The Phantom of the Ring
Phantom – Jack Brisco, R.I.P.
The sudden death of Jack Brisco on February 1 left the wrestling world saddened. For many, he was the first NWA champion they grew up watching, and he was one of the last “pedigreed” champions (those with solid collegiate wrestling backgrounds) to hold a world’s championship..
As a wrestler he had few peers. He was an outstanding worker and brought pride to the NWA Championship, putting what was best for the business over his personal preferences. As with many who came from the college ranks, he could be a tad difficult to work with, especially in his early years. There is a persistent story about his years in the Tri-State Promotion. Jack was traveling with a group of wrestlers, including Champion Danny Hodge, to another show. Jack was reputedly mouthing off about how tough he was, to the point where Hodge had the car pull over. He then yanked Brisco from the car and proceeded to beat the snot out of him, showing him who the real tough guy was. I know this story to be true because I brought it up to Hodge when I met him in Newton, Iowa, in 2000. He looked at me somewhat surprised and asked me how I knew that.
He was born Freddie Joe Brisco in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on September 21, 1941 and spent his early years in the nearby town of Seminole, one of six children born to Floyd George and Iona Brisco, both of American Indian ancestry; his father half-Choctaw and his mother half-Chickasaw. Floyd George was a war veteran and a mechanic with a propensity for the bottle. He deserted the family when Jack was only nine, leaving his mother to pack up the family and move north to Blackwell, near the Kansas border, where her sister lived. He was nicknamed “Jack” by his grandfather for his love of chasing jackrabbits. Life in Blackwell was tough under any circumstances, but, like many, he found a release in sports. The two biggest sports at Blackwell High were football and wrestling, and Brisco excelled at both, playing fullback on the 1959 state championship football team and winning three state wrestling championships (1958, 1959, 1960).
Pursued by both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, Brisco chose the latter because of the wrestling. He earned All-American honors on the mat in 1964 and 1965, losing in the finals to Harry Houska of Ohio University in 1964 by a 6-3 margin, and winning the weight class outright the next year, pinning 6th seeded Dan Pernat in 6:32 of the final. Brisco racked up a sterling record of 21-1-1 during his college career.
The story is that after the tournament, Leroy McGuirk convinced Brisco to turn pro, but in reality, Brisco was eager to make a career on the pro mat. He followed pro wrestling, with his heroes being Lou Thesz, Danny Hodge and Bruno Sammartino. He made his pro debut later in 1965, winning a television match against Roger Barnes (Ronnie Garvin). Brisco noted in his autobiography that the payoff for his first bout was fifteen dollars. McGuirk took care to bring his prodigy along slowly, matching him with heels such as Dandy Jack Donovan and Mark Starr; heels that could put him over in fine fashion. By October, McGuirk had enough faith in Brisco to send him to Gust Karras’ promotion in St. Joseph, Missouri, where he was put over Don Kent for the Missouri Junior Heavyweight Title. He would drop it back to Kent before regaining it in November, 1965. Thereafter the title was abandoned as Brisco returned to the Tri-State area, where he remained for the next two years, save for a disheartening detour to Tennessee working for the notoriously stingy Nick Gulas. Returning to the Tri-States he continued to work mainly prelims with the occasional foray into the mid-card and a few main events against Danny Hodge. As he progressed he won the Oklahoma, and later the Arkansas, Titles. He also proved adept at the art of the tag team, holding the Tri-States version of the U.S. Tag Title three times: first with Lou Thesz, then with Haystacks Calhoun and Gorgeous George, Jr.
