Long before Jackie Fargo feuded with Al Greene and Jerry Lawler feuded with just about everybody, there was no doubt about the most historic blood rivalry in the Tennessee territory: Billy Wicks and Sputnik Monroe.
They broke gate records, and each other, in a series of battles in 1959 and 1960 so pitched that Wicks and Monroe could reprise them 45 years later at a wrestling reunion and captivate a whole new generation of fans.
“He used to bring out the ugliness in me, so we would have some pretty good battles,” Wicks said. “One night, he couldn’t bust me open; said his hands were sore or something. I told him to stomp on me until he busted me open. He goes, ‘Damn, you’re crazy; you’re crazy, Wicks.’ ”
In fact, Wicks, who died May 6 in Waynesville, N.C., at 84, was anything but crazy. He was perhaps the last of the knowledgeable teachers of old-school “catch” wrestling left, sharing his expertise on aggressive, submission-based wrestling with everyone from law enforcement professionals to students who flocked around “Pops” in western North Carolina.
“Master Shooter” was his self definition on Facebook.
“This has been my second career or maybe my third career, depending how you look at it,” Wicks said.
Wicks honed his wrestling skills as a youth in St. Paul, Minn. His father, born Bjorn Johannson, emigrated from Norway to the United States in 1912. As son recalled, his father saw what he thought were fireworks from an adjacent ship during his Atlantic crossing. The pyrotechnics were too real; the ship was the Titanic, on its way to an icy death.
When Wicks was 16, an amateur named Quentin Dale Clark took a shine to him and started working on the mat at a YMCA in St. Paul, Minn. Clark, who died in 2014, was only about five years older than Wicks but had wrestled at a collegiate level and knew all the ins and outs. “We used to go to the park, there was a park we went to called Phelan Park. He was 21 and I was 16. Quentin was one hell of a wrestler; he used to throw us kids around like nothing. Really built.”
Wicks took to the sport like a duck to water and sparred out with the wrestling team at Macalester College in St. Paul. A chance meeting with a lady wrestler at a local department store got him on the carnival circuit, where he earned his spurs wrestling all comers and studied at the hand of the legendary Henry Kolln.
“Henry Kolln, what a tough old son of a bitch he was. About 160 pounds of concrete and steel. He was in his late 50s or early 60s,” Wicks said. “He had wrestled with Farmer Burns, one of the real originals. I was 19 and he stretched my butt. Best pure wrestler I ever met.”
While Wicks could lick just about anybody in a catch-as-catch-can match, he found the transition to a professional was a little different. Debuting in the Minnesota territory run by Tony Stecher, one of Wicks’ first matches was against veteran bad guy Abe “King Kong” Kashey in Brandon, Manitoba.
“Al Mills was kidding me. He said, ‘Hey Wicks, you got the old man out there tonight. You got ol’ King Kong. He’s gonna cover you like blanket. You’ll get eyestrain from looking at the bright eyes ’cause you’ll be on your back.’ ”
Mills was right. The young babyface broke out his amateur moves, snatching Kashey and taking him down, since the catch style relies on ground work. “Lockup, do a takedown, a fireman’s carry, get behind him, he goes over to the ropes put his head under the ropes. Referee comes to break it up, just before he does — I’m down on my hands and knees — Abe turns around and smacks me right in the nose with his elbow. Bang! I mean, he smacked me. He said, ‘Hey sonny, this is professional wrestling. This is not amateur.’ I got the message right away. This ol’ man is going to whip me if I’m not careful.”
Wicks took another rude lesson from the territorial days of wrestling when he worked for Leroy McGuirk’s sprawling Oklahoma-based promotion in 1957. Needing a few bucks to support his wife and three kids back in Tulsa, Okla., he agreed to work a Christmas night show in Fort Smith, Ark., for local promoter Jimmy Lott, though wrestling buddy Tony Morelli had cautioned Wicks against the booking.
” ‘Watch that son of a bitch,’ Tony warned me. But I was starving so I said, ‘I’ll work.’ So I went on the main event with Tom Bruno,” Wicks said, noting that a previous match in Fort Smith netted a $20 payoff.
