Steve Nelson: 3rd Gen Wrestler’s Tales of Unsung Wrestling Family

They say wrestling runs in your blood! Dive into the secret saga of third-generation professional wrestler Steve Nelson, where blood, sweat, and untold family tales collide in and out of the ring!

Three Generations of Professional Wrestlers: From left to right- Steve Nelson's grandmother, Ann LaVerne; mother, Marie LaVerne; father, Gordon Nelson (in one of his many masked personas); and Steve Nelson as a child, a champion wrestler, and today.
Three Generations of Professional Wrestlers: From left to right- Steve Nelson’s grandmother, Ann LaVerne; mother, Marie LaVerne; father, Gordon Nelson (in one of his many masked personas); and Steve Nelson as a child, a champion wrestler, and today.

“I am not sure how many schoolteachers can say they’ve faced Kazushi Sakuraba three times, gotten into the MMA cage with one of the Gracies, and also fought the former NWA and UFC Triple Crown Champion Dan ‘The Beast’ Severn!”

– Steve Nelson


Steve Nelson: A Storied Wrestling History Spanning Three Generations

Steve Nelson with a young fight fan.
Steve Nelson with a young fight fan. Photo Credit: USWF.

In the winter of 2023, a reader by the name of Steve Nelson contacted us on our Facebook page to express his appreciation for our efforts in preserving the rich history of professional wrestling. In a humble manner, he casually mentioned his lineage, which is deeply entrenched in wrestling.

We soon discovered that Steve and the Nelson family had invaluable stories worth sharing!

Gordon Nelson

Steve's father, Gordon Nelson, was rough, rugged, and respected, but here, as Mr. Wrestling, he is being attacked at the Amarillo Sports Arena in a tag team against The Infernos.
Steve’s father, Gordon Nelson, was rough, rugged, and respected, but here, as Mr. Wrestling, he is being attacked at the Amarillo Sports Arena in a tag team against The Infernos. Photo Credit: Steve Nelson’s files.

Steve Nelson’s father was Gordon Nelson from Winnipeg, Canada.

He was an Olympic wrestling standout who later turned pro circa 1957. He found himself wrestling in the United Kingdom under the famous Dale Martin “Big Time” Wrestling Promotion, facing formidable opponents like Billy Robinson. Gordon called the UK his home for over a decade before venturing to the USA.

There, Dory Funk Jr. named him “Mr. Wrestling” because of his legitimate grappling and shooting skills, but not to be mistaken with George Burrell Woodin, who also went by Tim Woods in the ring.

In some wrestling territories, Gordon was used as an enforcer when needed to teach marks a lesson who dared doubt the sport’s legitimacy.

After his father had passed away, he was surprised to learn that Hulk Hogan revealed in a 2019 interview on the Steve Austin Show that along with Hiro Matsuda, B. Brian Blair, and the Briscos, Gordon Nelson was one of the gatekeepers in Florida when trying to break into the business. He also later smartened Hogan up and helped him learn to wrestle after the many beatings!

During his storied career, Gordon challenged Dory Funk Jr. for his NWA World title and, years later, Terry Funk’s. By all accounts researched, he was well-respected by his peers and considered a class act in the business.

“My father wrestled as Mr. Wrestling mostly in America,” Steve explained to us. “In England, he was famous for being a masked man called The Outlaw. He was also one of the masked Pros, Dr. X, The Masked Avenger, etc. He was several masked men.”

Gordon Nelson Gets Recognized at the Cauliflower Alley Club

Left to right starting from the top: Gordon Nelson in Japan, Mr. Wrestling vs. Cyclone Negro, Gordon Nelson and Ripper Collins, Gordon vs. Peter Maivia, Gordon and Steve Nelson at the National Sambo Championships, The Pros: Gordon Nelson and Tyler Baxter.
Left to right starting from the top: Gordon Nelson in Japan, Mr. Wrestling vs. Cyclone Negro, Gordon Nelson and Ripper Collins, Gordon vs. Peter Maivia, Gordon and Steve Nelson at the National Sambo Championships, The Pros: Gordon Nelson and Tyler Baxter. Photo Credit: NWA, Steve Nelson’s files.

