1: EARLY ROOTS OF PRO WRESTLING
Jeff Walton, wrestler Freddy Blassie and ring announcer Terry Brodt circa 1970.
Professional wrestling is a business. Make no mistake about it. Each year, many millions of dollars are made in the mat profession, and it is a tough, dirty and self-serving business, one that swallows people whole and spits them out without even a simple “Thank you”. Men and woman bruise their bodies and break their bones and some even die to please a ravenous public that soon forgets they existed. Why? Because professional wrestling is something you either love or hate, and when you love it, as I have, it beckons like a narcotic.
At times I have hated the game--times when I wanted to free myself from its addictive nature--but there is no Wrestling Anonymous. As a result, the lure of the game constantly draws me back, sucking me in--and I fall in love with it all over again. Even though I understand its draw, even though I understand how and why it works, the game hooks me over and over. In that way, I suspect that I am no different from those suckers who were drawn to those first carnival and tent shows of the early 1800’s where pro wrestling originated.
The traveling carnival strongmen would come into a town and challenge the toughest farmers or cowboys in the area. The promoters and the locals would wager on the outcome, although the fight was seldom on the up and up. The “challenger” was made part of the con, which guaranteed that the show would make money. He would enter the ring and knock out the “champion” with one blow. A rematch was quickly arranged, and twice as much money was bet on the challenger. Needless to say, the champion would nearly get beaten again, but at the last moment, make a miraculous comeback and win. After the show, the champ and the challenger would split with the promoter. It was a win-win situation; even the fans were satisfied because they had seen a highly entertaining match.
Today pro wrestling retains many of its carnival roots, including its closed society. When one wrestler talks to another, he may do so in ‘carney,’ a form of pigeon English and a language all its own. For example, ‘kayfabe’ is a carney term. When wrestlers are discussing the game among themselves and an outsider enters, one of the wrestlers will utter the word: ‘kayfabe’. This single word tells the other wrestlers to be silent and split up.
As the crowds grew, the pro wrestling moved indoors to increase seating capacity. If one match would draw, then several matches would draw even better. In the late 1920’s and 30’s, wrestlers like Jim Londos and “Strangler” Lewis made huge money touring the countryside. Soon territories were formed. A territory was a different area or state where local promoters staked out an exclusive claim. Posters advertising the wrestling cards were placed in store windows and tacked on telephone poles. In addition, promoters often placed ads in local newspapers. Then in the late forties, television opened pro wrestling to a wider audience, but it wasn’t until the early 50’s when enough fans had TV sets that pro wrestling really took off.
During this time most promoters went by an unwritten agreement to stay out of the other’s territory. But greed is a great motivator. Sometimes one promoter would attempt to usurp another’s area or talent. In 1960 in Los Angeles, San Francisco promoter Roy Shire invaded the area controlled by Jules Strongbow’s Hollywood Wrestling. Jules ran matches at the Olympic Auditorium while Shires ran shows a mile away at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. In this case, the established wrestling group, Hollywood Wrestling, won the battle.
II. TERRITORIES AND MERGES
During this time--the 50’s and 60’s, the “Golden Age” of professional wrestling-- certain cities, the ‘hotbeds’ of professional wrestling, did tremendous business year in and year out: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Detroit, St. Louis, and New York. Of course during those years, every area had its own “World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion.”
In Los Angeles under the banner of the World Wrestling Association (WWA) such wrestling stars as Sandor Szabo, Lou Thesz, Freddie Blassie, The Destroyer, Killer Buddy Austin, and Bobo Brazil held the title. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the early 1960’s, a young Olympic and AAU mat champion, Verne Gagne, crowned himself champion under a new organization called the American Wrestling Association (AWA). Gagne’s territory included Chicago, Iowa, St. Paul, and Winnipeg, Canada.
The most widely recognized organization was the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), which recognized Buddy “Nature Boy” Rogers as their champion. Rogers started his wrestling career in the late 40’s as Herman “Dutch” Rhodes. Through the years he developed into the all around showman. He could wrestle, and his charismatic ability made him a box office draw.
However, Rogers had a heart attack, and after several years away from the ring, attempted to make a comeback in 1963. At New York’s Madison Square Garden he wrestled a young and rising Italian mat star, Bruno Sammartino. The match lasted less than 20 seconds, ending when Bruno picked Rogers up in a bear hug and backbreaker, forcing him into submission.