“A lot of times back then, you’d look at the crowd, compare it and kind of count your pennies. I said to myself, ‘Boy this should at least double. It’s Christmas day.’ ” To Wicks’ dismay, his pay was a paltry $19.50. “I put the money in my pocket and said, ‘Mr. Lott, don’t ever book me again. Tony Morelli was right, you’d nothing but a thief.’ ”
As Wicks remembered, he went to retrieve his suitcase from the dressing room when Lott came after him, ripping his shirt and wielding a blackjack. “He was going to whip my ass. I blocked it, hooked his arm, took him down and took the blackjack away from him. I beat the shit out of him bad. He’s laying there bleeding and his wife was on my back and the ticket seller was trying to stop the fight.”
So much for Wicks in McGuirk territory. Justified or not, promoters don’t take kindly to their local affiliates being laid out. Wicks packed his 1952 DeSoto, his wife and three kids, and his two-wheel trailer and headed to Tennessee and Mobile, Ala., for promoter Buddy Fuller — a life-changing move for the better.
Fuller tested Wicks by having him work with local favorites Bobby and Don Fields. With his amateur skills, Wicks handled them easily — a perfect match since Fuller had a soft spot for well-trained wrestlers. Wicks shot to the top in the Deep South territory, winning the Gulf Coast heavyweight title four times in 1958 and 1959, with Fuller, Gorgeous George, and Lee Fields among his victims.
“I would do anything in the world for Buddy Fuller,” Wicks said in a interview with historian Scott Teal. “He wanted me to break my arm. He said, ‘I’ll tell you what, Wicks. Go ahead and break your arm. Not too bad … just one of the small bones. I’ll take care of you and give you a main event payoff for about six weeks. Then we’ll come back with it.’ He asked Sputnik to break my arm. Sputnik wouldn’t do it.”
His first match with Monroe, a hard-living vet of the carnival circuit, occurred July 9, 1958 in Mobile. Their feud took up a good part of Memphis, Tenn., wrestling in 1959, when the two scrapped over the Tennessee title. Wicks won the belt on June 1959 as part of a tournament for a Cadillac, a common promotion in South wrestling at the time.
Originally, Monroe was supposed to capture the car but Fuller called a last-minute audible. “Buddy Fuller comes to me and says, ‘Look it, I don’t think it’s a good idea for the bad guy to win the Cadillac.’ He said, ‘I want you to win it. Billy … But what if Sputnik wants to go for it, can you take him?’ ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘no doubt in my mind.’ So I won the Cadillac, but I got busted up doing it.”
The skirmishes continued throughout the summer, with the capper on August 17 before 15,947 at Russwood Park — crowd estimates have varied in the telling of the event but it was certainly a Memphis gate record. Former boxing champion Rocky Marciano served as special referee and got involved at the end, slugging Monroe in what turned out to be a no contest.
The action out of the ring at the time was just as outrageous. Monroe decided to drum up some ink by popping up at the local fairgrounds and busting the cane of Gene Barry, TV’s western hero Bat Masterson. “Sputnik called me up and said, ‘Hey, Wicks. I’m gonna get us some national publicity. I’m going out there and I’m taking Gene Barry’s cane away from him and I’m going to break it over my knee and hand it to him.’ I said, ‘Well, go ahead, baby, whatever you want to do.’ ”
On the road to his vile deed, Monroe, the Tennessee title belt around his waist, wandered into the rodeo section of the fair and started cutting a disparaging promo on a nag he said belonged in a glue factory. The cowboy that owned the horse was standing nearby, started jawing at Monroe and laid him low with a sucker punch.
“So Sputnik made the front page of the paper but not like he was supposed to. Fuller was mad as hell. He even tried to get the cowboy to come wrestle Sputnik,” Wicks said. After the clamor died down, Wicks said Monroe confessed: “I just couldn’t get up enough nerve to go up and break that man’s cane.”
At that point, Wicks had about enough of wrestling. He was working Mondays in Memphis; Tuesdays in Pensacola, Fla.; Wednesdays in Mobile; Thursdays in Panama City, Fla.; Saturday mornings on TV in Memphis; Saturday nights in Jonesboro, Ark.; and Sundays in Birmingham, Ala. The price for being a good guy wrestler was too much.
