In 1973, while working for Nick Gulas, "Dandy" Jack Donovan got caught between the politics, greed, and unsubstantiated rumors that continue to give the sport a black eye. It was a situation that almost turned deadly and changed the careers of the men involved forever.
Jack Donovan – The Early Years, Meeting Gorgeous George
Jack Dunnavant was born in Alabama and had a rough start in wrestling as a referee in Georgia, where he claims that he wasn’t smartened up completely at the beginning. This led to him making mistakes, causing people who weren’t intended to lose to do so, and vice-versa.
A couple of years later, in 1956, while still learning the business’s ins and outs, he was tasked with the "privilege" of driving Gorgeous George around and making sure he appeared sober on the dates scheduled.
Donovan explained the arrangement in a 1996 interview with Scott Teal, published in the book The Wrestling Archive Project, Volume 1. "George had a bad drinking problem. He would draw you money, but he couldn’t get from the dressing room to the ring sober if you didn’t have somebody there watching him. He certainly couldn’t get from town to town, so it was worked out for me to drive him around."
He continues, "I did that for about five months but had to give it up. I couldn’t take it. I don’t care where you went or how close you watched him. That man could get whiskey somewhere. I never drank, so it was hard for me to understand."
Donovan remembers in Salt Lake City, Utah was one the few times under his watch where Gorgeous George failed to make a show. "George didn’t like to do interviews, but he agreed to do one this time. He did it at five o’clock; then I took him back to his room. When I went back to get him at seven-thirty, he was dead drunk." He went on to say, "I panicked and called Dave [Reynolds], who was the promoter. He let his wife go down to open the box office and start selling tickets. He brought tomato juice, coffee, and everything else you ever heard of to sober him up. Dave had on a short-sleeve shirt and tie. He just kicked off his shoes and took George in the shower, thinking that would sober him up, but it was too late. We worked on him until nine o’clock and finally just had to go ahead and cancel him out."
While booked in Tennessee for Nick Gulas, he met woman wrestler/manager Verne Bottoms who eventually became his wife. Donovan recounts, "We had a working agreement. Verne already knew the business, so she helped me get booked and took care of the business ends of things. She told me how to get into the money and what to avoid to stay in the money. She was a good business manager up to a point. I’d like to think my working ability got me the rest of the way. Back then, promoters wouldn’t let you come into their territory to make money or put you into the money unless another promoter recommended you."
As a wrestler, he continued to use his real name until 1958, when he started to call himself "Irish" Jack Donovan. But when he was told his mannerisms were similar to the way Gorgeous George performed in the ring, he became "Dandy" Jack Donovan, the name most remember him by.
Donovan recalls that he would explain things to Donovan and offer advice on how to be a heel during the months he chauffeured and watched over Gorgeous George. George would tell him, "When you walk out of that dressing room, lean back and look down your nose at the people. Just think back to when you were a ten-year-old playing in the pasture and when you stepped barefoot right into a greasy cow patty. Just get that snarl on your face like you stepped into a big pile, and look down your nose at ’em." Donovan continues, "The only thing he forgot to tell me was when you make those people mad, you’d better be ready to fight ’em!"
Jack Donovan Teams Up With Buddy Colt
Around 1966, when Leroy McGuirk didn’t have anyone to replace The Assassins (Tom Renesto and Jody Hamilton) in Oklahoma, Jack Donovan and Buddy Colt (Ron Reed) formed a very successful tag team. Colt wasn’t used to working heel and was helped by Donovan in their first matches. Donovan recounts, "It was funny, when [Colt] first turned, he constantly wanted to make those babyface moves. He would come back to the corner, and I’d tell him, ‘No-no-no. Don’t do that!’ He’d make a heel move, then come back to the corner and say, ‘What do I do now?’ Thinking back, it was sort of comical. We had a lot of fun together."
