At the induction ceremony for the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in June 2010, Sir Oliver Humperdink was called upon to introduce Mark Lewin. Though he was talking about his time with Lewin, his line, “I’ve had a great string of luck, managing some great guys in this business,” rings more true today with his passing overnight at age 62.
Humperdink reentered a Minneapolis hospital last week, his blood pressure having dropped alarmingly. He had been in and out of care over the past few weeks, and moved to a hospice a few days ago. Complications from pneumonia while battling bladder cancer proved to be too much for the man born John Sutton.
Despite his fame, Humperdink was always exceedingly modest about his accomplishments. When interviewed at the Mid-Atlantic Legends Fan Fest 2004 by Bill Apter, Humperdink said, “It’s a highlight to me when somebody comes up and says, ‘You entertained me,’ ‘Well, I remember this match on such-and-such a date at such-and-such a place’ — something I don’t really remember any more. But it’s a thrill to me that people do remember after all these years.”
In short, John “Red” Sutton came a long way from a fan in Minneapolis to one of the greatest wrestling managers of all time.
In his autobiography, Dusty Rhodes said that Humperdink and Gary Hart — who died in March 2008 — were the two best in the history of the wrestling business. “Like the great referees who knew when to be seen and heard and when to be invisible, these two guys were the best at knowing when to keep their hands off and when to be involved. Their timing was impeccable. While having two very distinct styles, they knew how important it was to keep the focus on the wrestlers and not on themselves. They knew how far they could go without going over the top and they knew when to actually go over that line in order to make a statement for the good of the business.”
Sutton was a fan growing up, and in 1964-65 while still in high school in Minneapolis, he began working for the company that provided the ushers for Metropolitan Stadium, the Minneapolis Auditorium, and a few other venues. He worked at the ring entrance door, telling the wrestlers when to head out to the ring. Eventually, Sutton developed friendships with some of the wrestlers, and switched to working for Verne Gagne’s promotion.
Initially a go-boy, sitting at ringside as security, taking the jackets back to the locker room and other lowly duties, he would graduate to ring duty, driving the ring from town to town and setting it up. On one occasion, heading from Fargo, North Dakota to Minneapolis, he and Mike Boyette crashed into a snow bank in a blizzard, spent the night in the ring truck, and were rescued in the morning by Chris Markoff and Pampero Firpo. Bad weather and a wrestler no-showing also led to Sutton’s first in-ring action as a fill-in referee.
One of the friends he made was Dale Hey (later Buddy Roberts), who was a preliminary wrestler in Minneapolis before getting a break in a team in Oklahoma with Jerry Brown. Known as the Hollywood Blonds, they had gotten hot in Montreal for the Rougeaus’ promotion. When the Vachons were leaving Minneapolis in 1973 to help start up a competing promotion in Quebec, Grand Prix Wrestling, the Blonds jumped to the new company.
They wanted something different, and Sutton became their manager.
“The Hollywood Blonds were working for Rougeau and they switched sides. I said, ‘We’re going to make you a manager'” recalled Paul “The Butcher” Vachon. “They were very, very successful, and he was good too as their manager.”
“We wanted to have somebody who stood out in the crowd,” said Roberts, who credits The Spoiler (Don Jardine) with the Sir Oliver Humperdink name, designed to irritate the French separatist movement.
“He fit in right away. Have you seen, Humperdink?” said Brown, leaving the reader to picture the shock of red hair, the big eyes bulging out and the Humpty Dumpty-like physique. “Humperdink is one of those people that automatically get heat.”
The Blonds and Humperdink were together for seven years, from Montreal (which didn’t run in the winter) to Florida to Tri-States to Los Angeles. “He brought the element of having a manager, and he was a good talker,” said Roberts. “His looks, he was a lot heavier back then. He stood out. Mr. Humperdink stood out in a crowd. The outfits that he wore were outrageous, if you remember the hat and the jacket. He did stand out. … The crowd really didn’t like him. It just made it easier. We didn’t want to be just a tag team, we wanted to be one with a manager.”
In 1976, the team split amicably with Humperdink in Florida, and SOH stayed in the Sunshine State, managing Superstar Billy Graham and Ox Baker initially. His “House of Humperdink” would often fill up half the card, with names like Don Muraco, Nikolai Volkoff, Mr. Saito, and the Super Destroyer (Scott Irwin) in his stable.
“The amazing thing about Humperdink was how much he was hated in his role, but how every fan that got to know him outside the ring loves him,” said Florida-based photographer Pete Lederberg. “He is truly one of the nicest people in the world. He managed the Hollywood Blondes and the heat was incredible, then onto his feud with Dusty Rhodes where Dusty actually ran a great pumpkin contest for the fans to draw Hump with many as his charge, then morphing into Rooster seconding/managing Dusty. He came back at the end of Florida once again a heel manager.”
