WATERLOO, Iowa – If you are going to have single inductee into the Tragos/Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, and a posthumous one to boot, you’d better make it special.

That he is connected to pro wrestling’s hottest current family is a bonus.

Meet Gary Albright, who few in North America got to see as a professional wrestler. His biggest run on this continent was in Calgary for Stampede Wrestling where he debuted as a babyface but became the villainous Volkan Singh, as a part of Karachi Vice. Instead, his major paydays were either in Japan with UWFI and All Japan, or on international tours, including South Africa.

Albright’s bonafides for induction — a combination of amateur and pro skills — are without question. He was an outstanding amateur wrestler, winning the Montana State high championship in 1980 and earning runner-up status in 1981, finishing with a 55-2 record. In college, he competed for the University of Nebraska, where he was a Big 8 Champion and runner-up in the NCAA championship 1984, and earned 3rd place at the NCAA championships in 1986. Albright was also successful on the international stage, competing on the United States freestyle and Greco-Roman teams.

Now for those family connections. He married Monica Anoa’i, daughter of Wild Samoan Afa. That means that he is tied into the Sika side of the family too, so to reigning wrestling superstar Roman Reigns (whose sister, Vanessa, was in attendance). We acknowledge.

In conversation before the banquet at the Waterloo Convention Center on Saturday, July 22, Monica Anoa’i-Albright, admitted she was nervous. She needn’t be (though she admitted she forgot her glasses, so had to wing it).

There was nothing but love.

Jerry Brisco and Monica Anoa'i-Albright at the Tragos/Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame induction on Saturday, July 22, 2023, in Waterloo, Iowa. Photo by Joyce Paustian

Jerry Brisco and Monica Anoa’i-Albright at the Tragos/Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame induction on Saturday, July 22, 2023, in Waterloo, Iowa. Photo by Joyce Paustian

“It’s 23 years now since Gary passed. But it seems like yesterday. He was the love of my life, and still is,” she said, referring to Albright’s death in the ring in Hazelton, Pennsylvania in 2000. She revealed that “six months before he passed, we were living in Pensacola, Florida” and he was wrestling in Japan. He wanted them to move back to Montana and open a wrestling school, with a planned move in June. “Unfortunately that did not happen.”

“Gary would be very honored to be a part of this,” Anoa’i-Albright said. “He loved wrestling, that was his passion … He gave it his all. He just wanted to give back.”

Anoa’i-Albright has not only reconnected with her greater wrestling family, but also with actual Albright family, as it had been many years since she had seen Gary’s sister, Patti.

“The stories that I have heard since I have been here … has been so special. Isn’t that what this is all about?” Anoa’i-Albright said. “He’s looking down and he’s just so proud. … It does my heart good to know that he’s in a good class now.”

Named after Jack Brisco, the Brisco Spotlight Award was presented for the first time to Les Thatcher. But to start out, Thatcher didn’t talk about himself, he talked about Matty Anoa’i, whose sister, Vanessa, was sitting to his right in the crowd.

He shared how he had learned that Vanessa was in attendance at the wrestling show on Friday night and raced out to find her. He wanted to tell her about Matty, who was Rosie and was in Three-Minute Warning. Matty was “one of the most beautiful men I have met in my life,” and actually gave Les’ wife, Alice, away when they finally got married. To Vanessa, Thatcher vowed, “You’re part of his life but now you are part of us. God bless you.”

The rest of the time on stage was very much like typical Thatcher—funny, conversational, and just so much to cover through his six decades in the wrestling business.

“So much good has happened to be in 63 years,” said Thatcher. “This will always be my life.” After all, there wasn’t much that Thatcher didn’t do, from wrestling to announcing to promoting to training, and he even laid claim to inventing the gimmick table after coming up with a T-shirt for the Brisco brothers.

“I have been blessed to walk among the giants,” said Thatcher.

There were plenty of other awards given out as well, across the spectrum.

Bill Demott at the Tragos/Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame induction on Saturday, July 22, 2023, in Waterloo, Iowa. Photo by Joyce Paustian

Bill Demott at the Tragos/Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame induction on Saturday, July 22, 2023, in Waterloo, Iowa. Photo by Joyce Paustian

The most emotional honoree, by far, was Bill DeMott, who received the Lou Thesz Award, in part for creating the Keri Anne DeMott Foundation to raise awareness of drunk driving and advocate for stricter penalties.

“In 2015 [long pause] my youngest daughter was taken from me by a drunk driver. I sat home, trying to navigate that” with the rest of the family, he said. DeMott knew he owed it to those who believed in him in the past to keep going, to do something with the pain.

He turned to his lessons learned: “Wrestling rules apply.” Which means, in short, you show up, do your work, and then do it again the next day.

Since the tragedy, he has spoken to over 100,000 students, and works with law enforcement nationwide. “We save one life at a time,” he explained. “Wrestling was there in some of the toughest times in my life.”

DeMott said he was “humbled” by the honor, and more expected to get another Lou Thesz Press from Stone Cold Steve Austin than the award.

“I’m just a kid from New Jersey. Someone gave me a shot. I took advantage of it,” he summed up his 35-year career. “I look to the men and women that came before me, and I say thank you.”

The Frank Gotch Award is given to a professional wrestler who brings positive recognition to professional wrestling through work outside the ring. Haku, who also wrestled as Meng and King Tonga, was the recipient, and he lamented that Bobby Heenan was no longer around to do his talking for him. Haku revealed that when he learned about the honor, he and his wife researched Gotch, the first recognized great professional wrestler. His wife read the story of Gotch in English, and explained it to him in Tongan. Haku wished he could have trained with Gotch: “What a tough guy that he was.”

