Saturday, May 3, 2014

A Conversation with Johnny Walker, Mr. Wrestling #2

From Rich Tate:

Today, as many legends of yesterday, stars of today, and fans of all ages make their way to Kennesaw to pay tribute to Mr. Wrestling #2, a member of the inaugural class of the Georgia Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2003, let’s take a look back at an interview I did with him ten years ago for the print edition of Peach State Pandemonium.

For nearly twelve years, one wrestler alone became so identified with Georgia Championship Wrestling that he became a permanent fixture in the promotional banner for Georgia Wrestling History – Mr. Wrestling #2. Little did anyone know that he had been working in Georgia without a mask for many years as “Rubberman” Johnny Walker. As the war with the All-South Wrestling Alliance was getting underway following the shocking death of Ray Gunkel, promoters Paul Jones, Eddie Graham and Jerry Jarrett had to find someone to be the focal point of the rebuilding process. Originally, Tim Woods, working as Mr. Wrestling in Florida, was considered, but Graham was pushing him so hard down there he couldn’t afford to just drop him from his programs – enter Johnny Walker.

The idea was spawned to create a second Mr. Wrestling, and Georgia would never be the same. With the promotion’s television program on a Ted Turner owned station, Mr. Wrestling #2 became one of the most popular and sought after figures in the business. Johnny sat down with me recently to bring you the most candid interview he has ever given. If you grew up watching wrestling in Georgia, you need no further introduction, so without further ado ...


Johnny, when we last spoke I asked you about the ties to Hawaii, and you explained that your father was in the Navy and was based there. Were you born there, or was that just a relocation in your childhood?

No, I relocated there.

Where were you born?

Charleston, South Carolina.

But you were mostly raised in Hawaii, right?

Yeah.

That must be a great way for a kid to grow up.

Oh, it was.

What kind of sports did you participate in as a child?

I played football. I learned judo. I did some sumo wrestling – basically everything I could.

Did you compete at the high school level in football?

Yes.

Were you pretty good?

Yeah – not too bad.

Any chance we could have seen you in the NFL as opposed to professional wrestling?

No, I don’t think so. (laughs)

Did you go to college?

No.

What made you want to pursue a career in professional wrestling?

Well, I liked the competition and the contact. I enjoyed it. So when I had the opportunity to turn pro, I did so.

I believe you told me you began wrestling part time there before coming to the mainland.

Oh, yeah.

When was that?

That was back in 1956 or 1957.

Who first took you under their wing to train you?

Tony Morelli. After him it was Pat O’Connor.

Wow. What kind of memories do you have of O’Connor?

Oh, wonderful memories. He was a really good man.

What was he like to work with?

Very strict.

There was another Johnny Walker wrestling in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Did you know him, or know of him?

Uhhh – nope. Never heard of him.

Was Johnny Walker your birth name?

Yep.

Thanks. I was trying to see if there might be any way we could discern between the two of you. (laughs) You told me before that Toronto was your first full time territory when you broke in. When was that?

1958.

What do you recall of Toronto during that time period?

I remember cold and a lot of rough matches. Mostly, I remember cold. (laughs)

Give me an idea who was working there at the time.

A bunch of big guys. I was probably the smallest person in there. Lord (Athol) Layton, Pat O’Connor, Don Curtis, Hard Boiled Haggerty ...

Which one?

The one who just passed away (Don Stansauk). The Gallaghers were there, too. Most of those guys are all gone now.

Did you enjoy that territory?

Oh, yeah. I sure did. When I got off the plane there for the first time, I almost turned around and got back on because it was so cold. (laughs) I got off that airplane in a Hawaiian suit. I thought I was going to freeze to death. Yeah – I was not a happy camper. (laughs) I overcame. (laughs)

How long did you stay there?

Um – about four months.

Do you remember where you went from there?

North Bay, Ontario.

Oh, so it got better, huh?

Yeah. (laughs) I went from cold to colder. (laughs)

We have records that show you working in Madison Square Garden in 1960. Bruno Sammartino was working there at the same time, of course.

That’s right.

Gene Kiniski relayed a story about you and Bruno working out on the mat at a gym where you came out on top, and Don Leo Jonathan confirmed the story. What do you recall of this?

Yeah. (laughs) Well, he was a young guy and extremely strong, but he let his strength overcome his better judgment. He had something to learn and I taught him – that a smaller guy can beat you if you’re not careful. Strength is not everything. You’ve got to have good balance, coordination, timing, leverage – that’s something he didn’t know anything about at the time.

I respect him for what he did in the business, but I wonder if he ever really learned that much because even when I saw him toward the end of his career, he didn’t appear to be a great mat wrestler.

Well, he was not a great wrestler by far. He was just big and powerful. He was a very strong guy. Perhaps you might say he used his strength to overpower guys in the ring, but that was it.

I guess the justification for him being the top man there for so long really stems from the fact that he was working to an ethnic crowd up there who seemed to love him for what he was, and he drew money that way.

Right. Well, he was Italian, and you have a lot of those up there. He definitely got over strong up there.

I read somewhere that one of Dick Beyer’s first opponents after he took the Destroyer gimmick was in Los Angeles against you.

