On January 7th, 1982, the Dominican Republic’s headliner Jack Veneno engaged in a clash for the ages when he faced and controversially beat the “Nature Boy” Ric Flair for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. What happened that night in front of more than 14,000 fans and the lengths the media have gone to protect the myth of their country’s hero astounds people to this day.
Early Beginnings For Jack Veneno, Hero of the Dominican Republic
As a youngster growing up in the beautiful Dominican Republic, Jack Veneno (real name Rafael Antonio Sanchez), loved watching the movies starring Mexican superstar wrestlers turned actors: El Santo and Blue Demon. He began his wrestling career in 1969 with the local promotion but soon began traveling abroad to gain experience and hopefully make a name for himself. Records show that he crossed paths with the likes of “The Exotic” Adrian Street, Nick Bockwinkel, and “Killer” Khan. In New York, he was told that he was too small to wrestle in Madison Square Garden, but eventually, after working in a factory and a sporting goods shop for several months, he realized his dream and finally debuted in MSG against Peruvian wrestler Rocky Tamayo (Joe Soto). “It was electrifying when I entered the ring and saw 20,000 people looking upon me, I became numb,” Veneno remembers. “But when the bell rang, I was so happy to be representing The Dominican Republic.”
In 1976, Jack Veneno thought little about what would then become the last words of his Mexican opponent Buddy Montes before he tragically died of a heart attack after their match that took place in The Big Apple. “You’ve caught yourself a break because I can’t get up anymore,” was uttered by Montes while lying on the canvas at the conclusion of their very physical match.
The death of Buddy Montes was very hard for Veneno to process and he sought psychological help to help him get through the experience. He was finally able to surpass this tribulation when told that Montes had been suffering a heart condition beforehand and that Veneno had no part in Montes’ death.
When Jack Veneno returned to the Dominican Republic in 1979, he slowly became the face of wrestling in his country and a key figure during the worldwide boom that became professional wrestling in the dawn of the ‘80s. An idol, hero, and role model for many during this era, he implemented key changes like separate locker rooms for the wrestlers and strict rules prohibiting the heels and the faces mingling or traveling with each other. Two out of three fall matches that critics deemed too predictable, went by the wayside in favor of one fall matches instead. He strived to combine the American and Mexican styles of wrestling into an attractive product for the fans of the Dominican Republic and by tweaking many ideas he had seen in his travels.
The catalyst in the growth of wrestling in the Dominican Republic led to TV after Veneno was able to convince wrestler and promoter Vampiro Cao. With the new exposure came more money and sponsorships. Veneno soon became a spokesperson of many products that are remembered fondly by the Dominican people. Everything from cured meats like salami (given away to audience members), motorcycles, car wax, and awful tasting vitamin supplements (named Forty Malt, which was supposed to give you strength just like Jack Veneno with the slogan “an arm of power in every spoonful!”) was promoted during broadcasts.
“El Pueblo quiere lucha, que luche Jack Veneno,” translates as “The people want wrestling, let Jack Veneno wrestle,” became the chant known throughout the country. It was a chant that united people of all kinds and put everyone in Jack Veneno’s corner. In most wrestling territories, there were people who liked the heels. However, in the Dominican Republic, going against Jack Veneno was sacrilegious.
To say that Jack Veneno became a larger-than-life star and cultural icon for the people of the Dominican Republic would be a huge understatement. Watching the wrestling show on Saturday afternoons called “Lucha Libre Internacional” became a weekly ritual. He was not just a wrestler, but a national icon of historical significance for the country who helped the entertainment sector get off the ground and later flourish.
Dominican actor Manny Perez, who plays Jack Veneno in the biopic, Veneno. La Primera Caída, remembers huddling between his 10 brothers in front of a black and white TV to see his hero. “The few times we had electricity was normally only Saturday afternoons,” says Perez. “This is when we saw Jack Veneno. We didn’t have anything, but when I saw him on TV, I felt rich.”
Los Hermanos Bronco, Caballero Negro, Vampiro Cao, El Vengador, El Buitre, Thunderman, El Taira, Los Espectros, Puño de Hierro, El Puma, El Principe Sabud, Golden Star and El Judas, are some of the famous wrestlers during this time in The Dominican Republic.
El Relampago (Lightning) Hernández was the yin to Jack Veneno’s yang, the archetype of good versus evil. They complemented each other so well in the sense that Jack Veneno signified everything that was morally correct and was a courageous hero fighting off the treacherous villains on a weekly basis. Hernández was the representation of all that was evil and would recruit henchmen to face Jack Veneno in hopes of eliminating him. Without a villain like Relampago Hernández, perhaps Jack Veneno wouldn’t have reached the heights that he did.
