Joseph “Jody” Hamilton wasn’t always billed from Parts Unknown. He also wasn’t always wearing a mask traveling the world as The Assassin generating the kind of heat that almost got him and his partner Tom Renesto killed on several occasions. Today we pull back the mask on one of professional wrestling’s greatest masked men.
“In Lake Charles, Louisiana, the fans put oil of mustard in squirt guns and tried to shoot our eyes. In another town, I had acid thrown on me while we were walking through an archway. The only thing that saved me from serious injury was the fact that I was wearing one of those long-sleeved, top shirts.”
Jody Hamilton was born Joseph Nicholas Zwaduk III on August 28, 1938, in St. Joseph, Missouri. His father worked as a meat inspector and would come home drunk which made him surly and abusive. He would beat up his mother, and when Jody reached age 6, he would beat him, too. According to Jody in his highly-recommended autobiography “Assassin” by Crowbar Press, wives were supposed to endure this kind of abuse if it happened, and to make matters worse the local authorities would always take his father’s side. Jody suspects that they were wife beaters, too, so they weren’t going to be of any help. Jody’s older step-brother Larry would eventually move out and go on to live with his maternal grandparents.
By the 8th grade, Jody quit school, was arrested and later sent by Judge Duval Smith to the Buchanan County Juvenile Home. This was an institution with kids who had murdered, stolen cars, committed armed robbery and many other unimaginable crimes. Because quitting school and playing “hooky” was not a real serious crime, Jody found very little in common with the rest of the kids and was quickly labeled a sissy. They tried to give him a hard time when possible until the kids of the “Home” were forced to participate in boxing matches on Saturday nights. In these matches, Jody held his own pretty good and their attitudes toward him changed thereafter. After much mistreatment by the supervisors of the home and almost dying of double pneumonia, a priest named Father Hoppe convinced the juvenile home authorities to allow Jody to live in the Catholic Orphanage. Not long later he was paroled and was put under the custody of his maternal grandparents where he was reunited with his brother Larry.
As a young kid and unable to go to college, Jody had several jobs just to make ends meet. He baled hay, detasseled corn, picked fruit and even worked at the concrete factory for one dollar an hour.
“When you’re a young kid and you have all that testosterone running high, it does funny things to you,” Hamilton admits. “Testosterone affects much more than just your sexual drive. It also affects your mental outlook on life. I came from a very poor family and we never had anything. I was bound and determined that I wasn’t going to end up picking shit with the chickens. I wanted something better.”
The Assassin Jody Hamilton and his ventures into the world of boxing and professional wrestling
At 15 years old, Jody Hamilton had his earliest venture into professional wrestling on the carnival circuit with the AT Show (Athletic Show) under local promoter Gust Karras in St. Joseph, Missouri. This consisted of taking on all comers in both boxing and wrestling at all of the small towns around the area. This was something Jody’s brother Larry had been doing for years for only $12 a week.
“The living conditions were horrendously worse than any minor leagues of anything,” Jody admits. “We didn’t make a lot of money on the AT Show either. I was lucky to get five dollars a match. Most of the time, I was so far in debt for food that it took everything I made to pay my food bill. I was just trying to survive. When you’re 15 years old, you’re hungry from the time you wake up until the time you turn in at night.
The Tilt-A-Whirl truck was our sleeping quarters after we set up. In the summer, when it was too hot to sleep in the truck, we slept underneath the Tilt-A-Whirl itself. If it rained, we were forced to sleep in the trucks. It was hot and we were sweaty and stinky, but it was either that or sleep outside in the rain and possibly get pneumonia.”
When it came to fighting at the Athletic Show, Hamilton said, “The only edge I had against many of the challengers was that I was in tremendous cardiovascular shape. Every once in a while, though, we would run into one of those farmers who didn’t know anything but working hard from dusk until dawn. Consequently, they were as strong as a bull and took a long time to get tired.”
Larry was Jody’s older step-brother by six years but in 1953, the future Assassin #1 legally changed his last name to Hamilton because he and his brother had already talked about forming a real brother tag team when Jody was out of school. They didn’t want to be lumped into the “not really” brothers category of teams.
