WICHITA FALLS, Texas – P-W-H-F. If you’re a wrestling fan, you should know those four letters. If you’re a wrestler or in the business in any capacity, you not only need to know those letters, but should have attended this year’s Professional Wrestling Hall Of Fame induction weekend entitled “16 Sweet Years Of True Ring Professionals.”
Wichita Falls, Texas, is the locale of the PWHF, and it’s headed up by former wrestling great Johnny Mantell and his wife K Kreymer Downs. The museum is the only hall of fame existing in brick and mortar form that exclusively represents pro wrestling’s glorious history and colourful stars.
The wrestling business has changed and evolved. Many have opinions that it has advanced in many ways, and many also theorize it needs to put the brakes on and be put in reverse. Open communication between the generations of wrestlers, young and old, are essential for the evolution of wrestling. Discussions of the sort between ring veterans, seasoned promoters, enthusiastic rookies and general advocates of the game were bantered about all weekend.
“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” and words attributed to a portly Brit — not Big Daddy, or Giant Haystacks but Winston Churchill. (Now, if you weren’t familiar with the first two names, both are legendary UK grappling greats. Not hip to the legends of the grunt and groan business? Then a crash course by way of a visit to the PWHF should be on your itinerary. If you’re not familiar with the latter gentleman, I’m saddened … but use Wikipedia!) Wrestlers new to the business can attain a plethora of knowledge from the vets at the PWHF.
Wrestling history is bursting at its spandex seams within the walls of a tall, blue building in the charming town of Wichita Falls.
This year’s induction banquet, like last year’s, featured good “Deep In the Heart Of Texas” fare — delectable barbecue beef ribs, taters, corn, baked beans, jalapenos and so on — a cowboy’s banquet of the highest order tantamount to a Luckenbach BBQ with Willie.
The 16th annual induction event honored the stars of every generation. Former World Class Wrestling referee — and let’s not forget, proud Texan — James Beard did a fine job hosting the event.
The Pioneer Era Inductee, Yvon Robert (pronounced Row-bear) 1914-1971, was inducted by Canadian wrestling royalty, Ross Hart. Ross was a last-minute replacement to induct Robert. Now, Ross is from Western Canada, specifically Calgary. A French Canadian has little in common with folks from other English speaking provinces. There are cultural differences, and I assumed for years that the two ethnicities never mixed well in wrestling. I found it slightly odd that a Hart was inducting a Quebecer. Robert was a renown champion wrestler during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Known as the grandfather of Quebec wrestling, he mentored some of the greatest stars in the area including Edouard Carpentier and Johnny Rougeau. Ross, as an educator and well-versed Canadian wrestling historian, gave an insightful bio on Robert and it was a very respectful induction. Afterwards, I asked if it was uncomfortable representing a French Canadian as they had little in common. He said that his father, the legendary Calgary promoter Stu Hart, respected the French-speaking crew regardless of cultural differences. In conclusion, it was simply the language barrier that prevented the two diverse Canadian troupes from working together. I found that rather interesting. Considering that both regions had some of the most unique, and talented wrestlers in the world. If they combined talent and resources the results could have changed the route of wrestling history.
Ross Hart, interestingly enough is named after Luther Lindsay. How’s that for a trivia question? Ross’s middle name is Lindsay, and his namesake was also inducted into the PWHF this year.
Luther Lindsay was a superb wrestler sporting an incredible physique. He was a favorite of Stu Hart’s and also of legend, Lou Thesz who called Lindsay the greatest black wrestler ever. “His place in history is not that he was black; it was in spite of the fact that he was black,” once said Thesz. Luther died in the ring in 1970, but his legacy will live on at the PWHF.
The second inductee into the pioneer category, was 1940s and ’50s star Dirty Dick Raines, who had a rough, hard-hitting reputation as the first real ass kickin’ cowboy.
Similarly, Susan Green who competed from the ‘1970s to the ’90s, had the rep as the first, real ass kickin’ cowgirl. Susan accepted her induction as Women’s Division Inductee with a gracious and patriotic acceptance speech. Both, Raines and Green are products of the rich wrestling history of Texas.
Larry “The Axe” Hennig accepted the Tag Team induction for himself and on behalf of his partner, Handsome Harley Race. Separately, as single wrestlers, Hennig and Race were unstoppable. Together, they were twice as formidable. And today, at 80 years young, “The Axe” looks like he wouldn’t hesitate in slapping an upstart loudmouth off his barstool! In one of the most memorable moments of the evening, Larry lead the crowd into a couple choruses of “Ghost Riders In The Sky.” Mr. Hennig knows how to leave an impression.
Sputnik Monroe was honored in the Television Era category. Many call him a Memphis wrestling LEGEND, but in my opinion it isn’t substantial enough. He made history, not only in the wrestling realm, but as a civil rights activist. Frank Sinatra refused to play Las Vegas unless fellow entertainer, and African-American Sammy Davis Jr. was treated fairly. Sputnik refused to wrestle unless his black fans were treated fairly. Up until that point at many places in the South, the crowd was segregated and blacks were forced to sit in the balcony. Sputnik fought for civil rights and became a hero to many. As the crowds were integrated, the attendance rose. With that, so did Sputnik’s income for himself and his family. He was a very unique man, and is deserving of every accolade and honor bestowed upon him. Long live the legacy of Sputnik Monroe, now forever enshrined at the PWHF.