The NWA refused to recognize the match as a sanctioned world title event. Most of the Midwest promoters did not see Sammartino as a draw for their areas. Instead they saw the value of Rogers, who had once drawn big crowds. However, East Coast promoters Vince McMahon Sr., Willie Gilzenberg, and Toots Mont understood that Sammartino, although relatively young and inexperienced, was a big draw among ethnic Italian fans who populated the east coast. These promoters banded together to form the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF), and their faith in Sammartino provided big dividends as the Garden sold out month after month on the strength of his name alone. Later other WWWF champions would follow in Sammartino’s footsteps: Ivan Koloff, Pedro Morales, Superstar Billy Graham, and Bob Backlund.
Some promoters soon saw that to give pro wrestling an air of legitimacy, it must have only one World Champion. That was attempted in 1969 in Los Angeles when the NWA merged with the WWA. NWA champion, Big Thunder, Gene Kiniski, of Canada wrestled the WWA champ Big Bobo Brazil, who was the first widely recognized Afro-American champion and very popular in Southern California. The match went to a one-hour draw; however, both organizations decided that Brazil would retire undefeated as WWA champion and be awarded the sum of $10,000. Immediately after, the WWA incorporated itself into the NWA, which became the governing body.
Roughly twice a year, the Hollywood Wrestling Office, now a member of the NWA, would bring in the world champion and pay the NWA a percentage of the arena gate. Many promoters, such as Roy Shire in San Francisco, belonged to the NWA but did not want to pay the percentage and refused to use the champion.
3. I ENTER THE GAME
N.W.A. World Heavyweight Champion, Dory Funk Jr., with Olympic Auditorium publicist Jeff Walton
In May 1969 I was writing for several major wrestling magazines and got in touch with Jack Disney, a former sports writer with the Los Angeles Herald, which was on strike. Jack had become the wrestling publicist at the Olympic, a job he did not care for. When I offered to help write the weekly programs Jack readily agreed, especially since I did it for free. After the strike ended, Jack went back to the Herald as a sports writer. Soon after, I got a call from Mike LeBell who was the box office manager at the Olympic and treasurer for Aileen Eaton Incorporated. Aileen was Mike’s mother and the only woman-boxing promoter in the world. She was as smart a businesswoman as I have ever known and a true legend in her own right.
Mike offered me Disney’s job because he liked the way I wrote about wrestling. I would do publicity for both the Olympic and the Hollywood wrestling office located inside the Olympic on the second floor. In addition, I was to do the weekly publicity for the clubs in San Bernardino, Ventura, North Hollywood, Long Beach, and Bakersfield.
My early duties as publicity director were of course to work closely with Mike LeBell. Mike was quite a promoter, and in many ways, ahead of the times. His main position at the Olympic was treasurer and head of the box office for both boxing and wrestling. From Mike I learned that professional wrestling is and always was a BIG business. Entertainment yes, but a ruthless business first and foremost.
An excellent example of the business side of pro wrestling was the way the LeBell / Eaton ran the Olympic. They rented the building from the L.A. Athletic Club, which had for years had been trying to unload the place. When The L.A. Athletic Club offered LeBell / Eaton the historic old arena and the surrounding property, they refused because of simple economics. LeBell/Eaton had a long-term lease, paying only $1,500 a month in rent. In turn they rented the facilities for several thousand a month to Roller Games and movies and other functions. LeBell / Eaton also controlled the parking and concession revenue for all these events.
Eventually Mike LaBell took over wrestling at the Olympic and the Hollywood Wrestling Office, forcing out the other owners. This was business, but he was never really interested in wrestling. He was interested in filling seats. He relied on me and others to build attendance.
4. PUTTING THE CARDS TOGETHER
One of my duties was to attend the regular Monday morning meetings at the wrestling office. During these three-hour sessions, we planned the programs, putting together the matches and wrestlers. Types of matches were discussed and created.
Building attendance and building wrestling stars is far from easy. Programming is the key to keeping wrestling fans happy and interested. A good program consists of pairing wrestling stars who the promoter has built over a period of time. First the promoter put the wrestlers into preliminary matches, and once he determines the wrestlers have fan interest, he moves them up the card until they are featured in a semi-main event or main event. Then he pairs them against each other over a series of weeks or months or even years if the angle is hot enough.
