Where to start to celebrate the long career of Buddy Colt, who died today, March 5, at the age of 85? With a championship title? A name change? How about a plane crash?
Colt headed toward Peter O. Knight Airport on Davis Islands, but the sky was thick with clouds. “I start thinking I’m probably where I shouldn’t be,” Colt told a Tampa newspaper. “It seemed like a split second. We hit the water.” The plane was just 300 feet from shore, and broke in half. Colt, Hart and McCord swam through Hillsboro Bay to shore. Shane was later found, still buckled in his seat. In its report on the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board listed “Pilot In Command — Attempted Operation Beyond Experience/Ability Level” as its number one probable cause.
The accident effectively ended Colt’s in-ring career when he was only 39. “My heart just wasn’t in it,” he once said.
It is unfortunate that tragedy defined Colt’s career, because it was a great career. Journalist Mike Mooneyham once wrote that Colt “might have been the greatest performer to have never held the world heavyweight title.”
“With an impressive physique, strong facial features and the ability to play the role of cocky heel to perfection, Colt could deliver in the ring and was a strong candidate to carry the prestigious NWA (National Wrestling Alliance) world heavyweight title,” wrote Mooneyham.
He was Ron Read in Maryland growing up, born on January 13, 1936. He’d seen the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) on TV, watching Johnny Valentine, Bob Orton, Buddy Rogers. “I was a little skinny kid, so I’d look at the wrestlers on TV and I would fantasize about being a professional wrestler, but think, ‘Well, I’m too little and too skinny and I’d never be big enough,’” Colt told historian Crimson Mask in September 2004.
Out of Bladensburg High School in Bladensburg, Maryland, Read joined the U.S. Marine Corps. While stationed in Iwakuni, Japan, he learned a bit about judo, competing in a few off-the-base tournaments. He rose to sergeant in the Marines, and left the service in January 1957. His primary role was as an aviation mechanic.
The love of flying had been around a long time. “I’d always wanted to be a pilot, I used to lay in the yard when I was a kid, looking at the airplanes in the sky, and just kinda daydreaming of how great it would be to fly an airplane and to have my own airplane,” he told Crimson Mask.
Working as a car salesman for Logan Ford in Washington, D.C., after the Marines, Read got into bodybuilding, competing in some contests. The Vic Tanny’s Gym that he frequented was close to the wrestling promotion in town, and soon he met the likes of Johnny Valentine and Dick Steinborn.
“When I was wrestling in Washington DC, I had always gone to different gyms to work out with the iron. At one of these gyms I met then instructor Ron Read,” said Steinborn. “He questioned me about getting into the business. Of course in those days we never encouraged anyone who didn’t have an amateur background to break into the ranks and turn pro.”
They’d meet up later.
Read moved to Houston, Texas, taking a job at the YMCA as a weightlifting and bodybuilding instructor. Again, he met the wrestlers, such as Otto Von Krupp (Joe Mercer), who started training the young wannabes. Mercer smartened Read up quickly and promised he’d be in a real ring – they worked out on amateur wrestling mats at the YMCA – within six months.
His first territory, as “Cowboy” Ron Reed, was Nashville, for Nick Gulas. “I went to Tennessee and that’s where I had my first pro match. I had been inside the real ring with ropes one time prior to that. And, God, I was, I stunk as a worker, ’cause Joe taught me the moves, but not how to work, there’s a big difference. To learn how to work you have to be in the ring, night after night. And my first match was in Bowling Green, Kentucky, June of 1962, and my partner was Jim Boggs, who was a fireman — he worked part-time — against Don and Al Greene. And the payoff that night was 10 bucks, you know.”
Two months later, more experienced, Read went to the Gulf Coast territory out of Alabama. In late 1962, he went to Atlanta, then to the WWWF, based out of Washington in early 1963. It was a fast rise for the Cowboy, who would face the stars he’d seen on TV only years before, including Buddy Rogers.
Then it was on to Arizona, Buffalo, Oklahoma, Texas … and he finally started main eventing in Kansas City, just as Ron Reed, having dropped the “Cowboy” nickname.
“From territory to territory, different styles, depending on who the booker was and what they were doing with you,” Read told Crimson Mask.
Naturally, lots of other young talent ended up influenced by Read.
In his autobiography, Jack Brisco recalled a program he worked, teaming with his debuting brother, Jerry, in the summer of 1968 in Oklahoma for promoter LeRoy McGuirk against the villainous Dandy Jack Donovan and Handsome Ronnie Reed.
