Katz Files: My Personal Hall of Fame: The Sammartino Era

The Katz Files – Arnie Katz

My Personal Hall of Fame: The Sammartino Era

The Kingfish Arnie Katz talks about great, or at least memorable, wrestlers of the wrestling he has seen for the last half-century.

For Those Who Missed Part One

I’m not trying to set up yet another Hall of Fame. I’ve seen the attacks by the people who criticize Hall of Fame selections and I’d rather not stand in their crosshairs.

What I thought I’d do is offer my own personal Hall of Fame, based on my own recollections of pro wrestling. I’ve seen a lot of wrestling since I watched Verne Gagne fight Lou Thesz on filmed wrestling from Chicago in the early 1950’s, so that particular Memory Lane is a crowded thoroughfare.

By the same token, you won’t find all the wrestlers you loved in this column or its sequels. If I didn’t see them, I can’t remember them. (The 1970’s is also a blur, but that’s another subject.) Among wrestlers I didn’t see enough to include is Dick the Bruiser, Lou Thesz, Gene Kiniski and Berne Gagne.

To put my choices in perspective, let me give a bit of my background”

I was born in Brooklyn, NY and grew up in New Hyde Park, Long Island. I saw a lot of WWWF/WWF/WWE wrestling. TV also gave me access to Wrestling from the Olympic (Los Angles) and Wrestling from Florida with Gordon Solie.

This installment of my Hall of Fame focuses on the era before the reign of Bruno Sammartino. It doesn’t go back much before 1952, because that’s when I started watching pro wrestling. These Hall of Famers are all from the era when WWE had a lot more “W”s.

This isn’t a complete list by any means. It’s more a rundown of the “charter members” of my personal Hall of Fane. Maybe it’ll jog a few of your memories, too.

This time the wrestlers are drawn from the period beginning with the formation of the WWWF and the arrival of Hulk Hogan,

Andre the Giant

During his early period with Vince McMahon Sr., Andre the Giant wasn’t much like the ungainly, injured wrestler we saw when he donned the mask and beyond. He was reasonably mobile, especially for such a titanic being, and simply radiated Goodness.

The elder McMahon knew how to use him to best advantage, too. He would come in, have a feud and leave without getting bogged down in the scramble for the title. After all, it was hard to imagine him losing the strap once he clutched it in his mammoth hand.

He was far from my favorite wrestler, to tell the truth, but he was one of the most unforgettable performers in the ring.

Tony Garea & Dean Ho

The New Zealand pretty boy and the “Happy Hawaiian” were strictly mid-carders as singles wrestlers, but they were one of the great hero teams in the WWWF. They also delivered a good performance and the fans cheered them on to victory and shared their grief when they lost.

I never think about Ho and Garea without also thinking of the Valiant Brothers. The way wrestling was structured at that time, the two teams would go for long stretches where they fought each other almost every night for months on end!

The two tandems wrestled over and over, honing their timing and choreography. They sometimes got so in synch that their matches had a beauty and grace that is not often seen within the squared circle.

Ivan Koloff

The Russian Bear looked a little bigger on television than he did when I interviewed him in person, but he sure had an aura of power and aggression. He was the ultimate heel to Bruno Sammartino’s stainless babyface.

Koloff provided high-caliber heel opposition in both the WWWF and the upstart IWA,

Vince McMahon Jr.

Before he became Mr. McMahon and “The Boss,” young Vince McMahon was the voice of WWWF. Although he was big, young and strong enough to be a wrestler himself, had he chosen to do so, Vince created a naive, sheepish character that always seemed shocked and surprised by the wild things happening all around him.

As a play-by-play man, Vince was more like Jim Ross than Gordon Solie. He didn’t call the holds meticulously, but he knew how to build drama and excitement. Vince didn’t push the pseudo-sport aspect of pro wrestling as much as the sports entertainment side.

Dusty Rhoades

I watched the NWA show from Florida when it ran for several years in New York and become a huge fan of The American Dream. He was such a colorful, exciting character compared to the bland-on-bland Bob Backlund.

The clips of his matches at the Bay-front Arena are some of the most dramatic wrestling scenes I’ve ever seen. I’ll never forget the image of Dusty, blood dripping down his face, as he prepared to destroy a rulebreaker with his Atomic Elbow Smash.

