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.”

Escape from New York Blu-ray

Pinwheel Movie

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Sputnik Monroe’s Main Event Win Over Jim Crow – Pt. 2

Read Sputnik Monroe’s Main Event Win Over Jim Crow, Pt. 1 here.

Win if you can, lose if you must, always cheat, and if you have to leave the ring, leave tearing it down. – Sputnik Monroe

A White Hat Rides Into Town   

A few months prior to Monroe, Billy Wicks had arrived in Memphis, becoming a fan favorite. As an Army veteran, a former Boy Scout and the Gulf Coast Heavyweight Champion, Wicks was as “All-American” as it got; a tough-as-nails catch wrestler with good looks and a blue collar style which perfectly suited a main event southern babyface. Almost immediately, Wicks began feuding with Gorgeous George, who, at the time was almost certainly the most famous pro wrestler in the world (and one of Muhammad Ali’s early influences). The men traded Gulf Coast Heavyweight Championship wins in a “best of three” series of matches that ended 1-1-1 with Wicks retaining the belt. Wicks’ popularity soaring throughout the Southern States.

As if he needed any extra steam in Memphis, the babyface was also Elvis Presley’s favorite wrestler (and sometime trainer). With all his stars aligning, Billy’s path was clear: he and Sputnik Monroe were about to make history.

At the very same time Billy Wicks was ascending as the top “good guy” in Memphis, Monroe was ramping up his heelish ways to a fever pitch. Purposefully losing matches by attacking referees and openly cheating for wins in matches against the likes of Joey Maxim and “Spider” Galento, Monroe had the crowds ready to pounce. They were eating out of the palm of his hand.

When the wrestlers finally met in April 6th, 1959, fans were desperate to see Sputnik finally get what he had coming to him. What they were treated to was a 90-minute, two out of three falls match in which Monroe came out the victor. When the two men met the following week, Monroe again came away with the victory. The crowd was livid; promoter Buddy Fuller was ecstatic.

Fuller began using his weekly television to push a tournament to crown the first Tennessee Heavyweight Champion. Throughout the Spring on into June, Fuller would promote the tournament, making it the focal point of his television. As the tournament went on, the possibility of yet another Wicks-Monroe collision became more and more likely. Their semi-final matches were such a hot ticket, the show was forced to be moved from Ellis Auditorium (10,000-seat capacity) to Crump Stadium (25,000-seat capacity) to allow for the additional spectators. Both men won their respective matches; their clash the following week would stoke a fire that would burn throughout the summer.   

With all due respect to Elvis Presley, Wicks and Monroe had now become the hottest ticket in town. Arguably as recognizable as “The King”, the men packed houses every single week during the summer of ‘59. On June 29th, Billy Wicks finally got his revenge on the dastardly Monroe, winning the finals of the NWA Tennessee State Championship Tournament and becoming the territory’s new champion. His time atop the mountain would last until the two men locked horns on August 3rd before 10,000 fans at Russwood Park, when (with the help of fellow heel Treacherous Phillips) Sputnik would steal the title away in a Two Out of Three Falls Match.

The following week, Billy Wicks beat Treacherous Phillips all over the ring to set up a rematch with Monroe that would set an attendance record which would stand for more than 30 years.

The Blow Off

On August 17th, 1959, Billy Wicks and Sputnik Monroe would all but put an end to their feud, doing so in record breaking fashion. Once again wrestling at Russwood Park, the men drew 13,749 paying fans to see their blow off match. Another 5,000 unpaid fans were said to have watched the battle after destroying the park’s outfield fences. Boxing legend Rocky Marciano was brought in as the special guest referee to ensure Monroe couldn’t cheat his way to victory. 

In the end, Sputnik escaped with his title, albeit via typically nefarious methods. After the two men’s match got completely out of hand, Marciano was forced to rule it a “no decision”, allowing Monroe to retain the championship. Monroe then confronted Marciano and was quickly and decisively dropped by a right hand from the former boxing champ.

Several months later, Wicks and Monroe would actually team up to wrestle The Corsican Brothers in a series of matches. Proving, once again, that he was not to be trusted, Sputnik turned on Wicks, beating him down and setting up another short series together. It would be their last major angle together, as shortly thereafter, Monroe lost the championship to The Mighty Yankee and left the territory.

Deep In The Heart Of Texas

After territory hopping for a few months, Sputnik found his way to Texas where he stayed for five years. He won the NWA Texas Heavyweight Championship in Houston in late-’61 and feuded with The Sheik and the legendary Funk Family. According to Dory Funk Jr., Terry Funk wrestled his first ever match against Monroe. Sputnik then worked his way up to Oklahoma and Arkansas to wrestle against Danny Hodge in a series of matches in ‘65.

