Stevens, McDaniel continued his push towards the very top of the sport of professional wrestling. When asked about Wahoo, Graham said, “When I took a chop (from Wahoo), I’d only take one, and then I’d go down. I’d tell Wahoo, ‘‘Now you can start working on me. Take over from down here, buddy. One’s enough for this boy.’ I wasn’t about to stand there and trade chops with a buzz saw. He’d always laugh at me and tell me a few little chops weren’t going to hurt me. I’d tell him, ‘’The way you throw them they do.’ At least I knew I wasn’t going to get chopped to death lying on the mat.” 

His wars with Graham were some of the hottest of that era, propelling Wahoo to his next stop (and the territory where he would become one of the biggest names in the industry): Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling. 

Carolina In My Mind

Upon his arrival in the Carolinas in ‘74, Wahoo reignited his feud with Johnny Valentine from several years prior in Texas. Battling over the NWA Mid-Atlantic Title, the two men sold out venues throughout the territory. McDaniel also teamed up with Paul Jones for a program against Gene and Ole Anderson, resulting in the pair claiming the NWA World Tag Team Titles. In the summer of ‘75, however, Wahoo would begin a blood feud against (arguably) his greatest rival: “Nature Boy” Ric Flair.

Warring over the NWA Mid-Atlantic Title, Wahoo and Flair traded wins and reigns for the better part of two months, a sign of things to come for the men. The ebb and flow of their blood feud would make money and draw sellout crowds for parts of the next 10 years. One such battle resulted in 42 stitches above Wahoo’s eyes after Flair hit him with a table leg, not realizing there was a nail sticking out of the end of it. “He and Harley Race were the toughest guys I ever met in my life,” said Flair.

Wahoo spent four years in the Carolinas, next moving on for a run in Florida for Eddie Graham’s CWF and a return to Minnesota for Verne Gagne’s AWA. In both territories, he was a main event mainstay, wrestling champions like Harley Race and Nick Bockwinkel. From the summer of ‘78 through the spring of ‘82, McDaniel would territory hop, making his way around the globe, including Japan for his first run with New Japan Pro Wrestling.

Between ‘81-’85, Wahoo would hold the NWA United States Title on five separate occasions. He was stripped of the title three of those times, leading to a vicious heel turn in ‘84 that would fuel white hot battles against Dusty Rhodes, Ricky Steamboat and Barry Windham. When asked about Wahoo’s heel turn, Jim Cornette once said, “When he turned heel in the Carolinas and the fans would try to attack him, he would knock them out with his chops. He’d knock ‘em over rows of chairs.”

After switching back to babyface, Wahoo went on another long run with Ric Flair over the NWA World’s Heavyweight Title. Flair always found a way to hold onto the championship, but his battles against McDaniel are the stuff of legend. “Wahoo was just an incredibly tough guy,” said Flair. “Not just the way he wrestled, but the conditions he wrestled under. He wrestled hurt, he wrestled sick. I remember he had a vasectomy at four o’clock in the afternoon, then wrestled at 8 o’clock that night. Wahoo would wrestle under any conditions. He had an incredible work ethic. He wrestled long matches and was as tough as anybody in the ring.”

Flair would go on to say, “To me, he was the one guy most responsible for me getting my career off to a good start. He was probably the most influential person in my career for the first 10 years. I respected him so much. If something was going down in the business, I’d always ask Wahoo’s opinion. He was responsible for bringing me down to the Carolinas. I asked him all the time and learned an awful lot about working from him.”

Going Out With A Bang

Wahoo continued to work as a main eventer for much of the next four years, slowing down in 1990 after a long run with AWA Heavyweight Champion Curt Hennig and a bloody feud with the “Raging Bull” Manny Fernandez. So violent were his wars with Fernandez, ESPN refused to air their Indian Strap Match from Superclash III. 

McDaniel’s hard-partying ways ultimately caught up to him, but even after becoming a diabetic, he refused to dial things back. “You couldn’t tell him (anything) back then,” said Ric Flair. “He’d say, ‘‘No, don’t worry about it, I’m fine.’ When he got diabetes, instead of quitting drinking, he’d double up on the insulin and drink just as much. I’d say, ‘’Chief, let’s go work out,’ and he’d say, ‘’Boy, I’ve been working out 30 years, I don’t need to work out any more. I’m tired of working out.’”

By the mid-’90s, health complications due to diabetes forced Wahoo to finally slow down. He ultimately lost both kidneys to the disease and was awaiting a kidney transplant when he passed away in 2002. Though perhaps not remembered in the same breath as wrestlers like Flair, Dusty and Harley, the “Nature Boy” bristles at such a thought, saying, “I’m sad that not enough people knew enough about him or remember him. What bothers me is here we have probably the greatest athlete to ever be in our sport – the best athlete period to ever be a professional wrestler. Wahoo was such a legend to my generation. He’ll always be that. That’s what saddens me the most. It’s called fleeting fame.”

