Ox Baker was the nastiest, meanest, loudest, and ugliest of them all. With the dreaded heart punch that ignited a riot at the Cleveland Arena in 1974 and the two opponents that never got up from the fearful move, Ox Baker became one of the most deplorable heat-generating heels of the squared circle. Yet, when not wrestling, he could be the most agreeable person you’d ever have the pleasure of meeting.
Before Hulk Hogan made it big in Rocky III, the multi-talented Ox Baker transcended wrestling and battled Kurt Russell in the cult classic Escape From New York, becoming one of the most recognizable personalities outside of wrestling. Later, he sold thousands of copies of his cookbook that served as a tribute to many fallen wrestling friends. Get into the head of the mighty Ox Baker, the man who loved to hurt people!
Ox Baker and his Struggles To Enter Wrestling
Ox Baker was born Douglas A. Baker on April 19th, 1934, in Sedalia, Missouri, but grew up in Waterloo, Iowa. When asked where he got the name "Ox," Baker jokingly says, "At 14, I went from 5’8" to 6’4", 310 lbs. The teachers couldn’t call me dummy or ignorant. So they’d call me Ox so that I wouldn’t understand that they were calling me a dummy or ignorant. They’d just yell out, ‘Come here Ox!’"
People called him the Big Ox for twenty years, and when he joined the world of professional wrestling, he was told, "You know that means dummy, right?"
"I never questioned it!" quipped Ox Baker with his undeniable charm.
As an adult, Ox Baker worked at a packing company in Waterloo, Iowa, to sustain himself. Married, in debt, and without a clue as to how to make a better living for him and his beloved wife, Baker began to feel the squeeze.
"The wages at the time were 90 cents per hour," laments Baker.
But in 1963, something called professional wrestling was going to have its first show in the area. With Ox’s curiosity peaked, he decided to see what it was all about.
As an accomplished football player and wrestler in high school, he wasn’t a stranger to rough sports. He learned that the guys setting up the ring got paid 11 dollars a day, and Baker convinced them to bring him aboard to help set up for the next show.
After several weeks, the towering future Ox Baker realized he was much larger than many of the wrestlers. On top of that, some of them were guys he’d beaten when wrestling amateur in high school.
"At the time, the average professional wrestler weighed between 205 to 218 lbs.," recalls Baker. "Except for Ski Hi Lee (billed at 6’7" and 290 lbs.), there were few big guys in the sport. The champion was Danny McShain, and he was barely 200 lbs."
Ox continued working for 11-14 dollars an hour and sold programs on the side to supplement his income. While speaking with wrestler and second cousin Jerry Miller, an astonished Baker discovered that the wrestlers made 220 bucks a week!
A motivated Ox Baker had no formal training in wrestling but was still determined to break in. Not familiar with how to obtain proper training, he began driving around "Killer" Buddy Austin in hopes that he’d teach Baker at least some of the basics. Ox Baker later convinced promoter Art Mitchell to give him a chance when demonstrating that he did know some wrestling holds and could hold his own in the ring.
Buddy Austin had quite the experience at a party in Australia with Pedro Morales in the ’70s — they rarely made it out alive! You can read all about this story here.
At age 30, Ox Baker ventured into wrestling when most start pondering what they’re going to do after leaving the squared circle. Nonetheless, Ox Baker was dead set on making it and not going back to eke out a living at the packing factory for 90 cents an hour.
Early on, most of his matches were 12-15 minute broadways (draws). Without any formal training, the result wasn’t surprising. Other than his considerable size, Baker didn’t yet have any distinguishing traits that promoters could push.
"I started wrestling a few matches. And I wouldn’t say that I was good or bad; I was horrible."
Baker noticed early on that most wrestlers, according to him, didn’t care about the fans. From the beginning, Baker understood the importance of not looking down on them and putting on a good show. Socialization with the fans was frowned upon by the office, but Baker was never reserved with them.
During one of his first television promos, the interviewer asked Baker to speak about his special move, the bear hug (not yet the dreaded heart punch that would later help him reach wrestling infamy). Baker began explaining that he got the idea after going to the movies and watching a huge snake "Squeeze the snot out of all the other animals and people in the jungle."
Upon returning to the dressing room, promoter Gust Karras blasted Ox Baker and told him the problem using that kind of language on TV could cause them. But to everyone’s disbelief, that week’s show obtained the highest rating in three years.
The following week, Ox Baker found himself on television once again, but this time he was asked why he was carrying a rubber bag. Baker answered earnestly, "Well, I’m only getting five-dollars a night, so I can’t afford a wrestling bag, but I have this rubber one."
