WICHITA FALLS, Texas – Given that I live just a two-hour drive away, I was excited that the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame moved this past year from upstate New York to Wichita Falls, Texas. I’ve been many other banquets and reunions through the years, and have always really enjoyed them, so it was a given I’d be at the first PWHF induction in the Lone Star State.
I drove in from Rt 44. Upon approaching the mini-metropolis of Wichita Falls, my eyes focus on a tall, blue building rising out of the cityscape like a shark fin. “The Big Blue,” as it’s called, is definitely a dynamite location for the relocated hall of fame — well known to locals, and easy to spot for out-of-towners like myself. Wichita Falls has a tremendous amount of charm. It’s an artsy, foodsie, striving hipster kind of place. There’s plenty of antique malls, and pubs around, but it’s very Texas with dusty boots and pickup trucks. Downtown Wichita Falls is on the upswing, and the PWHF is a definitely a part of the progress. It has a mini Austin-like potential. More importantly you can feel the progress the city is making. There’s a passion there, you can feel it.
“The wrestling here is so rich and deep, we are going to move forward in a big way,” said Johnny Mantell, president of the PWHF. Just in the city alone, many world champions have topped the bill in town since the 1920s including Joe Stecher, Jim Londos and Strangler Lewis, and then later on Lou Thesz and Dusty Rhodes. Danny Hodge, the tough as nails Oklahoman, a former NWA Junior Heavyweight champion, dominated the scene during the 1960s. Interesting note, Canadian wrestling patriarch Stu Hart, then known as Stuart, had some of first matches in Wichita Falls.
Note: Wrestling historian and legendary mat historian, Tom Burke, who make the trek from Massachusetts for the induction, says the town was referred to by the boys, as Whiskey Falls.
“Most of us — myself, Johnny Mantell, JJ Dillon … We were fans first. We felt the passion. We hated, we loved … I cried when Bruno lost the belt to Koloff. 21,000 people were silent, you could hear people crying. A lot of us started as fans. The Hall of Fame encapsulates that passion,” said “Irish” Davey O’Hannon, a retired northeast-based wrestler who had been a big supporter of the PWHF in its previous homes in Schenectady, New York, and then Amsterdam, New York. O’Hannon was a very underrated mid-carder, very reminiscent of an Amarillo style, who always wrestled at the Garden in the openers, but always ended up with having one of the best matches of the night — comparable to WWWF Hall of Famer Johnny Rodz. “The Hall of Fame provides respect and dignity that our field is entitled to. Not just in ring performers either, but the fans as well.”
If you love wrestling, you have to see the PWHF Museum. This place is our Cooperstown, our Canton, our Springfield. Mantell, his force of nature wife “K”, and his staff organized the move of the HOF nearly 1,700 miles to it’s present location. (Amsterdam to Wichita Falls is a 24-hour drive — I Googled it!) Name a favorite wrestler from any era and they’re there. Wrestling fans are very diversified and are interested in different styles, different wrestling territories, certain wrestlers, etc. All of them are remembered here, and revered here. Fans and wrestlers alike, whether you’re a fan, an active or inactive member of the business, there’s something here for you.
O’Hannon and I spoke about the personal memories the museum recalls. Seeing displays of boots, tights, robes, of various friends who are no longer with us, it’s tough not to get teary-eyed and sentimental. For him, it was a simple photo on the wall of S.D. Jones. A comrade, a dear friend. For me, it was Ted Petty’s jersey from Public Enemy. He was my close friend and mentor. Tears of respect.
There are various displays of personal items, like the robes of Danny Hodge or Domenic Denucci; Killer Kowalski’s hood and tights; a Gorgeous George Georgie Pin; Stan Hansen’s bullrope; numerous title belts – too many to mention; The “Yellow Rose Of Texas” jacket of Von Erich fame; the Freebirds jacket. Others of the Texas wrestling fraternity like Gary Young and Skandar Akbar are represented very prominently.
There’s Dick Woerhle’s ultra cool referee boots. I remember when he first wore them! Let’s not forget Mick Foley’s couch, it’s here too.
My first visit to the museum was sheer joy. Now, onto the Main Event, the reason we are all here … the 15th Annual Induction Event Of The Professional Wrestling Hall Of Fame.