Back in the “Golden Days” of the early 60’s, it was Freddie Blassie against Mr. Moto. Moto was the Oriental Judo expert who, at one time, the fans loved to hate. However, World War II was long over, and Moto’s image had slowly changed over the years. He had developed into a “baby face” or “good guy”. Blassie, however, was “hot,” and in wrestling, the more “heat” that’s on a “heel,” the better draw he is. During the next few years, Blassie and Moto met in over 200 matches.
Usually Blassie won since he was ‘hot.’ Such was the outcome in Los Angeles March 15, 1961, in San Francisco August 29th, and in Atlanta Oct 5 the same year. However, when Moto would challenge Blassie to his famed Oriental Strap Match, it was a different story. In an Oriental Strap Match, both wrestlers are tied together at the wrist with a leather strap, which prevents one or both wrestlers from leaving the ring. Moto would request his type of match because Blassie was always running from the ring to escape Moto’s wrath. Under these circumstances, Moto would usually win. However, because Blassie was so highly unpopular, it did not hurt his drawing power to lose occasionally to the new hero, Moto.
When Bruno Sammartino was the champ, he often faced Gorilla Monsoon, and feuds between the two lasted for months. They would wrestle each other singly or in tag bouts. Usually the “blow-off” match or last match of a series would be a cage match with the title at stake as well as a loser leaves town stipulation. Invariably Bruno would win. The following week, Bruno would face a new challenger, an Ivan Koloff or Cowboy Bill Watts.
Putting two “baby faces” in a clean scientific match where only legitimate wrestling holds are used is usually this kiss of death with the fans. The fans want to see blood and guts where the “heel” gets his ass kicked. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. In the early 70’s at Shea Stadium, Latin heartthrob Pedro Morales wrestled Italian Superman, Bruno Sammartino to a standing room only crowd. The match was lackluster, but it satisfied the die-hard wrestling fans who wanted to know just who was the better wrestler.
Today only the WWE fully understands the art of programming. They take their time to build feuds and matches. Even the WCW, which for a while pried many stars away from Vince MaMahon, Jr. and the WWE, failed to take full advantage of programming. Ted Turner, who for several years controlled the WCW, loved his wrestling, but he allowed subordinates who knew little of wrestling to run the business. As a result, he lost money, and eventually sold out to Vince MacMahon, Jr., who now controls both the WWE and WCW. Ted Turner discovered that big name wrestling stars do not ensure success. The key to success is proper matchmaking.
5. BREAKING INTO THE BUSINESS
Getting into professional wrestling was never easy, and often promoters used various techniques to weed out the weaker or less dedicated aspirants. Years ago when I worked at the Olympic, a high school or college athlete would call Mike LeBell and claim that he wanted to be a wrestler. Mike would try to talk the young man out of it, but often a kid got smart with Mike, and when he did, Mike would invite him down to the arena for a tryout. Mike would also tell the unsuspecting athlete that if he thought he was so good, he should put up or shut up. This meant bring some cash. If he could beat one of our wrestlers, he would win the bet as well as earn himself a spot on a card.
A date and time was set up. Mike would then call his brother Gene LeBell, a former wrestler and movie stuntman and also one of the most highly rated and feared Judo experts in the World. As long as I worked at the Olympic, nobody ever beat Gene. Nobody.
Gene loved the physical conflict and challenge. Every Monday he held workouts at L.A. City College where he would “stretch” anyone who would get on the mat with him. “Stretching” is a term used to designate a particular wrestling maneuver. In these friendly matches, Gene would allow an opponent to place any hold on him. The idea was to make Gene submit. Of course, Gene could easily break any hold and turn the tables on his opponent, forcing him to submit.
Often I would see these young athletes, full of self-confidence and braggadocio, ready to conquer the wrestling world, get taken apart by a man old enough to be their father. Gene would tell them to take their best hold, and in a matter of seconds, he would have the kids tied up in a “sleeper,” a version of a Judo choke that would quickly render them unconscious. It was a humbling experience for these athletes who were used to success. Once beaten by the old man, they seldom came back for more.
