Monday, January 31, 2011
I've got no magazine scans for this post, but I wanted to follow up my last entry with a short post recommending a recent book (front cover above) that probably nudged me to put that last post together, Ron Hall's Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets: The Early Days of Memphis Wrestling. I'd done some research back when Sputnik died for a comix project that I never quite got to, so I'm happy that Hall's book sparked me to do a little something with what I'd gathered. I always keep an eye out for Sputnik material on eBay, but somehow I'd missed Ron's book until stumbling across it on Amazon last Fall. I picked it up excited to find a book with Sputnik in the title. Though Sputnik's certainly in the book, he's not really a focus, as the book is pretty much of a scrapbook of Memphis wrestling all the way from the early days on into the late 70s, and, boy, it's a lot of fun, not only for Memphis fans but for fans of old school wrestling in general. Hall assembles a whole cast of wrestlers I've never heard of (along with many I have) in a photo-heavy celebration of wrestling in the bluff city, both the local heroes that you think of when you think Memphis wrestling as well as national stars that visited. Here's the back cover, and what better pitchman could you ask for than the undisputed Mouth of the South, Jimmy Hart:
and the promo video which has some previews of the photos within
The book gets an introduction from a Jerry Lawler, Memphis citizen and ambassador for Memphis wrestling, which is entirely appropriate. The King talks about his early days fresh out of Memphis State (you still hear old-timers calling the University of Memphis by that name) when he was a DJ for Eddie Bond and the time he asked Tojo Yamamoto on the air whether wrestling was fixed - never a smart question to ask a wrestler. Lawler shows up again in force in the last chapter of the book on the 70s, and there's an entire parade of characters between. There's not much text, which usually is a minus in my book, but Hall really does such a great job arranging the photos and interjecting scans of programs and clippings, that the photographs tell the story quite effectively without much narration. The book opens with what might just be my favorite chapter, a selection of fantastic (and very well-printed) photos from Robert W. Dye, an amateur photographer better known for his photos of Memphis entertainers. Dye's wrestling photos taken in Ellis Auditorium during the 40s and 50s are fantastic, he really had an eye for it, and they've not been published elsewhere. At the end of the Dye Collection, there's a photo of Elvis, Scotty, and Bill playing in the wrestling ring in 1955 that rounds it out nicely. Apparently, Elvis was a big wrestling fan and even dated wrestler Penny Banner for a while. Hall then moves on to a non-stop parade of photographs of wrestlers that graced the mats of Memphis including many of the biggest names in wrestling - Lou Thesz, Gene Kiniski, Gorgeous George, Antonino Rocca, the Blassies, Red Barry, Pat O'Connor, Buddy Rogers, Farmer Jones (there's a great two page spread of Robert Dye photos of Gorgeous George taking on Jones, I bet George was awfully indignant when Jones brought his pig in on a leash), and many more national stars. But Hall doesn't focus on the big names too much, the real wonder here is the enormous and varied cast assembled. There's a chapter on "Krauts, Japs, Indians & Arabs," a chapter packed with gorgeous lady wrestlers, a chapter on the "Mighty Mites" that wrestled here, a chapter on Memphis' black wrestlers, a chapter on the masked wrestlers; the variety is what's so cool.
And there's also a bonus CD, Sputnik hires a band?!?!
You can order the book direct from the good folks at Shangri-la Records and find more info and reviews here. Ron Hall keeps a blog for the book here. I looked at it again yesterday and discovered some exciting news. The film inspired by the book, Memphis Heat, is complete and is going to be out in March, check out the sweet poster.
a little bigger
And the trailer
This movie looks completely awesome - all of it - the stories, the wrestling, the soundtrack. The premiere's at the beautiful new Malco Paradiso in Memphis on March 24th (which they're calling Sputnik Monroe Day) and will play on the square for the week following. I've got the words MEMPHIS HEAT written in red on my calendar. I am stoked! On Ron's rasslin blog I linked above, you can see a number of teaser clips to tide you over.
I also want to take the time today to point out an incredible resource for learning about Memphis wrestling, the Memphis Wrestling History page which you can find here at memphiswrestlinghistory.com. This site was put together by author and wrestling historian, Mark James, and I really applaud what he's done for wrestling fans. There's a great photo section here with galleries of photos and clippings for Jerry Lawler, Sputnik Monroe, Jackie Fargo, Tojo Yamamoto, and others. The scans of the photos and the clippings are very well done (I appropriated a few in my last post), James has done a real service making all this available. Just today, I found another section of the site I hadn't noticed before of cards and clippings for each decade here that's got an amazing amount of information available. I'm going to love going through there looking for bits on Sputnik (and no doubt will wish I'd read it before I did a post on the guy). In addition to all this meticulous work Mark James has done on this impressive site, I see he has a wrestling yearbook for Memphis in 1982 out right now that details that year in Memphis under a microscope. I sure plan on checking it out, as I'm very interested in the Andy Kaufman vs. Jerry Lawler feud - both in terms of what "real" rasslin fans thought about it as well the whole thing as piece of theater. Both Kaufman and Lawler are pretty damn brilliant if you ask me.
Next time! One last scan to post for now on wrestling magazines before I get back to some of my other projects, a special issue in which wrestlers give their own account of their toughest match...
Saturday, January 29, 2011
My favorite photo of Sputnik Monroe, image from the University of Memphis Special Collection and scanned/hosted by the memphiswrestlinghistory.com website, links and props to those guys a bit later.
Well, it's been a few weeks since my last post, as I've been poring over materials on today's subject, a wrestler brimming with an ornery exuberance, one of the most memorable heels of wrestling who turned out to be an unlikely hero here in Memphis. You might say I've become a member of Sputnik's fan club, and I hope to inform the web a little bit about this unique character. I've never even seen footage of the man wrestling, but from interviews and what others say about him, I've become endeared to the guy, so sign me up right now.