Reprimanded once more for what management saw as him speaking nonsense, their demeanor didn’t improve on Monday when suitcases of all sizes and shapes overflowed the office to the ceiling.
"They told me to pick one and to stop telling people that I needed a suitcase. For the next seven to eight weeks, they sold suitcases out of that office!"
The next incident happened again when the TV interviewer asked why Ox Baker didn’t give autographs. Baker, forthright as always, said that he wasn’t making enough money to afford a ballpoint pen of any kind.
"Monday morning, they had pens and pencils for many years after that!"
"These are all funny stories now," Ox Baker says with a smile. "But I promise that it wasn’t so funny at the time!" He continues, "I wasn’t making enough money to eat three meals a day. I was eating one a day, and I cleaned that plate off. I’d always ask for extra bread. Things were tough."
It was so tough that Baker found himself in such dire straits that he tried stealing a steak by tucking it under his shirt. Before reaching the exit, four employees with pistols yelled, "Stop right there, you dirty thief!" They demanded Baker explain what he was trying to do. When taken to the back room and asked once more why he was stealing, Ok Baker simply mumbled, "I had no good excuse," musing over the unfortunate situation he found himself in so many years ago. A conscience-stricken Baker was warned to never return to that store again.
"Next week, I was sitting there, and four or five fans that I used to talk to regularly took me to the side and revealed, ‘Ox, we heard about the steak.’
"I exclaimed, ‘Oh, Lord!’"
But instead of trying to find out what happened, the fans helped Baker and told him, "Every week that you’re here, you come over and get a meal, and then you go over to his house and get another meal."
From that moment on, Ox Baker understood how valuable cultivating a friendship with the fans could be.
In later years, no matter how much the fans asserted and demonstrated their hate towards Ox Baker, he was always appreciative of them all.
"The secret of my success is that I always loved my fans. I never met a fan I didn’t like. In forty years, whether I was hit, cut, or whatever, I never hit a fan. I worked them up so that they could get mad and throw something, and that’s fine. The only thing I’d tell them is, ‘I don’t mind you hitting me upside the head with a can, but don’t hit another fan who is just there to have a good time. Don’t spoil someone else’s fun. We can laugh together, but not at each other."
Ox Baker and His Fatal Heart Punch
In 1971, Australian wrestler "Lord" Jonathan Boyd suggested Ox Baker do something unique with his eyebrows and beard to go along with his ample body and loud personality. The pointy bushy eyebrows and the long, jet black horseshoe patterned mustache became his trademark.
The first time Ox Baker came out with his pointy eyebrows, he remembers someone gasping and exclaiming, "The Devil!"
"That was the right response!" says a grinning Ox Baker.
Billed at 6’4" and 340 lbs, the bald, woolly-chested, fierce-looking Ox Baker became one of the brashest, talkers, and intimidating performers wrestling had ever had. In an unmistakable loud, bestial growl, he’d stare into the camera, striking fear into fan’s hearts, lifting his large fist and bellowing his famous phrase, "I love to hurt people!" Ox Baker softened his opponents — as one does with a tough raw steak — with clubbing overhead forearms, caving in their chests to set up his fearsome and sometimes "deadly" heart punch.
The key to Ox Baker’s success was his intimidating look, combined with an uproarious, over-the-top personality that radiated in many unforgettable promos. His in-ring work-rate was never stellar, but he sure got people to buy tickets.
"You gotta tell the people you’re great. I’ve never been afraid to say, ‘Hey, I’m the world’s lousiest wrestler, but the best talker!’"
Longtime wrestling manager Percival A. Friend, who witnessed the havoc Ox Baker caused in the territories, had this to say about him: "The sight of Ox Baker is enough to scare the devil into going to church."
He would threaten to end the top babyface’s career, and feuds would ensue in every territory he went to. But many times, this was as high on the card as he would be allowed to get.
A singles world championship eluded him during his career, but this isn’t to say that he didn’t hold championship gold. Ox Baker won many titles, like in 1977 when he and Superstar Billy Graham captured the NWA Florida Tag Team Championship. They would later drop them to the Brisco Brothers. Baker also became the United States Heavyweight Champion (Detroit) the same year.
Ox Baker, never the timid sort, had an unreserved self-deprecating sense of humor, quickly making friends with those who were once strangers. Like in an interview with IYH Wrestling — the hosts could only chuckle at Ox Baker’s quick wit.
When asked how it felt to be known as the ugliest wrestler, Ox Baker replied, "Well, the idea they often said is that I had a face that wore out two bodies, and it’s true. When I was born, they spanked my mother! When you’re a legend in your own mind, things like that happen, and I’ve always been aware of it.