Tatsumi Fujinami is one of the most decorated and proficient Japanese wrestlers of the 20th century. You enjoy watching fast-paced, high-flying Japanese matches? Fujinami was the innovator. It can be said that he popularized a more action-packed style that revolutionized “Puroresu” in the late 1970s into the early ’80s. Fujinami stepped aside to the heavyweight division to make room for a budding phenom, Tiger Mask. At this past week’s festivities, he was very gracious to fans and a true gentleman. With a translator on hand, he was very obliging to fans and very enthused about the proceedings. It was a rare opportunity to meet him as he makes very few appearances in the United States. He said quite humbly that receiving the induction was one of the greatest nights of his life. It was my honour to stand and give him, along with the rest of the attendees, a standing ovation.
Shawn Michaels one of two Modern Era inductees, but had to cancel his appearance due to a “family issue.” I honestly had my doubts, until Shawn appeared on the video screen and apologized for not attending, citing his daughter’s first music recital. It was then clearly understood by everyone in attendance — he’s a dad first. (I couldn’t imagine writing those words in 1986!) The Heartbreak Dad promised to make the trip to Wichita Falls next year to accept his award.
Mick Foley was the second Modern Era inductee. This is where I hear my editor, Greg Oliver, saying to me “it needs to be in your voice.” Okay, I know Cactus Jack. In fact, I managed him a few times in Northeast in the late ’80s, and early ’90s. One of his popular opponents in the Northeast indies was the Cheetah Kid, Ted Petty. I always worked Teddy’s matches. He was like an uncle to me. If I was managing on the card, I was in the corner of his opponent. That’s how I met Mick. In Wildwood, NJ, I managed him against his own teacher, Domenic Denucci. I remember recommending to promoters to team him with DC Drake. I think maybe once or twice they listened, but it was still a crazed, lunatic style team that I was thrilled with. I know he’ll remember the time I hired him to work at a flea market in Newark against S.D. Jones. I also paid him to do a magazine ad for a 900 number I was doing.(You’ll definitely get a laugh out of him about that!) Mick said he is a rip-off or copy of Terry Funk. I disagree, he’s the poor man’s version. (See, that’ll get a laugh out of him too!) I mean that in the most respectful way possible. We all know there’s only one Terry Funk. With that in mind, Mick is a wrestler cut from the same old school canvas as Terry Funk. A wrestler willing to voluntarily put his body on the line in extreme circumstances to entertain and engage the fans by suspending their disbelief. Whether it was the chair shots, the barb wire, the bump off the Hell In The Cell, I loved and respected him for it all.
Back to Wichita Falls — Foley wore a blazer from the Jesse “The Body” tie-dyed collection and truly made it work. I love listening to him. He’s very eloquent even after the thousand or so chair shots to the head. He wrote a poem at 3 a.m., going from A to Z, outlining his career. It was pure genius. I could see he really enjoyed it all, and left the stage proudly sporting a handsome cowboy hat given to him by Johnny Mantell.
I left the building momentarily to speak to friends outside the banquet hall. When I returned, I was disappointed to hear that Mick had left the building. I haven’t seen him in 20 years. See you down the road, my friend.
There’s one honoree that I have purposely kept until last. I’m personally elated that he was recognized. It’s wrestling’s greatest photographer, George Napolitano. You could also say he’s also the greatest unsung press agent to wrestlers that money couldn’t buy.
In the late 1980s, early ’90s George had 14 wrestling magazine titles with Starlog Publishing. In 1980, he debuted Wrestling’s Main Event, a very slickly produced newsstand mag that featured multiple colour pages on semi-gloss paper. To me, it was the cornerstone of wrestling magazines.
I was also in the magazine business. I was 18 years old when I became editor of Wrestling Eye Magazine. I admired George’s work. In fact, in a high school photography class, I brought a copy of his work to discuss photographic composition. I brought the book, The Main Event. It was published in 1979 and featured many action shots of George’s from Madison Square Garden.
In the wrestling mag circles, Napolitano and Bill Apter were the kings. They always shot at MSG. Just as Howard Finkel, Johnny Rodz, Arnold Skaaland, S.D. Jones and Lou Albano were “local NY personalities,” so was George. I sat in the loge seats at the Garden, much like George did in June 1970 when he shot his first wrestling images. I told my dad and any other fans in earshot that the guy at ringside was “Napolitano.” In 1980, that was bit of smart mark info, before the term was even coined. In addition to his newsstand titles, he also produced the WWWF Garden programs.
In 1976, he shot some now famous shots of Muhammad Ali and Gorilla Monsoon, including press conferences images of Ali and Antonio Inoki. Newsday did a spread of his work. Not bad for a self-taught shutterbug.
George gave a lot of ink and images to colourful luchador, Mil Mascaras. The masked sensation was the first masked wrestler to perform at the Garden. For years, you could always find him in George’s magazines. He gave exposure to wrestlers in parts of the country where they were unknown and not seen on television.
He cites the tag team of the Rock’n’Roll Express to be the largest selling cover boys. At a time when other publishers like mine insisted on covers of The Hulkster and other WWF stars, he took to putting guys like Bruiser Brody and Abdullah The Butcher on the cover.
Never a braggart, always soft spoken (even for an Italian!), he is an unsung hero to the business. In fact, George has graciously provided the photos that accompany this article.
If you enjoyed reading about any of this, make your plans now to attend the PWHF Induction weekend next year. I, for one, will be there again.