Whether battling Clark Kent in the movie Superman II, winning championship gold in the ring, or calling the matches as one of wrestling’s first color commentators, Pepper Martin did it all. He was one of wrestling’s longtime glory days stars, and I was fortunate enough to call him a friend.
The Versatility of Pepper Martin
Born September 20th, 1936, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, Howard “Pepper” Martin broke into the wrestling business in 1957. Trained by Al Spittles, he wrestled until 1975.
Pepper had several tours of Japan, is still fondly remembered for appearances in the AWA for Verne Gagne, Honolulu for promoter Ed Francis, the West Coast working from British Columbia and Calgary down to Washington State and Oregon for his friend Don Owen, in Los Angeles for booking genius Jules Strongbow, and for his lengthy stint for Roy Shire’s Big Time Wrestling promotion in San Francisco.
Lou Thesz even had enough respect for Pep that he gave him the first initial draft of his book Hooker to proofread.
His finisher was called the Cobra Twist, a variation of the abdominal stretch. Wrestling Historian Ed Garea once said, “I taught Pepper’s hold to my goddaughter who’s a flic (French slang for a police officer) in France, and she still uses it to subdue crooks and perps!”
When Pepper Martin got injured wrestling in the mid-’60s in Los Angeles, he transitioned to film and later television after his actor friend Lee Marvin had him call his agent, who agreed to find Pepper work.
He quickly adapted (while never leaving wrestling entirely) to acting amidst a multitude of movie and television credits, including The Longest Yard, Walking Tall, and Superman II.
Watch Pepper Martin Take on Superman in Superman II:
“Acting came naturally to me because that was a big part of what we do in the ring,” Pepper once told Evan Ginzburg and me on our show Legends Radio in 2012.
“I always enjoyed wrestling though because you get immediate feedback from the audience instead of waiting months to a year or more with TV shows or movies.”
Sitting behind the announcer’s desk as early as 1967 as a color commentator, Pepper Martin was groomed by legendary Los Angeles wrestling announcer Dick Lane on how to call matches.
Soon, Dick convinced Strongbow to have Pepper sit with him full-time, where he became one of wrestling’s first color commentators providing in-site stats and more to Dick.
Lane, also a former actor (the police chief in the Boston Blackie crime film series, a shyster on Leave It To Beaver, etc.) not only called wrestling each week for the Hollywood office’s 90-minute weekly show but also called the action for Roller Games/Bill Griffith Promotions plus Demolition Derby — all weekly KTLA-channel 5 broadcast shows.
Pepper’s Final Battle
“These are my last days.”
I was forlorn to hear these words from Pepper Martin in a phone call we had a few weeks before he passed away after a prolonged battle with lung cancer on March 18th, 2022, at 85. He was receiving hospice care when we talked.
He had conquered eye cancer some twelve years before but still lost an eye in that battle.
Sounding as sharp as ever, he added, “I’m at peace with death, which is coming soon. At least my memory, everything’s still with me.”
24/7 nurses made sure Pep wasn’t in pain while at home with his wife and daughter.
We were friends since 1980. In our conversation, we talked about his life and career.
“Dick Lane taught me how to call a match after I got injured in the ring and had to take time off,” Pep shared. “Like acting, I took to it quickly, and word soon got around the business.
“A fun fact is after I started doing it, many of the territories such as Houston for Paul Boesch began copying the 2-3 person announce booth. Our boss at the time, wrestling creative genius Jules Strongbow in 1973 taught wrestler Ripper Collins how to do color, again with Dick Lane, but as the business’s very first heel commentator right in Los Angeles. Dick Lane worked well with Ripper Roy too.”
Pepper also became a screenwriter, producer, and director for many films, with 62 acting credits to his name on IMDB.
“I was also the one who first told Roy Shire to bring Pat Patterson in from Oregon and Don Owen’s promotion beginning in 1966,” Pep added.
“Pat and I had a great program selling out all the towns in Oregon and Washington. I told Roy that the kid looks and works just like Ray Stevens, and that he could team ’em up, feud them, and it’ll make nothing but money. It certainly did as Pat and Shire never stopped thanking me over the years!”
Most importantly, Pepper was always a wonderful person, always helping others in the ring, as well as with coaching and referrals.
He assisted the earliest founders of the Cauliflower Alley Club with our regular downtown Los Angeles lunches at Little Joe’s and The Spaghetti Factory restaurants in the ’60s and ’70s.
Pepper was also on our executive board when the CAC progressed in the early 1980s from casual lunches amongst wrestlers and actors to an annual Saturday night awards event for wrestlers, boxers, and actors at The Sportsman’s Lodge in the L.A. Valley.
Pepper was the Master of Ceremonies several times for Cauliflower Alley Club events, and when the yearly event evolved into three days and moved to Las Vegas in 2000, he took over the lead M.C. role full time.
When we chatted, Pepper said he talked to one of my ’70s Los Angeles wrestling territory bosses Gene Lebell two weeks prior and that Gene’s not feeling 100% either.
Like Pepper, who played one of Earth’s main heels by beating up Clark Kent in Superman II, Gene also had a connection to Superman. He dated the original Lois Lane (actress Noel Neill) from the 1950’s Adventures of Superman’s TV show for nearly a year.
They are two of our industry’s all-time legends who exemplify excellence in the ring as well as in the arts.
I was blessed to call Pepper Martin a friend, and he will be sorely missed.
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