Johnny Valentine was a man’s man and tough as nails. He had been battling and fighting for his life and he had beaten the odds, time and time again.

A 1975 plane crash that left him paralyzed. Wrestling promoters that had all but forgotten him. A staff of doctors who said they couldn’t do anything for him. An H.M.O. that seemed indifferent to his plight. An endless sea of bureaucratic red tape.

John Valentine had overcome all of these insurmountable obstacles and lived to fight another day. But no more.

The fight is over. The excruciating pain and discomfort he had been living with for 26 years came to an end at 3:07 A.M. April 24, 2001 when ‘Handsome’ Johnny Valentine passed away from heart failure at 72.

As the wrestling world tries to deal with this loss, many of his former colleagues and friends remember him.

“Oh God! I had heard he was not in good shape as of late. Oh man, that’s terrible,” former WCW star Ric Flair told SLAM! Wrestling in an exclusive interview from his home in Charlotte, NC.

“What a fascinating guy. He commanded so much respect,” commented Flair. “It was hard to understand his style of work being a guy who was just getting started myself but everybody who ever worked with him or around him had huge respect for him. He had an unbelievable work ethic and he liked to work long, hard matches. He had a real unique style. He was the only one that ever worked that way but it really worked for him.”

Flair was in the 1975 plane crash with Valentine, then the U.S. Heavyweight champion, and remembers the show of support from the fans.

“When he vacated the U.S. title they had that show in Greensboro, N.C. They stood and applauded for him for 15 minutes. I wasn’t able to go because I was still hurt but they gave him a standing ovation, 17 000 people. Unbelievable.”

Despite surviving a life-altering event like the plane crash together, Flair admits he wasn’t a close friend of Valentine’s.

“I never really knew him all that well. He was strange in that he kept to himself. I had just started in the business and I only knew John for about a year before the accident. I travelled with him. We were tag team partners once in a while. He had a real sincere belief in the business and protecting the realism of the business. He never would have been able to accept what’s going on today in wrestling.”

“I had seen John three times in the last couple of years,” continued Flair. “I would see him on pretty regular basis when we went to Texas but then, like anything else, things have changed and it gets hard to keep working at our pace and try and maintain relationships.”

Flair is bothered by the fact that the wrestling industry neglected Valentine following the plane crash and compares the treatment he received to that of recent stars who have died prematurely.

“Look at how many guys have died in our business that past five years. Nobody ever mentions their names anymore. This is the most insensitive business in the world and it will continue to be until somebody does something about it. We don’t have the type of backing, be it union-wise or health insurance-wise, and the reason is because under the current system everybody has to look out after themselves.”

Still, Flair chooses to remember Valentine for what he was… a great professional wrestler.

“It’s sad that tragedy can sometimes change the course of someone’s life. John truly had a great career prior to the crash. At the end of his career he was probably in the best condition of his life. If not for the crash, he could have worked another five, ten years. What a great guy.”

Tim Woods, who was also on that plane in 1975 and holds the honour of being Valentine’s opponent in his last match, remembers Valentine as one tough customer.

“He was very strong. Very strong-minded, a very strong guy. He was one of a kind. There’ll never be anyone like him. He was a tough guy and a lot of people didn’t like him but they sure did respect him. We were heavily involved over the U.S. championship, we passed that thing back and forth several times. John wouldn’t necessarily wrestle you as much as he would just pound on you.”

Tim Woods hits Johnny Valentine. Photo courtesy Tim Woods

Like Flair, Woods remembers Valentine as a quiet man.

“Away from the ring he kept very much to himself. He liked to play chess and did a lot of reading and he would amaze you. He would sit around like a bump on a log but every now and then he would chime into a conversation. He was really intelligent.”

Despite being paralyzed, Woods insists Valentine never felt sorry for himself and was never bitter over how things turned out.

“He was a loner. He never cried wolf. His attitude was ‘whatever happened, stand up and take it like a man.’ He never asked for anything and never took anything. He was a hell of a man. I’ll certainly miss him. The sport of wrestling will certainly miss John… (pauses) it strikes home pretty close because it just as easily could have been me (who became paralyzed following the crash).”

Lou Thesz, a former NWA World champion, recalled a rodeo in Houston, where the wrestlers were asked to ride a particularly tough bull.

“[Valentine] got on the bull and it threw him, of course. When Johnny got up — which was immediately — the bull was making a move on him. So Johnny didn’t know what to do, so he hit him with a right hand, hit him right in the nose, and you could hear that thing splat all over the place. The bull just roared right back.” Valentine took off to get away from the bull, and made a spectacular vault from the ring into the stands, a distance that Thesz figured had to have been eight feet. “Afterwards, I said, ‘Man you could get into the Olympics with this.'”

‘Yukon’ Moose Cholak went back 50 years with Valentine, having first met him in Columbus, Ohio in 1952. “We had a lot of wrestling matches together and he was plenty tough,” Cholak said. “He and Buddy Rogers were at the top of the field at that time.”

Cholak recalled that Valentine always had the ability to get a promoter upset. “The promoters had a tough time with him, but his wrestling ability was 100%,” he said. “He wanted more money, he didn’t like certain things, or this or that, he had a lot of things to iron out with the promoters, and they didn’t like what he had to say. But they used him anyways, no matter what he did because he was a top draw, especially around 1960 in New York and Chicago, at that time he was pretty popular.”

