Adrian Adonis | His Remarkable Career and Tragic End

Adrian Adonis caught your attention with his audacious behavior, and then kept it there with his unabashed arrogance, and presence between the ropes. He was truly one of the best but sadly would perish in a freak accident at the young age of 34. This is the story of an enigmatic man who lived his in-ring persona, and life, to the fullest.

Airborne Adrian Adonis in 1986.
Airborne Adrian Adonis in 1986. [Photo source: Toronto Public Library]

Adrian Adonis – Early Life

Adrian Adonis was born as Keith Franke on September 15th, 1954, on a foggy Wednesday in Buffalo, New York.

Buffalo, at that time, was a major rail center for the United States and an inland port for the Northeast. It was also in the top ten in the nation for manufacturing and steel production – all ran with the energy created by the mighty Niagara River. Shipbuilding also made a sizeable portion of the local economy. It was this blue-collar world that Franke grew up around and settled into the idea that hard work is part of the daily experience.

He played sports, focusing on high school football at his Kenmore West alma mater.

In the ’60s, the Buffalo Bills football team was a powerhouse in those middle years when they were in the AFL, winning back-to-back National Championships under the tutelage of coach Lou Saban. Driven by the desire to attain that level of success, Keith dropped out of high school his senior year to pursue his dreams.

Discovering Professional Wrestling

Making his way to the Canadian Football League, the future Adrian Adonis played for a short time but never really broke out the way that he aspired to. It was during this time he was introduced to professional wrestling as a supplemental income by some of his teammates in the locker room.

Many pro football players in Canada, as well as America, would double down and work their off-time in the wrestling ring. That talent pool has always been a source for professional wrestling to pull from, and it has given us many legends over the years.

Related: Paul Orndorff – His ‘Wonderful’ Sporting Career Before Wrestling

Franke had been told about a place across Lake Ontario in Toronto where he may be able to get the wrestling training he was seeking. Like all wrestlers that eventually make it, he left his comfort zone. Soon, he met with Fred Atkins. Atkins was from New Zealand and had been a name in the business in its early days when he held the Australian Heavyweight Championship in 1942. He would also make a name for himself in the States in the city that was the wrestler’s mecca at the time: St. Louis. It is here where Adkins would have matches with Lou Thesz, Frank Gotch, and Pat O’Connor. Truly the stuff of legend.

Legendary Kiwi wrestler, Fred Adkins. He would play an important role in the development of Adrian Adonis in the business.
Legendary Kiwi wrestler, Fred Adkins. He would play an important role in the development of Adrian Adonis in the business.

Atkins was working a job as a trainer for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the “Iron League” and wrestling in his off-hours. He would train someone if they showed potential and the ability to pay. Franke was ready to pay not only his rate but also his dues. He was put to the test by the old school taskmaster but learned the how and more importantly the when and why of the business for the next two years. Slowly but surely, as it was done in those days, he was let into the fraternity of the locker room and shown how to dance in the ring. It was then that he became addicted to the bump.

Perhaps it was something in his football background or the gritty environment that birthed him, but whatever the spark, he was a firecracker in the ring. In 1974, he took the name Keith Franks and worked that way for the remainder of his stewardship as a trainee.

A young, leather-clad Adrian Adonis.
A young, leather-clad Adrian Adonis.

Becoming Adrian Adonis in the AWA

While learning and taking in all aspects of the dance, he was being noticed on the bigger stage in America, specifically in Minneapolis. This is where Franke would move to work as a wrestler full-time.

Adopting his now-famous Adrian Adonis namesake, he started out as a biker thug clad in spikes and studded leather years before Demolition made the look mainstream. Adonis took up the role of the heel and found his calling.

The AWA of the late ’70s and early ’80s was a powerhouse of talent. There is no disputing that Verne Gagne had an eye for talent and an ability to guide it towards it’s potential. He was an old school, my way or the highway type of character that ran a tough, tight ship. His training camps were talked about in the same breathes as Stu Hart’s Dungeon for their strenuous regimen that would break as many souls as it delivered. Both stables, however, can proudly hold up a who’s who list of amazing talent that they produced, and everyone that hit it big there would go on to help shape the decade to come no matter where they chose to work, including Adonis.

He was working his way through matches on the huge AWA circuit that ran from Minnesota, as far west as Denver, and north into parts of Canada. It was known for torturous road trips that also meant a lot of time to build friendships and talk about the business.

Adonis was drawn to another man new to the territory, and the two clicked straight away. When the biker met the body, history was made.

The East-West Connection - Jesse "The Body" Ventura and Adrian Adonis as AWA Tag Team Champions in 1980.
The East-West Connection: Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Adrian Adonis as AWA Tag Team Champions in 1980. [photo: @JustRasslin on Twitter]

The East-West Connection: Adrian Adonis and Jesse “The Body” Ventura

James Janos, or Jesse Ventura as he is better known, has had one of the most colorful and widely varied lives of any person in (and out) of wrestling. There seems to be no pond that he hasn’t taken the time to dip his toes in.

