Dick Steinborn's The Way I Remember It

Dick Steinborn is a second-generation wrestler who wrestled from 1951 until 1985.  He is a former holder of the AWA World Tag Team Title, Southern Heavyweight Title, and many others.  At the present time, he is a physical fitness consultant in Richmond, Virginia, where he owns and operates his own gymnasium.

Lou Thesz

I enjoyed the story in [Whatever Happened to ...?] issue #19 on Lou Thesz.  The first time I met Thesz, I was four years old.  My mother told me that she saw him in Los Angeles when she was seventeen, and thought he was the most handsome man she had ever seen.  He was associated with my father (Milo Steinborn) over the years through promotions, being on the same card, and so forth.  The next time I ran into him, I was fourteen.  When I walked into the living room, my father whispered to me, "Go behind him."

As I went to shake Lou's hand, I arm dragged him trying to go behind him.  He was so quick, he lifted me up, set me back down, and smiled.  My dad was messing with me.

After seventeen years as a pro, I was booked against Lou Thesz in Texas.  I left Houston sitting in the back seat of a car driven by Alberto and Ramon Torres.  On the way up to Austin, to a club that was promoted by Leo Garibaldi at the time, Ramon says, "Who are you wrestling?"

I said, "Well, gentleman, after seventeen years of being a pro, and training for this match for the last two weeks" ... which I did ... "I'm going to wrestle Lou Thesz."

"No keeding?", he says.

Then, I see Alberto look over at his brother and I see him punch him.  Alberto says, "Hey, Dick.  You know, Thesz likes one thing in a match."

I said, "What's that?"

He said, "He likes to be slapped."

I said, "No kidding?"

This is a true story.  Well, after seventeen years, I decided to be a mark for them. (laughs)  "Oh, yeah?  Does he really like that?" and "How do I hit him?"

"Well, anytime you want, just slap the sh-- out of him!"

This went on for about a hundred miles.  I get in the dressing room and can see that everybody's whispering ton everybody.  I thought, "What entertainment."  I go into this dressing room and all these guys are flipping out.  Just before I go out to wrestle, Ramon says to me, "Hey, don't forget now.  You're going to slap him, huh?"

I get into the ring and look back ... and both dressing rooms are emptied out.  I thought, "What can I do?"  I always had a way of slapping somebody without hurting them.  I wouldn't slap them across the face.  I cupped my hand in an oblong cup and kept it tight.  When I came down with the slap, I caught them just below the ear and drug it down the neck.  The loudness was much more pronounced than being slapped in the face, and the crowd always reacted to it.

When the match started, I came running out of my corner, and Thesz ... not knowing me or my style ... he backed up, which he normally did, brought his left knee up, leaned in the corner and lowered his head outside, underneath the top rope.  The referee pushed me back.  We repeated the sequence, but I stayed in his corner behind the referee.  As Lou brought his head back around, I came over the referee's shoulder with this big slap that you could hear all over the building.

Thesz' reaction was hilarious.  I never saw so many goose bumps appear on a man's leg as I did on Thesz' legs.  Hundreds of them.  I swear they looked like you had plucked feathers out of his leg.  Laughing, I pointed to Thesz and shouted to referee Marvin (Jones), "Look, Marvin.  He's got goose bumps.  He's chicken!"

Thesz leaped at me, laughing hysterically, while he front face-locked me and put the hurt on me for quite a while.

Later in the match, I wound up with Lou in a body scissors, with my legs surrounding him.  He's looking at me and I'm looking at him.  All of a sudden, and before I realized what he was doing, with this old maneuver that I'd seen years before, he spins his body and turns around.  I wind up on my stomach with his right knee hooked behind my left knee.  He's sitting on top of me like an amateur in the top position.  Marvin Jones gets down in front of me and says, "Are you a queer?"

I said,  "What?"

Thesz says, "You heard him,"  and he leans forward and puts pressure on my knee.  I thought my knee was gonna break.  Here I am, just the opposite of what Marvin was insinuating, and here comes the question again.  Marvin says, "I'll ask you again ... are you a queer?"

I felt the pressure and I screamed at both of them, "Yeeeesssss!"

Lou rolled me over and the match ended.

I was booked seven times in a three week period against that man.  Each time, uncontrollably, I found myself with this body scissors on him.  Every time, when I realized the position I had put myself in, I hollered at him, "You're gonna play this silly old game again, aren't you?"