One promoter, Louisville, Kentucky’s Wee Willie Davis, got something back — accidentally. “[Valentine] got out there and wrestled this opponent, and beat the heck out of him all over the place, smashed him, and the fans were going to come in the ring. Wee Willie Davis came into the ring. Johnny Valentine nailed him too. [laughing] I think he was barred from wrestling for a long time!”

George Scott went back to the ’50s with Valentine as well, and believes that they first met while they were both wrestling for Eddie Quinn’s Montreal promotion. From there, they met up again in Calgary for Stampede Wrestling and later in Texas. “I wrestled him in Houston, Texas one time,” Scott recalled with a laugh. “George Bush was running for governor or something and they brought him in the ring. Valentine gave him the finger, Bush turned around and came and shook his hand.”

Later, Scott was the booker for the Mid Atlantic territory. Valentine was down in Florida wrestling, and Scott wanted to bring him in. “I heard he was leaving Florida, so I called him and said, ‘I’d love for you to come in here.’ And he said, no, he was going to go to California. So then about a week later, he was in Texas and said, ‘I’ve changed my mind. I want to come in and wrestle for you.’ I said ‘Fantastic.’ So he came in and worked for me until the plane crash.” After the crash, Scott said that Valentine was on the payroll for about a year and a half, and that his hospital bill was paid by the promotion.

“When I brought him in to the Carolinas, he could beat somebody in 5 or 10 minutes, but he’d want a workout, so he’d be in there 15, 20 minutes,” Scott recalled. “When I did the promotion for the cards in the Carolinas, he was probably the hottest card I had in there. But it took me six, seven months for people to start coming, getting to him. But after then, he was ungodly real, we did ungodly business with him.”

Bill Apter has covered pro wrestling both as a reporter and photographer for 30 years and remembers watching Valentine live as a kid growing up.

“I best recall Valentine back in the early ’60s when my father and I used to go to the matches at the old Madison Square Garden on 51st Street and Eighth Avenue,” remembered Apter, editor-in-chief of WOW magazine.

“It was always exciting to see Valentine battle Antonino Rocca or Bearcat Wright, or team with “Cowboy” Bob Ellis. But most of all I recall his “toe-to-toe” battles against “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. Rogers would punch and Valentine would always counter with his elbow smash, aptly named the “atomic skull crusher” by wrestling broadcaster Ray Morgan. Again and again Valentine would use his signature move until Rogers would fall to the mat allowing Johnny to get a near pin (Rogers was world champion during many of their matches and would drape his foot over the bottom rope during the very last part of the “three” count).”

Apter is also quick to point out just how influential Valentine was.

“I ask that everyone remember this — when you “whooo” for a Ric Flair chop, it was Johnny Valentine who was chopping just as hard and even harder before Ric Flair was even born! Johnny Valentine was the “working man’s” champion — no facades about him. He went in, did his work and got the job done to the satisfaction of everyone who witnessed his marvelous matches. The wrestling world has lost a true icon.”

As a reporter for the Charleston (S.C) Post and Courier, Mike Mooneyham has covered pro wrestling for over 20 years. Considered one of the top wrestling historians in North America, he recalls when Valentine first came to Jim Crockett’s Mid Atlantic territory in the Carolinas.

“He was one of the best I ever saw. He was an incredible performer,” said a sad and despondent Mooneyham when informed of Valentine’s passing. “He jump-started the (Mid Atlantic) territory when it wasn’t doing too well back in the early 70s. George Scott brought him in and he set the territory on fire. He was one of my all-time favourite wrestlers. The heat he could generate was incredible.”

Mooneyham last saw Valentine three years ago in Charleston.

“I had put together a legends reunion here in Charleston in 1998, and he was one of the first guys I contacted. He and Sharon (his wife) had a great time. They spent the weekend down here and it was great because Johnny hadn’t been here since he had wrestled here years ago. He always liked Charleston.”

“I’m so glad we were able to do that because he go to see a lot of his old friends he hadn’t seen in many years,” recalled Mooneyham. “He really didn’t get out to reunions because he was a recluse for a long time. I think it got his spirits up because he was one guy everybody wanted to see. He got to see Rip Hawk, Swede Hansen, Thunderbolt Patterson, Tim Woods, Jose Lothario and all of his old buddies from the Carolinas.”

“We were up one night to four or five in the morning just talking and I was eating it all up with all his stories. He could tell some good ones. The Saturday afternoon we had a little get together in the old building where the guys used to wrestle many years ago and Johnny made it up into the ring with his walker and he was tough as nails.”

Mooneyham thinks it was shameful the way the wrestling industry didn’t take care of John after the plane crash.

“It’s a shame that somebody like John… the business ignored him. I really can’t state it any other way or sugar-coat it. His own business turned its back on him. It was cold and heartless.”

“There should be some sort of organization in wrestling that looks after its own,” opined Mooneyham. “Especially for a guy like him… this was a guy that meant so much to the business. I would say he was one of the top five performers of my generation. In a business that has accumulated so much over the past few years, these things shouldn’t happen.”

— with files from Greg Oliver