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

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Hulk Hogan And The Death Of The AWA

I am the people’s champion! They saw me beat Nick Bockwinkel! Just when I was ready to clamp down and take it home, Bobby Heenan interfered! Payback is due! – Hulk Hogan

By the late ‘80s, after years of declining interest, subpar rosters, and an inability to change with the times, the American Wrestling Association (AWA) was all but dead in the water, ultimately shutting down in 1991.

Did it have to be that way? Had Verne Gagne, rather than digging in his heels, gotten with the times (or hired someone to get with the times for him), would the AWA have had a puncher’s chance at not only surviving, but thriving into the ’90s and beyond?

When The AWA Thrived

From the early ‘60s into the late ’70s, the AWA was a very successful wrestling promotion. Verne Gagne, an amateur wrestler and alternate on the ‘48 U.S. Olympic Team not only ran the promotion, but was its most recognizable champion. From August 1960 to May 1981, Verne held the AWA World Title 10 times for a total of 4,677 days (almost 13 years), feuding with legendary names like Gene Kiniski, Larry “The Axe” Hennig and “The Crippler” Ray Stevens.

During that era, Gagne took his promotion from a local Minnesota show and expanded into several large markets, including Chicago, San Francisco, Denver and Las Vegas. His success in these areas made the AWA an extremely popular ticket, and his live shows regularly brought crowds by the thousands.

“I Want My MTV”

Then the Eighties happened. The “everything, all the time, right now” generation had no time for a long time. Don’t wanna sit through a 12 round fight? “Iron” Mike Tyson knocks everyone out in under three rounds! NBA games too slow? Have no fear, the “Showtime” Lakers are here!

Gone were the days when you could keep a kid’s attention for more than three minutes; Nintendo, Coca-Cola and Hostess made sure of that.

In the Sixties and Seventies, pro wrestling venues were smoke-filled, darkly lit and full of an older demographic. When the mid-’80s rolled around, young, loud and stuffed to the gills with cocaine and TV dinners, Verne wasn’t prepared.

Prior to Vince McMahon’s talent raids, the AWA boasted some of the biggest names in the business. Consider that in 1984, WWF’s number one babyface (and arguably the biggest draw in the history of the industry), Hulk Hogan, number one manager (and the greatest manager of all time), Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, number one color commentator, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, and number one announcer, “Mean” Gene Okerlund had all been, just a short time prior, under the employ of the AWA.

What if Verne had worked with someone capable of marketing Hogan the way Vince and the WWF were able to do for the better part of a decade? What if he’d played ball with Hogan on merchandising, rather than trying to strong-arm or steal from him by selling his shirts at shows while Hulk was away on a Japanese tour? What if he hadn’t gone out of his way to keep the belt off Hogan, actually going so far as to say he wasn’t good enough to carry the AWA Title? Finally, what if Verne hadn’t angered Hogan enough to where, once Vince came calling, he was more than willing to not only jump ship, but do so without finishing up his scheduled dates with the AWA, effectively killing most of the territory?

How much different does the first WrestleMania look without Hogan in the main event? Does WrestleMania I even take place without Hogan on the WWF roster?

Greg Gagne Wasn’t The Answer

Verne’s stubborn nature (Greg Gagne’s words, not mine) cost the promotion dearly when it came to the acquisition and retention of marketable talent, forcing the promotion to rely on burly animals like The Crusher and Mad Dog Vachon, men who could draw a promotion all kinds of money for much of the previous two decades, but were dinosaurs in the eyes of the glitzy ‘80s pro wrestling fan. Beer bellies and cigar breath simply wasn’t gonna cut it anymore.

Sure, the AWA still had a contingent of die hard wrestling fans, many of whom attended every local show possible, but selling a guy a program and a beer is a far cry from selling a guy a program and a beer, while selling his kids t-shirts, action figures and foam fingers. This is where I believe Gagne was greatly in need of someone to put a fresh set of hands on his product, and by ‘someone’ I don’t mean his son, Greg. If you need history to be told through the eyes of a blind man, call Greg. Otherwise…

Hulkamania Ran Wild…Away From Verne

Consider that had Hulk and Verne been able to work together the way Hogan ultimately did with Vince, the AWA would have been all but set (creatively, at least). In Nick Bockwinkel, Larry Zbyszko, Col. DeBeers and later, Curt Hennig, the AWA was loaded with main event level heel talent, all of whom had quality promo skills and could work circles around most in the ring. Hogan was a superhero, his job was to look unbeatable. Surrounding him with these four pros, men capable of bumping all around the ring for him while retaining every last bit of their heat, would have carried the promotion for years. And let’s not even get into the next wave of guys (Shawn Michaels, Scott Hall, Leon White aka Vader) that ultimately left the AWA for greener pastures…

Without Hogan, did Vince have the leverage to buy off television stations, preventing them from airing other promotions’ shows? Who was Vince’s second choice had Hogan not gone to New York? Would he have stayed in-house and tried to go national with Jimmy Snuka or Sgt. Slaughter? Would he have looked to another promotion, possibly WCCW and Kerry Von Erich? Neither Snuka nor Kerry had Hulk’s promo and Sarge didn’t have the jacked, “bigger than life” look Vince so coveted. Whatever he would have decided, the WWF roster would have looked (and sounded) decidedly different.

What Might Have Been For The AWA

If WCW taught us nothing else, it was that the market would bear two successful promotions. Even ECW, using mostly smoke and mirrors (and a lot of Vince’s kickback money) was able to thrive in the Nineties as a somewhat viable third promotion. Certainly, with proper management and greater attention to what fans wanted to see, the AWA could have just as easily been in this mix. Fans like having options, and history has proven time and again that with competition, all involved up their game making for a better overall product.

There is no doubt Verne Gagne should be remembered for all he did for professional wrestling. Not only did he run a successful promotion for more than 30 years, he also trained some of the biggest names the industry has ever known, including Iron Sheik, Ricky Steamboat, Curt Hennig and “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. His immense contributions to wrestling cannot be overlooked.

That’s what made his inability to move with the changing climate rather than becoming resistant to it so frustrating. Verne’s knowledge could have been useful to so many other future performers. Unfortunately, for him, for the fans, for the industry as a whole, it wasn’t meant to be.

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