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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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”!

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Sputnik, Masked Men, & Midgets: The Early Days of Memphis Wrestling