The year 2006 has come and gone, and while it brought a lot of joy and happiness, and some great wrestling, it also marked the departure of a number of greats from this mortal coil. In our necrology for the past year, SLAM! Wrestling writers share their more personal memories of some of the deceased.
Tiger Conway Sr. (Dennis Conway, Sr.) — No one who ever went to a Cauliflower Alley Club reunion came away without knowing Tiger, even just a little. He loved, just loved, being out with his old friends. He had a wicked twinkle to his eye, and you just knew that he was enjoying himself, whether it was with the Vachon brothers, Ernie Ladd, Terry Funk, or shooting the bull with a fan. He died November 13th at the age of 74 from a stroke. (Greg Oliver)
The Spoiler (Don Jardine) — I’d chased after The Spoiler for years. I never got to interview him for my first book, The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Canadians. So when I was at work on The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels, I redoubled my efforts. It paid off when I got to Don through his loving, supportive brother Herb, who still lives in New Brunswick. On the phone, Don was generous with his time in August, though I kept it as short as I could knowing that he was facing so many health issues. As great as it was to talk to Don, putting his old friend Gary Hart back in touch with Don for his last months on this Earth is one of the more rewarding parts of calling around to old wrestlers all the time. The Spoiler, finally unmasked, died December 16th of complications from leukemia. He was 66. (Greg Oliver)
Sputnik Monroe (Rock Brumbaugh) — Sputnik Monroe came to fame late in life. No, not wrestling fame — just about every fan from the 1950s to the 1970s knew that white streak down the middle of jet black hair meant trouble, brother. But it wasn’t until late in his life that he gained mainstream acceptance, as people came to understand that his obstinate stands against segregated seating in Memphis really did matter; that this son of Kansas was “the least likely civil rights hero America has ever seen,” as Washington Times reporter Thom Loverro put it. National Public Radio did a two-parter on him a few years ago, and the Monroe (pronounced MUN-Ro down south) exhibit at the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum in Memphis is one of the facility’s most popular. So his passing Nov. 3rd at age 77 got more attention than Rock Brumbaugh probably ever anticipated when he started using his dukes for a living 50-plus years ago. Not to worry, though — he’s been uproariously on the record for hours with many folks, including myself, and the way he lived his life, two-fisted and full throttle, guarantees friends will be telling tales about him for years to come. We’ll all be richer for it. (Steve Johnson)
Antonio Peña — It can be frustrating sometimes at SLAM! Wrestling trying to get obituaries written. Sometimes, they just don’t happen. Peña, who died October 5th of a heart attack at the age of 53, was one of those. Former SLAM! Wrestling writer John Molinaro — a huge lucha libre fan — was kind enough to explain Peña’s legacy:
“Pena revolutionized Mexican wrestling in the early ’90s in the same way Vince McMahon did in the mid ’80s. He modernized lucha libre and was responsible for the explosion in popularity it enjoyed both in Mexico and the United States. In 1993-94, AAA was the hottest and most successful promotion in North America, and that was due to Pena’s unique vision.
“At the height of his career, I think he was the best booker in the business. He was very creative and he had the unique ability of coming up with these unbelievable twists and turns in storylines, intertwining several storylines in one match and coming out with something fresh and new. I liken him to a novelist because he had this unique ability to tell compelling stories with more cliffhanging chapters that led right into the next chapter.” (Greg Oliver)
Joey Maggs and Rick Gibson — Both of these obituaries were interesting to write up, as they were both sort of forgotten grapplers from the past who never really got their due. Maggs loved to party, so perhaps he didn’t reach his full potential. But Rick Gibson was every bit as talented as his more famous brother Robert Gibson of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, yet never got the major exposure. Maggs (Joseph Magliano) died October 15th at just 37 years old, and Gibson (Rick Cain) died September 15th at 53. (Greg Oliver)
Karl “Skull” von Stroheim (Walter Nurnberg) — Hunting down Canadian wrestlers as I do, it’s a surprise that I never got to Wally Nurnberg, a Hamilton, Ontario boy, who died August 13th at 78 years of age after a heart attack. But fortunately, there’s Scott Teal out there with his Whatever Happened To … ? newsletters and other goodies. (Greg Oliver)
The Masked Medic (Donald Lortie) — It was Scott Teal that led me to Lortie many years ago, before the ravages of old age got to him. His uncles Bob and Paul Lortie helped really establish the Montreal wrestling scene, and Donald had a great career himself. He died August 5th of heart failure. He was 75. (Greg Oliver)
Bob Orton Sr. — In my career as a journalist, I’ve written dozens of obituaries; it’s probably in the hundreds by now. The obituary — make that an appreciation — for Bob Orton Sr. was as haunting as any of them. Last July, I talked to Orton in one of a series of conversations we had over the years about wrestling and life in general, ranging from Eddie Graham’s piloting skills to the inherent problems associated with marriage. As usual, it didn’t take much to get him going, as his take on things ranged from the deadly serious to the ribald, always blunt, always honest. This conversation ended with lunch plans — I’d be in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas later in the year, and we’d continue the ramblings over a bite to eat. Less than 48 hours later, he suffered a heart attack, and he’d pass away soon after, at 76, on July 16th. It was difficult for friends to accept his death only a few weeks after he was in fine form at the Cauliflower Alley Club reunion in Las Vegas, and it was difficult for to me to transcribe that last interview, especially his closing: “We’ll see ya when ya come out here, kid.” (Steve Johnson)
