The Phantom of the Ring
Remembering Waldo Von Erich
He was the consummate Naughty Nazi, from his World War II German helmet to his jackboots to the ubiquitous riding crop he carried, which could be brought into use if the situation warranted. And unlike his many of his “countrymen,” he never changed, unrepentant to the end.
Next to Karl von Hess, Waldo Von Erich was my favorite German heel. Unfortunately I never got to know Waldo as I did Karl. The closest I ever came was the numerous times at ringside when I witnessed his nefarious antics against a plethora of babyfaces. The more the crowd booed, the harder he sneered back. He loved it, and they certainly loved him right back.
As a heel, Waldo was the complete package. His publicity photos showed him in a Nazi officer’s uniform, looking like he came right from a Waffen-SS meeting. His finishing hold was known as the Blitzkrieg, a knee drop off the top turnbuckle; in tag matches he would aim it into his opponent’s back when the ref wasn’t looking. His interview style was bombastic, speaking with a German accent and never once failing to denigrate his opponent. In fact, his demeanor suggested that of someone who was annoyed that he had to destroy his opponent in front of the hoi polloi. He may have been annoyed, but we loved him for it.
Like many other noted wrestlers of his era, Waldo was Canadian. He was born Walter Paul Sieber in Toronto on October 2, 1933. Like most young boys of his era, he found solace at the local YMCA where he excelled in swimming and weight training, with a view to bodybuilding. It was only natural given his athletic interests that he should drift towards wrestling. Finding that he had an aptitude for the sport, he signed on to train for the pro ring under promoter Red Garner, who used the local Y as his training gym. Walter was a fast learner; that and the fact that Garner needed bodies for his promotion led the young Sieber to make his wrestling debut at the tender age of 17. We don’t have documented records for those early years; this, after all is pro wrestling history, an oxymoron if there ever was one. Our first result, which comes courtesy of Greg Oliver’s tremendous Slam! Wrestling website, has Waldo losing to Larry Kasaboski in Renfrew, Ontario, on August 7, 1954. He was billed as Kurt Von Sieber, so obviously Garner decided to put Waldo’s strong Germanic looks together with a name. Nazis were just coming into vogue as sinister heels about then, as the memory of the war was still fresh.
We don’t hear from Waldo again until 1957, when he was working the Buffalo area, presumably for Pedro Martinez. By this time his moniker was changed to Waldo Von Sieber, but the results were the same, doing jobs in the prelims. Of the documented matches during this tour, the highlights were two draws, one with Tarzan Zorra (Hans Mortier, a.k.a., Jacob Grobbe), Frank Hurley and Manuel Cortez. Like Huck Finn, Waldo then decided to light out for the West, and in 1958 he landed in Minnesota, where success would bloom. Promoters Verne Gagne and Wally Karbo noticed Waldo’s chiseled Germanic features and decided to team him with their resident German heel, Fritz Von Erich. To get the pair over, they changed Waldo’s last name to Von Erich and announced that Fritz had brought his brother over from Germany to help him take over the wrestling world. In an interview with Greg Oliver, Waldo claimed the teaming was his idea, but the facts point to Gagne and Karbo making the change. Waldo was still a prelim guy; he had never met Fritz before, and thus wouldn’t have had the juice to do this on his own. At any rate, the Von Erich’s made a formidable tag team, but for some reason, Gagne and Karbo never exploited their advantage. The pair wrestled separately more often than as a team, and Waldo was often partnered with other German heels such as Kurt Von Brauner and Hans Hermann.
It wasn’t until they went to the Mid-Atlantic territory later that year that they were put over as a top team, winning the Mid-Atlantic promotion’s Southern Tag Team titles from George Becker and Mike Clancy. After they dropped the titles back to Becker and Clancy a few weeks later, Waldo played out his contract and then went to Toronto, Canada, but this time working for the Tunneys. His build and natural athleticism were noticed, and as the promotion was looking for a successor to Whipper Watson, they decided to drop the German heel gimmick and simply bill him as Wally Sieber. The plan was perfect and the buildup was perfect with Waldo debuting as a babyface. Unfortunately the best laid plans of mice and men usually go awry and Waldo flopped with the fans. His biggest step on the ladder of fame was a semifinal match at Maple Leaf Gardens, losing to Gorgeous George. End of the babyface push.
Next stop was Al Haft’s AWA promotion in Ohio and it was back to Waldo Von Erich, rotten German heel. The promotion had its perks, as Waldo was reunited with Fritz and the two received the big push. The Von Erichs entered into hot feuds with the teams of Billy “Red” Lyons and Chief Don Eagle and the team of Ilio DiPaulo and Lord Layton. In singles, Waldo continued the fun in grudge matches with both Lyons and DiPaulo. He also found time that year (1960) to make a stop or two for Vince McMahon, where he met Bruno Sammartino for the first time. They wrestled several times, but always in tag matches. Although Bruno has somewhat scant memories of that time, he told me the thing that first impressed him about Waldo was his “tremendous conditioning.” That conditioning was the key both to Waldo’s success and his longevity in the ring. (The amazing thing to me was that Waldo seemed virtually unchanged even in his later years, when the human body naturally slows down.)
