At his induction into the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2005, Jack Brisco was introduced as having “brought more respect and dignity to this business than anybody.” With his passing today at age 68, the former NWA World champion leaves a legacy matched by few.
That same year, Don Leo Jonathan introduced Brisco at the Cauliflower Alley Club banquet, calling him, “probably the greatest champion of the 20th century.”
“He was like wrestling glass. He was that smooth,” recalled Rip Hawk.
And that’s just his peers talking.
Here’s another different example. A New Zealand businessman named Trevor Turnock was passing through Las Vegas in 2003, and found out that the Cauliflower Alley Club was meeting there and immediately bought a ticket, rearranging his itinerary. During the banquet, he ran up to SLAM! Wrestling contributor Steven Johnson and exclaimed, “You’ll never believe my luck, mate! They seated me at a table with Jack Brisco.”
There will be no shortage of praise for Jack Brisco following his sudden death on Monday.
He was born Freddie Joe Brisco on September 21, 1941, in Blackwell, Oklahoma. Brisco won two state wrestling championships while in Blackwell High School in 1958 and 1959, and he played fullback Blackwell’s football team, which went to the 1959 Class A state title game.
Brisco earned a football scholarship offer from the University of Oklahoma, the home of his idol, Danny Hodge. But he really just wanted to wrestle, and enrolled at Oklahoma State. He was a two-time wrestling All-American there in 1964 and 1965, finishing second in the 1964 NCAA tournament at 191 pounds and winning the title in 1965. Brisco went 27-1-1 in his college career.
Leroy McGuirk, who promoted in Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana, convinced Brisco to give professional wrestling a try, and he debuted in 1965. Some of his earliest matches were against Mark Starr and “Dandy” Jack Donovan, but in his actual debut, he faced Ron Garvin, who threw an elbow, hit him over the eye, causing his brow to split open.
Economics played a part in his decision. “They [wrestlers] made a lot more money than schoolteachers,” Brisco said. “That was the bottom line. It was an opportunity to travel. I never had an opportunity to travel.”
After a year working for McGuirk, he went to Tennessee and worked for Nick Gulas, where he said he had to rethink his decision to become a pro wrestler — making $12.50 a night just wasn’t cutting it. After heading back to Oklahoma, Brisco began working in Texas for Fritz von Erich. His first trip abroad, to Australia, followed soon thereafter. In Australia, Brisco met Joe Scarpa — later Chief Jay Strongbow — who would be his “in” for the Florida territory.
In Florida, under the tutelage of Eddie Graham, Brisco excelled and was groomed to be a world champion.
“Eddie was probably more instrumental in helping my career than anybody,” Brisco told Wrestling Perspective in 1996. “Eddie taught me the figure four leglock. That’s the hold Eddie used for his finish. Before TV one day, Eddie got me down on the floor in the dressing room and taught me how to do the figure four. Before a TV match and I used it in that TV match. It was onwards and upwards from there.”
Brisco often said that Lou Thesz and Danny Hodge were his heroes. His greatest opponent, he told journalist Steven Johnson, was Johnny Valentine.
“The very first time I worked with Johnny, I was new in the business. I’d been in the business maybe three years. He was the top guy here in Florida. I’d just come into Florida and they put me on TV with him,” Brisco recalled. “From the camera on TV, you could see my chest, and Johnny backed me into the corner and laid one on my chest. It looked like my chest, instead of about six or seven inches thick was about two inches thick. He just caved my chest in. I couldn’t breath for a few minutes after that. … Fortunately, in those days we were selling wrestling and not steroids, and all that stuff worked back then. People believed it.”
He would achieve the apex of his profession on July 20, 1973, defeating Harley Race in Houston, Texas. He would lose the title to Giant Baba on December 4, 1974 in Japan, but regained it four days later. His second reign would run until December 10, 1975, when he was toppled by Terry Funk.
“It was great. A kid from Oklahoma having the heavyweight championship traveling around the world. It was quite an experience,” he told Wrestling Perspective in 1996.
Brisco was a huge star, in large part because of his good-looks and natural tendency as a babyface.
“Jack Brisco, in the ’70s, was one of the coolest people that I knew,” said Kurt Beyer, wrestler and son of “The Destroyer” Dick Beyer, in 2005. “He was one of the first wrestlers to have the mod hairstyle. He looked like Joe Namath. He had girls everywhere, trying to get a kiss.”
Harley Race said those good looks could be a drawback. “The only one that really had a problem with it was Jack himself. Jack was a babyface babyface, if you know what I’m trying to say,” said Race. “He just looked so good, and he made so many babyface moves during a match that when they were trying to force him to be a heel, he was such a good babyface that it was hard to do.”
Despite his legit amateur skills, Brisco was not one to show off or be involved in the schooling of wannabes and newcomers.
