Years ago I remember Kevin Sullivan telling me he wanted to wrestle into his 60’s, just like the Sheik. The original Sheik, Ed Farhat. Not The Iron Sheik! I thought about that as well and have to admit it did sound like a great way to live out your “senior years.” Traveling with your friends and still having fun doing what you loved the most; professional wrestling.
Freddy Blassie didn’t become a main event star until he reached his 40’s. Eddie Graham (and other ‘old timers’) told young guys that they wouldn’t really earn the people’s respect until they got to be in their 30’s. Back then I guess it made sense. I can recall watching guys like Johnny Valentine, Wahoo McDaniel, Jose Lothario, Red Bastien, Bull Curry, Fritz Von Erich and many others who were seasoned veterans in the main events in Texas. Dory Funk Sr. had two grown sons wrestling and he was still competing himself, usually in the main event or pretty high on the card in West Texas!
I believe Lou Thesz won his first NWA world championship when he was 21 during a period in wrestling when you had to understand and know how to actually wrestle. I saw Lou wrestle much later in his career and while he was considered a great wrestler by many, I never got what the appeal was until after doing some research and asking questions about his title runs. In the 1900’s the wrestling business wanted “credibility” and Lou Thesz seemed to be the guy everyone had faith in to be a credible champion. And no doubt he was, otherwise the NWA board would have chose someone else to carry the title.
??I understood what Kevin meant. The Sheik had a successful territory for years in Detroit and he remained the top guy. But from my understanding the people got tired of seeing the same guy on top for over 20 years, doing the same thing every week. Sheik would go out and have maybe a five minute brawl in the main event with blood and guts and shoot another angle the next week on TV only to repeat the same thing; short main event with blood and guts with no real rhyme or reason.
I’ve seen The Sheik along with guys like Abdullah the Butcher and Mark Lewin have some wild, bloody brawls but they lasted longer than five minutes and they had a solid story and compelling characters to back it up. And while I did realize these guys might have been in their late 30’s to early 40’s, it didn’t matter because they always worked hard and produced quality, action packed matches.
Granted, the style was a lot different! There was selling, getting the most out of doing less… in other words if Mark Lewin gave Jose Lothario or Dusty Rhodes a piledriver, they didn’t pop right up as if nothing happened and made a “Herculean comeback” right away! It was that very different time and place so very long ago…
There was no MMA to compare pro wrestling with. There was boxing. But boxing has always been suspect too. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle and now tell everyone “OK, THIS is the entertainment portion of our show, but THIS RIGHT HERE, well THIS is the REAL DEAL!” What people don’t know was there might have been more times than not that an actual conflict or struggle did occur in the ring. A lot had to do with ignorance, inexperience or just plain pride.
I remember working in Houston for Paul Boesch in what was to be a three day tournament for a huge trophy Paul had made celebrating his fiftieth year in professional wrestling. Paul brought in stars from all over the country including the AWA and WWWF. Verne Gagne had been the AWA world champion forever and had to be in his 50’s at this time. Nick Bockwinkel was the champ now but Nick was around 45. Paul booked the Sam Houston Coliseum Friday, Saturday and the finals would be Sunday. New as well as established stars would be featured from the various national promotions.
Paul was using the Southwest Championship Wrestling booking office out of San Antonio and Dick Slater was the booker. I wrestled Slater quite a few times and never had a problem. I knew my role and job. But Verne Gagne had sent a young kid to start at the same time Paul’s tournament was happening. His name was Evan Johnson and was supposed to be a pretty good amateur wrestler from Minnesota. In addition to being the booker, Slater was the Southwest heavyweight champion and the top heel. So Dick booked himself against Evan Johnson the first night of the tournament.
The dressing room was full of people from everywhere and while the boys are catching up the matches are going on. I vividly remember talking with Manny Fernandez, Chavo Guerrero and Tiger Conway Jr. near the dressing room door when we saw Slater slam the door open. It was apparent to everybody that Dickie was HOT! We didn’t see the match but as soon as Evan walked through the door, Slater said “What the f**k was that out there?” Evan’s reply was “You were trying to eat me up!” That’s all it took. Slater said ” You mother-f***er! I’m going to eat you up right here!” and he blasted Evan twice in the face, knocking him into the wall and into a confined dressing space (best I can describe) used for the Houston Areos hockey team at that time and looked like he was about to take his eye out!
Manny, Chavo, Tiger and I grabbed Slater and pulled him off this ‘kid’ who now had an immediate shiner and blood running down his face. The other boys took Evan to the opposite side of the room and into the showers. At that time I was running with Manny, Chavo and Tiger. They dubbed me their “rookie” and helped me out a lot. I knew Dick Slater by reputation and working with him. I was helping pull Slater off because we all knew if we didn’t it was going to be a bad scene. It was already bad, but Evan had no clue what he was getting into.