I seem to remember it, but it’s so far back I couldn’t tell you about the match.

Yeah, this was 1962 or so. What was it like to work with Dick, and how often did you cross paths over the years?

No, I don’t think we did. That was the only time I had the opportunity to wrestle him. It was enjoyable because he was such a good wrestler. It’s always enjoyable to be in the ring with other guys who know how to wrestle. He had a great amateur background and carried over that skill into the pros, and it’s a pleasure to know I had the chance.

I would give anything to see a tape of that match to be able to see two of the most legendary masked men working together.

I would, too. (laughs)

Tell me about the “Rubberman” nickname. Where did that come from and who should have credit for it?

I was working down in Texas at the time. Paul Boesch had a grade school wrestling team. He was looking for someone to help him coach them and he asked me. I did for one season. One of the wrestlers took a trophy for Most Outstanding Wrestler, another one took the state championship, and one came in second in the state. I was quite happy with the results of that.

That’s impressive.

Paul was the man who gave me the name Rubberman. One day he was watching me wrestle, and I was extremely flexible at that time. He liked the contortionist moves that I made with my nimble body. He started billing me as the Rubberman and it just kind of stuck with me.

When were you working in Texas for Boesch?

That was probably 1959 or 1960, maybe.

You worked quite a bit for Nick Gulas. After hearing all the horror stories of his infamous payouts, why would you continue to work for him over the years?

(Laughs) Well, I had a good deal with him as far as the financials were concerned. He gave me good guarantees and it worked out alright. I was on top and did well there. So therefore, as long as he didn’t backlash me everything was alright. (laughs)

Aside from those payouts, not much else is said about Gulas. Is there anything about Nick that people would perhaps be surprised to know?

Not really. A lot of the guys I’ve spoken to say he wasn’t a man of his word, but he kept his word with me, so it was alright. As long as a guy keeps his word with me that’s all that counts.

Did you like that part of the country?

I sure did. I really liked Tennessee. All three of my boys were born in Tennessee.

You teamed a lot with Silento Rodriguez. How did you communicate with him prior to and during a match?

Well, he was quite a smart fellow and he just kind of followed suit to what I did. It wasn’t necessary for us to communicate verbally so he watched me physically and just kept up with me. It worked out for the length of time we worked together.

So the chemistry just kicks in and you read each other that way.

Right.

We’ve heard a lot of funny stories where Rodriguez used his deafness to rib some of the guys. Do you have any recollections of such ribs or any other stories you’d like to share of him?

Not really. The only time I was actually around the man was when we were wrestling. I never really spent any time with him. I didn’t know too awful much about him.

You were paired with Jim Wilson quite often in Georgia. (laughs) Tell me how that came about and what do you remember of him?

He was a man who played football for awhile. I took him down to the gym and kind of stretched him a little bit and showed him he didn’t know as much about wrestling as he thought he did. (laughs) Just like Bruno, he was a big, strong, powerful fellow. He more or less used his strength to survive in the business. Needless to say he was not a good wrestler. From what I understand he quit and got out early.

Someone wanted me to ask who you pissed off to have to team with the guy. (laughs) There’s a rumor, mostly fueled by Wilson, that Ray Gunkel had promised to get him a run with the NWA Title. Do you know anything about that?

No, I doubt it seriously.

I agree. I’ve done some research and he was mostly a mid-card guy. I can only find one main event.

Yeah, I don’t think he – (laughs) – I don’t think he had the ability to uphold that position anyway.

Was he even over with the crowd here?

Not really. Not like a superstar.

Wilson screams the word “blackball” to anyone who will listen. Did you see any proof of that in his case?

No, not really, but I was not one of the guys who hung out with the guys. I was really a loner. I took care of my business and I went home. So I didn’t know a lot.

You stayed out of the politics?

Yeah.

One of Wilson’s closest allies is Thunderbolt Patterson. He’s another guy who talks about being a victim of discrimination, yet he was pushed hard whenever he was in Georgia. Does he have any valid reasons for playing the race card?

No. From what I understand he did well in the Carolinas, and he was also treated very well down here in Georgia. Again, the politics he got into were no knowledge to me. I never really heard too much about that kind of stuff. Occasionally I would hear some noise by the guys, but I never really followed up on it. It had nothing to do with me, so why concern myself? (laughs)

Where else did you work in the 1960’s?

Well, you’re going back quite a way so I can’t really recall exactly when and where I was. Mainly I was in the south more than the west. I did work in Calgary, and also in San Francisco and Portland.

So you worked with Stu Hart. Did you ever make your way down to the dungeon?

(Laughs) Yeah, I went down there with him. We sat and drank some homemade beer. (laughs)

Who stretched who?

(Laughs) No, I didn’t get on the mat with him. He never invited me to that.

Do you consider that a wasted opportunity or a smart move?

Well, he knew my ability, so he didn’t invite me to work out with him, but we had a nice relationship. He was a very, very nice man.

You said you also worked in Portland. What do you recall from that time?

It was an experience. A lot of rain. I was up there maybe during rainy season, I guess, but it rained five weeks. Everyday – non-stop, day and night. It was probably the most depressing territory I ever worked in.

So the stereotype is true.

(Laughs) Yep.

