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Episode 32 - Transcript (Interview)
A while back here on the program we had Scott Teal on as a guest, and he mentioned in his comments about upcoming books that his Crowbar Press company will be putting out the book ‘Bruiser: The World's Most Dangerous Wrestler’ by Richard Vicek, and it is a book that we have eagerly anticipated, and now we have read and we're here to talk today with the author, Richard Vicek, about Dick the Bruiser and the wrestling from Chicago. Richard, how are you today?
Richard: Very good. And I just want to thank- Let me tell you, David and Brian, I was very eager to be on your show and we're going to have a good session today.
We were eager to have you on the show. So before we get into the story of Dick the Bruiser and a little bit of the research and everything that you put into this book, tell us a little bit about yourself. What is your background? When did you first see wrestling? And what are your earliest memories of professional wrestling?
Richard: Back in 1965 I was watching television here in Chicago, the parents just put up one of those VHS rabbit ears, and I see a black and white professional wrestling show and an announcer named Chuck Marlowe, with big horn-rimmed glasses, brings out this growing crew-cut wrestler named Dick the Bruiser and they say wrestling's going to be at the International Amphitheater. So a few months later, my parents took me to the International Amphitheater and I saw this professional wrestling spectacle. In fact, the first card was April 16th, 1966. The main event: Verne Gagne vs. Johnny Valentine.
Richard: And then also on the card was an AWA title bout: champions Larry “Pretty Boy” Hennig and “Handsome” Harley Race defended against Dick the Bruiser and Pat O'Connor. So that was the first match I saw - first card in person at age nine, and I was hooked ever since.
Yeah, I'm sure! Did you regularly attend shows at the International Amphitheater?
Richard: I would say every few years, you know. Some years I'd go twice a year, we’d miss a couple, but soon as I got that driver's license, I was there every other show from the early ‘70s all the way through to almost towards the end there. I went to the final Amphitheatre Chicago wrestling card in February 1983, so I saw much more once I got that driver's license.
Well before we take a step back and talk about Dick the Bruiser and the book ‘Bruiser’, I have to ask you: when we talk about the International amphitheater, and you go into those shows, where you at the famous show where shots were fired where a fan in the audience fired a gun five times at the ring because he was upset at the referee?
Richard: No, that was one I didn't make it. I heard about it. I was going to college in Indiana and someone knocked on my door at three o'clock in the morning. “Hey, you hear the news? There were gunshots.” The match was Bockwinkel against Gagne. Gagne got a- there was a favorable count win for Bockwinkel when the ref didn't see it or something like that, and someone started firing shots - five shots. It was in the headlines of the Chicago Sun Times newspaper with the composite sketch who did this - he was never caught. But, yes, that was, I think January 25, 1975. The next card was Bruiser versus The Ox and we had to go through metal detectors like an airport.
Wow. It's probably one of the first wrestling arenas to have that; metal detectors.
I gotta say - you're from the Chicago area, you go to school in Indiana - your whole life seems centered around Dick the Bruiser. You stayed in his territory everywhere you went!
Richard: Then when the family moved for some years to Indiana to Lafayette - where I was, where our home was in Lafayette, we could get both the Chicago wrestling program, Bob Luce’s wrestling program from Chicago, and the normal Indiana telecast, you know, hosted by Sam Menacker from Indianapolis. So, I could see what was going on in both cities. So, that was sort of that was sort of neat, I thought.
Yeah, definitely, and we'll talk a little bit more about the similarities and differences in Dick the Bruiser’s two territories, which were his partnership in Chicago as well as his separate partnership in Indiana. But, let's take a step back. So, you write this book ‘Bruiser: The World's Most Dangerous Wrestler’: what led you to wanting to document the career of Dick the Bruiser?
Richard: Well, both of you, David and Brian, probably remember: somewhere in the previous decade, all of a sudden, bookstores, when there was Barnes and Noble and – well, there still is – Borders, all of a sudden, in the sports section, there was wrestling. But, so much of it was the current wrestlers - the current crops - autobiographies. You know – Flair had an autobiography and Mick Foley. As worthwhile they are, this prior generation wrestlers, it was sort of lost; the history wasn't there, you know? And I thought, “Hey, if I don't do this,” and my degrees are in History and Communications - I have the skills to do this. You know - who's going to ever hear a Dick the Bruiser unless people, you know, start grabbing the bull by the horns and preserving this history, which you had Scott Teal. He is the best example of this. Crowbar Press is devoted to old school wrestling history, so it was a perfect fit for me to approach him. “Hey, I'm doing this thing on Bruiser.” He was a big star in the pre-Hulk Hogan era, and in the territorial days, he had really hot territory for a while, got beat in the end like everybody else, but it was it was a really compelling story because he's such a tough guy character; plus the businessman; plus the humanitarian in his home town. So, all those put together - that told me “Hey, you should do this.”
So, you know, it's 2016 now, and the book has come out. When did you begin researching the book?
Richard: In January 2009, I wrote out 56 letters. I was able to find some still-living Grammar School classmates, high school classmates, football teammates in Purdue and Nevada, and some of the Packers. I sent out 54 letters. I got 14 back that said, “Oh yeah, I remember him.” Then, some people send me pictures; some people sent me scans of their autograph book from Grammar School. With each one of those people, I said, “Well, do you know anybody else?” So, it kept cycling like that until I reach about 250 people, and some of them in the wrestling business, and they all contributed all their stories. People would send me photos from kid birthday parties from the 1930’s and Bruiser’s in the picture with the group.
Richard: So all of - you know, just, of course, it helps I went to all these archives. The county where he lived in Carroll County, Indiana, they had his Grammar School picture from the fifth/sixth grade school room; he was in it. The lady who ran the archives was in the picture, so she proceeded to tell me the married names of all the women and what town they lived in; same thing for all the guys.
Richard: And so you just keep building. For every time span, you contact as many people, go to as many places, and that's what you get.
You know, I think it's very easy to think of Dick the Bruiser as this notorious brute, but your research - one of the things you've turned up is: he actually came from a fairly well-to-do family. In fact, his mother, Margaret Afflis, was extremely involved in local politics, at one point ran for Congress, and, you know, until the day she died, was a major player in the Democratic Party. How much - was that a major source of your research: the fact that so many of her papers were left behind and, you know, in a museum that you could access?