Some more pictures of The Sweet Man. Sputnik - rude and tattooed, "220 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal," with a body "women love and men fear." Jim Dickinson (musician and producer who recently passed on in 2009, RIP) said that compared to the 'roid boys of modern wrestling he looks like an overweight truck driver, but as a young man, he looked pretty damn tough and even handsome before decades of brutal combat. I'd sure run the other way if he was coming at me in a dark alley. The distinctive silver streak in his hair was supposedly where he'd been hit by a chair, and some thought it looked like a bolt of lighting while others said it made him look like a skunk. Jerry Lawler and others were known to sport a similar streak at one time or another.
from University of Memphis Special Collection/memphiswrestlinghistory.com
from University of Memphis Special Collection/memphiswrestlinghistory.com
from smokebox.net from an article that originally appeared in Lurch magazine. I'd love to have an original photo of this one or at the very least a bigger image. I'm unclear whether this is the photo I've heard about from shortly after he got to Memphis that's either where Billy Wicks gave him a black eye in the final match of a TN title bout (Sputnik's version) or where a cowboy at the Mid-South Fair decked him for talking rude in front of ladies (Commercial Appeal version). It looks glossy to me (maybe even with an inscription on it?) and the newspaper clippings I've seen of the incident don't seem to include the photo, but it matches the description I've heard about, so I dunno...
Sputnik in the mid 60s, from the March 1967 issue of Wrestling Revue. They still publish a retro-rasslin mag which fans of the stuff I've been posting on old school wrestling should check out here.
A glossy promotional image scavenged from eBay - I think this must be the 70s.
As a child, I'll admit, I was a little Hulkamaniac who cheered for the good guys. Hulk Hogan told us all to work hard, say our prayers, and take our vitamins. Hogan would pose in front of the flag or come into the ring waving it around, ready to do battle with whatever sort of baddies would besmirch the reputation of old glory, grandma, apple pie, etc. As I've grown older, my preference has shifted away from the babyfaces and I prefer the heels (and in modern wrestling things really aren't quite the same, there are more anti-hero types that sort of blur the line, an all-American now might in fact be the heel - I'm thinking of guys like Steve Austin as the anti-hero or Kurt Angle, who I've always liked, as the gold-medal wearing, flag-draped heel). In the golden age of wrestling, as we saw on the last post, the roles of good guy/bad guy were more black and white, the villains were easy to recognize. Or were they? If the values of a society are misplaced, is the misfit then the true hero? In the land of the unjust, might the underdog actually be righteous? Read on to find out.
Sputnik was born just before the Great Depression in my beautiful home state of Kansas in Dodge City as Rocco Monroe Merrick - which was his father's last name. I've seen his given last name as DiGrazio, too, but from an interview with georgiawrestlinghistory.com I gather that DiGrazio was a name also in his family line that he used on his Navy application so he could get in earlier. Dodge City was once known as the most wicked town in all of the west, and apparently his family lived up to the rough-and-tumble connotations, as Sputnik's mother's father, Andrew Jackson Gosee, was a bare-knuckle boxing champion. Just two months before his birth, Sputnik's father was killed in an airplane crash which I gather pretty much devastated his mom, and Monroe spent his his formative years living between grandparents. Gosee chose Rocco as the only one of his grandsons he'd train as a boxer and began teaching him the sweet science when he was only five years old. His mother remarried when he was a teen, and the family moved to Wichita. His stepfather officially adopted him at age 17 (the year he joined the Navy), so Sputnik took his stepfather's last name of Brumbaugh. In 9th grade, Sputnik joined the wrestling team because there weren't many boxers around and perhaps because he'd met pro wrestlers at his local YMCA and admired their fancy clothes, big cars, and hot gals.
When Sputnik and a friend attended a carnival in Wichita, Monroe learned he could earn 5 dollars if he could stay in the ring with the hulking carnival wrestler (Bill Ely) for 5 minutes, and his pal talked him into the challenge. Monroe was small and fast compared to Ely and quickly leg-dived him and cross-barred his arm for the submission win. This made an impression on the promoter who was forced to pay him off. This promoter, Jack Nazworthy, who Monroe remarks was a very tough guy himself, ran a successful line of "athletic shows" in the long tradition of carnival wrestling where show wrestlers would fight marks from the crowd and also take on staged plants or talk trash to the gawkers to stir up business. Nazworthy convinced Monroe to stay on at the carnival but warned that if he ever lost he could just pack his bags and leave. Many of the techniques of showmanship as well as the catch as catch can combat styles from these carnival shows would be the basis for what would become wrestling as we know it in the 20th century (The Golddust Trio I wrote about a couple posts back being a prime mover in this process), and this is where Sputnik would learn to talk the talk and his techniques of crowd manipulation and become the truly tough, loud-mouthed mofo he was, claiming that he never lost a match in his five years as a carny fighter with up to 30 bouts in a day. He'd work in a 40x60 tent with no chairs, so the crowd would be bellied right up to the 16x16 ring, and if the wrestler got too close to the ropes and the crowd didn't like what was going on, they'd burn the wrestler with cigarettes. Monroe would sometimes insult a guy's girlfriend to get him in the ring or even just hit a guy to stir the action. "Marks" (the locals) would often be the referees for such matches and wouldn't count their buddies out, so the carnival wrestlers depended on submissions for victory. From Ron Gordon's 2001 book, It Came From Memphis,
"I started in the carnival athletic show, meeting all comers," (Monroe) explains. It was nearly half a century ago, when half a sawbuck and plenty of machismo could get you five minutes in the ring with the strong man and a chance at fifty bucks. "Whoever wants to do their thing, however they want to do it," he says. "I had shovel fights, rope fights, pickax-handle fights, wrestled, boxed, one hand tied down, whatever their specialty was. One time I had a guy turn his back to me and hook me by the head, and I realized he'd seen something on TV and wanted to flip me over his back. So I let him flying-mare me. I got up and staggered around, and let him do it to me again. The people cheered and he did it again. And he did it again and he did it again and then he puked and fell over. I never let anybody get out of there a winner."
