NEWTON, Iowa – The Eighth Annual George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall Of Fame induction ceremonies held on July 15, 2006, at Newton, Iowa were a huge success. According to the museum’s Associate Director Kyle Klingman, this year’s events drew a record number of wrestling supporters.
Larry Hennig brought over 40 family members and long time friends in a chartered bus from Minnesota to attend the weekend-long events. A good time on the bus was enjoyed by all with live music, a cribbage tournament, and an open bar adding to the joyous travelling party.
Despite a stifling summer heatwave, wrestlers including Danny Hodge and Baron Von Raschke participated in the annual celebrity golf tournament, which was held at the Westwood Golf Course in Newton.
A meet and greet with this year’s honorees Bret Hart, Larry Hennig, Bob Roop, and Nikita Koloff lasted more than two hours to accommodate the large line of wrestling fans seeking to have autographs signed by the foursome of wrestling superstars.
Other famous wrestling dignitaries present included Verne Gagne, Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon, “Judo” Gene LeBell, Tom Drake, Bob Geigel, Harley Race, Jason Sanderson, Tom Andrews, Bill Kersten, and Al Friend. Many of them were interviewed on the radio show Takedown Wrestling, in a remote live broadcast from the museum.
Two special museum screenings of a wonderful documentary on the legendary Lou Thesz, that was filmed during the peak of the champion’s legendary career in the 1950s, were also well attended.
The highlight of the weekend was the induction banquet, which was held this year at the Newton Inn. A representative of Tom Jenkins family graciously accepted the first award on behalf of his famous grandfather. Stories were spun of Tom’s reign as the heavyweight champion of America, his series of wrestling contests versus Frank Gotch, and his post-wrestling career as the boxing and wrestling instructor at West Point. It was relayed that Jenkins took his appointment by President Teddy Roosevelt to West Point seriously, instructing such famous pupils as President Dwight D. Eisenhower and General George Patton during the course of a thirty-seven career.
Former NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion Terry Funk accepted the induction on behalf of his late father Dory Funk Sr. Terry spoke that one of his father’s greatest accomplishments was the work that he did at the Sheriff’s Boys Ranch. Terry also stated,”My father lived and breathed wrestling. He was the man who instilled the love of the sport in both myself and my brother Dory Jr.” History supports the fact that Dory had a very illustrious career, holding the Southwest Championship on numerous occasions, ran the Amarillo wrestling promotion for decades, and was the guiding light behind his sons Terry and Dory Funk Jr. in becoming the only siblings to ever wear the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship belt.
Another second-generation wrestler Ted DiBiase accepted an induction on behalf of his stepfather “Iron” Mike DiBiase. “The Million Dollar Man” stated, “My stepfather was bigger than life. He was a man of strong character and great integrity, who stressed that a man was only as good as his word.” Ted thanked the Lord for his many blessing that he had received, including the past week’s professional wrestling debuts of his sons Teddy and Mike with Harley Race’s MLW promotion. “Iron” Mike, who held the coveted NWA World’s Junior Heavyweight Championship, and Ted’s famous wrestling mother Helen Hild, surely would have been proud of how Ted and his sons are carrying on the family tradition. (By the way, the younger DiBiase family, who were in attendance, are just as sincere and gracious as their father.)
Larry Hennig’s daughter Susan gave a very heartfelt speech regarding her father. She stressed that Larry is “Indeed big at heart. That my dad would be the first person to aid another in need.” Harley Race also spoke very kindly of his long time friend and tag team partner, acknowledging that he made his first big impression on the sport of wrestling while sharing a corner with Larry and winning the AWA World’s Tag Team Championship. A highlight of the evening’s festivities was Larry Hennig leading the crowd in a very spirited rendition of “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands.”
Nikita Koloff, who was this year’s Frank Gotch Award winner, spoke about the importance of his life being devoted to God and serving in his ministry to all. He acknowledged that he has used his fame as a sports celebrity to bring a more important message in his life with the help of others, including teaming with Ted DiBiase to teach the gospel.
The next award which was not preannounced took this reporter totally by surprise. Mike Chapman announced that a new area that the International Wrestling Institute And Museum had decided to recognize were the historians who devote great time and energy in preserving the rich heritage and history of professional wrestling. Bill Murdoch, author of the biography of Jack Brisco, said that he “first became interested in professional wrestling and developing a desire to writing about the sport after reading a series of magazine articles by James C. Melby.” Before I knew what had hit me, Bill announced that I had been chosen as the first person to receive such recognition, and henceforth the award would be known as the James C. Melby Award. I had no forewarning, and most certainly did not have time to prepare an acceptance speech. In trying to remember what I did state in accepting my plaque I remember saying “That I felt it has always been important to me to apply the high journalistic standards that I had been taught in college. I further added that I thought all history is important and should be accurately documented, and once it is committed to print that it belongs to everyone.”
Bob Roop impressed all with how humble he truly is. Bob said that despite the fact that he is a former Olympian who represented the United States, and that he experienced his fair share of success as a professional, he was overwhelmed when he was told that he had been elected to the Hall Of Fame. In telling about his life Bob related it had been 21 years since he wrestled professionally, and that he now takes great pleasure in being a special education teacher.
Bret Hart was the last person to give his acceptance speech. Like Ted DiBiase and Terry Funk, he spoke of the great importance of having a strong father figure who instilled good morals in his children. He told a couple very humorous stories of how his father Stu Hart dealt with life situations in unique fashions. “I don’t claim to be a hooker or a great wrestler, but I feel I was a good performer,” Bret said. “And one thing that I’m extremely proud of is that during my 23-year ring career I never hurt a fellow wrestler.” That remark brought a very strong positive affirmation from the crowd. Then when Hart further stated, “When I punched Vince McMahon I did for all of the wrestlers,” the audience roared its approval.
There were some underlying themes in everyone’s acceptance speeches this year. They included a sense of humility, a respect for others within the sport, a love of tradition, and a strong value of family and a belief in a higher power.
TOP PHOTOS: Tom Burke and Jim Melby at the 1981 Wrestling Fans International Association Convention in Houston, Texas; Debbie Combs and Jim Melby.
TRAGOS/THESZ CLASS OF 2006 STORIES