During his long, illustrious career, ‘Handsome’ Johnny Valentine earned the reputation as the toughest wrestler around by fighting such violent and bloodthirsty brutes as Mark Lewin, the original Sheik and Bobo Brazil.

Johnny Valentine as Missouri champion. Photo by Mike Lano

Today, Johnny Valentine lies prone in a hospital bed in Fort Worth, Texas battling an opponent far tougher than any he faced in the ring: Death.

“(His condition) is critical right now. He’s been in and out of the I.C.U. (intensive care unit) here since August 14th,” confirmed Valentine’s wife Sharon to SLAM! Wrestling over the phone last week from the hospital. “He fell off our front porch… it was a freak accident. He just fractured his back at the time and twisted his colon… I’m scared to death that I can’t get him any proper help and he’s come a long way, and he’s fought a hard battle and is still struggling to pull through.”

Johnny Valentine, 72, is no stranger to accidents. On October 4, 1975 he was involved in a horrific plane crash, breaking his back in three places thus ending his wrestling career. Since then, he has had to walk with the assistance of a permanent brace on his right leg and hand crutches. Last year, a morphine implant pump was surgically placed into his stomach to control the nerve damage in his right leg.

Ever since the crash, Johnny Valentine had been going through life undeterred, displaying the legendary toughness he was known for during his ring career. He kept in tremendous shape working out three to five days a week, helped to train several wrestlers from his Texas home and travelled extensively with Sharon, his wife and companion of 30 years. Although he suffered through continuous pain in his right leg, he didn’t allow that to keep him from living a full, productive life.

“I couldn’t keep up with him,” kidded Mrs. Valentine. “He was just so full of zest and life. He wanted to be on the go everyday. He would tire me out.”

That is, until this past August and the accident on the front porch.

Johnny Valentine has had to fight an arduous, uphill battle since being admitted to the hospital. During the course of his stay, both of his lungs have collapsed due to a staph infection. He’s had ongoing problems with his respiratory system. His kidneys have stopped operating. A small bubble developed on the inside of his intestines, forcing his bowels to completely shut down. Nurses moving him out of his room accidentally jerked an intravenous feeding tube out of his body.

But it was Valentine’s first few days in the hospital that found him at death’s door. Four days after coming out of back surgery, Valentine developed pneumonia. The doctors gave him hours to live.

“The doctor called me out into the hall,” recalled Mrs. Valentine. “They said ‘I’m sorry Mrs. Valentine, we’ve done all we could do, he’s not responding, we’re losing him right now.’ I told them to put him in the I.C.U. for me and he said ‘no we can’t do that’. I said, ‘my husband’s dying… I want my husband in the I.C.U. and I want him in there now’. They said ‘no’. I said ‘you’re doing nothing for him’. And he said ‘well, I’m sorry I’m not going to take this anymore’. He walked off and left me standing in the hall crying.”

Much like her dying husband, Mrs. Valentine has been embroiled in a life or death fight of her own.

“I just (feel) so imprisoned. What can I do? I’m just caught here. I can’t move him, I can’t take him somewhere else and I don’t have the finances to do this on my own.”

The problem?

Mrs. Valentine signed up with a H.M.O. (Health Maintenance Organization) to provide medical coverage for her and her husband several years ago. Now she finds herself embattled in a bureaucratic tug of war with an insurance company she says doesn’t want to help her because of the high cost and arguing with doctors over the quality of care they are administering to her dying husband.

“That (insuring her husband with a H.M.O.) was the worst thing I could have done for him,” admitted Mrs. Valentine. “I’ve had to fight and struggle and fight and struggle to get anything done for him here. And I’ve begged and pleaded with the insurance some more (not to) jerk him out of here before he’s got a chance. Give him that chance. I feel so handicapped and so strapped (because) there’s such good doctors available so close that I could call in but the H.M.O. won’t let me.”

Mrs. Valentine claims the doctors have already given up trying to help her husband.

“The doctors here have already given up on him. I need a doctor that’s going to be on our side and try and jump on the bandwagon and be a little aggressive and help my husband. I don’t need a passive doctor… I’ve begged this doctor to call John’s cardiologist because he’s having heart problems, too. John’s cardiologist is the very best in Texas in this field. This doctor won’t even give him one phone call and consult with him.”