In an NPR interview, Sputnik recalls, "I took knives away from guys and cut them on the arm. I had one babbling and crying like a baby because I just slowly dragged it across his throat. It was a pretty sharp knife; it cut him a little bit. Scared the pee out of him." I can only imagine the sorts of farmhands and roughnecks he was fighting around Kansas and the Midwest at the time. It would require a staggering amount of confidence, but Sputnik had it in spades and relished a good fight, in or out of the ring, and this and the contacts he would make with other wrestlers and promoters in the region is what prepared him for his wrestling career and for a lifetime enraging crowds. In the process, he went from a being a 170-pounder when he left the Navy to a hardened fighter ready for the professional ring. There's a nice article on how these athletic shows operated and created a sensation from town to town at the bottom of the page here at www.1wrestlinglegends.com.
Monroe began his career as Pretty Boy Roque (sounded out as "Rocky", Rock and Papa Rock were names that friends and family called him) when a Gorgeous George copycat by the name of Mel Peters got hurt and Monroe bought his wardrobe. Pretty Boy Roque wrestled on cards around Kansas in places like Topeka, Salina, Dodge City, Wichita and St. Louis working for competing promoters Orville Brown and Max Bowman, going from territory to territory every six to eight weeks. His hair was permed, and he played the Hollywood dandy in an all-pink get-up. For NPR, Monroe recalled of this period, "I got arrested on time. It was 1951, I had long hair, pink tights, pink shoes. I was helping set up the Ferris wheel, and a lady called in complaining there was a woman with no bra on the Ferris wheel. The police came out and I had long hair. You know what you do with long hair in 1951? Every time you stop the car you have a fight. Whenever you want to fight you just stop the car. Nobody had long hair (chuckles)." (BTW I'd love to see photos of Monroe's earlier characters if anybody out there's got any). From St. Louis, Monroe went to Toronto still as Pretty Boy and then to Louisville where promoter Frank McKenna thought he looked like Elvis and gave him a new name, Elvis Rock Monroe, who I believe Sputnik played as a babyface. An alternate story is that Sputnik picked up this name after a stint at the Louisville fairgrounds as a decoy for Elvis. After a concert, Monroe would be dressed as Elvis and run to a waiting limo while screaming lady fans chased him to the getaway limo while the actual Elvis would sneak out another way. After St. Louis and Louisville, Monroe would spend time in Toronto then Minneapolis then Salt Lake City then Seattle (wrestlers were really on the move in those days going from town to town while there was interest), and somewhere in here he caught the chair to the head in Chicago that would give him a deep splinter followed by an infection that left silver streak where the wound healed. In the late 60s the streak started to turn a yellow color, and Sputnik would bleach it out to keep up his trademark look.
Coming from Seattle on a cross-country trip to Mobile, Alabama, Monroe picked up a black hitchhiker to help him drive on a day that would earn him the nickname he'd use for the rest of his career. In an NPR interview, he described the situation, "I pooped out in Greenwood, Mississippi. I couldn't drive anymore, and I pulled into the station. There was a little guy there, a little black guy with a suitcase, in Citronelle, Alabama. So I asked him if he could drive, and he said, yeah. And I said, okay, drive me to Channel 2, to the TV station and after it's over and I'm woke up, we'll go rock and roll with the ladies on the street." In an interview at georgiawrestling.com, he gives an extended version of the story which is the best I've heard him tell it,
"Nobody stayed in a territory like they did later, like I did in Memphis, I was there a year - probably fifteen, sixteen months. But after Salt Lake, I was in Seattle, then I went from Seattle to Mobile, Alabama, and I pooped out. I left on Thursday to be there on Saturday, and I drove as far as I could drive, and then I'd sleep, and then I'd drive, and then I'd sleep. And I finally got where I was---I had a thermos of coffee, and I would get out and walk around the car, and then get back in and drink a little coffee and go on down the road a little further, sometimes 8 or 10 miles before I'd get on the nod again.
And when I got to Greenwood, Mississippi, I was really plumb out, and there was a little black guy hitchhikin', and I asked if he can drive, and he said, "yeah," and I said "okay", and I told him to be very careful because I'm a wrestler and I'll break your legs if you get wild. So he had to take care of business, and I'll take a nap. So he drove me to the TV studio, in Mobile, and that's where I got the name.
An old lady called me a "nigger-lovin' son of a bitch", and this really blew up, and when we got in the arena---the TV studio---they had bleachers on one side and curtains on the other side of the ring, and I'd open the curtains and act like I was kissin' the little black guy and that old lady would just raise holy hell.
And finally Security told her if she kept cursing he was gonna have to put her out, and she says, "What he really is, by God, is a damn Sputnik." The Sputnik had just went up, I didn't know what the hell it was. And everybody took up on it, the announcer and the commentator started calling me "Sputnik" on TV in my first match in Mobile, and then everybody picked up on "Sputnik", like, you know, it was a big deal. But, finally, maybe a month later, I figured it out that it was, Russia had beat us into space with a "Sputnik". And my middle name, Monroe, fit right in there."