Donovan remembers fondly the code of honor Colt maintained with him, a trait seemingly rare in wrestling throughout its history. "Of all the partners I ever had, and I could go on down the line naming them off, he was the only partner that didn’t let the office come between us or didn’t cut my throat in the office. We were together for over a year and never had a misunderstanding or cross word between us."
Ike Eakins Sent to "Take Care of" Jack Donovan
In 1965, Jack Donovan almost had a brush with Ike Eakins, whom he referred to as "a pistol." Promoter Leroy McGuirk sent Eakins to break his leg, according to Donovan, because someone in West Memphis had put the word out in Oklahoma that somehow Donovan was planning to run opposition to LeRoy. Eakins had been sent to take care of the situation and make sure McGuirk’s threat was neutralized.
Eventually, Eakins told Donovan why he’d arrived in the territory but decided not to go through with it because Donovan had helped him on several occasions and so decided he wouldn’t break his leg, no matter the sum offered to him.
The night they worked, they agreed to have a double disqualification, and no harm befell Donovan. The next day, however, Donovan feigned ignorance and spoke to Bob Clay, who promoted Wichita Falls, Texas (not Kansas). As Donovan recalls when he arrived early at McGuirk’s office, "Rarely could you catch LeRoy where you could talk to him because of all the stooges around! Now, LeRoy was blind, but I could tell he was deep in thought by the way he sat and twiddled his thumbs."
Then Donovan and promoter Bob Clay began to talk. "What happened at Fort Smith [Arkansas] last night?" asked Bob.
Donovan, "acting dumb," replied, "I don’t know. What do you mean? I worked with Ike Eakins, and we both got disqualified. Hiro Matsuda and Mike Clancy went broadway. I don’t really know what the midgets did."
Bob said, "No, I’m talking about in the dressing room. Didn’t ya’ll have some trouble in the dressing room?"
Donovan answered, "Not that I know of. Of course, I didn’t stay in the dressing room because it was so hot and stuffy in there. I’d just get out in front of the [electric] fans." He continued to act like he didn’t know what Bob was talking about.
In 1965, Jack Donovan was a passenger in a car when Terry Funk wrecked his ’65 Ford Mustang in Canyon, Texas. Neither was injured, but there was concern over them being seen together because Terry was a babyface and Donovan a heel. Terry ended up calling his mother-in-law, borrowed her car, and left Donovan in front of a hospital with his "injured shoulder."
In 1970, before injuring his ankle, LeRoy McGuirk planned to make Donovan one-half of the original" Hollywood Blondes" with Jerry Brown. Buddy Roberts was given the spot instead.
The Build-Up To The Attack
In one of the most heinous and unpardonable acts ever to have occurred behind the curtain wall of wrestling’s past, in 1973, while working for Nick Gulas in Tennessee, Donovan claims he was attacked twice by Tojo Yamamoto and Jackie Fargo. Later Jerry Jarrett is said to have been involved in the second attack that almost killed "Dandy" Jack Donovan.
When asked about his theory on why it happened, he answered, "This was going on back when I worked in Knoxville [Kentucky] a lot. I sometimes wonder if that little problem that we had wasn’t caused by me being offered to double-cross John Cazana, but I wouldn’t go for it. Three weeks after that, we had trouble with Tojo [Yamamoto]."
Knoxville, in eastern Kentucky, was an island city in the Gulas-Welch territory for many years. Promoter John Cazana ran the region for twenty years with ties to Nashville, Tennessee. The wrestlers who worked these smaller towns were typically under contract to "Gulas-Welch Promotions."
The plan was for Jack Donovan and Bearcat Wright, who had just turned babyface in other towns (but not yet in Louisville), to face off against the Garvins [Ronnie and Terry] in Louisville after turning them away four weeks in a row in various cities. Recorded footage of them battling the Garvins was being shown in other markets and would be presented to the fans in Louisville the following week. So the turn leading to the Louisville match would have to be such that Donovan couldn’t seem "heelish" or a coward because fans would remember that in a span of only two weeks.
