John Rodriguez, better known to wrestling fans as “The Unpredictable” Johnny Rodz in the World Wide Wrestling Federation and later World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) from 1965 to 1985, went from underdog to wrestling legend. Yet, many today may not be familiar with this WWE Hall of Famer who lived a secret life outside the ring. This is the surprising tale of a man who recently faced his most formidable opponent yet.
The Unpredictable World of Johnny Rodz
Born “in the hills of Puerto Rico" (as Mr. Rodz so eloquently puts it) on May 16th, 1941, John Rodriguez and his family moved to the Little Italy section of New York City when he was 11.
Unlike most youth in his era, the future Johnny Rodz eschewed the traditional sports of baseball and football and trained in jiu-jitsu.
Due to his lack of education, he was placed in the 4th grade of the New York City School System. Though John struggled academically, he excelled in athletics.
Johnny’s first exposure to the squared circle resulted from his mother, a huge wrestling fan.
As Johnny explained on the Stories with Brisco and Bradshaw podcast, "She loved boxing, and she loved the wrestling. Wrestling was number one for my mother. She’s sitting there with Skull Murphy, the Graham Brothers, Antonino Rocca, Miguel Perez, Ricky Starr; you name it, all those guys- the old Madison Square Garden. She hated those heels.
“I had to shine shoes and make sure I made enough money- two dollars and fifty cents- we got ringside at the Garden. And that’s when I was 14 years old because they wouldn’t let you in younger than that. That’s how far I go back."
Breaking Into The Business
With a passionate mother, above-average athletic skills, and proximity to the World Wide Wrestling Federation hub, it was only natural that John Rodriguez would transition from a fan to a professional wrestler.
Initially, Rodz tried his hand at boxing, only to be TKO’d by Mrs. Rodriguez, who, although an avid boxing fan, absolutely did not want her son to become a pugilist.
Rodz then transitioned to grappling and found a local wrestling club. However, "Everybody was a shooter; no one knew how to work."
The Unpredictable One explained his entry into the glorious world of professional wrestling.
"I joined the Rockefeller Fan Club on 25th Street, and it was all calisthenics, with a gentleman named Barba Roja, a European from Spain who was friends with Karl Gotch and Frank Martinez.
"They were with Victor Rivera, Pedro Morales, and Tomas Marin. So I joined them and got really involved with the calisthenics. I wanted to get in. By the time I was 18 years old, I was already in it.
"Karl Gotch was tag team champion with Rene Goulet. We all went to a gym; I think it was called the Mr. Puerto Rico Gym; it was a dinky place. We were supposed to practice wrestling for one hour, from 6 to 7 PM.
"I never did so many calisthenics; I was with Karl Gotch. There were not too many of us, just a few boys. I won’t forget Gypsy Joe; he was there with us. We spent one hour of torture; one day was one hour of calisthenics.
Gypsy Joe the next day was an hour on a rough white canvas; get a front face lock, and if the guy on the bottom could get out, then you could reverse it. I made sure I’d hold it as much as I could."
Originally wrestling as Johnny Rodriguez, Rodz was advised by Arnold Skaaland to find a different name. “The Golden Boy” (Skaaland) told John that the professional wrestling world was already well stocked with gentlemen named Rodriguez.
Rodz initially came up with Johnny Rod, and sensing that wasn’t quite palatable, they added the ‘Z’ for good measure. As you will see, Mr. Rodriguez later became quite proficient at nomenclature.
Close To Home
Once Johnny Rodz caught on with the WWWF in 1965, one could reasonably predict that he would follow the behavior pattern of 99% of the active grapplers of that era, going from territory to territory, trying to get over in each, maybe capturing a regional singles or tag team title, then moving on to the next. Any promoter in the country could use a skilled, dependable hand.
However, the word predictable did not reside in the vocabulary of John Rodriguez. So for the better part of the next two decades, fans across the Northeast were treated to the superb wrestling skills of the 239-pound brawler from (kayfabe) The Bronx, New York. Rodz made rare detours.
Although Johnny Rodz opted not to venture down the territory trails, this did not preclude him from working a very heavy schedule. He routinely wrestled in 250-plus matches per year, reaching a watermark of 289 in 1981.
