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The Katz Files – Arnie Katz

My Personal Hall of Fame: Before Bruno

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

This is the time of year when WWE reveals its Hall of Fame inductees. The WWE HoF is the best-known of several Halls of Fame, though detractors would argue that it is not the best.

Whatever the merits of other Wrestling Shrines, it is safe to say that the WWE’s version is mostly a marketing gimmick. They pick the recipients of the honor based on what will do the current show the most good.

This year, WWE will spotlight quite a few very worthy former wrestlers. Sometimes, marketing and merit do go hand in hand.

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 are 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.

Ray Morgan

He was the WWWF announcer in the days when wrestling came from Washington, DC. I can still hear Killer Kowalski’s foghorn voice bellowing, “Mr. Morgan! Mr. Morgan!”

Ray Morgan was so much better than most of his contemporaries and his success rid us of the kind of mic man who’s gimmick was ridiculing the grapplers. Ray Morgan played it straight and his strong reactions enhanced the illusion of reality.

Chief Bigheart

Chief Bigheart was big all over, not just his heart. He lived up to his name by being a barrel-chested guy who looked like he might’ve played some tackle or guard in high school or semi-pro football.

There were undoubtedly better Native American wrestling characters operating elsewhere in the US, but the Chief was the “big Indian” of WWWF before the ethnic transformation that gave the world Chief Jay Strongbow..

His signature move was the Bow & Arrow, which went well with his bear-like physique. He was a babyface, of course, and I breathlessly followed his trials and triumphs.

Wild Red Berry

Red was a former wrestler, albeit in the lightweight division. Too small to work big-time professional rings, Berry put his talking talent to wonderful use as the motor-mouth manager of The Kangaroos tag team.

Wild Red Berry set the mold for such later managers as Jimmy Hart and Jim Cornette,

When Wild Red Berry got on a role, look out!

Dr. Jerry Graham & Professor Roy Shires.

They were a heel team so outrageously villainous that at times they had two managers, Bobby Davis and Bobby Wallace, at every match. Bobby Wallace looked like the Penguin; they billed Bobby Davis as “the Elvis of Wrestling. Ray Morgan referred to the fact that Davis’ ducktail haircut was purple, but I had to take his word, because color had not yet arrived in the Katz home.

Graham and Shires were one of the first duos to specialize in tag team wrestling and, in light of their contemporaries, it was nice that they didn’t pretend to be brothers. Ironically, their ring personas make them, to some extent, the forerunners of the Valiant Brothers and the Dudley Boys.

Antonino Rocca

Fans who only saw Rocca, the first of the great Flyers, when he gad become a befuddled color commentator, missed one of the truly electric performers of the 1950’s. The former soccer player did stunts that sharply contrasted with the ground-and-pound style favored by the large, lumbering guys.

Next to Gorgeous George, Antonino Rocco got more mainstream ink than any other wrestler. His winning personality and show ring style earned him space in major magazines like Life.

Ricki Starr

The Wrestling Ballet Dancer had an in-ring act second only to Rocca’s in excitement. His leaps and pirouettes kept audiences involved through match after match.

Starr, even more than Gorgeous George, helped bring a theatrical style to the actual wrestling, not just the pre-match ceremony.

Johnny Valentine

He showed up on TV with a sequined jacket and platinum hair, so fans assumed he was the new heel in town. Then something happened – I honestly don’t recall the exact circumstances – in that first match and fans in the Northeast acclaimed him a hero.

Nature Boy Buddy Rogers

Rogers ring skill was not as great as today’s Nature Boy (Ric Flair), but he worked well enough to be the marquee name in the Northeast during the period before the WWWF declared its independence from the NWA promotional network. In fact, it was a battle between promoters for Rogers’ services that triggered the divorce!

Nature Boy Buddy Rogers introduced a character, evolved from the one pioneered by Gorgeous George, that remained hugely popular for more than a half-century. Male fans who hated The Gorgeous One could look down on him as effeminate. The Nature Boy didn’t even give fans that solace; he looked like a guy who could get your girlfriend or wife.

His Figure-Four Leglock and lavish robes inspired such later stars as Ric Flair and Buddy Landell.

That’s it for today. I’ll be back tomorrow with another installment of the Internet’s fastest=rising daily pro wrestling column. I hope you’ll come back and join me then. And, please, bring along your friends.

— Arnie Katz
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