Nick Gulas had gone on vacation, and that night, Jack Donovan was scheduled to work with Tojo Yamamoto. Referee Ronnie West approached Donovan and told him to put Tojo over.
Donovan answered, "Wait a minute. Wait a minute. That tape is gonna show here Saturday, and the following week, Bearcat is gonna come up here with me against the Garvins. Go back and tell Eddie Marlin or Christine [Jarrett] that they need to change this."
Ronnie West answered, "Well, I can’t get to Christine right now."
"I hadn’t really expected any problems because I always had a good working relationship with Jackie Fargo, and we were pretty good friends. I didn’t have nothing against Jarrett and didn’t have any problems with Tojo."
Ronnie West came back a little later before it was time to get the match started but claimed that he couldn’t find Christine. Donovan replied, "I’m willing to do business, but let’s not chop the hand that feeds us. If you take me out there and beat me with a one-two-three in about two minutes, which was all Tojo could go-take me out there and beat me like that-I’m not gonna draw beans next week. Go find Christine, change the match, or do something. That’s not good business as far as I’m concerned."
Once in the ring, West repeated to Donovan that he couldn’t find Christine and offered a possible finish, "I’ll tell Tojo to duck when you throw a punch, and you hit me, then I’ll disqualify you."
Donovan replied, "Well, that’s not gonna help either. That ain’t gonna help me a bit if I’m turning babyface."
At the time in Louisville, they had a policy that wrestlers couldn’t fight on the floor, so that that idea couldn’t be used either.
Tojo didn’t offer a nearly sensible solution either, according to Donovan. "When the bell rings, you tag me (tag as in "to strike or hit hard") and beat me down for a minute. I’ll get up and give you one chop and beat you."
Donovan’s reply to that was, "Don’t do that. If I tag you before the bell rings, that’s gonna make me a coward, to begin with. In two weeks, I’m gonna be a babyface here. And see, wrestling fans, don’t forget that."
Tojo Yamamoto versus Jack Donovan – The Match And The First Attack
Tojo Yamamoto, as predicted, was blown up after a couple of minutes and wanted Donovan to finish the match.
Donovan tells the story, "He’s huffing and puffing. I backed him into the ropes and was slugging him. The referee kept coming in, and I’d keep shoving him away. Good old Ronnie West was pretty good at taking bumps from the boys. The third time he came up there, I picked him up and halfway threw him across the ring, then went back on Tojo to get my heat back."
Then Tojo stopped selling and slapped Donovan across the face "with his hands and fingers real stiff." Donovan looked at him and said, "Hey, do you want to work or what?!"
Tojo started mumbling back, and Donovan saw that he was "halfway shooting with him." That’s when Donovan says that he went behind him and rammed his middle finger about joint deep in his right eye. It popped right out on his cheek, and then he took him down on the mat with an armbar.
Donovan, now on the mat, had his back towards the babyface dressing room and, by the noise of the crowd, expected some wrestlers to pull them apart, and it would be over with.
"First thing I know," Donovan said, "I thought somebody dropped a brick on top of my head or something." He spun around, and he saw Eddie Marlin, Jackie Fargo, and someone else. Donovan claims that Fargo had hit him on top of the head with a snub-nosed revolver. Donovan proceeded to get out of the ring and told Marlin, "Stay out of this. This is a shoot. This is strictly between me, Tojo and Fargo."
Eddie backed away. They had both a mutual friend who had died of cancer in ’64, so he believes that this might be the reason Eddie stopped his involvement.
The Second Attack, Jack Donovan Barely Escapes Alive
The next day at the television station on July 18th, 1973, everyone was doing their interviews for the next towns, including the McGuire Twins and the Garvins. Nick Gulas, who had been on vacation, made it back but was late arriving. Donovan remembers, "Len Rossi came in and picked me out of the crowd and said, ‘Come here, I want to talk to you. Nick and Jarrett want to talk to you.’"
Donovan replied, "Yeah, I probably know what it’s about." He imagined it was about the night before, but Rossi didn’t address it.