Sure enough, he'd make his move ... but I always made sure that I got close to the ropes and hung on for dear life.

The Invisible Man

While I was in Puerto Rico, I had an agreement with the promoter.  I was allowed to arrive at the matches thirty minutes late in Bayamon because I was captivated with a South American television show that was seen on Saturday nights in San Juan.  Pampero Firpo stayed at the same hotel and watched it with me, explaining the history of the show.  It seems that wrestling had died out in South America years before.  Later, when television was being pioneered there, a local station scooped up the wrestlers and asked them if they'd do fifty two one-hour tapes using unusual characters.  The filming took place in an arena about half the size of a normal national guard arena and was filled with kids, ages 7-11.

The wrestlers were characters such as The Three Musketeers, the lead being D'Artagnan.  He came into the ring with a pointed beard, high boots, and a big hat with feathers, just as if he came off the screen into the ring.  Another character was The Businessman, who had a secretary with a typewriter. (Ed. note: This is beginning to sound familiar!)  There was The Caveman, dressed in fur and carrying a bone.  The Cat Man, from head to toe like a leopard.  He didn't walk up the stairs ... he leaped up onto the top turnbuckle, intertwining himself around the turnbuckles and ropes, playing with his long tail in the corner until the match began.  He must have been a contortionist.  The Mummy came out dragging his right leg and was completely covered with gauze tape.  Each wrestler had his own theme music.  The Shepherd Boy, looking like a young Sal Mineo in a monk's outfit, entered with three sheep to "Exodus" from "The Ten Commandments".

Then Firpo told me to pay close attention as a most unusual thing happened.  The curtains opened up and they introduced The Invisible Man.  The cameras slowly panned up to the ring, as if following someone.  Pampero told me to watch the ropes.  I saw the ropes part and two little impressions appeared on the mat in the corner as if someone was standing there.  When the referee brought the wrestlers to the middle for instructions, I saw the feet shift to the middle.  Of course, the Invisible Man won the match, and he kept winning every week, but in different manners.  Finally, Pampero told me that the promoter ran a house show and they drew $40,000 to see the Super Hero take on the Invisible Man.  And guess what?  The Super Hero beat the Invisible Man with dropkicks, headlocks, bodyslams ... and finally placed one foot two inches above the ground as if he had it on someone's chest after he pinned him.

I think some of the wrestlers were whispering in Vince McMahon's ear.

Frankie Cain, Muhammad Ali and Paul Anderson

I really enjoyed Frank's story (WHT Special Edition #1: Frankie Cain), especially the early years.  He had a gift.  I was raised in a wrestling family with a silver spoon in my mouth.  All I had to do was wrestle.  I didn't mind if someone wanted to shoot, but I wanted to work.  My dad used to have a saying, "Work a shoot."  It was like you were shooting, but working.  So I would struggle, and I would fight ...  but it was a work.  My dad once asked me, "Look, do you like wrestling?"  I said, "Yes."  He said, "Then whatever they (promoters) pay you is a gift.  You'd wrestle for nothing, wouldn't you?"  I said, "Yes."

Frank's situation was different.  He was a struggler, so when he started to call the shots, he knew how to draw money.  I didn't.  Later on I did, but not at the time.  I was surprised when I first met Frank.  It really floored me.  I thought, "Who is this guy telling me what to do to draw money."  To me, he was just one of the guys ... yet I found out that he did know how to draw money.  Then you had Fred Ward and his son-in-law, who was the booker, who didn't know a damn thing.  I used to take the finishes over.  If I tried to send a finish that was a little complicated, the son-in-law would say, "Why don't you just small package him?"  That's all he could remember to do.  I remember thinking, "Geez, you can't get anything done with these son-in-laws.  They think they're bookers, yet they can't comprehend the finishes."  It's because they never were wrestlers in the first place.

Frankie was always a mild mannered person.  When my father was promoting in Orlando, he asked me to put a wrestling program out.  I called it "Milo's Mat."  I'd print two or three hundred a week, then it grew to five hundred a week.  We sold them for 25-cents apiece, then 35-cents, and eventually 50-cents.  Business was going real good and I was selling like six or seven hundred programs per week.  The wrestling office sent me some pictures of Mephisto and Dante, which was Bobby Hart and Frankie Cain, and I put their picture on the cover.  They had a manager, (Sir Roger) Mitchell.  Just before I left the printer, I asked, "Can you do me a favor?  Print me up about some strips that read, 'Frankie Cain and Bobby Hart.'"  He printed about twenty, and I glued them on the programs.