He returned to Texas in late-’67 to work in Dallas for Big Time Wrestling, feuding with Eddie Graham and Jack Brisco before heading down to Houston to rekindle his blood feud with The Funks.

Going Home Again

Married and living in Louisiana, Sputnik used his home base to wrestle for an endless number of territories the remainder of his career, working as both a singles and tag team wrestler throughout the South. Teaming with Ron Fuller and Norville Austin he won tag team gold on several occasions, including the NWA World Tag Team Title in ‘72. He stayed active in the ring until 1976, when he decided to (mostly) call it a career, only climbing into the ring for one-offs and special events. 

Monroe would still return to Memphis from time to time, always to much fanfare. In his final match, a one-on-one battle against his chief rival, Billy Wicks, Sputnik would get the sendoff he deserved. On March 7th, 1988, before a raucous Mid-South Coliseum crowd, Monroe and Wicks locked horns one last time; Wicks picked up the victory.

Into his later years, Monroe was still being kissed on the cheek by women far younger than he and thanked for all he’d done for race relations. Younger generations had heard stories about him from their parents and grandparents and knew of his importance to the Memphis area. When asked how it made the old time heel feel to receive such adoration, Monroe said simply, “It’s hell to see the toughest son of a bitch in the world cry when that happens.”

Roscoe “Sputnik Monroe” Brumbaugh passed away on November 3rd, 2006 after a battle with lung cancer. He was 77 years old and left behind a legacy worthy of remembrance and celebration. Upon learning of his death, Dory Funk Jr. said, “I am saddened to hear of the passing of Sputnik Monroe. He was one of our family’s best friends. I learned much about the wrestling business by knowing and working with Sputnik Monroe.”

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

Colonel DeBeers Was A Lot Of Things, But A Shade Of Gray Wasn’t One Of Them

I wanna get to the heart of my complaint against dirty sports in America: the use and abuse of anabolic steroids by Scott Hall! The man has obviously overstepped his bounds and he is dirty, filthy and eaten up with anabolic steroids! – Colonel DeBeers

On November 12, 1988, WCWA Heavyweight Champion, “The Modern Day Warrior” Kerry Von Erich put his title on the line against the hated AWA heel, Colonel DeBeers, in Las Vegas, Nevada. At some point during the match, DeBeers managed to lock onto Kerry’s right boot, and as he’d done hundreds of times before, the colonel gave the babyface opponent’s leg a nice twist. However, when Von Erich’s boot came completely off, revealing nothing but a stump below his ankle, DeBeers knew this was something entirely different from all the other times he’d applied an ankle lock. Immediately, he turned his confusion towards the referee while Kerry rolled under the ring and reattached his boot. 

Two and a half years prior, Von Erich had been involved in a horrific motorcycle accident that, ultimately, resulted in the amputation of his right foot. A prosthetic was made which allowed him to continue to wrestle, but virtually no one in the business knew of his amputation. Based on his reaction, Colonel DeBeers was most certainly not one of the few people “in the know”.

Almost surprisingly, this would not be the craziest thing Colonel DeBeers would be involved in during his 20+ year wrestling career.

What’s A Wiskoski?

I’ve previously written about the American Wrestling Association and the wealth of top tier heel wrestlers the company had its disposal in the ‘80s and early-’90s, scribbling at length on their greatness and need for a transcendent babyface to keep the company relevant as Vince McMahon went national and began steamrolling over the ‘Territory System’.

Casual fans of pro wrestling know names like Nick Bockwinkel, “The Living Legend” Larry Zbyszko, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and The Nasty Boys. Bockwinkel became the face of the AWA, while the other men I’ve mentioned spent large swaths of time on the national stage with the WWE/F and/or WCW. One heel that often falls through the cracks when discussing AWA heels, however, was regional bad guy, Colonel DeBeers, who, during a time when pro wrestling was fighting to become more “kid friendly”, doubled down on “evil” to the point where some have argued he went too far.

DeBeers got his start in 1973 and was trained by Lord Littlebrook and Harley Race. Wrestling under his real name, Ed Wiskoski, he spent several years working in Florida and the Midwest, winning several regional titles, including the NWA Central States Championship in ‘75. As champion, he turned himself into a big enough draw around Iowa, Kansas and Missouri that it landed him an opportunity to face Terry Funk, then the NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion in a Two Out of Three Falls Match. He came up one fall short, but Wiskoski was off and running. 

After a month-long tour of Japan with AJPW, Wiskoski moved on to the Northwest, working the next two years (summer of ‘77 – summer of ‘79) for Don Owen and his Pacific Northwest Wrestling promotion. There he formed a formidable tag team with “Playboy” Buddy Rose, winning the PNW Tag Team Titles on several occasions. He also added two PNW Heavyweight Championship reigns to his wrestling resumé, feuding with Portland legend Dutch Savage.