He and Dandy Jack were perfect heels. They had slicked-back bleached blond hair and a lady manager, LaVerne Bottoms, Jack’s wife at the time. Jerry and I thought we hit the big time. Jack and Ronnie had defeated Chati Yokuchi and Chuck Karbo for the United States tag team championship so they were definitely at the top, and by working with them so were we.
… Ronnie had always wanted to turn heel, but he had such a successful run as a baby-face in Kansas that none of the promoters would let him change.
He had met Donovan on the road and Jack told him he was looking for a tag-team partner. Ronnie told him he wanted to work heel so he accepted his invitation to join him under McGuirk’s banner. He took to it right away and we had a great run going against each other, selling out night after night.
I had never met Ronnie before we started working together but I knew, from reading the wrestling magazines, he was ‘over’ big in Kansas. We would meet again and again in Florida, Georgia, and Texas. Some of my greatest matches were against him.
But Read really hit his stride as the bleached-blond Buddy Colt, beginning in Amarillo, Texas.
“I didn’t like the name ‘Ronnie Reed.’ I didn’t think it fit where I wanted to go as a heel,” he said. “I was just trying to come up with something that would stick easily in people’s minds.”
From then on, Colt was a main event wrestler, starring in Florida, Georgia, Japan, Australia.
Until the plane crash.
Colt had won the NWA North American title from Cowboy Bill Watts earlier in the week of the crash.
“From one night being main event in just about anyplace you’d go, and the next day not knowing if you’d ever wrestle again. And I didn’t. My life changed completely,” Colt told Mooneyham. He tried to be a manager and a TV commentator, but it was over.
There were health battles too. He fought off gangrene in his right ankle after the crash, and wore a brace. Years later, both ankles were fused.
After the accident, Colt continued to fly. He went to flight school, took a professional pilots’ course, and got his instrument and multi-engine ratings. Colt also worked in the maintenance hardware business, selling to factories and end-users for more than 30 years.
Colt is forever connected to wrestling though. He appeared at fan fests and was a treasured veteran at the regular Florida luncheons. He was relatively active online. Colt posted to Bill Watts’ Facebook page in September 2011:
Good to hear from you. I’m also new at this. Hope your doing well. I don’t have any new girlfriends for you to steal from me. Ha Ha anyway I really miss the business. The years I spent wrestling were the best years of my life. What a great life experience. To bad you were never smartened up. Every match I had to fight for my life. We drew some good houses, Atlanta and here in Florida.
All The Best
He confessed to Mooneyham that wrestling was his life. “I loved it. Wrestling is still my passion. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. I loved being there. It made my whole life. Without wrestling, I have no idea what I would have done. I was a car salesman before I started wrestling. I have no idea what the future might have held for me without wrestling.”
Colt celebrated his 85th birthday on January 13, and posted to Facebook: “WOW! I AM BLOWN AWAY! NEVER DID I THINK AT 85 YEARS OLD I COULD BE SO REMEMBERED. I THANK YOU ALL FOR THE MANY POSTS, THE BIRTHDAY WISHES & MOST OF ALL THE MEMORIES. GOD BLESS YOU ALL……BUDDY COLT”
The accolades and thank you’s started soon after news of Colt’s death broke late in the afternoon on March 5, 2021; a couple of days earlier, he had posted to Facebook about his dog trying to steal his breakfast.
“I am truly saddened and heartbroken at the news that the legendary Buddy Colt has passed away. I’ve known Buddy for over 35 years, he was a wonderful man, always a gentleman willing to share stories, offer advice and words of encouragement throughout my years in wrestling,” said veteran Bob Cook. “He was a staple front and center at our Legends lunches ever since they started over 20 years ago. He was/is beloved and respected by us all and will never be forgotten. He was truly one of the greatest heels to ever grace the Squared Circle with incredible memories he leaves behind that will live on forever.”
Brian Blair called Colt his “1st wrestling mentor.”
Bruce Tharpe grew up in the Florida territory, as his father, Chet, was a ring announcer. “He was one of the most underrated heels in wrestling. When I was a kid I literally HATED Buddy Colt. That’s just how good he was,” wrote Tharpe on Facebook. “In later years when I told him about the animosity I had towards him as a young boy he ABSOLUTELY LOVED IT!”
Details on Colt’s death are still coming in, though he battled Parkinson’s disease and dementia. He is survived by his wife, Lorraine, who had her own health challenges in recent years. He had six children daughters, Leigh Ann, Vicky, Cindy, twins Tracey and Ricky, and a newly found daughter Sharon.
— with files from Steve Johnson
EDITOR’S NOTE: Further details of Colt’s children were corrected from the original story, and his daughters identified in the photo.