When one of the heroes of our wrestling youth passes away, time seems to stand still for a few brief moments as we reflect upon the memories they instilled in us over the years. They say, time waits for no one, but as I try to recall all my wonderful episodes involving Ox Baker, father time is going to have to take a break for a few minutes, or take a fatal heart punch, as I relive these memories of the past 45 years.
I first met Ox on one of my frequent childhood excursions to St. Louis, Mo. for Sam Muchnick’s wrestling cards held at the Kiel Auditorium, back in 1969. On this particular weekend, a few of us die-hard WFIA (Wrestling Fans International Association) fans gathered at the home of WFIA President Don Wilson, to get together for a weekend of wrestling and shenanigans. There was Tom Burke from Springfield, MA, Diane Devine from St. Joseph, Mo., Danny Goddard from Atlanta, Burton Cutler from Philadelphia, and myself from Detroit.
After the Friday night Kiel show, a few other close wrestling friends and ourselves met back at Don’s home. In tow with the other fans were a few of the boys who needed a ride back to their hotel, but agreed to come along and have a few beers and join us for a post-show meal. Through the door enters Dewey Robertson, a babyface, followed by Ox Baker, a heel. If it were not for our respect for the sport of professional wrestling and our tight lips to not divulge the where abouts of our guests, back in the day, this could have been a promoter’s nightmare, a major kayfabe faux pas.
As the evening progressed, fun was had by all, with spirited conversation about wrestling in our home areas that filled Dewey and Ox with a sense of delight as they both had performed in arenas across the country. I was able to talk to and get to know Ox, as he wondered what a 14 year old kid who loved wrestling was doing so far from home. It was his introduction to the love, support and respect us loyal fans brought to professional wrestling.
At one point, Dewey got a spasm in his back, a injury suffered from his work earlier in the evening. To his surprise, as he laid on the floor trying to work out the kink, our host Judy Wilson sprung up from her chair and asked for someone to take a photo as she sprawled across Dewey’s chest, photographic evidence to show how she was able to pin him in true wrestling fashion 1-2-3! That impromptu moment of hilarity set off a domino effect throughout the room, the likes no one has ever seen before. Don Wilson was first to join the fray as he covered them both with a giant super splash. Which in turn Ox Baker took his turn and joined the pile, quickly followed by Tom Burke, then Burton Cutler and finally myself, jumping on a chair to put the final cherry on top of the heaping pile.
Oh how we laughed until stomachs ached and tears of laughter subsided. It wasn’t long before we realized time had slipped away and the witching hour dictated that our gathering would need to come to an end. Cameras came out as few quick photo ops were in order and appreciated as the fun filled evening came to a close.
I followed Ox’s career as he began to gain worldwide recognition as a main event heel through the various wrestling magazines that I happened to write for in the 1960s and 1970s. Our paths once again crossed when he came to my hometown of Detroit to work on shows for The Sheik’s Big Time Wrestling in the late 1970s.
At the time, I was managing for George Cannon’s Superstars of Wrestling, but Ox and I agreed to meet for dinner after his Cobo Arena appearance at one of our favourite restaurants in Detroit’s Greektown District. We talked about our escapades in wrestling around the country and our lives in general as we enjoyed our usual lamb entrées. Who was to know that it would be almost 30 years before we would reconnect once again.
In 2004, I was invited to participate in an event hosted by former wrestler, Juan Hernandez, for his Alicia’s House Charity in suburban Chicago. To my surprise, while having breakfast with my good pal Percival Friend, I hear a huge booming voice from across the room, echoing in my direction, stating “Get up a skinny jabronie!!” Who walks up, grabs me out of my chair and proceeds to give me a big bear hug as if he were finishing off Bruno Sammartino, none other than my old friend Ox Baker.
He had been invited, as was I, to donate our time and celebrity to raise funds for the food bank that the Alicia’s House name bears. We talked old times and laughed together during the day’s festivities. After nearly 30 years, it was good to see he was still loud, proud and well eye browed.
The following year, in 2005, Ox and I once again broke bread a few times in Las Vegas during the annual gathering of the Cauliflower Alley Club. It seemed kind of odd to me that he showed up without making any hotel reservation, which led to calamity for a few unsuspecting victims who offered to share their hotel room with him. As those folks will now tell you, once bitten, twice shy, but the memory: priceless.
Though I was able to keep in touch with Ox through infrequent phone calls over time, it would be another nine years before our lives again intertwined. Early this year in 2014, I was contacted by a promoter who informed me that they were bringing in Ox Baker to celebrate his 50th year in professional wrestling and that he was going to don his trunks and boots for one final match. Ox thought it would be only fitting to bring me in as his manager for his final swan song in the ring.
I did a promo to generate interest for his final ring appearance but due to bad planning and financial troubles from the promotion, in the end, I did not make the trip and was not able to witness the historic event. After viewing the video from that evening, I’m sad to say that Ox’s best days were long behind him and I felt sorry for the way he was taken advantage of and exited the wrestling business with not much respect or dignity in tow.
Hearing that he had been in and out of the hospital in the months following, I was excited to hear that he was making the trip from his home in Connecticut to Detroit to make a special appearance for the screening of a Detroit-based wrestling documentary. When I saw him for the first time in nine years, it was evident that time and the years of ring savagery were taking its toll on him. Though he was most comfortable being seated, he took pride in showing that he was still the physical powerhouse he gained notoriety for throughout his career, by exerting enough energy to stand and pose for photos with everyone who came to pay their due respects to him.
I had printed up and brought with me a few photos that we originally took together back in 1969 when we first met. I couldn’t believe that he remembered that particular day as if it were only yesterday, describing the people in the room, the others from around the country he had met, and especially, the mountain of mayhem that we created on top of Dewey Robertson. I had hoped that he would autograph these pictures for me to keep for lasting memory. To my surprise, Ox said to me that these photographs are such a treasured memory for him and asked if I would personally autograph them to him. How could I turn down such a heartfelt request?
I now realize the X’s and O’s I signed under my name were not only a gesture of respect, but also, as I reflect this one last time, they represent the lasting impressions of my dear friend, a lifelong hero, a man named Doug, the man we all remember as Ox.
- Oct. 22, 2014: Mat Matters: Why Ox Baker was at my wedding and other memories
- Oct. 20, 2014: Everyone’s got an Ox Baker story
- Oct. 20, 2014: Wrestling legend Ox Baker passes away
- June 28, 2001: Ox Baker: Wrestler, chef, author