The Plumber’s Son could also do comedy as well as anyone until the advent of Mick Foley. And when The Plumber’s Son donned a mask as the transparently Dusty Midnight Rider, the entire audience shared in the prank.

Johnny Rodz

This is bound to be my most controversial selection, but this is my own personal Hall of Fame, so I’m sticking to my guns.

Maybe he doesn’t belong in a real wrestling Hall of Fame any more than
Nikolai Volkoff, but he was my favorite WWWF jobber. He always worked hard and put on a good show, the consummate professional.

Except that he never won. Week after week, Rodz did his enhancement job. That he did it as well as anyone I’ve ever seen is what gives him a special place in my wrestling fan heart.

Once, though, I got to see Johnny Rodz, the pride of Brooklyn, in a winning role. He went to Los Angeles and, on Wrestling from the Olympic performed as the wild Arab Java Ruuk. I couldn’t think of him as a real villain, though, after watching his extended futility in WWWF.

Bruno Sammartino

A champion weight lifter, Bruno Sammartino had the classic, bear-like physique of the star pro wrestler and a type of ethnic-hero appeal that is currently not in fashion. He came from Abruzzi, Italy, and became “The Man” in the Northeast. His popularity was so enormous that, after a chronic bad back had retired him for several years, he returned to the WWWF for another successful title run.

Bruno radiated the kind of charisma shared by all superstar athletes. When you met him, as I did in the late 1970’s, you felt like you were meeting one of those mythic sports figures from the 1930’s like Jack Dempsey or Babe Ruth.

Bruno Sammartino wasn’t a particularly good wrestler – and he got a lot worse during his second championship reign when his back severely limited him. He couldn’t even do the Bruno Backbreaker on the monster heels WWF lined up for him each month.

Yet his matches were dramatic, exciting and fun. No matter how desperate the situation, fans knew that they could help will the Abruzzi Strong-boy to a fist-swinging, villain-stomping comeback.

Chief Jay Strongbow

To me, and to my Cherokee wife, Jay Strongbow will always be the ring’s greatest Native American, even if he was really an Italian guy named Joe Scarpa. The man became his character, from the ceremonial headdress to his frenzied dance that signaled the start of his big comeback.

Chief Jay Strongbow stood shoulder to shoulder with Bruno Sammartino as the epitome of “good guy” WWWF heroes. On a practical level, it meant that fans saw Strongbow take some excruciating losses to guys whom the promotion was setting up to fight a two- or three-month program against Sammartino.

Nothing equaled the sheer agony of Chief Jay Strongbow, caught in a nerve pinch. The sufferings of Job paled in comparison to what rulebreakers did to the noble Chief.

Sometimes, after Bruno and a heel had topped two or three cards at every arena in WWWF territory, the bookers would give Strongbow (and his fans) the luxury of revenge. In those matches, he broke out of that nerve pinch, danced around like a berserker and obliterated evil in truly spectacular fashion.

Chief Jay Strongbow sometimes teamed with Bruno as a superstar duo when ultimate villainy threatened the peace of WWWF. Other times, the one thing you could count on was that today’s Strongbow partner would be tomorrow’s Strongbow back-stabbing enemy. The TV segment in which Spiros Arion tied the Chief in the ropes and fed him his headdress is indelibly etched in ring history. “This is the greatest sneak attack since Pearl Harbor,” said Strongbow as they carried him out on a stretcher.

The Valiant Brothers

Handsome Jimmy and Luscious Johnny Valiant were the heels the hardcore fans loved. They were great champions, but they also specialized in off-the-wall interviews that paved the way for teams like The Dudleys and DX.

They also had a lot to do with the heels-as-heroes trend that, much later, made The Road Warriors switch from heels to babyfaces. They always worked as heels and never varied their approach, in or out of the ring, but every week there were a few more fans cheering for them.

The heyday of the Valiants coincided with my first run as a wrestling journalist. I had several chances to interview them and everyone who worked on our magazine and radio show loved their counter-cultural references and outrageous personalities. Bill “Potshot” Kunkel even wrote and performed a song about them on the radio show. Wish I had an air check of that (and also “Heart Punch of Your Love,” his paean to Ox Baker.)

That’s it for today. I’ll be back tomorrow with another installment of the Internet’s fastest-rising daily wrestling column. I hope you’ll return to join me and, please, bring your friends.

– Arnie Katz
Executive Editor
Crossfire4@cox.net
(3/5/08)

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