The LeBells weren’t the only promoters who employed this technique. In Canada, Stu Hart, a former wrestler, loved to get aspiring amateurs to his home and show them his “dungeon” where, if they were stupid enough to accept his invitation to work-out, they came away battered and bruised. In Florida, Eddie Graham had Hiro Matsuda. If a guy wanted to get into the business there, he first had to go through Matsuda. When a very young and skinny kid named Terry Bollea approached Graham about becoming a pro-wrestler, Graham as usual offered him a tryout with Matsuda. In this case, however, the kid, knowing of Matsuda’s ring ability, made a smart move. He declined the invitation. He had no desire to have Matsuda make a fool of him and possibly end his ring career before it had even begun. Later, the kid made it big in the ring under the name of Hulk Hogan.
Before you start shaking your head and thinking that this was just plain cruel, let me say in defense of these methods, that a guy had to be tough to be in the ring. The professionals worked hard and endured grueling punishment night after night. So, if a guy didn’t have what it took and limped away, he didn’t deserve to be in the sport. If he tried out, got beaten, and came back for more, he had a chance. Professionals respect determination and courage.
Many factors go into building a grappler into a star. Sure, a guy has to have a unique gimmick, but first he has to be able to wrestle. And if a guy is of average height and weight, he will find success a whole lot harder to achieve. Years ago Vince McMahon would have only big bruiser types to wrestle the likes of Bruno Sammartino or Pedro Morales. Smaller wrestlers could be found in Mexico and other Latin American countries, and on the West Coast, we gave them a chance to shine in main events. Such was the case with Tricki Ricki Starr, a trained ballet dancer who used his small size to confuse his opponent with speed and skill. Others were Reuben Juarez, who stood all of 5’6” and weighed an honest 175lbs and who drew a sellout crowd at the Olympic against 6’9” “Big Cat” Ernie Ladd, a former San Diego Charger football star turned pro wrestler.
One of the very best wrestlers who ever stepped into the ring was Dick Beyer, who spent several years on the East Coast as a preliminary and semi-main event wrestler, but his size and frame kept him from the main events. So he packed his bags and came to California where Jules Strongbow gave him a mask and a new moniker: The Destroyer. On June 23, 1962, in San Bernardino Arena, in his first Southern California match he defeated Clyde “The Preacher” Steeves, and a new mat star was born.
The Destroyer was the all-around wrestler. He was athletic, he could actually wrestle, and most of all, he had the ability to talk to the mike. The Destroyer created a persona that has never been duplicated by any masked wrestler in the history in the business. When the bell sounded, the Destroyer, quick and agile, charged his opponent, and from then on, he was a whirlwind of action. Once he wore his opponent down, he applied a figure four leglock where he grabbed his prone opponent’s legs and twisted one over the other before dropping his left leg over the bent left leg to apply pressure. Escape form the hold was impossible, and the pain forced the opponent to submit. Week after week, The Destroyer took out one top wrestler after another until he earned a World Title shot under the WWA banner, which he won defeating Freddie Blassie. He became so popular that kids in school began applying his figure four leglock on their friends, causing numerous injuries around Southern California.
As did most wrestlers, The Destroyer eventually moved on, heading to Japan to join Big Shohei Baba’s All Japan Company. He spent many years in Japan and was one of the first to start a merchandising business based on his popularity. He brought the hot dog to Japan, setting up carts all around the Tokyo area. Later, he wrestled in Texas and in the Midwest where he changed his identity to Dr. X, wrestling the likes of The Crusher, Wilbur Snyder, and AWA champion, Verne Gagne. Beyer was such a great wrestler that he changed his entire wrestling style as Dr. X. In his new persona, he continued to draw record attendance night after night. Now retired and living in his hometown of Buffalo, New York, “Big D” as many call him, coaches high school football and high school wrestling and is very active in the Cauliflower Alley Club, an organization dedicated to helping wrestlers preserve the traditions of professional wrestling.
6. WRESTLING MOVES INTO THE MAINSTREAM
In 1983, I made extra money by sending wrestlers to Japan for Antonio Inoki’s New Japan Pro Wrestling. One of the wrestlers I sent was a young good-looking blond new star who wrestled under the name of Hulk Hogan. Later Hogan returned to the states and signed with Verne Gagne, who developed Hogan’s skills even more. Gagne promised Hogan a shot at the AWA title, and Hogan waited, but the promise was never fulfilled. In the meantime Vince McMahon Jr. had assumed full leadership of the WWF (later the WWE). Vince Jr. was always high on the tall, muscular Hogan and promised Hogan that, if he left Gagne, he would put the WWF strap on him. Hogan left Gagne and joined the WWF, and in 1983 he defeated the Iron Sheik to become the new champion. Hogan was the start of McMahon’s raid of competing organizations, bringing in the best wrestlers, announcers, writers, TV personnel, and bookers in order to create a new and greater World Wrestling Federation.