Ventura got to the AWA pond not long after Adonis just off a successful run in Don Owen’s Portland territory. Verne has been given credit by Ventura himself with coming up with “The Body” moniker. It would stick with him forever, and once again stands testament to the eye that Verne had on how to set people on the right path to success, even though he may have floundered as a businessman in his own personal ventures.

There is no arguing that the East-West Connection was a great heel tag team. With the combination of the strutting peacock that was Ventura, alongside the skulking opportunist that was Adonis, there was plenty for everyone to hate, and that equaled fame for the duo.

It was their diversified styles that, when brought together, was their strength. Adonis knocked around the ring and played the role of the mechanic, while Ventura antagonized and taunted their opponents into apoplectic fits of rage that the two would inevitably use to their advantage in deceitful victories. It was beautiful to watch.

The pair would taste their first tag team gold in July of 1980 when one-half of the then tag team champions, Greg Gagne, no-showed the event, leaving his partner, Mad Dog Vachon, to forfeit the titles.

The East-West Connection would hold the titles for eleven months before Gagne came back around with Jim Brunzell, and the High Flyers unseated Jesse Ventura and Adrian Adonis. Not long after this, the team left the AWA and headed back to Adonis’s old stomping grounds in New York.

Adrian Adonis with the legendary Freddie Blassie.
Adrian Adonis with the legendary Freddie Blassie.

Joining the WWF

Upon their arrival at the WWF, Jesse Ventura and Adrian Adonis were paired with Freddie Blassie, and they hit the tag ranks.

During the fall of ’81, however, there was already a heel team seated with the belts in Mr. Fuji and Mr. Saito, and they were drawing well in that spot. It was unusual for heel tag teams to face off, let alone one defeat another for the gold in those days, so that left the East-West Connection a bit out in the cold.

Ventura and Adonis were on a bigger, better-paying stage, and each was smart enough not to let that pass them by. Slowly the two started to work singles matches until they got their shot at the tag titles. They both had shots at Bob Backlund and his heavyweight title, and Adonis had a strong run with Pedro Morales and the Intercontinental strap into 1982.

A series of losses and injury would eventually put Ventura behind the mic and at the announce position, where he really stood out with his verbose abuse of the gold blazered Vince McMahon on the Saturday Night’s Main Event brand.

The North-South Connection: Adrian Adonis and Dick Murdoch

Adrian Adonis started to shift gears and look for a new direction to set himself apart on the ever-expanding roster of talents that were flooding in during those years in the WWF. He had to keep working, and he took the concept he had with The Body and partnered with the redneck Dick Murdoch, forming the North-South Connection.

The North-South Connection: Dick Murdoch and Adrian Adonis
The North-South Connection: Dick Murdoch and Adrian Adonis

It wasn’t a stroke of creative genius, but Adrian Adonis and Dick Murdoch hit a stride and won the WWF Tag Team Championships off of the Soul Patrol (Rocky Johnson and Tony Atlas) on April 17th, 1984, putting an end to their historic run with the titles.

The North-South Connection held the tag belt for a little over eight months before being defeated by the U.S. Express.

During their reign with the titles, the pair partied all across the country and seldom hit a gym while eating at whatever greasy spoon they decided to whip into. It wasn’t long before Adonis packed on the weight and began to resemble the fatter stature that most fans associate him with. It never impaired his ability to work or move around the ring, which in some aspects would lean to his benefit more than a detriment when it came to standing out in the crowd. While Ventura was spreading his wings as one of the voices of the company, it was Adonis that crawled into his cocoon, only to re-emerge as some obese Tammy Fay butterfly that would make everyone take notice.

Adonis missed out on a WrestleMania I appearance and was working as a heel mechanic under Bobby Heenan, but toward the end of 1985, he took Jimmy Hart as his manager and shortly after competed in the Wrestling Classic tournament where he would go out in the quarter-finals to the Dynamite Kid.

In 1986, he ceremoniously gave away his leather jacket to Roddy Piper, who continued to wear it for years later and became known for that himself, as well as Ronda Rousey in recent history. All that goes back to Adrian.

Adrian Adonis after reinventing his look, alongside manager Jimmy Hart.
Adrian Adonis after becoming “Adorable,” alongside manager Jimmy Hart.

Becoming Adorable Adrian Adonis

Once Adrian Adonis had shed himself of every vestige of his former persona, his new creation emerged donned in leg warmers, tights that were too small, and that classic overdone make-up.

With the tiny phrenetic Jimmy Hart in tow, blaring his squeaky voice over the megaphone, it was the perfect combination to hate. Adonis had taken the original gimmick that started them all, the Gorgeous George fancy-man, effeminate complete with a spray bottle. Adonis upped the ante with see-through shawls of sheer fabric that he would swat at his opponents as he taunted them just out of distance. He knew that role so well, and he played it at a master’s level.

