“There’s another Valiant brother!” the covers of national wrestling magazines screamed in 1979. What they failed to add was that there was another Heenan brother, another Stomper, another Mad Man, and on and on.
All of those characters, and more, were wrapped up in one person, the unassuming John Hill, a character actor of a wrestler, who died March 11 in Indiana at the age of 68.
No matter what role the versatile Hill played, he fit it like a glove, according for former grappler Pat Blake, who called him “fantastic … he could work either way.” Veteran manager Percival A. Friend called him “good wrestler in the ring. He knew his stuff.”
But the quick change artist never left his guises get the best of him, said former wrestler Mike DuPree, who knew him for many years.
“Mitch understood wrestling was a business, and he didn’t live a gimmick,” said DuPree. “Wrestling was just a job he loved, but I don’t think it ever overtook his life. His wife and kid when I was around him always seemed to be his priority, and hence he kept his family and sanity when so many others hit the skids.”
Growing up in a family of 11 children, Hill boxed a little and played hockey as a youth in Hamilton. But like many athletes in the city in the late 1950s, he could scarcely avoid wrestling. “It’s often been called a wrestling factory with streets,” he recalled in one interview. “There were so many wrestlers walking around the city when I was a kid.”
While he worked in the mail room of the Hamilton Spectator at night, he hooked up at Al Spittles’ gym in Hamilton, thanks in part to the prodding of Hurricane Smith. He spent about a year there, and also worked out in Jack Wentworth’s facility before turning pro as a teenager under his real name around 1959.
In a 2005 interview with SLAM! Wrestling, he said he turned to the United States in 1960 because the money was better.
At first, he worked as Guy Hill, to avoid confusion with some other Canadian athletes named John Hill. He wrestled in the Central States area against other future stars like Larry Hennig while maintaining a toehold in Canada with a handful of matches in Winnipeg.
The following year, he picked up his first alias of Guy Mitchell during a tour of the south. Hill attributed it to a botched promo in an Atlanta newspaper; another Guy Mitchell was a pop singer in the 1950s, who had his own show in the United States on ABC-TV, and played in a TV detective series in 1961.
Regardless, Mitchell the wrestler made a name for himself very quickly. He wrestled as a fan favorite in the Georgia-Alabama area in 1961 and 1962, and made a few appearances on undercards in the Mid-Atlantic area for Jim Crockett Promotions.
The biggest moment of his early career came as a witness, though. In 1962, he was teaming with Happy Humphrey in a tag match in Florence, Ala., when a fan stabbed Pedro Zapata nine times putting him in critical condition.
Hill said the imprint of that incident is a major reason why he generally donned a mask when he was called on to portray a bad guy. In 1965, he teamed with Joe Tomasso as The Assassins in the Indianapolis-based World Wrestling Association. The team was notable for winning the company’s top tag team title three times in 1965 and 1966.
The duo also represented Bobby Heenan’s first run as a manager, though he was hardly the Heenan that wrestling fans came to know and despise. During a TV taping, Tomasso was unavailable, so Dick the Bruiser, who co-owned the promotion, put a mannequin to simulate Tomasso behind the other members of the team.
“Guy did the interview because I didn’t talk. I didn’t know how to back then,” Heenan said in his autobiography, Bobby the Brain. But he bonded with Mitchell as the two became lifelong friends and even wrestled briefly as Bobby and Guy Heenan.
Indianapolis became Hill’s home base for the rest of his career, but he reprised the role of the Assassin in Toronto from 1968 to 1971, where he locked up with Canadian favorites like Lord Athol Layton and Whipper Billy Watson. Al Costello of the Fabulous Kangaroos was an occasional tag team partner in Toronto, which is more remarkable because they simultaneously were part of a hot and heavy feud in Detroit.
There, the Kangaroos broke the Hill’s leg when he was under yet another guise as The Stomper, a moniker Bruiser gave him. The rivalry between the Kangaroos and the team of The Stomper and Ben Justice was red hot in 1971 and 1972. Meanwhile, the Assassin headlined Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto against The Sheik in July 1971 in a classic heel-versus-heel bout.
“I just did what the situation called for,” Hill told SLAM! Wrestling. “You have to remember that this is a business.”
After the run in Detroit, he headed to the Northwest where, as Mr. X, he won the top tag title with Gene Kiniski in Al Tomko’s British Columbia-based promotion. He lost his crown and his mask to Kiniski in October 1974, and, characteristically, became a fan favorite in a feud with the ex-world champion.
DuPree, who now runs rasslinrelics.com as an Indian wrestling archive, Hill helped to pop the 1976-77 when he was WWA champion as the Masked Strangler, during an otherwise slow economic time.
“I never really noticed how over the Strangler character was until late last year, looking at the listed attendance,” DuPree said. “The point behind noting this was how well he could work a hood, which is a unique art that really only a handful of guys really got down. I think it was his best strength.”
Greg Lake also found Hill to be a good influence out of the ring and a mentor in it. “During a match I had with him in Ft. Wayne, Ind., he taught me how to apply a short-arm scissors while in the ring — of course, very discreetly, as to not alert the fans what he was doing.”
His most well-known role came as Jerry Valiant, when he pinch-hit for a hepatitis-riddled Jimmy Valiant in the WWWF. Johnny Valiant, another friend from Indianapolis, persuaded Vincent J. McMahon to bring Hill to the Northeast in 1979 while Jimmy was sidelined.
The Jerry and Johnny show immediately captured the federation’s tag crown and worked in six-man matches after Jimmy recovered later that year. It was the first time Hill wrestled as an unmasked villain and he remembered the vitriol he suffered as a result.
“When I left New York and I moved back west, I actually experienced lifting off a shield,” Hill told SLAM! “I actually felt I was lifting off a shield because you were constantly on guard, no matter where you went.”
With Roger Kirby, he was a share of the WWA tag titles again in 1980, working as Jerry Valiant. Among his other roles were Mad Man Mitchell and The Destroyer, a bad-guy guise that earned him the IWA world title in Australia in 1966. He continued to wrestle through the mid-1980s, and even refereed some WWF shows, but spent most of his time in construction and landscaping work from his home in Franklin, near Indianapolis. He also played Santa Claus for several years at an Indianapolis mall.
Hill is survived by Carolyn, his wife of nearly 40 years; a son, Jonathan; three brothers, and two sisters. Visitation will be Sunday, March 14 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Swartz Family Community Mortuary and Memorial Center in Franklin, Ind.