It’s important to remember that in Rodz’s heyday, recordkeeping in professional wrestling was not a ‘thing.’ In all likelihood, Johnny topped 300 matches in several years. And from 1968 on, the unpredictable one is fondly remembered, consistently appearing on wrestling on TV.
Java Ruuk is Born
Although Java Ruuk is known primarily for wreaking havoc in Southern California in 1976, the origin of the Arabian Madman goes back several years prior.
Newton Tattrie had an original 1965 stint with the WWWF as Tony Newberry. During that time, he expressed to Rodz the desire to purchase the Pittsburgh territory, which was within a more extensive (WWWF) territory. He told Rodz that a main event spot would be awaiting him when this happened.
Newberry/Tattrie was gone from the promotion by the end of 1965 after a lackluster record of 7 wins, 4 draws, and 58 losses (per wrestlingdata.com). However, like many wrestlers of his era, he would resurface with a new gimmick several years later.
Tattrie was rebranded as Geeto Mongol. With his brother Bepo (Nikolai Volkoff), he would dominate the WWWF tag team scene and capture the International Tag Team Titles twice.
Tattrie made good on his earlier prediction and purchased the Pittsburgh promotion, then owned by Bruno Sammartino. When Rodz learned of this, he reminded Tattrie of the promise he had made several years before. Tattrie, a man of his word, did indeed follow through.
"So I go to Pittsburgh, and he puts me on TV and tells me, ‘Johnny, I want a gimmick. I don’t want Johnny Rodz. How about you being an Arab?’
"I think, how do I become an Arab? I got JR on the boots. What do I do? I don’t have a headpiece. Nothing.
"Well, you know, the hotel has blankets on the bed. One thing they taught me way back; when you travel, have needles, thread, and scissors, everything you could need in that bag for being a pro. So, I cut the sheet right across and then cut it the other way. Now I have a square thing, fold it into a triangle, and put it over the head."
Rodz continued, "When you have the curtains in the theater, they’re red and velveteen-like and hang there, right? Before the TV, they had one of those curtains backstage; I cut the bottom a little bit, maybe 15 inches, I cut it nice and quiet, and then I sewed it up; it was red or burgundy. I made it, put it around my head, and went (makes primitive sound).
"[Tattrie] said, ‘Fantastic! But what name are we going to give you?’
"I said, ‘Ah ****, now we’ve got trouble; I got ‘JR’ on the boots.’ How do I wrestle with these boots? I thought of the nougat candy ‘Java.’ I’m thinking an ‘R; R-u-u-k. Java Ruuk.’ So, I told Tony, ‘Java Ruuk.’
"Tony said, ‘That’s good enough; let’s use it!’”
"They put me on TV, some workout with Battman- Tony Marino. I had some scuffle with him, where the referee had to break us up. And then, I was Java Ruuk. That’s the beginning of Java Ruuk.
"I worked in Pittsburgh on TV around the area as Java Ruuk. Years passed, and there was nothing; I guess he got rid of the territory. I even went back and forth to Cleveland TV and used Java Ruuk with them. Anyway, years passed, and nothing happened with Java Ruuk.”
“California, Here I Come”
“One day, I was in New York (the wrestlers’ term for WWWF), and we were going to do TV,” Johnny Rodz remembered. “We’re in Reading, Pennsylvania, at the big hotel there. In the back, they have the Chrystal Room.
“My buddy, Ernie ‘The Cat’ Ladd, was around. Ernie Ladd is a gentleman and a scholar. He’s with Vince Sr., and Bruno Sammartino, they are eating steak, and all the other jabronis are running around having some pizza.
“The Chrystal Room was for Vince. Well, I’m in the lobby, and I see Ernie.
“He tells me, ‘Vince said, if you see Johnny, tell him I want to see him.
“So, I go to the Fourth Floor, and when I walk in, everybody (makes applause sound) says, ‘The new Sheik! The new Sheik!’.
“Vince says, ‘Johnny, I wanted to mention, would you like to go to LA and be the new Sheik?’
“I said, ‘Hey, why not? But, if the mizzoney’s not there, I ain’t staying.’
“I told Vince, ‘If the money’s not there, I’m coming back, two-week notice.’"
Rodz, or Ruuk, made the long sojourn to Southern California in early 1976. On January 16th, he won the prestigious 22-man Battle Royal at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles.