At seven-thirty, the box office opened and the guy starts selling the programs.  The guys didn't usually get there until a quarter until eight, so I dropped about ten in one dressing room, and ten in another.  I walked out and stood where I could watch the boys walk into the dressing room.  They always used to go in there and grab a copy, because they loved to read that program ... what I said about 'em, who was doing what.  I always made sure I said something about everybody, and had pictures of everybody.

A little while after Frank goes into the dressing room, I walk in.  He walks up to me with the most mournful look on his face you've ever seen in your life.  He quietly says, "Dick, what the hell's going on?"  I said, "What?"  He said, "Look at this program.  Look at this."  I said, "So what.  That's you and Bobby."  He says, "Yeah, but the names ...!"  I said, "Well, that's Bobby Hart and ...", then trailed off.  I smacked myself in the forehead and said, "Oh, geez!  We've had eight hundred of these sold already."  As serious as he could possibly be, Frank says, "Dick, what are we gonna do?"  I started to peel the label off as I looked up and said, "You mark!"  I wrote him a letter last week and said, "Had I known how tough you were all those years, I'd have never pulled that rib on you."

It was also interesting to read about Frank doing jobs as a boxer.  I remember Muhammad Ali getting on the Donahue show and talking about having to go out of the country to make big money, because of the taxes, the commission, and everything else.  We were watching a TV in the Evansville, Indiana dressing room one night.  I think Norvel Austin brought the TV in.  Ali is fighting Leon Spinks.  Muhammad Ali got on his bicycle, and he backpedaled and backpedaled.  Norvel said, "Man, he's not fighting ...  he's working."  I say, "What do you mean working?"  He said, "Man, he's not fighting.  Look at him."  Sure enough, if you look at the record, Leon Spinks won by a one-point margin.  That's how close it was.  Muhammad Ali got on his bicycle, and didn't want to mix it up with Spinks.  Later on, we found out that he had a contract with Leon Spinks.  If Spinks should, for whatever reason, defeat Muhammad Ali, then Ali got a return match.  Sure enough, Ali won a return match and got thirteen million dollars.  He knocked Spinks out in the sixth or seventh round, and that was the end of that.  Frank was right.  The boxers would do a job.

One time, Paul Anderson was in Atlanta and wanted to be a boxer.  He was wrestling, but decided he wanted to box.

Vince McMahon, (Jim) Crockett, and (Cowboy) Luttrall had Paul under contract.  He didn't like to fly, so he'd drive from New York, down to Charlotte, and to Florida.  This boxer got ahold of Paul and starts training him.  Ray Gunkel called me and said, "Man, he's losing so damn much money, it isn't funny."  Sometime later, he goes into Charlotte and has his first boxing match.

Now, Gorgeous George told me this story.  Crockett called New York and asked for the names of ten stumblebums.  He sent down the worst.  Crockett told the guys, "Look, there's five hundred extra dollars in it for you if you catch the right punch."  Paul Anderson didn't know a thing about it.  Gorgeous George told me that before Anderson went into the ring, one of the boys went up to him and says, "Listen, Paul.  If you can't make it ..."  They knew he couldn't make it, because he was too heavy.  He was about 320 pounds, after losing thirty or forty pounds.  Anyway, he tells Paul, "If you get into a little trouble, pick him up and slam him."  That's what they told him to do.  Paul went out there and his tongue was hanging out in the first round.  He went back over to the corner during the rest period, but he was so exhausted that he couldn't sit down.  Meanwhile, the poor guy he's fighting is out there looking for Anderson to throw the big punch ... like Frank was.  Anderson can't even muster enough strength to throw the damn punch right.  It was too telegraphed.  In the third round, he came out, took a last-minute, desperate swing.  The stumblebum moved to the left, and Paul fell on his face.  He got to his knees and said, "Stop the match."  Two weeks later, Paul runs a little wrestling show down in Greenville, South Carolina.  What do you think he did in the first round ...?  Picked the guy up and slammed him.  That's the God's honest truth.

