Sharon Valentine sits and stirs in her house in suburban Dallas, thumbing through old photo albums and pouring over faded newspaper clippings, trying to deal with the pain of her loss.
It’s been eight weeks since her husband, former pro wrestler ‘Handsome’ Johnny Valentine, passed away in the hospital of heart failure. Known for his stiff working style and legendary toughness inside the ring, Johnny Valentine had been teaming up with his wife over the past year in the most important fight in his life: a battle against an H.M.O. (Health Maintenance Organization), nurses and doctors who said there was nothing they could do to help save his life.
Tough battles were nothing new for Johnny Valentine. Long-time fans in the Carolinas can still recall the ferocious, physical matches Valentine had against Wahoo McDaniel and ‘Mr. Wrestling’ Tim Woods throughout the N.W.A. Mid Atlantic territory in the early ’70s. But with the odds seemingly stacked against him, this was one feud Valentine had no chance of winning. He died on April 24th at 3:07 a.m. after years of being in chronic pain stemming from a 1975 plane crash that left him paralyzed for life.
For Sharon Valentine, the pain of losing her beloved husband lingers on. So, too, does her love.
“To me, he was so special and not because he was a wrestler,” Mrs. Valentine told SLAM! Wrestling over the phone from her home in River Oaks, TX. “That never influenced me one bit. I could have cared less if he drove a garbage truck. When I met him there was just something between us that fit and I knew he was my soulmate for life.”
There were two sides to Johnny Valentine. In the smoke-filled arenas and dingy union halls he wrestled in for close to 30 years before crowds calling for his blood, Johnny Valentine was a mean, ravenous bruiser who took delight in punishing his opponents. Away from the blood and sweat-stained wrestling rings he made his living in, he was Jonathan Wisniski, devoted husband and family man. A side that Mrs. Valentine says most people never saw.
“He was the most affectionate, gentle person in the whole world. All of our friends, they knew it, and they said ‘y’all are like newlyweds.’ We were just like that always. And nobody knew what a gentle person he was, how giving he was… Nobody knew the real Johnny outside of the ring. They could not even imagine him.”
“He was my best friend,” continued Mrs. Valentine. “If every woman could have that kind of relationship with their husband, somehow things would be wonderful. We never went anywhere without each other. Seventeen years of marriage, 24 hours a day, seven days a week we were always together. We were together every second. He was my best friend… He was such a loving husband.”
“The biggest honour ever bestowed upon me in my life was being able to just be his wife. I just wish people knew how tender-hearted he was. He loved to laugh, he loved life so much.”
Asked about her lasting memory of her husband, Mrs. Valentine took a moment to compose herself, struggling to find the words. “His laughter and the twinkle he had in his blue eyes. Johnny loved me unconditionally. No matter what happened, he always loved me. No one will ever be able to love me on the same level like he did and that’s what really hurts. We had such a deep love for each other.”
It was a love that began to blossom in 1971 when the two first met under rather amusing circumstances.
“I worked in Dallas at a department store as a hairdresser. Johnny was in the mall shopping and I was on my lunch break. I had seen him on TV from my dad watching him but I was never a wrestling fan. He approached me one day while I was shopping and he said ‘what do you think about this for a gift for my daughter?’ He had a bottle of perfume and I said ‘it’s nice.’ And he said ‘do I know you’ and I said ‘no, I don’t think so.’ And I knew him but I just kept walking and he was walking behind me. He said ‘my name’s Johnny Valentine. And I said ‘yes, I know you. I’ve seen you on TV’ and I said it was nice to meet him.”
“He kept trying to talk to me but I was scared of him because I was always told from my family that you don’t want to be around wrestlers because they’re all crazy. My dad used to say if you get with a wrestler he’ll take you back in the alley somewhere and throw you down and rape you. So I was scared of him. I was a very innocent girl and I was scared to death of him.”
“The next day I went out to lunch and, after just a few minutes, Johnny pulled up in his car, got out and started talking to me,” continued Mrs. Valentine. “He asked if he could sit there with me. I told him I guess so and we started talking a bit. I told him I had to go because I had to get back to work. The next day, I went out another door so he couldn’t follow me and I went somewhere else to eat. Within a few minutes there he was. This went on for four or five days, no matter where I went, no matter what door I went out in that mall, he found me.”