I really love that story. How many white guys would pick up a black hitchhiker in those days in the first place? And I really love the stories of these old grannies that would go to a wrestling match and get all worked up but would probably act perfectly polite the rest of the week. This dirty wrestler had the nerve to have his arm around a black man, and here amid the cold war hysteria the worst thing she could think of to call him was a damned communist. And Monroe took the label as his own, a slap in the face to America, a bizarre-looking satellite blasted into the stratosphere, way out there in orbit, freaking out an entire nation. The crazed reaction Sputnik got here as a man with the nerve to kiss a black man on the cheek gave him some direction and the a powerful tool for maddening southern audiences, and when Buddy Fuller, the promoter and wrestler who ran the Alabama territory, bought the Memphis territory, he brought Monroe with him and Monroe immediately went about stirring up shit by developing a relationship with the black community. Sure, there was a big element of self-promotion in this, but there's no doubt that Sputnik was always a rebel and identified with the underdog. A relationship with a black nanny in Kansas might have played a role, too. Sputnik says of her, "I grew up with a nanny. She had the patience of God, an old colored lady that was just outstanding. And I thought, `Boy, what a great people,' you know?" Just as soon as he got to Memphis, Sputnik headed down to Beale Street, where blacks from all across the South came to party. Monroe recalls, "When I arrived in Memphis, I went straight to Beale Street where the blacks hung out and from there straight to jail...They charged me with 'mopery and attempted gawk,' that's an old southern vagrancy thing they made up. I was on Beale Street every night for the first six months. I got arrested three or four times until that didn't work anymore and the cops left me alone." The University of Memphis special wrestling collection has some articles from the paper from when this happened that memphiswrestling.com hosts:
I can just imagine the shock on the judge's face when Monroe walked in with a black lawyer, the very idea of a white man being defended by a black man must have been contemptuous and mind-boggling (Sugarmon would go on to become a General Sessions judge and is now retired). In the tribute article in the local paper after Sputnik's death, Sugarmon says, "In those days Beale Street was segregated, but he would go into the restaurants and bars and drink with the people. And one night the police ordered him out, and they wouldn't go, so they arrested him. He called me and I got it dismissed, and we were friendly with each other from then on." Billy Wicks, Sputnik's main opponent in Memphis at the time, remembers, "He was...kissing little black babies, and doing things like that was not accepted. He liked the challenge of doing certain things society and culture didn't want him to do. He was going to do it his way." Or as Jim Dickinson says put it, "People in Memphis liked to ignore what was going on, and Sputnik wouldn't let them do it...Elvis was just implying it, Sputnik was verbalizing it and talking about it. And you were definitely not supposed to do that." He and a black friend went into Dillards, refusing to take off their homburgs, letting the patrons know that any trouble would mean a fight with Sputnik. No one took him up on it. Wrestling fan Jim Sellers says, "Sputnik decided to identify with a group of people who sort of were there but had no one to champion. So he says, `Hey'--and it sort of became a `He's our man' thing." Even though Memphis was supposedly desegregated at the time, blacks at the wrestling matches in Ellis auditorium were still forced to sit up in an area referred to as "the crow's nest," and this is the crowd that Sputnik played to and fought for.
Pre-Sputnik, Ellis was in a sag with an average of maybe 300 patrons, but Monroe changed all that and packed them in the seats. Before matches, Sputnik would go down to Beale and hand out coupons for discounted entry to his black fans, and the whites of Memphis were clamoring to see this rooster get a good ass-kicking. When Monroe entered the auditorium, he wouldn't even look at the crowd around him, booing him and baying for blood. Eventually, the boos would die down, and Sputnik would raise both hands in the air, and his black fans up in the nose-bleed section who'd been quiet through all the whites' boos would go wild in adulation. When he was victorious or strutted around with an opponent laid out on the mat, he'd play to this crowd, and they loved him for it. Guston Davis says of those days, "You could hear the whole neighborhood yelling and hollering while wrestling was going on. And at the time, you thought he was defeated, he was down, he wasn't going to get back up, you'd be sitting there, like, staring at the TV. And he'd jump up and he'd shake his head like the Three Stooges does, and he'd stiffen both legs and he'd do that Sputnik walk, and, hey, it was on, man. After the wrestling was over, that's what we did. We went outdoors and everybody was just wrestling and doing the Sputnik walk, you know, doing that thing." But Sputnik wasn't satisfied and used sneaky and then direct means to end segregation in Ellis. Jim Dickinson explains in It Came From Memphis,
"The way they would cut off the black audience...they had a guy counting the white door and a guy on the black door. And they knew how many blacks the section could hold. Sputnik paid the guy who counted the blacks to say a low number every time he was asked, so when the boss said, 'How many have you let in?' he would say 'Twenty-five,; or whatever, and there was five hundred people up there. Finally the audience got so big and so heavily black that they had to integrate the seating. That is really how integration in Memphis started. There's no other single even that integrated the audience other than the wrestling matches and Sputnik paying the guy to lie."
When the promoters caught on to what was happening and objected, Sputnik threatened to leave. From the Commercial Appeal, "[Sputnik] was carrying the big stick because he was drawing so huge,' says famed wrestling manager Jimmy Hart, then a teenager selling Cokes in the crowd, 'And he went to the promoters and said if these folks can't get in and sit with everybody else then I'm out of here. They couldn't afford to refuse him." After he integrated Ellis, he continued to fight for desegregation causing ripples throughout Memphis society. When black leaders were coming together to figure out how to protest a car show that was whites-only, Sputnik called the sponsoring dealership and told them thanks for their attitude, he'd open up a blacks-only car business and make a killing. That night's evening news announced that all were now welcome at the show. Judge Sugarmon contends that Monroe's stand at Ellis had a domino effect in integrating other aspects of Memphis life, "I remember trying to go to the theater with my wife, and we got to the box office and they wouldn't sell us tickets. The committees that were working on those things said 'Well, we have to integrate these things slowly; we don't want to upset the unwashed masses.' And we said, "Well the unwashed matches are getting along quite fine sitting alongside each other at the wrestling matches!"
Blacks in Memphis to this day remember Sputnik and give him a special place in the history of the movement. Fanny Gardner says, "He was the chosen one, you know, so nobody knows from what day or what year or what time, who's going to be the one to step out, and I think that with his heart, you know--he was a kind person, you know, a gentle person, although a lot of people feared him. He just had a way of bringing somebody out to pave the way for other people." From the memorial article in the Commercial Appeal,
"Just last year, we were Downtown, and [Sputnik] wanted to go to Beale Street, " recalls Monroe's friend, longtime Memphis deejay and television personality Johnny Dark. "and we parked at Peabody Place and walked, and on the way down there at least four young black kids walked up to him and hugged him and told him their parents had his picture on their wall of their house growing up, they they knew who he was and what he had done...[Years after Sputnik's heyday], when Johnny Dark was a deejay in Louisville and Monroe was wrestling in the area, the two went out after one of Monroe's matches. Dark recalls, "This black lady walked up to him with tears in her eyes and said, 'You don't know me but I used to live in Memphis, and I just want to thank you for getting us out of those buzzard seats in Ellis Auditorium,' And I looked over there at that big 230-pound man," says Dark, "and he had tears in his eyes as well."