Well, this is Texas. There was a gun show going on in another room at the MPEC. I’m not kidding! I couldn’t tell one shooter from another! (Rim shot…)
I wasn’t given an exact attendance, but I would “eye” it up at about 300 attendees. In no particular order, here’s a short list of the evening’s legendary luminaries — Terry Funk, Greg Valentine, Stan Hansen, Butcher Vachon, The Grappler Len Denton, J.J. Dillon, Sam Houston, Bill Irwin, Tiger Conway Jr., Wendi Richter, Leilani Kai, Gary Young, Davey O’Hannon, Brian Blair, James Beard, David Manning, Ross Hart, Ata Johnson, and Johnny Mantell.
The food couldn’t be more Texan! Ribs, beans, corn on the cob. It was a sit-down, laid-back dinner you would expect in Luckenbach, kickin’ a few back with Waylon and Willie! It was an unpretentious, delicious meal. No complaints here, partner.
Legendary World Class referee David Manning did a marvelous job hosting the event and was very well spoken. Stan Hansen, formerly a lariat-swinging madman, was endearing as he spoke softly of his friend, the late Blackjack Mulligan, a fellow member of the Texas wrestling alumni, as the Blackjacks, Mulligan and Blackjack Lanza, were inducted into the Tag Team category.
Hulk Hogan’s female counterpart in the early days of the WWF rocketship, the ever lovely, Wendi Richter poured her admiration out for her Wrestlemania I opponent, the still vivacious Leilani Kai, a sweeter lady the business has never known. Seeing Wendi presenting an award to her former adversary was a fun moment.
Ata Johnson, the wife of Rocky Johnson and mother of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, was present to accept the induction of her father, High Chief Peter Maivia. Ata gets my vote for best dressed at this year’s banquet. Mrs. Johnson was stunning in her black and silvery gown. (I know some of you care!) Surprisingly, her mega star kid, yep, The Rock, sent a video that played on the video screens adjacent to the stage. When this guy speaks it makes you proud to be a part of the business, whether you’re in it, or you’re just a fan. (Remember, fans are part of the business, or I’ll give Davey O your phone #!) You have to respect the impact that the Samoans have made in wrestling. Some say even more so than a family, it’s a dynasty.
Unfortunately, inductees Mean Gene Okerlund and Sgt Slaughter could not attend nor did Steve Austin cross the state to accept his honors. Posthumously, 1930s wrestling pin king Earl McCready, and early TV stars “Beat The Champ” Joe Pazandak and dastardly German Hans Schmidt were honored.
Terry Funk, that meaner than a rattlesnake, tougher than shoe leather, dag gum mat legend from dusty ol’ Amarillo, took to the stage to induct his pal of many a road trip and locker room, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine.
“He was ridiculously stiff in the ring!” complained Funk. He went onto say how Valentine paid his dues. First his father sent him to be trained by Stu Hart at the dark, torturous dungeon in Calgary. (Scream!) Then he had his first match against Angelo Mosca. (Ouch!) From the frozen tundra to Detroit to work for The Sheik and team with Don Fargo — “…now that had to be a pleasure,” Terry said sarcastically.
The Funkster introduced him as a fellow member of a professional wrestling family “that believed in what he was doing in that ring, not only did he suspend the disbelief of the fans but he suspended his own disbelief to believe in himself. He believed in himself. He believed in what he was doing. That’s the way his pop taught him, that’s the way my pop taught me.” That’s was so poignant. Very few can verbalize it as well as Terry Funk.
The Hammer or Babyface Nelson, if you prefer, looked thinner and younger than normal, donning a dark suit and baby blue neck tie exclaiming, “I have a Donald Trump suit on!!” Funk turned around and said, “If they had an election tonight, I’d damn sure win!” As Funk turned to leave, Valentine fired back “GOODBYE HILLARY!!!” It was hilarious! The comedy timing was brilliant! Funk’s comeback to Valentine, “Jimmy Hart broke you into the business! .. (pause) … man that was low!!!” The crowd roared.
The tone then changed. Valentine took the mic reinforcing again what Funk said about being from a wrestling family and making people believe. “If you believe you are strong, if you believe in every move you make in that ring … if you believe it, it translates to the fans.”
“AMEN!” I exclaimed, quite loudly from my table, caught up in the moment. Hallelujah! Preach those words from the mountain top! If wrestling had gospel, it was said there, on Saturday night in Wichita Falls.
PWHF CLASS OF 2016
Modern Era (1985-)
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin
The Television Era (1943-1984)
Greg “The Hammer” Valentine
Pioneer Era (1865-1942)
High Chief Peter Maivia
Tag Team Division
The Black Jacks (Blackjack Lanza and Blackjack Mulligan)
Mean Gene Okerlund