How 'Bout Dat"
December 12, 2005 by Langdon Beck
Stone Cold Steve Austin is undoubtedly one of the most popular babyface stars in wrestling history. Which could be considered a little odd - after all, he wrestled like a heel, talked like a heel, and acted like a heel. But to thousands and thousands of fans, he was one of them; a regular, blue collar guy who enjoyed a beer. But this appeal wasn't a new thing. Wrestlers before Austin had been popular primarily because the fans could relate to them, perhaps none more so than Reggie Lisowski, better known as the man who made Milwaukee famous, The Crusher.
Reggie Lisowski was born in Milwaukee sometime in the mid-1920s. Some sources say 1925, others say 1926. A fullback on the South Milwaukee High School football team, after high school he joined the army, learning to wrestle while stationed with the 1st Infantry in Germany. After returning from the war, Lisowski played semi-professional football, until one night when he attended a carnival. A ring had been set up and people were being encouraged to try and beat the man standing in the ring for a dollar. Lisowski beat the man and won the dollar. For a couple of days, he went back and beat everybody, and while the money wasn't great, it sparked a new interest in wrestling. After learning that some local wrestlers worked out at the Eagle's Club in Milwaukee, Lisowski joined. After training with Ivan Racy and Buck Tassie, and his first known match against Marcel Buchet in November 1949, he got the attention of a Chicago promoter, who gave Lisowski the opportunity to wrestle in a small armoury in Chicago, three or four times a week, for $5 a night - although he began wrestling at Chicago's Rainbow Arena soon after. During the early years of his career in the late forties and early fifties, Lisowski (wrestling as a dark-haired babyface) was noticed by promoter Fred Kohler. Kohler put Reggie on TV, before sending him on the road to gain some seasoning. Of course, in the early years of his career, wrestling was strictly a night-time profession. During the day Lisowski worked a variety of other, more menial jobs, hence his reputation as a working class hero. In 1985 Lisowski said of his enduring status as local legend, "I think the working people identify with me, because years ago I worked when I wrestled, too. I worked in a packing house... I was a bricklayer. But finally, I got away from punching the clock."
Lisowski, a former weightlifter, had always had a lean and muscular physique, but by the time he became a heel in 1954 he was barrel-chested, and this, coupled with his new full nelson finisher (soon to be replaced by the stomach claw and the Bolo Punch haymaker) made him seem incredibly powerful. It was around this time that his hair changed to a bleached blonde, and he had his first taste of success, teaming with Art Neilson to win the NWA Tag Team titles (Chicago version). But it was with his 'brother' Stan Lisowski that Reggie really became a success. As well as winning the NWA titles (Chicago version twice, Minneapolis version twice), the NWA U.S. Tag Team titles, the Canadian Open Tag Team titles, and the AWA Tag Team titles twice, the tandem's matches featured regularly in the sports pages of local newspapers, and they drew over 16,000 fans to an all-heel main event against Hans Schmidt and Dick the Bruiser. In an August 1956 edition of the Chicago Tribune, Reggie explained the team's success:
"Since last February Stan and I have been unbeatable as a tag team... We've been up against such [headliner] teams as Verne Gagne and [Argentina] Rocca... our fast-change operation fools them all. We get them over in our corner, then give 'em the double treatment. We are in and out of the ring so fast that opponents don't know which one of us is putting on the pressure."