Venturing outside his home territory, he shined in matches for Jack Adkisson in Dallas and Paul Boesch in Houston. While in Dallas, he hit it off with Joe Scarpa (Chief Jay Strongbow), whom Brisco credits with teaching him the art of ring psychology. Scarpa was so impressed with the young Brisco that he strongly recommended him to Florida promoter Eddie Graham. But before traveling to Florida, Brisco briefly toured Japan and Australia. While in Australia he worked a program for promoter Jim Barnett with Barnett’s champion, Billy Robinson. Upon his return to the States, he headed for Florida. It was to be the best move of his career, for it was in Florida that Brisco blossomed from a prelim to a headliner. Eddie Graham built Brisco up slowly, polishing his style (teaching him the figure-4 leglock) and allowing him to catch heat with the fans. On February 11, 1969 he won the Southern title in a disputed match with The Missouri Mauler. Their feud culminated with Brisco grabbing the belt for good on July 8. He also teamed with Ciclón Negro to win the Florida Tag Title, a title he would hold again with Negro and later, eight times with his brother Jerry and once with Jim Garvin. During the course of his stay in Florida, Brisco would hold each of the promotion’s major titles.
Graham believed Brisco was the stuff of which champions were made and began to show him to other promotions in order to gain wider exposure. He had a successful, if brief, tour of the Mid-Atlantic area, where he won the NWA Eastern States Heavyweight Title twice. He also worked spot shows in New York, St. Louis and Houston.
When the hardships of the road finally got to NWA Champion Dory Funk, Jr. the NWA board convened to pick a successor. The choice came down to either Brisco or Harley Race. Brisco won the vote but Funk demurred over dropping the belt to Jack. Nevertheless a bout was scheduled to take place in Houston, TX, on March 2, 1973. Boesch spent the weeks leading up to the bout putting Brisco over on television and a sellout crowd was assured for the contest. Suddenly, however, on the day before, Dory Jr. claimed he had injured his shoulder while working at the family ranch in Amarillo. Rather than cancel the card, Boesch told the crowd right before the main event about Dory Jr.’s injury. Before the crowd could explode in anger, Boesch quickly added that Fritz Von Erich, a tremendous fan fave in Texas, would take Funk’s place against Brisco. The crowd was placated and the match was rescheduled for a later date when Funk recovered.
However, before Brisco could get his chance at dethroning Funk, Dory had a miraculous recovery and announced that his next defense would be against Harley Race in Kansas City on May 24, 1973. The NWA board gave in to the reality of the situation, but insisted that Brisco would take the belt off Race after a short tenure. (Race’s cooperation with the promoters was not forgotten when they were later looking for a successor to then champ Terry Funk.) Finally, on July 20, 1973, both Brisco and Paul Boesch got their title bout in Houston and Brisco was the new NWA Champion. Brisco proved to be a noteworthy champion, traveling across the country defending the belt and protecting the integrity of the title against those who might try to steal it or make the champion look bad. Brisco did lose the title for a week because of out-of-the-ring shenanigans, and the strange thing was that the shenanigans were orchestrated by none other than the champion himself.
Brisco was in Japan, working for Giant Baba and his All Japan Promotion. At the time Baba was involved in a hot promotional war against his former protégé Antonio Inoki and his New Japan Promotion. Baba needed a hot angle to get a leg up on Inoki and nothing would be hotter than a title change, seeing as a Japanese had never held the NWA Title. So Baba suggested a title change to Brisco and found the champ most receptive, as it would be income he didn’t have to share with NWA President Sam Muchnick. (Brisco always claimed that Muchnick was in on the deal, but other sources told me that simply wasn’t the case.) They began talking figures and a payoff of $25,000 for doing the job was settled upon, along with the promise that Baba would do the favor of returning the title when Brisco’s tour was over. The $25,000 figure is interesting because the deal was brokered without the knowledge of the NWA, and if they so desired, they could attempt to keep the bond Brisco posted when he got the belt. That figure was $25,000. Brisco was as good as his word and dropped the belt to Baba in the final fall of a grueling match in Kagoshima on December 2, 1974. Three days later a rematch in Nihon University Hall saw Baba hold onto the title. But Baba was a man of his word, and on December 8, 1974, he dropped the title back to Brisco in Toyohashi. Brisco thus became the first wrestler since Lou Thesz to hold the NWA title more than once.
