A Wrestling Icon For The Ages Goes Home

Marc Elliott

STONY RIVER… Somewhere in the early sixties I saw it for the first time on television. I was probably going on 8 years of age. My father was still at his office mid evening on this week night. My little brother who was about 4 at the time was already asleep and my mom was busy pressing clothes on an ironing board in our living room. On a small black and white TV there it was, televised “professional” wrestling, the American Wrestling Association from the Calhoun Beach Manor in Minneapolis. For a little kid growing up on West 7th Street in St. Paul, Minneapolis was like going over to Europe or something, it seemed to be that far away. I cannot even recall how the show got on, there were only 3 or 4 stations available back then, but there it was. 

There was an accomplished Native American wrestler by the name of Billy Red Cloud wrestling, but I can’t remember his opponent. Perhaps it was a good thing at the time, but I didn’t even really know what amateur wrestling was yet let alone this display of rough housing and chicanery. Later in the show there was a clean cut guy by the name of Verne Gagne doing a post match interview and hawking a vitamin product he was associated with. He was being interviewed by a fellow back then who was at times referred to as the Dean of wrestling announcers by the name of Marty O’Neill. Marty wasn’t a big guy, but was a very good baseball player of note. If my memory is right he made it as far as the Northern League’s Duluth Dukes in the twenties and was a fan favorite. I found it odd at the time, but O’Neill always had sunglasses on. I’m sure he had an eye malady of some sort, but I was too young to understand that.

Right in the middle of this interview, a big burly guy with a flattop haircut comes out and starts knocking the snuff out of Gagne. In time O’Neill would identify him as a wrestler called “The Crusher”. By the way the studio fans were reacting I could tell that they didn’t like this Crusher fellow and they really liked Gagne. In time, Gagne rallied and began to turn the tables on The Crusher and he eventually ran out of the camera view. Well, I was stunned. I had never seen anything like this before. I was used to being around football guys, and some baseball guys, but nothing like this. It was a new world and a fairly exciting one at that. The TV set-interview area was demolished. Marty was appearing to be surprised beyond belief. From that moment forward it was a rarity for me to ever miss another TV wrestling show. 

Within about three years I would find myself at a “live” show at the old St. Paul Auditorium about 80 feet from the ring and up about 5 or 6 rows. We were level with the surface of the ring from there and the seats were perfect. I can’t tell you exactly who wrestled that night, but I can tell you the first time I saw a 260lb. man hoisted overhead and body slammed, I will never, ever forget the sound of that guy hitting the mat! This was about the grandest thing I had witnessed to date in my young life. I was hooked. By that time my brother was my weekly viewing partner and we were soon going to most of the live shows too. 

The cast of characters in this enterprise would be too lengthy to list if I included all of the names. Every performer that ever appeared on the show had something unique about them, and then there were the standouts. This weekend past we lost another one of them. Raymond “Bobby” Heenan may just have been the most memorable guy to ever appear on the show. He came along in the late sixties-early seventies as a manager, and occasional wrestler. He really “got over” when he became the manager of an AWA newcomer by the name of Nick Bockwinkle who would soon be joined by another fellow named Ray “The Crippler” Stevens. Nick and Ray soon became the AWA Tag Team Champions under Heenan’s “guidance” and as they all three employed some questionable techniques in and out of the ring, they were quickly the most despised trio in the AWA. 

They knew how to work a crowd and draw “heat“, Nick and Heenan were excellent in interviews and they were very sound wrestlers as well. These guys sold a lot of tickets in their time and to say that fans wanted to see them get their comeuppance at every show would be a vast understatement. Heenan in particular, between his promo skills and wont to get “involved” in matches his stable were in put some fans over the top. My brother and I would laugh at those fans that got so wrapped up in the show. My favorite Bobby Heenan moment occurred at a Minneapolis show in the fall of 1980. On the undercard that eve, Heenan was slated to wrestle the popular Buck “Rock n’ Roll” Zumhofe. 

Two weeks before that I had been in a terrible accident but I was stable and wanted to get out. I was also low on Meds and stopped at the ’U’ Hospital on the way to the old Auditorium. We were early, so we also stopped for a couple of cocktails. Lets just say that by showtime, we were in a fairly relaxed state. So, the Heenan-Zumhofe match is about to begin and as usual, Bockwinkle comes to the ring with Heenan for “numerical”

advantage. Well, to an extent, Buck can go with Heenan, but whenever the referee is “distracted”, Bockwinkle is knocking the snot out of Buck. Right in front of us is a very small elderly Japanese man. He is now out of his seat and ready to charge the ring. At one point he shouts; Heenan Cowa! (coward) Bockwinkle Cowa! Both Cowa! We are now in tears laughing. He appears ready to bolt for ringside again.

My brother looks at him and says, hey man, take it easy, it’s fake! Don’t get so worked up! Now he turns to us, eyes bulging out of his head and I am suddenly thinking of that moment where the bullfighter drops his cape and sword and the Bull is scuffing the dirt with it’s hooves, ready to charge. He shouts “Cowa” at us and turns back to the action, possible mayhem averted. That’s the kind of control Bobby “The Brain” Heenan could exert on a wrestling crowd. That’s an art form. RIP Bobby, thanks man…. PEACE