To put the victory in perspective, previous winners included 7-time National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Champion Harley Race in 1969, wrestling’s Living Legend Bruno Sammartino in 1972 (this match was also voted Match of the Year by Pro Wrestling Illustrated), and the “Eighth Wonder of The World” Andre The Giant in 1979 and 1980.
Following the Money
Although this would typically guarantee the victor a decent push until the next Battle Royal, Ruuk, or Rodz, found himself back in the Northeast a month later, wrestling Bobo Brazil at the Hamburg Field House on February 18th. The reason? As in most things in life, all you have to do is follow the money.
Per Rodz, he had asked for and was promised a $1,500 per week guarantee, which they reneged on, and he came back home to Vince, who asked him to mend fences, and he returned to sunny California in 1977.
Jump-Starting the Career of Roddy Piper
Amongst his limitless contributions to professional wrestling, Johnny Rodz, or Java Ruuk, was responsible for jump-starting the career of a then-unknown and very young, skinny mid-carder named Roddy Piper.
"When I got to California, [Piper] was there for a year,” Rodz explained. “They gave him half-year visas [due to Piper’s Canadian citizenship]. He wasn’t making money, 600 dollars, 700 dollars. He wasn’t a big star; he was a regular worker.
“And then I come in; they put me over; I have no manager and nothing going on, just by myself.
“Whenever [Piper] did promos, he had a good mouth on him, so I said to him, ‘Brother, you know, it would be nice if I could talk to these sons of guns in the office and make you come with me with the flute (bagpipes) and control the Arab.’
“He thought it was a good idea, so I said, ‘Let’s go to the office and talk to them.’
“So I went to the office, and they said, ‘Nah, you know, he’s a babyface, we’re gonna do this with you, we’re gonna get you a girl to do the smoke and all that.’
"The next week, I got the same bull. But the third week, they said, ‘Guys, come down at 10 o’clock to the office; we want to talk to you.’ We thought something was wrong. So, we go to the office.
“The booker, Tom Renesto, says, ‘You know, we got a great idea. Piper, you’ll work with Ruuk on this week’s TV. So, Ruuk, you beat the **** out of him, you (Piper) run out of the ring, grab the mic, and tell everybody, ‘To hell with it, I don’t want to wrestle this guy; I want to control this Arab. I want to be his manager.’
“We told them, ‘Oh, this is a great idea.’ So, we went back to the hotel and got drunk because it was not their idea; it was my idea. But they wanted it and said it was their idea. So, we took it.
“And, from then on, we were hot. We even got shot at in Bakersfield; we were working with Chavo (Guerrero) and the Mexicans, and they were shooting at us. You could hear the bullets in the bleachers.
“When I went back in ’77, [Piper] had a brand new convertible Chevy Impala, white and black, and he was making money and a big shot. The rest is history."
Recommended read: Roddy Piper – From The Streets to the Big Time
The Super Medics
Johnny Rodz also wrestled in Puerto Rico as Super Medic #2. They captured the World Wrestling Council Tag Team Championships twice, along with Jose Estrada.
"We sold out the baseball stadium, me and Jose Estrada, against The Invaders and all those guys. I was hotter than a firecracker. There’s nobody ever going to take my place in Puerto Rico."
Johnny Rodz on Vince McMahon Sr. and Jr.
When asked by Mike Monte on The Monte and the Pharaoh Show to compare Vince Sr. and Jr., Rodz quipped, "Comparing? There’s no comparing.”
He continued, “[Junior] can put his tights on his boots on and stand in front of me at Madison Square Garden, and I’ll beat him in about 60 seconds. He’s no class compared to his father.
“It’s not that I don’t like him; there’s nothing about liking. He ruined the business for many kids, and people love the business, and they want to get in it, and this guy took the world and turned it into for himself. And now, it’s all them (the McMahons). There are no other promoters."
No stiff working punch there; that’s a full-on shoot.
His Latest Fight Outside the Ring: “I Should Have Died”
The former heavyweight champ and WWE Hall of Famer was unstoppable until late 2021. At the time, Johnny Rodz was visiting a rest stop in Ohio during a family road trip when, out of nowhere, he was gasping for air.
