Like many of the SLAM! Wrestling writers, some of the things I hear a lot from readers are “You’re so lucky to have met so-and-so,” or “It must be great to get to meet this wrestler or that wrestler,” naming off many of today’s biggest names. While that’s true most of the time, some of the most personally memorable moments are when you get to meet some of the oldtimers, the names from wrestling’s yesteryear. That was certainly the case for me, when I met ’60s and ’70s referee Tommy Fooshee.
It was last year, over Wrestlemania 25 weekend, that I met with Fooshee, at the Armadillo Café restaurant in his hometown of Houston, Texas. Over the next two hours, he regaled my buddy Doug Campbell and I with stories of his career and road stories that he shared with some of wrestling’s biggest names of that era.
Though he was a wrestling fan as a kid, wrestling with friends in the backyard when he was 15 years old, Fooshee didn’t officially join the business until 1952, shortly after returning to Texas after a stint with the navy.
“I was stationed in San Francisco,” he said, between bites of one of a huge Texas-sized sandwich. “When I got out, there was a company running shows. I wasn’t that big, I was only about 165 (pounds). So what I did is referee. They were giving me ten, twenty dollar payoffs — not much, but I didn’t care, I was having a good time. I was also driving the guys to the shows, which we had two or three times a month, and they would pay me two cents a mile. ”
One of his frequent traveling partners was the legendary Sputnik Monroe. A lot of the conversation was Fooshee talking about Monroe, who he called his best friend. Noted for his gruff demeanour, both in and out of the ring, Monroe’s antics often had Fooshee roaring with laughter, as Doug and I were in hearing about them.
“One time, there was this rat in line, and Sputnik was drunk and he saw her down there and said, ‘Boy, somebody really potato’d that son of a bitch.'”
“I think the first black eye I ever got, Sputnik told me to go up to a waitress and ask if her cock was tight. I did, and she hit me right in the eye. I told him, and he said, ‘No, I said ask her if the clock was right.’ I think that’s the funniest thing that ever happened to me in my life.”
Like some of the melancholy country songs that flowed from the jukebox, occasionally, Fooshee would get misty-eyed when remembering some of the men and women that he once knew that have since passed away.
“It’s sad sometimes, looking back,” he shared. “You used to go out with them and drink beer and tell jokes, and over the years, you get out of it, and you don’t see them anymore. Then it’s been too long, and you’re living your life, and find out that the next person loses his.”
But for the most part, he was upbeat and jovial, and ready with a funny memory about any of the names we asked him about.
“I met Harley Race back in 1973 when he first won the (NWA) title. My dad operated a hotel back then, and Sputnik told him that when he came to Houston, he should stay there. He was a nice guy. We’d go out drinking, and he wouldn’t let me spend a nickel. He had so much money back then. I remember one time Harley told Bull Ramos that he was going to spend $50,000 to build a new kitchen for his wife. Bull said, ‘How much did you pay for the house?’ ‘Oh, about $5,000.'”
One of his other close friends was Johnny Valentine, who Fooshee called in a 2006 interview with Greg Oliver, the best heel he knew. “He was always in shape, and he always conducted himself like a wrestler. He worked the crowd, and he looked strong. He made you believe it. He just had a way of doing it. He stayed in there, and he could go an hour if he had to.”
Outside of the ring, Valentine was a notorious practical joker, and Fooshee recalled one infamous prank in particular.
“(Valentine) used to put lighter fluid in the inhaler of the Alaskan, Jay York. One time, it nearly killed York. He came back with a shotgun and came after Valentine, and blew up his thousand dollar Haliburton briefcase. The funny thing about it is that I was down for the Cauliflower Alley Club reunion in 1991, and they honoured both York and Valentine that year. They were standing beside each other, and when they told the story, I know Valentine felt bad about it. But they were both laughing about it.”
Even though a lot of time has passed since Fooshee refereed his last match, he still follows the product — he was in the crowd for Wrestlemania 25 — and was happy to compare today’s product with the one he was part of.
“The problem now,” he opined, “is that they’re putting on a show to make (the fans) laugh. You don’t want them to laugh; you want them to believe. I think the problem is that they do so many shows now. The guys don’t want to give it their all that night, because they have to do it all over again tomorrow. They’ve already got the fans’ money, so they can just work some slow matches and put a few holds on.”
He also wasn’t too impressed with the Divas Battle Royal.
“I wish the girls looked like the old girls. These girls look like dancing girls. If you put these models in the ring together, you can get some lousy matches.”
In 2006, during his interview with Oliver, Tommy named Mae Young as the best woman wrestler of all. “She was scrappier,” he said, “she got out there and really roughed it.” He is glad that she is still with the company, albeit now in more of a comedic role.
“When Vince started doing the skits, I think Moolah talked Mae into being the fall guy, into doing all the funny stuff,” he speculated. “I’ve had people tell me Mae shouldn’t do all that, but I’d say she should do anything to get over. People see what they do, and see people spitting in her face, or telling her to kiss their butt, and they say she should quit. Well, that’s great if you have another job to go to. But the money that they must be making. And it’s not like Vince [McMahon] wouldn’t do all of that himself. Moolah told me that Vince would do anything he could do — go through tables, have his head shaved, whatever he could for the business.”
In addition to WWE, Fooshee also follows Mexican wrestling, which he watches on TV on Saturday mornings. The “comic book style” as he described it is a far cry from the days when he used to travel to Mexico regularly to watch the events live.
“The first time I went down to Mexico, just to see the matches, was 1955. They had a match between the Blue Demon and El Santo. The loser was supposed to lose his mask. Blue Demon lost, and when he took his mask off, his face had his old type of adhesive tape all over it, so you still couldn’t tell who he was. People started pulling matches out and set the place on fire. I didn’t want to leave! They had to pull me out of there, I was standing there like a mark.”
During dessert, which was a mountainous piece of apple pie, Fooshee told us even more stories and numerous other stories, about Andre the Giant (“To get over with him, I sat down, drank six beers in a row, and we got along great”), Buddy Rogers (“He was the greatest performer I ever saw”), Danny Hodge, Stu Hart, and several others.
Throughout, it was obvious that Fooshee still loves the business and would not trade his time in it for anything. Frequently, he would comment to Doug and I about how happy it made him to meet us, wrestling fans who were interested in hearing about the sport’s bygone era.
“I’m glad to see you guys laughing,” he told us. “That’s what life’s all about — having fun. If you find something you enjoy, there’s nothing better in life.”
— With files from Greg Oliver