Wasn’t Don Owen running the show there at the time?

That’s correct.

And in San Francisco with Roy Shire?

Uhhhhhh .....no. It was someone else before Shire. Shire didn’t come in until later.

It must have been Joe Malcewicz.

Yeah, that’s it. Shire came in when I was about to leave.

Was your stint as the Grappler in Florida your first time under a mask?

Yep.

What was it like for you working under a mask?

It was very difficult to work with. It prevents you – it makes your breathing and perception very difficult. The first time I wore it down there, as soon as the match was over I ran back to the dressing room so I could rip it off. I was gasping for air. But I got used to it eventually, and I was very successful with it.

How did that come about? Whose idea was it?

It was Eddie Graham, the promoter down there. He wanted to bring me in as the Grappler. He knew my background and thought I would fit in well there with that gimmick. I did, and it was very successful for me.

Did you use the gimmick anywhere else?

No.

How much did you enjoy working for Eddie Graham in the Florida territory?

Oh, I enjoyed it very much. At that time, Florida was a very outstanding wrestling territory. Those people loved wrestling. I got over like gangbusters down there. I guess the most outstanding match I had down there was with Jack Brisco. It was a very exciting match and very enjoyable. Again, I was wrestling with someone who knew how to wrestle.

Those are the easier matches, right?

Not so much easier, but you’re wrestling with a wrestler and you know it’s someone that can keep up with you. We did a lot of sit-outs, takedowns, go-behinds – it was all stuff he and I were both familiar with so it was enjoyable.

You and Tim Woods shared a dressing room in Georgia and Florida. Was there already a relationship?

No, I never knew the man until I came to Georgia.

How much input did he have in you taking the character of Mr. Wrestling #2?

That was actually not his concern. It was the booker’s decision, and at the time that was Leo Garibaldi. He asked me to come here and take the mask to become Mr. Wrestling #2 to give Tim a partner. He felt I could be the man to fulfill the situation. Timmy was an outstanding amateur wrestler. As a matter of fact, just before he passed away, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

The one in Iowa.

Right. So they were interested in me because I had been an amateur. That was one man I thoroughly enjoyed working with. We never had any arguments or disagreements, and that kind of partner you don’t find very often.

This was during the promotional war between Georgia Championship Wrestling and Ann Gunkel’s All-South Wrestling Alliance. Did you ever know Ann Gunkel, and what were your impressions of her and how she did her business?

I didn’t know Ann at all until she got into promotion, and I was introduced to her and we talked and all, but I never really knew much of her. She appeared to be a very nice lady, but I didn’t really know her that well.

You were programmed with Buddy Colt in Florida and Georgia for a long period of time. Buddy is also being interviewed for this issue. Tell me about Buddy Colt.

Well, I remember that he was very strong and was a competitor. He really kept you on your toes. We had quite a few matches together. The only time I ever really saw him was in the ring, so I didn’t know much about him personally. We never hung out together.

You had some classic matches with Jack Brisco over the NWA Title. You talked briefly earlier about Jack, but elaborate a bit more on what it was like to work with him.

Well, the first time we wrestled was down in Florida when I was the Grappler. There was a stipulation one time in Orlando where if I didn’t beat him I would have to take the mask off. After almost an hour he beat me and I started to take the mask off. The crowd gave us a standing ovation for probably ten minutes. The announcer got on the microphone and said he had never seen a better match. When I went to take the mask off, the crowd started yelling for me to keep it on. So the promoter came up and told me not to take it off.

We were very competitive with one another as far as the wrestling goes. When he won the title, I was able to get a lot more matches with him. We had a lot of one hour broadways together. It was quite a thrill working with that guy. He was a hell of a wrestler. He was probably the most competitive man I ever met in the ring.

I know Jack was looking to get out of the traveling schedule required by the NWA champion when you and Tim were having a lot of battles with him in Georgia. Was there ever any serious talk of you having a chance to wear the NWA Title?

No, no. The chances of me wearing the title were very slim because they weren’t too crazy about having the title on a masked man.

Right. Even still, were you ever asked to remove it for a chance to be the champion?

No, I wasn’t.

Was there ever any pressure from anyone for you to unmask during an angle?

Nope.

Would you have been willing to take on the touring schedule of the NWA champion?

Probably not. It was very intense. I was married with kids. I was a homefolk kind of guy. To be away from home for long periods of time isn’t something I would have enjoyed.

You went to great lengths to protect your identity during the portion of your career as Mr. Wrestling #2. When McMahon exposed the business, what was your reaction, and how does it affect you now to know that it is common knowledge who Mr. Wrestling #2 was?

I was upset over it. I have absolutely no respect for McMahon at all. His dad – I had all the respect in the word for because he was a gentleman and he respected the wrestlers. I thought his dad was a real fine man. As far as Junior, no I don’t have any respect at all. I don’t think he has respect for anyone else either. When the tides turned in the wrestling world, it was a shame because people came to see wrestling, not talking. That’s what they do now – they talk more than they wrestle.

That’s because very few of them know how to wrestle.

(Laughs) No, not many of them. There’s a few still out there, but not too many.

You’ve been down to see Jerry Oates’ promotion down here (Georgia Championship Wrestling based in Columbus). What did you think of those guys?

