The Old Timer
My Brush With a Wrestling Legend, & Genuine Champion!
February 15, 2006 by Richard Berger
The Rock has his legion of fans, both young and old. Stone Cold Steve Austin, Sting and the Undertaker also have devoted followers. In the early 1960s, when I was growing up in Los Angeles and watching wrestling, there was one man who stood head and shoulders above everyone. Believe it or not, in those innocent days when it was easy to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys, I always got a special thrill when Freddie Blassie, self-proclaimed King of Men, put in an appearance.
There was no mistaking that Fred was a heel. His bleached blond hair, the exaggerated strut and the evil-doing during his matches redefined the word "vicious." Blassie spent many years in L.A. working for the World Wrestling Association (WWA), which recognized him as their champion during much of that time. He fought everyone in the territory and defeated them all. He also took on outsiders, many of whom were well-established stars elsewhere.
Freddie was beloved by many, although he was hated by many more. As the story goes, he was once on his way to the ring at Los Angeles' Olympic Auditorium when a crazed fan in the balcony threw a small bottle of acid that hit him on the back of his upper leg. The deadly substance trickled down Blassie's leg, but he ignored it. It was only after his match that he discovered the full extent of the damage. The acid had worked its way down the full length of his leg and into his boot, where it burned a small hole in his foot.
Recently, I had occasion to reminisce about my interest in wrestling and how it developed. A young man, who also has a healthy respect for the history of the business, wanted to know if I had met any famous wrestlers back in the "old days." I didn't have to think too hard, and I relayed the following story to him:
It was the summer of 1962, and as a native southern Californian, I spent most days at either Venice or Santa Monica Beach with my buddies. Being 12 years old and out of school until the fall, the time was my own to do with as I chose.
On this particular day, I spotted a gathering of kids in the distance, most of whom appeared to be somewhere around my age. They were surrounding a figure that looked vaguely familiar. However, from where I stood, it was difficult to be precisely certain just who it was.
Curiosity forced me to approach the crowd for a closer look. As I got within 20 feet, the mystery was solved. It was none other than The King of Men, the WWA World Heavyweight Champeen (as he said it), Freddie Blassie! I got terribly excited and wormed my way through the mob, trying not to step on the smaller kids. I was determined to get just as close as possible, and nothing but nothing was going to deter me.
The kids were hanging on to every word he uttered. Freddie Blassie was a legitimate celebrity, and the swelling crowd was thrilled to see him live and in the flesh. The braver members were firing off questions at him, and he handled them as only an experienced wrestler could. We instinctively detected that beneath the bravado and heelish stance he had an affection for kids, and we lapped it up. We knew we were in the presence of greatness.
After a few minutes of staring at him in awe, I could contain myself no longer. Mind you, this was long before the business of wrestling had been exposed to the public. Yes, I was pretty certain that wrestling was mostly a work. Still, with Fred standing right in front of me in all his glory, it was impossible not to to mark out completely. When a slight lull occurred, I blurted out something like this at breakneck speed:
"Gosh, Mr. Blassie, if you could just follow the rules more and not do mean things to nice guys like 'Cowboy' Bob Ellis you would be the greatest hero who ever lived and no one would ever be able to beat you and I've seen you fight Bearcat Wright and you kept choking him and then you hurt Edouard Carpentier's eye and if you could just be nicer in the ring you'd see how great it is when everybody's cheering for you."
I had to stop at that point or risk passing out from a lack of oxygen. As I gasped for breath, I looked up beseechingly at him in the hopes that my plea was having a positive effect. The entire time I had been speaking, Freddie had stood in front of me, his face a stony, impassive mask. His arms had remained folded across his chest, his feet spaced slightly apart, and he looked to me like he was 20 feet tall. For a brief moment I thought he might have been sizing me up as he would an opponent. Hey, wait a sec! I didn't want to be Blassie's next victim!
For what seemed like forever, he said nothing. I felt a cold sweat breaking out on my forehead. A few seconds later, he threw his head back and laughed long and hard. I was flattered that something (anything!) I said would have an impact on one of my wrestling heroes. I just hoped that he wasn't laughing at me. And then he confirmed that he had, in fact, been impressed with my little outburst.
Fred Blassie gently placed his hands on my shoulders and steered me towards a nearby lemonade stand. There, he bought a hot-dog-on-a-stick and a large lemonade for me. I was overwhelmed by his unexpectedly generous act and babbled my thanks over and over.
For the next couple of weeks, I experienced an incredible high that has yet to be surpassed. When word got around my school, I became something of a minor celebrity for a short time. No doubt about it ... WWA World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion Freddie Blassie was my friend, and I was the luckiest guy in Los Angeles, if not the world.
Suffice it to say, Mr. Blassie provided a kid who suffered from a lack of real self-esteem with one hell of a booster shot. I can state with total honesty that in later years, when I began working in the business of professional wrestling, I met quite a few people. Some were likeable and decent and have become good friends. While I cannot claim that Fred and I have become close (we haven't even talked), he will always be a genuine and legitimate hero to me because of his sincere and selfless act.
Odds are that this incident has long since faded from Mr. Blassie's memory. But it resides safely in mine, and I will continue to take it out periodically, dust it off and relive the event. Back in those long-ago days, when we weren't privy to the behind-the-scenes doings, we had heroes who genuinely touched us. Believe me when I tell you it really did mean that much.
Richard Berger is a freelance writer/columnist and is always
interested in discussing a working arrangement with those
looking to hire. As well, you may contact him to discuss this
or any of his other columns. He can be contacted at:
by Richard Berger - http://perspectivesonwrestling.blogspot.com
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