"Boogie Woogie Man" Jimmy Valiant has hung up his boots after traveling the world as a professional wrestler for nearly sixty years. We look back on his illustrious career and what he has in store for the exciting new chapter in his life.
The Incomparable Jimmy Valiant
If you were a wrestling fan in the early ’80s, chances are you cannot hear the Manhattan Transfer classic “Boy From New York City” without thinking of Jimmy Valiant.
Jimmy, born James Fanning in Tullahoma, Tennessee, on August 6, 1942, captured several nicknames during his illustrious career. “Gentleman Jimmy,” “Handsome Jimmy,” and, of course, “The Boogie Woogie Man.”
In my humble opinion, one more nickname should be added. When I think of Jimmy Valiant, I think of one word: beloved.
Merriam-Webster defines beloved as “dearly loved,” “much loved,” “cherished,” and “treasured.”
Of course, this was not always the case, as Jimmy was a hated heel for much of the early part of his career. However, just as wine improves with age, so has Mr. Valiant.
James Fanning grew up in Hammond, Indiana, and as a teenager had the typical interests of cars, girls, and football.
After graduation from Hammond Tech High in 1961, Jimmy pondered the typical future options of the average 18-year-old, which included going to school for another four years, or working a blue-collar job like his father.
Although Jimmy’s Dad was a hardworking man, young James had dreams and aspirations not typical of the average teenager: to become a barber, so he enrolled at Molars Barber College in Chicago.
As it turns out, the true barber of professional wrestling is not Brutus Beefcake; it is Jimmy Valiant!
Jimmy graduated from barber school on June 14, 1962, and got married nine days later.
Besides cutting hair, Jimmy worked at a health club called The Acres, owned by Frank Zela. Jimmy also worked at the Dorchester Health Club in Dolton, Illinois, where he managed the club, gave massages to the members, and sold supplements.
Valiant later moved on to the Calumet City Physical Therapy Center. While there, he obtained his Registered Physical Therapy license from the State of Illinois while still maintaining a part-time position at The Acres.
Foray into Professional Wrestling
When Jimmy Valiant was 21, he was summoned into Mr. Zela’s office for a meeting. There, Zela offered Valiant a full-time position to manage his Acres Health Club.
But wait, there’s more! Zela also offered to break Jimmy into the world of professional wrestling, which was something he had dreamed about since childhood.
You see, Mr. Zela had another identity: Boris Volkoff, an evil villain who was one-half of the Volkoff Brothers wrestling tag team.
Boris’s partner in crime was Steve Gob, a gentleman who went by the name of Nicoli Volkoff (not to be confused with Nikolai Volkoff). Gob had been a member of the 1940 Olympic weightlifting team.
After several months of training with Zela and another old-school wrestler by the name of Bobby Managoff, James Fanning made his professional wrestling debut on May 5, 1964, at the St. Andrew’s Gymnasium in Chicago.
He wrestled in a tag team with his high school friend Gary Moldenhour as Jimmy and Gary Valentine, from Hollywood, California. They were on the losing end of the match against Johnny Gilbert and Billy Goelz, known as “The G-Men.”
Life on the Road with the Wrestling Territories
After wrestling at St. Andrew’s for approximately six weeks, the Valentine Brothers were told by their now manager Zela to report to Indianapolis that Thursday to do a television taping for the World Wrestling Association (WWA) promotion, owned by Richard Afflis (better known as Dick The Bruiser) and Wilbur Snyder.
The WWA ran shows throughout Indiana; additionally, Bruiser and Snyder co-promoted a Chicago show monthly with American Wrestling Association (AWA) owner and champion Verne Gagne. Television tapings for any promotion in the territory days were typically marathon events, and the WWA was no exception.
Jimmy wrestled three times during the six-hour session. Although the WWA was not considered part of the “Big Three,” the promotion was certainly not lacking in talent.
Hall of Fame wrestlers such as Dick the Bruiser, Wilbur Snyder, The Crusher, Moose Cholak, Baron Von Raschke, Bobby Heenan, and Pampero Firpo, amongst many others, were mainstays on WWA cards.
Following the TV tapings, Bruiser started booking young Jimmy on untelevised house shows.
At first, it was twice a week, eventually ramping up to five and more every week.
Gary “Valentine” Molenhour was eventually eased out by Bruiser and went on to become a doctor of psychiatry. Tragically, shortly after his graduation, Molenhour was murdered by his lover’s estranged husband.
Before long, Bruiser introduced Jimmy to Edward Farhat, known to most wrestling fans as The Original Sheik. Farhat was the owner and promoter of the Detroit-based Big Time Wrestling promotion.
In addition to working for Bruiser and Farhat, Jimmy also did shots for Verne Gagne in the AWA and Sam Muchnick in the prestigious St. Louis territory. To say young Jimmy was busy is truly an understatement. From there, Jimmy’s career was off to the races.
