Before his debut in 1972, "Irish" Davey O’Hannon was a big professional wrestling fan. But he never envisioned he’d soon be on the road and in the ring with his heroes, much less be able to call some of them his friends.
"I was in Madison Square Garden when Bruno beat Buddy Rogers for the title. I lived and died with Bruno as a fan. So for me, it was a dream come true to be able to get in the business and work with him and many others throughout the territories, spending a better part of 20 years doing it."
– Davey O’Hannon
"Davey O’Hannon was a former Texas Brass Knuckles Champ and the NWA Western States Tag Team Titleholder with Dennis Stamp," describes Evan Ginzburg, the Associate Producer of The Wrestler and 350 Days. "The man gave 110% and a quality performance, whether in a prelim, mid-card, or main event role. If you saw him month in and month out as I did for years in the old WWWF, he’s one of the most underrated men ever to step foot in a ring."
Bruce Hart described Davey O’Hannon as a carpenter who built up other stars. In contrast, Davey describes himself as a "journeyman" who fondly remembers bouts against Dory Funk Jr., younger brother Terry, Manny Soto, Pete Sanchez, Mike Scicluna, and Dominic Denucci. A 20-minute time limit draw in 1982 at Madison Square Garden against Johnny Rodz is considered by the kelly green jacket attired Davey O’Hannon as one of his career’s most stellar moments.
Davey O’Hannon – Growing Up a Fan Then Living His Dream
As a young kid growing up in New Jersey, Davey O’Hannon loved watching wrestling, and around the age of seven, decided that he wanted to be like his heroes of the squared circle. He remembers having a vast collection of wrestling magazines that he believes his dad made him throw away after bringing poor grades from school. "That collection of mine would be worth a lot of money today!" proclaims Davey.
When he got older, he went to the matches and bugged the promoters, telling them, "I want to be a wrestler, I want to be a wrestler," and they’d answer, "Okay, kid. Come back after college." So Davey went to college in Missouri and started to watch wrestling out of Kansas City. While on break, he went home to the Northeast and paid Arnold Skaaland a visit, an agent for Capital Sports, where he tried to see if he could get into wrestling. Skaaland also told him that he must finish college first.
It was not easy to get into the arcane world of professional wrestling, but Davey O’Hannon found an unconventional way to gain access. Once back in Missouri, he went to the Kansas City War Memorial Auditorium full of hopes and dreams in his heart but with only a suitcase filled with the bare minimum, namely his college wrestling tights and perhaps a toothbrush and towel.
He went and knocked on the door at two o’clock on a Thursday afternoon. When someone opened, they asked him whether he was a wrestler. Davey assured them that he was. He doesn’t feel bad recounting the story because, technically, he wasn’t lying. In all truthfulness, he was indeed a college wrestler, just not a professional.
He was let in and shown where the dressing room was. Wrestlers started to filter in. The first to show up was a tag team called The Outlaws, comprised of Dick Murdoch and Dusty Rhodes.
Then Pat O’Conner strolled in, who Davey considers an absolute legend in the business. Soon later, promoters Gus Karras and partner Bob Geigel, noticing an unfamiliar face, decided to approach Davey and brusquely asked, "What are you doing here?"
"Well, Arnold Skaaland told me that you could help me out," replied Davey.
A bemused Bob Geigel asked, "You know Arnold Skaaland?"
"Well, yeah," assured Davey. "I want to get in the wrestling business, and he told me that you could help me out."
Unsure of what was going on, they looked at each other, then answered, "Okay, just sit tight for a while."
So Davey just sat in the locker room area while the scheduled show went on. He was an outsider who was not smartened up to the business but was rubbing shoulders with Dick The Bruiser, Harley Race, and many others.
After the show, Bob Geigel and lady wrestler Betty Nicoli took him to a hotel where all the wrestlers were staying. The next morning, he bought Davey breakfast and told him to be in Sedalia, Missouri, on Tuesday at 6 PM so that he could start.
Davey admits that nobody really trained him when entering pro wrestling. All the learning was OTJ (on the job), having matches with different wrestlers, and when not, he’d watch the others face-off in the ring to see if he could incorporate anything into his matches. "I started in this business as a fan before the old-timers smartened you up right away to the business. You had to kind of do your apprenticeship on the job. I was a pretty accomplished amateur wrestler, a decent athlete, and played Big 8 football."