In close proximity to San Francisco, Wiskoski also worked for Big Time Wrestling, winning the NWA San Francisco U.S. Title and tagging with Rose and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper to capture the NWA San Francisco World Tag Team Championships three times. 

During the five years that followed, Wiskoski went on a territory-hopping tour that would land him back in the Midwest and Florida, and also New York, Mid-South, Canada and Germany. He even found his way back to Portland for another main event run, working part of the time under the name Mega Maharishi Imed, but in February of ‘86, he joined the AWA, taking on the new name and character that would make him more infamous than famous.

The Face Of Evil In The AWA

In the mid-’80s, the race-related political unrest in South Africa was a regular topic of discussion on the nightly news. The apartheid system enforced racial discrimination, separating people based on their race and features. Wiskoski, assuming the name Colonel DeBeers, the “heir to the De Beers Diamond Mines”, became the pro wrestling embodiment of everything that was appalling about the racial segregation that had been a fixture in South Africa for centuries.

For the first few months in the AWA, he wrestled against the likes of The Midnight Rockers, Brad Rheingans and Wahoo McDaniel, earning the hate of every last fan that watched him wrestle. But it was his blood feud with the legendary “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka that turned him into the most hated man in the Minnesota-based promotion. In July of ‘86, Snuka was one of the biggest babyfaces in pro wrestling. Having worked all across the U.S., Jimmy was known far and wide and for a time in the mid-’80s was widely considered the most popular WWF wrestler not named Hulk Hogan.

Dialing up his hateful rhetoric, DeBeers tapped into something beyond heat, grabbing the fans hook, line and sinker. Snuka would prevail in their series of matches, but the colonel turned himself into pro wrestling’s face of racism, a heat-seeking endeavor that not only kept him in the wrestling magazines (then a primary method for a fans to learn about wrestlers outside their region), but also under the employ of the AWA for over four years.

Goin’ Goin’ Back Back To Cali

Shortly after the demise of the AWA, Herb Abrams’ California-based UWF came into existence. Flawed as it was, it was still a place to work and DeBeers was one of the veterans signed for the first series of television tapings. The first televised show from Abrams’ UWF aired on September 24th, 1990 and the pro-Apartheid heel wasted no time in infuriating every last person possible. After spending close to two decades in the wrestling industry, the man was an expert on garnering attention from a crowd, and the brand new promotion for which he was employed needed just that.

Entering the ring prior to his match with Billy Jack Haynes, DeBeers turned his attention to referee Larry Sampson, a black man, and bellowed, “I will not have a black man refereeing my matches”! Just like that, everyone in the building hated the Colonel’s guts. This led to even more heat with fans after he tried to attack the very same referee a few shows later, leading to a short feud with another major regional name of that era: “Iceman” King Parsons. Though the UWF’s run was marred with failure, the colonel remained one of the few bright spots. He was detestable and reviled; he was everything he was trying to be.

Smart, not “smart”

Over the years, it’s been debated that Col. DeBeers went too far with some of his promos and actions. Some say he did more damage with his words than he did good in trying to parody this type of evil character. In my youth I watched Baron Von Raschke goose-step around a ring, Randy Savage damn near murder Ricky Steamboat by crushing his windpipe and Abdullah the Butcher carve up every last babyface hero I ever had. All these men worked to make you and me feel something more than that which can be expressed by simply booing. They needed our hearts.

DeBeers went down the same road as these men and when such a road is traveled, there are likely going to be times when a line or two is crossed. Did he go too far? Perhaps, but I miss the days when promotions thought enough of their fans to know we’d be smart enough (no, not “smart” enough) to hate the right wrestlers. The color gray is as boring as can be. The Colonel DeBeers character was a lot of things, but it was never a shade of gray.

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Cocaine, Cancellations And Even More Cocaine: Herb Abrams’ UWF

Colonel Red, no one has ever done anything like this to me! I am going to get you! – Herb Abrams

On March 10th, 1991 in the Penta Hotel, an ever-dwindling New York City crowd had just sat through 22 wrestling matches of varying quality. The television taping they were attending had started late, was running long and fans were leaving in droves. Considering there were only 400 people in attendance when the night started, Herb Abrams, owner of the just launched Universal Wrestling Federation couldn’t afford to lose “droves”.

Grabbing a microphone at ringside, Abrams implored the ambivalent masses to stay for one more match, the final match of the night. Several fans seemingly took pity on the man, returning to their seats. Others ignored the request entirely, making their way to the exit. A few seconds later, “Soul Man” by the legendary R&B duo Sam & Dave began playing over the P.A. and S.D. Jones emerged from the curtain (Mr. Haiti in tow). Almost immediately, a large number of those still in attendance began collecting their things and heading for the door. Roughly 30 seconds later, the UWF owner did the very same thing.