Before the television cameras, Hogan had the ability to project himself, and he became the leading player in a scenario to turn professional wrestling into a mainstream product. With the help of singer Cyndi Lauper and her manager David Wolff, Vince McMahon was able to connect with NBC’s Brandon Tartikoff, who at the time was looking to fill the Saturday Night Live spot during the summer rerun season. Tartikoff gave wrestling the shot, with the stipulation that Hulk Hogan would wrestle on television only for NBC. For a while, the wrestling show drew respectable ratings, but eventually interest began to fade. Ever alert to new possibilities, Vince began to look in other directions. Pay Per View was coming into its own, and Vince now focused on this promising new venture.
There were earlier attempts by other promoters to bring wrestling into the mainstream of the entertainment business, none more amusing that an incident involving Dr. Sam Sheppard, who had served twelve years in prison for murdering his wife.
In 1969 Mike LeBell was in close contact with Ed Farhat and his wife Joyce who were wrestling promoters in the Michigan area. Joyce’s father, Francis Fieser, was the figurehead promoter, but Farhat was the real power behind the matches at Cobo Convention Arena and other area towns. Farhat, wrestled as the original Sheik. In the ring, The Sheik did very little wrestling, but he had learned during his early years in Texas, the hotter the action, the better the show. So part of his character was to use a pencil on his opponent’s forehead or bite his opponent’s nose or throw fire in his face.
Ed Farhat also had an eye for other talent. He knew George Strickland, a local wrestler who had served time in prison with Dr. Sam Sheppard. When Sheppard was paroled, Farhat contacted Strickland and suggested that he and the former doctor could make good money in pro wrestling. Sheppard was in excellent physical shape and needed the money, so he agreed, and Farhat put them together as a tag team. Strickland was a wrestler who would work most of the match, and at the proper time, Sheppard would come into the ring and apply his “mandible claw,” a hold in which he used two fingers to apply pressure inside the mouth of his opponent that caused his opponent to pass out. (More recently, Cactus Jack and Mick Foley used a variation of this hold, no doubt borrowed from the good doctor.)
In October of 1969, Farhat convinced Mike LeBell to use Dr. Sam Sheppard and George Strickland at the Olympic for a one night charity tag team match to benefit The City of Hope Cancer Research Fund. So Sheppard and Strickland packed their bags and came out west. Strickland also brought along his wife and young 17-year-old daughter, a beautiful blonde who was constantly looking at Sheppard with doe-eyed fascination.
Dr. Sam Sheppard and George Strictland
Mike LaBell assigned me to pick up Sheppard and Strickland and family and get them to the Olympic. This was no easy feat as the good doctor was by now a very heavy drinker, and he wanted to stop for a drink every time he saw a bar. When I dropped them at the hotel, he insisted I go out and buy a case of vodka and orange juice to keep him happy. As much as Dr. Sheppard drank, I never once saw him actually drunk. Most likely he had built a high tolerance for alcohol.
A press conference was held at eleven Thursday morning at the Olympic, the day before the big match, and this was the first time I had seen the Los Angeles mainstream press cover wrestling. Standing by ringside, Sheppard and Strickland fielded questions from reporters, most of whom wanted to see if Sheppard would spill his guts about the murder of his wife. Sheppard avoided these questions by saying he had served twelve long years in hell, and that part of his life was over. He looked forward to the future and proceeded to plug the charity match for the next day. During most of the interview, Sheppard downed one screwdriver one after another. Once the interview ended, the reporters helped themselves to a free lunch that we set up for them, and Sheppard, Strickland, Mrs. Strickland and their young daughter left the building.
The next morning, the day of the match, Strickland called Mike LaBell in a panic and said Sheppard had vanished. For most of the day, we called all over LA and sent out scouts to search for the missing attraction. We were afraid he was holed up in some bar too drunk to remember what city he was in. Then about six o’clock that night, two hours before the match was to begin, just as we had about given up hope of finding him, Sheppard walked in the arena with Strickland’s daughter at his side. He announced that the two of them had just returned from Tijuana, Mexico, where they had gotten married!
