Johnny Valiant, who died on April 4, 2018, when he was tragically hit by a truck in Pittsburgh, was a close personal friend. We took his one-man theatrical show, “An Evening With Johnny Valiant” around the country besides working indy wrestling shows and doing autograph signings and other personal appearances. Over the years, I documented his amazing career in which he was a referee, manager, tag-champ, singles challenger to Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund and other champions, play-by-play man, actor (The Sopranos), accomplished stand-up comedian, and WWE Hall of Famer. As I am devastated by his loss, I am grateful to Pro Wrestling Stories for providing this forum to document his half-century-plus career in his own words.
Editor’s note: These interviews with Johnny Valiant were originally conducted by Evan Ginzburg and published in his now-defunct ‘Wrestling- Then & Now 2004-2005’ annual. The original interviews were transcribed by Jeff Archer. This is the first time this interview is available in digital form.
Johnny Valiant’s recollections on three of his mentors, the incomparable Dick the Bruiser, Bobo Brazil and ‘The Original Sheik’ Ed Farhat.
JOHNNY VALIANT REMEMBERS DICK THE BRUISER
“I thought it would be appropriate to talk about a warrior from my era who did so much for me, Dick the Bruiser.
I first met Dick the Bruiser when I was a young fellow wrestler out of Nick Gulas’s territory in Nashville, Tennessee. I wrestled him at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis. I was very green and a bit nervous to be in the ring with someone of his stature. My ring name at the time was Johnny Sullivan. He threw me over the top rope and I didn’t yet know how to hook the top rope. I fell on my head and cut myself all up. He ran out of the ring, pulled me back in, jumped off the top rope with his finishing move and pinned me one-two-three. But in the dressing room, you saw a totally different guy. He was right there and helped me fix my head and stop the bleeding.
The Bruiser was a real tough guy, but a decent guy inside. And he was a big star at the time. I was in awe of him. When I was a kid, I had never seen him wrestle but always read about him in the magazines. And I didn’t know that ten years down the road this was the guy who was going to give me my break.
Bobby Heenan discovered me up in Ontario wrestling for “The Bear Man” – “The Canadian Wildman” Dave McKigney, and he put Jimmy Valiant and myself together to form the Valiant Brothers. Heenan told Bruiser about us and Dick confirmed the idea. “Let’s go with it,” he said simply, little knowing at the time how this would advance my career and change my life. He put it together in Chicago. We eventually wrestled Bruiser and Crusher and we beat Bruno Sammartino and Bruiser for the WWA Tag Team Championship at the Chicago Amphitheater in front of 16,000 fans after paying my dues for eight years and that really put us on the map. To this day I’m grateful to the man.
Dick was very colorful and with that raspy voice, he was one of the original characters. Great interviews. With the Crusher they were just a great tag team. We didn’t socialize too much as he was the promoter, but I remember one time I was traveling in his red Cadillac El Dorado coming back from a show and he was driving through the fog at night. He was going excessively fast through that Indiana Fog, but all the sheriffs and Indiana State police knew him, so they wouldn’t give him a ticket! He was a legend there. I couldn’t see a thing, but somehow, he seemed to be able to see. I guess he knew the ins and out of those roads after all those years.
There’s another Bruiser story I’ll never forget. At the time, he had a German Shepherd dog named Bobo and the dog was running around in a circle and he noticed something coming out of the dog’s rear end. So, he stepped on it and it came right out. The dog had eaten his wife’s nylon stockings! The dog was relieved and never left his side after that!
Blackjack Lanza, Baron Von Raschke, Pepper Gomez, Wilbur Snyder, Bobby Bold Eagle, were all guys that worked for Bruiser and got big pushes in that territory.
He was one of our forefathers. A very colorful TV personality and one of the original talkers, he just jumped right out at you with his powerful body and crewcut. He had that raspy voice before Hulk Hogan. And he just loved his champagne!
He was a good promoter and fair and gave a lot of people work. They still talk about him to this day.
JOHNNY VALIANT REMEMBERS BOBO BRAZIL
“In my attempts to chronicle my late, great opponents and mentors, I want to honor Bobo Brazil from Benton Harbor, Michigan.