Tiger Khan (Marlon Kalkai) — Writing an obituary often makes you pick up the phone to call someone you know but hadn’t talked to in a long time. In this case, I got to renew my friendship with Evan Ginzburg of Wrestling Then and Now, who was one of Khan’s best friends and biggest supporters. Talking to Stampede alumni like Harry Smith, TJ Wilson and Ross and Teddy Hart was a bonus. He was just 33 when he died of heart failure June 26th, so he connected to a whole different generation of wrestlers than most on this list. Read Johnny Devine’s moving column on Tiger Khan to further get that impression. (Greg Oliver)
Johnny Grunge (Michael Durham) — Another who died young — February 16th of sleep apnea at age 39 — Grunge touched the life of one of our writers in a positive way; read Bob Kapur’s recounting of his experience with Grunge: Johnny Grunge, good guy: A personal experience. (Greg Oliver)
Crazy Luke Graham (James Grady Johnson) — In the ring, Crazy Luke Graham was a ball of fun. He had the bleached hair and goatee, and wore a pair of checkerboard tights that looked like a walking advertisement for Ralston Purina. He always got the fans going with the “Crazy Luke” chant, egging them on and on by insisting that he wasn’t crazy. But James Grady Johnson, who died June 23rd at a too-young 66, was a soft-spoken, almost humble — if that’s possible for a wrestler — sort of fellow. Away from the ring, his goatee gave him the appearance of Colonel Sanders, and his mild voice, flavored by his native Georgia, sounded as though he should be sipping a mint julep on the plantation porch, not slicing open Pedro Morales. Given his bevy of titles and his years of headlining cards in the old WWWF, you scratch your head as to why he’s not part of the WWE Hall of Fame. I spoke with his son, Crazy Luke Jr., right after his passing, and he put it in perspective. “He was never one of these guys who was promoting himself all the time. He never thought he was bigger than the business.” (Steve Johnson)
Earthquake (John Tenta) — I’d followed Tenta’s career right from the get-go, when Al Tomko convinced him to give pro wrestling a shot out in his Vancouver All-Star Wrestling. His feud with Hulk Hogan in the WWF is still one of the most vivid in my memory. So when I finally got to meet Tenta in 2000, backstage at a Jacques Rougeau-promoted International Wrestling 2000 show, I was excited. He’d trimmed down a lot, but was a great guy to talk to. We’d exchanged the occasional email through the years, and like most people, I followed his battles with cancer through the WrestleCrap.com website. When he died on June 10th of bladder cancer, he was only 42. (Greg Oliver)
Bull Ramos (Sperdito Negro) — I don’t really remember how I got hooked up with Ramos for an interview — it might have been through the great Tommy Fooshee — but I owe a thank you to whoever it was. Ramos was a fascinating interview. He didn’t pull punches, said what he thought and was very matter of fact about the decline in his health and his cloudy future. So while it wasn’t a surprise when he succumbed to his myriad of illnesses on May 27th at age 69, it did make me pause and consider how fortunate I have been to have talked to so many of these legends from the past. (Greg Oliver)
Kay Noble (Kay Noble-Bell) — There she was at the 2005 Cauliflower Alley Club reunion, one of the real “divas” of the weekend in Las Vegas. Then months later, the wrestling fraternity learned of her inoperable stomach cancer. Until her death on April 27th at age 65, I kept in touch with her progress, clarifying details of her career with her family and friends. We ran a great story before she died that she did get a chance to read, detailing the respect she had from her peers. It became a much sadder story when it was transformed into a obituary. (Greg Oliver)
Maria Bernardi — One of the most cantankerous characters you’d ever meet, Bernardi was the glue that held the Cauliflower Alley Club together for many years, unheralded as the secretary. The Club now has an award in her name, following her death March 21st of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 80. I’d interviewed her just a month before, February 12th. (Greg Oliver)
Ron Dobratz — In the spirit of the old game from Sesame Street, one of these names is not like the others. In this case, Dobratz stands out because he wasn’t a wrestler. He was, like me, a fan and a writer. Ron pioneered a lot of the way that wrestling is covered today, and to him, we all owe a big debt of gratitude. The fact that I knew him personally through a couple of fan conventions was only icing on the cake. He died February 11th of lung cancer, at age 64. (Greg Oliver)
OTHER DEATHS IN 2006
- El Shereef (Jerry Carroll); Died December 19th.
- Richard Asselin; Died November 6th at the age of 71.
- Angel Maravilla (Domingo Martinez); Died November 12th of a heart attack at the age of 72.
- Huracan Ramirez (Daniel Garcia); Died October 31st of a heart attack at age 80.
- Kintaro Oki (Kim Ill); Died October 26th of complications from diabetes-hypertension at age 77.
- Pat Hutchison; Died June 27th.
- Victor Quinones; Died April 2nd of natural causes at age 46.
- Crybaby Edwards (George Hill); Died in October at age 58.
- Cho Ei Tetsu (Ei Tetsu); Died August 8th of Parkinson’s Disease at age 73.
- Prince Pullins (Calvin C. Pullins); Died June 1st of natural causes at age 72.
- Cowboy Bob Yuma (Frankie Vaughn); Died May 23rd of lung disease at age 54.
- Lord Humongous (Emory Hale); Died January 29th of kidney problems.
- Jackie “Mr. TV” Pallo (Jackie Gutteridge); Died February 11th of cancer at age 80.
- Ricky Romero; Died January 15th of complications from diabetes, at age 74.
- El Texano (Juan Aguilar); Died January 15th of respiratory failure at age 47.
- Sam Steamboat (Sam Mokuahi Jr.); Died May 2nd, of Alzheimer’s at age 72.