Other than a few spot shows in St. Joseph and the Midwest, Jody Hamilton got a start in wrestling in New York in 1957 where his first match was against Rip Hawk due to a no-show from his opponent. The old carny promoting the show who went by the name of Bob Craddock declared, “We’re getting your cherry tonight!”
Jody Hamilton admits, “I was so nervous that you couldn’t have driven a 10-penny nail up my ass with a trip hammer. Even though I was in terrific cardiovascular shape, I was so nervous that I blew up on the way to the ring!”
In another one of his early bouts, this time with his brother Larry, The Hamilton Brothers saw themselves at the Maryland State Penitentiary in New York where the inmates were blowing kisses at them, whistling, cat calling and even wanting them to bend over. All this in the usual skimpy trunks that were the common ring attire for wrestlers of the era.
Jody’s career leaped several echelons real quickly and on May 24th, 1958, when at the very green age of 19, he became the youngest wrestler to ever headline Madison Square Garden alongside his brother when they faced Argentina Rocca and Miguel Perez. It’s reported that the event drew 20,355 fans with 8,000 more turned away at the gate. Vince McMahon Sr. (head of the second New York office and promoting out of Washington DC) wanted Roy Shire and Dr. Jerry Graham in the main event but the booker of the first New York office Kola Kwariani had a plan to ensure a sellout and insisted The Hamilton Brothers would be up to the task. They did a six-week buildup for the Garden show and had them stay in New York after.
“Here’s how we’re gonna do it,” Kola Kwariani explained to Jody and Larry. “We’re gonna open up all those little clubs in the five boroughs. You guys ain’t never gonna leave the city. Every night, you guys are gonna hammer and pound those young Puerto Rican kids right into oblivion. When you get through with ‘em, I want you to stand with your foot on their chest, raise your hand, and do the rebel yell.”
The plan along with the newspapers sensationalizing everything in order to boost their sales and The Hamilton Brothers being hailed from Stone Mountain Georgia, got people wanting a piece of them after only two weeks.
“When we arrived at the Garden and stepped out of the taxi,” Hamilton explains, “a crowd of people started to cuss and spit at us. That was one thing I hated about the Puerto Ricans in New York. They loved to spit on you. God, how I hated that!”
“That was one thing I hated about the Puerto Ricans in New York. They loved to spit on you. God, how I hated that!”
The night before the Garden show, Jody injured his ankle in a loose mat cover while working in White Plains, New York against Arnold Skoaland and Steve Stanlee when he was going for a bodyslam. His ankle had popped out of the socket leading to severe swelling. Jody explains that after his ankle was taped up so tight that it resembled a cast, he could barely walk and the pain was almost unbearable. But after the huge adrenaline rush from seeing 20,000 plus fans at Madison Square Garden, he never gave his injured ankle any thought. When they lost the match to Rocca and Perez, the crowd noise was deafening. Meanwhile, outside with the 8,000 people turned away at the gate, they started to riot and the mounted police were called in to get some semblance of order. For that one show, Jody had never before seen a bigger payoff than the $2,750 he received.
His brother Larry obtained a spot in the Carolinas under promoter Jim Crockett Sr., which left Jody to ultimately wind up working in Amarillo, Texas under promoter and booker Karl (Doc) Sarpolis. Larry would soon team up with the future Assassin #2 Tom Renesto. Larry would later became The Missouri Mauler until retiring in 1981.
“The matches I had in Amarillo were probably the greatest learning experiences I ever had in the business,” Hamilton recounts. “Every night that I was in the ring, I was in the classroom. Other than having some natural ability, that was where my skills really began to develop. The education I got inside that ring would be worth millions today.”
The talent in Amarillo at the time included Sonny Myers, Iron Mike DiBiase, Nick Roberts, Bob Geigel, Dory Funk Sr., Tony Morelli, Antone “Ripper” Leone, Doug Donovan (Karl Von Brauner) and the list went on.
“Sonny Myers was the best all-around worker that I have ever seen. I learned more from Sonny than anybody else. Dory had a body that looked like a sack of broken doorknobs. He had no hair on his head and he resembled a grizzled, broken-down, old cowboy. But he was a good worker who had great timing, personality, and a ring presence that won the hearts of the fans in west Texas.”