“Finally I said to him ‘look, you’re driving me nuts. How are you doing this?’ He started laughing and he said ‘the truth is, right across the street over there there’s a manor house. I have the penthouse and at lunchtime I get on my balcony with my binoculars and I watch what door you come out of. I see when you go to lunch and I call downstairs for my car to be ready so that when I get off the elevator I can just whip on over here.'” She laughs at the memories.
“He kept pursing me and being very romantic and being very sweet and gentle,” remembered Mrs. Valentine. “Eventually I gave in. I guess the third time we ate together, I knew then this guy was so special and I was never impressed with his wrestling career. I was in love with his mind, his personality and I kept saying to myself ‘oh man, it’s too bad this guy’s a wrestler’.”
“I called my dad to tell him about us and he said ‘oh my God, not Johnny Valentine. Why he’s one of the meanest hombres and no-good scoundrels in the business.’ You know how old people are. We started seeing each other after six months, but I knew when I first met him that that was it.”
For the first time in her adult life Mrs. Valentine, 56, finds herself all alone. Struggling with health problems of her own, she’s frightened about the future and worries about how she’ll manage to survive.
“I’m not in good health. I have a real severe back problem from carrying and pulling Johnny all those years. I have diabetes that the doctors are not able to get under control at all. I’m in chronic pain with my spine. I’ve got heart problems and I’ve said ‘Oh Lord, what am I going to do? I haven’t worked in years now.”
“I just paid all my utility bills. I don’t know what I’m going to do next month but I have to do something,” explained Mrs. Valentine. “I have to go back to work and find a job somehow, somewhere. I don’t know how I’ll manage. I really don’t know. I’m not sure what I’m going to do now. I’m just going to have to find something, I don’t know what.”
Mrs. Valentine is no stranger to surviving hard times.
“The money we had saved up through the years went to paying other medical bills. He had chronic pain in his legs for 25 years. Through the years he had medical problems and the insurance didn’t begin to cover what it was supposed to. There were lots and lots of times that Johnny and I ate nothing but beans and rice. Beans and rice for thirty days at a time. That’s all we could have. As far as eating and paying bills, we lived very simply. We had a hard life. We had really hard times.”
One way that Mrs. Valentine hopes to pay the bills is by finding a publisher for three books that she is working on.
“I have a book ready to publish — it’s already finished — that I wrote. It’s a children’s book. Every one that’s seen the book has ranted and raved over it. I just need to find somebody willing to publish it. But that takes time.”
The other book is her husband’s life story, written from a series of audiotapes that Johnny recorded over the years. She plans to visit her stepson in Florida, wrestler Greg Valentine, in the coming weeks so that they can work on the book together.
“Greg wants to tear (the audio transcript) apart and entwine his life and his dad’s together in the book as he grew up and their relationship together. We think if we work on it together for two or three weeks, we’ll be able to knock it out pretty quick.”
“I’ve got another book but it’s a whole other angle. This book that I’m doing is going to be called “A Never Ending Love Story of a Wrestler and His Wife”. It shows the soft side of Johnny. The loving, generous family man he was.”
Sharon’s book will be culled from conversations she had with husband during their marriage.
“Johnny never talked about nobody in the business. Never. He just wouldn’t say anything bad. But he talked to me about everything. He started filling my head years ago with everything he could think to tell me. He would say to me ‘someday I’ll get old and I won’t remember and you’ll be my living encyclopedia.’ I know all the aspects of every office he worked for. Everything’s in my head because he just drilled it into me.”
“I want to be able to tell when Johnny was wrestling the things that gave him such pleasure while he was wrestling,” continued Mrs. Valentine. “The things that disturbed him about the business that he was very unhappy about that he couldn’t change. I want to tell about the things after his accident, the truth of what people did after his accident. How he was treated, people that were actually cruel to him, the people that supported him and loved him and the people that stood by him no matter what. I want to put it all in the book. I want to show the real Johnny Valentine and I want to expose some of the cruelty that some people showed towards him. It’s a book that I’ve got all of Johnny’s knowledge in my head and it’s going to come out.”