In April of 2005, for the Iron Mike Award at the Cauliflower Alley Club, considered by many as the highest honor in pro wrestling, Terry Funk mentioned how strongly Gordon influenced his stellar career by saying, “Gordon Nelson should have been no less than an NWA World Champion.”

For our interview, Steve also offered his thoughts on his beloved father.

“I think what people will never forget about my dad is what a great guy he was and how he loved the business. He was quiet and never bragged, even though he was a multiple-time national freestyle wrestling champion for Canada, even making the 1952 and 1956 Olympic Teams.

“He wrestled all over the world and [in the pros] wrestled almost everybody that was anybody in his era, including Peter Maivia, Buddy Rogers, Lou Thesz, Bob Backlund, Stan Hansen, Dusty Rhodes, all of the Funks, plus many other greats.”

Ann LaVerne

Steve Nelson's grandmother, women's wrestling pioneer Ann Laverne.
Steve Nelson’s grandmother is women’s wrestling pioneer Ann LaVerne. Photo Credit: Steve Nelson files.

Often referred to as the "only [or first] woman with a cauliflower ear,” which made her unable to wear earrings.

In the early 1940s, during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second term in the White House, Billy Wolfe’s traveling troupe of lady wrestlers included most of the best female workers in the country, including the athletic Ann LaVerne, real name Ann Pico.

Said to be as "tough as boot leather," Ann took on all challengers, including men. She married Robert Pico, who wrestled as Robert Pico, Pancho Villa, and Bobby Lane.

They wrestled as Mr. and Mrs. Pancho Villa when they were mixed-tag world champions.

Ann began her training at 16 and never looked back, wrestling into the 1960s.

After a year, she went on the road, plying her trade with the other girls in fairs and small-town carnivals. The "rings" they performed in often had no ropes and were on horse hair mats in the middle of a large tent with the wrestlers surrounded by people.

Her debut match was against Mildred Burke, one of the most respected and accomplished women wrestlers in the sport’s long, celebrated history, and she soon developed a heelish side of herself that suited her well for years to come.

In a phone interview with the Canton Repository, her daughter Marie LaVerne (real name Mary Nelson) explained how reviled she was even outside the USA:

"She wrestled in Mexico and would come out in a black suit and tights. Everybody hated her. During one match, she rammed an opponent’s head into the turnbuckle, and it snapped, and the ropes fell apart. Everybody in the crowd gasped. In Spanish, they started calling her ‘the black devil’ and ‘the black panther.’"

"She ended up going and having a black panther put on her robe in sequins," Marie stated. "All she had to do the next time in Mexico was walk out with that robe on to get a reaction from the crowd. She didn’t need to say a word!"

Dangerous Fans

Ann Laverne wrestling in a carnival at 17 years old.
Ann LaVerne wrestling in a carnival at 17 years old. Photo Credit: Steve Nelson’s files.

Ann LaVerne also had a scary incident while in Daytona, Florida. Her daughter was eight years old at the time and witnessed it all. Fans attacking the heels was commonplace in the vintage yesteryears of pro wrestling.

"The bleachers were right on top of the aisle leading to the ring," Marie remembered. "They used to serve pop in glass bottles to the fans. One of the fans leaned over the rail, swung an empty bottle at my mom, and smacked her in the side of the head with it. She was knocked out cold.

"They brought her backstage, and the doctors looked at her and stitched her up. What I remember most is her yelling at my stepdad while she was bleeding. It wasn’t about the injury. It was about him. The cleaned-up version of what she said was, ’I thought you had my back!’"

Ann LaVerne was as real as they came and wasn’t interested in finessing her look either.

"Many of the girls started to glamorize themselves," Marie noted. "They started taking movie-star-like photos for the posters. Mom stayed herself. She would always tell me, ’I’m not out to sell sex. I like my hair the way it is. I’m not dying it like everybody else.’"

Ann LaVerne is a 2019 Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame inductee.

Marie LaVerne

Imagen que contiene persona, exterior, mujer, joven Descripción generada automáticamente
Photo Credit: NWA.

“My mom was well respected, and she was a darn good wrestler and entertainer. I am very proud of my mom’s wrestling career.”

– Steve Nelson


Steve Nelson’s mother, Marie LaVerne (real name Mary Nelson), was known for her stunning beauty and a smile that disarmed anyone. Her athleticism in the squared circle awed her opponents, and her charisma won the fans over.

