Hey all I’m ‘taking a break’ for a month – well, more accurately going into writing and recording mode for a month. On the podcasts front I’m set to release two ‘from the vaults’ episodes – The Bagradas Dragon (blogged last year) and a heavily edited Carrington Event (from back in 2019 on the blog)… as well as a couple more re-uploaded versions of those early podcast episodes.
I also have a couple of blog posts set to drop over this break. Like this post, all will be a little out of my usual wheelhouse.
Today’s tale picks up in the middle of the squared circle, Madison Square Garden – The date January 23rd 1984. Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, a stockily built Iranian, Greco-Roman wrestler with an Olympic pedigree (both as competitor and coach) was knocking the living daylights out of Terry Bollea; a large, muscular man who once played bass guitar in a bar band. Perhaps unsurprisingly Hossein is dominating, sitting on top of a splayed out Bollea’s back in a submission move known as ‘The Camel Clutch’. Just 28 days prior he’d done the same to long time champion Bob Backlund, winning the World Championship belt. 26,292 people in attendance looked on in horror, as the heel looked set to take out another hero – a ‘face’ in backstage parlance.
Then Terry Bollea did what countless other professional wrestlers hadn’t before. He stood up, breaking the Camel Clutch. Hulking up with the other man still clinging to his back, he rallied, pounding Hossein into the turnbuckle. Bollea leapt over the supine man, crossing the ring and ricocheting back off the ropes before going airborne. Landing his signature ‘Atomic Leg-drop’, he went for the pin. One- two- three, and Terry Bollea, known to people everywhere as Hulk Hogan was crowned WWF champion. An ecstatic crowd – most of whom, one presumes, still believed Professional Wrestling to be real, were on their feet as The Hulkster left the arena victorious. His opponent, The Iron Sheik, skulked off, ignominiously defeated.
This isn’t to say some people weren’t aware Pro Wrestling was performance art – Rumours swirled around wrestling’s authenticity as early as 1934, when a match at Wrigley Field was advertised as a ‘shoot match’ – a bona fide punch up (as opposed to all the other ‘fake’ matches on the bill). Wrestling organisations did generally do their best to dispel these rumours however. Case in point, in December 1984, a wrestler named David ‘Dr D’ Schultz slapped 20/20 reporter John Stossel into the middle of next week, for implying wrestling was less than genuine. Whether ordered by WWF owner Vince McMahon or not, there was nothing fake in the way Dr D manhandled Stossel. He left Stossel with a ringing in his ears that lasted eight weeks. Nothing Kayfabe either about the $280,000 settlement to Stossel’s subsequent lawsuit. This is not about Dr D, the 1987 incident when the aforementioned Iron Sheik was pulled over by a state trooper with cocaine – and more shockingly, arch foe Hacksaw Jim Duggan in his car – or the time in 1989 when Vince McMahon gave evidence to politicians that wrestling was indeed acted more than competed – why pay additional taxes for hosting sporting events if you can avoid it? This is about the rumour which persists about this match, and another, earlier wrestler.
Hulk Hogan v Iron Sheik was a choreographed move to replace an old-school favourite. Bob Backlund was the title holder and as such the face of the company, for in excess of 2,100 days – but he was not the kind of telegenic you need when the company owner wants to take over the world. There was just something Everyman-ish about Bob Backlund. Hulk Hogan, an alleged 6.7” musclebound superhero who ‘trained, said his prayers and took his vitamins’, was just the guy to helm the company under such circumstances. He could sell out arenas. Kids would love him. He was extremely merchandisable.
At this time faces battled heels so Backlund needed to lose to Sheik so Hulk could take the belt and hold on to his newly acquired ‘face’ status.
There’s a tale Verne Gagne, a longtime friend of the Iron Sheik (he’d given him a start in the business, as well as his name and gimmick) and rival wrestling promotion owner approached the Iron Sheik before the match. Legend has it Gagne offered the Sheik $100,000 to not just win the match, but break Hogan’s leg – thus stalling the upward trajectory of the WWF.
Needless to say the Iron Sheik, a legitimate tough guy, could have beaten Hogan and taken the payday. He quite possibly could have twisted him into a human pretzel, breaking one appendage or other. He didn’t. One only presumes he was professional, and loyal to whoever was paying him – that is IF this conversation did in fact occur. Verne’s son Greg for one denies it ever happened. For now let’s presume it happened, it makes a useful plot device. What would’ve happened if the Iron Sheik disobeyed the McMahons, took the money, and decided he’d keep the title? The following compares apples to oranges somewhat (given the way WWE soon took off with Hogan as a figurehead), but it signals one way the McMahons might have solved the problem of a rogue champion.