Strickland went ballistic and wanted to kill Sheppard there and then. A half dozen wrestlers heard the screaming, and they came running, just in time to prevent Strickland from carrying out his threat. Furious, Strickland refused to wrestle, and stalked off to the dressing room, his face as red as live coals. Mike went after him. He told George that there was just too much publicity on this event, and that he and Sheppard would have to go through with the match.
As it turned out, the Sheppard-Strickland match proved disappointing. Both men appeared lifeless, and after ten minutes, Sheppard entered the ring and applied his mandible claw on Magnificent Maurice, ending the fiasco. Immediately after the match, Strickland stormed out of the Olympic with his wife, and the professional relationship between the two men came to an abrupt end. Strickland had teamed with Sheppard with the idea that that there was a fortune to be made utilizing the doctor’s notoriety, but all he had to show for his efforts was one fallen daughter.
Sheppard’s marriage to Strickland’s daughter lasted only a few months, and within a couple of years, Sheppard himself was dead, an inglorious conclusion to a somewhat tawdry episode.
7. MIL MASCARAS TO THE RESCUE
Wrestling has made many attempts to broaden its appeal and increase its audience, especially among Latinos. Around the same time of the Strickland-Sheppard fiasco, a young, good looking muscular Latin-wrestling star, Mil Mascaras, who was already a “big star” in Mexico, came to the Olympic and proved an instant success.
When not wrestling, Mascaras made Mexican action-adventure films, playing himself as he battled the forces of evil. His films usually involved a wrestling angle as well as matches with other Mexican stars. He was following in the path of the legendary El Santo, who was getting older but still packing them in all across Mexico. Mascaras was one of the first Mexican wrestlers who had the size and the weight of American wrestlers and was one of the first of the new breed of high flyers, those intrepid ballerina-like gymnasts who performed all sorts of leaps and jumps and athletic maneuvers.
Mascaras, whose real name is Aaron Rodriguez, made his biggest mark in Southern California in the mid-sixties. When we booked Mascaras in our local clubs we did very well, usually doubling our regular weekly attendance. However, Mascaras was not easy to deal with. He was one of the few wrestlers who dictated to a promoter his terms for the match, and even a hardened promoter like Mike LaBell agreed to his terms because of Mascaras’ drawing power.
When he came to Los Angeles in the early 70’s, we immediately booked him on our weekly show on KCOP-TV, matching against Bob Roop in the main event. Our wrestling program was broadcast live, which prevented any chance to edit videotape.
Through the ropes comes Roop, a former AAU and Olympic wrestling champion and a known tough guy in the ring. Mascaras leaped over the top rope, and after the introductions, the bell rang. The wrestlers had never faced each other, and each wanted to look good in front of the television audience. From the broadcast table Gene LaBell and I watched with fascination as Roop, wanting to outshine Mascaras, started to employ his rough house tactics.
Mil Mascaras not only held his own with Roop but maintained his composure--at least until Roop got him on the ropes, and using his thumb, dug away at Mascaras’ eye. At that point, all hell broke loose. Gene LeBell, realizing immediately what was happening, threw his mike aside and leapt into the ring. When Roop saw Gene charging at him, he dove through the ropes and fled to the dressing room where he swept up his bag, and without bothering to change, dashed out of the studio and into his rented car. He drove directly to the airport where he immediately boarded a flight for Florida, never to return to the wrestling world of Southern California.
Mascaras and Gene were in hot pursuit, and fearing what they might do if they caught the errant wrestler, I blocked their path to the dressing room and tried to calm them down. All the time Mascaras was showing me his bloodshot eye, already swelling shut. Still, he understood I had done both him and Gene a favor by preventing them from tearing Roop apart.
Mil Mascaras returned the favor the night he saved my life--or, if he didn’t save my life, he certainly saved me from a terrific beating and serious injury.
I had taken over promoting the matches in Devonshire Downs in Northridge, California, a town in the San Fernando Valley. On this particular night, we had a large crowd, mainly because the main event featured Mascaras against The Destroyer. The fans that night were a rowdy bunch, and when both Mascaras and The Destroyer were disqualified for fighting outside the ring, they were none too happy.
As I climbed into the ring to announce the decision, a disturbance broke out near the back where they my wife my friend Tom were seated. Two young men were shouting rude and obscene remarks, and irritated, Tom told them to quiet down. They continued to mouth off, and one thing led to another. Finally, he told the guys to step outside, and he took the lead.