There were young men who were out there trying to wrestle – some good, some not so good, but they were trying hard and you’ve got to respect that. Jerry was an outstanding wrestler and he’s trying to uphold the business as it was years ago. Personally, I wish him all the luck in the world. He is picking up a lot of good men and they’re trying their best to make it look like it used to.

I was working on getting an interview with Tim just as he passed away. One of the questions I was going to ask him, you may be able to answer for me. Both of you were working here for Gunkel in 1968 when he abruptly left, apparently over some differences with the office. Dick Steinborn wound up filling in as Mr. Wrestling for some shows where Tim had already been billed to appear. Do you know what happened?

No, not at all. It was an awful surprise to me when I found out he was leaving. I often wondered what happened to make him leave, but we never sat down and discussed what the purpose was. So unfortunately I’m not able to give you any solid answers on that. I just suddenly found out he was going out to California – I think it was San Francisco – and that kind of ended our relationship for awhile.

We got back together when he came back to Georgia as my partner years later. Of course, that was after the plane crash and we wasn’t able to compete like he used to. His body just started giving out. He wound up quitting the business and went into the electronics world. He had a masters in electronics.

Oh, really?

Yeah, he was a very smart young man. He just picked it back up after wrestling.

Describe to me the program between yourself and Tim in Georgia, especially the “burying of the hatchet” at the end of it.

(Laughs) Well, they had us get into a disagreement over a title match. Anytime the NWA champion came through Georgia the top man was supposed to meet him for the title, and they always booked Tim instead of me. So I basically put it out there that I felt I had just as good a chance of winning the belt if they’d just give me the match. So when they announced again that Tim was going to wrestle Jack I went out and said it was unfair that the promotion didn’t recognize the ability of Mr. Wrestling #2. So he agreed to back off and I challenged to determine who should face the world champion. He backed off and I pushed the issue, and that’s how the whole thing got started.

After it was all over we went on TV and I congratulated Tim for agreeing to face me to give me the opportunity to wrestle the champion, and then suggested we bury the hatchet. That’s of course when I put the hatchet down and we became partners again.

Was that in the studio where you did that?

That’s correct.

Okay. Somebody told me they remember it being in the woods and the hatchet being buried into a tree stump.

(Laughs) No.

Do you have any special memories of what it was like around the first card at the Omni in May 1973?

No, not really. I was honored to be on the card. Going into the Omni was quite a big thrill. I think everyone else was, too.

Bobby Simmons has said you could seat about 5,000 in the Atlanta City Auditorium, and even a few more if you distracted the Fire Marshall long enough. (laughs) So suddenly you went to an 18,000 seat sellout crowd situation.

Yeah, but personally I thought the Auditorium was the best for the acoustics and the atmosphere. It had the Omni beat all to pieces because it was close quarters and people could see everything. There wasn’t a bad seat in the house. The Omni seated more, but you had to sit farther away.

Frankie Cain told the story where he disagreed with some of the booking in Georgia, and had a confrontation with you over it. He says you had a lot of influence with the book. Apparently, it became physical. Frankie seemed pretty respectful of you, saying you had a lot of guts, and was always in shape. Do you remember this incident happening?

Yeah, we had a bit of a confrontation over a promotion deal, but it never amounted to much one way or the other. It’s unfortunate that people get misled sometimes. It was alright and it all turned out okay. I, in turn, have the same respect for him. He’s a good man.

Cain mentioning you had some influence over the book leads me to my next question. I have never seen your name associated with booking or even owning a piece of the Georgia promotion. Did you ever, in fact, have a stake in the office, or do any of the booking chores at all?

Not at all. I was not an office man. I never was, nor would I ever be one. I just wanted to get in the ring and wrestle. That was my thing. As far as having influence over the promotion, I never had any whatsoever.

How much say did you have if you didn’t agree with the direction a booker was taking you?

No. (laughs) I think my word wouldn’t have meant much one way or the other.

You don’t think you deserved that respect at some point?

Oh, yeah, sure. I probably had that respect. A lot of the boys respected me, I think, but as far as me having any piece of the office, I never wanted it.

A lot less headaches, huh?

Oh, gosh, yeah. (laughs)

You took a few breaks from Georgia over the years and went to work the Mid-South territory during some of them. What drew you to work for one of the hardest traveling areas of the country?

I have no idea. (laughs) It was hard. It was probably the longest trips in the word, but I did well and went over well there. I did alright, but I’d get homesick and tell Bill I had to go. It was not one of my happy places to be. The trips were never harder.

In 1979, you left Georgia to work for Bill Watts right after he took over Mid-South. Did Watts ask you to come over or did you offer to go there to be away from Georgia for awhile?

Well, if you stay in one place for a long length of time, your welcome does kind of get worn. I thought the time away would do me some good so I took a break and got away.

What was it like to work for Bill Watts?

It wasn’t bad at all. I enjoyed it. He was not a hard man to work for, so I went out there and got over like gangbusters. The people out there were very receptive to me. I enjoyed the people. It was great.


What memories do you have of Paul Jones, the promoter?