“He didn’t want to have anything to do with that shooting stuff,” recalled Bob Roop. “I don’t think I ever saw him, ever, get in a match — he was just getting his break when I started down there in ’69 in Tampa. He might have been on top for a year, it might have been less, but he was on top as a babyface, and he was making good money. I think after a few years in the business, it was his first real break, because a lot of people thought he was too small. But he was great. He was very capable. With a good leader, like Dory Funk Jr., or Terry, and guys like Harley, he had great matches. I’m not saying he couldn’t have great matches on his own — he did. I saw some great matches he was involved in. But generally he was the babyface. I never saw him, in all the years I was down there, he refused to come down to the Armory and work out with any of these guys. He just wouldn’t do it. I don’t think he was afraid; he just didn’t want to do it.”
Brisco taught his brother, Jerry, the skills needed to be a pro wrestler, and the younger Brisco debuted in 1968. They would team many times during their careers, including a run as NWA World tag team champions.
“Jack was the best big brother in the world,” said Jerry in a release. “When I faced tough times as a youth, he was always there for me. He paved the way for me in both amateur and professional wrestling. We even went into business together as owners of Brisco Brothers Body Shop in Tampa. I feel blessed that we always remained close.”
The brothers would be a key part in wrestling history as well, selling their stock in Georgia Championship Wrestling to Vince McMahon, allowing the growing WWF access to the key timeslot on the WTBS Superstation. The deal resulted in the Briscos working for the WWF.
George Scott talked the brothers into coming in. “I had already retired and George talked us into coming back, doing the thing there in the WWF with [Dick] Murdoch and [Adrian] Adonis,” he said. “I didn’t really even want to go for George. My brother Gerry wanted to give it one more shot and he wanted to work that territory. I had worked there before — just doing shots, I never worked the territory. But Gerry wanted to do it real bad, so I just went back to please him.”
But Jack walked away from it all in 1984.
“When I walked away from wrestling, or me wrestling, I just walked away. Just like that,” Brisco told journalist Mike Lano. “I still loved the business, but after I finished what became my last match and saw that I was on WWF’s list for some other towns, enough. I just phoned in that I’d had enough and that I was physically and emotionally done. I was just so tired and ready to walk away and get on with the rest of my life. It was more than just my body aching. We all made so many sacrifices for all our time in it, being away from our families the main problem. Jerry still loved working, he wasn’t ready yet. I didn’t want to let him down because we’ve always been close, but that was it for me. I was lucky for all the time I did get to spend with Jerry on the road though.” (Jerry would continue in the employ of the WWF as a road agent.)
Florida would become Jack Brisco’s home, and he and his brothers Jerry and Bill opened the Brisco Brothers Body Shop on Hubert Avenue in Tampa. Brisco would be at the shop at least three times a week, and loved to work out.
He has been honoured numerous times for his accomplishments, including:
- George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame (Class of 2001)
- Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame (Class of 2005)
- Lou Thesz Award from the Cauliflower Alley Club (2005)
- Men’s Wrestling Award from the Cauliflower Alley Club (1996)
- WWE Hall of Fame (Class of 2008)
An autobiography, Brisco, written with author William Murdock, was published in 2003.
In retirement, Brisco enjoyed fishing — “I’ve always been an outdoorsy guy” — and traveled extensively with his his wife of more than 30 years, Jan. It helped that she shared his passion for traveling around the country taking in major NASCAR events as well as some of the top amateur wrestling championships.
“It’s our way of getting some quality time together,” Jan Brisco said in 2004. “I don’t get to see him all the time he’s at his (car) shop, but we try to make the most of all the rest of our time together and we have the same things we like doing together. We love planning out our trips and were surprised at how much we enjoyed Las Vegas. Jack didn’t care for it too much during all those NWA meetings each year in the ’70s. We especially love traveling around and seeing the U.S.”
The retirement travel was different than the travel as a wrestler, said Brisco. “Most of the time I was defending the belt or just being sent here and there, I never really got to see this country (America) or Canada the right way during my career. Always on a plane and exhausted. [Gene] Kiniski and [Funk] Junior can tell you, and Harley. We were given insane schedules and I dropped to Terry [Funk] because like Bruno [Sammartino], I wanted out. That was enough and I asked Sam [Muchnick] to take it off me many times. Now if I go somewhere to help support amateur wrestling and the NCAA, Dan Gable, whatever; I make sure we get to see the sights.”
Over the last decade, Brisco has faced an number of health problems. In 1999, he had a growth removed from his spine, and fought back to be able to walk again. More recently, he had circulatory problems and emphysema. A few weeks ago, he underwent open heart surgery and later collapsed while undergoing rehabilitation.
Brisco is survived by his wife of more than 30 years, Jan. Funeral arrangements are not known at this time.
— with files from Mike Lano, Steven Johnson
Greg Oliver fondly recalls drinking beer with Jan and Jack Brisco on induction weekend at the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2005. Pretty low key guy for someone so famous and important to the history of professional wrestling. R.I.P. Jack.