BORN: March 27, 1930, Winnipeg, Manitoba
HT/WT: 5’11”, 220 pounds
AKA: The Outlaw (England), Mr. Wrestling (Amarillo)
Not every wrestler that comes along is going to be a big, showboating gloryhound. For every dozen ego-driven narcissists, there is a wrestler who knows the sport inside and out, often an accomplished amateur star who continues in the pro grame simply because of a deep, uncompromisingly simple love of wrestling. Winnipeg’s Gordon Nelson was just such a wrestler.
The 73-year-old Nelson looks back on his career today with complete satisfaction. He got to travel the world and compete in a sport he loved.
Winnipeg of the 1950s was an amateur hotbed. Nelson got a chance to compete with some of the best, and rose to the top as Canadian amateur middleweight champion. He was chosen as the Olympic representative in freestyle for his weightclass in both 1952 and 1956, but a lack of funds prevented the Canadian Olympic team from taking freestyle wrestlers to the Games in Helsinki and Melbourne. Nelson couldn’t pay his own way, either.
In 1956, after the second Olympic disappointment, Nelson turned to Winnipeg’s Albert ‘Ole’ Olsen, who had just married his cousin Joanie, for training in the pro aspects. “He got to be a very good wrestler,” said Olsen. “He’s very strong.” Nelson sent a letter to Jack Dale of Martin Promotions in England, and was invited overseas to debut as a pro.
The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Nelson won his first match in England in Ipswich against Doug Joyce. He found the pro game to be great fun. “[I loved the] crowd screaming, and all that. I just liked doing it. We worked every day,” Nelson told SLAM! Wrestling at the Cauliflower Alley Club reunion in Las Vegas in April 2003.
England became Nelson’s home for the next dozen years, with weekends often spent in France and regular trips to the tradition German tournaments. He loved everything about England. One of his highlights in France was meeting André the Giant before he was a wrestler.
When Nelson returned to work in the North American rings, he found a small, unexpected inconvenience: He was often mistaken for the equally follically-challenged Verne Gagne. “We had the same haircut,” Nelson joked.
Among the locations Nelson worked were New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma for Leroy McGuirk, the AWA, Amarillo, Florida, Georgia, and Puerto Rico. A favourite place? “I never made no money, but I liked Mobile, Alabama, Pensacola.”
In Amarillo, promoter Dory Funk Sr. dubbed him Mr. Wrestling. He also got a chance to team with Tom Jones, who worked as the Gladiator and became one of Nelson’s best friends and favourite tag team partner.
The word “shooter” was what fellow Winnipegger Moose Morowski used to describe Nelson’s reputation. He could work with anybody, but not everybody wanted to work with him. “Everybody said I was stiff. I figured it looked better,” said Nelson.
In 1983, age caught up with Nelson, and he retired from active wrestling, but it wasn’t the end of his association with the business.
For years, Nelson was in charge of hauling the ring around for Florida Championship Wrestling. He also refereed and therefore got two payoffs each night. Plus he’d often be found helping to sell photos, and offering advice to the young, up-and-coming wrestlers.
Bruce Tharpe was the Florida announcer from 1979-84, and knew that Nelson was essential to the operation. “[Nelson was] the toughest of the tough and all the guys respected him,” Tharpe said. “You can get a lot of guys that could bring the ring but he was reliable. He had crews in every town.” According to Tharpe, there were occasions when the ring was packed up before the wrestlers were done their showers. “He knew all the short cuts,” he said, adding that Nelson’s meticulous record-keeping to get his expenses paid was legendary.
When Jim Crockett Promotions bought the Florida promotion and rolled it into his growing NWA (WCW) promotion, Nelson was part of the package. He hauled the ring for WCW for 11 years until the company was sold to the WWF. “It was a real good job. It was easy and I liked the travelling.”
Nelson suffered a stroke during his final years with WCW, and was forced to take time off. Today, with his health returned, he lives with his son Steve in Amarillo and wishes he was still hauling a ring around.
Never the most colourful interview or character during his career, Nelson isn’t one to brag about his career. To him, it was simple: “Just wrestling, that’s all.”
- Jan 7, 2013: Marie Laverne shares her memories of Gordon Nelson
- Dec. 19, 2012: ‘Mr. Wrestling’ Gordon Nelson dead at 82