But it wasn't just the blacks that were the fans of Monroe, he had plenty of young rock 'n' rollers that came to appreciate his anti-authoritarian ways and message of inclusion as well. More from It Came From Memphis,
"You're talking about separate water fountains, you're talking about back of the bus, " Says Jim Blake, who managed wrestler Jerry Lawler in the 1970s, and whose Barbarian Records recorded several heroes of the ring. "I went through my whole twelve years at school having never been able to share an experience with a black, and I was starting to resent this, because I was also listening to radio and Dewey Phillips and hearing all these great black records and realizing that these were some talented artists, this was another culture. Where at first we'd gone to the matches hoping to see Sputnik get beat, we started to realize that he was pretty fucking cool. He had his audience and he never played down to 'em, never talked down to 'em. He became a role model."
Sputnik would probably laugh at the idea of himself as a role model and bristled at being called a do-gooder, but there's no doubting his popularity at the time in Memphis. "If you would have had some kind of election about who was the best known face in Memphis at the time - Sputnik, Elvis, and the mayor - Sputnik would have been real close to Elvis," says Johnny Dark.
At the peak of Sputnik's popularity, he wrestled in an a title match against Billy Wicks at Russwood park with Rock Marciano standing in as referee with 20,000 fans in attendance. The wrestlers were paid $500 each, and the winner got a Cadillac. The story made the front page of The Commercial Appeal, and I gather the match ended with Marciano feeling the need to knock Sputnik out and the victory and Caddy going to Wicks. At some point during the day, Monroe says he was surfed on hands over the giant crowd.
I came across this photo on a neat page about Russwood Park on Scotty Moore's official website that talks about its history as a baseball stadium and has a number of pictures of Elvis playing there in the mid 50s and links to Billy Wick's website where the pic came from that has an interview with Wicks (who became a cop shortly after this, retiring from wrestling, I believe) as well as some history on catch wrestling which has seen a resurgence in popularity due to its use in Mixed-Martial Arts more commonly known as ultimate fighting.
Sputnik would soon try and duplicate the success he achieved in Memphis in other territories in a bid for a greater national fame. The first place he went was Houston, and during this time he also made return trips to Tennessee, mainly to Nashville, I gather. The scans I've prepared for today are two issues of an arena publication for the North Side Coliseum out of Fort Worth, Texas, in October of 1961. Both feature Sputnik, and there's mention that he was the current holder of the Texas Heavyweight Championship which he'd won a couple weeks before in Houston. Monroe probably worked a number of Texas cities, and I'd guess he did well there, as his rough style was the kind of wrestling Texas is famous for. These arena publications are a lot of fun and mainly recount recent matches and hype what's to come the following week. There's a lot of wrestling history in this sort of publication, so to the rasslin fans out there, scan 'em if you got 'em, it's a good way to preserve, share, and celebrate the history of wrestling. In these two four-page papers, you'll find Sputnik talking some serious trash per usual on how the ladies of Texas are so excited about his visit while the men are quaking in their boots as well as news on other wrestlers working Fort Worth at the time including Buddy Rogers, Iron Mike, Ciclon Negro, Sam Steamboat, Shag Thomas, Mighty Yankee Nos. 1 and 2, Johnny Kostas, Duke Keomuka, the Dalton Boys, Fran Gravette, Pepe Gonzalez, John Paul Henning, and the Russian Angel. There's also a bit of roller derby news which reminds me I've got some vintage roller derby scans I'll skate out here one of these days. I'll go ahead and post all four pages of both issues. Remember you can get higher quality images with much wider pixel width by downloading the full scans if you ever need to print or blow up any of these pictures or articles, as the image host shrinks them on down which can result in moire and .jpeg artifacts.
Sports News 647 (1961-10-27.North Side Coliseum, Ft. Worth TX)
Get the hi-res scan here.
Sports News 649 (1961-11-10.North Side Coliseum, Ft. Worth TX)
Get the hi-res scan here.
Sputnik's career in the 60s never really took off in a national way like he'd hoped it would maybe because of his reputation for unpredictability. Opponents say he didn't mind hurting a guy (or himself) in the ring, as he sure loved the roughness. Wrestlers could get paid more for bloody matches, and Sputnik had plenty. While some guys might use the blade, Sputnik preferred to get there the old-fashioned way - by getting pounded on by his opponent or by maybe bashing his head into the post. Here's a photo (I think it was on eBay) of a bloody Sputnik (tagging with Tarzan Tyler)
Sputnik really took some abuse in the ring over the years, netting probably thousands of stitches and the scar tissue to match. He was also stabbed by angry fans on numerous occasions. There's a flat-out hilarious story about Sputnik's battered mug (and his tumultuous relations with women) I can't help but link out of Jimmy Valiant's biography (which I'll be reading for sure, I love the way this bit is written) that a blogger has posted here. It's little wonder that some wrestlers were wary of getting in the ring with the guy and that promoters might shy away from letting him in the ring with their stars because injuries were bad for keeping a steady schedule. Sputnik himself thought that maybe the fact he was an old carnival wrestler (sometimes thought of as con men) might have contributed to a bad reputation.
But that's not to belittle the further regional successes he had in the south in the 60s and early 70s, as he did headline in many regions and manage to acquire some titles. For a while he even included a family cast of "Monroes" who wrestled with him at various times during the 60s. There are some photos and bios of the other Monroes at georgiawrestling.com here. His biggest success of the 60s was in 1964 when he beat Dick the Bruiser in a Cadillac tournament to become the first Georgia Heavyweight Champion at the Atlanta Raceway. Dick didn't really work the area, so they brought him in as a big name. Sputnik says that The Bruiser really worked him over, almost like a shoot, and that the promoters were greatly impressed with the match. I'm guessing Sputnik no doubt got his ire up with some pre-match trash talk - the wrong guy to get worked up. I'd sure love to see the tape of that one. Sputnik held the Georgia title for about a year and would spend a lot of time working Florida later in the decade.
One story that sparks the imagination about Sputnik in this period is from a match from 1964 he was in for the prisoners at the Atlanta Penitentiary. Here's a cool photo of Wildman Phillips, Lenny Montana, Sputnik, and Charlie Carr walking into the prison:
From a forum thread here at WrestlingClassic.com.