“You didn’t have no expressways. I had met a guy in Memphis who was a deputy sheriff for one of the big judges and he said he could get me a job as a deputy sheriff. My ass was dragging. The old timers used to say, ‘You got a job, kid?’ Guys like Tony Morelli, Bob Cummings, guys like that. They said, ‘Hey, if you’re smart you’ll wrestle on the side and get a job. You’ll find out a steady dime is better than an occasional $20 bill.’ ”
In October 1960, Wicks gave his notice on a Monday and started as a deputy sheriff in Shelby County a week later. In 1969, he was bodyguard for Criminal Court Judge W. Judge Preston Battle, who presided over the trial of James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King.
He also took charge of physical training for police work, drawing from the lessons of Henry Kolln.
“I changed terminology around. They used to say ‘defensive.’ I don’t believe in that term. As a police officer, you’ve got to win, so you can’t teach defensive tactics. So I said, ‘I teach techniques, mechanics and controls of arrest,’ ” Wicks said,
At the Memphis police academy, Wicks emphasized control techniques to law enforcement personnel. “If you guys have to hit anybody with your nightstick or your flashlight or your gun, you don’t need to be a cop. You need to retire. That shows you’re frustrated and don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t need to hit the guy or kick the guy. You need to control the guy.”
Wicks continued to wrestle on and off for several years but saw his career come to a sputtering halt in 1972 after a dispute with Memphis icon Jackie Fargo. He earned $21,000 in his final full year as a wrestler and $4,600 as a first-year sheriff, so he approached office operative Roy Welch during a TV taping about some weekend bookings.
Oddly, Welch suggested Wicks stage an unplanned intervention in a TV match between Lawler and Jerry Jarrett. “Why would I do that?” Wicks asked. “He’s a babyface and I’m a babyface.”
The following week, Wicks got his answer as he watched Mario Galento unexpectedly jump into the ring to take a whack at Lawler. Fargo and Tojo Yamamoto cut him off, beating Galento senseless with a sawed-off baseball bat.
“Lawler just backed away, like what the sh– is going on? Nobody knew what was going on. But I did. Roy had talked Mario into going into the ring without telling anybody except Tojo and Fargo and so they just beat the shit out of Mario. I’m saying, ‘I wonder if he had that planned for me too?’ ”
A few months later, Wicks was handling operations at a card in Batesville, Miss., for local promoter Red Donnan when Galento showed up to get even with Lawler.
Jim White, Lawler’s partner, answered Galento’s intrusion by brandishing his own gun in front of a deputy sheriff, who gathered all the participants and hauled them in for questioning. “That killed our show for the night,” Wicks said. An irate Fargo called Wicks at home late that night and accused him of siding with Galento. According to Wicks, Fargo said: “I’ll fix your ass. You won’t get any more goddamn bookings.” “And there went my bookings.”
Wicks retired from the sheriff’s department in 1987 and moved to North Carolina a few years later. He was “dormant,” as he put it, for several years until word about him started to percolate in the catch fighting world, like a forgotten sorcerer newly discovered.
“A guy named Johnny Huskey out of Asheville, N.C. found me on the Internet. He called me up on the phone and asked if he could meet me. I said, “Yeah, come on over.’ When he said Johnny Huskey, I said, ‘Well that’s a made-up name.’ But the kid was very well versed in wrestling and he had taken judo, just a real nice kid. We hooked up … and we’ve been almost father and son ever since.”
North Carolina state troopers took some of Wicks’ classes as he coached from a chair in deference to physical ailments. His knowledge was disseminated worldwide through videos and the American Hook Wrestling Foundation.
And he had one last go-round with Monroe on July 1, 2005, when he and Wicks reprised their famous feud at a legends show in the DeSoto Civic Center in Mississippi, south of Memphis.
“We got in the ring close and I said, ‘I’m going to bust your glasses.’ He was wearing glasses,” Wicks said. “He said, ‘Oh, goddammit, Wicks, I’ll be blind. I can’t see. I’ll bleed to death!’ ”
With Greg Oliver, Steven Johnson is co-author of The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame series of books. He interviewed Billy Wicks many times through the years, trading audiotapes and jokes. When he sent Wicks a complimentary copy of The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels, Wicks insisted on paying for it. RIP, Billy.