Davey remembers how new everything was to him. "All I knew is what I saw on TV and in magazines. I knew how to wrestle, though, but I didn’t know anything about the business. My first match was against Joe Scarpello, who was a several time AAU and NCAA champ; the guy was an unbelievable shooter."
Although Davey was slightly taller and had about 50 lbs on Scarpello, he regrets that "he absolutely cleaned my clock, turned me upside down and inside out because I wasn’t smart [to the business], and they figured it out right away."
Davey surprised everyone when he blurted out terminology only wrestlers in the business would know. "In the ring, I told the referee, ‘Are we shootin’ or workin’?’ I actually didn’t know what workin’ meant, but I had heard somebody say it in the locker room. The referee was somebody named Ronnie Etchison, and all I heard him say was, ‘Oh christ… here we go!’"
His opponent gave no intimation indicating that he’d go easy on him. "Joe Scarpello looked at me and said, ‘Take your best hold, kid.’ "Well, for six minutes, I couldn’t get my best hold ’cause Scarpello had me all wrapped up!"
Once they finished and returned to the dressing room, Davey was on a bench with his head in his hands. As Scarpello went by, he gave Davey a little slap on the neck and said, "See ya tomorrow, kid!" Davey recalls a voice in his head, thinking, "Oh yeah, maybe not! Don’t know if we’re going to do this again!" Davey admits that Scarpello didn’t hurt him, but he let him know that he absolutely could if needed.
Did you know? Joe Scarpello joined the Air Force after high school and flew 18 missions over Germany during WWII. Later at the University of Iowa, he became teammates with Bob Geigel and won two NCAA championships, and was a four-time All-American as a wrestler. As a professional wrestler, his career spanned 25 years, where he mainly competed for the AWA and was a top attraction across the Midwest and South.
A couple of nights later, he went to St. Joseph, Missouri, where they did TV for the Kansas City territory. While sitting in the dressing room, Bob Geigel came waltzing in and said, "So you came back, ah?" Davey simply answered, "Yes, sir."
Geigel continued, "Okay, well, you have an easy one tonight." To Davey’s surprise, he’d be working with the legendary Lou Thesz! Thesz was a renowned "hooker" in the business able to cripple an opponent in the ring if warranted. His dominant title reigns are comparable only to Bruno Sammartino’s in length.
Davey remembers the similarities and differences between the two. "Joe Scarpello was a nice guy and tough. Lou Thesz wasn’t as nice a guy and tough." The next night, "Irish" Davey O’Hannon’s luck was running out, and any pretensions of him having an off night disappeared because Danny Hodge would be working with him in Waterloo. Hodge was a consummate warrior of the ring and notorious for sometimes stretching and taking advantage of inexperienced newcomers.
"That was an attitude test to see if I was going to be a jerk or to see if I really wanted to learn what was going on," says Davey. But once the wrestlers earned your trust, they’d offer to give you constructive criticism to improve your matches. "The Spoiler" Don Jardine, Blackjack Mulligan, and George Steele were some of the people he remembers giving him advice on how to improve.
Watch: Davey O’Hannon explains that he has a Ph.D. in wrestling
In one of his first matches against Bobo Brazil, Davey O’Hannon remembers it "being a stinker." Being very green at the time, working with a star like Brazil, who he had been a fan of, was nerve-racking enough for the greenhorn to be tentative and somewhat gun-shy. "After the match, Bobo came to me and said, ‘Hey Kid, they told me you were okay, what the hell happened out there?’" Davey answered, "I’ll tell you exactly what happened: You’re Bobo Brazil!"
O’Hannon continued, "I watched him as a kid and didn’t want to do my stuff because I didn’t want to step out of line. But that said, Bobo was one of the easiest guys to ever work with. This guy, you didn’t even know he was there. That’s how light he was. Subsequently, I worked with him several times, and we had fantastic matches."
Davey O’Hannon started wrestling in the Northeast after visiting Arnold Skaaland and telling him that he was in the business now. Tony Garea’s first match in the New York territory was against Davey and took place in the Philadephia Arena. Garea, who Davey calls "one of the finest workers I ever worked with," went on to become a tag team specialist and later a road agent for WWE.