Richard: Yes. For instance, it had- the book has several quotes from the Indiana State Museum. Several sources of photos that a baby picture. Dick has to be - excuse me; he was William then - he was one years old with his mom. They had pictures, they had documents like his High School diploma, which a scan is in the book. It had, actually, an insurance policy that the mom purchased – to pay it – in case he’s injured. I mean, all this minutiae was in there, Of course, it had pictures from, you know, various stages of his life, and of course, I could say 90% was related to her political life.
Richard: Like, including telegrams that had been faded over the years from JFK – “Thank you for your help on the 1960 campaign.” Telegrams from LBJ - “Thank you for helping with the campaign,” because she was the Democratic National Committeewoman from Indiana during the ‘60s.
You know, so many wrestlers coming to wrestling at some point in their life and just become this totally different character from who they were, but what this book shows is that Dick the Bruiser was, you know, “The Bruiser” in many ways (laughing) from childhood on up. But, one of the interesting facts in there is whenever you hear anything about Dick the Bruiser - whenever you read something about him - you see ‘Richard Afflis’ as his name, and what your book and your research has turned up is that that wasn't his name at all - his name was William. He was known as Bill Afflis growing up! Where did the name Richard, and later you know, ‘Dick’ for Dick the Bruiser: where did that come from?
Richard: The first time it shows up in all the documents - I must have 1000 newspaper microfilm clippings. The first time ‘Dick’ shows up is in January 1951 NFL draft where he is drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the 16th round, and back then, it’s Dick Afflis. That is one of the mysteries of the book that couldn't be solved: how, why it became Dick. Was it- he did in an interview say something – something about eligibility - but I couldn't fully understand the context of that word, but that's where it turns up.
You mentioned he's drafted in the 16th round in the 1951 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers. You know, another interesting thing is that in the 26th round, Bill Miller - Dr. ‘Big’ Bill Miller, who would later go on to be a legendary professional wrestler; a Hall of Fame caliber wrestler - is drafted and that's one of the interesting things about the story, is that throughout Dick the Bruiser’s life, even in high school, there are these run-ins with people who would later have great fame in the wrestling business. Ray Gunkel, you know, a Purdue heavyweight wrestler, provides guidance to the Jefferson wrestling team when Bill Afflis - Dick the Bruiser - is on the team. He plays against Verne Gagne and Leo Nomellini! I mean, so there's so many-
Richard: Men who were football players for Minnesota.
Yeah! So I mean, there's just- that's one of the interesting things is there's all these run-ins with these people who he would later work with, you know, in the wrestling business, but way before he's in the business, these people were around him.
Richard: Yeah. Can I give one quick one?
Richard: When he's working out at the YMCA in Nevada, a teenage boy named Don Manoukian is lifting weights with him, and Manoukian becomes a big wrestling star in the West Coast and one of The Destroyer’s favorite tag team partners.
(laughing) I mean, it's just everywhere you look in this book, from the earliest age, there's people who have, if you know about wrestling history, you go, “Oh, my God, how did how is this happening; that he's running into all these people?” And, you know, when we talk about run-ins, it seems that Dick the Bruiser always had a run in with trouble. He went to various universities. I mean, at one point, he got into a fight with his coach-
Richard: That got him reportedly expelled from Purdue, although I don't have a document to prove that, that's what a lot of people say.
Yeah, the fight with Coach Mollenkopf.
Richard: He did, by the way! I have audio tape of him saying that, so that counts!
And, you know, he gets drafted by the Green Bay Packers, and unfortunately, that's a black hole period for the Packers. It's, you know, maybe their 4 worst seasons, or, (laughing) you know, 4 of the worst seasons in Green Bay Packer history, and he goes into wrestling, and one of the interesting things is before his official debut in June of ‘54, he is a part of a March of Dimes telethon where he's in a mock tag team wrestling match. So, wrestling was something on his mind already.
Richard: They even had him do a staged wrestling match at a half time of a varsity University of Nevada basketball game.
(laughing) I mean, again, it's like his life - he can't escape professional wrestling. It seemed that something was dragging him in there. Even one of his teammates on the Green Bay Packers was Hard Boiled Haggerty, who would later go on to great fame in professional wrestling.
Richard: And would you believe this? I just discovered this late in the research: he fought in Golden Gloves boxing in Indianapolis in the heavyweight division - was a finalist in 1945 but lost. He was 16 years old.
Richard: And this bout - this tournament - was held at the same armory that he would hold his cards on 20 years later.
Isn't that something?
So you know, here he is: he debuts as a professional wrestler for real in 1954 – June of ‘54. By January of ‘55, he's now known as The Bruiser; that name is out there. He’s almost instantly a draw. You know, Bix and I recently had a conversation off air about wrestling prodigies - about guys who got into the business and immediately picked it up: whether it's the interview ability or whether it's the in-ring work or the character development; guys who just instantly got it. And I said, you know, from reading this book, Dick the Bruiser is certainly one of those guys, ‘cause right away, as soon as he gets involved in professional wrestling, he's an instant star.
Richard: Well, look at this: name a wrestler, who in his second year, is main eventing against Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne, Wilbur Snyder, Antonio Rocca in big cities.
Richard: His first and second full year in the business.
And he's already very recognizable - he's already on the cover of Wrestling Life magazine frequently. He you know, he has a recognizable name. He's on the letterhead - the envelopes - for Fred Kohler. Fred Kohler, the Chicago promoter - at that time, possibly the biggest wrestling promoter in the country - had Dick the Bruiser-
Richard: At that time, yeah.
Yeah - had Dick the Bruiser, this young, you know, not necessarily a rookie anymore, but you know, second year wrestler on all of his envelopes that went out from his wrestling office.
So, right away, he's a star, and right away, he's a star in Chicago and so much of his career is based around the Midwest. It's based around Chicago, it's based around Detroit, it's based around Indianapolis, and you know, some other places too, but he did make trips to the coasts. You know, he first goes to New York around this time in ’56, and of course, he's involved in that very, very famous 1957 - November 1957- Riot at Madison Square Garden where it's him and Dr. Jerry Graham - filling in for Killer Kowalski - against Antonino Rocca and Eduardo Carpentier and it is one of the most famous things in history of New York wrestling because it was that riot which prevented children under the age of 14 from attending wrestling at Madison Square Garden for the better part of the next 15 years.