In 1959, Reggie Lisowski became The Crusher (allegedly the name came from a promoter who once remarked that he "just crushes everybody"). By the late 1950s support for him was increasing; the cigar-smoking, beer-drinking, hard-hitting, barroom-brawling tough guy with a quick wit became a hero for the working class fans at the time, despite being a heel. There are various reasons as to why he became the Wrestler That Made Milwaukee Famous. Everyone knew the Crusher. He became a folk hero, particularly in his hometown, and even though Verne Gagne was AWA Champion at the time, Da Crusher was da man to beat - over his career, he defeated the likes of Dusty Rhodes, Ivan Koloff, Shozo Kobayashi, Billy Graham and many more. He was an old-fashioned wrestler who took pride in his physique, and his constant presence in professional wrestling meant he often sold out arenas and auditoriums, sometimes a week in advance. Advertisements for wrestling shows that featured Crusher were popular too; in one such ad, he promised to kick Bobby Heenan "all over Milwaukee" and then "have a party, take all the dollies down Wisconsin Avenue and go dancing." In another, he bent a tire in half. His wrestling style, which largely remained unchanged despite his turning babyface, helped with his popularity too. In addition to the no-frills beatings he gave his opponents, he was able to absorb a large amount of punishment. The more he got beaten up, the more he fought back, and the crowds loved it.
It was also during the late fifties that he teamed with friend and drinking buddy Dick the Bruiser for the first time.
Crusher and Bruiser (The Cussin' Cousins as they were sometimes known, or the "Saloon goons" if you ask Nick Bockwinkel) spent nearly a decade regularly teaming together (although they would continue to be linked until Bruiser's death in 1991). Their style of wrestling was similar, and they had amazing chemistry together. They fought all the greatest teams of the time, like the Valiants, the Blackjacks, Bockwinkel & Ray Stevens, and the team of Larry Hennig & Harley Race in a series of classic contests that showcase tag team wrestling at its finest.
Their speciality was the Steel Cage match, of which they had many, and rarely lost. Their opponents were often bloody and bruised following matches, but sometimes, to fans' delight, Crusher & Bruiser had not had fought enough, and would trade punches with each other. In terms of titles, they were the most successful team in AWA history, winning the Tag Team titles five times, drawing huge crowds everywhere. They also won the WWA Tag Team titles six times, and the NWA International Tag Team belts, as well as Pro Wrestling Illustrated's Tag Team of the Year award for 1972 and an induction into the Pro Wrestling Hall Of Fame's Class of 2005. A 1974 edition of Wrestling Revue praised the team - "Each operated as a carbon copy of the other" - and Dick the Bruiser commented, "He knew exactly what I was going to do in the ring and I felt the same way about him...We have never been accused of being in a dull match and we never will. The rougher it is, the better we like it."
Of course, despite winning the AWA Tag Team straps nine times in his career, Crusher was not just a tag team wrestler. He had major singles success too, namely three AWA World Championship reigns. The first came when he beat Verne Gagne on July 9, 1963 (unifying the belt with the Omaha version of the World title in the process), and his second title win also came against Gagne, in November of the same year. His third and final AWA Title run came when he beat Mad Dog Vachon in August of 1965. Although each reign was relatively short, over his entire career Da Crusher's win-loss record was remarkably good - he won at least 75% of his matches.
Crusher was also a master on the mic. After defeating an opponent on TV, he would usually be interviewed by Marty O'Neill (or later, O'Neill's successor 'Mean' Gene Okerlund) and display some of the trademark ad lib and charisma that helped keep him so popular. A typical interview would see him talking about his "hundred megaton biceps", beating "da bum" or "da turkeyneck" that was his opponent, and celebrating after the match with beer and "dollies" at a local bar. He would explain his training regime: running along the waterfront with a keg of beer on each shoulder and dancing with Polish barmaids to build stamina. Occasionally, he would even sing "Good Night Irene", keeping himself true to his blue collar roots. His signature catchphrase was the challenge, "How 'bout 'dat""
The Crusher took wrestling very seriously. When he was approached for an interview for a 2001 TV special about wrestling, he refused, because "People make a joke out of [wrestling]. But it wasn't a joke to me. It was a living." When he did give an interview, he asked for it to be kept about wrestling, "otherwise I lose interest." This serious attitude, along with Crusher's toughness, can be shown not only by the many injuries he suffered during his career - multiple concussions, a damaged eardrum, an arm broken twice, a right elbow broken at least seven times, and a dislocated shoulder which he simply popped back into place when he arrived home - but with a story from Captain Lou Albano.
