He never left an opponent better off than he found him, not ever, not even when he was pushing 70 years of age and still wrestling. But he left Memphis a better place than he found it. And, for that, Sputnik Monroe, vile and hated villain inside the squared circle, earned designation as a good guy to thousands.
“He was colorful. He was rough, he was tough — he was just who he was, a brawler,” said Danny Goddard, who was Monroe’s fan club president as a kid and became a lifelong friend. “He did his job as a heel well, he made people hate him, but even if you hated him you had to love him because of the way he did his job so well.”
Friends and colleagues always figured “The Sweet Man” would go down fighting, and that he did, battling gangrene, the loss of half-a-lung, gall bladder surgery, and an intestinal problem with a characteristic snarl and tough guy attitude until he died early Friday morning at a nursing home in Edgewater, Florida at 77.
His friend of more than 20 years, former referee Tommy Fooshee had the job of calling Sputnik’s many, many friends. “He was my best friend,” said Fooshee, adding “he used to cuss me out all the time.” (Sputnik cussed everyone out.)
With a trademark white streak though his hair, and a legendary capacity for scuffling, wrestlers recently have recalled Monroe was one of the great characters from the business’ glory days. Robert Fuller knew him from childhood, as Monroe worked for his father, Buddy Fuller, for years in the Memphis wrestling territory.
“Sputnik had so much character and so much charisma, on his way to the ring he’d build a heckuva lot of heat and he’d have you ready to see his ass kicked before his opponent even got to the ring,” Fuller said.
Memphis was the scene of Monroe’s greatest accomplishment. With an incredible appeal to black fans who loved his anti- establishment ways, he forced integration of seating at matches there, and generally raised hell with anyone who opposed him.
In 2002, he was honored by the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum in Memphis for his role in the integration of public events there. “He was a hero to the black community in Memphis,” said Jim Ogle, director of operations at the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. (There is also a band named Sputnik Monroe.) In fact, it was Monroe’s embrace of a black man that gained him his famous nickname. In 1957, he picked up a hitchhiker en route to Mobile, Ala., for a TV taping, and kissed his newfound friend on the lips in full view of fans not accustomed to progressive race relations. “What he really is, is a goddamned Sputnik,” one lady exclaimed, referring to the Soviet satellite. The name stuck.
Born Roscoe Monroe Brumbaugh in Dodge City, Kansas, on December 18, 1928, Monroe worked the carnival circuit before he got into wrestling. He was Pretty Boy Roque and Elvis “Rock” Monroe in his early years. He spawned a whole family of Monroes — he had successful tag teams with two “Rockets,” Bill Fletcher and Maury High, and Gene Dundee later became a Monroe, too. He also created the first integrated heel tag team in the South with Norvel Austin. His top singles accomplishment was holding the National Wrestling Alliance World Junior heavyweight belt in 1970.
Fuller recalled Monroe as one of the best he ever saw at getting fans mad. “He was really pretty much just full of shit, but I learned an awful lot from him as a young guy. I got a lot of that ‘full of shit’ from him. Sputnik would go to the ring, he’d start the match off and if he’d never worked the town before it, he’d always do it. He’d make the jump for the top rope, miss it, before the match would even start, sell his back like crazy, get up madder than hell at the referee, saying the ropes weren’t tight enough to make his jump over the top — he’d find 14 reasons why he busted his ass,” Fuller said.
“He could really talk, and get the people irritated. He always knew when to make his move. He was a pretty good tough guy when I wrestled him,” added Jose Lothario. “He always got the people excited, one way or another. When he got in the ring, he got serious.”
Incredibly, Goddard hooked up with him when he was 12 for a three-day trip through Florida. “We spent a few days with him, I rode with him, Big Bill Dromo, Rocket Monroe, Saul Weingeroff to three towns those three nights. I just had the time of my life as a little kid, 12 years old, slept all the way back in the back of their station wagon with these world championship belts on my lap,” he said. Though Monroe drank and cursed with the best of them, “I just overlooked all of that because I liked him so much,” Goddard said.
Monroe and Billy Wicks had one of the great battles in Memphis history in 1959, when Monroe’s hard-pounding ways earned the dubious distinction of being “the most hated man in Memphis,” Charles Gillespie of the Memphis Commercial Appeal wrote. That might be because Monroe addressed fans as “liver-lipped little pukes.”
He also got into some famous hot water in Memphis when he decided to drum up some publicity by popping up at the local fair and busting the cane of Gene Barry, TV’s western hero Bat Masterson. As Fuller and Wicks both remembered, Monroe couldn’t get close enough to Masterson and landed in the back of the fairgrounds, where he mouthed off to some cowboys. He proceeded to throw an elbow into the side of a horse, prompting the cowboys to jump him. “Well, they all got into a scuffle and it made the front page of the paper the next day, him all beaten up,” Fuller said with a laugh. “My dad was furious.”
Monroe and his wife Joanne moved to Florida from Houston, Texas about two years ago, and his health had continued to deteriorate. His last major public appearance was in July 2005, when he and Wicks reprised their famous feud at a legends show near Memphis. “We got in the ring close and I said, ‘I’m going to bust your glasses.’ He was wearing glasses,” Wicks said with a laugh. “He said, ‘Oh, goddamnit, Wicks, I’ll be blind. I can’t see. I’ll bleed to death!'”
Monroe is survived by numerous wives, daughter Natalie and son Bubba from his first marriage, and another son, Allen.
Funeral arrangements are not known at this time.
- July 3, 2011: Retro Book Review: Memphis book tells of Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets
- Interview on NPR on February 22, 2001
Steve Johnson and Greg Oliver are the co-authors of The Pro Wrestling Hall Of Fame: The Tag Teams, which features the Monroes, and are hard at work on The Pro Wrestling Hall Of Fame: The Heels, which will also feature “The Sweet Man” Sputnik Monroe.