I first saw Bobo at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh Arena. I was a young fan and Bobo Brazil and some of the major stars only came through Pittsburgh on special occasions. I had never seen such a big guy; he topped 6’6 and 300 pounds and there was not one ounce of fat on him. He had flashy ring jackets and wrestling boots to match. And he would beat his opponents with his famed coco-butt. And I looked at all the muscles that he had in his chest, arms and legs and could never fathom being in the ring with him, much less having him coco-butt me. Little did I know what lay ahead for young Mr. Tom Sullivan from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania because I would actually wind up wrestling Mr. Bobo Brazil hundreds of times.
I must say at this point what a gentleman he was both in and out of the ring and how easy it was to wrestle him because the people believed in Bobo. I traveled with him, too, at different times in Canada for The Bear Man. Bobo, George Steele and myself would go from venue to venue in his van. His appearance alone would deter anyone from testing this gentle giant. In fact, when my children were small, Bobo took me and my two young sons fishing in a Lake in Ontario. Their eyes opened up as they saw this big, black man being so gentle with them. It was almost something out of Huckleberry Finn. They knew that if I didn’t approve of this man I sure wouldn’t have brought him around my family, because when it comes down to it, very few of the wrestlers ever met my family. He teamed with various people against Jimmy Valiant and myself. He used to tag with Seaman Art Thomas in Hammond, Indiana. The fans were very upset one particular night because the referee got knocked down and Johnny Valiant was in a bear hug, but the referee could not see or hear it because he was incapacitated. So Bobo Brazil woke the ref up and brought him to his senses, only to be hit from behind by Jimmy Valiant. This may sound pretty innocent by 2003 standards, but back then it led to a potential near riot. What a team Bobo Brazil and Art Thomas were.
One of my most vivid memories of Bobo was that whenever The Valiants took advantage of one of his partners, and it was time for him to enter the ring and make the ‘hot tag,’ it always blew the roof off the joint. It didn’t matter if it was Chicago, Indianapolis, Washington, DC or Baltimore. Bobo Brazil was a true crowd favorite and a real man’s man. I sure miss him. Guys like that can’t be replaced.
Bobo used to do a few skipping, dance type steps when he made his comebacks. I guess today, if Bobo was still wrestling, you’d probably hear entrance music from one of your favorite rap artists. I imagine the moves and gyrations that a guy like Bobo Brazil could produce from an appreciative audience. I picture him gyrating to the many moves that they do throughout the various clubs in NYC. I bet Bobo could keep up with the best of them; I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him invent something where all the girls wind up headbutting their dates for the evening! At least I have that imagination, but I never had enough imagination as a kid sitting in the audience at the Civic Arena in the early 60s to picture Johnny Valiant emerging as not only an opponent of Bobo Brazil’s but a lifelong friend.
Bobo was a top draw in Japan and Los Angeles as well as all throughout the United States. One of his opponents was the Sheik and they wrestled many, many times. It seems that if you look in the old wrestling mags they were always on the covers. Bobo paid the price for being in the ring with the Sheik, because he was one of the best villains in pro wrestling. But l’m sure they both respected each other as we all did both the Sheik and Bobo. In fact, they were both respected in not only the dressing rooms but in the points of travel on the road and, of course, in those hot, sweaty, physically demanding arenas where we put our bodies on the line with no helmets or shoulder pads. We only had trunks, boots, and my case bleached hair. In Bobo Brazil’s case, I’ll never forget his long, wet hair that would sashay and his great smile. Some of his laughter was at my expense after he beat me.
In summation, if I could pick one African-American pro wrestling athlete, Bobo Brazil from Benton Harbor, Michigan comes to mind as not only one of the first superstar pro wrestlers, but also one of the true gentlemen of the game. Just as the fans will never forget this giant, neither will Johnny Valiant.”