Richard: Yeah, and it's also true that Life Magazine, and Time Magazine also covered that event afterwards. You know, I think Life Magazine – “The Script Went Awry,” or something like that, and it had a picture of a bloody Dr. Jerry Graham. I actually traced the reporter from the New York Times who covered that story. He says he was normally a golf writer, but he says the way that crowd bought into - this was for real and reacted negatively, the Bruiser and Graham - He says “I've never seen anything like that,” and you know, I never saw anything like that in all the years I've been following wrestling.
(And I believe one of the photos from the riot - or one of the famous ones - is from the Associated Press, right? I mean, it's one of the rare, like, very famous wrestling events, where a lot of the- you know, the where the famous photos and the reporting and everything is coming from mainstream media.)
Richard: Yes, and they were like – it looked like they are carrying Rocca out of the ring on their shoulders, or something. That's what I get the impression of. He's right in the middle of a throng of people, and he was like a god out there, you know?
Yeah, and you know - you mentioned Rocca. Another interesting thing I guess I just didn't realize is: he makes his Madison Square Garden debut a year earlier, November ’56, against Rocca- he loses to Rocca - but that was the first Garden Show and almost a year because New York wrestling was in turmoil.
Richard: Yeah. He was great for being brought in. You know, the Atlanta - former Atlanta - referee Bobby Simmons told me once “Hey, we could bring in Bruiser as a bounty hunter type. You know, he would be over just like ‘that’ and he would serve his purpose.” After, and then in Japan, after Rikidozan passed away, they needed a wrestler to put over… I think it was – was it Baba or Inoki - but they needed a big factor American wrestler to put over the Japanese star-
(Oh – it was Baba.)
Richard: -who would succeed – okay, it was Baba then – Rikidozan. Who do they bring in? Dick the Bruiser.
Unfortunately, Dick the Bruiser has quite a short run in New York. I mean, you know, for a couple of years there, he's a major star. He's involved in the riot, he's involved in the first show in over a year, but then, that's kind of it. You know, he wasn't banned as a lot of people thought - it's just his bookings didn't take him there any further. But, one place that he did become a major star - and a place that a just opened up - was when Johnny Doyle and Jim Barnett opened up Detroit and Dick the Bruiser was an instant sensation there.
Richard: Mmhm, and so - Dick the Bruiser living in Indianapolis: if you're going to be appearing in Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Denver…why do you even have to do the New York thing, you know, when Jim Barnett and Johnny Doyle make you the kingpin of their promotion? And starting in April 1959: for the next 40 shows, he's in the main event of 38 of them holding the US Heavyweight title many times, and it was literally a who's who of wrestling who were his opponents in those days. The debut started against Yukon Eric with over 15,000 at the Olympia Stadium in Detroit - that's the same hockey arena for the Detroit Red Wings. They were CKLW TV out of Windsor, and even Billboard Magazine wrote a write-up about what a draw Dick the Bruiser was in Detroit.
Well, you know, one of the things that I didn't know much about in the story was, you know, at that time in ‘61, which is around the time of Buddy Rogers / Pat O'Connor at Comiskey Park, they planned on doing - and they did do - Bobo Brazil vs. Dick the Bruiser at Tiger Stadium, and they expected that to be the biggest gate of all time!
Richard: That was one week between before O'Connor and Rogers. That was June 23rd. Rogers was 6:30, but there was rain, and it just, you know, there may was extremely disappointing results. Not that the Bruiser was paid peanuts, but Doyle was telling reporters “Hey, we hope to set the new outdoor record compared to,” it would have been Thesz and Baron Leone in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s. That was one of the big draws of all time up to that point - didn't work out, and those for those years though, Bruiser was such a hot guy in Detroit, you know? In fact, he was so hot, he stopped- most of those years he stopped going to Chicago since his schedule was so filled. But, he’d get back there, and I’m sure we’ll get to that.
Yeah, we will. But you know, on the topic of Detroit, I definitely want you to tell our listeners about one of the most famous things that ever happened with Dick the Bruiser, and that, of course, is the brief foray into wrestling of Alex Karras while he was under suspension from the NFL. Tell us a little bit about Alex Karras and exactly what was supposed to happen with Dick the Bruiser and what happened when they had their run-in.
Richard: Well, even before Karras was suspended, there were newspaper articles saying Doyle had signed him and was going to have him wrestle in the off season. Think of it - it's spring; no football yet; this is April 1963. But then, when he gets suspended, the idea is “Oh, well, Dick the Bruiser still comes into Detroit every other card. Let's book him against Alex Karras at the Olympia,” on Saturday, April 27th. Well, I guess they wanted to do a publicity stunt: Bruiser goes to Karras’ bar, there's some arguments - Karras had a bar in downtown Detroit, he was the co-owner of the Lindell Athletic Club - and a little shoving turns into slugging, and the real police show up and It takes eight of them to club and knock Bruiser down, handcuff him. He's taken, you know, to the police station, and that story had more nationwide publicity than any other event in Dick the Bruiser’s life as far as with him being the center of attention. That was on the sports pages of newspapers in every state - I checked going through the archives, you know. After, like, 25 or 30, I said “I'm not going to - I don't have to verify that all 50 were their cover. All 50 were covered in the national news. But, unfortunately, that match was sort of uneventful, you know. He – this is Karras now - wasn't an extremely experienced wrestler. I doubt if he would have had 12 matches at that time, and Karras never wrestled again and Bruiser started fading from Detroit. His time with Detroit there, you know fewer and fewer appearances, and of course, that was leading into the time when Barnett and Doyle sold their territory to who – question mark? You know who that was?
Richard: Yes. And we'll catch up. I'm sure we'll catch up to that chapter later on today.