"The Crusher... was one big, strong sonofabitch. I wrestled him on the east coast. Wrestling was a little different then than it is now, and I decided to test him a little bit. I laid a couple of good punches in him. He returned them and nearly cold-cocked me, knocked me on my ass, just about knocked me out. Then he gets me in a headlock and just about crushes my skull and I'm telling him, come on, Crusher, we're just working here."
Make no mistake about it, Crusher was famous. When he had hip replacement surgery, the hospital had to post a guard at his door because fans were wandering in. Crusher later said he didn't mind if people came in, but if "some flake" had entered, "...I probably coulda choked 'em if I coulda got ahold of 'em." His fame was not strictly wrestling-related, though. Along with Dick the Bruiser, Crusher appeared in the 1974 movie 'The Wrestler', beating up a gang of mob men, and in 1985 he conducted the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in the 'clarinet polka' for a 'Battle of the Conductors' TV contest. However, one of the contest's judges gave Crusher a mere 7 out of 10, which led to Crusher choking him out. Finally, in 1964, garage rock band The Novas wrote a song about him, called 'The Crusher': "Do the hammer lock! a-Do the hammer lock!Raid! Do the hammer lock, you turkeynecks!" (The Ramones also wrote a song called The Crusher, which appears on their 1994 album 'Adios Amigos'. The song references 'Russian Bear' Ivan Koloff, who faced Crusher multiple times, but it is unclear whether the song was written about Lisowski.)
Inside the ring, Crusher was loved for being a tough guy, a hero of the people. But away from the ring, he was loved just as much for his politeness, honesty and sense of humour. There are many, many stories from adoring fans about The Crusher. One takes place at his home in Milwaukee. A small fire had broken out, and local firefighters arrived on the scene. A large crowd of people began to gather outside the house, wondering what was happening. Crusher told the firefighters to hold tight for a few seconds before going outside and telling the crowd in his tough, gravelly voice that he was okay and they could leave. Back inside, he told the fire crew, "I have to do that every once in a while." Another famous story originates from St. Paul, Minnesota. A 105-year old woman living in St. Paul said that her one wish in life was to meet The Crusher before she died. Crusher obliged, and posed for a photo with the old lady, putting a cigar in his mouth and suggesting she sit on his knee.
It wasn't just fans that admired Crusher. Many wrestling legends have spoken of their respect for him. Jimmy Valiant said, "I would like to be able to have wrestled for 40 years just like "The Wrestler Who Made Milwaukee Famous" The Crusher. [Gorgeous] George, the Bruiser and Crusher were the first characters to wrestle where everybody loved them no matter what they said or did. This opened the door for myself, Dusty, Superstar Graham and Jesse the Body. We all became character good guys. Crusher was a master at interviews and he was a very great and kind man. I loved him." Eddie Sharkey commented that "every time he was on the card, we all made money" and René Goulet agreed, saying ""If you're talking about drawing a lot of people, and all that, to me [Crusher and Bruiser] were great. They were not the greatest workers in the world. But for what they were doing, they were the greatest at it. Nobody would draw more money than those two guys." Even Lou Thesz was impressed by the way Crusher went from being a "weightlifting bodybuilder" to "a credible wrestler. He had a tough guy image, was a great attraction, and was a good guy. I liked him."
Like any great wrestler, Da Crusher was involved in several classic feuds. In both tag team and singles action, there was bad blood between Crusher and the Vachons, Mad Dog and Butcher. The Crusher-Mad Dog Vachon rivalry began in the mid-1960s when Crusher beat Vachon for the AWA Championship, but by 1969 had intensified, soon to become the most vicious feud in the history of the AWA. Mad Dog injured Crusher during a match in Chicago in August of that year, not only costing him the AWA Tag Team Championship, but putting him out of action for four months. Upon his return, Crusher gave Vachon a wound to the head that needed 23 stitches, and thus began a series of brutal, bloody matches, with the vendetta reaching its peak in what some say was the first great Steel Cage Match. At one point in the bout, Vachon was kicking the Crusher, and several fans began to scale the cage in an attempt to help their hero. Crusher won the match (later saying if he had lost, there would have been a riot), and Vachon was hospitalized, but like all classic cage matches, the victor was worse for wear too. Crusher's son David Lisowski said of the match, "He came out really beat up. His head was cut up. He had a busted eardrum. The whole right side of his body was bruised. But the next day, he went to Green Bay to wrestle."