The contrast to the short speech by Haku was most definitely the tag team of Bruce Pritchard introducing his podcast partner, Conrad Thompson, who was getting the Gordon Solie Award.
Prichard went long, Thompson was actually shorter than expected—and there was no three-hour podcast.

All over the map during his introduction of one of his best friends, Prichard summed up his career—“I’ve actually lived my dream” and detailed much of it, the ups and the downs, including bankruptcy. But it was Thompson who believed in Prichard and his ability to tell stories, usually doing the voices of his friends and colleagues.

“I lost confidence in myself,” said Prichard. “He made me believe in me.”

Thompson and his various podcasts are among the top in the wrestling world, just as he is one of the top sellers of mortgages in the United States.

“The podcast world was the wild, wild west. We didn’t tame it but we did make it a little more wild,” said Prichard near the end of his introduction, adding the “Podfather” is tough to sum up: “Words cannot describe this man.”

Thompson was more fan than anything, thanking so many in attendance. “I don’t belong up here,” said Thompson, who added that he can’t believe he gets paid to talk about wrestling.

He was pleased to hear from so many listeners through the years, noting that many tell them that his podcasts could get people through the hard times.

Megan Flair and Conrad Thompson at the Tragos/Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame induction on Saturday, July 22, 2023, in Waterloo, Iowa. Photo by Joyce Paustian

Megan Flair and Conrad Thompson at the Tragos/Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame induction on Saturday, July 22, 2023, in Waterloo, Iowa. Photo by Joyce Paustian

The Tragos Award for a wrestler who excells in mixed martial arts went to Sara McMann, the first woman to be honored, after men like Ken Shamrock, Daniel Cormier, Chael Sonnen, Randy Couture and Pat Miletich. She earned a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and later fought in the bantamweight division of UFC, and is currently competing for Bellator — when she is not raising her son and daughter.

In pro wrestling terms, she would be “First” Sara McMann, since there were so many firsts in her life: first woman wrestler in high school in North Carolina; first US woman to win an Olympic wrestling medal; one of the first women university wrestlers; one of the first women in UFC and was in the third-ever women’s bout in the promotion; and she was the first women to leave MMA, have a baby, and to come back and compete.

“I’m very insistent on getting my way,” McMann said in reference to having a baby, but it applies to everything.

“It’s really nice to see how far women’s wrestling has grown,” she said, detailed how she looked into George Tragos and his history of submission grappling and felt a kinship.

She also noted she didn’t have a lot in common with the showboating wrestlers in the room. “I’m more more the quiet, hard-working in the background person.”

Rock Riddle received the initial Impact Award. Known for his showmanship, instead of a false finish, Riddle did a false start, teasing that he was going to speak briefly—an impossibility. “I never have any idea what I am going to say,” he cracked, asking for the next cue card. He lauded Rip Hawk, his mentor, as the “most influential person in my life.” Riddle also noted all the friends that have gone, that he did not say thank you to—“What an amazing family the professional wrestling family is.” (If you had the over/under, Riddle went almost 15 minutes bang-on.

The Trainer Award was a new one this year, and went posthumously to Professor Boris Malenko. Accepting the award was his son, Jody Simon, who wrestled as Joe Malenko, often alongside his brother Dean Malenko. “He helped a lot of guys who were in the business,” stressed Simon, noting that it wasn’t just about training wrestlers. Instead, the Professor was a “surrogate dad” to many wrestlers, and Simon told stories he had heard from Terry Funk, X-Pac Sean Waltman and others. “This business was literally his mistress for 35 years,” said Simon, ending with “in the vernacular of the Jewish faith, he was a mensch.”

The first award of the evening went to Tom Burke, who received the Jim Melby Award for his contributions to professional wrestling journalism. Ross Hart introduced Burke, summing up his friend’s many accomplishments. A fan since the age of 12, Burke mentioned how others didn’t understand his passion for it. Mentors included Nat Loubet, Lew Eskin, Killer Kowalski, and Bull Curry “I stand in the shadow” of other historians like J Michael Kenyon, Don Luce, Fred Hornby and James Melby, said Burke.

To start off the offiical program, the Museum’s director Jim Miller celebrated Jerry Brisco’s return to action after nearly two days in the hospital. He blamed the incident on Brisco drinking Iowa-brewed Gable beer. “I love you, Jerry,” he concluded. Miller was also tasked with noting the long-time attendees. The Cauliflower Alley Club was also in the house, talking about its upcoming reunion and its benevolent fund, and Filsinger Games made a $10,000 donation to the museum.

The “pre-show” included Thunderbolt Patterson leading grace, thank you awards for volunteers Troy Peterson and Chad Olson, and a raffle.

As for the finale, Jerry Brisco was given the microphone, his two-day stay in a local hospital for exhaustion having allowed him to save up his energy for the closing. He hyped next year’s induction ceremony, which will be the 25th for the museum.

TOP PHOTO: The Class of 2023 at the Tragos/Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame induction on Saturday, July 22, 2023, in Waterloo, Iowa. Left to right: Tom Burke, Sara McMann, Jody Simon representing Boris Malenko, Conrad Thompson and his presented Bruce Prichard, Les Thatcher, Rock Riddle, Monica Anoa’i-Albright and Patti Albright representing Gary Albright, Bill DeMott, Haku and Jerry Brisco. Photo by Joyce Paustian