Upon returning to America, Muchnick demanded a percentage of the $25,000 and Brisco refused. The meeting left a bad taste in the champion’s mouth, and, combined with the rigorous travel schedule, caused Brisco to decide to drop the title a little over a year later. Ironically, it would be dropped to a member of the Funk family, this time Terry. But unlike Dory, Jack had no qualms over to whom he dropped the belt, and so, on December 10, 1975, Brisco relieved himself of the burden to Terry in Miami, Florida.
After taking some time off tending to his successful auto body repair business in Tampa, Brisco returned to the ring. He added to his long list of titles when he captured the Memphis version of the NWA Southern Heavyweight Championship on August 10, 1976, when he defeated Jerry Lawler. He won the Missouri Heavyweight Title on November 26, when he defeated Bob Backlund. Perhaps the strangest title change came when he and brother Jerry were awarded the Eastern Sports Association Tag Team Title (covering the Maritimes are of Canada) even though neither had ever appeared in the area.
He returned to his old stomping ground of Florida, teaming with Jerry once again to capture the Florida Tag Championship on several occasions. They added the Florida version of the U.S. tag belts to their resumé by defeating Mike Graham and Steve Keirn. They split their time between Florida and Georgia, where they held the Georgia Tag Team Titles twice. Jack also became the initial holder of the Georgia NWA National title by defeating Terry Funk in the finals of a tournament for the belt. Tours of Puerto Rico, and a return of the Mid-Atlantic area followed in 1981 and 1982-83.
It would seem that the only world left for Brisco to conquer was that of the WWF. But even here his entrance was controversial.
Over the years the Briscos decided to buy into the Florida and Georgia promotions. They owned 30% of the Georgia stock and were disenchanted with the way Ole Anderson, one of their partners and the booker for Georgia, was running the territory. In his autobiography Jack said that he called Vince McMahon to inquire after the health of Roddy Piper, who had cut his hand on the announcing table. One thing led to another and McMahon suggested a time to call where they could talk. Brisco said he knew McMahon was after both the Georgia and Florida promotions, and with the way business in Georgia was going, the time was right to sell. Ole was dead set against selling, but Brisco contacted minority shareholders Fred Ward and Jerry Oates and convinced them to go into the sale with him. They sold their combined 52% of the stock to McMahon. Popular legend has it that the Briscos were offered a lifetime contract with the WWF in return for their deed, but in a 1996 interview with Wrestling Perspective, Jack denied the rumors. His stance was that he could see the handwriting on the wall, and given the fact that he believed Ole Anderson was running the promotion into the ground, it was better to come away with something rather than nothing. He credited George Scott and brother Jerry with talking him into coming to the WWF.
His years in the WWF were somewhat unremarkable compared to his other stops. It was one of the few places where he didn’t win a title of any sort, though he and Gerald did work a program with Dick Murdoch and Adrian Adonis. In 1984, Brisco decided he had had enough and retired, devoting full time to the Brisco Brothers Body Shop in Tampa. Unlike many others who retired, once Brisco made his decision, he stuck to it. There was no great comeback, and his only appearances were at reunions and fan conventions. He has received many honors and numerous inductions into the various wrestling halls of fame. The most important honor given him as a pro was the Lou Thesz Award at the Cauliflower Alley Club convention in 2005.
Over the later years, health issues began to dog Brisco. In 1999 a growth removed from his spine almost cost him the use of his legs. In recent years he fought circulation problems and emphysema. His last battle resulted in open heart surgery, and his sudden collapse while undergoing rehabilitation spelled the end. He is survived by his wife of over 30 years, Jan. Wrestling is the poorer for his absence and it is likely we will not see another like him in the ring for some years to come.
– The Phantom of the Ring
You can write to the Phantom care of Karen Belcher
Cortesy of ProWrestlingDigest.com