Some of Crusher & Bruiser's most famous battles were against the Vachons. Butcher Vachon later said, "They made us famous.... They were very tough. Whenever you were in there, the people knew that they were going to get a streetfight, and so did we. We came ready for that." Mad Dog agreed that they were "a big draw" because their matches featured "four of the toughest guys in the business". As for Crusher, he said, "Them Vachons were always chewin' on me," but believes the Road Warriors, who he and the Bruiser wrestled twice in 1984, and to whom he and Baron von Raschke lost the AWA Tag Team titles, were his toughest opponents.
Another long-term nemesis of The Crusher was Bobby 'the Brain' Heenan (or the Weasel, as Crusher called him). When Heenan, along with Nick Bockwinkel, was banned from the AWA for a year, he went to Georgia Championship Wrestling (which later became WCW) and put together the 'new' Bobby Heenan Family. However, to Heenan's dismay, The Crusher followed his enemy to Georgia, bloodying the Brain and his stable every chance he got. As well as singles matches against the Family, Crusher teamed with top Georgia babyface Tommy Rich to battle Heenan's group in front of sold-out venues throughout the state.
Later in Crusher's career, he embarked on another brutal feud, this time against Jesse 'the Body' Ventura. Ventura liked to show off his body, and often posed for the crowd during matches. Crusher did not approve of this, and challenged Ventura to a posedown contest. Jesse struck a variety of bodybuilding poses, but all the Crusher needed to do for the crowd's approval, and the win, was raise his arms in the air and flex. Ventura, furious at Crusher's victory, attacked him from behind before grabbing Crusher's lit cigar from his mouth and jamming it into his eye. The fans were appalled, and for weeks afterwards, Ventura claimed to have ended The Crusher's career. Of course, he hadn't, as Crusher returned to get revenge on The Body, fighting him in matches from Chicago to San Francisco. Decades later, Crusher commented on the Ventura feud, saying, "we had some rough battles, I'll tell ya."
In July 1981, Crusher wrestled 450-pound Jerry Blackwell. During the match, Blackwell jumped off the top rope, landing on Crusher's right arm and causing significant nerve damage from the wrist to the shoulder. The injury was bad enough that Crusher unofficially retired, and took most of 1982 and 1983 out, rehabilitating the arm until most of its strength had returned. All the while, his tough-guy persona remained. "You gotta be able take the pain...You know, I got 200, 300 stitches in my body. And you got to go to the doctors yourself. There's nobody to baby you. Some football player breaks a toenail, he's got 100 guys looking at him." In December 1983, AWA's Hulk Hogan had jumped to the WWF, and so Da Crusher returned to action. By 1985, however, he was nearing 60 and became slower, and AWA was deteriorating too thanks to the WWF. Like several other big AWA names, Crusher went to WWF, wrestling on a part-time basis. He said, "The best wrestlers in the world are in the WWF right now. And the money's better. I just figured this would be the best place for me to finish my career."
Aside from teaming with Hulk Hogan in 1986, his most notable WWF match came in a 1987 tag team contest. World Tag Team Champions the British Bulldogs were scheduled to take on the Hart Foundation at Chicago's Rosemont Horizon, but after Dynamite Kid suffered an injury, Davey Boy Smith was left without a partner. The WWF appointed the Crusher as his teammate. "I'm gonna help Davey Boy take care of them sissies," he told the Chicago Sun Times. "And if Jimmy Hart... comes anywhere near the ring, I'm gonna stick that megaphone of his right down his throat." It was in the WWF that he wrestled his final match in 1989, forty years after his debut bout. In 1994, WCW inducted him into their Hall of Fame.