It could be argued it was the first and last time Herb Abrams made the right decision during his 5 years as head of the UWF.

The UWF Explodes Onto The Scene (With A Whimper)

Thanks to generous financing from “Nigerian investors” (yeah, that sounds totally legitimate) Herb Abrams’ Universal Wrestling Federation (not to be confused with Bill Watts’ promotion of the same trademark-less name) got up-and-running in August of 1990, securing a television slot on SportsChannel America, which found itself in need of pro wrestling programming after dropping the much-maligned IWA. Abrams boasted a stacked roster that included the likes of Terry Funk, Big John Studd and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, trading on their star power to seal the deal with the channel. Granted, none of these men had agreed to wrestle for the new promotion, but Abrams knew enough to know you never let the truth get in the way of a perfectly good lie.

After a press conference that included “Dangerous” Danny Spivey and B. Brian Blair, the UWF began taping episodes of Fury Hour in September of ‘90 in Reseda, California while simultaneously (attempting) to put on live events. Truth be told, the company did have a roster filled with stars, but by 1990, names like Bob Orton, Jr., “Mr. 1derful” Paul Orndorff and Billy Jack Haynes simply didn’t carry the same drawing power in the U.S. as they had a few years prior.

Abrams also managed to get Bruno Sammartino hired, but considering the longtime (W)WWF Champion had retired from in-ring competition, what he got was one of the worst commentators of all time rather than one of the greatest wrestlers ever. Bruno’s son, David, was also signed. Unfortunately for fans, he did wrestle for the company.

Purported UWF booker, Blackjack Mulligan, wasn’t even aware he’d been hired (you know, what with him being in jail at the time for counterfeiting and all). Abrams had a backup plan, however, expressing an interest in bringing Bruiser Brody on board for the position. 

The same Brody who’d been dead for a little over two years. Ultimately, the owner named himself as booker.

Things were off to a great start for Herb Abrams’ UWF.

The “Wild Thing” Ran Wild, Um, Brother?

With a roster loaded with known quantities, albeit ones looking for a payday more than a platform to showcase their skills, there wasn’t much room (or money) left for young guys trying to make a name for themselves. With one of the available spots in this sea of grizzled vets, Abrams hired a blonde haired, 20-something former bodyguard for Hulk Hogan by the name of Steve “Wild Thing” Ray.

Ray got his start in pro wrestling in late-’87, working throughout the Midwest and competing for a few regional championships in Kansas and Missouri. The 6’3” former football player had a good look and plenty of “want to”, but the UWF started disorganized and only got worse as time passed.

By May of ‘91, a supposed divide between Abrams and Ray had grown into a chasm, leading to one of the weirder stories in UWF’s short history. Abrams, suspecting his wife of having an affair with Ray, paid Steve Williams an extra $100 to break the young wrestler’s nose during a match. When you ask a guy nicknamed “Dr. Death” to hurt someone, you typically get what you pay for. After being thrown around for several minutes, Ray turned his attention to Abrams who was climbing into the ring. He took a wild swing at the UWF owner, but ol’ Herb was able to duck it and make an escape.

The question is, was this a shoot? Steve Ray has denied it, saying it was all set up by Abrams to garner some heat and that he owes a lot to his former boss for showing him the “dos and don’ts” of running a successful business. Former UWF vice president Zoogz Rift disagrees with Ray, claiming Abrams’ anger was very real, saying, “Ray allegedly screwed Herb in a drug deal”.  Ray stands by his account, evening pointing out the end of the match where you can see Abrams whisper something to the wrestler (presumably telling him to take a swing at him). Ah, yes, the joys of pro wrestling mythology!

Nonstop To Nowhere

On June 9th, 1991, the UWF held the first (and only) pay-per-view in the history of the company. Beach Brawl took place at the Manatee Civic Center in Palmetto, Florida before 550 people. The PPV started off on the wrong foot when the opening bout, a Street Fight between Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy and Johnny Ace, supposedly ran long, throwing the rest of the show into upheaval. The main event that night was a match between Steve Williams and Bam Bam Bigelow to crown the UWF Television Champion. Williams won the match, making him the only winner that night as with a buyrate of 0.1, Beach Brawl set a record for the least purchased PPV in wrestling history.

Cancelled events and poor attendance were the norm for the fledgling promotion, often due to incompetence on the part of Abrams or unrealistic expectations from SportsChannel. Credit to the owner for hustling every step of the way, but as Zoogz Rift said, “money was always around, but he (Abrams) spent it in the wrong places”. Wrestling finishes often made no sense, a product of Abrams’ lack of experience as a booker coupled with a veteran roster that had little respect for him. Rift, who would take over booking the promotion for a time in ‘93 and ‘94, leave, then return to serve as vice president of the UWF until Abrams’ passing in ‘96, believes the company failed because Abrams was “more interested in feeding his drug addictions”.