Eventually Dick calmed down. Evan got his stuff and left. He didn’t shower or say goodbye. Just got his stuff and left the building. Verne would be in Saturday and everybody knew it would be handled then.
It was a classic case of an amateur wrestler not being smartened up and understanding the business. Verne and guys like Verne believed amateur wrestlers were great and added credibility to ‘their sport.’ The problem was Dick Slater was a fairly capable amateur wrestler himself but more importantly, Slater was a legitimate tough guy who didn’t mind kicking somebodies ass if they deserved it! None of us saw the match that night and while Dick didn’t want to talk about it we all had an idea what happened.. When we saw it, it was obvious that Evan wasn’t smart and had no clue what he was there to do. Even though it was explained to him before the match, this amateur wrestler couldn’t grasp what was going on. Here was the booker and more important (in the people’s eyes) the Southwest heavyweight champion struggling with a guy who was obviously green and not in Slater’s league, trying for take downs and not selling or registering anything Dick is doing to him! So instead of twelve minutes, it’s cut to four. Slater’s frustration is evident on the replay and the dressing room incident made even more sense.
The next night Verne came in and the powers that be (Slater, Evan, Verne, Paul and Joe Blanchard) had a meeting away from everyone. I don’t know what was said but I do know Evan Johnson was gone after that weekend. I believe he worked for Verne for a short time but eventually figured out this wasn’t for him.
That wouldn’t be the last fight I witnessed in the dressing room. But it probably will be the last time I witness the gathering of people who have been in professional wrestling for over 50 years, or celebrate their time in the ring by having another match! I believe Lou Thesz had his last match at age 74.
74 years old.
Lou wrestled Maso Chono in Japan at 74 years old and still took a few bumps and did his best in about a five minute exhibition match. Only in Japan do I feel that the fans could even come close to appreciating that, A: Lou Thesz was actually in the ring wrestling and B: They actually BOOKED Lou Thesz in the ring to wrestle! Granted it was against one of Lou’s last students Maso Chono, a former world champion and true pro so he was entrusted to someone he felt comfortable with. But as great as Lou once was or might have been I don’t think this could have (or should have) been done anywhere else.
When I saw matches of the Sheik in even later years I often thought about what Kevin said about wanting to wrestle into his 60’s. Then maybe his 70’s. It’s been done obviously. Fabulous Moolah won her last title at 76 years old! They say age is just a number…
Harley Race won his first NWA world championship at 33. There’s certain guys I wouldn’t mess with then or now and Harley’s one of them. Bob Armstrong’s another. Hell, I wouldn’t mess with any of the Armstrongs! Well, except for Brad maybe…
Anybody who’s been wrestling for a while will have a lot of the same injuries. Back and neck being the most common. Looking back on it, the Sheik didn’t take a lot of bumps. Neither did Kevin Sullivan for that matter! I think Lou Thesz was more of a “mat technician” as well. Maybe there’s something to that and wrestling at 74 years old!
I saw Jerry Lawler interviewed on RAW and he looked great! But the King doesn’t know how to ‘dog it’ in the ring. He has too much pride and work ethic. It’s going to take someone to convince him to cut back his schedule or at least learn to take better care of himself. There’s a shortage of knowledgeable veterans out there. The King needs to stick around for a while. You can’t teach experience. The King still wrestles better than a lot of the younger talent and can cut a promo on any topic any time. Age is just a number. But you still need to take of yourself!
I talked to Kevin Sullivan briefly last year. He seems to be just fine and content relaxing between Washington state and the Florida Keys. One thing we can always count on is change. Change in attitude, ways of thinking and sometimes overall life and surroundings. I didn’t ask Kevin if he missed the business or still wishes he was working. He sounded happy and that’s all that matters.
I heard from some old friends of mine who stumbled across this blog and made me realize we all loved the business for the same reason. It was an escape and a great way to make a living. As we get older some of us are looking for that fountain of youth. At the same time we know it’s a young man’s sport and we can only help where needed. The presentation and production may change in some way, shape or fashion but the fundamentals will still be the same. If you don’t have a strong foundation to build on your house will crumble.
I always advise rookies to see who came before them. Find out what they did and how it worked or didn’t. You might find the way Pat O’Connor applying the arm bar to Buddy Rogers at Comiskey Park on the way to losing the NWA crown, a new and interesting way to do it and then people will be talking about how ‘unique’ and different you are. O’Connor threw a punch different than anyone else back then or now for that matter. Watch the way Buddy Rogers moves, sells, reacts. Watch O’Connor have the match won only to get beat. Watch and study both men’s body language. The date was June 30,1961. But you might be surprised at what you can pick up and learn. Then again you might get bored due to the lack of moonsaults, have-a-coronas or toupes’.
Thanks for reading.