Sputnik says of the match, "I really got over there. I didn't wanna go there to start with. I said, "I ain't goin' there," and [Buddy] Fuller said, "Yes, you are, you S.O.B." So, I thought "how the hell are you gonna entertain a buncha killers and rapists and all that?," and then I snapped. I was wrestlin' Greg Peterson and I took him down and pulled his tights down off of his butt and went to fumblin' with myself and they tore the bleachers down. They thought I was gonna screw him right there in the ring. I didn't get that far, he hit me in the eye, eleven stitches worth." Sounds like a near riot, heh heh.
One last Sputnik story to share is from his triumphant resurgence Memphis at the beginning of the 70s with a new ploy that reminded fans of his days pushing for integration. Once again, here's an extended quote from Robert Gordon's It Came From Memphis, fantastic stuff:
Randy Haspel, whose band the Radiants was one of the first post-Beatles Memphis Bands and one of the last recording acts on the original Sun Records, remembers an encounter with Sputnik in the early 1970s. "I was sitting around Phillips Studio with Skip Owsley, this black conga drummer from my band, and Sputnik came in. He wasn't as active in wrestling as he had been, and he was saying, 'I don't know what to do anymore. I used to be able to tell 'em their wimmin were trash, or I'd shake my ass and them broads would flip out and the guys would want to fight. I can't get these people to hate me like they use to!' This was during the hippie heyday, and we said 'What people hate now are longhairs. If you talked about love, Sputnik, they'd probably hate you.' Skip, the black guy, said, 'You need to find you a black wrestler and tag team with him.' So two weeks later Sputnik appears on TV with Norvell Austin, and he's dyed a blond streak in his hair. They're beating up some designated opponents, and they tied up one guy's arms in the ropes. Sputnik goes over to the corner and gets a bucket and pours it over this guy's head. It's a bucket of black paint. And then Sputnik and Norvell go over to the announcer and Sputnik says, 'Black is beautiful!' and Norvell says, 'White is beautiful!' and Sputnik held up hs arm with Norvell's and he said, ' Black and white together is beautiful.' Next time I saw Sputnik he's real excited and says, 'They hate me again!'"
How great is that. The duo would even spread the rumor that Norvell was Sputnik's son which just adds to the deliciousness of the ploy. Sure, they might have been heels, but the message WAS beautiful, ya know?
I want to include some notes on sources here and some places to look for those who'd like to find out more about the man. I first learned of Sputnik and his importance in Memphis history on the occasion of his passing at the age of 77 back in 2006. Bob Mehr wrote a very nice article in our local paper, the Commercial Appeal, that made me hungry to learn more about this character. I photocopied the article but wish I'd kept it or scanned it, but I hadn't gotten into scanning it back then - you can get the text from the website, but the big page-tall photo leading off the Metro section is what sucked me in). In the article, Mehr mentions that NPR did a piece on him on Morning Edition back in 2001, and, though it's not streaming, you can still download it on the NPR page here. Absolutely priceless, hearing the old guy's voice and stories really brought it all to life for me. Sputnik was a great story teller and bullshitter, and it's no wonder that other wrestlers would often try and catch rides with him just so they could hear him tell stories. When he died, NPR's All Things Considered looked back at the original interview and included some additonal bits of audio of the man as well as a remembrance of how much they were touched by knowing the guy. You can hear that, streaming, here. The text of another interview I just recently found with Monroe can be found at georgiawrestlinghistory.com here . That interview is super-informative and had me laughing my ass off,and I read a lot of stories in it I'd never heard before. The interviewer, "Crimson Mask," does a great job digging from an insider's perspective into some particulars and untold stories in Monroe's career (including an alternate take on an oft-told story that made the papers here of an incident at the mid-south fair where Sputnik purportedly went to start a fight with Bat Masterson and allegedly ending up elbowing a horse and getting beat up by a cowboy), so I'm very appreciative to have found it. Probably the best source for understanding Sputnik as a rock 'n' roll phenomenon and his role as desegregation agitator for which he is most well-known can be found in Robert Gordon's fantastic book, It Came From Memphis, in which he devotes a chapter to Monroe and deftly places Sputnik into a wider context of what was going here in the Mid-South at the time. One great story I didn't mention here that Gordon brings out in that book is how Sputnik deftly promoted Jerry Phillips, son of Sam Phillips of Sun Records fame, at the age of 12 as a midget wrestler (in spite of the fact he was just a normal boy). That is until things got a little too hot to handle. I'd recommend that book to just about anybody, rock n' roll and wrestling fan or no. It's a great take on the Memphis story which digs up all sorts of side characters you might never have heard of but who are very worth of remembering. Also, Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson's 2007 book for the ECW press, The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels, has an excellent entry for The Sweet Man and is a fantastic read in general, one of my favorite books on my wrestling bookshelf. And while I'm on some good sources, Oliver and Johnson did a nice obit for Monroe at SLAM! Sports which can be read here and Danny Goddard (the kid in the Sputnik Monroe FC picture above, heh heh) has done a very nice bio page for Sputnik at georgiawrestlinghistory.com here. Reading through all I've gathered again for this post, I'm very much reminded of Monroe's saying that "Any story worth telling is worth embellishing" because time-lines and the exact nature of certain incidents in some of this material I've posted is a bit murky. But, hey, life would be very boring without a little bullshit, eh? If Monroe stretched the truth sometimes, it's counter-balanced by all the people out there who have an 100% authentic love for the guy and by he stuck up for the those that needed a champion here in Memphis. Damn it, the world needs heroes, even one that's a heel. There's long been word of an HBO biopic in the works, though I'm not sure what's the hold-up. I do really hope it comes to fruition. There's much material in Sputnik's life that might be mined for excellent cinema, and his is an absolutely enthralling American story.
I'll leave out with a youtube clip, a memorial to Sputnik from Memphis Wrestling. Usually I shudder at the choice of "My Way" as a soundtrack, but surely it's appropriate in this case. As Billy Wicks said when he died, "I can tell ya this: They ain't gonna make any more like Sputnik Monroe." You can also find some personal remembrances of the man from those he touched in the comments on a memorial page at cantstopthebleeding.com here.