Paul Jones and I got along super. He was quite a man. In fact, I used to pick him up and he’d ride with me on some trips. (laughs) Even though he was out of the business more or less, he still enjoyed going to the matches. So when I had the opportunity, I’d call him up and he would be all ready when I got there.

He was one heck of a wrestler in his day.

Oh, yeah.

And how about Fred Ward?

Outstanding. Fred Ward was probably one of the nicest men I ever met. He was a good promoter and his partner there ...I forgot his name ...

Ralph Freed?

Ralph Freed, that’s right. I got along with them all very well. They were good people. I couldn’t say anything bad about them at all. They were good promoters and very respectful of the wrestlers.

You worked for Ray Gunkel for awhile when he was running the show. What do you remember about him?

Well, Gunkel – I never really got to know Ray all that well. I was never really at the office that much. His booker, Leo Garibaldi, was the only one I ever really had to deal with.

What were your thoughts on Leo?

Aww, he was probably one of the best bookers in the world. He was very smart, very intelligent – he knew the business inside and out. In my opinion, he made this territory. Back when he was the booker, Atlanta was one of the hottest places in the country. Hundreds of guys wanted to come in here, but they could only handle so many people. I think he was a very easy man to work with.

Well, obviously Leo was your favorite booker, but what about favorite promoter and promotion to work for?

Well, I was one of these guys who got along with all the promoters and bookers. Texas was good, Georgia and Florida were good – New York was good. Toronto was good to work for.

Did you enjoy working for and with Ole Anderson?

I thought he was the shits. (long laughs) I had a lot of hard matches with this guy before he became the booker. And he was tough. Him and Gene were probably two of the toughest competitors I ever wrestled against. At the time I respected him to the hilt. As far as him as a booker, I never cared for much that he did, and he knows that, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect him for the job he did.

I have always heard that you broke Moose Morowski’s arm on TV. Obviously that was an accident, but what exactly happened?

Well, my partner had him stretched out and I came across the ring with the knee across the elbow. It just popped. It was just one of those things. It happens.

Frankie Cain has said that he remembers you breaking Sam Steamboat's arm, and that was in a shoot. Any truth to that?

Yeah, in fact, Sam and I were working out on the mat one time and I took him over and snapped his elbow. He was trying to block me, which he couldn’t do, and when he did – the rocking move he tried with me didn’t work and it snapped his elbow.

You had a great feud with Pak Song. He is a man who very few people know anything about. What was he like to work with, and as a person?

Ohhhh .....he was tough. A very tough competitor. He was a very large man. A big boned man. He was so awkward that it made it difficult to work with him. Needless to say I had my fill of working with him. I never looked forward to out matches because he was so awkward.

Describe how the connection to the Carter family came about.

Lillian (President Carter’s mother) was probably my biggest fan. She thought the world of me. She asked Fred Ward if she could have an interview with me. He agreed to it and called me if I would be so gracious and ride with the Sheriff down to Plains. President Carter was there and we had a pleasant visit. I spent a few hours there and did the interview. She was a beautiful person, and she never asked any stupid questions ...

Like me ...

(Laughs) No, no. She was a pretty intelligent lady. She never once asked me to take my mask off.

What about the infamous White House visit where you were not admitted entry?

She invited me to the inauguration, and they refused to let me in because I refused to take my mask off. After all, it was my livelihood. It was an image that I had created and I didn’t want it to be destroyed.

It’s been said that there was legitimate heat between you and Joe Powell when you returned to Georgia at the end of 1979 and found he was doing an imposter gimmick of you. Is there any truth to that?

Uhhh ...well, yeah. I didn’t like the guy doing my thing. I taught him a lesson in the ring, and I think I convinced him I didn’t appreciate it. I think he did wind up doing it again after I quit the business, but what can you do?

It’s common knowledge that your wife had made robes for you, Bill Eadie, and Ric Flair among others, and all of those guys speak so fondly of her. How did she get involved in that?

Through me. She was a designer – a dress designer, but she could make anything. She was a wonder woman.

So she was creative and artistic.

Absolutely.

So she made all the flashy robes we got to see guys like Ric Flair wearing into the ring.

She made them all – every one of them. How that came about was some of the guys were wanting robes made, and I said I’d ask my wife and see if she could make them. I did, and that’s how she got started. She went from to another to another – Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Paul Orndorff – she made all of them.

You had a great long running program with the Masked Superstar over the years. Bill Eadie said some wonderful things about you in our interview. What can you tell me about Bill?

Well, he was a good wrestler. He knew his way around the ring. He was one of the best opponents I ever went up against. I can’t say enough about the man. He was always tough, and the tough guys were where the money was. You really have to dig down deep into the soil when you go up against a guy like Bill. He was a pleasure to wrestle because he used his natural ability rather than gimmicks.

He told me you paid most of his bills. (laughs) He’s one of the nicest, most genuine guys from the business.

Yeah, a lot of the boys are nice away from the business – most of them are anyway. There’s a few of them who let their fame get ahead of them sometimes.

Both Bill and Bobby Simmons have told me funny stories where, for whatever reason, their timing was a bit off on occasion and they received some knee lifts when they weren’t expecting them.