“I loved being a rudo (Spanish wrestling term for ‘rulebreaker’),” declares Hernández. “I loved it when people yelled at me. People hated me and it was exciting for me! I wanted to be THE bad guy of excellence, and I learned to become an even better rudo learning from Mexican, American, South American, and Central American wrestlers that passed through the territory.” He continues, “I actually wanted to become number one in the whole promotion. To destroy, crush… to be like a tornado that destroys everything in its path was my pleasure and reason of being.”
“El campeón de la bolita del mundo,” as Jack Veneno is called, alludes to him being “The champion of the people” in the small island country (roughly the size of the state of Georgia) they share with Haiti. “El hijo de Doña Tatica” is a reference to his mother who he loved very much and who didn’t like him being a wrestler. Early in his career, Jack would wear a mask trying to hide his identity from his mother. It didn’t work!
Jack Veneno was always a babyface technical wrestler and still protects kayfabe when interviewed. He looks uncomfortable when wrestling is referred to as “a show” rather than sport. When asked if the punches and kicks seen on TV were real, he never says that they were anything but. He certainly doesn’t admit that the scars on his forehead were caused by blading. Instead, he claims that they were because of getting rammed into the iron connecting the turnbuckles with the posts, the post themselves and/or brass knuckles. Veneno maintains that there was legitimate heat between him and his eternal rival Relampago Hernández who legitimately pulled a knife on him in the locker rooms.
Did you know?: Jack Veneno adapted names of wrestling holds by calling them in ways that clicked more with the Dominican fans. He “tropicalized them” to match with the local flavor. For example, The Sleeper hold became known as “The Controversy” because, although it was widely used in wrestling at the time, it was an illegal hold in the Dominican Republic (much like the piledriver was in many territories). His version is a slight variation that seeks to bend the neck to the side, making it seem more painful and more difficult to escape from.
Wooooooo! The Arrival of The Nature Boy Ric Flair in the Dominican Republic
On January 7th, 1982, Palacio de los Deportes Virgilio Travieso Soto was the site of what is still Jack Veneno’s most prestigious match. Weeks before this historic encounter, it seemed like it was the only thing people were talking about. It took place in front of more than 14,000 screaming fans in a venue that could only accommodate 10,000 (Jack Veneno says that the number was actually closer to 16,500). What is agreed upon is the multitude of thousands that were not able to get a ticket for the oversold venue that witnessed Jack Veneno’s “victory” over Ric Flair, who was the symbol of arrogance to them and was surely born with a “silver spoon in his mouth.”
In one interview, Jack Veneno says that getting Flair to come to the island proved complicated because Flair asked for $20,000 and 25% of the gate. In another more recent interview, Veneno claims the Nature Boy wanted $50,000 and 10% gross revenue (earnings before deducting expenses). Whether it was $20K, $50K or somewhere in between, the amount had to be paid in advance and deposited into a U.S. bank account. Many point to Carlos Colon as the middleman in these negotiations because he was in charge of NWA sanctioned events in Central America and the Caribbean. Veneno claims that his payoff was a mere $7,000 compared to the large chunk Flair allegedly took home for this first match. This was not taking into account that the Nature Boy – who of course arrived in style in his private jet accompanied by three attractive blondes – was put up in a five-star hotel with all expenses paid along with one George Napolitano who was at the time editor for Wresting’s Main Event magazine.
The atmosphere surrounding this match can only be compared to what was seen for classic boxing matches featuring Muhammed Ali in his prime going against the likes of Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Sonny Liston, but combined with the furor of a soccer match between rival countries.
As Flair was settling into his room at the Sheraton Hotel in Santo Domingo, George Napolitano with his Brooklyn accent encouraged him to look out the window. As recounted in Ric Flair’s autobiography, To Be The Man, “Pulling open the window shade, I saw about 30,000 people going wild in the street. A guy who looked like a midget was jogging over a bridge, with a crowd cheering and jogging beside him. It was like a scene from Rocky.” Flair continues, “Apparently my opponent Jack Veneno was training for the biggest match of his life- a chance to bring glory to the Dominican Republic by winning the most prestigious wrestling championship in the world. My God, it was unbelievable.”
Once Flair was finally able to get into the venue past the thousands of fans outside and after his taxi was tipped over, the match proceeded as normal as can be, until there was interference by Veneno’s eternal rival Relampago Hernández. While dressed as Santa Claus, Hernández interfered in favor of Flair while Veneno had him in a sleeper hold. In later interviews, Hernández claims that he had planned this run-in for six months to spoil Veneno’s chance at becoming a world champion. Of course, the title cannot switch hands due to a disqualification.