Rossi replied, "I don’t know what it’s about." He looked at his watch and said, "I have to go do an interview for Johnson City."
Donovan retells the story of the attack, "He hadn’t been gone for two minutes when the door opened, and Tojo popped in the room. Right behind him was Jerry Jarrett, and behind him, Jackie Fargo. I just sat there. Tojo had his hand in his pocket. When I realized I was going to have to defend myself, I stood up. Tojo swung at me with his left hand, and I ducked under it. When I did, I went behind him and shoved him up against the wall. He had a gun in his hand, but it was stuck in his pocket. When he got it out, it fell onto the floor and spun around. It was a Snubnose .38."
While struggling with Tojo, he heard Jackie Fargo say, "Get that gun, it’s mine!"
"When I shoved Tojo, I watched Fargo to see what he was going to do with the gun when he picked it up. I didn’t know whether he was going to shoot me or not."
Donovan continues to divulge in gruesome detail the assault he says he received. "The next thing I know, Fargo and Jarrett are each holding my arms while Tojo hit me over the head with that wooden shoe of his. One of the blocks across it hit me on top of the head and split my head open, and it just took the end off my nose and split my lip clear up through my nostrils. When he hit me on the head, I went to my knees, and I could hear someone say, ‘Close the door! Closet the door!’"
Donovan explains how he barely escaped with his life.
"Luckily, they had left the door open when they came in. If they had closed it, I honestly believe they might have killed me. I was probably five feet from the door. They already had me on my knees, but I just caught my foot on the edge of the shower and used it to launch myself at Tojo and knock him back onto the chair."
Once outside, Donovan was waiting for the boys to come around, but they went to the studio instead of the hallway where he was. Eddie Marlin saw Donovan and wanted to know what happened. Donovan said to get Nick Gulas and that after the interviews, he wanted to speak with Eddie and Jarrett both.
When Eddie asked where Jarrett was, Donovan claims that he was across the hall trying to get the blood off himself.
"It was just one of those things that got started in the ring."
A couple of days later, after Jack Donovan had to cancel his bookings, Nick Gulas showed up at his house and heard his side of the story and went on to say that it was just one of those things that got started in the ring. Referee Ron West told him that Donovan didn’t want to do a job.
To that, Donovan answered, "Well, you can say that if you want to, but I don’t think it’s good business to beat somebody, then bring them back on top next week with a totally different partner. I think you’ll agree on that."
Gulas replied, "Well, you weren’t supposed to get beat."
Donovan claims that Ron West later told him that they had denied telling him that, and that’s the problem with getting the word to the dressing room with one of the boys. It gets all twisted and diluted around by the messenger.
The attack left "Dandy" Jack Donovan out for five weeks with a concussion and 85 stitches in his head and mouth.
Jack Donovan spoke with an attorney in Nashville because he supposed Nick and the others were behind it. But when investigating further, as told to Scott Teal during the interview for his book, Donovan concluded that it had been Jerry Jarrett. He never worked in Tennessee again except in Chattanooga, but for Nick Gulas and Harry Thornton. Shortly after, in 1974, Cazana sold his assets to Ron Fuller.
When speaking with Christine Jarrett at the Gulf Coast Wrestlers’ Reunion in Mobile, Alabama years later, after he had retired from wrestling, Donovan told her that he believes that nobody intended to mistreat anybody. They just wanted to get ahead and do the best they could. He believes that what caused the trouble between him, Jackie Fargo, Tojo, and Jarrett was a form of jealousy, but there are no hard feelings on his part.
Donovan later found out that after Nick Gulas passed away, Jarrett had "certain people" he had to satisfy and get along with who pressured him to do certain things, and if he didn’t, they’d threaten to take him out.
Jerry Jarrett Speaks Out
In 2002, on the WrestlingClassics.com message board, Jerry Jarrett wrote about the incident and began saying, "Like most old war stories, this one is part true and part false."