I felt my timing was always correct. When I threw that knee, I threw it. That was just one of my things. It’s something I created myself and it worked out wonderfully for me. It actually became sort of a household thing, I guess, over the years. It paid off. I went home with some good checks. (laughs)

You’re remembered for having an interesting style on the stick, specifically one promo you and Jody Hamilton did in Georgia that led to you getting into the ring and inviting him to join you. Tell me about what it was like to work with Jody.

Well, he was a different animal altogether than most people. I found him very awkward to wrestle. He was a very tough and hard individual. When I say hard I mean his body was tough. He didn’t spare anything. Whatever he could grab or do, he did. You had to be on your toes at all times with this guy. I found myself actually eating dirt sometimes, but that goes with the territory. He was a tough guy.

Were you ever close to Jody?

Again, I have to say that I don’t hang around these guys. I don’t hang around with any of the guys. That’s not my thing. I more or less stayed to myself. The only time I actually saw these guys was in the ring. We all had separate dressing rooms so the only time I’d see most of them was in the ring.

It was not like it is today. It was nothing like it is today. You were separated and kept away from each other in separate dressing rooms. The only time we saw each other was when we were in the ring staring across at each other.

And, of course, there was no traveling together.

Nope. I didn’t care about riding with any of those guys anyway. I’d much rather have been by myself and I was. The referee rode with me a few times, but that’s about it.

Did you get stuck with Charlie Smith?

(Laughs) No, no. Charlie Smith rode by himself or with his family or whatever. Ronnie West and I rode together quite a few times.

Ron’s a great guy.

Yeah, he is. He sure is.

He’s traveling around with the circus.

Yeah, that’s what he’s doing now – exactly right. That’s good for him that he’s making a pretty good living, too.

He’s always on the road. I’m always hearing from him or through other people about where he’s at.

Yep, just like he never left the wrestling business.

What do you remember about the Champion of Champions angle in Georgia during 1980?

I had a match with Harley Race where I beat him one fall, and he got disqualified in one fall in the time limit. So actually I beat him, but they didn’t award me the (NWA) World’s Heavyweight Championship belt. They made an announcement on TV that I didn’t win the title. Two hundred and fifty thousand people wrote in. The mail people brought bags and bags of mail to the office ...

Kind of like the courtroom scene near the end of Miracle on 34th Street?

(Laughs) Yeah. They went through the mail piece by piece. Mail had come from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, Calgary, Hawaii, Alaska – everywhere that got our TV. They stated they thought I should have been awarded the belt and whatnot. Anyway, it was all in my favor. So they awarded me the Champion of Champions trophy. Since I couldn’t have the belt, they gave me the trophy. And that’s how the trophy actually came about.

I heard that Sam Muchnick had an issue with the trophy and the purpose for it, in that it took away from the title itself. Did you hear any of that?

Well, they made it disappear, but it had already happened and was out there for a couple of months.

That whole angle was the catalyst toward Georgia Championship Wrestling taking the show up north. Bobby Simmons and Randy Cohran were tasked with making a list of the postmarks, which showed places like Michigan and Ohio were sending the most letters. Basically he said Bill Watts took advantage of the letters to determine where the cable was reaching the most fans. Did the TV exposure through WTBS pretty much make you a household name, bigger than ever before and in demand by other promotions?

Yeah, I suppose it did. I mean we were getting mail from everywhere, man. Most of them came from up north and that’s why they started to send us to Columbus and Michigan and places like that. And we drew a lot of money up there.

During an interview on GCW one time, you and Tommy Rich were both with Gordon Solie and there was a small hint of maybe an angle developing between the two of you where you may be getting jealous of his popularity. A lot of fans seem to recall this and have voiced their belief that it could have been a great angle. Was that actually anything that had been planned?

(Laughs) No, I don’t remember that at all. I will say Tommy Rich was his own worst enemy in my book. He did a lot of things that I never agreed with. He was a great young man, but he misused his better judgment at times.

Speaking of Rich’s popularity, you were probably the only other person during the 70’s and 80’s who reached the same level with the fans. Did you ever feel the obligation to be a role model, and was that something you willingly embraced?

When you become as popular as I was – and the only way you get that way is because of the fans – they put you in that position. I did enjoy it. I tried to uphold myself to their expectations. I tried to be as hospitable as possible with all fans. I’ve always enjoyed being with the fans and talking to them. Some of them ask silly questions and I just turn around and give them a silly answer. (Laughs) Nevertheless, it was enjoyable and great to be in that situation.

I’ve seen you do a few legends shows where you would sign autographs and pose for pictures, and it’s incredible how you get mobbed by the fans. Down in Columbus last month, you were probably there for about two hours after the matches, right?

Oh, yeah. That’s fine. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that after all this time of me being away from the business – as you know I left in 1989 – and I haven’t lifted a finger with the business after that. So to come back and see the same fans are still around, I still enjoy talking with them. They’re nice people.

There was an angle in Mid-South where you did a heel turn on Magnum T. A. A lot of fans still talk highly of how well that was booked and executed. What do you recall from that program, and what do you remember about Magnum?

I became Magnum T.A,’s coach. I tried to teach him respect, attitude and how to get in shape. I saw that he had good ability and a lot of heart. He had great intestinal fortitude so I wanted to work with him. We even started wrestling as a tag team. Well, of course, I did my thing and I taught him who was the boss. (laughs) I never teach you everything. (laughs)

Was Magnum a guy who had a big career if not for the career ending accident?