After receiving his wrestling Ph.D. working for arguably four of the greatest promoters of all time, Jimmy packed his family and his belongings and headed to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he would be wrestling for another iconic promoter by the name of Leroy McGuirk. There, Jimmy wrestled as Jimmy “The Body” Valen.
The Oklahoma territory was quite large geographically, and Jimmy spent endless hours driving to each booking. Occasionally, he would ride with the legendary Danny Hodge, whose knowledge and expertise of things wrestling was only exceeded by his ability to hustle “the boys” with small wagers.
Jimmy’s stay in the Oklahoma territory was brief, only several months after he started. He received a call from Fritz Von Erich to work in his Dallas-based promotion with a substantial pay raise.
Once again, the Valiant Family caravan was on the move.
It was in Dallas that Jimmy received the name “Valiant.”
Becoming Jimmy Valiant
Since one of the star attractions in the Dallas territory was Johnny Valentine, Fritz Von Erich gave Jimmy the last name Valiant to avoid any confusion.
Jimmy’s stay in Dallas was very brief, but at the same time, very productive. Not only did he acquire his lifetime wrestling name of Valiant, but he also wrestled as a heel for the first time.
Jimmy’s work in Dallas quickly caught the attention of Vincent J. McMahon (the original, not his son, Vince, Jr.), owner of the Capitol Wrestling Corporation and the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF).
McMahon’s WWWF was thought by many to be the pinnacle of professional wrestling, with Madison Square Garden as the mecca.
Initially, Jimmy balked at the move. He had just uprooted his family for the second time in several months and really had no interest in testing the “three times a charm” adage.
Von Erich asked Jimmy to go to New York for three weeks and give it a try; if he didn’t want to stay at the end of the three weeks, his job in Dallas would be waiting for him.
Jimmy went to New York and took a bite of the Big Apple, and as the saying goes, the rest is history.
Working for Vince McMahon, Sr. and the WWWF
Jimmy Valiant arrived at the WWWF Headquarters in Washington, D.C., to meet the legendary Vince McMahon, Sr. There, McMahon informed Jimmy that he would be wrestling Juan Caruso and Vincente Pometti for the next several months.
Jimmy expressed his desire to McMahon to wrestle as a heel. Mr. McMahon advised Jimmy that he needed to get over with the fans as a babyface; then, his heel turn would be far more impactful. Vince assured Valiant that in good time, the heel turn would happen.
A couple of months into his WWWF run, Jimmy was teaming with the pride of Pawhuska, Oklahoma (by way of Nutley, New Jersey), Chief Jay Strongbow.
Strongbow was the number two babyface in New York during the early ’70s, whose popularity was only eclipsed by WWWF Champions Bruno Sammartino and later Pedro Morales.
Valiant and Strongbow quickly became the number one contenders for the WWWF Tag Team Titles. The good Chief just couldn’t seem to get along with most of his tag team partners, several of whom turned on him. Which, of course, is exactly what happened here.
Jimmy attacked his partner during a televised tag team title match against The Black Demon and Beautiful Bobby Eaton.
“Gentleman Jimmy” was now “Handsome Jimmy,” one of the most hated heels in the territory. Vincent J. McMahon was a man of his word.
On a personal note, this was my first “holy crap” moment in wrestling. I was 15 at the time and watched the debacle unfold on television. I can still feel the emotions I felt when Jimmy turned on the popular “Native American.”
I vividly remember standing up and yelling at my screen, much to the dismay of Joe and Betty Scala (my parents). You see, at this time, wrestling was very real to me, and this was the first time I saw a good guy turn bad.
Ironically, about ten years later, I had a similar reaction watching Larry Zbyszko turn on my hero, Bruno Sammartino. However, in this instance, I upgraded “crap” to something a bit stronger. After all, I was 25. But there was nothing quite as impactful as the first time, and Jimmy turning heel evoked huge emotions of both surprise and hatred on my part, which means that he did his job perfectly.
Valiant’s heel turn was money on every level. His weekly salary tripled from five to fifteen hundred dollars. He also received several title shots against Pedro Morales for the WWWF Championship. Jimmy had come a long way from the St. Andrew’s Gymnasium!
One of Vince McMahon’s promises to Jimmy was that he would bring him back to the WWWF every four years, with a run of approximately 15 months each time. True to his word, Jimmy was back with the WWWF in 1974 and again in 1978.
On May 8, 1974, Jimmy and his “brother” Johnny Valiant captured the WWWF World Tag Team Titles from Dean Ho and Tony Garea.
The Valiant Brothers reigned supreme atop the WWWF tag team scene for 370 days before dropping the straps to the team of Dominic DeNucci and Victor Rivera on May 13, 1975.