And then asked if he always worked as a heel, he put himself over as nobody else could.
"Unfortunately, I was born with the most gorgeous eyes a human being ever had, so I grew the mustache and eyebrows so people could be terrified of me, and then I got the loud voice. I never wanted to be the bad guy, but I’d step out there, and the fans would boo me. I worked with guys almost as ugly as I was, and they’d still boo me!"
Ox Baker admits that Stan Stasiak invented the heart punch, though Ox would rename his move the "hurt punch" after Stasiak took issue with Ox using his finisher. Arguably, because of Ox Baker’s larger size, his heart punch looked more devastating than Stasiak’s.
Two "deaths" came as a result of his heart punch, which is still a hot button topic and the root of speculation amongst wrestling lore.
On June 13th, 1971, Ox Baker and his partner The Claw were in a tag match vs. Alberto Torres and his partner "Cowboy" Bob Ellis in Nebraska. Some sources say that Alberto Torres was already wrestling with a ruptured pancreas. Others claim that he became injured during the match and had a bad heart. But the fact is Torres collapsed during the match and died a couple of days later.
Wrestling promoters, always trying to use any situation to fill their coffers, used this tragedy to convince fans that Alberto Torres died because of Ox Baker’s heart punch.
A year later, on August 1st, 1972, Ray Gunkel, one of the owners of the NWA Georgia and a top babyface for the territory in the ’60s, collapsed and died after a rematch against Ox Baker. Medics determined that arteriosclerosis (hardening and plaque build-up in the arteries), and perhaps eating a sizeable greasy meal beforehand, was a factor in his death of heart trauma.
Even though it is a mere coincidence that Ox Baker wrestled both men before their deaths, he didn’t like to discuss these two tragic (albeit accidental) deaths in detail, though they further cemented him as one of the most infamous wrestlers in the world.
"When I hit him four or five times, they thought I was trying to kill him!" – Ox Baker in 2004
Ox Baker Starts a Riot! The Cleveland Arena Riot of 1974
Ox Baker knew how to work a crowd, and on January 31st, 1974, he may have overdone it.
The plan was simple enough: Interfere in the anticipated blow-off match between "The Big Cat" Ernie Ladd and Johnny Powers in the NWF, and leave the ring quickly. The problem surged when Ladd refused to go down, and Ox Baker continued pummeling the big man. The spectators believed Ernie Ladd would become the third victim of Baker’s heart punch and decided to take authority into their own hands by entering the fray. Fans targeted Ox Baker, Johnny Powers, and just about any wrestler that got in their way.
"We’d work him up to a certain point, and then the good guy would bust you back and pop the crowd. I was supposed to run in, hit him a couple of times, and get out of there. What made me mad was he wouldn’t go down. Since he wouldn’t go down, I continued hitting him," said Ox Baker when recalling the riot 30 years later.
Chairs and debris began to litter the ring as the crowd boiled into a frenzy. The surrounded wrestlers seemingly had no way to escape to the safety of the locker rooms.
Ox Baker is a formidable looking monster of a man, but even he fled for his life when chased by fans wielding knives.
"They chased me upstairs with knives. They were going to cut me!"
When Baker opened the door to what he thought would be a safe room, he found fellow wrestler Gypsy Joe with a lady friend. He offered Baker his knife, which was several inches long. A surprised Baker remembers being more scared of his knife than of the hecklers!
The video footage made the rounds and set up the feud between Ernie Ladd and Ox Baker.
"I gave him a heart punch for my grandmother, and my mother, and my brother and even one for me too," Baker said while narrating the footage during a show.
To say that the Cleveland Boxing Commission was upset would be an understatement. This riot came at a precarious moment because the night before, hockey legend Gordie Howe caused a disturbance after he went after some hecklers in the stands.
When Jim Cornette met Ernie Ladd, he was anxious to know any details about the Cleveland riot.
"So holy fuck, the people were hot," Cornette said to Brian Last during an episode of The Jim Cornette Experience. "Because he saw and felt it, Ernie, while lying there, looked up and said, ‘Ox, the natives are getting restless.’ And Ox answered, ‘Just a little more heat, just a little more heat!’
"He hit him with another heart punch and another, and Ernie sees the first guy pick up a fucking chair [and tells Ox even louder this time], ‘Ox, the natives are getting restless, leave with your heat!’
"Ox answered once again, ‘Just a little more heat, just a little more heat!’"