It would have been a good possibility because – who put him in the limelight? I did. With the help of me and TV – yeah, I helped him a lot to get where he was. Unfortunately, the good man above takes care of those who get out of line, and that’s exactly what happened with him. He got out of line. Not only with me, but with himself. He got to doing things he shouldn’t be doing, and he paid for it.

I understand you were doing a gimmick down there where you could shatter bags of grain with the kneelift. Who came up with that?

Bill Watts – he asked me how powerful my knee was. I told him to check it out and see, and he went out and got a bag of – it was rice, actually. It was a burlap bag, and I hit it with the knee and it burst. That was for real.

So rather than rigged bags, those were legit?

That’s right. (laughs) Exactly.

Remind me to never piss you off.

(Laughs) Well, the old knee’s not what it used to be, let me tell you. Neither is the body. (laughs)

I still wouldn’t want to risk it. (laughs) I’ve had Danny Hodge shake my hand and I almost wanted to cry. (laughs)

Mmm-hmmm.

Was there ever any plans for you to get involved in long term programs with the Freebirds, or perhaps Roddy Piper?

Nope. No, because at that time I was kind of tied up with the programs I was already in. I was getting close to the end of my time, and I was getting out of it a bit, so no, not really.

Tell me about Roddy. What was he like to work with?

I wrestled him a few times, but that was about it. I didn’t know too much about his personal life, but I did see him a few times out of the ring and he was quite a gentleman. He was a very nice man to talk to. He was always a guy who had a lot of energy – my God, he had a lot of energy.

Yes, he did.

He was a young man and was very excitable. He had a lot of wonderful things about him. He was a wonderful athlete, needless to say. From what I understand right now, he’s got a nice family and is doing very well. The few times I met him, he did seem to be a very nice young man.

What about the Freebirds? Michael Hayes, Terry Gordy, Buddy Roberts – they more or less came in and influenced the music age of wrestling even before the Rock and Wrestling Connection era.

Terry Gordy was the best of the group by far. He was a very good competitor and a tough young man. The other two guys are idiots, but Terry was a good wrestler. He took his business seriously, where the other two guys were a joke as far as I’m concerned.

You were in Georgia at a time when business was starting to slide. In addition to Rick Rude and the Road Warriors big man style, Ole Anderson has said he was having a lot of issues with guys like Buzz Sawyer, Tommy Rich and Jake Roberts using substances that made them difficult to work with. Larry Zbyszko even told me most of the guys here at that time were insane. What are your memories of that period?

Anytime you have guys who start to get on drugs, you’re going to find they are going to be difficult to discipline. That’s exactly what happened. Buzz Sawyer and a number of others – of course, he’d dead, and eventually it does get you. And that’s what happened with a lot of the guys. They got on drugs – what kind I don’t know because I’ve never gotten involved in that stuff. They were idiots and fools.

A lot of them did it and now they’re paying for it – if they’re still alive. I was personally happy to wrestle guys who were still straight like Zbyszko. He was a good competitor, also. I can’t say enough about that man. I always admire and respect guys who handle themselves well and live a clean life as he did. I have very little respect, if any, for guys who abuse their body, and that’s exactly what a lot of them did.

There was a program between you, Larry Zbyszko, and Killer Brooks over the National Title. Some have knocked the angle because it included Larry buying the belt from Brooks and feel that it hurt the credibility of the promotion and the business itself. Larry says he helped Ole create the angle and carry it out as it happened. Did you feel that angle was detrimental to the legitimacy of the promotion and the title?

Oh, I think so. I mean a title should be won – it should be respected. When you start laying money down like that it doesn’t look legitimate. It makes the person that bought it look small. What it tells me is he was unable to win it. The title is only as good as you make it. It was ridiculous.

Obviously it was there to build more heat and take the angle further, but the fact it took so long for the NWA to come down and say they couldn’t do that made the NWA look a little less important as well. After all, they could have handed down that same ruling the following day and it still would have gotten the point of the heat across without making the title and the promotion look like a joke, and ultimately the NWA, also.

Yep. I agree. That should have been resolved the day after it took place, but sometimes people can’t make up their minds as to how to finish something the right way.

There was an angle in 1983 where Jesse Barr worked as Mr. Wrestling in a program with you and Tim. What are your recollections of that, and do you remember who’s idea it was?

That was the booker’s idea – not mine and Timmy’s. Why they did that, I don’t really know. I didn’t understand it at the time, and I still don’t get it. Of course, it didn’t last long.

Was there anyone at any time, including Barr in 1983, whom you and Tim gave your blessing to use the gimmick?

No. Not at all. We took great pride in our image that we had built. We looked down and frowned upon anyone who tried to capitalize on it.

Ken Timbs recently passed away, and he often praised you for being the one who convinced him to stay with it and keep working hard when he was struggling in his early years. What can you tell me about Ken?