Between ‘94-’96, several shows and events were planned to relaunch the UWF. Unfortunately, if Rift is to be believed, the money “always went up Herb’s nose”. Event in places like North Dakota and Minnesota were filmed but never released. Existing episodes of the promotion were licensed to ESPN2, several international companies were sold “exclusive rights” to the UWF catalog (yes, you read that correctly…multiple companies were sold exclusive rights), but no real momentum was ever achieved, at least where a relaunch was concerned.

Herb Goes Out With A Bang

Herb Abrams’ “final stand” took place on July 23rd, 1996 in the very same part of the world where just five years prior, he’d pleaded with a disinterested audience to stay to the end of a UWF TV taping. Having already been arrested in five states and awaiting trial for a variety of charges, including attempted rape, robbery and drug possession, Abrams was confronted by police in his Manhattan office space after a disturbance was reported. “Mr. Electricity” was found naked, covered in Vaseline and cocaine and chasing two prostitutes around with a baseball bat. He’d destroyed several pieces of furniture and was quite unwell.

Police took Abrams into custody and headed to the nearest hospital. Ninety minutes later, he had a massive heart attack due to a cocaine overdose, dying instantly.

The UWF Shot Its Shot

The legacy of Herb Abrams’ UWF is far more “ha ha” than “holy shit” but here’s the part where I try and put a positive spin on it.

Remember when Vince McMahon and Eric Bischoff made themselves evil authority figures on RAW and Nitro during an era when pro wrestling was as hot as it’s ever been? Well, Herb Abrams beat ’em to that idea by five years (albeit with far less success). Still, the man deserves a doff of the cap for being ahead of the game.

Abrams also deserves recognition for being a fan that went “all in” and tried to put out the kind of product he wanted to see. Fine, it was usually awful, but it was his to have and hold. He had zero experience to draw upon, but props to him for at least trying. In that way, he differentiated himself from the standard complaining wrestling fan, content to sit and whine.

That the UWF failed isn’t a surprise, but it shouldn’t be the only way we remember the ill-fated promotion. Instead, it should also serve as a reminder of just how difficult it is to build, grow and maintain a successful wrestling company.

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The Element Of Fear In Pro Wrestling Is A Thing Of The Past (But Bray Wyatt’s Working On It)

Anybody, anywhere who does not fear the name Abdullah the Butcher is either an insane fool or they’re lying to ya! – “Playboy” Gary Hart

The first live wrestling show I ever attended was in my East Texas grade school gymnasium. I was 8 years old and the Main Event that night was One Man Gang vs. my childhood hero, “The Modern Day Warrior” Kerry Von Erich. I don’t remember a thing about the rest of the show, but I remember this: One Man Gang beat Kerry bloody with a chain in front of a sea of children, then threatened to do the same to me and a few of my friends as he left the ring. It was terrifying; it was awesome.

Several years ago, I saw One Man Gang at a wrestling convention but I didn’t approach him. I’m a grown-ass man, pay all my bills, travel the world in search of fun and adventure, but the second I saw Gang up close, I was 8 years old again. It wasn’t that I was still afraid of the man; I just wanted to hold on to a bit of that feeling I felt as a kid watching him lay waste to my heroes.

I know times have changed regarding the manner in which professional wrestling is presented, but even as a kid I knew things were predetermined. But, you see, the magic wasn’t in One Man Gang convincing me pro wrestling is real. The magic was in him convincing me he was real.

“One, Two Freddy’s After You…”

I am not a fan of the horror movie genre, but I saw my share in my youth. As a child of the ’70s and ’80s I’m also well aware I grew up during its apex. The very year (1984) I became a wrestling fan, A Nightmare on Elm Street was released. A burned up bastard with knives for fingers, hunting you down in your dreams? Thanks for the trauma, Wes Craven.

That same year, Jason returned to the scene with the 4th installment of Friday the 13th. Sure, plenty of those movies are ridiculous, but a big-ass walking corpse with a hockey mask and a machete is gonna always be enough to tap me out.

Reality Is Scary 

Scaring the hell out of kids is a lost art in professional wrestling. One of the coolest things about hitting my stride as a wrestling fan in the mid-‘80s was the presence of so many classic “monster heels”. With the wrestling business still closely guarded at that time, young fans invested emotionally in many of the more talented characters of that era, particularly those with a sense of realism to them. Stan Hansen scared me to death when I was young. Why? Because, being a Texas boy, I could relate to a lunatic redneck, flailing wildly at everything within swinging distance. I called him Uncle Thomas. After spending a few deer camps in close proximity to a bunch of East Texas lunatics gettin’ drunk and firing off guns, buying into the Borger, Texas native hook, line and sinker was easy. 