Over the course of his 35 year career, Wahoo is said to have wrestled more than 3,500 matches, winning championships in 12 different territories (including 19 different runs w/ various regional heavyweight titles) while becoming the most popular Native American in the history of professional wrestling. “He was universally respected in the wrestling as one of the toughest guys in it,” said Jim Cornette. “Nobody fucked with Wahoo McDaniel.”

Wahoo McDaniel Record Book: 1962-1996

1967 Topps #82 Chief Wahoo McDaniel Wrestler ROOKIE PSA 8 Graded Football Card

United States Championship: A Close Look at Mid-Atlantic Wrestling’s Greatest Championship

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

Called The “Jackie Robinson Of The Wrestling Industry”, Sweet Daddy Siki Broke Down Walls And Became A Star

Ahahaha! You shoulda seen what the Cuban Assassin and I did to Archie Gouldie and Steven Pettipas last week! We beat ’em up so bad! Now they have the nerve to wanna have a street fight? Well, I’m gonna tell you one thing, Archie Gouldie: the Cuban and I grew up on street fights! – Sweet Daddy Siki

On March 23rd, 1985, Memphis television was treated to a surprise appearance by a charismatic man known around the wrestling world as Sweet Daddy Siki. A week earlier, the dastardly Tux Newman had helped Randy Savage steal the AWA Southern Heavyweight Title from Jerry “The King” Lawler; Sweet Daddy was brought in by Newman to ensure Savage held on to the belt. But a funny thing happened on the way from Point A to Point B: Newman got on the mic and referred to Siki as his “boy”.

Making his way to the interview area where Lawler, Newman and Lance Russell were arguing, Sweet Daddy turned on Tux, admitting though it might cost him his run in Memphis, no man was gonna call him “boy”. A bemused Lawler rolled with the apparent adlib, saying he’d talk to promoter Eddie Marlin and smooth everything over. Siki destroyed a contract Newman waved in his face, sending the manager running, then hopped in the ring in his street clothes and made short work of Mr. X, winning the crowd over in under a minute. Just like that, Sweet Daddy Siki, as he had in every other territory he ever worked, got himself over in a very big way.

California Dreamin’

Sweet Daddy got his start in the wrestling business in 1955 between the ages of 15-17 years old, working in New Mexico after being trained in California by Ray Ortega and multi-time regional champion Sándor Szabó. Around this time, he supposedly spent some time in the military fighting in the Korean War (calling into question his actual date of birth). The Montgomery, Texas native made his first trip to Canada in December of ‘56, foreshadowing a permanent move to the country. Still going by his real name, Reggie Siki, he spent much of the next year and a half splitting time between the Vancouver and Oregon territories, feuding with Nick Kozak for several months.

Siki made his way back to California during the summer of 1958, attending college for a time and working for NWA Los Angeles (also called NWA Hollywood). Cal and Aileen Eaton (the mother of Gene and Mike LeBell) founded the promotion under the banner of the NWA, but split from the governing body once it was discovered Cal hadn’t paid any NWA member dues since 1955. Siki was the NWA International Television Champion at the time of the renaming, holding the title for a little over three months before dropping it to Mr. Moto at the Olympic Auditorium.

At this time, Siki struggled to make ends meet. He was working, sure, but often for little to no money. He has said it wasn’t uncommon to eat from dumpsters and sleep outside due to a lack of funds.

Sweet Daddy Is Born

Shortly after his stint in California, Siki returned to Canada, working for Eddie Quinn’s NWA Montreal for a few months. This is a particularly important time in his history as it was when Reggie Siki began going by the name Sweet Daddy, the name by which he would come to be known across the wrestling world.

After a five month stay in Columbus, Ohio with the Midwest Wrestling Association, which started at the beginning of 1960, Sweet Daddy took his show on the road. Using Toronto as his base, the city he calls home to this day, Siki spent the next 19 months working in several territories, including Chicago, New York and the Carolinas. Sweet Daddy became a main event player, engaging in short feuds with legendary figures like Giant Baba, Eddie Graham and Mark Lewin, but it was a run of matches against one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time that would send his fame into the stratosphere.

The Nature Boy

By the summer of 1961, Sweet Daddy had already had several singles and tag matches with and against the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. The two men had a special chemistry in the ring together and Rogers was keenly aware of this fact. Because of their in-ring spark (and each man’s drawing power), on July 15, 1961, it is believed Sweet Daddy Siki became the first black man to wrestle for the Worlds Title.