Ray Candy

I remember one night when Argentina Apollo and I were wrestling The Assassins in Atlanta for Gunkel Enterprises.  On this particular night, Charlie Smith was the referee and I went over the top rope.  I had a way of grabbing the top rope and protecting myself, but when I hit the floor, I landed wrong and it stunned me to where I didn't know if I was hurt or not.  Charlie bailed out and asked if I was okay.  I told him to call an ambulance and just laid there.  Charlie stayed beside me, protecting me from the fans who were concerned, but crowding in around me.  Someone turned the ring light on and it was shining right into my eyes.  All of a sudden, somebody was standing over me, shading me.  I never forgot that.

A year or so later, Ray Candy got into the wrestling business.  Four years later, we were in Puerto Rico and he was wrestling under a different name in the main event.

He sat in the dressing room and said, "Dickie, you know ... years ago, I just loved you.  I thought you were the greatest thing.  My grandma loved you, my family loved you.  I don't know if you remember, but I was up in the balcony the night you went over the top rope in the Atlanta City Auditorium.  I ran all the way down from the balcony to the ring.  I was just a fan and was afraid I might get arrested, but I headed toward the ring.  I looked at you suffering there on the floor and the only thing I could do was to shade the light from you eyes."  Ray said, "You know.  I was a fool.  I was just a dumb fool.  I just stood there looking down at you."

I told him, "No you weren't, Ray.  You had wrestling in your heart so much, you loved it so much, that you were determined, for whatever reason, to get into the business.  And here you are in Puerto Rico, four years later, wrestling in the main-event before a sell-out crowd.  Welcome to the business, Ray."

He said, "You know what?  I think you're right."

The love that Ray Candy had for the business was what made him successful.  He will be missed by many.

Sputnik's Operation

When I was helping my father promote Orlando (FL), he ran a little town every Wednesday night called Eau Gallie.  Sputnik Monroe had just come into the Florida territory from the Northwest, and in his first week there, was involved in an automobile accident.  Two wrestlers were hurt and Sputnik was shaken up, but fulfilled his commitments for the week.  Then, Sputnik got a brainstorm.  He walked into the Eau Gallie dressing room and asked if I had my camera.  He had me take a picture of him in the nude with his wrestling shoes on.  Then he turned around and had one taken from the rear.

I had a darkroom in my house, so Sputnik gave me a suggestion for a custom photo that he wanted.  After printing an 8x10 of each negative, I cut his rear end out of one picture and put it on the front of the picture where he was facing me.  I also took the shoes of the body facing backwards and put it over the shoes that were facing forward.  I rephotographed it again, touched it up, and it looked authentic.  I gave it to Sputnik.  He said, "I'm going to send it to a couple of my wrestling buddies up north.  They've been calling the wrestling office, because they heard I was in an accident and wanted to know if I was seriously hurt.  I'm sending a letter with this picture to tell them I'm doing fine, but the doctor messed up the operation."

Lou Thesz, Tom Renesto and Tony Martinelli

I read Lou Thesz’ book again and I’m starting to admire it more and more.  I can see what he went through.  By the time he got ripe, the business had changed so much.  It was like he was stuck on a little island by himself, so he said, "I’m king of this island and I’ll drift to every continent."  There were times he had to get off the island and let somebody else get on, but they always made him jump back on it ... and he’s still floating on it.  There’s more weeds and the trees are bare, but the island is still afloat.

I like the way Thesz says in his book about (Buddy) Rogers being a performer.  I think it was like the old hooker passing on the baton to whatever was clicking next, and Rogers was the one clicking as a performer.  I used to watch all the matches from the time I was five years old.  Nine years later, I was fourteen and had seen hundreds of matches.  Along comes Buddy Rogers ... and I’m excited!  "Hey, this is something different!"  Now the baton gets passed to the acrobats.

Thesz was going to wrestle on TV once in Florida.  He had a big tape recorder.  He said, "Dick, can you do me a favor?"

I said, "What?"

He says, "There’s a guy writing a book on my life, so I ask people of your intelligence ..."  I guess he told that to everybody, "to tell your favorite story of when we were together."