Fearful, I jumped out of the ring and was on the last guy’s heels as we all went through the door. Suddenly the guy behind Tom jumped him. Tom, who weighted 290, threw him off like a rag doll. The other guy pulled a pistol and was about to shoot Tom when I grabbed his wrist and twisted the weapon away. In the struggle, he fell to the ground.
My mistake was to let the guy get to his feet. He ran back inside and yelled for help. Immediately the whole arena emptied and came at us, and Tom and I had our backs to a fence, surrounded by an angry, screaming mob. We were in deep trouble, and I tried to calm things down by reasoning with them. I should have known: you can’t reason with a mob. A young woman swung a vicious kick at my groin. I jumped back, stumbled into the fence, and fell to the ground. The crowd closed in on us.
Just when I thought it was all over, that Tom and I were goners, the sea of bodies parted and a strong arm reached down and pulled me to my feet. It was Mil Mascaras. With barely a word to the people who surrounded us, he guided Tom and me to the safely of the dressing room, closing and locking the door behind us. The only physical damage that either Tom or I suffered was my torn pants, which had ripped when I took the spill and landed on my butt. Otherwise we were fine. I hate to think what might have happened had Mil Mascaras not intervened. I might not be here telling you these stories.
A lot of wrestlers would have ignored the ruckus and gone about their business, but not Mil Mascaras. Certainly he had no way to know how the mob would react to his intervention--they just might as well have turned on him--yet he put his safety on the line to protect us. In as moment of crisis, he proved himself a true hero, riding to the rescue, right out of one of his films.
8. THE MAKING OF A HEEL
Mil Mascaras was a talented individual, one of the best of the athletic fly boys as well as a crowd pleaser. Such talent is rare. In my 15 years at the Olympic. I have seen the birth of such talent only a few times: The Destroyer, John Tolos, Ernie Ladd, and Bobo Brazil. I also saw it in a relatively green 18-year-old Scottish kid, Roderick Toombs, aka Roddy Piper.
In the early 70’s Blassie and John Tolos were gone, and we lacked a real heel to get the fans going. Killer Kowalski came to California, and while he was a big draw on the East Coast, his awkward, gawky wrestling style left our fans cold. Enter Leo Garibaldi, a former 50’s wrestling star who had hurt his back in the ring and could no longer wrestle. Nevertheless he had stayed in the business as a booker and matchmaker. He had a quick mind and keen ideas, and of all the bookers I’ve worked with, Leo was the best. He understood the concepts of programming better than any one I have ever known, and when a wrestler would fall ill or simply not show up, he could at a moment’s notice come up with incredibly creative ideas that more than adequately filled a card.
In his never-ending search for talent, Leo called Red Bastien in Texas, who told Leo about a rising young wrestler, Roddy Piper. Bastien had booked Piper to go to Oregon for Don Owens, and Leo asked if he could have this good-looking kid for about two weeks on his way to Oregon. Bastien agreed, and Piper came into L.A.
At first we used Roddy as a “baby-face” or good guy. He was perfect: young, good looking, thin, and very beatable. But Leo saw much more in this young athlete, something that neither Mike LeBell nor I saw. A certain spark of greatness.
One Tuesday in 1973, I got a call from Leo who was in San Diego. We had just lost a new heel, Java Ruuk (Johnny Rodz) who had hopped a plane back East, so Leo decided to transform Piper into a “heel.” Leo asked me to tell Mike LeBell. When I did so, Mike immediately ordered me to San Diego to stop Leo. Piper was a ‘baby face” and going to stay that way.
It was a three-hour drive to San Diego, and I arrived at the historic San Diego Coliseum about six o’clock to find Leo in the box office. When I told him of Mike’s decision, he appeared unperturbed. “Jeff, I’ve been watching Roddy,” he told me, “and he’s a natural heel. Already he’s been getting boos in some of the arenas, and I tell you, this kid has got something. He would make a super heel. Let me show you tonight.”
“Leo,” I began.
“Jeff, I’ll take all the responsibility. Just let me show you what Piper can do.”
That night the arena was half full, probably no more than 600 fans. Piper climbed into the ring, shook hands with his opponent, and for the first ten minutes, wrestled by the book. Then halfway through the match, he got the other wrestler on the ropes and slapped him hard. Almost immediately the 600 fans started to boo the kid. From then on Piper had extreme heat, and when he won the match, his feet on the ropes, the referee blind to the tactic, the fans went crazy, making enough noise for a crowd three times its size.