The aforementioned One Man Gang was another wrestler capable of putting fear in young heart. Why? Because he was a massive, chain-wielding biker with a wild-ass hairdo and a surly disposition. Those dudes existed in my town! Hell, my dad, then a defense attorney, represented tons of ‘em!

Turning the volume up on characters like that, two crazed and out of control men with very little regard for social mores, just made sense to me, especially during that era of professional wrestling. Thinking about it in terms of the horror movie genre, Stan Hansen and One Man Gang weren’t all that different from Leatherface. What made that dude a scarier prospect than, say, the Wolfman? Simple: Leatherface could have actually lived on the farm next to mine! This is a messed up world, and we’ve all watched plenty of nightly news. A crazy dude wearing a dead skin mask and cutting people to ribbons with a chainsaw? For a country boy, this is a completely plausible scenario, folks!

The Madman From Sudan

Another legendary monster of that era (and the character that scared me the most as a young wrestling fan) was Abdullah the Butcher. His name made children cringe, and his entrance, particularly when he was led to the ring by the evil genius Gary Hart was perfection. Watching Abdullah rock back in forth in the corner with that hood over his head built anticipation. After Hart removed the hood and Abdullah unleashed his brand of uncontrolled madness on your favorite wrestlers, you had no choice but to believe. There was never a time in my youth when I didn’t have a subtle gnawing at my stomach before an Abdullah match.

The Butcher’s body of work with Bruiser Brody alone, whether in Puerto Rico, Japan or World Class, resulted in a decade-long bloodbath. I still remember sitting on the floor of my living room, 3 feet from the television, equal parts enthralled and horrified at the sight of Abby working that fork over Brody’s forehead. He was far from a technical wizard and Brody would just flat beat people up, but they fought all over the world for years thanks to their ability to make fans believe everything they were seeing, all while staying monsters.

The Butcher borrowed heavily from the horror film genre, his vacant eyes a window into the soul of a man who wanted nothing more than complete carnage.

“Ki Ki Ki Ma Ma Ma…Ki Ki Ki Ma Ma Ma…” 

There was no shortage of pro wrestling monsters back then. The Missing Link slammed his own head into turnbuckles that were supposedly meant to be used to harm his opponents. The Sheik hurled balls of fire from his fingertips into the eyes of popular babyfaces. The Great Kabuki was a martial arts killer sent from Japan to put an end to our beloved Von Erich family. Kamala the Ugandan Giant was an African headhunter. Yeah, a headhunter, and throughout my childhood the heads he was after were those of The Von Erichs, Hulk Hogan and Sgt. Slaughter, all “good guys”, all massive fan favorites.  

Back when Pro Wrestling Illustrated was something you could pick up at any gas station or grocery store, I can recall flipping through pages and running across black and white photos of Lord Humongous in a Mid-South steel cage against Jake Roberts. The Humongous gimmick, which is still being played sparingly today on the Indy circuit, was a great example of an unstoppable monster. The character, a take on “the Humugous” from Mad Max II: The Road Warrior, was yet another “monster heel” created to instill fear in the hearts of young fans. He wasn’t there to do moonsaults; Lord Humongous was a silent stalker of prey. A guy jumping off a ladder? That’s scary for him. The idea of never being able to get away from a masked killer, despite you moving as fast as you keep while they seem to be moving in slow motion? That’s scary for you

By the mid-‘90s, monsters just didn’t get protected the same way they did in previous decades. Overexposure is likely the main culprit, but the pro wrestling business going out of its way to hit us over the head with the word “entertainment” didn’t help either. Remember what I wrote earlier: the magic wasn’t in One Man Gang convincing me pro wrestling is real. The magic was in him convincing me he was real.

For a short while, Kane perfectly encapsulated what it means to be a “monster” in pro wrestling: silent, methodical, and single-minded in his need to destroy. The Boogeyman also had a short, scary run in WWE as well, but the company was quick to pivot into comedy with both characters. Abyss was a great monster in the early-’00s, until TNA sent him to therapy and turned him into a lawyer. 

Let Him In

Today, Bray Wyatt and his Fiend is the only guy I can think of actively trying to scare the audience on a psychological level. The months of build through his Firefly Funhouse segments have been sinister, frighteningly funny and with just the right amount of jabbing at his former self: a cult leader character with all the promise of many of the previously mentioned monsters, ultimately prostituted by WWE in the name of “putting smiles on faces”. It would nice if the company would protect the Fiend’s “fear factor” the way classic monsters like Abdullah the Butcher and The Missing Link did decades prior.