But don’t let her beauty fool you; she was known to be very aggressive in the ring and never held back! Her son Steve admits that her precious mom still has quite the temper but, of course, is a sweetheart to all.

“Mom always wrestled as a rugged baby face, never worked heel. She tried a few times to be the heel, but the fans always ended up making her the babyface.”

Thrust into Wrestling by Accident

At eight years old, Marie Laverne was already climbing the ropes!
At eight years old, Marie LaVerne was already climbing the ropes! Photo Credit: Steve Nelson’s files.

“My mother wrestled her very first match under the name Roberta Linquist from Sweden because she wrestled her mother, Ann LaVerne (Ann Pico), for promoter Saul Weingeroff. The match took place in 1958 in Florida,” says Steve.

Fate intervened when a promoter needed a women wrestler after an unexpected no-show.

“So they asked my grandmother if her daughter could take her opponent’s place. My grandmother initially declined, but her husband, Robert Pico, and the promoter convinced her to let my mom wrestle.

“My mother was sixteen and still in high school on summer break and had never been in the ring before. She told me that her mother entered the ring first, striding the ring like a bull. When my mom attempted to make her way to the ring, she saw her mother walking inside. She panicked, walked back to her dressing room, and closed the door!

“My grandfather eventually persuaded her to step into the ring. She had a rough ring style and put my mother through a very tough match. My mother did come out on top, though, and pinned her. After the match, my grandmother walked by promoter Saul Weingeroff and said, ‘Blood is thicker than water!’

“My mom was banged up and bruised the next day but ended up wrestling 3-4 more matches that summer, including a mixed tag match against her mother, and that’s how she started in pro wrestling.”


Fun Fact: When Steve’s grandparents were a mixed tag team, they wrestled as Mr. and Mrs. Pancho Villa. Robert also went by Bobby Lane. Steve’s uncle, whom Steve became very close with, wrestled as “Bad Boy” Bobby Lane. He was one of the few people Steve wholeheartedly trusted in the ring.


Wrestling Mae Young

Various photos of Marie Laverne. The lower left is from the Port Clinton, OH, newspaper 1970. The lower right shows her with sister Roberta and a young Steve Nelson.
Various photos of Marie LaVerne. The lower left is from the Port Clinton, Ohio, newspaper 1970. The lower right shows her with sister Roberta and a young Steve Nelson. Photo Credit: Steve Nelson’s files, Port Clinton Newspaper.

“Another person my mom wrestled early in her career,” Steve Nelson continued, “was Johnnie Mae Young.”

“She said Johnnie Mae was wonderful to wrestle with and took great care of her in the ring. Also, Mae Young had her very first match with Ann LaVerne.”

Facing Vivian Vachon in Wrestling Queen

Steve Nelson and his mother Marie Laverne in the 1973 film, "Wrestling Queen."
Steve Nelson and his mother Marie LaVerne in the 1973 film, “Wrestling Queen.” Photo Credit: Wrestling Queen.

Notably, the fascinating 1973 documentary “Wrestling Queen” featured a segment with Marie and a young Steve Nelson in the dressing room with his mom as she prepared for a match against Vivian Vachon. The match is full of grit and emotion; these two remarkable women spare nothing in pleasing the anxious crowd.

Marie recounts having great matches with Ann Casey, Cora Combs, and Kay Noble, who became her best friend. However, Vivian Vachon stands out the most.

“She remembers being nervous about her first match with Vivian in New Mexico because when she met her, she had a vice grip for a handshake,” says Steve.

“She said Vivian was a great wrestler, attractive, charismatic, and could really work that ring. She believes Vivian should have been the world champion.”

The bulk of Marie’s career spanned from 1968 to 1978, but never full-time because she needed someone to leave Steve with for weeks, so she often took him on the road.

Marie cast aside thoughts of wrestling in countries such as Japan and Australia even when invited. She continued wrestling sporadically until 1988. Ironically, Marie began her career wrestling her mother and wrestled her very last match for her son.

“Before I started promoting MMA, I promoted one professional wrestling show in 1988 in Amarillo, Texas,” Steve told us.

“My mom and Kay Noble had not wrestled in a few years, but they both wrestled their last matches for me. Unfortunately, my mom threw Kay over the top rope, and Kay broke her ankle! Nonetheless, Kay finished the match like a pro. Like I tell people all the time, ‘professional wrestling is real.'”