In wrestling, it is often difficult to decipher the true events and what is totally fiction so I am forced to use the eternal cliche: “As the story goes” when trying to piece together the events and recount what we believe may well be the facts, and this, my readers, is where the confusion begins.
Ric Flair and Jack Veneno – Many Questions, Few Answers
Video available online seems to be greatly altered as it skips around, omits events that are said to have happened and makes it very unclear to the viewer what exactly transpired at the end.
It does not show the interference by Relampago Hernández, but instead, it shows what seems to be an edited version of the match that has Ric Flair being pile-drived face-first and subsequently the pin attempt by Jack Veneno. The “real” ending is up to interpretation. The referee seems to count to two and then the bell rings signaling the end of the match. The referee makes the universal movement with his hands indicating that the time had expired and that there was no winner. Meanwhile, a frustrated Veneno can be seen turning away in disgust. Immediately after a very rough edit, we see Jack Veneno celebrating in the ring with the referee raising his hands and fans around him as the screen is bathed in these strange psychedelic colors. You are then transported to some stills of Ric Flair and Jack Veneno with a voice saying that Flair did indeed get pinned by Veneno. Huh?? The video is ripped from the documentary, Jack: La Historia de Jack Veneno directed by Robert Krupka and Benjamin Irish.
It is important to note that Ric Flair in his book and in interviews says that the match ended when the referee was raising his arms to see if he had passed out with Veneno’s sleeper hold and he was then saved by the bell. In the footage available, we do not see the referee lift Ric Flair’s arms.
Ecuadorian wrestler Hugo Savinovich, who is known for working for WWE as part of their Spanish language commentator team and currently employed by AAA in Mexico, says, “I was working for the WWC and knew that if the ring announcer told the truth-that Veneno hadn’t won- people would die. No one had any idea that this was showmanship. Everyone, even the athletic commissioners, believed that they had seen a legitimate wrestling match.”
Savinovich goes on to say, “El Puma, who was a wrestler that worked with Jack Veneno and helped book the matches in the Dominican Republic, took a hammer and broke the clock that had stopped twenty seconds too early. The evidence needed to be destroyed or else there would’ve been riots in the country that even the military couldn’t control.” He seems to be implying that the match ended with Flair in a sleeper, which the footage available does not corroborate.
WATCH: The ending of the controversial match between Ric Flair and Jack Veneno. See what you can figure out.
To add to the confusion, Ric Flair in his book says that the fans were so elated believing that Jack Veneno had won that they started to riot by throwing chairs and fighting with the military police. Imagine if they had been upset?
“Everyone wanted to get into the ring and congratulate him,” Flair remarks. “I didn’t want to spoil anybody’s fun, so I just left the championship belt in the ring. If Veneno felt like holding it over his head and pretending to be champion, that was fine with me.” He adds that he left the country without his belt. The same belt that was insured by $25,000. If said belt got lost, Naitch would have to pay for it out of his pocket. Does that make sense to you?
So Jack Veneno became the champion then, right? Not so fast. He, in later interviews, says that he didn’t. “Relampago Hernández thwarted my ‘golden dream’ of becoming a world champion, but because of this interference, I was guaranteed a later rematch.”
While Jack Veneno seems like a decent and moral man, considering that he is still kayfabing anybody who will listen, we must take his comment with the necessary grain of salt.
Dominican newspapers now talk about the first match being a no-contest but they are also known to get the dates wrong attesting that the match was in ’83. According to Flair in his book, although the match was ruled a no-contest, they quickly rewarded the belt to Veneno for fear of the crowd reacting violently. Flair also mentions that he had no problem doing this, as long as he was able to get home safely. The title change was never acknowledged by the NWA.
In a huge slip up by someone in the editing department of a news special, we can see more clearly that the referee is signaling that the match was over and the announcer is heard saying, “The bell has rung,” right before the referee counts to two. At no point is he heard saying Jack Veneno has been declared the winner. Below you can watch the footage where the referee clearly signals that time has expired and it is not while Naitch is in a sleeper hold either.
WATCH: Time expires while Ric Flair is pinned on the mat
Still, to this day, many in the media still take this match as the one where Jack Veneno won the NWA title fair and square. Might this be because, to my knowledge, there is no existing footage of the rematch that took place seven months later on August 29th? It seems like the people only talk about the first match and not the second. What is ingrained in the minds of the people is that “Jack Veneno defeated Ric Flair and became world champion,” and any other details seem to be blurred by the passage of time.