Cornette continued, "As another heart punch lands on the mark, that’s when the first chair flies over the top rope. Ox starts looking around, and Johnny Powers is already aware of the danger around them. Ernie is lying there, making sure he isn’t getting any of the chairs landing on him, but he isn’t exposing that he’s alright. Then people start coming into the ring, and the cops have their sticks out, hammering people. You see something every time. It’s like looking at a mosaic."
In the last seconds shown in the clip above, you see a fan swing a chair that hits Ox in the back of the head. Requiring many stitches afterward, the back of his head "had a scar that looked like he’d gotten a lobotomy!"
Ox Baker is undiscriminating with his heart punch, seen here striking an older man:
Hollywood Finds Ox Baker
Ox Baker transcended into other entertainment arenas thanks to his unique look and his one-of-a-kind personality. He landed roles in movies and documentaries such as Jackie Chan’s Battle Creek Brawl AKA The Big Brawl (1980), I Like To Hurt People (1985), Blood Circus (1985), Card Subject To Change (2010), Chilling Visions: The Five Senses of Fear (the “See” episode, 2013), Pinwheel (2017), and 350 Days (2018).
Ox Baker’s personality also shined when appearing on an episode of the ever-popular, The Price is Right in 1981. At the sight of the huge wrestler, host Bob Barker said, "Douglas, I sure hope you’re in a good mood today!"
Playing the role of Snake Plissken’s gladiatorial opponent named Slag in John Carpenter’s dystopian sci-fi thriller Escape From New York alongside Kurt Russell is what Baker is most notably known for in Hollywood.
With Escape From New York, Baker reached Hollywood a year before Hulk Hogan did in Rocky III. When asked how he got the role in the film, Baker recounts an unsettling phone conversation he had with the director, John Carpenter.
"Ox, I need you in Escape From New York and in St. Louis tomorrow morning," Carpenter said.
A surprised Ox answered, "Why? I just talked to Bruiser Brody the other night, and he said he’d gotten that part."
Carpenter immediately informed him about the tragic news.
"A fan got angry and stabbed Brody to death last night."
"Oh no!" exclaimed a shocked Ox Baker.
Baker tried to respond to Carpenter, but the ordinarily boisterous Ox Baker seemed eerily silent and at a loss of words after hearing the news of his friend’s harrowing passing.
"He got stabbed last night, and you want me…"
In a serene steady tone, Carpenter answered matter-of-factly, "This is show business, Ox, the show must go on. You were the number two choice, and with the number one choice gone, you got the part."
"I felt so bad that out of respect for Bruiser Brody, I refused every offer to go see the movie. He was a great human being and a great friend of mine."
It must be noted that Bruiser Brody passed away seven years after Escape From New York was released. Therefore Baker may have misremembered how he got the role in the film. Regardless, it is one of the most successful B movies made and a cult classic amongst fans. With that in mind, Baker felt he missed the ball when negotiating his pay.
"At the time, I didn’t realize what a great movie EFNY would be. If I’d asked for $10 in residuals every time that movie was played, I’d be a multi-millionaire today. I took $2,000 at the time — which was big money back then — not thinking about the future, but I’m glad to have been a part of it."
Rumors are that during the rehearsal, Ox Baker was so brutal, acting like he was involved in a real street fight, that Kurt Russell’s stunt double ended up all black and blue. We’re not sure what they expected from a man who always proclaimed: "I love to hurt people!"
Life After Wrestling
A highlight of the highly recommended 350 Days documentary (available now on Amazon Prime) is Ox Baker enthusiastically demonstrating what he dedicated himself to after wrestling: cooking. Not an activity generally associated with wrestling, Ox Baker proudly claimed he sold 3,000 copies of his cookbook entitled Ox Baker’s Cookbook: A Tribute to the Fallen Warriors. It contains recipes of 50 of his favorite dishes, intertwined with tributes to many wrestlers.
Ox Baker wasn’t a petite fellow and one who’d indulge in eating a simple salad or vegetable quiche. So most of the recipes contained within are hearty fare like mushroom-stuffed chicken breasts, chili beef barley soup, and his famous meatloaf with a generous amount of garlic cloves are what’s in store for you.
Fan conventions routinely invited the highly sought after Ox Baker to help draw a crowd and work the room. Who wouldn’t love speaking with Ox Baker, if even for a couple of minutes?
Ox Baker always bellowed in his interviews that he enjoyed hurting people, but the reality is, he never met a fan or wrestler he didn’t like. Some wrestlers didn’t approve of him, which he feels stemmed from jealousy, but Ox Baker never had any enemies and truly loved his fans.
Sadly, due to complications of a heart attack, Ox Baker left us on October 20th, 2014. He was 80 years old.
Watch: The Mighty Ox Baker on The Price Is Right
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