In 1982-83, Humperdink was in Jim Crockett Promotions in the Mid-Atlantic area.
“Despite the relative brevity of his stay in the Mid-Atlantic area, Humperdink made an indelible mark on the promotion. Coming to the area when there were no managers on the scene, Sir Oliver’s ‘House of Humperdink’ dominated the territory over the year he was here. And by the time he departed the territory in July of 1983, managers were once again a fixture within the promotion,” wrote David Chappell of the Mid-Atlantic Gateway website as a preamble to their lengthy interview with Humperdink. Sir Oliver was certainly a ‘Manager of Champions’ while he prowled around ringside in the arenas of Virginia and the Carolinas. Humperdink captained Greg Valentine to the United States Title, Paul Jones to the Mid-Atlantic Title, One Man Gang and Kelly Kiniski to the Mid-Atlantic Tag Team Titles and managed Ivan Koloff, Jos Leduc and Bad Bad Leroy Brown during their NWA Television Title reigns.
Back in Florida, Humperdink was aligned with Kevin Sullivan battling Dusty Rhodes and Blackjack Mulligan. Sullivan tried to push the envelope as a cult-like leader and his minions doing his dirty work. “But the whole time we did the gimmick, never once did we mention the devil or Satan or anything like that,” Humperdink told the Mid-Atlantic Gateway. “People could think what they wanted, but we didn’t say anything like that.”
In 1987, Jim Crockett Promotions bought the Florida promotion, and Humperdink headed to the World Wrestling Federation. Bam Bam Bigelow had arrived as a “free agent” and all the heel managers at the time vied for his services. Oliver Humperdink, as a babyface, was eventually picked. “I had a good time with Bam Bam,” Humperdink told SLAM! Wrestling when Bigelow died in 2007. “We were so busy. We were doing two shows on Saturday and two on Sunday, coast to coast.”
Following his WWF stint, Humperdink had three distinct runs in World Championship Wrestling. The first run was, again, with Bigelow on the side of all that is right and good. Next up, he managed the Samoans. In 1990, he was “Big Daddy Dink” and managed the Freebirds.
By 1992, fed up with the mismanagement of WCW and tired of the road, Sutton quit.
In 2001, Sutton had emergency surgery in Miami, with his aortic valve being replaced and a pacemaker installed; another operation on his femoral artery followed.
The Cauliflower Alley Club’s benevolent fund kicked in towards the medical costs, and Sutton gratefully thanked the members for their donation in a letter:
“I would indeed like to thank the entire CAC for the support and check that was sent my way. I have been involved in the business in one way or another since I was about 17 years old (I’m 52 now) and have always known and respected the fact that a lot of the time all we had were each other. I had the great fortune of having the likes of Dick Beyer, Ray Stevens, Pat Patterson, Nick Bockwinkel, Bobby Heenan, Red Bastien, Pampero Firpo (who saved my life once), and all the other great talent that was in Verne Gagne’s territory in the late ’60s and early ’70s as friends and mentors. What they taught me was a respect for the business and each other that has been lost along the way. I still love the biz, but it lacks the caring aspect that was there when I first started. I am so proud to be a part of an organization that still promotes those values that I grew up with. From the very bottom of my now repaired heart, I thank each and every one of the members of the CAC for their outstanding support in my time of need. THANK YOU!!! God willing, I’ll be able to be with my ‘old heroes’ and ‘yet to be met’ heroes in Las Vegas this February. My best to all, Sir Oliver Humperdink.”
Following the health scare, Sutton moved back to Minnesota to be close to family, and made a concerted effort to head to as many reunions and fan conventions as he could, revisiting old friends, and making scores of new ones in the process.
The Cauliflower Alley Club honored him in 2005 at its reunion in Las Vegas.
Former AWA announcer Mick Karch knew Sutton when he was a youngster doing whatever job was needed, and reconnected in earnest when Hump moved back to the Twin Cities.
“I am so glad that my dear friend Red Sutton got to see the world, doing what he loved best. I am honored to call him my friend,” said Karch, who regularly met Sutton for lunch. “I will miss doing Wally Karbo and Stan Kowalski impressions for him; he was my greatest audience. I will miss laughing about Laurel and Hardy with him. I will miss his generosity, his integrity, and his warmth. There is no one more completely opposite of his ‘heel’ persona. He was a gem and I was blessed to call him my friend.”
Top photo: Dale Roberts, Sir Oliver Humperdink and Jerry Brown as the Hollywood Blonds.
Greg Oliver was fortunate to have gotten to spend quality time with SOH both on the phone and in person at the various reunions. Thanks for being so generous with your time, Hump! Greg can be emailed at [email protected].