He took this new character to WrestleMania II and was booked against an obvious foil that would be intolerant of his prissy ways. He met Uncle Elmer in the third part of the show that emanated from L.A. Memorial Arena, and like most Elmer matches, it was over quickly. Adonis dropped a head-butt on him and got the win in just over three minutes.

He later worked runs against JYD and had a shot at Hulk Hogan later that year, but it would be the following year that gave him his greatest success in the business.

As most things do in professional wrestling, it all came full circle for Adrian Adonis when he got the chance to work with perhaps the greatest heel the WWF saw in many years, but one who had recently been routed toward the role of a babyface.

Roddy Piper took a leave of absence after his loss to Mr. T at WrestleMania II. During this hiatus, Adonis took over Piper’s Pit and changed it to the Flower Shop, and used it as a forum to taunt not only Piper but Paul Orndorff as he was about to get his run at Hogan. He even went so far as to get Piper’s henchman, Bob Orton Jr., in on the action and totally sell the idea of Piper returning as a good guy, which he did in grand Piper fashion on an episode of Superstars that led to the two meetings at Saturday Night’s Main Event in October of 1986.

Watch: The Flower Ship with Adrian Adonis and Roddy Piper

Adonis worked an injury to allow Piper to re-take his namesake Pit set and further build the storyline that would eventually culminate at WrestleMania III in March of 1987.

Not only did the match hold the hair-vs-hair stipulation, which was particularly bad for Adonis, but it was also going to be billed as Piper’s “retirement” match because he was going to be leaving to film the now-classic, “They Live.”

The two worked the match to perfection as you would expect them to. It had all the bells and whistles of a big WrestleMania match with the anticipation for it being palpable, and they did not fail to deliver on its promise. It only lasted a short six minutes and change, but they did so much in that time.

Adonis bounced all over the ring, and Piper was able to unleash his kept anger on him in the process. It ended with Jimmy Hart interfering and Brutus Beefcake coming to help the Hot Rod. Piper put Adonis under with the sleeper in true hair match fashion but had trouble cutting the thick wet hair of the Adorable One. When Brutus stepped in to help another gimmick legend was given light with the birth of The Barber, yet another historical moment that can be traced back to Adonis.

Watch: Adrian Adonis vs. Roddy Piper at WrestleMania III

The Pontiac Silverdome saw many great matches and stories told that evening (see: Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat and, of course, Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant), and Piper and Adonis’s match stood out as one of the best.

Release from the WWF

Not long after the height of WrestleMania III, under a cloud of suspicion on the part of many in the WWF, Adrian Adonis was let go by the company just as he was to start a run with Beefcake. It was cited that he was released due to having a poor attitude outside of the ring and dress code violations, but many in the business felt that there were tensions between Vince McMahon and Adonis. However, those rumors have never been substantiated. Whatever the real reason, his time in the WWF was done, and he moved on to other pastures, so to speak, and continued to work.

Paul E. Dangerously with Adorable Adrian Adonis.
Paul E. Dangerously with Adorable Adrian Adonis in the AWA.

He took his Adorable gimmick back to the AWA, where he had a short-lived run managed by Paul E. Dangerously. He then took some time off to mend a hurt ankle but turned back up in New Japan Pro Wrestling in the summer of 1988, seeing action and reuniting with the likes of his old North-South Connection partner, Dick Murdoch. The two would compete for the IWGP Tag Team Championships at the end of June but failed to take them from Choshu and Saito. This would be the last time he went for championship gold.

The Tragic Death of Adrian Adonis

Adorable Adrian Adonis, Keith Franke, was killed in a freak auto accident on the 4th of July, 1988 in Lewisporte, Newfoundland, Canada on his way to a wrestling event. He was in a minivan with fellow wrestlers William “Mike Kelly” Arko, Victor “Pat Kelly” Arko, and Dave McKigney. Adonis, McKigney, and Victor Arko were killed when the driver, William Arko, allegedly swerved to miss a moose that the driver failed to see in the glare of the afternoon sun. The men went off the side of the road, plunged off a bridge, and fell into the creek below them. Adonis died from head injuries he sustained from the fall a few hours later. He was only thirty-four years old. He left behind his wife, Bea, and two daughters, Angela and Gena.

The history of this business is riddled with the names of the men that were taken too soon, and Adonis is surely on that list. He was great beyond his years as a performer and can be cited as one of the few men in the business that didn’t need to carry a singles title to be over. Some men need that belt to elevate themselves to that next level of competition, Adrian Adonis did not. He played two very opposite heels and found success in both, which is a huge nod to his abilities in the ring, and in front of the camera. He caught your attention with his audacious behavior, and then kept it there with his unabashed arrogance, and presence between the ropes. He was truly one of the best.

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Jim Phillips
Jim Phillips is a contributor for Pro Wrestling Stories. He's been a wrestling fan since the late '70s and a journeyman writer for the past decade. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]