Of course, I told about the time my dad whispered in my ear to "go behind him."  I went on to say, "But I’d like to say one thing about Lou Thesz, and it happens in every territory that I go to.  All the boys get excited about who’s going to wrestle with him, because they want to have that distinction of saying, ‘So-and-so promoter allowed me to wrestle Thesz’.  Every night was like going to a western movie.  You know going in that some young punk is going to try the seasoned gunslinger, and the gunslinger is going to wind up with another notch on his gun."  I went on to say, "Now Thesz is in Florida and I want to try him, but I know I’ll wind up as just another notch on his gun."

One of the boys who worked for WCW came to the matches in Cordele, Georgia last year.  He stood and watched while Mae Young got on the top rope and did a swan dive onto her opponent ... and she’s 72 years old.  He ran back in the dressing room and told the boys, "I can’t wait to get back to the WCW and tell them I saw a 72-year-old woman dive off the top rope!"

Tom Renesto told me a funny story one time.  He and Jody were in Atlanta and they were gonna be off for six weeks.  Tom's father was retired from the Sheriff's Department in Los Angeles.  He was going to go out there.  The promoter in Arizona was Ernie Mohammed and he was like an outlaw-outlaw-outlaw.  He found out the Assassins were gonna take off for six weeks, so he called them up and says, "How about working for me?"

Tom says, "Let me get with Jody and we'll talk."  Jody and Tom got together and Tom says, "Look, we don't want to work for the guy.  We'll ask for an astronomical guarantee and he'll turn us down."  He called the guy and the guy says, "I'll pay it."  So they had to go to work for him.  He said it was luxury.  They'd lay out at the pool and work three days a week.  He'd go to Los Angeles and brought his family with him.

I have a picture of Tony Martinelli on the wall of my gym wearing a velvet robe.  I was in the dressing room in Jamaica Arena when I was fourteen.  I can't remember who was running the show, but my dad was there to help.  Tony was wearing that robe and it had an ‘M' on it.  His wife had stitched it on with her sewing machine.  In those days, all the guys went to the ring wearing black trunks.  They might have a towel around their neck, or a long, boxing robe.  My dad walks up to Tony and says, "Why are you wearing that?"

Tony says, "My wife embroidered this."

My dad said, "Take it off and don't wear it in the ring."

He says, "Why?"

Dad says, "We're not selling your wife's embroidery.  We're selling your wrestling."

Which meant, if he had walked to the ring, everyone would says, "Hey, look at him."  It would take away from the wrestling.  That was the mentality of the older wrestlers.

Killer Karl Kox, Fred Blassie and Steve Gob

In issue #35 of "Whatever Happened to ...?", you took somebody that we were all familiar with (Mario Galento) and got stories and opinions from several of the boys who knew him.  The stories about Killer Karl Kox were so good.  I got to know Karl so well when we were tag team partners in Amarillo, and as I read the interview, it was as if he was talking to me.  He was always so funny!  The story about the rib he pulled on Bob Armstrong had me laughing so hard that I was in tears.  There weren't too many times that anyone was able to pull a rib on me, but Killer Karl Kox was always number one when it came to ribbing someone.  Let me tell you what Kox did to me in Amarillo.

In the Amarillo territory, we used to drive to Abilene on Monday, then on to Odessa after the matches, which is about 140 miles.  In between Abilene and Andrews, you would see hundreds of rabbits on the side of the road.  The highway is warmed by the sun all day, so they come out in the winter to sit sleeping with their noses just touching the pavement.

The rib started one night, after I had about five or six beers, when Kox asked me, "Do you want to join the club?"

I bit.  I said, "What club?"

He said, "Well, you have to kick a rabbit."

"How do you do that?"

He then laid the rules out.  Remember now, there's no one on the highway and no houses for miles.  This is flatland in the middle of nowhere with these rabbits lined up, sleeping.  He gets you to sit on the right hand fender, straddling the headlight, while he drives with the right tire on the grass.  He'd drive five or ten miles an hour, then ten feet or so before we saw a rabbit, he jams on the brakes, which flings me off in a running motion.  The object was to kick the rabbit.  I think I made twenty attempts, but with all the beer in me, I don't think I connected more than twice, just clipping the tops of the rabbits' ears.

I was very proud of myself, so when I got to the matches in Odessa the next night, one of the Perez brothers was in the dressing room.  I told him, "Hey, I joined the club."

He says, "What club?"