The match, however, was not without controversy. Hearing about the event, the Ku Klux Klan showed up to protest. Threats were made, but Buddy and Sweet Daddy were undeterred. It would not be Siki’s only run-in with the Klan either, as him being married to a white woman elicited multiple threats from the hate group throughout his storied career.

The match with the “Nature Boy” wasn’t a one-off. Between July and October, Siki would have three more championship matches against Rogers, and though he’d come up short on each occasion, Siki didn’t need a belt to make him look like a star. The man had become bigger than any championship he could win.

Coming Home

Sweet Daddy’s run with Rogers led him back to Texas for a string of matches throughout the state. On February 22nd, 1963, with his status as a main event wrestler now etched in stone, he defeated Rip Hawk in Houston for the NWA Texas Heavyweight Championship. The two men wrestled again two weeks later at the “World Famous” Sportatorium in Dallas, this time in a Two out of Three Falls Match. Again, Sweet Daddy came out on top. This set up a run with the strap that lasted the entirety of his time in Texas (a little over two months), dropping it to his sometime tag partner Sailor Art Thomas before returning to Canada in April (but not before wrestling a 90 minute draw in Dallas against Lou Thesz, then the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion).

Coming Home (Again)

Back in his adopted home of Toronto, Sweet Daddy planted his flag, spending much of the next two years in Canada, working for Stu Hart’s Big Time Wrestling (also called Wildcat Wrestling and Stampede Wrestling) and Frank Tunney’s Maple Leaf Wrestling. During this stretch, Sweet Daddy became the biggest name in Canada. Bleaching his hair, donning sunglasses and elaborate capes and robes, Siki turned himself into “the ladies’ pet and the men’s regret”. According to Rocky Johnson, Siki was “the guy you loved to hate. The Muhammad Ali of that era” of pro wrestling.

Yet another NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship match took place for Siki during this era, when he battled Killer Kowalski in July of ‘64 in a Two out of Three Falls Match. Coming out on the losing end did nothing to cap his steam, however, as he remained a top draw throughout North America for the next several years, winning a handful of regional titles and feuding with the likes of Abdullah the Butcher, Bobo Brazil and Dave Ruhl. He even found time to record a couple of albums of country music hits and return to Stu Hart’s territory to wrestle a bear. The bear won both altercations.

Passing On His Knowledge

As Sweet Daddy got into his mid-forties, he began taking fewer and fewer bookings abroad, preferring to stay local and spend time singing with his country band and at his local karaoke bar. After a 2-month tour of Japan near the end of ’84, Sweet Daddy made his way to Memphis for his final big territory stay, his now infamous run in Jerry Jarrett’s CWA.

Back in Toronto, Siki had begun training new wrestlers as well. He opened a wrestling school with Canadian wrestling legend Johnny Powers called the Johnny Powers/Sweet Daddy Siki Academy of Professional Wrestling. Siki has quoted as saying, “We will teach you how to wrestle clean and we’ll teach you how to wrestle dirty”. One of his first students, Ron Hutchison, spent ’85-’86 as one of WWF’s main enhancement talents when the company ran shows in Canada. He wrestled matches against some of the biggest names of the era, including Bret Hart, Randy Savage, and “Mr. 1derful” Paul Orndorff.

With his in-ring career winding down, Siki partnered with Hutchison and opened another school called Sweet Daddy Siki and Ron Hutchison’s School of Wrestling. Even without the flashy robes and boisterous promos, he continued to give back to professional wrestling, having a hand in the training of WWE Hall of Famer Adam “Edge” Copeland. His work with Hutchison also led to the training of Christian, Trish Stratus, Gail Kim, Beth Phoenix, Traci Brooks and several others.

A Quiet (Unless He’s Singing) Legend

Sweet Daddy’s influence on the following generations cannot be overstated. His persona was everything guys like “Superstar” Billy Graham and Jesse “The Body” Ventura would emulate to becomes legends in their own right. Bret “Hitman” Hart has been open about his love and respect for “Mr. Irresistible”, saying, “When I was trying to find myself (as a wrestler), the first character I thought of was Sweet Daddy Siki.”

These days, the 80-year-old Siki is content to sing in his local karaoke bar and enjoy his “rocking years”. His bleached blonde hair remains, as do the massive shoulders for which he was famous. He’s a kind man, far more likely to give of himself than take from another, but make no mistake about it, a bigger-than-life heel remains inside of him. Throw one of his old capes around him or get him anywhere near a wrestling ring and Sweet Daddy is born again.

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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, Gary 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)”.

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