Steve Nelson – The Forever Fighter

Steve Nelson: 3rd Gen Wrestler's Tales of Unsung Wrestling Family
Photo Credit: Steve Nelson’s files.

“Wrestling gave me purpose and shaped my life. It opened doors for me.”

– Steve Nelson


It would be challenging to name all of Steve Nelson’s accolades and accomplishments. From amateur wrestling ranks to the pros to Sambo, Judo, MMA, and all in between, he’s done it all.

At nine years old, he entered amateur wrestling. Then, in his twenties, he turned pro and honed his skills in Mexico. He later took hard strikes in Japan’s premier shoot wrestling promotion and, amid numerous challenges, formed his own MMA company in the USA.

“I started in amateur wrestling at nine in Amarillo, Texas, at the Maverick Boys [and Girls] Club. I continued wrestling at Oklahoma State University (as a walk-on) until I was 22, then Judo when I was 17 in 1981 and competed until 1991. Then, I started Sambo at 20 in 1984 and competed until 1994. In 2005, at 41, I wrestled in my last amateur freestyle wrestling match at the AAU Grand National Championships.

“After graduating, I found a job at Palo Duro High School in the Amarillo school district that allowed me to teach, coach, and pursue pro wrestling and MMA.

“My long journey in combat sports had many failures, but I also had my fair share of successes. I was knocked out on PPV, but I also won a silver medal at the world championships.

“With all that being said, I take great pride in the accomplishments of my wrestling teams. Those kids fulfilled my dream as a coach when they won two state championships, the girls in 2001 and 2003 and a national championship in 2001.

“Sharing 27 years of my life with these kids was a privilege. Each interaction, every practice session, and every win I shared with these kids was a testament to the passion and dedication they brought to the sport. Their hard work and commitment made my coaching career incredibly rewarding, and I am profoundly grateful.”

Giving Pro Wrestling A Go

In 2001, Steve Nelson was named Texas Coach of the Year, and in 2013, he was named Texas Wrestling Coach of the Year and inducted into the Texas Wrestling Hall of Fame.
In 2001, Steve Nelson was named Texas Coach of the Year, and in 2013, he was named Texas Wrestling Coach of the Year and inducted into the Texas Wrestling Hall of Fame. Photo Credit: Steve Nelson’s files.

“I feel like I got my start in pro wrestling at six months old,” Steve Nelson nostalgically recounted to us. “My mother and I moved to London, England, to be with my dad while he wrestled in the UK. Even as a baby, I was always at the arena.

“When I was four years old, we moved back to the United States, and I started kindergarten in Amarillo, Texas.

“We moved there for my parents to wrestle for Dory Funk Sr., and Terry Funk became my favorite wrestler immediately. Later on, he became more of a mentor.”

Remembering A Good Friend, Terry Funk

Wrestling legend and close friend of Steve Nelson's, Terry Funk.
Wrestling legend and close friend of Steve Nelson’s, Terry Funk.

Steve Nelson shared stories about his dear friend, Terry Funk.

“Terry had great sayings, a fighter was getting the heck beat out of him, and one of my friends said, ‘That guy has a lot of heart.’ Terry replied, ‘You show me a guy with a lot of heart, and I will show you a guy that can take a beating!’ I would go to his house with friends for parties or dinner. He was an all-around fun guy to be with.

“He’d watch my team wrestle and attend our banquets. He always made my high school wrestlers feel so important.

“My mom probably had the best friendship with Terry. She always visited or called him in the last few years when he was sick. She was that real friend who always made him take his medicine or tell him to quit acting up. My mom lost one of her true friends when Terry passed.

“Stacey Funk asked me to speak at Terry Funk’s funeral. The other two people who shared their words were Mick Foley and Dory Funk Jr.”

Adventures in Lucha Libre

Very early in his career, Steve Nelson braces for a strike at the hands of his uncle "Bad Boy" Robert Pico.
Very early in his career, Steve Nelson braces for a strike at the hands of his uncle “Bad Boy” Bobby Lane. Photo Credit: Steve Nelson’s files.

“I was never trained for pro wrestling except for one practice with my mom and her best friend, Kay Noble. My mom only wanted me to be a teacher and a coach, but once she realized I would wrestle professionally no matter what, she said, ‘I better teach you something,’ before I had my first match against George Dodgen.”