I said, "Kick the rabbit club."  I had to explain to them while they all went into conniption fits.  Kox told me later on that I was actually the first one to join the club.  For the next few weeks, I tried to get the new guys to join the club, but no one ever did.  I must say that Killer Karl Kox has one on me, because I was always a ribber and he pulled a first-class one on me ... kicking the rabbits in the Amarillo territory.

Karl told me he had so much dissension that people just feared him.  While driving home from a match one night, he saw a Highway Patrolman standing over two suspects with a shotgun.  They had their hands behind their head.  Kox pulls over, walks back, and the policeman asks, "Are you an American citizen?"

Kox says, "Yes, I am."  The cop deputizes him and tells him to watch the two fugitives while he radios in for backup.  While Kox stood over these two guys, one of them lifted his head and peeked back at him.  The guy said, "Oh, my God!  It's Killer Karl Kox."

He was so feared in Texas that even the fugitives were scared of him.

In the mid-50s, I wrestled as Dickie Gunkel in the Georgia territory.  The first time I wrestled Freddie Blassie was in Griffin, Georgia.  He was the Southern champion, but this was going to be a non-title match.  There was probably nine hundred fans there.  The Atlanta promoter, Paul Jones, was there to get a feel for this new combination of Gunkel versus Blassie, with the possibility of taking it to the City Auditorium in Atlanta.  I knew this, so I was trying to think of an idea that would excite the fans.  As I walked into the arena, a little girl gave me some bubble gum.  I don't chew gum, but I didn't want to let her down, so that night I did.

Ten minutes before my match with Blassie, I bit down on the gum and broke a gold cap off a large tooth in my mouth.  I was really hot.  I thought, "There goes four hundred dollars."  Then it came to me.  Just before I left for the ring, I replaced the cap.  Blassie was already in the ring, standing in the middle.  I slowly walked up to him, like the boxers do ... Don Carson style.

By the time our faces were six inches apart, I yelled loud enough for everyone to hear ... "You don't have any guts if you don't hit me in my mouth, you yellow dog!"

Blassie let loose with a haymaker.  Following my plan, I rolled out of the ring, walked up to an elderly lady, and asked her for a mirror from her purse.  The crowd became silent as I held the mirror up.  I withdrew the cap, and showed it to the crowd.

All of a sudden, everyone in the house knew the pain I was under.  The fans felt for me.  They applauded, then cheered as I held the tooth in the air.  I turned slowly to face Blassie.  With the roar of the crowd as loud as it was, no one could hear Blassie but me as he yelled, "You SOB!  You're trying to get me killed!"

As we locked up in the ring, Blassie could feel the white heat radiating from the crowd.  He wisely decided to just leave the ring.  I learned much from Freddie Blassie.  I also learned something new in wrestling.

The AT show stories are fascinating.  Steve (Gob) used to stand in the audience and hold a camera, like he was just taking pictures.  Steve had a great looking body.  The owner would get up on the grandstand and say, "I'll take any ten people and let the audience choose who you want me to wrestle."  He'd get ten guys up there and line them up on the stage.  He'd walk down the line and hold his hand over each guys head, while the people would cheer for who they wanted.  The one that got the most cheers would be the one he'd have to wrestle.  When he got to Steve, who was fourth or fifth in line, he would go by real quick.  Everyone would start screaming, "Hey, wait a minute!  Wait a minute!"

Of course, they all wanted Steve because he looked so darn good.  The owner would reluctantly agree and then they worked the thing.

Strange ... but True!

One day, as a joke, my dad (Milo Steinborn) went to a palm reader.  The woman told him that he'd live to be 95.  Well, he knew that she said that just so he'd give her a good tip.

Years later, when he was making some good money, he went to buy a watch.  The salesman asked him if he wanted it inscribed.  When my dad asked him what he meant, he said, "You know ... name, social security number, birthdate."

My dad says, "I'll tell you what.  Put 'Milo Steinborn, born March 14, 1893, expected departure ... and he added 95 years to 1893.'"

The guy did it.  It was the kind of rib my father loved.

  Over the years, he delighted in showing the inscription to his friends, but as he showed it to more and more people, the more everybody kept talking about it.  By the time he was eighty, he had told so many people, that everyone that came into his office would say, "Hey, Milo.  You're gonna live a long time.  How old are you gonna be?"

He'd say, "I'm gonna live to be 95.  Look at this watch."  It really got to be a positive thing.