Davey O’Hannon had more than 3,000 matches throughout his career. On June 11th, 1976, he obtained the NWA Western States Tag Team Championship (Amarillo, Texas territory) with partner Dennis Stamp who, when alive and pushing 70 years of age, still wrestled. Davey remembers his tag partner as being a very unique but talented individual. "Dennis was eccentric times ten and believed in the power of pyramids to a point where he believed they’d keep fruit from going bad, or even improve your sex life," recalls Davey when remembering his former tag partner. "He was a real crackpot but an excellent worker," he adds. Younger fans might remember him appearing in the documentary Beyond The Mat, where his phrase "I’m not booked" went viral after Terry Funk in the film is practically begging Stamp to work what was supposedly going to be Terry’s last match.
One of Davey O’Hannon’s few regrets was when he didn’t want to put David Von Erich over in his debut and only appearance at Madison Square Garden on November 19th, 1979. In Texas, Davey had frequently lost to the Von Erichs and had no qualms about doing it. But with a match between them in New York, he thought differently at the time.
Davey admits that he unfortunately developed a bad attitude during this time in his career and didn’t see the logic of doing the job for someone coming in from Texas in what Davey considered "his territory." Much later, he found out that the NWA was grooming David to be a future NWA World Champion, and he understands now, looking back, that he wasted a golden opportunity to have had an excellent match with David. In his opinion, David was the best worker of all the Von Erich brothers.
Davey O’Hannon was a huge fan of Bruno Sammartino, even before entering the business. His awe for the Italian strongman did not subside even when working with him. Expounding on how big of a star Bruno was is unnecessary, but his unpretentiousness and generosity towards others are the stories that keep his legendary status alive.
A nervous Davey once told Bruno, "I hope you don’t think I’m sounding too much like a fan, but I got these two foldouts of you [from the wrestling magazines], but if I bring them next time we’re together, would you sign them for me?"
An incredulous Bruno replied, "Are you kidding me? You have to ask me that question?"
"I had to pinch myself a couple of times and say, ‘Well crap, I’m working here with Bruno Sammartino!’"
Davey also vividly recalls when he was able to get Bruno to speak on the phone with a local Italian gentleman named Rocco, who owned the store in New Jersey, where he used to get his wrestling boots made. The happiness on Rocco’s face when Davey told him that he indeed knew Bruno Samartino and could get him on the phone was truly priceless. The conversation between the diminutive Italian shop owner and Bruno went on for at least 45 minutes. It was just another example of Bruno being the embodiment of friendliness, generosity, and a man of the people.
It honored Davey O’Hannon to be able to present Bruno Sammartino his Hall of Fame ring in 2012, at the former location of the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in Amsterdam, New York. Bruno had been inducted ten years prior but was finally convinced by Davey O’Hannon and by former founder and administrator of the PWHF Tony Vellano to receive his ring. Bruno is said to have been wary about going because he thought that this HOF was related to the WWE. During this time, Bruno had bad blood with Vince McMahon. Bruno was able to reunite with his former tag team partner and friend, the scrappy Dominic DeNucci on that day.
Davey O’Hannon on Fun and Games in the Wrestling Business
Almost 20 years in wrestling and continuously on the road are fertile ground for unforgettable stories, and Davey O’Hannon certainly has them.
"On tour with New Japan Pro Wrestling, it was myself, Don Muraco, Masked Superstar (Bill Eadie), Tony Atlas, and over there already was Karl Gotch, who I’d never met before. We also had André The Giant, and I think Hogan came over for a week along with the Iron Sheik."
Davey remembers that in Japan, they valued the fans that went to the events and tried to give them a little something extra. "The promoters brought into the dressing room laundry baskets filled with sponge balls, and they’d provide us with Sharpies to autograph them. Then when you got to the ring, the baskets would be there, and you’d pick them up and toss them out to the people, hundreds of sponge balls. So we’re in the ring with all the babyfaces on one side throwing these balls out to the fans, and my friend Muraco says to me, ‘Screw this. Let’s get Atlas!’ I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds like a good idea!’