“I had my first few pro wrestling matches in Texas in 1987 for independent promoter Joel Chapman and another for Mike Graham in Championship Wrestling from Florida later that year.”

Wrestling South of the Border

Steve Nelson: 3rd Gen Wrestler's Tales of Unsung Wrestling Family
Photo Credit: Steve Nelson’s files.

Although inexperienced in the pro game, Steve Nelson ventured south of the border to cut his teeth.

“I was wrestling on the same events with Ricky Romero (Chris, Jay, and Mark Youngblood’s father). He told me I was the perfect size for wrestling in Mexico (because they had weight divisions like amateur wrestling), and he offered to help me get booked.

“In 1988, Ricky and I went to the wrestling matches in Juarez, Mexico, and he introduced me around. We then got the phone number of CMLL owner/promoter Salvador Lutteroth.

“Ricky made the call for me, and during the summer of 1989, I was 25 years old, wrestling all over Mexico for ten weeks during my summer break from teaching school.

“I’d only had a handful of matches in the US before this, so I had much to learn. And I didn’t know much about what I was doing in Mexico either!” Steve told the Lytes Out Podcast.

“In Mexico, I had some very good matches with El Satánico and Pirata Morgan. In my last four weeks, I had a feud with Pirata, where I lost a hair match at the end of my tour and came home bald. I thought this was cool because these were experiences normal schoolteachers would never have!

“As good as Mexico was to me, my best pro wrestling matches were in Texas with a fellow amateur wrestler, George Dodgen. He wrestled under a mask and went as ‘The Masked Avenger.’ George and my uncle ‘Bad Boy’ Bobby Lane were probably the only people I trusted 100% in the ring.

“After Mexico, I wrestled in the Indies until 1993, before I joined Japan’s UWFi pro wrestling. From then on, I never worked in regular pro wrestling again.”


Fun Fact: According to Steve, in 1990, Vince McMahon of the WWF was his sponsor and paid for him to attend the World Sambo Championships.

“I didn’t even know him personally. I wrote him a letter with some pictures of me wrestling professionally in Mexico. I told him who my family was and explained that I was a third generation wrestler. He didn’t hesitate to help me.”


UWFi Shoot-Style Wrestling

The 1993 UWFi debut of Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Steve Nelson in 1993 at Budokan Hall, Tokyo, Japan.
The 1993 UWFi debut of Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Steve Nelson in 1993 at Budokan Hall, Tokyo, Japan. Photo Credit: UWFi.

The relaunched Japanese shoot-style wrestling promotion was structured around Nobuhiko Takada, who tried selling the promotion as legit fighting while deriding the other more traditional Japanese wrestling outfits.

The rules mimicked pro wrestling, which was not unexpected as it was an offshoot of the famous Japanese UWF (Universal Wrestling Federation), which descended from NJPW, where Antonio Inoki defended pro wrestling by challenging other fighting styles to clash against him in the ring.

For Steve to work in UWFi, though, he would have to earn his spot.

“Japanese agent Shinji Sasasaki called me in Texas to a tryout at LaVerne, Tennessee. I showed up, and Billy Robinson (who my father used to wrestle in England) was the coach. And two UWFi wrestlers, Gene Lydick, and Masahito Kakihara, were there to work out with us prospects.

“There I was with some other guys trying out. On the first day, Billy Robinson put us in a circle to do 300 full squats, butts down to your ankles, no stopping, no rest. That was the warm-up!

“Then, for the next three hours, we did submission wrestling! I was lucky because in 1990, in Tampa, Florida, I had trained with Karl Gotch, who was the original UWF’s coach. Karl made me do 500 squats non-stop on my first day, so I knew these tryouts would contain an extreme number of squats.

“On the second day, the only people back were Gene, Kakihara, and myself. The others could barely walk. They packed their bags and left after only one workout. These workouts went on for five days straight, and I made the roster.

“My first three matches with UWFi were all against Kazushi Sakuraba. The first two were in singles matches, and I tagged the third with Gene Lydick against Sakuraba and Masahito Kakihara on a Japanese PPV shown in the United States. Luckily, they raised my hand in all three.

“That tag match and a match with James Stone in Amarillo, TX. were the best shoot wrestling matches in my career.”