Fast-forward to May 31, 1998, and the 'Over the Edge' Pay Per View in Milwaukee. Two special guests were at that show to be honoured in the ring; Mad Dog Vachon, and The Crusher (who received a standing ovation from the crowd). After being presented with 'Legends' plaques, the two were insulted by Jerry 'the King' Lawler, who said, among other things, "I'd tell you to act your age, but you'd probably be dead." Lawler then tried to remove Vachon's artificial leg, but received a plaque shot to the back of the head and a Bolo Punch from Crusher for his troubles. Lawler bailed, and the old enemies shook hands. Lawler got back in the ring and went after Vachon's leg again, but Crusher, with his cigar still in his mouth, got the best of the King.
In 1999, Crusher made an appearance at Mid-American Wrestling's 'Rage at the Races'. He said,
"It's a pleasure to be here amongst all the great Crusher fans. If you see a dog runnin' around here with a beard, don't bet on 'em; it's Mad Dog Vachon. The Bruiser's not here. He's up in that big brewery in the sky and I know what he's sayin' right now - 'Crusher you look thirsty, get a beer.' There's nothing better than being amongst people like this who I fought and bled for for many years... These turkeyneck bums they got wrestling [nowadays], some of them couldn't shine Crusher or Bruiser's shoes. I come up the hard way... I wrestled in the cage more than any other rassler in the history of rasslin.' I got all the scars to prove it. The time I wrestled Mad Dog in the cage, I had to go to the hospital, and he had to go to the veterinarian to get sewn up..."
However, MAW's Dave Prazak took exception to Crusher, and began to argue with him. Prazak was soon silenced thanks to an Ian Rotten chairshot, followed by a Bolo Punch from the legend.
In March 2003, Lisowski's wife of 55 years, Faye, passed away. "I was in some tough spots in my life, but nothing ever bothered me like her being gone. It's been tough." Reggie said in 2004. His health began to decline. He had two hip replacements, a knee replacement and several heart bypasses, and developed a non-cancerous tumour at the base of his brain stem, for which he underwent two surgeries. He never fully recovered from the operations, which affected his ability to swallow, leaving him partially paralysed. For the final months of his life - spent in a nursing home - he had to be fed through a tube, but according to his son David, he never stopped working out, right up until he passed away on October 22, 2005, aged 79. "He worked out on his last day. That's how he wanted to go," David said. "He did concentration curls and triceps work. He just had to work out every day. ... In his mind, he never thought he was old." The night after his death, TNA Wrestling dedicated its Bound For Glory Pay Per View to Crusher, and WWE put a video tribute on its website. At his burial, a wrestling ring with crimson ropes was set up, and on the mat were a pair of black wrestling boots. He was buried next to Faye.
The Crusher will be remembered for a lot of things. His multiple title reigns in both singles and team tag competition. His unique and memorable matches, promos and putdowns. His Hall of Fame inductions. His overwhelming popularity. But mostly, he will be remembered because he was a man of the people; a regular guy who got to live the dream.
How 'bout 'dat, ya turkeyneck"
by Langdon Beck --- [View Langdon Beck's Column Index]..
Devin "Chronic X" Skaggs wrote:
Now THAT is old-school! This is one of the best articles I have ever read on this sight. I can't say in all truth that I FULLY remember The Crusher but after reading Beck's article I am pretty sure The Crusher woulda choked me out for even saying that.... and I wouldn't have known it before reading this article. This article should be nominated for an OWWIE...or OWWY (Get it, like an Emmy just with OWW... I call dibs on the trademark!)
Laurie B. wrote:
Wow, I have to agree with "Chronic-X", this is possibly the best article I have ever read on the site! Admittedly I have never heard of the man before, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading your column. Fantastic work, thank you for sharing the history of Reggie "The Crusher" Lisowski with us all.
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