With football season again in full swing, Don Manoukian, a veteran of one whole year for the initial Oakland Raiders team of the new American Football League in 1960, casts a wistful look back. You see, he chose wrestling over football.
He had played high school in his hometown of Reno, and then at Stanford University in Palo Alta, California under coach Chuck Taylor. At Stanford, Manoukian was voted the outstanding lineman in the December 1957 East-West Shrine Game.
Good enough to be invited to the San Francisco 49ers training camp, it was decided by the powers that be that he just wasn’t big enough at 5-foot-7 (usually listed at 5-foot-8) and 250 pounds to play on their line.
So Manoukian turned to pro wrestling, and played semi-pro football with the Salinas Packers in the Pacific Football Conference around California for 1958. (Quarterback Tom Flores also played in the PFC that season, and would play with Manoukian in the AFL.)
As Don “The Bruiser” Manoukian, his in-ring career was just getting started when some footballers told him about a new league starting up. It was the American Football League, and it intended to challenge the supremacy of the established National Football League.
Manoukian would play 14 games as a guard for the Raiders that year, under the supervision of coach Eddie Erdelatz, who had coached Navy for the previous decade.
In a June 1965 interview with Wrestling Revue, Manoukian talked about his season with the Raiders. “When Erdelatz took over the Raiders everybody said he’d be lucky to win a single game. We won six,” he explained.
Manoukian also said it was a chance to make San Francisco eat crow. “Let’s say I showed the Forty Niners they made a mistake in dropping me. You don’t make the coaches’ all league team on reputation.”
Yet when the 1961 season was getting underway, Manoukian wasn’t in Raiders camp. He was wrestling in the Pacific Northwest.
At that time, one could make more money in wrestling than in football. “That’s why I didn’t go back to football after my first year with the Raiders,” Manoukian told SLAM! Wrestling.
One of his best friends on the Raiders, and his roommate, was eventual Hall of Fame member Jim Otto. “They sent Otto up to Portland to bring me back to camp. I told him, ‘Jim, there’s just not that much money in that football. I can’t do it.’ I was making $8,000 to $10,000 playing football. So they promised me many more dollars. But I’d made a commitment to go to Japan in the fall. I could not renege on that commitment.”
(In Going Long: The Wild 10-Year Saga of the Renegade American Football League, Manoukian said that Otto traveled for a few days with him and colleagues like Shag Thomas and Luther Lindsay, and that Otto would have made a great pro wrestler. “Goddamn Otto — he fit right in. He just loved it. Wrestling on the road, driving back in the middle of the night, drinking beer. Shoot, it was terrific. And we almost got him except we ran out of time to break him in, to get him as a big German. We could have made some money up there with him — a lot of Germans up in the Northwest. He decided he’d better get his ass back to camp.”)
Asked about his decision 46 years later, Manoukian said that he missed football. “I really enjoyed the sport immensely, but it was strictly an economic decision.”
Wrestling called, but the football ties were always there.
“I wrestled as an amateur in high school, but we didn’t have wrestling teams. I wrestled at the YMCA, and an oldtimer took me under his wing. They would take me to San Francisco, and I’d wrestle as a high school student in those open tournaments. I’d be wrestling Olympic guys, college guys, the whole thing, when I was a junior in high school. So I got exposed to the business, the amateur business,” Manoukian said. “Then when I was in college, I had some success my first two years in college, and then I didn’t wrestle after that. I just played football.”
At Stanford, he used to housesit for the legendary football player Leo Nomellini, who would have a great career as a pro wrestler as well.
“Leo is a Hall of Famer, and, of course, played his entire career in San Francisco with the Niners, and he wrestled. I used to housesit for him. He lived in Palo Alto, and I went to school there in Palo Alto. When I’d be around during the holidays, or for summer school, I would look after his home while he went back to Minnesota to visit friends and relatives,” said Manoukian. “So Leo’s the one that got me started in the business. That’s how that began — much to my university’s chagrin. They were very unhappy that one of their notables went into this shoddy, unacceptable business of professional wrestling. And worse yet, being on TV as a heel! Holy Christ, it made them crazy.”
Besides Nomellini, Manoukian credits John Swenski for helping him learn the ropes. His debut came in January 1958 at Cal’s Square Garden in Marysville, California, against George Drake. The “human fireplug from Reno, Nevada” had a second career.
Also while at Stanford, Manoukian’s love of motorcycles really took off. “I rode bikes, in those days, secretly. I would ride friends’ bikes, and I would ride other bikes through high school. Then in college, I had a bike of my own. A plum athletic job at Stamford was patrolling and marshalling the golf course. I talked the greenskeeper into letting me marshal the golf course on my motorcycle. God, that was just wonderful. You played all day on your bike. You hunted people down that snuck on the course. It was wonderful. We had great fun. There were a half dozen guys that rode bikes in college at that time.”