Whether WWE holds up its end of things or not, one thing is certain: Bray Wyatt is doing everything in his power to rekindle that element of terror. By worrying more about making you afraid over making you smile, he’s proving there’s still plenty of room at the top of the industry for a guy who just wants you to believe.

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Wendi Richter And The Swerve That Set The WWE Women’s Division Back Three Decades

Moolah has seen her day. They couldn’t even put her face on a can of dog food to sell it and she knows it! – Wendi Richter

Captain Lou Albano was on a plane to New York, headed back from Puerto Rico. The longtime wrestling manager struck up a conversation with the people sitting next to him on the flight, talking shop and discussing ways they could work together on something. The two people, 2-time Grammy Award Winner Cyndi Lauper (who was on the cusp of releasing the smash record She’s So Unusual) and her manager, David Wolff, enjoyed Albano’s banter and seemed interested in seeing what might come of a working relationship.

When it came time to do a video for the first single off the record, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Albano was cast as her stepdad. The song was massive, reaching #1 in 10 countries (including the U.S.), leading to a partnership with the World Wrestling Federation that set off the “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling” era, a boom period for wrestling seen just one other time since.

At the same time, 23-year-old Wendi Richter had just re-signed with the WWF after stints in Japan, the AWA, Mid-South and Stampede. Now a 4-year veteran of several territories, she was being brought back to the WWF, thanks in no small part to her former trainer, Lillian Ellison, aka The Fabulous Moolah, the longest reigning wrestling champion in the history of the business.

“Rock ‘n’ Wrestling”, however, was about to put the women at odds in a very big way, leading to one of the biggest feuds, and, ultimately, shoot matches in the history of North American women’s pro wrestling.

She Bop

Wendi Richter first broke into pro wrestling in 1979 at the age of 18 when she joined the Lillian Ellison School of Professional Wrestling, making her in-ring debut the same year. At 5’8” and “150 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal”, Richter came by bookings easily (provided Moolah allowed it). At that time, women’s wrestling ran almost entirely through The Fabulous Moolah. She controlled bookings and paydays, meaning she also controlled how much money ended up in her pocket prior to the other women receiving their money. Her upfront rate was 25%, but Richter always assumed she kept more.

Wendi had extended runs in several Midwest and Deep South territories, often working with Joyce Grable, the pair twice teaming up to win the NWA Women’s Tag Team Championship. A 2-week booking in New York in the Spring of ‘82 (including a tag match in Madison Square Garden with Moolah as her partner) gave Richter a taste of the WWF. After spending the remainder of the year working all across the U.S. and Canada, the Dallas, Texas native made her way back to New York just after Christmas, finishing out the year with five tag team wins with Moolah again as her partner.

Her star on the rise, Richter signed a deal with Vince McMahon in late-’83, finished up her bookings and joined the WWF roster in late-March of ‘84, immediately teaming up with Peggy Lee, a fellow student of Moolah’s school. Three weeks later, on April 19th, she had a Dark Match vs. Moolah for the women’s title. She lost, but the message was clear: Richter was about to get pushed to the moon.

Money Changes Everything

When Richter signed with McMahon, she told him her pay was to go directly to her, not Moolah. Vince agreed, cutting off one of Moolah’s major streams of revenue. Wendi Richter was on the verge of becoming a breakout star and with the help of MTV and Cyndi Lauper, Vince McMahon had designs on making her the Hulk Hogan of women’s wrestling. Using MTV’s growing mainstream appeal, the WWF shot Richter out of a cannon, featuring her in vignettes with Cyndi Lauper promoting her July 23rd Main Event bout with The Fabulous Moolah on a show that would air on the music channel called “The Brawl To End It All”. The program drew a 9 share, meaning 9% of all televisions in the U.S. tuned in to see Wendi Richter become the new WWF Women’s Champion. The match was a massive success for MTV, the WWF and women’s wrestling. Everyone involved was ecstatic. Well, everyone involved except Moolah (despite the massive payday from Vince).

By putting Richter over, without complaint, she, according to legendary wrestling manager Jim Cornette, “got Vince McMahon’s loyalty for life”, but Richter tells a different tale. “Moolah was jealous of me because I was younger than her,” said Richter. “When I won that championship, everyone was up on their feet and cheering. Someone had finally beaten her after 28 years.”

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Wendi and Moolah wrestled no fewer than 20 more times over the next three months with Richter winning each time. The Women’s Champion had become a household name and was a featured wrestler on WWF merchandise, reigning supreme for seven months. Richter, however, didn’t believe she was being paid like a champion. “The men were being paid far more than the women, but I was the only one saying anything,” said Richter.