As it came toward the end, a couple of months before he was 95, I walked into his office and joked, "Daddy, you only have a couple more months."

He said, "I know it."

When I first saw it back in the '40s, I jokingly told him, "You're nuts!"  He only laughed ... yet the irony of that prediction is that it actually happened!

My father died on February 9, 1989.  He was 95 years old!

The Bear Facts

Since you featured Johnny Heideman in "Whatever Happened to ...?", I thought I'd share some of my memories about the wrestling bears.

When I was a young man working out with my father, I always tried to pin my father, but he was a great defensive wrestler.  In the amateurs, I was also a defensive wrestler.  When I watched nature films, I realized that bears were natural wrestlers, which meant that he had two qualifications.  Number one, balance.  It wasn't how strong he was, even though they were very strong.  They only needed one or two holds.  They could hook your ankle and take you down, then get on top of you.  A good wrestler, all he needed was balance, endurance, and as many holds as possible.  Here was the rolls-royce of the animal world, that was a wrestler.  Wrestlers always like to prove themselves, but how good would they be against a bear.

Three things that a handler does when he finds a bear.  He finds a young cub and starts to play with him.  He feeds him, nurtures him, and raises him like a child.  When they get older, they have them declawed, because it's natural for the claws to come out when the paws go up, and that could cut you in the ring.  They also pull their teeth, but leave an upper and lower molar on each side of their mouth, so they can chew their food.  They put a muzzle on them, but it has a little hole for the bear to breath through.  The handler will tell the wrestler, "Do not get your hands or your fingers near that bears' mouth.  He'll want to suck your finger in, then turn sideways and bite it."  Luis Martinez lost a finger that way.  The last thing is to castrate them.

They used to bring a bear down to Florida every year.  Some wrestlers wouldn't have anything to do with the bears, but others loved to work with the bear.  These guys had a natural ability to get in there and work a good match with the bear.  One of those wrestlers was a very good friend of mine, Johnny Heidman.  He stops by every two or three months.  He loved to wrestle the bears.  He must have wrestled every bear more times than anyone else.  Johnny once told me this story.

"One night in Fort Myers, I asked the promoter if he'd mind me getting in the ring with the bear.  He said, ‘What are you talking about?'

I said, ‘Well, when he gets through wrestling who you got him booked with, can I go in?'  He says, ‘Why do you want to do this?'

I said, ‘I just want to try it.'  I went up into the ring, got the microphone, and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen.  I always wanted to wrestle the bear.'

In the dressing room, I asked the handler, ‘What do I do?'  He says, ‘Well, he likes to wrestle.  Come toward him, stand straight, and he'll stand up.'

I did that and, sure enough, he hooked up with me exactly like a wrestler would.  The trainer said, ‘Now push him.'  When I pushed him, he had been trained to sit down on his butt, put his foot in my stomach, and give me a monkey flip.  It was unbelievable how high he pushed me.  When I jumped up and came back at him again, he was up and did the same thing again.  I asked, ‘What's next?'

He said, ‘Get a headlock.'  He let me get him in a headlock.

When I did, he pushed his paw underneath my armpit and hip tossed me ... three times in a row.  I volunteered to work with three different bears during my time in Florida."

Then came the night when Johnny and I were together in Columbus, Georgia.  Billy Hines was the booker for Fred Ward.  Years before, Billy Hines had been in the carnival.  One of the guys he knew from those days called and told him he had a bear.  Unfortunately, both Billy and his friend were heavy drinkers.  Billy convinced Fred Ward that this fellow had a bear and would bring him to TV on Saturday.  The fellow shows up with the bear in the back of an old truck.  He puts him on a chain and leads him into the studio, weaving a little bit from the alcohol he had consumed.

Johnny Heidman walked into the trainers' dressing room and asked him, "What kind of bear do you have?"  The guys says, "Well, I have a good wrestling bear."

Johnny asks, "Is he really good?"

He says, "Yeah."

Johnny says, "He's got his claws out, doesn't he?"

The guy says, "Naw, he won't claw you."

Johnny says, "Well, maybe I'd better put on a sweatshirt.  What about his teeth?  You took them out, didn't you?"

He says, "No, he has his teeth, but he has a muzzle on.  He won't bite you."

Johnny says, "Is he castrated?"

The guys says, "No."

I yelled from the other end of the dressing room, "Don't worry, Johnny.  He won't make love to you."