It was only an eight-year run for Manoukian as a pro wrestler, but that was plenty of time to gather lots of memories and friends.
One of those close friends was Ray “The Crippler” Stevens, who shared a love of motorbikes. “When I first met Ray, we started talking and he was talking about having gotten a new motorcycle. I said, ‘What the hell are you doing with a bike?’ And we got into the conversation. He said, ‘Well, I’ve got this other bike that I don’t know what to do with. If you’ve ridden, why don’t you come ride with me?’ That’s what happened. He had the extra bike. I bought it from him. We started riding together.”
The two became great friends and, in 1996, Manoukian delivered the eulogy at Stevens’ funeral.
Another friend and tag team partner was “The Destroyer” Dick Beyer.
“Jules Strongbow said Don Manoukian and I were the greatest tag team he had ever seen,” Beyer told writer Scott Teal in Whatever Happened To… ? in June 1996. “He thought Mr. Moto was the greatest performer of his time. He said that Moto was like Red Skelton. He could make the people laugh and cry in the same story. Moto could make people laugh, and want to kill him, in the same match. This was our style. Manoukian was more or less a short, stocky comedian… so to speak … and I was the serious nasty wrestler. Jules said that our mix, along with the fact that we both knew how to wrestle and work, made us a great tag team, and we made a lot of money in L.A.”
Manoukian said that the pairing had been a long time in the works. “I went down to L.A. and they paired us up in L.A. It was one of those teams that clicked. I’d heard about Dick. I’d be in Hawaii, and they’d say, ‘You should have been here, there’s a guy you’d really like named Dick Beyer, and he went back to the mainland or he went to Japan, or wherever.’ Then every time I’d go to Japan, they’d say, ‘You just missed Dick Beyer.’ So we didn’t meet, but we knew about one another, but we didn’t meet for years until we went down to L.A. in ’62. We teamed up quite by chance, a couple of college guys, a couple of ex-players, a couple of amateur background guys. He wore the mask. It worked out good, it worked out very well.”
During his eight-year run, Manoukian held the Pacific Northwest title in 1964, the Pacific Northwest tag belts with Kurt Von Poppenheim in 1959 and with Shag Thomas in 1961, the Texas State belt in 1961, as well as tag belts with The Destroyer in Hawaii and Los Angeles.
He retired from the ring in 1967. “I got out of the business to come back to my home after probably getting established pretty well. I was just getting into my best years, because at that time, you had to hit a lot of territories for a long time to get over, or for them to know you — remember, we didn’t have TV, other than just in the region. So if I was in Portland, no one in San Francisco saw it. If I was in San Fran, no one in L.A. saw it. So you had to hit those territories, that’s how you had to do it. You had to be in the business years to really get over. There were instant sensations, but instant relatively speaking.”
In Japan, it was different, he said. “That’s why in Japan, we got over with a lot of people, 120 million people, in an area the size of California. Everybody had TV, it was a national network, and everybody saw us. So 120 million people had access to us, where you go into Portland or Seattle, Boise, Omaha — you go into those places in the old days, and you were just restricted to that area.”
Why quit wrestling? “For one thing, I could do other things. Wrestling had pretty much served its purpose. I’d met a lot of great guys, and had incredible memories. I wish I’d taken more pictures, and had more pictures of the guys in our past. I see them now at annual reunions, but it would be great to have pictures of them then. It was time for me to get out; in my early 30s I hung ’em up.”
Post-wrestling, Manoukian got into real estate and development in Reno and Las Vegas; “Both cities are dynamic and if you have any skills at all, you can actually be generously rewarded.”
The wrestling world was good to Manoukian, and he’s a lifetime member of the Cauliflower Alley Club. “It’s funny how you get your life after you’re away from the guys. You think about them but you get tied up in your family and in your business,” he said, adding that wrestlers and indeed an unique bunch. “They’re one of a kind, absolutely one of a kind. They are quite a fraternity. But when it was over, I didn’t intentionally distance myself, I just did other things.”
— with files from Mike Rodgers’ Ring Around The Northwest newsletter interview with Don Manoukian, and a lateral from Steve Brainerd of Semi-Pro Football HQ
While never having played a down (if an Argos media day doesn’t count), SLAM! Wrestling Producer Greg Oliver does enjoy his football. The players are almost as crazy as wrestlers. Don Manoukian will share more of his memories of Ray Stevens and The Destroyer in the Spring 2007 book, The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels (with Steven Johnson). Let the countdown begin!