It is often the case that some of wrestling’s bad boys actually were nice guys in person. Seldom was that more evident with Curtis Smith, who tore apart opponents as one-half of the sport’s most feared tag teams yet ended up as pianist for his church in Georgia.
Smith, who died at 80 on Sept. 25 in Carrollton, Georgia, was one of the famed Infernos with his brother Rocky Smith, and also worked as a Mighty Yankee, a Blue Yankee, a Super Inferno and other masked guises in a career that lasted more than 15 years, mostly in the South.
In every case, Smith had a knack for causing commotion and riling audiences fans to the breaking point and beyond, as in Gulfport, Mississippi, where an enraged fan targeted him for assassination. “This guy actually called the police up and told them he was going to kill me,” Smith recounted to historian-publisher Scott Teal. “One of the officers came and told me this guy was threatening to shoot me. They had undercover guys out trying to locate him. They found him — he was at ringside. They took him out.”
Smith was born Feb. 11, 1943 in Steele, Mo. His father was a sharecropper and Smith worked on a farm for most of his teenage years. His brother Rocky (actually Roland) was an amateur boxer who went into wrestling after he served in the Air Force. Rocky was none too eager to see Curtis follow in his footsteps, Smith recalled for The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams. “He saw a lot of guys in the business were starving to death unless they could be the top man.”
But Curtis hung around wrestling, first selling sodas, then graduating to timing matches and refereeing, though still unwise to the inside of the game. “They just told me to keep order as best I could. I think they told me who was gonna go over. But they never come right out and say, ‘This is what we’re gonna do.’ I was just the type of guy who kept my mouth shut and done what they told me.”
In fact, Smith kept his mouth shut for most of his career as the silent masked type, usually with a manager like J.C. Dykes. He started wrestling for Nick Gulas’ Alabama-Tennessee circuit in 1967 with so many identities that he couldn’t keep track of them — a Blue Demon and Jack Smith were just two of his early aliases. “Man, I had so many names,” he told Teal. “It was almost like they’d have a paper bag with slips of paper on it. I’d shut my eyes and pull out a name.” He got a few matches in Alabama in 1968 under his real name, mostly openers against Red Roberts or Ken Farber.
But his career really took off in 1971 when he succeeded Frankie Cain and Karl von Brauner as an Inferno in Florida with brother Rocky. It was a dream come true. “I used to sit at home after Rocky already started in the business. I’d make up matches on a piece of paper, like me and Rocky against the Greene brothers,” he said. “They called me and asked me if I wanted to work with my brother as the Infernos. Man, that was the highlight of my career.”
The Infernos already were established as one of wrestling’s major heel teams with a loaded boot gimmick. Supposedly, one of the Infernos had a club foot and had to wear a boot with a raised heel. When the time was right, the Inferno tapped his boot several times on the mat to convince fans he was employing an illegal object. A swift kick to a fallen foe, the deed was done, and the team spent the next few minutes plotting an avenue of escape from fans. Smith had pulled a similar trick as a Blue Yankee, so he quickly fell into a rhythm. “We had it down; we were constantly tagging in and out,” he said. “We got in a lot of scraps down there, bottles thrown at us, you name it.” The Infernos were Florida tag team champions in 1971 and 1972, and, after Doug Gilbert replaced Rocky, took the Southeastern and Georgia tag titles in 1973.
The Infernos broke up after a trip to Japan that ended in a dispute with Dykes, and Smith moved on as a Blue Yankee in the south and an Assassin with Roger Smith in Calgary in 1976. That was an unsatisfactory experience, he recalled, saying the promotion was so short of babyfaces that he had to take off his mask and do double duty as a fan favorite. “I just couldn’t take that territory, man, I mean, when you left Calgary, you just drove right out into the middle of nowhere.”
Smith continued to work for Gulas as the masked Executioner and as a Blue Yankee, even though the Tennessee promoter was known for his meager payoffs. “I just always liked that territory. In fact, I liked Nick real well,” he said. In other territories, “all I’d be was a piece of meat, and I knew I’d be workin’ on top in Nashville.” He also worked for Cain when he set up shop in Mississippi and for booker Buck Robley in Kansas City.
For a guy who threw fire as an Inferno, Smith ended up working for the fire department for 18 years, retiring as a lieutenant after injuring his back responding to a call. He twice attended Bible College in Cleveland, Tenn., twice and was salutatorian of the class of 2007. A skilled singer, he performed as a bass guitarist in between stints as a Yankee and an Inferno, and sang at the annual Gulf Coast Wrestlers Reunion. For the last five years, he was the pianist for Macedonia Baptist Church in Franklin, Georgia. He is survived by Meredith, his wife of 50 years.
“We’d do interviews on Saturday, then we’d go back to Pensacola for TV, then to Gulfport and do that TV. The buildings were hot, and by the time you were through, you were just completely wore out. When it came time to perform that night in the Gulfport Arena, somehow, you were just ready to go again. I enjoyed every bit of it.”
TOP PHOTOS: Curtis Smith as himself and as the Blue Yankee. All photos courtesy Scott Teal, crowbarpress.com