In summary, his side of the story says that it had nothing to do with Donovan reportedly being offered $7,500 to screw over (Donovan used the term double-cross) promoter John Cazana in Knoxville, Kentucky. Only Tojo Yamamoto attacked Jack Donovan and nobody else, and that it all stemmed from the altercation in the ring where Tojo claimed that Donovan jumped him from behind and stuck his finger in his eye. The only wrestlers that night to confirm what happened were the McGuire Twins, but they were in the back of the arena and not at ringside. Jarrett makes no mention of his alleged involvement. He even said that he was on set doing an interview with Nick Gulas during the second attack. The McGuire Twins supposedly sat with their backs to the door after Tojo spoke with them before Tojo confronted Donovan. There were ten other wrestlers at the studio on that day, and he says that perhaps Donovan, after being hit by Tojo, must have imagined other people attacking him.
Len Rossi Denies Setting Up Jack Donovan in Any Way
Before Tojo Yamamoto attacked Jack Donovan at the television station, he always had the suspicion Len Rossi set him up.
If you recall, before Tojo Yamamoto entered the room and attacked Donovan, the last person to speak with him was Len Rossi. According to Donovan, during the first attack in the ring, when he let go of Tojo, he could see Jackie Fargo, Eddie Marlin, and "someone else."
Len Rossi’s son Joe wrote a letter to writer Scott Teal after reading issue #24 of Whatever Happened to…? where the Donovan-Jarrett-Yamamoto-Fago incident was written about.
Joe denied any involvement by his father Len in the attack Donovan received and went on to explain, "Jack Donovan had come to the TV studio to air his side of what happened in Louisville. He was seeking a fair hearing with the boss/promoter, Nick Gulas. My father had been helping Nick run the promotion since his car wreck. Nick must have known there would be trouble because he told my father to instruct Donovan to leave and that he [Nick] and Jarrett wanted to see him later."
He continues, "My father followed these orders, then returned to the camera room to help with interviews for upcoming matches. That was the total extent of my father’s involvement. He did not set Jack Donovan up."
Two weeks after the attack, Joe and his father Len say that they spoke with Jerry Jarrett in the parking lot of the old Coliseum in Florence, Alabama and what they heard from his mouth "turned their stomachs."
As Joe retells the story, "Jarrett informed us that he knew we disagreed with him about what he termed the ‘Jack Donovan deal.’ We told him exactly how much we disapproved of his actions. He [Jarrett] chose to deal with our response by telling us a story about some hunting dogs he once owned. He said the dogs had gone bad and would no longer hunt, so he shot and killed the dogs. Jarrett told us that Jack Donovan had no more value to him than a worthless dog."
After many years, Joe Rossi had to endure the memory of the attack on Donovan.
"It is my sincere opinion that this incident is the worst representation of animalistic inhumanity I ever witnessed in my 22 years as a professional wrestler. For over twenty years, what happened to Jack that day has been emblazoned in my heart, mind, and soul. It sickened me then and does so when I think about it today. I firmly believe that with the core concepts of human decency, I was taught to value and respect, the individuals who planned, perpetuated, and participated in the attack on Mr. Donovan are guilty of crimes against humanity."
Joe Rossi and his father, Len Rossi, feel that their generation failed in certain areas to perform in a sport and business they all loved. They hope that the new generation of wrestlers will smarten up and finally unionize to keep themselves from being victimized the way they were and not allow themselves to be misused and divided by unscrupulous individuals like they saw while in the sport.
Tojo Yamamoto confided in Joe Rossi years later while in a car together, saying that he had "many instances where he felt that he had committed serious wrongful acts. And as a converted Christian, he was sorry for these things." Tojo always seemed to Joe as a very troubled soul, and he hopes that he is now at peace with God.
The above quotes and story were a summary of the incidents from an interview with Jack Donovan and the letter from Len and Joe Rossi, published in Scott Teal’s The Wrestling Archive Project, Volume 1.
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