At that point, I had a new respect for Leo, but when I called Mike from the box , he yelled at me for not carrying his orders. I didn’t care because I knew that Leo was right: we had a “superstar” in the making. This was proven the following night at the Olympic when Mike, too, saw the new Piper in action. He was sensational in front of the microphone, and in the ring, he took incredible bumps that must have jarred him from head to foot. Certainly he entertained the fans far beyond their expectations.
Later in his career, Piper had to have double hip replacement from all the abuse his body suffered. But for now Piper would headline in both single and tag team events and draw record crowds against the likes of Chavo Guerrero, Andre The Giant, Mil Mascaras, Victor Rivera, and many others. Piper was a goldmine for us throughout the mid-70’s. Needless to say he stayed longer than two weeks. Actually, he stayed four years before he finally moved on to Oregon.
9. VINCE OFFERS ME A JOB
In 1982 businessman Jack Needleman purchased the Olympic and kicked us out of the 18th and Grand arena. At that point we began to run our shows at the L.A. Sports Arena, but the hey day of wrestling in Southern California was over, and we were very near to closing. I fielded several job opportunities, including one from Vince McMahon Jr., whose operation was based out of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Vince McMahon, Jr., grew up in the business, and he grew up tough. A few early failures, most notably a swimming pool company, had toughened him even more. He was always a consummate showman, and in his younger days, he was the announcer for his father’s wrestling TV shows. In the 1980’s Vince Jr. and his father bought out the other owners of the old WWWF organization. Once Vince had control, he consolidated the organization and changed the name to WWF, creating a talent pool that would be the best in the world.
Our own wrestling show on KCOP had ended, and in October 1982 Vince flew in, and Mike LaBell took him to KHJ-TV, which was an affiliate of a New York channel on which Vince’s show was currently shown. Within an hour and a half, Vince had his wrestling show on the station set to debut January 1st at eleven in the morning. Two months later, Vince ran his first card at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. From Los Angeles, Vince swept across the country to buy the slots that local wrestling programs had held for years. It was an unprecedented move by a wrestling promoter, and one that local promoters found impossible to fight. Major talent from local areas readily defected for more money and better working conditions.
Vince was ever alert for new possibilities, and when he saw that cable television was coming into its own, he contracted for a show on USA, and almost immediately it became the number one rated program on cable television. With this bold move, he had taken his new wrestling organization into the national spotlight.
In 1983 I met with Vince in Cape Cod while I collected photos and material for Vince’s Victory Magazine, which after a few issueschanged its title to WWF Magazine. At that time, Vince declared that only approved WWF photographers could be at ringside and that the wrestling magazines that covered his matches in the past would no longer be allowed to do so. Needless to say the editors and staffs of these publications were not happy with Vince’s decision. Within a year, Vince himself had seen the errors of his ways. Exposure in these other magazines could only help the WWF, and at that point, he allowed certain photographers back if they agreed to give him copies of their photos.
My agreement with Vince was to work from my home in Los Angeles until he could set up a regional office. After I finished the first issue of Victory Magazine, I got a call from Vince who told me that he needed me on the East Coast with him. “You and your family be on a plane tomorrow,” he told me.
I said that was impossible. My home was here, my wife had a very good job, and my kids were in a good school. He told me that he would get my wife a good job in Manhattan and find a place for us to live.
After my wife and I talked over the proposition, we decided to refuse the offer, and the next day I called Vince to inform him of our decision. It was the last time I would speak with him for a long time.
While I was in Cape Cod, Vince invited me to his home. After dinner, the two of us had a long talk during which he explained in great detail his plans for the future of wrestling, plans that would change the face of the business. At the time, I felt his ideas far-fetched. After all, over the past few years I had witnessed a rather steep decline in the popularity of wrestling, and here was this man talking in glowing terms of its future.
Vince went on to be a multi-millionaire. I ended up looking for another job. Vince was a man with a vision; I was a man who wanted to be home with his wife and kids. Certainly my life would have turned out vastly different had I accepted his offer, and I often wonder what would had happened had I stayed with Vince and the WWF. After all, he not only accomplished all those dreams he laid out before me that night, but he went far beyond what I suspect even he believed possible.
Jeff as Tuck Newman, his alter ego as a villainous manager