Fun Fact: Kazushi Sakuraba earned the nickname of the “Gracie Hunter,” or the “Gracie Killer” due to his wins over four members of the famed Gracie family and for defeating champions of different top MMA organizations who were often weight classes above. Tapology and Steve Nelson consider him the “all-time greatest Japanese MMA fighter in history.”

When speaking on the Lytes Out Podcast, Steven admits loving going overseas to Japan and working for UWFi. Still, he recalls them not offering any contracts and not informing who his opponent was.

He saw young budding stars start in UWFi but only knew who the powerful Gary Albright was, thanks to his amateur wrestling background in Nebraska.

Thriftiness in Japan and a Surprised Crippler

Steve Nelson wrestling in Japan.
Steve Nelson wrestling in Japan. Photo Credit: Steve Nelson’s files.

Steve Nelson enjoyed his stays in Japan immensely but was careful to save his money and rarely went out to enjoy Tokyo’s nightlife.

“When I went over, the beers were already [the equivalent] of $9 each, so I usually stayed at the hotel! I got paid a thousand dollars every time I’d go (not making millions like is often assumed), but it was worth the free trip! The greatest experience in the world.”

Before going to Japan for the first time, he had a chance to speak with “The Crippler” Ray Stevens, and he asked Steve how much he was getting.

“I get a thousand dollars a match.”

“A match?!” Stevens answered incredulously.

“We used to get $1,200 a week!”

Remembering Lou Thesz

Steve Nelson, alongside wrestling legend Lou Thesz.
Steve Nelson, alongside wrestling legend Lou Thesz. Photo Credit: UWFi.

“UWFi was also cool because I got to spend time with legendary Lou Thesz, who used to wrestle my dad,” said Steve Nelson.

“UWFi employed Lou, and they flew us in a week early for every match to train with the Japanese wrestlers. He was in his 70s, but that didn’t stop him from training and help coaching us.

“I remember at the hotel, we would be ten floors up, and us young wrestlers would take the elevator, but not Lou! He walked the stairs every day to stay in shape. Lou was super nice and a mentor to us Americans and the Japanese wrestlers.”

A Shoot in Florida!

Steve Nelson fighting.
Photo Credit: Steve Nelson’s files.

But way before all this, again on the Lytes Out Podcast, Steve Nelson shared the story of the first time he got into the ring for an actual shoot (when tempers flair and a scripted wrestling bout turns real).

In 1984, while still wrestling at Oklahoma State University and before turning pro, he was asked by Eddie Graham in Florida to teach someone a lesson. Here’s what happened:

“There was a guy who was a sheriff, and Eddie Graham [Championship Wrestling from Florida promoter and majority owner] asked me to rough him up. Because Graham was a friend of his father’s and didn’t want him to become a wrestler, I didn’t know anything, but I could’ve lost my eligibility for wrestling at OSU.

“So, I arrived at the arena, and the guy showed. They told him that if he could beat me, he could become a pro wrestler. So that was my first shoot match!

“This guy entered the ring with a mask because he was the sheriff and didn’t want to be recognized. So, I was standing across the ring from him, and then I proceeded to rough him up a little, but I never punched or kicked him in the head. But I took him down and choked him (sleeper hold) until he tapped out.

“I wasn’t paid for it, so it didn’t hurt my eligibility!”

When speaking with us, he added more details:

“This guy thought he was going to fight one of the regular wrestlers, but after he walked to the ring, they sent me out. This was the first match of the night, and oddly enough, he went to the ring with a mask on, and every wrestler stepped out of the dressing rooms to watch.”

Steve never intended to hurt the guy, and the famous story of Hiro Matsuda breaking Hulk Hogan’s leg bothers him.

“I have never believed in hurting guys unless they were disrespecting the business or acting like jerks making challenges to the wrestlers. It angers me when people think that it’s okay to injure someone.”

MMA in the ’90s and the Jerry Springer Show

Steve Nelson has lived the life of a fighter all his life. No challenge is insurmountable.
Steve Nelson has lived the life of a fighter all his life. No challenge is insurmountable. Photo Credit: Steve Nelson’s files.

Steve Nelson soon transitioned to MMA and admits that, unlike today, few who participated in the sport during the ’90s, like himself, were cross-trained in various styles. Instead, they pitted one fighting style against another.