Yeah, we certainly will. I do want to tell the listeners - if you're wondering if you know who Alex Karras is, he had three notable roles I can think of in film: he played Mongo in Blazing Saddles, he played the sheriff in the movie Porky's, and he was the father on the his television show Webster in the ‘80s. So that's, that may be how you know Alex Karras. You know, around this time, Bruiser really becomes, in many ways, a national star, although he was already. He was in magazines and he was seen - you know, he had a very…he had one of the – the standout; his look was so unique and so different than everyone else. He was more muscular than the average wrestler at the time, but around this time, he starts going to new places: he starts going to Indianapolis, he starts going to Atlanta and Los Angeles and Louisville, but I'd say the one town that he would become synonymous with outside of Chicago and Indianapolis and Detroit has to be St. Louis - a town that didn't necessarily have wrestlers like him; roughhouse wrestlers. It was a technical wrestling town, yet he would go there for the first time in ’63 and really become one of the biggest stars in the history of St. Louis wrestling.
Richard: The night before the Alex Karras bout, he was- he headlined in the main event at Kiel Auditorium under the auspices of Sam Muchnick, and he was a challenger to Lou Thesz’ NWA title. I guess Bruiser still had open cuts from the bar brawl, you know, and so yeah - literally the next night, he goes to Detroit for Alex Karras.
Richard: You know, but Sam Muchnick - some people have said - and I believe that - Sam was like a father figure to Dick. You know, Bruiser’s real life father passed away in 1945. So, I'm just saying - you Muchnick, you know, being the chairman - whether it's the president or chairman - of the NWA for so many long years and being a very respected wrestling executive, it's natural. That's was how Bruiser looked up to him.
Yeah, but certainly one of the things you pointed out in the book is that Muchnick was a little worried about Bruiser’s style, and how compatible that would be with the style that was normally presented by St. Louis.
Richard: Yes. The historian Tim Hornbaker sent me a letter. He said, “Look, I had this in my archives -Muchnick warning Bruiser.” “We will have you in St. Louis, but you gotta really watch your step, or else we won't be able to continue in this relationship, as far as roughhouse or rowdiness,” and Bruiser kept his cool in St. Louis; most of the time, pretty good.
You know, one of the interesting things I find about Bruiser and you know, the fact that he had this relationship with Sam Muchnick, who was the powerhouse of the NWA, for many years-
Richard: And of course, the NWA controlled the whole United States. There wasn’t yet a WWWF or an AWA in the ’50’s.
Right, and, you know, shortly after the WWWF form, they actually rejoin the NWA, and that happened. But, you know, one of the interesting things I find is that Dick the Bruiser, who had this close alignment with St. Louis wrestling, was someone who frequently throughout his career was in opposition to an NWA territory, and we'll talk about a few instances of that, but I guess the first one would be when him and Wilbur Snyder decide to partner up less than 10 years into his career. He says, “I don't want to just be a wrestler anymore, I want to be the promoter,” and they go into Indianapolis, and then they run opposition to Jim Barnett and Balk Estis.
Richard: And they win the war. (laughing) Bruiser and Snyder win the war – the wrestling war – against Barnett and Estis. That’s amazing, you know? And, of course, the company. It's interesting that it was called ‘Championship Wrestling, Inc.’ The President was Louise Afflis – Bruiser’s wife; the Vice President - Shirley Snyder, Wilbur’s wife; and secretary treasurer Margaret Afflis-Johnson, Bruiser’s mother. That takes care to the legal complications. But yeah, that started all there: all them starting their own title and to help establish himself – this is Bruiser - and to help boost his national reputation, he is brought into Los Angeles. Do you want me to go on that for a minute?
(Well, there was something I wanted to talk about. First off, with regards taking over the territory-)
Richard: Sure. We’ll follow your lead, there.
(Sure. There's always been a story going through wrestling that as far as taking over from Barnett, that Bruiser and Snyder had kind of steamrolled him, and even said something to the effect of if he had complained and tried to fight it, that they would have outed to the media that he was gay, at a time where that would have been incredibly volatile and done a lot of damage to him. In your research, did you find if there's any truth to that?)
Richard: No, I didn’t come across one iota of that, and I interviewed for almost a full hour William Estis, the son of Balk, and it was just a plain, I use the word ‘building’ a better mousetrap. So, I never- that’s the first - when you just told me about that, about exposing or blackmail, that's the first time I ever heard that, and I talked with hundreds - of course, not all of them were in the business in 1964 - but I never heard that so I can't comment on it. I didn't even hear a rumor on that.
What do you think led The Bruiser to wanting to do that, because, you know, he runs opposition and he wins the war rather quickly, too. But, you know, Jim Barnett really, you know, built Detroit around him.
So I mean, it was very disloyal in a big way that he would do this, you know? What do you think led The Bruiser to wanting to take that step and actually be a promoter?
Richard: Two people gave me quotes along those lines. First of all, is the late Ox Baker who said “Bruiser told me he wanted to be a boss because then he had additional control over money and his wrestling,” and then the other one was longtime Los Angeles wrestling person Jeff Walton that said Bruiser knew his time as a performer had limits, and he knew that if he could own a town or own a territory, that could promote his time in the wrestling business. And of course, what happened? Bruiser still - and continued - wrestling up until the mid-1980’s. So yeah, you know: that helped him. So anyway, yes. So that’s - those are the two insights.
Yeah, and that's actually, I mean, something we'll talk about, but that's one of the things that really ends up hurting his company in the long run, is the fact that all these years later, they still have Bruiser and Wilbur Snyder and Bobo Brazil and Moose Cholak on top when they're in their ‘50s. They never-
Richard: That was hard for me to tape, and that was at the time when VCR’s became publicly available. You know, you could get VHS tape. I didn't even think that their program was worth preserving on VHS tape. Luckily, where I was living, we got to see the Superstation which broadcast at Saturday at what time? 6:05.
(laughing) That’s a familiar number here on the show.
Richard: I got to see that – WTBS and WOR from Secaucus, New Jersey for the WWF. I attended probably - in those years - I attended more of those shows when I would go on business trips. I would try to arrange the business trip so I could see a WWF show, or I remember going to the Richmond Carolinas and seeing - Richmond, Virginia, excuse me - to see the Crockett show. I mean, it didn't do it. It was a big disappointment, and I, unfortunately, in being an accurate historian, have to devote the chapter - I guess I called it “Bruiser’s Last Stand or the decline in the decline of the WWA.” It's not fun to tell, but that's what happened.