Ken was a nice young man. His ability was a little on the light side. Nevertheless he had a lot of heart and desire to become a wrestler. You can’t just let a guy walk away when he has those desires, so I tried to help him as much as I could verbally. I didn’t have time to take him down to the gym and show him what wrestling was truly all about, but he kind of made it on his own. How far he went, I don’t really know because I kind of walked away from wrestling in 1989. I completely lost track of everyone.

I missed this episode of Magnum PI, but I hear you were featured as the stand-in wrestler for Ernest Borgnine’s guest character. Was that really you?

No. (laughs) Not me.

Was there ever an offer to work for Jim Crockett when he was expanding to compete with the WWF in the 1980’s?

Yeah. I wrestled for Jim Crockett after they came into Georgia and kind of took over. I only wrestled a few matches, but I didn’t stay.

You worked for the World Wrestling Federation during McMahon’s early expansion years. How did that come about?

Ummmmmm – Andre the Giant asked me if I’d like to come up to New York, and I told him I’d go there for awhile. So it was through him that I became associated with them. I stayed for a few months, but I didn’t like it and I quit and left.

I didn’t like Vince McMahon – I didn’t respect him. He didn’t like me either. (laughs) I don’t like the man at all. He’s a man who has no respect for wrestlers at all – period. All he wants to do is make money with your body. He doesn’t care what happens to you one way or the other.

So I guess you never watch McMahon’s current shows.

Nope.

You’re not missing anything.

Nope.

Occasionally I’ll watch, but it all looks like more talk than action going on, and even when there is a match, it rarely looks like wrestling.

Exactly right. It’s not that I don’t enjoy watching the wrestlers – I probably would enjoy watching a few of them, but I have no respect for the man, and whatever he puts on I don’t care to watch. So I don’t – it’s that simple.

What do you think of the current state of the business?

I hate it. I would like to see it get back to where it was, but I doubt it ever will. He has really ruined the business from many standpoints. You can’t take the wrestling out of the fans. They love it and they respect it. There will always be fans who want to see good wrestling, but whether it can ever get back to the way it was, I don’t know – I really doubt it.

In your career you saw a lot of changes, especially what you and many others feel hurt the business. Do you believe he has done anything to help the business?

Nope. I don’t think he’s helped the business at all. He’s not drawing as well as he used to either. People are slowly really starting to lose interest in wrestling because the guys get out there and talk more than they wrestle. He ain’t doing anything for wrestling. He’s doing everything he can, I think, to ruin the sport, and it’s a shame. It really is. I can’t see him doing anything at all to help the profession one way or the other.

In 1993 you were inducted to the WCW Hall of Fame at the Slamboree show. You got the best pop out of anyone there. How did it make you feel when in 1993 the fans were still chanting "2 ...2 ...2 ..." as if it were still 1973 or 1983?

Well, it was perhaps one of the greatest honors I have ever received. When they handed me that plaque I was just – I probably would have gone to tears in a drop of a hat, I was so overwhelmed. I guess I didn’t really realize what had taken place until I was on the plane back to Honolulu. (laughs) It was a gift I’ll never forget.

You left the business in 1989. Where was your last match and who was it with?

Uhhhhh ...good question. I can’t answer. (laughs) I don’t know. I’ve had a lot of folks ask me that same question, and for the life of me I can’t remember who my last opponent was. I was so wrapped up in getting myself packed up and having a garage sale – and handling some personal business stuff – my mind was on everything but wrestling.

My wife and I were so much looking forward to getting everything packed up and sold so we could move to Hawaii and creating a new life. As a matter of fact, the whole year of 1989 – I couldn’t really tell you anything. (laughs) People bring up a lot of things and I pretend to remember, but I just can’t recall that year. (laughs)

But you can remember your first match ...

(Laughs) Isn’t that strange? (laughs) You know, I guess certain things stick in your mind and never leave. Then when you get to a point where you have lost the interest in what you’re doing, it no longer sticks to you.

I’ve been there. Let’s wrap this thing up by doing some word association.

Okay.

Ray Gunkel

Hard-nosed. (laughs)

Not the first time I’ve heard that about him. Vince McMahon, Jr.

McMahon, Jr. - absolutely an idiot.

Vince McMahon, Sr.

Great man. Fine man.

Jim Barnett

Good man.

Nick Gulas

An idiot. (laughs)

Buddy Colt

Buddy Colt – tough competitor.

Bill Watts

Tough competitor.

Eddie Graham

Smart competitor.

Ole Anderson

An idiot. (laughs)

Silento Rodriguez

He was a good partner.

Tim Woods

The greatest.

Alright, that wraps it up, Johnny. I want to thank you for taking time and us finally getting to do the interview.

Okay, buddy – take care and God bless you.

Thanks. Our next project will be designing your website.

I look forward to it. Wherever you go, may the good Lord be with you.

2 comments:

  1. been a fan for many years mr wrestling 2 may god bless

    ReplyDelete
  2. I read that back in 72, II was managing a gas station in Tennessee when he was called out of retirement to wrestle with Tim Woods. I'm wondering if anyone knows where that gas station was located?
    A guy I work with mentioned something about growing up with II's daughter. They supposedly shared a residence with Tojo Yamamoto and they lived in a suburb of Chattanooga called Red Bank.
    Total Class and my favorite wrestler of all time.

    ReplyDelete