“All of a sudden, I got this feeling about breathing that – wow – I could not breathe,” Rodz opened up to NBC New York.
Before returning to the car, he propped himself up and performed quick, repeated breathing exercises for ten minutes.
“The fact that he was an athlete and had done so much physical work in his life, gave him a bit of an advantage, at least in some part. But he had a history of high blood pressure and history of diabetes. He was an ex-smoker,” Dr. Rohit Shahani, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Staten Island University Hospital, said to NBC New York.
Due to the severity of Rodz’s heart disease, he was unable to receive any more coronary stents, which are used to open arteries.
Despite the risks associated with surgery and his age, Rodz opted to undergo a triple bypass surgery with Dr. Shahani, who performed the operation using a heart-lung machine.
“You stop the heart and you bypass the blockages. You’ve got blocked pipes, which bring blood to your heart by coronary arteries. We bring new blood supply, fancy plumbing,” Dr. Shahani explained.
“The Unpredictable One” has since made an impressive recovery, doubling his heart function. Despite this, he can still work from his corner office at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, New York.
“[Dr. Shahani] beat the hell outta me, but I’m never gonna forget him because you know what? Not everybody can take a broken-down person who should have died already and bring him back to life,” Rodz expressed.
Johnny Rodz’s Legacy
John Rodriguez wrestled for the World Wide Wrestling Federation (later to become the WWF) from 1965 through to the mid-’80s. And although his moniker was “Unpredictable,” no one was more dependable. So when a talent from another territory came in for a shot at Madison Square Garden and needed to be tested, they were inevitably paired with Rodz.
Fresh off his NWA United States Heavyweight Championship win in the Detroit territory, Gino Hernandez strolled into the WWWF locker room at Madison Square Garden, full of (over)confidence and the proverbial piss and vinegar.
As a reward for his less-than-humble behavior Professor Rodz conducted a clinic on Wrestling 101 and, in a magnanimous gesture, threw in prerequisites in humility and respect, free of charge. Hernandez, it should be noted, never again appeared in the Northeast.
"I first met Johnny when I came from Kansas City to New York,” O’Hannon remembers. “We only said a quick hello, and then I was in a tag versus Jack Evans and Johnny Rodz.
“I was a bit wild, and John had to calm me down before I did any damage. He really took care of me, and we became close friends to this day.
“Johnny Rodz is probably among the most respected and admired guys I’ve ever encountered in the biz. On any night, he could make you wish you weren’t a pro wrestler or feel like the World Champion.
“We used to say, ‘We could do this the hard way or the easy way.’ Johnny was the real deal in the ring and the most wonderful person in ‘real life.’ My pal for almost 50 years."
Evan Ginzburg, Associate Producer of ‘The Wrestler and ‘350 Days’, commented, "Johnny Rodz was one of the most consistently excellent wrestlers ever to grace a ring.
“I saw him live in unforgettable bouts against Billy Robinson, Tatsumi Fujinami for the WWWF Jr. Heavyweight Title, and Black Gordman for his own promotion.
“In addition, he often put on better under-card matches than some of the lumbering super heavyweights Vince Sr. loved in the main events.”
A Rightful WWE Hall of Famer and Teacher of Wrestling’s Future
Johnny Rodz was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1996. After retiring from active wrestling, he started the World of Unpredictable Wrestling (WUW), headquartered at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn.
John Rodriguez wanted to give back to the sport that had given him so much. His graduates include S.D. Jones, Tazz, Tommy Dreamer, D-Von and Bubba Ray Dudley, Bill DeMott, and Matt Striker, to name a few. Rodz even gave S.D. Jones, his name.
As the story goes, Gorilla Monsoon needed an extra hand on one of his shows on relatively short notice. So he called Johnny, who brought trainee Conrad Ephraim. Rodz quipped to Gorilla, "Here you go, Special Delivery." And hence, the creation of Special Delivery Jones.
If only he could have stayed away from that well, he went to “once too often,” as Monsoon would say, after old S.D. frequently ended up looking at the lights.
Johnny Rodz, now in his 80s, is living history. As a wrestler, trainer, promoter, family man, and heart attack survivor, Johnny Rodz, who wrestled as ‘Unpredictable,’ is very predictably loved, cherished, admired, and respected.
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