Danny Hodge, perhaps the greatest amateur wrestler in the history of the United States, and a long-time professional wrestler, has died. He was 88.
For the last number of years, Hodge had suffered from dementia, and had not been out in public much. The Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in Wichita Falls, Texas, noted Hodge’s passing. His long-time friend, Jerry Brisco, simply wrote “My HERO RIPDAN” on Twitter.
It is pretty easy to list Hodge’s accomplishments:
- After graduating Perry High School in Perry, Oklahoma, where he had been state champion in 1951, he enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, where he went 46-0, never even taken off his feet. He won the Big Seven title three times, and the NCAA title three times at 177 pounds.
- He is only amateur wrestler to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
- He competed in both the 1952 and 1956 Olympic Games, and won a silver medal in 1956 in Melbourne, Australia.
- The Dan Hodge Trophy is presented to the NCAA’s best college wrestler each year.
- There is a statue in his honor in Perry, Oklahoma, unveiled in 2016.
- As a pro, he’s in the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, the newly-announced International Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, and in both wings of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum, for his amateur and his pro work, plus countless other halls of fame. The Cauliflower Alley Club presented him with its Art Abrams Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004 and the Lou Thesz Award in 2007.
But to get to know Danny Hodge, it’s best to listen to those who knew him on the road―because everyone has a Danny Hodge story.
Duke Myers’ tale is set on a stage in Shreveport, Louisiana, where, at the champ’s request, he put his open, flat hand between Hodge’s legs. “He said, ‘I want you to pick me up.’ This is without crossing his legs, just the muscles in his legs. He clamped down on my hand and at that time I was pretty stout and I picked him three feet up off the ground and he never flinched. The only reason I got my hand out was because he loosened it up. People don’t realize how strong that guy is.”
Jerry Brisco’s story is as a kid in Oklahoma, where he snuck into a gym and crawled through the rafters for a chance to see his hero. Hodge’s opponent that night was Victor, the wrestling bear. “I’ve never heard a bear scream so loud. That night, Victor was screaming. I always wondered, ‘Why in the heck is that bear screaming so loud? That’s Danny Hodge up there, I know, but man, that’s a five hundred pound bear!’ Little did I know that fifteen years later when I was in the ring with him, I’d know why the bear was screaming.”
And here’s one from Jim Ross, who was awed as a young ref in early-‘70s Oklahoma to be on the road with his idol. Hodge submitted to Don “The Spoiler” Jardine’s claw hold one night in Shreveport, and ringside attendants carried him to the dressing room. There were cries of agony, but they were coming from the helpers, not the fallen wrestler. “Hodge has his arm over each guy’s shoulder, and he’s squeezing,” Ross said. “They get him back up the steps to the back of the stage behind the curtain, and they are absolutely tormented and in anguish.” Backstage, Bill Watts dressed down the playful Hodge, but found himself on the receiving end when Hodge snatched off a hot water faucet, leaving Watts to shower in the cold.
There are Danny Hodge stories, and then there’s the Danny Hodge story, as told in The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: Heroes & Icons.
Hodge could squeeze apples until they burst into bits and break steel pliers with his gifted double-tendon strength. But those parlor tricks fail to capture the seething sense of purpose that drove Hodge to become the greatest amateur wrestler in U.S. history. At high school in Perry, Oklahoma, everybody would run three miles in training. Hodge was the last one out and the first one back, and later, out in the country, he’d run four more miles. “I put more in, I get more out; you see what I am saying? So I was different than everybody,” he said. “If you do just what the coach says, that’s fine. Your dad’s happy, your family’s happy. See, when I did that, though, I wasn’t happy. I wanted to be happy for me.”
There wasn’t a lot of happiness in his childhood. Dan Allen Hodge came into the world on a Friday the 13th, in May 1932, in the Dust Bowl that passed for Oklahoma. His family had no ice box and he had no boots, just gunny sacks wrapped around his feet, tightened with baling wire. His father, a hand in the oilfields, drank too much, and his mother, who suffered from severe depression, nearly burned to death when a fire destroyed their house. For amusement, Hodge and his friends took the round rings off wagon wheels, fashioned a “T” from the wooden slats, and ran up and down dirt roads with them. “You have no idea how many miles I’d run,” he said. “I’d have tracks and I’d have to go across these ruts and once in while I would run into one and it’d knock the wind out of me, but that was my car; that was my toy.” When the dust storms kicked up, he put a tea towel across his mouth to breath. “People don’t know what it’s like growing up in the atmosphere like this. And I thought to myself then, ‘Is this all the world I’m going to get to see?’ ” Shuffled from relative to relative, Hodge was regularly whipped with a cane by his alcoholic grandfather until he couldn’t take it anymore. Eventually, he found refuge living at a fire house, sleeping on a steel cot, sweeping floors, and polishing trucks. Mike Chapman, the Iowa author and wrestling historian who worked with him on his biography, Oklahoma Shooter: The Dan Hodge Story, recalled how the normally agreeable Hodge got very direct when talking about the beatings he endured as a youth. “His eyes narrowed and he glared at me and he said, ‘Mike, I made up my mind that I was never going to lose a fight again, ever,’ ” Chapman said. “I think he was born, and it was nurtured by his upbringing, with an incredible desire to never lose a fight.”
