Cyndi Lauper and Lou Albano gave professional wrestling a huge promotional boost in the 1980s, but some of us remember the golden days when wrestling was gritty showmanship without the million-dollar production budgets. I used to watch Big Time Wrestling in the early 1970s, which was based in Detroit, but many of its stars competed in other franchises across North America. See how many of these stars of yesteryear you remember.
1. Bobo Brazil
Bobo Brazil was born Houston Harris in Little Rock, Arkansas, but moved to Benton Harbor, Michigan as a young man and got a job in a steel mill. He was a muscular 6 feet, 6 inches tall, his physique honed from years of playing baseball in his spare time. In 1951 he developed an interest in professional wrestling and hung around the local armory, setting up equipment and maintaining the ring in exchange for free training sessions with a local manager. He adopted “Bobo Brazil” as his professional name and went on to grapple in some 25,000 matches over the next 40 years. He had a long-standing and famous rivalry with The Sheik, and the two seemed to forever be reclaiming the World Heavyweight title from one another.
2. The Sheik
Imagine my surprise when I found out that not only did The Sheik not hail from Syria, as was always announced at the beginning of his matches (he was born in Lansing, Michigan), but he was also the head honcho behind the Big Time Wrestling franchise. Turns out Ed Farhat (his real name) was first and foremost a savvy businessman who is credited with pioneering the “hardcore” wrestling that became a staple of the WWF in the 1980s. The Sheik often kept a pencil or some other contraband in his boot to use when the referee wasn’t looking, and he even occasionally threw fireballs at his opponent. His signature move was the Camel Clutch, but his real schtick was behaving as if he was just barely civilized, which sometimes involved such stunts as eating the ring announcer’s necktie.
3. Ernie Ladd
“The Big Cat” first tried his hand at wrestling as a publicity stunt. At that time he was a defensive tackle for the San Diego Chargers and, at 6’9” tall and 315 pounds, was one of the largest players in the AFL. Some pro wrestlers were in town in 1961 and challenged the towering Ladd to work out with them prior to their match, and a photographer just happened to be ringside. Ladd found out that he had a knack for flattening puny opponents and that there was some not-insignificant money to be made on the pro circuit, so when a knee injury ended his football career, he jumped into the ring full-time. Due to his size, his natural rival was Andre the Giant, whom Ladd frequently referred to as “The Big Fat French Fry.”
4. Dick the Bruiser
William Afflis acquired his trademark gravelly “Bruiser” voice via a football injury that crushed his esophagus when he played for the Green Bay Packers. When he caused a riot during a 1957 match at Madison Square Garden, he was banned for life from wrestling in the state of New York. After a barroom brawl in Detroit’s famous Lindell A.C. with Alex Karras in 1963, he challenged the Detroit Lion to a grudge match at Olympia Stadium. Despite receiving a serious gash over one eye, Bruiser crushed Karras in just 11 minutes in front of 16,000 fans.
5. Wild Bull Curry
Fred Koury started out his show business career as a circus strongman at the age of 16 to help support his brothers and sisters. As a police officer in Hartford, Connecticut, he once caught a steer that had escaped from the local stockyard and wrestled him to the ground with his bare hands, earning himself the nickname “Wild Bull.” He started wrestling professionally in the 1930s under the guidance of Johnny Weissmuller’s uncle. He played the rule-breaking, unpredictable wild man of the ring so convincingly that he suffered many injuries from irate fans over the years.
6. Haystacks Calhoun
William Dee Calhoun had always had a healthy appetite, and by the age of 14, he weighed almost 300 pounds. He was also pretty physically fit for a guy that size, thanks to all the manual labor he’d done while growing up on his family’s farm. In the 1950s, he appeared on Art Linkletter’s House Party TV show, where he demonstrated his brute strength by tossing bales of hay into a loft. A nickname was born, and Haystacks Calhoun joined the pro wrestling circuit as one of the original “super heavyweight” competitors. Despite his size, he was far from a novelty act; he actually had an impressive repertoire of maneuvers and once defeated 800 pound grappler Happy Humphrey, who outweighed Haystacks by a good 200 pounds.
7. Tex McKenzie
Six-foot-nine Hugh McKenzie started his wrestling career in Texas as “Goliath,” but eventually decided to pay homage to his home state. Tex was an amiable fan favorite, and his nice-guy persona seemed to infuriate “heels” like Pampero Firpo into paroxysms of rage. (Firpo was forever threatening to “chop the beeg oak tree” with his bare hands and yell “teeeem-ber!”) Tex did finally meet up with Firpo at the air-conditioned Cobo Arena (as it was always called in the TV ads), but was ultimately counted out of the ring when the referee turned a blind eye to Firpo’s illegal antics.
8. Pampero Firpo
“The Wildman of the Pampas” was born Juan Kachmanian and experimented with several personas, including Ervan the Armenian and The Missing Link, before settling on Pampero Firpo. His catchphrase “Oooohhh yeaaahh!” was later borrowed by Randy “Macho Man” Savage. After retiring in 1986 he shaved his beard, trimmed his shrubbery of hair and took a job with the post office in San Jose, California.
9. Mighty Igor
“The World’s Strongest Wrestler” was born Richard Garza and was a bodybuilder and former Mr. Michigan before adopting the persona of a friendly, somewhat confused Polish immigrant known as the Mighty Igor. Something of a clown in the ring, he often wore long underwear and handed out kielbasa to fans.
10. Sweet Daddy Siki
“Mr. Irresistible” (real name Reginald Siki) borrowed heavily from Gorgeous George’s act—he’d enter the ring wearing a satin fur-trimmed cape and brandishing two hand-mirrors with which to admire himself. He was born in Texas but has lived in Toronto, Ontario, since 1961. He, in the 1960s and 70s, was to Maple Leaf Gardens what The Sheik was to the beautiful air-conditioned Cobo Arena. Today he divides his time between performing with his country western band and DJing at a karaoke bar in Toronto.
11. Tiger Jeet Singh
Jagjit Singh Hans was born in India, and usually entered the ring wearing a turban and carrying a sword in his mouth. Like Sweet Daddy Siki, he made Toronto his base until 1981, when he moved to Japan and joined New Japan Pro Wrestling. He became so popular in that country that he eventually starred in a comic strip bearing his name.