JOHNNY VALIANT REMEMBERS THE ORIGINAL SHEIK
“I first saw him on TV as a teenage kid growing up in Pittsburgh. I sure said to myself, ‘Wow.’ I could never imagine wrestling him based on what he did and how he looked. He represented danger. I never said, ‘Oh, I’d like to beat him.’ I was more drawn to Johnny Valentine and Buddy Rogers.
Vince McMahon Senior was a good friend of The Sheik and it was a favor to him that I went to Lansing, Michigan and he was to be one of my teachers. I got a room at the YMCA and hitchhiked to his house in Williamston, Michigan. When I first saw him it was a hot summer of 1967. He lived in a big home with a swimming pool and wrestling ring in the hot sun. I came up and Bobby Shane and Al Costello got me on the mat instantly. It was the Sheik’s private ring. I didn’t pay anything. No fee. He came out, a smile on his face. Friendly. You could see his forehead. The rings on his fingers. It was like meeting Yasser Arafat. He looked like him. He showed me a few holds. A few takedowns. Very supportive. Always encouraging me. A guy named Mike Loren, a prelim, a George Steele type tried to show me a few things, too. Everybody called him Sheik. Al Costello rubbed my face on the mat. I was all mat burned. Sheik’s wife put salve on me. Very kindhearted. Sheik had me over for dinner and drove me to the arenas. I set up the ring and he let me referee a few matches.
Funny, years went by and I’m wrestling Sheik in main-events in Ontario. I’m a babyface. Wrestled him every night. I’d travel with him. Another guy there was Brody. Nice. Football player. Polite. Smart. Last of the Gunslingers. Didn’t want to be part of the establishment.
Sheik was a main-event guy inside and outside the ring. First class. Reached for the stars. Did it with dignity. Presented himself at a high level and therefore was at a high level. Not a bottom feeder. He didn’t complain and fluff things off. Sometime he’d talk like a street guy but he was a matter of fact kind of guy. Not a jerk. He never said anything detrimental. Had a temper, though. Didn’t want to get him mad. And when he got into character, you believed it. You thought he had a camel outside. You felt that if you punched him sand could come off him.
Today’s guys have to jump off buildings and be stunt men in the ring to convince you they’re legit.
Not only did the Sheik give me my start, Jimmy Valiant was up there as Big Jim Valen. Bulldog Brower and Ernie Ladd were there. He gave an awful lot of guys their start or their first big push. Not that there was big money, but there was steady money.
His promotion was very successful. Sheik was in Toronto for Frank Tunney on Sundays. His territory included Columbus, Dayton, Canton, Mansfield and all over the state of Michigan. You can’t emphasize enough his importance in the business.
In today’s political climate he would have incited riots. Nobody knew Beirut, Lebanon then. He would have needed a police escort to the ring after September 11. He was that believable.
The Sheik was respected. He always stayed in character and dressed the part outside the ring with expensive suits and jewelry. He never mixed with fans and never signed autographs. Nobody took liberties with him. Nobody clowned around with him. He was always the Sheik. He stayed aloof and was very selective of whom he got close to. He was a businessman but he was very good to me, very kind, very generous.
I’m proud of the fact that in my one-man show,“ An Evening With Johnny Valiant”, that I get to honor legends like The Sheik. But not everyone who comes to see me perform is a wrestling fan. Sure, a portion of the audience are fans of mine, but many times a theater has its own following or a wrestling fan will bring his wife or parents or kids. So it’s up to me to bring The Sheik and other legends to life for them. They have to visualize him up there on that bare stage. That’s where the acting comes in. The storytelling skills. It’s just me and the mike in my hand. Not everyone knows what Sputnik Monroe looked and sounded like. Or Jimmy Valiant, Baron Scicluna, Mad Dog Vachon or Killer Kowalski. Even Andre the Giant. Or what it’s like to share a hotel room with a real-life giant. It’s my job for everyone there to see and hear these people up on stage with me. I feel it is important to keep names like Bobo Brazil, The Sheik, and Dick the Bruiser alive.”
I hope everyone shares this and keeps my beloved friend, Johnny Valiant, alive as well. He was a warm, caring, multi-talented and oh so funny man and I will share my many personal memories of him in a future piece.