Well, to take a step back, you talked about the WWA and you briefly mentioned Los Angeles. Of course, Bruiser’s promotion in Indianapolis would be the WWA and the champion would be the WWA Champion, and that would be a split off of the Los Angeles version of the WWA Championship, which of course Bruiser did hold. Talk a little bit about Bruisers impact in Los Angeles, and what the WWA and how he took that title and split it off to be his own title.
Richard: Well, I don't know how he did it. If you look at the 1964 Bruiser history, he must have made seven or eight trips out to Los Angeles where he wrestles maybe three or four days. You know: San Diego, L.A., San Bernardino, Bakersfield, you know, defending that belt, and then coming back doing the shows with Wilbur Snyder every two or three weeks in Indianapolis, then going to Chicago starting in May 1964 headlining with Wilbur, and when he's an investor partner with Fred Kohler - it was amazing how busy he was. But yeah, he used that prestige of a, you know, a major title, the WWA on the west coast, and all of a sudden, he’s in Indianapolis and the newspapers show him wearing that belt from LA. Winning, you know - that it was like a perfect publicity stunt for launching a new promotion.
Yeah, it certainly was, and so now he has his promotion up and running and one of the things that him and Wilbur Snyder do - and it's a very interesting partnership just because they're so different from one another - but one of the things they do is they hit Detroit, and again, here they are in opposition to the NWA, and this being Ed Farhat, The Sheik, who purchased the territory from Jim Barnett and Johnny Doyle - he's the NWA promoter in Detroit. And now he has Dick the Bruiser in his backyard and Dick the Bruiser was formerly the big star – he put wrestling at the Olympia on the map.
Richard: And Verne Gagne even helps him with that short lived 1965 invasion of Detroit, and he has Kiniski working with him, and Hennig, and Race, but it doesn't work. It's very short lived but still. You know, in Heenan’s shoot interview with the Ring of Honor video company, he even said Bruiser was mad because Barnett and Doyle sold the promotion to The Sheik and not The Bruiser. So, that's an insight to Bruiser - from Heenan - in that it was a shared interview with Jim Cornette, and why was Bruiser mad at The Sheik? Well - he wanted that territory and Barnett and Doyle sold it to The Sheik and not Bruiser.
Well, you say that Verne Gagne helped him out on that: another very similar occurrence happened right around the same time – Verne Gagne decides he's going to go into Los Angeles - to an NWA territory - run by Eileen Eaton – the LeBell’s - and compete against them, and who does he have with him? He has Dick the Bruiser, who was formerly the WWA Champion for the NWA promotion out in Los Angeles.
Richard: And the main event was Verne Gagne vs. Dick the Bruiser.
Yeah. So like I said, it's interesting that Bruiser, so often throughout his career, was in opposition to the NWA, and at one point, when he decided to run against The Sheik in Detroit, it cost him because at a certain point, Sam Muchnick cut him off. He said, “You can't come into St. Louis anymore until this is done.”
Richard: Yes, and also included in that prohibition was Lanza, von Rashke, and Heenan, who were working for Dick at the time and could not work for Muchnick as long as them and Bruiser were doing shows at the Olympia in Detroit, opposite of The Sheik. Amazing politics.
Yeah, absolutely, and we're talking primarily about Dick the Bruiser - and we're going to continue with that - but there's a name you just mentioned that I gotta bring up, because one of your- one of the things you point out in your book is that in your opinion, and the opinion of many, if not most - if not everyone - is that Bruiser’s territory would eventually begin its, you know, march downhill once they let Bobby Heenan leave. Talk a little bit about the importance of Bobby Heenan to Dick the Bruiser’s wrestling company.
Richard: By the way, I think one of the biggest legacies for Dick the Bruiser himself started in 1965 when he hired a ring boy / jacket carrier / ring setup guy / Coke vendor named Raymond Louis Heenan, and said, “I want you to come over to the TV Studio today. You're going to be a manager, and your first name is going to be Bobby.” So, for all those years, starting around 1966 now, Heenan becomes the number one nemesis and foe for Dick the Bruiser in both Chicago and Indianapolis. He is the manager of The Assassins. By the way, this isn't the Jody Hamilton and Tom Renesto ‘Assassins’.
Richard: No, but these are guys Joe Tomasso, and the guy that became ‘Gentleman’ Jerry Valiant: those were the Bruiser’s Assassins. But, there was also The Devil’s Duo - Chris Markoff and Angelo Poffo – Blackjack Lanza, Baron von Raschke, The Blackjacks, Ernie Ladd, The Valiant Brothers. Heenan was the manager of the stable of bad guys, just like Jimmy Hart was in Memphis. And of course, the pinnacle of almost every card was when Bruiser would pull him into the ring and whip him from pillar to post - you know, a couple upper cut punches. Heenan these unbelievable backward flips when he would take a punch, and you know, as Gordon Solie used to say, “the Crimson mask.” But see, I just - you know, and this one time wrestling fans that would say, “Well, you know, it was already going downhill,” but I'm just saying that for me, the biggest change is when he was - he left Indianapolis in a pay dispute In the fall of 1974. They just opened the big Market Square Arena downtown with like 16,000 people there, you know, at $6 a ticket. It was a very impressive gate. That's close to a $100,000 gate, if I do my math - $95- 100,000 Gate, and Heenan’s pay envelope had $600 in it, and The Sheik – Heenan found out The Sheik was paid $2000, and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Bruiser never had - I shouldn't say never - only two or three times would he ever have Heenan on an Indianapolis show. That was, to me then, the talent that came afterwards in the stable of tag-team wrestlers, there was a bright spot for when Bruiser Brody came in or when Ivan Koloff came in as this challenger to Bruiser, but it just… you know, every territory fades out, right?
Richard: And that's to me, of course, and then when I look back, that was the beginning of the end, and it took 10 years to die out, right?