He and most of the self-trained fighters he knew focused on grappling and not striking.

“In 1995, I had my first cage match in North Carolina for the World Combat championships,” says Steve. “It was a dark match for a pay-per-view. To build up my next PPV match in Canada, the Jerry Springer Show asked me to be a guest.

“I was on there with fighters Ralph Gracie, John Lewis, and fellow Amarillo fighter Paul Jones. I had a girlfriend accompany me, and Paul had his wife Susan and daughter Kara with him. That was when Springer was a real talk show. Paul and I wrestled each other in an exhibition match.

“The show’s theme was how fighters’ loved ones felt about them getting into a cage and fighting for a living. Before I agreed to attend, I asked what the pay was. They told me it would open doors for me in the future.

“The show went well, and looking back now, I am glad I did it for laughs and memories. But it didn’t open any doors, though!”

Fighting Ralph Gracie, Canadian Jail Time

Steve Nelson vs. Ralph Gracie was among the best fights of the year in 1998.
Steve Nelson vs. Ralph Gracie was among the best fights of the year in 1998. Photo Credit: USWF.

In 1996, at Battlecade Extreme Fighting II, when Steve Nelson faced Ralph Gracie, who sported a record of 14-0, he got caught off guard with his striking.

The Lightweight Championship was up for grabs, and the anticipated bout occurred in Montreal, Quebec. Unfortunately, Steve submitted in 44 seconds after suffering repeated blows to the head and being unable to defend himself while on the mat.

A strange occurrence after the evening’s events was that despite arrangements made with the Kahnawake tribal council for the event, Montreal authorities arrested several of the evening’s fighters, including the referee, announcer, and matchmaker!

Steve says that he spent two nights in jail, but the company’s sponsor at the time, General Media International, also the publisher of Penthouse magazine, bailed him out.

“We fought on an Indian Reservation. Unfortunately, they arrested seven of us at the hotel after the fights. Canadian police had the keys and just walked right into our rooms. Cage fighting in Canada was illegal in the ’90s. The fights were on Indian land, so they didn’t stop the PPV, but the hotel was on regular Canadian soil.

“The police said the ‘Indian Nation is in Canada, and you’re under arrest.’ Other than the seven arrested, the others ran all night until they got to the airport the next day and left Canada.

“That was the worst experience in my professional career. I lost a world title fight, got arrested, and spent a couple of days in jail!”

Forming the USWF (Unified Shoot Wrestling Federation) in Amarillo

USWF logo.
Photo Credit: USWF.

Steve wanted a rematch, but losing so convincingly usually doesn’t get one.

So, he began thinking that the only way he could make it happen and “romance Gracie” to give him another shot would be by putting together a show or even starting his own company, which he did.

So, in 1996, he called it USWF (Unified Shoot Wrestling Federation). The organization had similar rules to what many call the first legitimate MMA company: Pancrase, founded in Japan in September 1993, and where the most noticeable difference from its predecessors claiming to be legit was just how quickly the fights ended.

“The USWF jumpstarted several careers. UFC Champion Evan Tanner, for starters. Also, Heath Herring was ranked #2 in Pride. Paul Buentello, who fought for the UFC Heavyweight title, Frank Trigg (UFC Hall of Fame); Paul Jones’ (11-1) only loss was to Chuck Liddell.

“We also had World Sambo Champion Ron Tripp on USWF 1. He was the only man to beat Rickson Gracie (1993 Pan American Sambo Championships).”

The USWF even predated HooknShoot, one of the earliest MMA promotions founded by wrestling promoter Jeff Osborne and based out of Indiana after seeing early UFC tapes.


Fun Fact: On April 12th, 1997, USWF 4 hosted the first, if not one of the first women’s MMA-style matches. It featured Lisa Hunt (Taekwondo) vs. Donna Cauthen (pro wrestling), which was also the 3rd runner-up for shoot match of the year in the Wrestling Observer.


Uphill Battle for the USWF

Photo Credit: Royce Gracie vs. Gerard Gordeau in the UFC 1 finals on November 12, 1993.
Royce Gracie vs. Gerard Gordeau in the UFC 1 finals on November 12, 1993. Photo Credit: Holly Stein.

On the Lytes Out Podcast, Steve explained the challenging political environment MMA was facing at the time to have its product consumed by the American public.