Next time! A quick follow-up post on Memphis wrestling. I want to point out a local book or two as well as some web pages on the rich wrestling history of the bluff city. Monroe was just one of many colorful characters that have wrestled here over the years, so I want to flush the scene out a little bit as well as hype an upcoming film on Memphis Rasslin', hot damn.
Monday, January 10, 2011
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In a continued tour of the golden age of Wrestling, I've picked to post today two issues of Wrestling Life which began as a sister publication to Wrestling As You Like It, a magazine I've previously posted two issues of on blog posts on Gorgeous George (Wrestling As You Like It 1950-11-04 and Wrestling As You Like It 1954-07-10). Wrestling Life is monthly and 36 pages long, whereas Wrestling As You Like It, which I believe ceased publication at some point in 1955, was a mere 16 pages long and published weekly. The 1957 issue is approximately golden age comic-sized at 7 1/4 inches wide by 10 inches tall, and the 1960 issue has shrunk to digest-type size of 6 inches wide by 9 inches tall. The stock on both is a nice slick paper, and the dot matrix photos are a bit grainy, but well printed. Continued thanks to madman McCoy for both of tonight's edits. He's done a fantastic job with these, and the images closely represent the feel of the magazines.
I very much enjoy Wrestling Life, a classy production out of Chicago (with mostly local advertisements that give a nice portrait of Chicago-land restaurants/hotel/commerce in the 50s) with well-written articles on matches from the Chicago area and on the wrestling stars of the day. I'm going to go ahead and mix up my commentary on the two issues, because there is lots of overlap in subject matter.
Tonight's two issues have a number of articles that point to an aspect of wrestling that is none-too-PC but that's been central to much of the drama in wrestling since there has been wrestling (and indeed much of sport in general) and that is the centrality of racial and national identity in the stories that propel the sport. Ron Hall's most-excellent recent book on wrestling in Memphis, Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets (which I'll give more time to in my next post), points to what I'm talking about with his chapter title, "Krauts, Japs, Indians & Arabs." That is, that racial and national types have (and do) play a large role in wrestling soap operas. All varieties of stereotypes are used by both heroes and heels to incite fans to root for and against wrestlers and pack the stands. Farmer or Hillbilly types might swig on the moonshine, go barefoot, and sport overalls or bring a leashed-pig into the ring with them, while the proud Irish wrestler might wear a kilt and be accompanied by bagpipes. Luchador types might wave the flag of La Raza in front of cheering Latinos and jeering rednecks while black wrestlers like Booker T might up the street-talk factor or put up a black fist. After World War II sneaky Japanese characters would chop the heroes while the ref wasn't looking, or Germanic types might gouge and punish beyond the limits of decency. While the high-minded might see all sorts of negative in the use of types, I think there might also be an honesty or at least a dialogue somewhere in this farce that is wholly refreshing or at the very least entertaining. And there is also some play with ethnicity and nationality that might confound or not be so easily categorized - like the Dudley Boyz, perhaps the most highly decorated tag team in pro wrestling, sharing the same traveling salesman father, though Bubba Ray is a pasty white and Devon is a dark shade of black. Or like Chavo Guerrero's turn in whiteface as golf cart-driving Kerwin White (which I thought was pretty funny).
Certainly, though, despite all the attention given to race and creed, if you go into a wrestling event's locker room, you will find a camaraderie among wrestlers perhaps unique in sport that speaks to how much of this show is kayfabe for the rubes, and, on some level, most of us rubes know it too. But on to some of these dirty, foreign villians, eh? In the current atmosphere of Islamaphobia, this first article might be a little hard to laugh at, but let's take a look at the lead story in the 1960 issue on The Sheik, the original cruel and underhanded Arab, who others like Abdullah the Butcher or the Iron Sheik (who I remember vividly from my childhood days of wrestling, tagging with Nikolai Volkoff - another imitator heel, I'll get to the original Nicoli in a minute) would copy in later years. Darren Aronofsky even uses an Ayatollah character as Mickey Rourke's foil in the great 2008 film, The Wrestler (which opens with spreads of wrestling magazines after my own heart)
Here's the article, guaranteed to rile the honor of the red-blooded American male. Why - that dirty dog would hit a woman!!! The Sheik sure looks lean and mean as a young man.
This ornate pre-match ceremony very much reminds me of Gorgeous George's antics wherein his valet would spray the mat and George would make the crowd wait. I just recently came across a youtube clip of Ali talking about what he'd learned from George, and I think The Sheik might have emulated him a little, too.
But unlike George or Ali, The Sheik (real-name Ed Farhat, born in Michigan and WWII veteran) was not a talker, he would only yell (mock?) Arabic phrases in the ring and let his managers do the talking for him, he was a foreign menace, and his central contribution to wrestling was not even this Arabic persona gimmick but the brutality he brought to the ring. He'd sneak objects into the ring that often ended up being used on himself, and he'd push the limits as far as self-mutilation and punishment so much so that he's widely acknowledged as the forefather of what we now call "hardcore" wrestling. Many fans remember his fireball (some sulfurous substance stashed in his pants) that left more than one wrestler singe and fans coming back for more. His skills included promotion as well, and he ran a profitable NWA circuit out of Detroit with the "Big Time Wrestling" TV program from 1964-1980. After his popularity had waned in the states, The Sheik had great success in Canada and Japan as well where he wrestled his last match in 1998 after almost 50 years in the ring. My favorite story about Farhat comes from his page at obsessedwithwrestling.com where David Whiteis writes:
I always loved The Sheik as a kid, for the same reason I loved horror movies -- he was scary enough to be thrilling, yet just cartoon-ish enough to not cross the line into nightmare-inducing.
In more recent years, I've discovered a new reason to respect him. The following anecdote comes from a tribute to The Sheik that was posted on the website devoted to him:
"In a Texas arena, during those pre-civil rights era days, black fans were seated in a balcony behind chicken wire. Farhat got to the ring, and saw this seating setup. A very real-life Edward Farhat got very upset, and in full Sheik gimmick, he climbed up 15 feet and ripped down the wire.