Yeah, that's what I was about to say - it still went on for many years, and unfortunately, it was the same faces over and over again into their 50’s, as I said earlier, that really hurt the company. But, I want to take another step back here. We began this interview by talking about what a big star Dick the Bruiser was in Chicago: that very early on in his career for Fred Kohler, he was on the stationary. He was a major star and a major draw instantly in Chicago, and then he was gone. For four years, he didn't wrestle in Chicago from ‘60-’64, and during this time, Fred Kohler turned to someone who had, you know, a mixed reputation in wrestling and mixed results - at times wildly successful and at times, not so successful, and many times an annoyance (laughing) and it's someone running opposition - and that was Jack Pfeffer. During this time, this is one of those instances where Jack Pfeffer did not have success, and he really - you know, I hate to put the blame on him, but the Chicago wrestling company went into the ground!
Richard: It did, and he traditionally would try to lure fans into the ring - into the arenas - advertising sound-alike or look-alike names, such as: there'd be a wrestler booked called Hobo Brazil or Bummy Rogers-
Bummy Rogers! (laughing) I knew you're gonna go there. We've talked about it on the show, Jack Pfeffer’s-
Richard: Two of them is enough, but you get the idea.
Richard: Well, by the way, my book, it was straights with financial statements. You know, that are - I do sometimes auditing type work, so I mean, I put on my accountant’s hat, and I spread on Pg.121 of the book, the horrible financial results under Jack Pfeffer for seven cards he did in the International Amphitheatre in 1963. So if you’re into numbers, Pg. 121 shows the dismal results under Pfeffer.
Well, it’s definitely one of the good things about the book is at various times in various places you do a breakdown of how payouts were issued and where the money for specific shows went, and it's one of the more fascinating things about the book. But, on the topic of Chicago – Chicago wrestling bottoms out under Jack Pfeffer, and at this point in time, Dick the Bruiser buys into the territory and now you have your big draw Dick the Bruiser back, and then shortly after that, Fred Kohler sells the remaining shares of his company to Verne Gagne and Dick the Bruiser’s partner already, Wilbur Snyder, and now you have the formation of the Chicago Wrestling Club.
Richard: Yes, with General Manager Bob Luce, who was a publicist, photographer and office person working for Kohler since the 1950’s, and with Luce, you know, doing the programs and a lot of the logistical work: that company took off and I considered it one of the biggest breaks to be able to be on one of those first cards in April 1966. And of course, the second card - and that card right after it - had the main event in a ‘Congo Death Match’ – Bruiser against Mad Dog Vachon.
What exactly is a Congo Death Match?
Richard: It’s just like a, uh – you know, No Disqualification. In fact, I’m running through the book – I have the ad for the show in the book, so it’ll only be a second. Falls - you know, there’s no falls factor-
I have it right here, I have it right here. ‘The Official Death Match Rules: no disqualification, no time limit, one minute rest period after each pinfall, and the loser must submit or be physically unable to continue,’ so, very similar to a Texas Death Match, but instead of Texas, it's Congo Death Match. Um, obviously the Death Match has spread throughout the world. (laughing)
Richard: For some reason, Luce used the Congo-type death match. I don't know what the historical significance of Congo was in the mid ‘60s. I don't know, but that's what they used.
Well, you know, one of the interesting things is, you know: so here the Chicago wrestling club’s in operation and Dick the Bruiser and Wilbur Snyder, who were already partners, are two of the three partners and the other one’s Verne Gagne, yet, they go with the AWA as being the top title and not the WWA title. What politically went into that decision of - I mean, they've even got to the point where when they would air matches from Indianapolis on TV in Chicago, they would edit out parts where the champion would hold up the belt.
Richard: Yeah. When they would do the TV tapings in Indianapolis, and I know because I would go to some of the Indianapolis cards. The guy, the wrestler, the WWA Champion, would wear the belt to the ring. He would take it off - take off the belt. He put it, you know, give it to the ringside on the table. Then, the cameras started rolling. So, when you said ‘the TV show’, you didn't see the guy wearing the belt. Right - the best I could get on why that happened: Greg Gagne indicated that was just the decision of the partners that Verne was going to have the final say. My mathematical guess is Kohler had the majority ownership right before the sale, so it’s conceivable that he sells the bulk of those shares to where Gagne has more than 51%. Assuming that Kohler may have had even more of this, you know. Of course, that sale price and the number of shares was never disclosed and, you know, the Luce family, they said years ago shredded all those files which I asked on the-
So all that Verne Gagne would need-
Richard: Of course when you think that Verne had a bigger territory - when you consider Bruiser basically had Indianapolis and a few small towns where Verne had Milwaukee, St. Paul, Omaha – you get my drift? The Dakotas. So Verne had a bigger territory probably had a more prominent territory in the wrestling world. So that's how it ends up - he's the leading guy in Chicago.
And all he would need was a bigger percentage than Bruiser and Wilbur Snyder together to have, you know, to have the majority. You know - you talk about Chicago. A lot of people probably growing up there thought Bob Luce was the was the owner of the company, but in fact he wasn't.
Richard: I did. I thought he was, you know, because it would say right on the headline of the program: “Promoter Bob Luce,” or here in Chicago, we had a telephone hotline - 778-2626-728-4080, and you call it and be a minute, and you have a minute go like this: “Next Saturday, fans - Chicago Amphitheatre. Bob Luce presents: Dick the Bruiser and The Crusher versus Hennig and Race - No Disqualification!” You get it? That kind of thing. This was Luce talking so yeah, he's still acted, but I think everybody knows now and the wrestlers involved who are still living say “Oh, yeah,” but Gagne, Snyder and Bruiser all called the shots.
You mentioned The Crusher, and we haven't so far. One of the most famous things in Bruiser’s career is his tag team with The Crusher, his kayfabe cousin. Talk a little bit about their relationship and the legacy of their tag team.