The Rematch Between Ric Flair and Jack Veneno
The rematch between Ric Flair and Jack Veneno was set for August 29th, 1982, and it is seldom spoken of by the Dominican fans. They and the media seem to blend both matches into one! In the rematch, Ric Flair was accompanied by Roddy Piper, who was there to instigate the fans (as if that was necessary!) and to interfere in the match, making sure that Flair got the upper hand and the victory. Ric Flair mentions in his book that Jack Veneno was in the eyes of the Dominican fans “the NWA Worlds Heavyweight champion.” Jack Veneno himself has admitted, as mentioned above, that he was not the champion entering this match. What gives? Anyways… moving forward.
When Roddy Piper made his move and tripped Jack Veneno as planned, Ric Flair says in his book and in later interviews that the soldiers around the ring pointed their rifles at Piper’s head. According to the Dominican newspapers, Flair, after seeing the situation was heating up and understanding that their original finish would not go well with the fans, went for a suplex but Veneno blocked it and rolled the Nature Boy into a small package for the victory.
Flair goes on to relate in his book a different story, saying that he allowed Jack Veneno to pin him by pulling him atop of himself and yelled at the referee to count. Once the referee slapped the mat three times, Flair, taking note of the situation reaching a boil around him, shouted at Jack Veneno, “Put on the belt! Do you hear me? You’re the fuckin’ champion! Wear the fuckin’ belt!” Invader #1 (Jose Gonzalez later accused of murdering Bruiser Brody) ran into the ring and rushed both Piper and Flair to the dressing rooms. Flair claims that he only got $5,000 this second time around and Piper got $500 and a spittoon full of cocaine.
On this second occasion, however, Flair did take the belt back with him. “According to Dominican wrestling fans, Jack Veneno not only defeated Ric Flair for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, but he retained the gold in a rematch,“ says Flair.
Next time on TV when Jack Veneno wasn’t wearing the belt, the kayfabe explanation told to the fans was that he was unwilling to travel to defend the belt. The truth is, he wasn’t supposed to win it. Even if he had kept it, it wasn’t going to be acknowledged by the powers that be of the NWA, just like his first “victory” wasn’t either. So here is when he put himself over and decided to become the “champion of the people” and stay in the Dominican Republic.
Years later, Jack Veneno said that in the rematch he knew he was going to win it and used a very important strategy, but quickly changes the subject and says that he actually rejected the offer of becoming the NWA World Champion because he was earning very good money in the Dominican Republic and had no need to burden himself with the traveling involved that came with becoming the representative of the NWA. This comment of him knowing that he was going to win just adds more fodder for this whole intriguing situation.
Regardless of the validity or lack thereof of the NWA title win for Jack Veneno, the people of the Dominican Republic seem to not care or not know that it is unrecognized in history books. The mere idea of one of their people defeating Ric Flair to become world champion is what they hold onto, not the facts and technicalities surrounding these historic battles. To them, Jack Veneno is and will forever be their world champion and there really is nothing anybody can say to take them out of that sense of euphoria that perhaps is filtered through rose-colored glasses. Why should their fantasy be ruined if it makes them happy?
“When I defeated him, I’ve never experienced a moment like that in my sport ever again,” exclaims an overjoyed Jack Veneno when remembering being awarded the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, even with all the controversy surrounding it.
When asked if he could be born again and become anything in life, he simply said that he’d be a wrestler again. He loves the sport and always defends it with all his strength. “If I’d be born again 20 times, I’d be a wrestler 20 times.”
To this day, at almost 80 years old, when out and about, he is surrounded by people that want to be around him.
He talks about the pain in his shoulders and knees he lives with every day. He wakes up late at night with pain that brings tears to his eyes. For almost a decade, Jack Veneno has battled prostate cancer, but so far he is winning the fight. “The key is for the disease not to reach your bones,” he cheerfully says.
When Dominican journalist Tony Dandrades asked Jack Veneno during an emotive interview,
“Jack, do you realize how much the Dominican people love you?”
“Well… that’s what keeps me alive,” answered Jack with his trademark smile that can warm up any frigid room in the dead of winter. A smile that evokes the warmth of the Dominican people.
Veneno then begins to break down in tears as he continues, “The respect and love they have for me is what keeps me alive.”
He is then asked if he is afraid of death.
Jack Veneno responds, “No. I have lived it all. Poverty, hunger, success, glory, friendships, abandonments by friends, I lived it all.”
Dandrades, looking straight into Jack Veneno’s eyes, assures him that he will transcend and live forever inside every Dominican. “You are our superhero,” he tells him.
Jack Veneno extends his hand and answers, “Thank you, brother, but I owe everything to God.”
Veneno’s son Rafy Sanchez also wrestled but sadly passed away in 2017.
There are other theories surrounding the events between Ric Flair and Jack Veneno and what belts were truly dropped and won (including the NWA Intercontinental title, which some say was in actuality the local Dominican championship), but we tried to present events that have sources and are not based merely on speculation. Thank you for reading!
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