Next stop was Texas, and Waldo began adding to his resume, winning the NWA Texas Heavyweight belt from Pepper Gomez. (He would drop it roughly a month later to Dory Dixon.) He also held the Brass Knuckles Title. He honed his skills wrestling against such names as Bull Curry, Duke Keomuka and Nick Bockwinkel. His stay in Texas lasted until mid 1962, when he went to Indianapolis and worked under the hood as Mr. M for a few dates (he would be unmasked by Bill Melby) before finishing the year on the West coast.
If the year 1962 was good to Waldo, 1963 was even better. It would be the leap from supporting player to main event status. He returned to the AWA, working the Omaha area. The highlight of his stay was a victory over Verne Gagne in a Texas Death Cage Match. Again he and Fritz once again joined forces and dominated the tag scene. From the AWA he went to the Vancouver area as the masked Great Zim. One of his early victims was Dick Garza, who later reemerged in the AWA as The Mighty Igor. His run under the hood lasted until he was unmasked by Gene Kiniski. Vancouver wasn’t working out so Waldo headed a little to the east, landing in Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling, where he had a great run, working main events almost exclusively. When his tenure in Stampede ran out, he traveled to the WWWF (it was said that Killer Kowalski recommended him) as Bruno’s new challenger and managed by Wild Red Berry. Their first meeting at MSG went to an incredible 82-minute draw. He and Bruno would battle throughout the Northeast. When it came to tag teaming, he first joined forces with Smasher Sloane, and later with Gene Kiniski, with whom he captured the WWWF Tag titles from Gerry and Luke Graham. They would hold those belts for a little over two months before dropping them to Gorilla Monsoon and Bill Watts. He and Bruno even brought their feud to Stampede for a two match set. All in all, the pay and status in the WWWF was so good that he stayed until August of 1966 before moving on to his friend Fritz Von Erich’s Dallas promotion. Before he left the WWWF he worked a rather bizarre angle as the masked Green Hornet. This lasted until his unmasking by Antonio Pugliese (Tony Parisi) and Bruno. (Although the whereabouts are unknown, I believe it was in Pittsburgh.)
Fritz’s World Class Championship Wrestling would be Waldo’s base for the next couple of years (he and Fritz captured the Americas Tag titles while there, and Waldo once again won the Brass Knucks title) save for sojourns to Japan for the IWE, Stampede, where he won the Canadian Heavyweight Championship from Ox Baker, and a stay in Australia for Jim Barnett, where he would win the IWA Tag titles with Mario Milano. He then returned to the WWWF for a few months in 1969-70 before traveling to Leroy McGuirk’s Mid-South promotion for a stay that lasted almost a year. After he and Karl Von Brauner lost their Mid-South U. S. Tag Titles to Luke Brown and Grizzly Smith in April, 1971, Waldo left the area and relocated to the NWF out of Buffalo and Cleveland, closer to his Toronto home. This would be a very prosperous time for Waldo. He would hold the NWF version of the world’s title two times and engage in heated feuds with Johnny Powers, Dominic DeNucci, Ernie Ladd, and his old nemesis, Bruno Sammartino. There were two brief and profitable tours of Australia during this period. He would hold the IWA Austra-Asian Tag titles with Hiro Tojo and would later be awarded the Austra-Asian singles title. After his tour of Australia finished in August, 1973, Von Erich decided to retire. But it turned into a short vacation as the lure of money in the WWWF proved too strong. This time he would work until finally easing up in 1979 and retiring for good from the ring. His last recorded match was on March 4, 1979, in Toronto, defeating John Yachetti. Post-retirement found him as the president of a local promotion where he trained young wrestlers. The most successful of his pupils is TNA star Eric Young.
Financially, Waldo was no easy mark. He parlayed the money he made in the ring into the purchase of a lake in Ontario and also built a castle in Belize, though he never furnished or moved into it. Waldo also patented a device he later sold to several sports teams that provided therapy for those with back injuries. Married for 29 years before divorcing, he had three daughters.
His death on July 5 came as something of a surprise. He had fallen earlier in the day and was taken to the hospital. It looked as if he would just spend the night, but to everyone’s surprise he suddenly took a turn for the worse and passed away later that day.
His daughter, Mary Jane, looking back at his legacy, was quoted as saying that “even though he was mean in the ring, he was a gentleman outside it, and anyone who knew him knows that.”
We all knew that. That’s why we loved him so much.
– The Phantom of the Ring
Courtesy of ProWrestlingDigest.com
You can write to the Phantom care of Karen Belcher