By GREG OLIVER & STEVE JOHNSON – SlamWrestling
Blackjack Mulligan, who died today at the age of 73, was a force of nature. Like a cyclone, you could get blown away by the power of his words, and sucked up into his vortex. Announcers knew it; just hand him the microphone and get out of the way. Ask a question, and he was a boulder rolling down the hill, unable to stop.
That Mulligan stayed on top for so long in various territories, is a testament to his talent, his interview skills, and to his love of the business.
Growing up in Sweetwater, Tex., Bob Windham was exposed to the wrestling promoted by Dory Funk Sr. out of Amarillo. But football called first, and after playing at Odessa High, he attended Texas Western (now UTEP) for two years.
It was there that he was first exposed to performance enhancing drugs. “I’ve been a steroid guy since the day I was in college. … They used to give us steroids in the dressing room,” he said. “It was a Dianabol pill, it was a doctor-regulated situation.”
Windham, who also served as a Marine in Guam, would have brief flings trying to get on the AFL squads in New York and Denver, until a compound fracture of his left leg ended his career. According to Windham, the owner of the Jets, Sonny Werblin, who also owned Madison Square Garden, and suggested he try pro wrestling. He’d already heard about the riches to be earned from Wahoo McDaniel, who wrestled in the off-season from football.
For six months, Windham learned in Mexico and Corpus Christi, Tex., along with some others from Joe Blanchard’s San Antonio, Texas, promotion and luchadors. He was dispatched to Verne Gagne’s AWA for further schooling. “The first time I showed them that in Minneapolis, they went, ‘Quit taking so many bumps. Don’t go down. Stop at the knee.’ What a lesson process it was there.”
Butcher Vachon was one of those veterans who showed Mulligan a thing or two. “The problem with Blackjack Mulligan, he was so damn tall. It was hard to get him to take a bump because his whole top part of his body would come around and take the bump but his feet were still starting to come over from the other side. His legs were too long,” said Vachon with a chuckle.
Dale Hey would later find fame as Dale Roberts in the Hollywood Blonds and as Buddy Roberts in the Fabulous Freebirds. But in the late 1960s, he was assigned to take the ring from town to town for AWA shows along with Windham. “Bob was just breaking in, and basically I was too. We were both doing jobs. We’d drive around together on these looonng trips together, heck, all the way up to Winnipeg. We became pretty good friends on the traveling end of it,” said Hey. “I remember they booked us against each other and he wanted to be a heel, and so did I. We had two matches against each other, and I let him be the heel in the first match, and I was the heel in the second match. That was funny because we were both fighting to see who was going to be the heel.” It was Windham, though, that the AWA saw potential in, and named him the promotion’s 1970 Rookie of the Year.
A man so big and so strong-willed could only be held down so long. He was invited to New York, where promoter Vincent J. McMahon insisted on a name change. The Mulligan surname came from his great-uncle who had been a fighter in Sweetwater. But after the stabbing, it was realized that he still needed some more schooling. Mulligan was paired with Blackjack Lanza in Indianapolis, and a legendary team was born. “Well, Lanza and I with [Bobby] Heenan, a blond manager, another new-looking thing come together, this thing went nutso, this thing went crazy. We had so many problems it was unbelievable. Here’s where we couldn’t stay together, it couldn’t last, because territories couldn’t handle it,” Mulligan said. The Blackjacks would tour around, though it wasn’t a team destined to last. “We worked Texas together a little bit, but this team, every time it got together, it created problems of heat. These people, we go to New York and they give us Lou Albano and that even got nutsier than before. I went, ‘Oh my god, I’m back in the same situation where I’m going to get killed!’ Well, with myself as an individual, I could control.”
As a single, he had a heated, bloody run against Wahoo McDaniel in the Mid-Atlantic territory, before one last stint with the Blackjacks as WWWF tag champs in 1975. But when Charlotte lost Johnny Valentine and Ric Flair to injury after a plane crash, there was a void that Mulligan could amply fill. He was the top heel in the promotion thanks to lots of TV interview time, with epic battles with Mr. Wrestling (Tim Woods), Paul Jones, Rufus R. Jones, Dino Bravo and Rick Steamboat. But in 1978, he did the unthinkable, and turned babyface to battle Ric Flair.
Once he’d gotten a taste of the right side of the fence, there was no return. “I’m not a bad guy, but I come off as a bad guy,” Mulligan said. “But I’ll tell you, once I switched babyface, I couldn’t go back. It was impossible to go back. I tried to make a move like that. I didn’t want to do it anymore. Once I got a taste of this Dusty Rhodes babyface stuff, who wants to ever go back? It was ridiculous. It was so easy it was silly.”
Mulligan was more than happy to expand on his “babyface rap” which he perfected, along with Rhodes and “Superstar” Billy Graham. “We changed the face of this business because we could do promos and talk and get heat in promos where the other guys didn’t know how to work the camera. They hadn’t had that camera time. Once we had created a character, or an aura of a character around us, we found out that we could talk them into the buildings,” Mulligan said, freely admitting that he stole from Thunderbolt Patterson. The days of the 2-out-of-3 fall matches were going, and Mulligan, Rhodes and Graham realized they could do more with less. “The charisma of the business was changing, because we would stop, slam a guy, take a look at the people, find out they was cussing and screaming at us. Well, we found out that we could kill time by doing that. And I’m indicting myself as much as anybody else, because Dusty, myself and Billy Graham had the biggest to do of the changeover of this business, diluting the business to what it is now, than anybody else.”
The Superstar doesn’t disagree. “I can’t ever forget Blackjack Mulligan, almost 7-feet tall, wrestling Kevin Sullivan, 5-feet tall, and Blackjack has to spend most of the match on his knees — and he’s still as big as Kevin Sullivan on his knees! But the entertainment value, he was still able to get sympathy because he was an entertaining babyface,” said Graham.
After his Mid-Atlantic run ended, Mulligan took his act to Florida, and then, at the end of his career, back to the WWF on two occasions, on one of which he worked under a mask as a part of the Machines. He and wife Julia would see their children involved in wrestling as well, with Barry and Kendall Windham becoming wrestlers, and daughter marrying Mike Rotunda. Two current WWE stars, Bray Wyatt and Bo Dallas, are Rotunda’s son, and therefore Mulligan’s grandsons.
After his last run in New York, Mulligan ran into legal trouble with his real estate holdings, and spent two years in a minimum-security prison for a federal counterfeiting conviction; Kendall got 27 months. Later, the Mulligans ran a car dealership in Florida.
During his career, Mulligan had two stints as an owner too. From 1980-81, he owned Knoxville with Ric Flair, which included some southwest Virginia towns. “All these small territories, they were finished. The TBS program, with Vince bowling over everybody, those little territories were gone,” he said. The other was the Amarillo territory, which he bought with Dick Murdoch from the Funks just before the WWF expanded nationally. “It was more for me a break,” Mulligan said. “Barry was going to West Texas State, so I went out there so I could watch the football season. It was the most expensive football season that I ever watched in my life!”
The Blackjacks are entering the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame this May, and were inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in April 2006. Mulligan, bad knees and all, still gave a powerful — if short — induction speech.
He was wistful on the past. “The only regret I have is that I’m not 21 years old. I wish I could do this again, I really, really do. I watch these guys now, and I swear to God, it would be like taking candy from a baby.”
For the last number of years, Mulligan faced many health challenges. In August 2015, he posted an update to his Facebook page: “I’ve just been sent home by my 5th doctor! To let God have his way! Massive blood lots surrounding the bran!! … Strange writing about before it happens ! But left here a while longer to do Gods work!”
Funeral arrangements are not known at this time.