Rip “The Crippler” Oliver passed away on March 5. He leaves behind a legacy as one of the most decorated wrestlers in Pacific Northwest history. He held the Northwest heavyweight title 12 times and the tag titles 16 times — both are records.
Oliver joins a long list of wrestlers who came to the Pacific Northwest early in their career to get their seasoning. The list goes from Jimmy Snuka, Roddy Piper, Buddy Rose, Billy Jack Haynes, Tully Blanchard, Magnum TA, Jesse Ventura and so many more. The difference between Rip Oliver and the other top wrestlers of the ’70s and ’80s is that except for very short stints Rip never left the Pacific Northwest.
Originally from Tampa, Florida, the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Oliver was an athlete, playing baseball, basketball and excelling in football; he claimed to have turned down a scholarship to Tennessee to play football, instead debuting as a pro wrestler in 1975.
He came to the Pacific Northwest territory, run by Don Owen, in August 1980. Previously he had wrestled in Florida and Texas and then made a New Japan tour under a mask as The Gestapo. In New Japan he was placed in a fairly good position where he got to work with Antonio Inoki, Tatsumi Fujinami and Riki Choshu.
When he came to the Pacific Northwest, Roddy Piper, Rick Martel and Ed Wiskowski were just finishing their run in Portland. Also in the area was Buddy Rose and Kangaroo Johnny Boyd. Rip Oliver became a member of one of the first incarnations of Buddy Rose’s army. Within a month he had his first tag championship with Fidel Cortez.
The “Crippler” nickname came courtesy TV announcer Frank Bonnema, after Oliver put Jay Youngblood out of action with a separated shoulder.
As 1980 rolled into the next couple years, Oliver feuded with Steve Regal, Matt Borne, Stan Stasiak, Rocky Johnson, Brett Sawyer and Curt Hennig. Then in April 1982, a very important thing happened, Buddy Rose left the territory and Rip Oliver found himself in the top heel position in the Pacific Northwest. He would stay in that position for most of the next five years. Within days of Rose leaving, Oliver captured the Northwest title for the first time.
In June of 1983, Buddy Rose came back into the area to reform the Army, but Rip Oliver had formed The Clan and Oliver did not want to be second fiddle to Rose. Also at this time Dynamite Kid had come into the area and Rose wanted to team with him. Oliver and Rose finally came to blows during a tag match and Rose called for Dynamite Kid to come and help him. But when Dynamite Kid came to the ring he attacked Rose and joined Oliver’s Clan, which also included the Cuban Assassin. This was a huge turn for Buddy Rose and further pushed Oliver as the mastermind of using Dynamite to turn on Rose. “Some of the most heated crowds I ever wrestled for were in Portland,” wrote Dynamite Kid (Tom Billington) in his autobiography.
In late 1982 another wrestler would debut in the area, Billy Jack Haynes. Haynes would be the opponent for Oliver that would help propel them both to the next level. Their feud would be one of the most remembered feuds ever in the Pacific Northwest. If you could capture one moment that highlighted the feud, it happened during the Christmas season in 1983.
During the night of wrestling there was a Santa Claus passing out gifts in between matches at the Portland Sports Arena. During Billy Jack’s introduction, Haynes greeted Santa. Santa reached into his bag and pulled out a tire iron and hit Haynes over the head. Santa was Rip Oliver!
Their feud came to a temporary stop during Christmas day of 1983 when Oliver beat Haynes in a loser leaves town cage match.
The following year had Oliver feuding with Curt Hennig, Matt Borne, Tom Prichard, a returning Billy Jack, and later in the year Bobby Jaggers. He Also got a shot at Ric Flair’s NWA World title on October 1.
Oliver spent most of 1985 traveling, hitting Texas, Florida and completing several tours of New Japan. In a 1986 interview, he addressed the toughest place to wrestle: “The Bahamas are more rowdier. I don’t know what it is down there, but those people are crazy. Down there their security and the whole police department hate me. And when they hate me, all the fans hate me, too. That really makes it hard.”
He returned to the Pacific Northwest in 1986 where he took over right where he had left off. The year 1986 was a down period in the Pacific Northwest but Oliver feuded with Cocoa Samoa, Ricky Santana, Brady Boone and Scott Doring and longtime partner, The Assassin.
He had a way of getting under people’s skins. Here’s a letter to the editor in the Salem, Oregon Statesman Journal complaining about his tactics: “I like to watch wrestling as much as anybody. It looks to me like they should take Rip Oliver’s wrestling rights away from him, if he continues hitting others over the head and parts of the body with tire irons and other blunt objects,” wrote Harold Perry of Gervais.
In an separate interview with the Statesman Journal in June 1986, Oliver explained his outlook: “The way I look at it I’m a professional. I’m a villain in the people’s eyes, but a lot of fans like me, too. There are a lot of fans who really respect me for doing what I do.”
The highlight of 1986 for Oliver were two big shows that featured a main event of Rip Oliver and Bruiser Brody meeting The Road Warriors. These matches were very short, but I remember how hard Oliver worked in these matches, proving that he could hang with the top echelon of wrestlers.
In September 1987, Rip Oliver jumped to the WWF. However this move only lasted two months, as he was used primarily as enhancement talent, and Oliver returned to the Portland territory. However the landscape had changed and The Grappler (Len Denton) was now booking. Oliver spent the first few months of 1988 still in the mix, but it was clear that Grappler was now the top heel.
By May 1988, Haynes had opened up a rival promotion to Don Owen, The Oregon Wrestling Federation. Oliver jumped to that group for a very short time and then made his way back to the WWF.
On November 16, 1988, Oliver working as The Super Ninja lost to Ultimate Warrior on a Saturday Night Main Event. This was his most prominent match for WWF.
In August ’89, Oliver was back in the Pacific Northwest and he turned babyface and feuded with The Grappler. He even teamed with Billy Jack Haynes during this time. In the spring of 1990, Rip’s son, Larry, debuted. On September 28, 1990 the Olivers won the Northwest tag titles. Oliver had two sons with his wife, Gail, Larry and Lance, and another son.
Asked what his wife thinks of his job in the 1986 interview, Oliver responded: “She can’t stand to watch it because a lot of times I’m in a street fight or a chain match. She gets upset and starts crying … It upsets her, but I make her record it for me (on the VCR) every Saturday. I do what I do to put the food on the table.”
During the period from 1989 to ’91, Oliver was in the Northwest, but he wasn’t wrestling on every show. The storyline (and possibly true) was he had become a log truck driver. He wore a flannel shirt with suspenders and claimed that job was keeping him from wrestling a full schedule.
By late 1990 both Rip and Larry Oliver were back as wrestling as heels. On September 26, 1991, Oliver won the Northwest title for the 12th time. It had been over four years since he had held the title, despite being in the area for most of the time.
Two weeks later Oliver defended the title against Brian Adams (Demolition Crush). During this match Adams used the full nelson and won the title. Later on in the TV show it was announced that the full nelson had broken Oliver’s neck. There was no revenge, no return angle. Rip Oliver never appeared on Portland Wrestling again. It was kind of a sad send off for a wrestler who had been the mainstay heel for the entire 1980s.
Similarly, he only appeared at a couple of the fan fests that have sprung up through the years.
Besides wrestling, Oliver had a hand in training many wrestlers, being a trusted talent to help them polish their skills. Princess Victoria (Vicki Otis) is one who benefited from his lessons.
Oliver had battled numerous health issues in recent years, related to his heart. He passed away on March 5th, at 4 p.m.
— with files from SLAM! Wrestling