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

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

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

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

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

The Neon Lights Of Dallas

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

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

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

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

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

Flying Too Close To The Sun

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

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

Telephone, Telegram, Tell-a-wrestler

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

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

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

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

The Truth Will (Supposedly) Set You Free

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

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

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

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

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The Night Skandor Akbar Made Me Rich

Sign the contract, put yourself in that squared circle and prepare to get mashed, mauled and maimed, because the General is coming to town with Devastation, Incorporated! – “General” Skandor Akbar

I was 12 years old the first and only time my dad took me to the “World Famous” Sportatorium in Dallas. After having seen the World Class Championship Wrestling shows on television for so many years, and having only been to one other live wrestling event, a WCCW show at my 3rd grade gym in 1985, the idea of seeing guys like Kerry & Kevin Von Erich and “Gentleman” Chris Adams live and in person had me more than a little fired up.

I wish I could remember the exact date of the show but I do remember it was in 1989, very likely right before WCCW folded and was sold off to Jerry Jarrett and the USWA Promotion. I’d always been a huge Mid-South and World Class fan, always preferred the stiffer wrestling style to the more ‘Hollywood’ style the WWF was doing at that time, and I’d been pushing for my dad to take me to a show for years.

Walking up to the Sportatorium from the parking lot was eye-opening, to say the least, as it was nothing like how it was depicted on television. Located in the heart of Dallas, off Industrial Blvd., the legendary sports arena had fallen into a state of disrepair, a fact that did not go unnoticed by any of our travelling party. Once inside, our group, consisting of myself, my dad and a couple of his buddies (one of whom was former Texas Rangers catcher Geno Petralli) picked up a few beverages and some popcorn and took our seats about halfway up the bleachers. We also grabbed some french fries while at the concession stand, a particularly funny truth considering years later it was said that once the Sportatorium was closed and the fryers were finally emptied out, several rats were found stuck to the bottom, hidden from view by years of old, unchanged cooking oil. Regardless, those were tasty fries, and hey, I’m likely impervious to rabies!

Heatseekers In The Stands

As the matches got up and running, my dad and his buddies decided to cheer for all the heels, a decision that did not go over particularly well with the hardcore “rasslin’” fans in attendance. While I only recall a few of the wrestlers on the bill that night, I can remember quite clearly the old man sitting in front of us exclaiming, “You boys are booin’ the wrong guys. That can get you hurt around here.” This was real life to those fans; they were not playing around.

Some time passed, with all of us having a good go of it, laughing and booing and messing around with some of the other folks around us, most of whom actually proved to be good sports about the whole thing. Then Skandor Akbar walked to the ring, leading his stable, Devastation Inc.

Perhaps it was his gimmick that so incited the old school fans (and/or his penchant for throwing fireballs in the face of babyface wrestlers). Maybe it was little more than all those years he’d spent on the other side of the ring from “our boys”, The Von Erichs. Whatever it was, he was as hated as hated could be with the Dallas crowd. They legitimately despised him and he played it for all it was worth. As he stalked a path back and forth at ringside, chomping away on one of his cigars, the crowd took on an entirely different energy. It was at this moment that one of my dad’s buddies, himself a stogie chewer, said to me, “I’ll give you $50 if you’ll walk down there and hand that guy one of my cigars.” $50 was a weekend of mowing lawns in the hot Texas summer. He’d barely finished his sentence before I was on my way down the bleachers, cigar in hand.

That Was A Lot Of Food!

If you’ve never seen the layout around the ring of the old Sportatorium, there were no big, fancy barricades like what you might see at a WWE show; just a single piece of rope, strung up to separate the crowd from the wrestlers. So, I’m there by the rope trying my best to get Akbar’s attention, but of course, he’s paying me no mind because everyone else is yelling at him too. As the match continued on, Akbar began to pace back and forth, finally spotting me as he turned to say something to the crowd. When my eyes met his I held the cigar out and yelled, “It’s for you, take it.“ In one motion, he tossed away his old cigar, grabbed the one in my hand, bit a piece off the end and popped it in his mouth, before turning back around to yell at the referee in the ring.

I stood there for a moment, still shocked he’d actually taken the cigar, then turned to look up at my dad and his friends. What I saw, however, was not their smiling faces. Instead, I locked in on a very angry crowd, and they were all looking right back at me. A trickle of boos became a wave, which made me laugh, nervously. After a moment, thinking the worst had passed, I went to take a step back up the bleachers to my seat, only to find that step met with a beer shower, followed by the contents of what felt like the entire Sportatorium concession stand area. I was being pelted from all sides and I was honestly loving every second of it. There I was, a 12 year old kid, and for one night only, I had become the biggest heel in that wonderfully dilapidated old arena.

After a few seconds, the food throwing subsided and I made my way back up the bleachers to my dad and his friends. They all had a good laugh. The old man sitting in front of us had a nice laugh at my expense as well. The matches from that night have long since faded from my mind, a byproduct of time (and way too many “late nights”), but that moment with “The General” and the subsequent food bath I received for my treachery remains as fresh as any memory I hold dear.

That $50 spent pretty well, too.