Edward ‘Bearcat’ Wright was more than a transitional wrestling champion, he was also the first African American to hold a world wrestling title belt. Born in 1932, Ed was the son of Ed ‘Bearcat’ Wright Senior – a professional boxer who, though never a world champion, did face a handful of top pugilists such as ‘Ambling Alp’ Primo Carnera, Max Baer and an aging Jack Dempsey. Edward jr, a tough, rangey, 6.6” tried his hand as a pro boxer – winning all eight of his matches before turning to professional wrestling in 1959.
Bearcat was wrestling on the cusp of a change in pro wrestling. Prior to him black wrestlers fought other black wrestlers, white wrestlers wrestled whites, and never the twain shall meet. Jim Crow era segregation was still very much a thing. Rock and roll shows featuring black and white musicians together on the bill, playing to mixed crowds often ended in riots. As blogged some time back, Jesse Belvin, perhaps the greatest rock and roller you’ve never heard of may have died as a result of a show he played in Arkansas in 1960. Performing art or fighting art, Bearcat and others like Bobo Brazil, who fought white wrestlers, were groundbreaking. There were occasions where the old rules applied, such as Gary, Indiana. Bearcat broke ground by refusing to wrestle another black wrestler that night. Bearcat and Bobo both got massively over with the crowds. In other words crowds loved them. It was unsurprising both men were soon packaged as Faces.
Bearcat soon found himself wearing the world championship belt, first in 1961, beating Killer Kowalski for the Big Time Pro Wrestling title. The title of interest to us, however, belonged to Worldwide Wrestling Associates (WWA), a Hollywood based organisation then run by the LeBell brothers.
Though professional wrestling is pre-determined (as opposed to outright fake, wrestlers often do take heavy bumps in the ring), it can often hold an odd, Coney Island mirror up to society. Because of this I suspect the World title match between Bearcat and Classy Freddie Blassie, on August 23rd 1963, was an attempt to cash in on the upcoming March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The top civil rights leaders marched with at least a quarter of a million supporters on the capital to demand the many civil and economic rights still denied them. Though organised by the ‘big six’ most of us remember best one particular leader. Dr Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was then, still is breathtaking. At a time when many would marvel at Dr Kings eloquence, the WWA could smugly claim – you wanna see equality? Bearcat is our World champion.
Bearcat and Blassie did face off five days before the march, and Bearcat did get the better of Blassie – a well hated heel who in real life was so hated he was stabbed on 21 occasions by fans as he entered the ring; was once doused by an acid thrower; and lost vision in an eye after getting struck in the face by a hard-boiled egg. I can’t imagine the fans were anything but ecstatic at the win.
Soon after the March on Washington, the WWA approached Bearcat to tell him his reign was set to be a short one. He was to drop the belt to another face named Edouard Carpentier – a stocky white man known as ‘The Flying Frenchman’. It was at this point Bearcat went on a very real winning streak, pinning all who stepped up against him. While none of the wrestlers WWA wanted to give the belt to stood a chance against Bearcat in a real fight, the organisation had one card yet to play.
The LeBell brothers who ran the WWA included one ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell. LeBell was a former champion judoka, stunt man and genuinely extremely tough individual. As a pro wrestler he was a known shooter – a guy who could genuinely beat someone up in the wrestling ring. Legends around the man state on the set of the TV show The Green Hornet, LeBell beat Bruce Lee in a tussle – carrying him across the set in a fireman’s carry. His 1991 stoush with Steven Seagal on the set of the film Out for Justice led to LeBell (allegedly) choking the Aikido master out, making Seagal lose control of his bowels. Just days before a planned match between Bearcat and Classy Freddie Blassie, LeBell was in the ring to fight a very real boxer vs martial artist match against a fighter named Milo Savage. LeBell choked Savage into unconsciousness.
Now the Savage match may have been an inspiration for the LeBells’ – Gene was supposed to face off against a boxer named Jim Beck, who had been bad-mouthing the Asian martial arts. At the last minute, he pulled a switcheroo, the higher ranked Savage stepping up unexpectedly.
So, on December 13th 1963 Edward Bearcat Wright made his way to the arena in the expectation he would yet again face off against Classy Freddie Blassie, ignore all instructions, and pin the man in the middle of the ring. Instead he found himself facing off against a shadowy figure in a black mask.
“Gene… is that you?” I imagine him asking, rather cautiously. Sensing something bad was about to happen, Bearcat exited the squared circle, refusing to re-enter. After being counted out, he was stripped of the title, which was subsequently passed to Flying Frenchman Carpentier.
I’d like to be team Bearcat, and report this did not adversely affect his career – but of course it did. He found his future options restricted, and would – like many pro wrestlers sadly do – pass on young, at just fifty years of age. If it is of any consolation whatsoever he was inducted into the WWE hall of fame in 2017.