In eighth grade, Hodge found he had a knack for wrestling. A career with the pros wasn’t on his mind, but by 1949, he was analyzing their moves on TV on Saturday nights. He got a job in Perry at a Conoco filling station, and raced after work to the house of a coworker who owned a TV set. “Well, I think I could whip this one,” he remembered thinking. “I could get out of that hold. I don’t know if I could whip that one, not even knowing that I would ever have the opportunity to get in the ring.” After losing a match as a high school junior, Hodge, driven by his inner fire, started crumpling up a newspaper page, one finger at a time, three times a day, to strengthen his grip. He won the state title in 1951 at 165 pounds and headed to the 1952 Olympics out of high school, placing fifth. He captured back-to-back national AAU titles in 1953 and 1954 at 174 pounds. A scholarship to the University of Oklahoma followed—the straight arrow never cut class, of course—and he became an undefeated, three-time All-American at 177 pounds. In three years, he was never taken down and his 78 percent collegiate pinning percentage is regarded as the best ever. “When I stepped into the mat, when I shook hands with you, it was limper than a dishrag,” Hodge said. “But when I grabbed you, I’d see the expression come over your face. Now you know why I’m here and I want all these people to let you watch the ceiling. And I was never happy with a win. I was a pinner. You see what I’m saying? And you can’t do that until you get in shape.” At the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, he was well ahead of a Bulgarian opponent with a gold medal within his sights when the two became entangled. Hodge’s shoulders grazed the mat and a judge called it a fall and a loss.
In 1957, America’s best wrestler turned boxer. An Oklahoma alum and oilman named Art Freeman sponsored him, hired a coach, and within five months, Hodge was national Golden Gloves heavyweight championship, becoming the only person to hold national championships in boxing and wrestling. The pro fisticuffs lasted after about a year; in July 1959, two months after losing to Cuban Nino Valdes, Hodge quit boxing and filed a $116,000 lawsuit against his backers, saying they breached a contract that was supposed to provide him with about 35 percent of the gate after expenses. He won a judgment in court. Fifty years later, he’s still waiting for the check. “They told me, ‘Danny boy, we need you.’ ‘No, you don’t need me.’ I told them I can get all the fights I want here in Perry, Oklahoma, for nothing. And I don’t have to train near as hard,” he said. He didn’t tell wife Dolores that he changing gears to wrestle, but she’d been with him since their school days―they married in 1951―and had no quarrels. “I figured it was his life and his choice and if he could make a living out of it, we would make it work,” she said.
Hodge got top billing from the start and a helping hand from Ed “Strangler” Lewis, the great champ who saw him on TV and asked if to help manage him. On the road, Hodge soaked up tips from Lewis and wore out his famous spring-loaded headlock machine. “He showed me the leverage of the headlock,” Hodge explained. “All I can say it was pleasure to share my life with last years of his life. He traveled with me and he would go to the towns and do the interviews with a radio station or TV and he says, ‘I have a young man here that the world is going to want to see.’ ” Oklahoma promoter Leroy McGuirk had built his career on the National Wrestling Alliance junior heavyweight title, and Hodge, at about 220 pounds, held it regularly from 1960 to 1976. He made frequent world tours but, devoted to his home life, primarily spent his time in the brutally sprawling McGuirk territory, from Oklahoma City and Joplin, Missouri to the Louisiana bayous and the Mississippi Delta. He had a championship tag team with Skandor Akbar in 1967 and 1968, and though he was top dog, he’d gladly take an initial whipping before tagging out, to build up his partner. “If I wasn’t with Danny, the people hated me that much more. But if I was with Danny, then that made it,” Akbar said. “He was literally Mr. Oklahoma and later on, when I turned against him, I had some very, very close calls with fans and things because they loved Danny Hodge.” What Hodge calls one of the greatest thrills of life came in January 1968, when he defeated Lou Thesz for the short-lived Trans World Wrestling Association championship in Japan, becoming the only man to claim a world junior heavyweight title and a heavyweight title at the same time. “When he handed me the belt, I had almost tears in my eyes. You can’t even imagine my thoughts. Here is the world’s heavyweight champion and here I’ve got this prestigious belt.”
