To a generation of fans who grew up with Hulkamania, Billy Red Lyons, who died Monday after a long battle with cancer, was the pitchman telling us “Don’cha dare miss it!” But more importantly, he was a link to the past as the WWF trampled down the history of the sport. He was also my friend.
As I go back through my notes from our many conversations, I find a real lack of stories about HIS career. Instead, my conversations with Billy Red lean more towards his thoughts on other people.
There’s Houston promoter Paul Boesch: “Whatever he promised you, you got.”
And Skull Murphy: “He was a natural and he was a great guy.”
There are countless others as well.
Lyons was always willing to help me with whatever project I was working on, whether it was SLAM! Wrestling, a magazine piece or my first book, The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Canadians.
In fact, he told me how much he enjoyed my book, and proved it by coming to the book launch, telling friends about it, and attending to a book signing in April 2004 in Kitchener.
That signing led to a deeper friendship with Billy Red.
We had lunch after the signing with my wife Meredith and my very good friend Terry Dart. Billy Red and Terry didn’t know each other, but they knew of each other. Terry had seen Billy wrestle for years, and then enjoyed him on the WWF Maple Leaf Wrestling broadcasts. Billy had heard stories from the boys about an incredibly dedicated (obsessive?) wrestling fan from London who took some great photos.
Billy Red was incredibly gracious as Terry asked question after question. He wasn’t an attention-getter as a story-teller, like some wrestlers are. We had to lean in to hear the tale, as Lyons’ voice wasn’t quite as strong as it used to be before his strokes.
But tell stories he did, from the roads of Texas to the Municipal Pool in Hamilton, where the ring was set up over the swimming pool.
Of course, Maple Leaf Wrestling came up. We talked about Jack Tunney’s death in that January, and how a snowstorm that day prevented Billy from going to his boss’s funeral. And now, with Lyons, Tunney, and ring announcer Norm Kimber all gone, there isn’t much left from Maple Leaf Wrestling.
From there, we’d chat every few months, whether it was for a story or a book.
“How are you doing, Billy?” I’d ask.
“I am still breathing and on the right side of the grass,” he’d respond.
One of the favourite pieces I did was the lengthy question and answer session that the SLAM! Wrestling readers helped out with. Billy Red’s sly, cheeky sense of humour is quite evident in that piece. He never took himself too seriously, though was fiercely proud of his chosen profession.
I last saw Billy back before Christmas, at a bi-weekly dinner of Hamilton-area wrestlers, spearheaded by Ernie Moore. Billy was sort of a Godfather-like personage at the gatherings, the one who really succeeded out of Hamilton, but returned home. The oldtimers would angle for time with the frail but still sharp Lyons, who continued to drive himself to the gatherings from his Kitchener home.
It was Moore who called me with the news this morning, that the cancer of the spine had finally gotten to our friend, and that he died Monday. Moore, who worked under a mask as one of countless “Executioners” over the years, recounted a recent dinner he organized in Cambridge, so that Billy Red didn’t have to drive as far.
“We followed him back to his home, and helped him inside,” recalled Moore. “I didn’t think I’d be seeing him again.”
Indeed, it was the last time he saw his friend. Billy Snip was 77 at the time of his death, having had his birthday on May 17th.
Goodbye, Billy. Thanks for the memories, your eternal optimism, chuckle and your friendship.
BILLY RED LYONS STORIES