Johnny was an expert on those bears, and he flat refused to work with him on Columbus TV, so they brought the bear to the Columbus Municipal Auditorium on a Wednesday night.  There must have been three thousand watts of hot lights shining onto the mat, which made it tremendously hot.  The white mat just soaked the heat up.  They brought the bear out to wrestle Mario Galento.

As the bear went into the ring, you could tell he didn't want to be there.  The first thing he did was go for the announcer, who took off.  Just as he got out of the ring, the bear ripped the cuff of his pants.  The bear walks around the ring until the trainer finally got him to sit down.  Galento came out, but didn't want to get in the ring.  He circled the ring two or three times.  When he did get in, he came in behind the bear and grabbed him around the neck.  The bear reached up with his paw and gave him a flying mare onto the mat.  When he did, it ripped Mario's skull open.  Mario rolled out, covered the cut with the red handkerchief that he always carried to the ring, and ran to the dressing room where he took sixteen stitches.

As I watched from the balcony, this bear became enraged!  He was leaping up and down, two or three feet into the air, like he was on a mound of fire ants and couldn't get off.  With each leap, he would take his paw and dig into the mat.  He tore the mat, the underpad, the cardboard, and brought up splinters from the boards.  That's how mad he was.

Primo Carnera's Girlfriend

In 1951, my father and I left New York with Primo Carnera on a European tour.  I was just seventeen.  It took about three months.  We went to six or seven different countries ... Rome, Naples, Austria.  That was shortly after the war and cigarettes were hard to find.  My dad was always a health addict, so he fussed at Carnera about smoking so much.  Carnera smoked Pall Mall cigarettes.  They were American cigarettes and were considered a luxury in Europe because the European cigarettes were horrible.  He'd sit and smoke one after another.  My dad kept complaining.

Finally, my dad says, "You know, you're supposed to be an athlete, but you're not anything.  You couldn't last in the ring with me.  The guys you work with have to carry you.  Do you realize that I'm having to pay guys under the table to work with you?" (laughs)

He was ribbing him.  Primo jumps up and says, "Milo, you're lying!"

My dad says, "You're supposed to be so strong!  You're a weakling!  If you were really so strong, and had a mind and the fortitude, you would open the window, open your bag, and throw those cigarettes out!  You can't, though, because you're a pansy."

Primo grabbed his suitcase and pulled out two full cartons of Pall Malls.  He opened the window, then says, "I'll show you, you German son-of-a-bit–!"  He threw them out ... and as soon as he let them go, his jaw dropped.  He slapped his head and said, "You son-of-a-bit–!"  He cussed my dad out.

My dad went into hysterics. (laughs)  He got Primo so worked up that he lost it.

The very next town we came to in Austria, he went out and bought some cigarettes. (laughs)  He told me they were horrible.  My father tells him, "Just think, Primo.  Some farmer's going to drive by on his cart and think the heaven's opened up and dropped cigarettes down to him." (laughs)  He just kept right on ribbing him.

We left Paris to wrestle in Bordeaux, France.  Ironically enough, we stopped in the town where Primo was discovered.  Not only had he been a weekend strongman and a carpenter when he lived there, but he was a handsome, 270-pound boy.  We went to the carpenter shop where he had worked and they showed us a piece he had been working on when he left.

Primo had found someone to drive us to Bordeaux, so on the way, we come into this small French village.  Primo yells, "Slow down!  Stop!  Back up and take a left."  He gives the guy some more directions and says, "Pull up in front of that house."

I said, "What are we doing?"

He says, "Oh, an old girlfriend of mine.  She's one beautiful, gorgeous lady!"

He gets out and walks up to the door, ringing the doorbell.  This 345-pound lady comes out and screams, "Priiimmmo!"  She gives him a big kiss and four or five barefoot kids come running out.  Next, out comes her husband ... and he's heard this all his life ... "Primo this," "Primo that."  He was about four-foot, nine, with a French cap on and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.  The husband is inside on the stoop ... she's two steps down on the ground ... and he's just about level with her. (laughs)  Primo talked for a minute, then made a hasty retreat. (laughs)

The driver and I ribbed him all the way to Bordeaux.  "Primo!  That could have been your sweetheart for life ... and all those kids could have been yours!" (laughs)  He kept telling us to shut up.

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