Richard: They met as opponents as early as July 1955 in Gary, Indiana. They would frequently in the 1955/56/57 would be opponents with Bruiser teaming up with Hans Schmidt against Reggie Lizsowski - that's The Crusher - and his ring brother Stan Liszowski, who also became Stan Nielsen. In fact, one of the big card in August 1956 at County Stadium in Milwaukee featured Bruiser and Schmidt against Liszowskis. So it started out as opponents, but over time, and by 1963, they were put in together in Minneapolis working for Verne and for the first time sometime in 1963, they won the AWA tag titles for the first time from the Kalmikoffs - a Russian team. And of course after that they would start a feud with Henning and Race, and then – listen - for those next 15 years, it's like a who's who of tag teams who they battled with, such as The Chain Gang, The Vachons – Mad Dog and Butcher, - The Blackjacks – Lanza and Mulligan – Rhodes and Murdoch, Bockwinkel and Stevens, Lanza and Duncum. They even took on Adonis and Ventura. So, all those years with all those tag team competition, oh – Moto and Arikawa; I don't want to leave out anybody. That developed a national reputation where they were continuously listed in the wrestling magazines as being one of the top five tag teams. In fact, you have two guys with the same social status, the same body build, the same personality: beer drinking, cigar chomping. That all makes an impact on wrestling audiences I think. That’s why they became such legends and icons. In fact, those guys were more popular in Chicago than the AWA champion Verne Gagne, by a country mile. Even though Verne was you know, the big AWA kingpin, he couldn't equate - he couldn't exceed the pop Bruiser and Crusher got at the Amphitheater.
Yeah, and you know, you mentioned Rhodes and Murdoch - one of the things you point out in the book is that it’s sad that their program with Bruiser and Crusher was so short, because it really, by all accounts was phenomenal for what it was.
Richard: Yeah, and those are Dusty’s WWE DVD series. Both of those matches are highlighted on Dusty’s own DVD series, and those were exciting times for Chicago wrestling fans. You know, because people even though Dusty and Murdoch were the villains – hey, you know, we thought they're pretty cool, you know? So anyway, yeah. So, that was that was quite a relationship, Bruiser and Crusher, over those years.
So we talk about the descent of the WWA in the later half of the ‘70's into the early '80's, you know, with the same talent on top and, you know, guys would occasionally come in. You mentioned Bruiser Brody, you mentioned Ivan Koloff, of course, Ernie Ladd had a run, Ox Baker had a big run, and other tag teams like The Legionnaires. You had a lot of things still happening, but it certainly wasn't what it had been previously. But, you know, while that's going downhill, Bruiser still remains a major star in St. Louis, and in fact, until almost the very end of his career, he dropped some of the he gets his biggest payday, possibly ever, in his last couple years in St. Louis, and he also-
Richard: June 12th, 1982 at the Checker Dome, which was the St. Louis arena. Who was that against?
Ric Flair, I believe.
Richard: Very good.
And again, I mean, not only was it his biggest payday ever, but it was also a couple of the biggest houses he ever wrestled in front of!
Richard: Yeah, and he’s 52 years old running the ropes, as Larry Matysik described it. You know that, isn’t that maneuver where the guys criss-cross the ropes? He’s running that. I could I could barely when I was 52. I could barely walk fast.
(laughing) Well, you know - what do you attribute his success in St. Louis to, because again, like we said, he was so different than everyone who had typically been a star in St. Louis.
Richard: Yeah, Larry Matisyk said believability. I mean, we saw him, we say, “Wow, this is real. Maybe a lot of people said, I know this other lot of this other stuff is just you know, an exhibition. Boy when he's in there, this is for real, and I gotta take notice of him.” You know, he just - you know, we use that word charisma to describe Hulk Hogan and some wrestlers, but you know, he had an element of charisma too, I think. The fact he was in there so long, and it didn't matter if, okay, he lost the World Tag Team, excuse me, an NWA title bout, you know, ‘cause a few weeks later, he'd be back in the running for the Missouri Heavyweight Champion. So, it was no big deal to lose every once in a while. I remember the statistic in Larry Matisyk’s book: Bruiser challenged for the NWA championship 18 times, averaging about over 11,000 people per show and he was one - and of course you need two to tango - the NWA champion is not going to draw 11,000 if he's in the ring with Rufus ‘Freight Train’ Jones. You’ve got to have two to tango, and the verbal or physical chemistry that can draw the crowd, and that's what Bruiser was good at. He's one of the two top NWA draws that wasn't the champion; that other was Johnny Valentine. But, you know - you talk to St. Louis people, you know - Herb Simmons, or the late Terry White or Larry Matisyk: they're just amazed – in awe – of Dick the Bruiser.
You know, Bruiser, throughout his career, was an incredibly strong heel and an incredibly strong baby face. Do you have an opinion on which role he was better in?
Richard: Well, I have to admit - I never saw him as a heel, other than, like a Japan videotape. It must have been something - he must have been terrifying as a heel. You know, and from what I read, for instance: in Detroit, the defunct Detroit News covered wrestling like a legitimate story, and his rhetoric that they would quote ‘em as, you know, must have - people would just want to tear him apart. But, they all showed up at the match hoping the challenger, whether it be Wilbur Snyder or Bob Ellis, would beat him for the US Heavyweight Championship in Detroit. But yeah, you know, I could only see that- I’ve only witness with my eyes turning when he was a face. So everything I read, boy, he was something else.
So to this period of time now - the early ‘80’s, - where things are starting to wind down for not only him but his wrestling company, a few different things happen. One: you know, you go over the story in the book where he fires Sam Menacker behind Wilbur Snyder's back, you know, who was his partner, and it greatly upsets Wilbur Snyder and then shortly after that, Wilbur Snyder retires, so now Bruiser’s on his own-
Richard: I just want to say on that, you know – Mrs. Bruiser declined an interview, but that very story came right from Mike Snyder, who is very passionate and proud of his dad's contribution to the wrestling business, and he says, “Boy, that thing get Wilbur’s goat – firing Menacker behind Wilbur’s back.” That came right from Mike.
Yeah, and you know, there are two other instances that I think are sad and somewhat embarrassing, but they happen. One - there's a confrontation between him and Bruiser Brody, which leaves you know, Bruiser Brody ends up hitting him, and the other is, you know, a match - but there's only two of ‘em – him and The Crusher vs. The Road Warriors, who were very similar. In fact, if you think about it, in terms of the length of time they're in the business and their style of wrestling, they're very similar to Bruiser when he first got in, but, you know, Bruiser and Crusher at this point are much older guys, and they're in there with these young guys on steroids. I mean, that’s openly known. I'm not accusing them of anything, and on adrenaline-
Richard: ‘Reportedly’ – that’s fine.