"So we really start whipping the balls over to hit Tony Atlas, who’s got his back to us because he’s doing his poses. So I say, ‘I’ll get him,’ and I step a little closer, and I wound up and let it fly. But when I threw the ball, Tony Atlas bent down, and the ball went over his back and hit Karl Gotch right in the eye. I thought holy shit and said, ‘Oh my God!’ I could feel my ears and face get all red, and I got butterflies in my stomach. I think I heard Muraco say, ‘Oh man, you better get right to the airport.’ And I turned around, and they were all gone! They were all outside the ring, throwing them to the people, and I was standing there. It was like what you see in on a cartoon, man! Like when Wile E. Coyote sees that anvil coming down on him in slow motion… well, here’s the ball coming in slow motion to Karl Gotch’s eye; my hand is out, and I’m the one standing in the ring. I was praying that I wasn’t going to have to be in the ring with this guy!"
Davey continued, "We finished the show, and because we had separate dressing rooms, I didn’t see him. The next morning at the hotel, I come down for breakfast and walk around these plants. Karl Gotch is sitting there! I thought, ‘Oh, crap! I’m going to get killed right here in this restaurant!’ So I said to him, ‘Mr. Gotch, I’m extremely sorry about that. It was an accident; I didn’t want to be disrespectful.’ In the nice stormtrooper accent of his, he said, ‘You could’ve taken my eye out, but you seem like a nice boy.’"
A disconcerted Davey could only proceed to sit down and eat breakfast with the unfortunate gentleman he almost caused to wear an eye patch like a pirate.
Encounters with André the Giant
Davey O’Hannon also had many encounters with the Eighth Wonder of the World, André the Giant.
"I spent quite a bit of time with André. Once we were in Amarillo and right across the street from the hotel, there was a bar we used to go to. André could put away a couple of drinks when he felt like it," recalls Davey sarcastically. "It was unreal!"
"We were leaving the bar, and there was a little construction site next door with a fence around it so nobody could get in. André thought it would be a nifty joke if he snatched me up and hung me by my jeans on the fence. The fence was eight feet tall, man! He picked me up and hooked this thing into the back pocket of my jeans and also part of my ass. And he said, ‘Huh, see how long that takes, boss.’ And I went, ‘Oh ow! Don’t leave me here!’ Luckily two other guys got me down."
Davey also recalls in Reading, Pennsylvania, at the Lincoln Motor Inn where they used to stay between TV tapings, an incident where Pedro Morales helped André – who had quite a few beers in him – take him up to his room. André had his arm slung around Pedro, but when they got there, André passed out on top of Pedro, and both fell onto the floor. No matter how much he tried, Pedro couldn’t get out from underneath his massive weight. Luckily, he was able to get one arm out from underneath André and pulled the phone towards him to call for help. The surprised attendant at the front desk picked up and heard Pedro yelling, ‘Send some of the wrestlers up here, I can’t get up, baby!’ So Davey O’Hannon and a bunch of the wrestlers had to go up and help put André on the bed!
Recommended read: ANDRE THE GIANT: Revealed! – His Very Best Stories
Old School vs. The New Way
Davey O’Hannon notices a considerable difference between now and when he wrestled. "We performed in front of people that believed. The reason people believed in what we were doing is that we believed what we were doing. We never went out, did a cartoon, never short-changed the fans."
Davey adds, "If you were hurt, unfortunately, some of us would take something to stop the hurt, and that becomes a problem after a while. But when the lights came up, and we had to perform, we did it. I’ve had 16 major orthopedic surgeries. I’m deaf in my right ear, and it was a present from my dear, dear friend, rest his soul, Pedro [Morales]. I forgot he was left-handed, and I said to him, ‘Let me see your best slap,’ and I leaned the wrong way, and Pedro slapped me so hard that he knocked me into another zip code. Oh, my God!
"With all joking aside, I hear noises in my head. I bet you twice a day I say to my wife, ‘What?’ ‘What was that? Did you hear that?’ and she just shakes her head."
The guys now are phenomenal athletes; there’s no taking that away from them, and it’s not sour grapes. I got a nice life, a decent house, and once in a while, I can have a steak, but guys gave their lives to this business, and it’s just different now. I just don’t think it’s the wrestling business anymore. When I wrestled, you were there to win an athletic contest. That’s how I learned it. You were in there to win a wrestling match.
"Davey is living history," proclaims Evan Ginzburg, "a tremendous wrestler and human being."
Davey O’Hannon is an honorary trustee on the Board of Directors for the IPWHF (International Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame) and, in 2011, was the Event Coordinator for a dinner honoring Angelo Savoldi, who was the oldest living professional wrestler at the time.
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