Hodge was a gentle, God-fearing, family-loving man outside the ring. But inside, he could be a handful; sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. If you didn’t challenge him, he’d find a way to make you, as Sputnik Monroe learned when he won the junior heavyweight belt from Hodge in 1970. He promptly offered to give it back. “Hodge would tie you up. If I’d squawk to the referee, he’d say he was just trying to make it look real,” Monroe said in 1997 in Scott Teal’s Whatever Happened to …? “You know, you give him your body and he takes advantage of it. There’s really no way that I know of to beat a guy that can break electrician’s pliers with his hands.” To Hodge, that was because Monroe and a few others failed to mix it up. “I’d ask him, ‘You want to wrestle or not?’ The people paid to see me wrestle.” Gil Hayes, who called Hodge “an absolute gentleman,” recalled another incident: “I worked with him and he made me look like a million dollars, but he potatoed me so hard that I woke up when the referee untangled our legs from the figure-four [leglock]. And he didn’t even realize that he had knocked me out.”
Hodge’s career abruptly ended on March 15, 1976, and his life nearly did too, when he fell asleep driving from Houma, Louisiana to Monroe. A crash jolted him awake; he had hit a bridge, felt his teeth breaking, and was overwhelmed by excruciating pain. The car flipped and suddenly Hodge was underwater with a broken neck, facing death at the bottom of a cold creek in the middle of the night. Then he heard a voice. “Hold your neck.” He can still hear the voice today. “Hold your neck.” How he managed to hold his head in place and get out of the car, well, only God knows how that, Hodge said. “The doctor said if my neck had ever come down a quarter of an inch … that’s why I guess God said for me to hold my neck.” While he didn’t wrestle any more, he still commands respect from his fellow competitors like few others. “The best wrestler I’ve ever met and I’ve met a hell of a lot of wrestlers,” said Harley Race. He’s been inducted into every hall of fame that amateur and pro wrestling can dream up, and had the ultimate honor bestowed on him in 1995, when the Hodge Trophy became wrestling’s version of the Heisman Trophy, annually given to the top collegiate performer. Chapman thinks Hodge’s profile is an intriguing parallel to that of boxing champ Jack Dempsey, another product of a rural, impoverished childhood who rose to unimaginable heights. “He was like Dempsey. There’s the gentleman side to him, the modest side, and the ‘I want people to like me’ side. But when that bell goes ding, something happened to Dempsey and something happened to Dan Hodge,” Chapman said. “My feeling is he’s a small-town kid who just had an insatiable desire to be somebody and to be respected.”
So there’s the Danny Hodge story, but then there are Danny Hodge stories, like the one he tells on himself. Jack Nasworthy ran a carnival based out of Hutchinson, Kansas, and once offered the cash-starved youngster $100 to take on all comers. “I’ll be there before daylight!” Hodge eagerly replied. A $5,000 pot to anyone who could last ten minutes with him lured a couple of hopefuls from Chattanooga, Tennessee, with wrestling backgrounds. Hodge pinned the first in about thirty seconds, but the fellow protested the pinfall. Bad move. “Jack said, ‘Get him back in.’ I got him back down there, put a little tight squeeze on him this time,” Hodge said, “and Jack said, ‘Kill the son of a bitch, kill ‘im!’ He’s looking like, ‘God I just hope I get out of here.’ I squeezed him and said, ‘Pin,’ but Jack’s saying, ‘Kill ‘im, kill ‘im!’ You could hear him for four blocks. He got out and the other kid wouldn’t come in to wrestle.”
Bill Watts gets the last word on Danny Hodge. “Pound for pound, there wasn’t anybody in the business that could stay with him. He never made the big money, he never made the huge money. And he was a good worker. The only people that ever had trouble with him were maybe the people that didn’t respect him. He was a man’s man. You would respect him one way or another, he would get your respect. He didn’t have ask for it,” said Watts. “He made some guys look fools that they didn’t even know what a fool they were being made of until it was too late.”
Danny Hodge and his wife, Dolores, had three children.
In 2018 came the news that Hodge, suffering from dementia, had gone missing; it was news to many who saw Hodge as undefeatable.
Hodge passed away on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2020.
— with files from Steve Johnson and Mike Mooneyham
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been amended to fix the date of Hodge’s passing to December 24, 2020.