“It was a time when UFC was having trouble getting even on PPVs with politicians messing with the sport [presented in its most brutal form with only biting and eye-gouging being illegal]… Initially, I was worried open-handed fighting wouldn’t even make it. I didn’t know if people would like it, but it [thankfully] took off.”

So, how did he get an MMA fighting company started in Amarillo, Texas?

As a well-known coach in Amarillo, the press supported the USWF, which made them legitimate to the public. And so, people came to the events in great numbers.

Steve struck a deal with Texas Boxing Commissioner Dick Cole. Instead of regulating this new sport, he allowed him to promote events under a pro wrestling license by following specific guidelines.

The striking had to be feet, knees, and open-handed, as in Japan— no closed fists.

To Steve’s delight, people in Amarillo loved it, with the newspaper describing it as “a sport that’s closer to a barroom brawl than high school wrestling, and Amarillo is its haven.” And the “most violent sport allowed in the state of Texas.”

Steve became a hometown hero in Amarillo for the promotion he established and was fortunate to have had good local talent for the cards.

Rematch With Ralph Gracie

The rematch between these two warriors finally happened, with the winner taking home 20 grand.
The rematch between these two warriors finally happened, with the winner taking home 20 grand. Photo Credit: USWF.

And what about the rematch with Ralph Gracie? Steve reveals that the purse for the 1998 rematch was $20,000 winner-take-all all, but he didn’t get to enjoy that money. He did fare better but ultimately submitted late to an armbar with 1:45 left in the fight.

“Unfortunately, I got my rematch, but I got whipped a second time! I felt like I was winning and controlling the fight so easily that I relaxed, which was a mistake. I should’ve kept my elbows in tight, but I was reaching up and out and got caught in a tight arm lock.”

At the time, it was costing him about 20K to have a show (now, in 2023, he estimates it would be $60 to $70K minimum), so that purse for a single match was huge money.

Fortunately, Gracie’s fee was covered because Samurai TV in Japan paid Steve 20K to televise the match.

But after 16 successful shows, Steve felt fatigued. Between promoting the USWF, competing in Judo and Sambo, being a high school teacher and coach, and traveling to Japan, Steve let the company go.

In 2001, when the Boxing Commission saw how popular MMA had gotten and its success in Amarillo, they began licensing it as MMA. And according to Steve, things didn’t run as smoothly as when it was under pro wrestling governance.

But by then, it was being promoted by Evan Tanner, who ran the last two events, 17 and 18, respectively. Because of his promotion inexperience and after many wrong decisions that ultimately affected his finances (like bringing in expensive but unknown UFC fighters and having a show on Black Friday), he stopped after only two shows.

Ultimately, Lisa Hunt, who had also participated in USWF 4 and was Steve Nelson’s assistant coach for the High School Wrestling team, bought the company—all except for the video rights.

The Boxing Commission gave her hell, also. They obligated her to fly in with their judges, referees, and coaches and pay for their stay. Also, the physicals demanded by the commission are often tried to be passed on by the fighters to the promoter.

All this and more sunk the ship. And so the company shut down once again. This time for good.

“I didn’t win a lot or make millions of dollars, but I loved all of it and still enjoy watching MMA, boxing, and even bare-knuckle fighting,” said Steve on the Lytes Out Podcast. “I hope all these companies [fighting and pro wrestling] spread the wealth for everybody so everybody can do well.”

Nelson Family: Firmly Imbedded in Professional Wrestling History

Steve Nelson in later years.
Photo Credit: Steve Nelson’s files.

Steve Nelson’s remarkable journey in the world of professional wrestling is not merely a personal achievement but a testament to his family’s profound legacy in the realms of professional wrestling and combat sports.

The rich tapestry of multi-generational and multi-disciplinary experiences woven by the Nelson family has undoubtedly captivated enthusiasts and fans alike, and their extraordinary lineage leaves an indelible mark on the vibrant history of the sport.

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https://popcultureretrorama.wordpress.com/author/javierojst/

Javier Ojst is an old-school wrestling enthusiast currently residing in El Salvador. He's been a frequent guest on several podcasts and has a few bylines on TheLogBook.com, where he shares stories of pop culture and retro-related awesomeness. He has also been published on Slam Wrestling and in G-FAN Magazine.