Mrs. Valentine blames herself for the predicament with the H.M.O. that she now finds herself in.

“John always trusted me to take complete care of him and handle everything for him. I feel like I’ve really let him down because when I put him in the hospital I saw what terrible care he was getting and they wouldn’t let me transfer him out of there…. I don’t want to lose him… he’s struggled so far. If I can just get him to the Houston Medical Centre… they’ve got great doctors there. But here I’m just tinkering around with these people and it’s so frustrating. I’m completely stopped dead in my tracks.”

“The insurance didn’t see sufficient reason for me to transfer him,” continued Mrs. Valentine. “And I had to use their doctors there. I went to the administrator and I just kept getting the same run around. They told me the doctors were doing everything they could and this is what we have available right now.”

Valentine took a second turn for the worse when his respiratory failed and he fell into a state of unconsciousness on September 5th. Doctors gave him a bleak prognosis and according to Mrs. Valentine refused to take him to the I.C.U. because they didn’t think there was anything more they could for him.

Yet, with the help of his wife, Valentine fought off death once more.

“The nurses told me ‘Mrs. Valentine, you’re going to have to stand there and push on his chest so he can breath.’ I pushed on his chest and stomach for ten hours without stopping, begging John and pleading with him to take another breath. I worked with him until seven in the morning and he finally started coming around. It was like I splashed ice water on his face all night long.”

From there, Mrs. Valentine took matters into her own hands. She began to do exercises with her husband in bed, pulling his arms over his head and stretching out his limbs.

“We did 160 arm lifts over his head. The nurse ran in and said ‘stop, you’ll kill him’. I said ‘get away from me… you’ve all given up on him anyway.’ Toward the end of the 160 reps, John started to come up out of the coma.”

Not only that, but Mrs. Valentine says her husband’s colon straightened out.

Doctors, perplexed by Valentine’s improved condition, admitted to Mrs. Valentine that her husband was tougher than they originally gave him credit for.

“The doctors did say if it was any other man he’d have been dead a long time ago. All I can say is he is tough. He is really tough… I knew I was on track ’cause the Lord’s not going to take him half way. He wouldn’t have (straightened) his colon just to let him die now because God doesn’t do things like that. I’m real convinced.”

Mrs. Valentine has relied on the power of prayer and her Christian beliefs to help her fight for her husband in his hour of need.

“I been down here on my knees praying day and night, hours and hours of prayer. I thought if God is going to take John it’s his will. I really believe that. John is saved. He’s been a Christian for many, many years. So I said if the Lord is going to take him it’s His will and there’s nothing I can do. But if He decided not to, He’ll let me know.”

“I have had to fight it out with the doctors here,” continued Mrs. Valentine. “My husband has struggled so hard for so long and (the doctors) are not giving him any credit for anything. All (they) keep on saying is it’s hopeless, it’s inevitable he’s going to die.”

She’ll need every bit of help she can get if her husband is going to beat the odds again. Two weeks ago, the infection in Valentine’s lungs became so severe they shut down and he became dangerously dehydrated as his body tissue began soaking up the blood in his system. Again the doctors have said there’s nothing more they can do and it’s only a matter of time before Valentine passes on.

As he lay motionless in his hospital bed for days, Mrs. Valentine shared a loving, tender moment with her ailing husband.

“He looked at me and I said ‘remember how we used to sing together all the time? Can mama sing a song to you? So I started singing our special song and he turned over and finished singing and held my hand and tears started rolling down from the corners of his eyes. He asked if was ever going to go home and I said ‘yeah baby, you’re getting better every day.'”

At the end of the day it’s a deep-rooted love for her husband that gives Mrs. Valentine the inspiration to fight.

“We’re true soul mates. He’s the best friend I’ve got in the whole world. We never go anywhere ever (without each other),” said an emotional Mrs. Valentine. “I don’t even go to the grocery store without John. We’re together seven days a week, 24 hours a day. We don’t argue. Everybody says y’all are sickening. We’re just like newlyweds. Even my sister says ‘oh my God, I’ve ever seen anybody so ridiculously in love. How can y’all be in love after all these years?’ John and I are inseparable… we have an ongoing love affair that has never stopped. It’s been the best years of my life and I’m not going to give up on him yet.”