"He got back in the ring and locked up with a shocked Brazil, who asked Farhat, 'What the hell did you do?' Sheik told Brazil that the local promoters were racist @$#$@$#s, and to hell with them. So the 'hated enemies' were in a clinch in the corner laughing at what a real-life Edward Farhat had done, and could get away with in the segregated South...simply because he did it as 'The Sheik.'
A few links for more on Farhat:
A great article by Steve Slagle at wrestlingmuseum.com on The Shiek and his legacy
A nice obit from the NYT on The Sheik
The Shiek's WWE Hall of Fame page
But if The Sheik might be the perfect heel in today's atmosphere of Islamaphobia, the cold war offered another set of likely villains, those dirty rooskies! The 1957 issue has a feature with Nicoli Volkoff and the 1960 issue has an article on the new tag team that Nicoli has formed with his brother, Boris. It's amazing how masterfully these guys play on cold war feelings. I'll post both articles, starting with the first. The editor's caution here that Wrestling Life doesn't want to provoke is a hoot, and I love the article title - sure to have the red-haters fuming:
I'm tempted to try out the table back exercise as a move I've never tried before, but it does look pretty crazy. The editor's caution in printing this article acknowledging the disdain coming from the fans for Nicoli is backed up by a paragraph from the 1960 issue in the article "Why Wrestling is the World's Most Dangerous Sport," as at least one fan was riled to violence by Nicoli's act:
Indeed, baiting the fans was great box office, but dangerous at the same time. I've seen many stories like this where fans have actually attacked heel wrestlers, crazy.
There's not much I can find out about the original Nicoli (real name Steve Gobrovovich) but he wrestled for a few years before striking it big with the idea of teaming with his "brother" Boris as an all-Russian tag team. Steve might have been Russian, maybe Croatian, and he came to team with Boris AKA Francis Zela, of Polish descent who was a Merchant Marine in WWII and who ran a bodybuilding gym where Bobo Brazil and Dick the Bruiser had trained. There's a bit more on Boris here at the Online World of Wrestling and more on both here on a Slam! Sports obituary for Zela. Here's the article from the 1960 issue that creates their back-story complete with denigrations of the state of U.S. society, fond remembrances of Russia, and purported ties to the Motherland. All especially funny in light of the bit on the Slam! page of how Nicoli would yell in Russian and Boris would respond in Polish, a profitable ruse all-around, heh heh, naive Amerikanskis
One of the things I like about Wrestling Life are the ads for the Chicago eateries, this one in the 1957 issue instantly caught my eye.
I'd never heard of Paul Bunyan, and this little photo had me wondering about who this enormous wrestler might be. I was pleased to find some photos of him in a pictorial later on in the issue which I'll put up in its entirety here.
Incredulous at the vital statistics given for Paul Bunyan here and curious about his career, I did a little sleuthing and turned up some very interesting bits of biography about the big man who prior to his wrestling career worked in Hollywood (in Invaders from Mars and Killer Ape) and would later become an Evangelist. His height and weight seem to vary according to different sources, but he was so big I can understand how there'd be so much variance - you just don't have any perspective looking at a guy like that, he just dwarfs any and everybody around him. Palmer was stepfather to Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer who played 20 years for the Orioles. A few photos culled from the web.
I saw somewhere that he quit basketball because his size just made things too unfair.
From thetallestman.com, I'll give a link in a second.
From lpcoverlover.com. More on the recording here. He didn't mind using his size to spread the gospel.
Again from thetallestman.com, I find this photo very romantic. I always think there's something awfully sweet about a couple so varied in size.
You can find more information and many more photos and articles on Palmer here at the tallestman.com. There's a handful of wrestling clippings there including a bit about a tag match with Palmer teamed with Sputnik Monroe against the Corsica brothers in a 1960 match at Ellis Auditorium that Bunyan and Sputnik would lose, unfathomable. I'll have some material in my next post on Sputnik Monroe who was really quite a character who is remembered very fondly here in Memphis. You can also see some personal remembrances of Ray Palmer here on a thread for some site pertaining to Clarksdale, Mississippi (I keep meaning to take a weekend trip down there for some blues sightseeing - The Crossroads, Riverside Hotel, Delta Blues Museum (which supposedly has Muddy Waters' Stovall Plantation cabin within), Dockery's Plantation, etc). Lastly, there's a bit of information on Bunyan here at obsessedwithwrestling.com.
Whew, I've been typing for hours on this little post, but I'll keep going. It's amazing how much there is to explore in even a single vintage magazine and how I get off on unexpected tangents, but I learn so much each time I post and I post so seldom I should make the most of it. One last article, a fun/disturbing one, on teaching your child how to defend themselves from perverts. Female wrestler Ada (Ash) Szasz introduces her daughter Joyce's self-defense lesson. There are a couple nice self-defense moves here. If I ever can find an affordable copy of the issue after this I'll make sure and get the continuation up.
And lastly various images from the two issues. From the 1957 issue, the contents page. There is no contents page in the 1960 ish:
Dick the Bruiser, a bad, bad man. The Ron Hall book I mentioned earlier has an article from the day after a match between Pat O'Connor and The Bruiser during which Dick was thrown from the ring and beat on some Memphis cops during the ensuing fracas and was arrested for disorderly conduct and assault and battery. He certainly was a sensation.
Edouard Carpentier, a French Canadian who stunned crowds with his acrobatics.
And a few misc. images from the 1960 issue. Dr. X! Oftentimes wrestlers might revitalize their career by donning a mask. Sometimes wrestlers would even wrestle twice at small venues, once with a mask and once without. Unmaskings could be major events filled with intrigue. This Dr. X was Bill Miller! There's an article on a Miller Brothers tag team in the 1957 issue, but I don't think that ever went over. Bill would return to life as a veterinarian after his wrestling career. The most famous masked wrestler of all time, The Destroyer (Dick Beyer), would later wrestle as Dr. X as well.
Bearcat Wright says he won't shave his mustache until he gets married. Somebody should tell the guy it's easier to get a girl with a clean shave.
I've never heard of these guys, but every Hoosier deserves a good beating, and these guys look like they could use one, nyuk nyuk.
Next time! Some arena publications from Texas, Sputnik comes to town! A god-damned Memphis hero.