Yeah, ‘allegedly,’ I’ll say. But you know, it's Bruiser in his 50’s-
Richard: He was 55 – Crusher was almost 60. Crusher was 59 during that. Maybe they shouldn’t have been in the ring, but they were.
Yeah, but you know, it just sad that new guys would come in there and not pay them any respect at all.
Richard: Yes. I agree, that was horrible. To this day, I don't, you know. Okay, I realize that The Road Warriors, were the only tag team to hold titles in the three major promotions, but you know, this is a work. Okay, so promoters wanted to exploit their angle of being an invincible steamroller in all these towns. Well, you know, does that make the greatest team of all time because that was the gimmick the the promoter went with? That they're going to be a steamroller and not sell anyone? But that’s just my opinion.
(As you were talking about the payoffs, and the attendance and the gate and all that for the Flair match at the Checker Dome, I started trying to find it because I know a lot of those St. Louis payoffs and all that are online, and I found it. So that show, which was June 12, 1982 at the Checker Dome: attendance was 19,270 something because there's a typo missing last digit where I seeing this – Flair and Dick the Bruiser both made $5,841 - and that's in 1982 money - which in 2016 money: $14,541.12.)
Richard: Yes, and it probably took Bruiser four hours to drive there or two hours to fly there; come home. Yeah – that was nice work if you could get it.
Yeah, sure was; geez. But, you know, again, that's kind of the swan song for the Bruiser. I mean, that last run in St. Louis and of course, you know, him and Crusher have the match against The Road Warriors, and then in ‘85, at SuperClash at Comiskey Park, him and The Crusher and Baron von Raschke go against the Koloff's and Crusher Khrushchev, and that's it: that's the end of Dick the Bruiser as an active wrestler, and shortly thereafter, the WWA starts to fade away. Of course, there’s Bruiser Bedlam on TV, which he's with, but that's the end of Bruiser’s career in professional wrestling.
Richard: Yes, there is no major appearance other than as a referee.
Right. He was at Starrcade ‘90 in St. Louis, his old stomping ground, as a referee and fitting of Dick the Bruiser, I believe they hit him with a chair and he doesn't sell it. (laughing)
Richard: I don't know if it was Arn Anderson. Yeah. And you know what, he didn't fall to the ground like they grabbed each arm and held him up like in the old Wowboy and Western bar room brawls. Okay, that’s his swan song.
And that's the end of 1990, and of course, 1991 is the year that Bruiser passes and, you know, it gets a lot of attention in the local papers. It gets, I believe in on the floor of the House of Representatives, he gets a mention.
Richard: The congressman was Andrew Jacobs - did a very stirring tribute. I don't know how many other wrestlers got a tribute in the House of Representatives; not too many.
Not too many at all. But, here we are all these years later, and you put out this book. Of course, Dick the Bruiser is in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame, which a lot of people including myself, and I believe David Bixenspan here, think of as being the premiere Wrestling Hall of Fame - the one that's actually voted on by historians and experts and active wrestlers and former wrestlers. He's not in the WWE Hall of Fame, which is, you know, something I'm sure will be rectified rather soon, because-
Richard: Now they have a Legacy Division.
Right. So it’s their way of correcting-
Richard: I was going to send Triple H a book in case he’s never heard of Dick the Bruiser. You think I should do that?
I think you know, I'm sure he would actually like it because from what I understand he actually enjoys wrestling history, and I'm sure he does know of Dick the Bruiser. I'm sure Killer Kowalski told him plenty about Dick the Bruiser in their time together, but you put out this book. You know, before we wrap up this segment - let me ask you: in your research, and boy, you did a lot of research. I mean, this book is phenomenal when it comes to research. What were you surprised to learn about Dick the Bruiser?
Richard: Well, all the charity things that he was involved with, starting in the early 1950s. There's a picture in the book from 1957 with a crippled boy at a Boston fundraiser. He was involved with Indiana charities, he was lauded for his charity work by congressmen in that, you know – on the day after his death. I was just amazed all the - you know, I find pictures by the Indianapolis photographer Scott Romer: Bruiser at various telethons, March of Dimes, muscular dystrophy. He really did a lot in those days, and I didn't even know about all that then. I do remember the T-shirts going to a paraplegics association. It was a license plate that said “BRUISER BUDDY” which I had the first time I got to own a car. I put it in on my car, because in Indiana you only needed a rear license plate.
Do you still have it?
Richard: No. it sells for $100 on eBay. I wish I did.
Richard: That happens. You know, I didn't save a lot of his stuff.
Well, Richard, as we wrap up here - you've put out this book ‘Bruiser: The World's Most Dangerous Wrestler’ on Crowbar Press and Bix and I are big, big fans of Crowbar Press and everything Scott Teal does because it's all quality. And if you care about wrestling history, you have to support Crowbar Press. So you have this book. It's now out there. It's out there for us and for future generations to learn about this man and the wrestling he was involved in. What do you think is the lasting legacy of Dick the Bruiser?
Richard: He was one of the top ex-NFL players alumni to wrestle and make it big. He's among one of the best brawler types, you know, of all time. Nothing against Verne Gagne and Eduardo Carpentier and Antonio Rocca, but Bruiser was in main events for parts of four decades, starting in 1955. Of course, it was mainly in the Midwest and the fact that he wasn't as much on the East Coast that, you know, that prohibited him from having the optimal national reputation. You know, he ran a significant, well respected territory with Wilbur, and he's the one that hired and developed both Bobby Heenan and David McClain, you know? And when you think that The Blackjacks and The Valiant Brothers were formed under his watch and took off after that, and he co-owned Chicago which had Bruiser, Snyder, and Gagne, and when you think around 1970, he co-owned in the second largest, fifth largest, 11th and 12th largest markets in the United States. So that’s Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis and Milwaukee, which he was a minority share there. So, I one thing I want to stress is, okay, so you grew up on the East Coast, or in the Southern states, or on the west coast. You didn't see much. I want to convince people talking today on 6:05 Superpodcast what an interesting guy this was, and I hope by putting 350 photographs in the book, I could help you relive this incredible wrestling character.