Mrs. Valentine insists that while Johnny Valentine was saddened about the way the wrestling business forgot him after the plane crash, he was never bitter. If there’s any bitterness, it’s on Sharon’s part for the way the business disrespected her husband.
“It angered me, very much so. You could have come and run me over with a bulldozer and if it didn’t kill me I’d have gotten over it. But if you did something to John, I was instantly so protective of him. He was hurt how the business did him afterwards. He would say to me ‘my brain is as sharp as ever but my legs are cripple so they think the rest of me is, too.'”
“John never asked anybody for anything after he got hurt,” continued Mrs. Valentine. “Just before he was admitted to the hospital last summer, Johnny started getting really depressed. He would sit at the window in our bedroom and look out and watch he birds and squirrels. I would say to him, ‘honey, I can’t stand to see you this depressed, what’s going on?’ He would say ‘nothing, it’s just that the world has forgotten me. Why?’ And it just broke my heart to see him so depressed.”
Memorial services were held for Johnny Valentine on May 1st at Castleberry Baptist Church in Fort Worth, TX. A simple ceremony attended by 200 people, many of Johnny’s old adversaries in the ring went to pay their final respects.
“It was a nice service. He told me when he first got sick last year that he wanted to be cremated. He told me ‘whatever happens to me, I want you to promise me you’ll always keep me close.’ He’s with me right now in my bedroom on my desk. That’s where he sits… Killer Kox, Gary Hart, Skandor Akbar, Tim Brooks, Jose Lothario all came. A lot of the local wrestlers in the area. Randy Savage and Antonio Inoki sent flowers.”
Mrs. Valentine was bothered by the sparse turnout of Johnny’s old colleagues and the complete indifference showed by wrestlers and promoters of today who didn’t acknowledge Johnny’s death in any way.
“I was sitting with Greg and we were pretty devastated. I wasn’t surprised but I was very disappointed. Not for me because I could care less if any of them ever showed up. Johnny gave so much of his life to the business. He worked seven days a week his whole life and twice on Sundays. That’s a lot of time to put into something. Is everybody in the business nothing but a bunch of phonies? Is that what it all boils down to? Johnny used to tell me all the time, ‘it’s cold honey. It’s a cold business.’ He was right.”
Mrs. Valentine said Greg was especially upset over how the business failed to pay proper respect to his dad on at his funeral.
“He went home from the memorial service and fell totally apart. He was physically ill. He was mad at the world. He’s hurt like I am about how the business treated his dad. It hurt him. It’s appalling.”
Mrs. Valentine said that even though he didn’t see his dad as often as he would have liked, Greg had a deep love and admiration for his father.
“Greg came up a few months ago when Johnny was in the hospital and really alert. Greg said ‘Dad, it’s me, Greg’. And Johnny grabbed his hand and said ‘oh son, you know I love you so much’ and Greg said, ‘I love you too dad’. Greg was crying while he was holding is dad’s hand and that was heart warming.”
Mrs. Valentine’s last memories of her husband were of two moments they shared in the final weeks of his life.
“He was in the I.C.U. and he reached up and grabbed me by the hair of my head pulled my head down on the bed and tried to give me a back rub. There were tears in his eyes and the tears were rolling down my eyes and I was really suffering with him. As sick as he was, he reached up and pulled my head down and tried to rub the back of my neck for me. I said, “Lord, what in the world am I ever going to do without you?'”
“About two weeks before he passed, he was in the I.C.U.,” recalled Mrs. Valentine “I was in the room with him and he actually didn’t know who I was. I was holding his hand, he was just staring at me like ‘who are you?’ I started singing our special song to him and I saw his eyes light up. He grabbed me and pulled me down to him and just held me. He knew it was me once he heard that song. I’ll never forget that.”
As she starts to pick up the pieces and began a new chapter in her life, Mrs. Valentine is quick to remind the world how special her husband really was, while delivering a stern message to the wrestling industry.
“My husband was a very good man. A very tender-hearted man. A very loving man who gave his whole life to the business. He loved the business and he loved the people in it. He was special. I’m just so sorry that so many didn’t have the time to just send a sympathy card or just something. A wonderful, wonderful human being is gone from this place to another. The business kicked him around for 25-odd years and I guess this was the last kick that they could give him.”