“Every time I saw (Vince) I brought up payoffs,” she would later say. “I wasn’t ugly or yelled or anything like that. I always told him, ‘Vince, I need to make more. I’m not bringing home enough to justify being on the road like this.’”

McMahon, in an effort to take Wendi down a peg, took the title off her, Richter losing it to another one of “Moolah’s girls”, Leilani Kai, whom also had a hand in training Richter. The women wrestled 8 more times prior to the first WrestleMania with Kai winning 7 of the matches. Leilani, however, was not going to be the face of women’s wrestling, not in Vince McMahon’s eyes, at least. Having served her time in Vince’s doghouse, Richter (w/ Cyndi Lauper in her corner) was given another run with the WWF World Women’s Title, defeating Kai (w/ Moolah in her corner) at WrestleMania I.

Wendi again held the title for seven month, defeating Kai and Moolah on multiple occasions. She was the biggest name in women’s wrestling, but still didn’t feel like she was being paid accordingly. Without Moolah in her corner, Richter was on an island. Yes, she was talented and gorgeous and everything McMahon wanted in a women’s champion. She was also making too many waves at a time when Vince was positioning Hulk Hogan as the face of the industry. Unable to come to terms on a new contract, a decision was made to take the belt off Richter, this time for good.

True Colors

Penny Mitchell became a professional wrestler in 1982. Yet another of Moolah’s “girls”, she was booked in several territories, gaining experience and honing her skills. The WWF was one of the territories she worked, signing with the promotion on a full-time basis in July of ‘84. Less than a year into her WWF run, Mitchell was repackaged as The Spider Lady, working under a mask to conceal her identity. The new look put her on a collision course with Wendi Richter, the two women engaging in a month-long feud that reached its apex on November 25th, 1985.

Before a capacity crowd in Madison Square Garden, The Spider Lady was getting her shot at the title against the recently unbeatable Richter. In those days, heels and babyfaces still dressed in separate locker rooms. When The Spider Lady entered the ring, that was the first time Richter had seen her that day, but after having worked with her eight times prior to this night, she knew something seemed off. Penny Mitchell was the same size as the champion. The woman standing across the ring was noticeably shorter. “I knew at that time I’ve gotta protect myself,” said Richter. 

When the bell rang, Richter repeatedly went for The Spider Lady’s mask, trying to remove it. The quality of the contest sailed downhill quickly. When The Spider Lady finally got the champ in a pinning predicament, everything went off the rails. “The referee counted ‘1’, I kicked out, had my shoulder up and he counted ‘2, 3,’” said Richter. The now former champion had just been swerved, but things were about to go from bad to worse.

Knowing she’d been double crossed, Wendi Richter went for The Spider Lady’s mask, ripping it off her head and revealing The Fabulous Moolah. Grabbing her by the hair as Moolah attempted to run away, Richter went into a series of odd-looking work/shoot moves, throwing the new (old) champion around the ring, slamming her down to the mat, then hooking and pinning her in much the same way Moolah had just done her. 

Furious, the former champion left the ring and went back to the locker rooms, searching for McMahon. When no one would tell her where he was, she grabbed her things, left the arena for the airport and didn’t return to the WWF/WWE until 2010, when she was inducted into the company’s Hall of Fame.

Change Of Heart

Richter disappeared from the wrestling business for a time, resurfacing on the Independent scene in ‘87. She also worked for WWC in Puerto Rico and the AWA, winning those promotions version of the women’s title. Her feud with Madusa Miceli in late-’88/early-’89 was one of the hottest angle going in the AWA during that time. By the end of ‘89, however, Wendi Richter was all but done with professional wrestling.

It’s impossible not to wonder what might’ve been for women’s wrestling had Richter continued working for the WWF. Would she have become the Hulkster of the division? Would Hollywood have come calling the way it did for Hogan? What would a feud between Wendi and Sensational Sherri have looked like? What about Wendi and Madusa on the WWF stage?

Richter was the “chosen one”. Had she and Vince been able to reach an agreement and continued to build the division, I can’t help but think we might have been able to avoid the six and a half years (2/21/90-12/12/93, 12/13/95-9/14/98) the women’s championship title was either deactivated or simply forgotten.

Regardless, the former 6-time women’s champion is fine with how everything turned out. “It changed my career; it changed my life,” said Richter concerning her ending in the WWF. Speaking to Sean Mooney on his Primetime with Sean Mooney podcast, she would go on to say, “I started going to college and I just thank the Lord that I did that. I make far more (as a physical and occupational therapist) than I ever made in wrestling and I get to sleep in my own bed. I couldn’t have that when I was wrestling on the road.”

Oh, and what became of Penny Mitchell? She wrestled for another two years, but never again as The Spider Lady.

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