The Valiant Brothers also won the WWA World Tag Team Titles on four separate occasions, in addition to winning several regional championships.
Memorable Run in Memphis
Besides the aforementioned territories, Jimmy Valiant forged legendary statuses in both the Memphis-based Continental Wrestling Association (owned by Jerry Jarrett and Jerry Lawler) and Jim Crockett Promotions.
One cannot think of Memphis wrestling without thinking of Jimmy Valiant. He was such a hot commodity in the territory that Jarrett and Lawler actually bought Jimmy a house.
His alliances and feuds with Lawler and Bill Dundee are textbook Wrestling 101 when it comes to storyline build and ring psychology.
While matches and feuds are quickly forgotten in today’s environment, these classic feuds can still be viewed with fervor, nearly four decades after they happened.
While in Jim Crockett Promotions, Jimmy engaged in a feud with Paul Jones’ Army that lasted nearly five years. Again, fast forward to today when programs are measured in weeks and possibly months.
Using various special attractions, such as “Hair vs. Hair” and “Loser Leaves Town” matches, Jimmy was able to keep the ticket-buying fans in the territory emotionally invested for a half-decade.
Although Jimmy Valiant had been a heel in several of the territories (most notably WWWF but oftentimes in Memphis), he spent the latter part of his career in the ’80s as a beloved fan favorite.
Once again, I hear “Boy From New York City,” and my mind’s eye envisions the Boogie Woogie Man dancing to the music, embracing everyone in sight, making quick work of his opponent, and then cutting a promo to Tony “Schiavonto.”
Folks, it does not get any better than that.
Meeting His Angel
On April 6, 1991, serendipity occurred when Jimmy Valiant was doing an autograph signing to commemorate the opening of a new Walmart in Pulaski, Virginia. As he was signing, he felt compelled to lift his head. It was then that he saw his Angel.
His heart immediately told him that this woman was someone incredibly special, his forever love.
Within moments after they met, Mr. Valiant, never lacking in temerity, asked Angel if she was married.
Relieved that her answer was no, he quickly returned with, “Do you want to be married?”
Although Angel did not accept his offer on the spot, she did soon afterward.
They were married exactly four months later, on August 6, 1991, on Jimmy’s 49th birthday.
In less than a few days of writing this, Jimmy and Angel Valiant will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. Together, they have six grandchildren. If you ever want to see two people who are deeply in love, there is no need to look any further than Jimmy and Angel.
One of the greatest things about serendipity is that it is not defined by time or location. Perhaps one of the greatest serendipitous moments in history occurred at a Pulaski Walmart. Love is a beautiful thing.
Boogie’s Wrestling Camp
Opened on September 6, 1992, Jimmy Valiant’s wrestling school is set in the hills of Shawsville, Virginia. You get to learn from one of the best in the business for a very modest enrollment fee.
In addition to his home and wrestling school, you will find the BWC Hall of Fame Museum, where there is a fabulous collection of wrestling treasures on display.
Aspiring wrestlers, managers, announcers, and referees can get the excellent training ‘they need to succeed’ at BWC.
Jimmy recently released a manual entitled Blueprint To Become A Pro Wrestler, which promises to include “everything you will ever need to know about becoming a great pro wrestler.”
If that is not enough, Angel, Jimmy’s beautiful bride, designs custom ring gear. Boogie Woogie Camp is open 52 Sundays a year, from 12-4, and is free to the general public.
The Legacy Jimmy Valiant Leaves Behind
Jimmy Valiant was inducted into what was then the WWF (now WWE) Hall of Fame in 1996, along with his “brother” Johnny. They were the very first tag team to be inducted.
After 57 years of traveling the world as a professional wrestler, Handsome Jimmy is set to wrestle his final-ever match on July 31st, 2021, at the New River Fair in Dublin, Virginia.
“I was very fortunate to do this and to live my dream,” Jimmy recently shared with WDBJ Channel 7 News. “Now, almost 60 years later, I am retiring. What I’m going to do now is just want to be a goodwill ambassador, not only for our camp and for the kids, because it’s their turn to live their dream.”
Jimmy was recently a guest on my podcast (hosted by Dan Sebastiano), Dan & Benny In the Ring.
When I began asking Jimmy questions, I became a teenager all over again, one who was so engrossed by professional wrestling that neither friends nor food (my Mom was a world-class Italian cook) nor natural disasters could separate me from the television when it was on. Jimmy answered all my questions as if I were Lance Russell or Gordon Solie.
If you want to hear Jimmy tell some great stories, hit play below:
There are some great people in this world, and then there are some great wrestlers in the sport we all love so much. Gentleman/Handsome/Boogie Woogie Man Jimmy Valiant checks the boxes on both.
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