The Assassin is born
The Assassin gimmick was born on October 13th, 1961, while working in Georgia despite the Atlanta office wanting him to be originally called the Iron Russian. His first match was against Cowboy Plowboy (Stan Frazier) who much later became Uncle Elmer in the WWE. The Assassin gimmick didn’t really take off until Jody was able to have matches with better workers, including his former partner Tom Renesto eight weeks after arriving in Atlanta.
Tom (Thomas Anthony Renesto II) had success in the Carolinas as The Great Bolo (‘58-‘61). He ultimately left after Buddy Rogers came to town who was only set to push his own people or make a powerplay into snatching the territory from Jim Crockett Sr. Crocket wanted to keep Tom close to Charlotte for when he needed help drawing when Buddy’s star began to fade. Keeping Tom nearby meant sending him to Atlanta.
The Assassins’ incredible 11-year run started on December 1st, 1961 when they, to the surprise of the whole locker room, were put over in their debut match against Ray Gunkel and Don McIntyre. The original Assassin Jody Hamilton later on briefly teamed with Roger Smith (Dirty Rhodes), Randy Colley (Moondog Rex), and a very young Ray Fernandez (Hercules Hernandez). But these were only footnotes. Teaming with Tom Renesto is where they solidified their name and reputation.
“On that night, the very first night we were together,” Jody remembers, “Tom and I knew that we had something special. Within five minutes, it was like we had been working together for several years. There was a special chemistry between us and everything just fell into place. We always knew in advance what the other one was going to do. It was as if we could read each others’ minds. I would go so far as to say that there was even more of a mental telepathy thing between Tom and me than there was between me and my own brother.”
Tom was crucial in teaching Jody how to work with a mask. Tom had already been an accomplished masked man wrestling as The Great Bolo in the Carolinas. Jody needed to learn how to express emotion now that people couldn’t see his facial expressions. Just because he felt the emotion, it didn’t mean that it was being translated to the audience. He had to learn to sell more with his body motions what he’d normally sell with his facial expressions. Tom also instructed him to not speak in public whenever they weren’t wearing their masks because the fans would recognize his distinctive voice. Jody also got to the point where he needed to walk differently when unmasked because of a particular walk he had. Also, Tom made sure that the Assassins were never unmasked when they left a territory, which was a normal stipulation for departing masked men.
“I learned a lot about the ethics of the business when I was wrestling in Amarillo. However, Tom taught me the psychology. He taught me about being a villain. If I was going to be a villain, he wanted me to understand what a villain was, and how to go about projecting the image of a villain. He taught me how to interview, how to make my interviews sincere and believable, and how to keep them from sounding like carnival hype. Most importantly, he taught me the proper way to work.”
Tom had more experience in the business being 11 years his senior. One of the crucial things that he imparted on Jody was how to do interviews and promos.
In Amarillo, Jody learned a lot of things but he admits that nobody took the time time to teach him the art of the promo. To the extent where he was given a nickname by the boys: Silent Joe Hamilton. In the words of promoter Doc Sarpolis, “[Jody]’s a lot of action, but a man of few words.”
“I think that the Masked Assassins were the greatest tag team that I ever saw. Most fans today don’t even have a clue as to who the Assassins were, Tom Renesto and Jody Hamilton. I can still vividly remember their promos and in-ring work from that period and that was almost 50 years ago.”
The Assassins were sneaky heels who developed their own style of promo, but not in the meat cutter way like The Bruiser and Crusher which consisted of “a lot of screaming and hollering,” according to Hamilton. That wouldn’t have been a good fit for them. At first, Tom would always lead the promo, but he forced Jody to improve his craft. Tom never wanted The Assassins to be seen as an uneven team so the interviewer was essentially forced to talk with both of them during promos because Tom and Joe would bookend him, one on each side!
One of the things people remember about Jody Hamilton as The Assassin was that his promos had a key ingredient that made them successful: sincerity. Hamilton admits that he was never a silver-tongued devil like Tom, but he was able to impart a sincerity with the words he spoke in his interviews. “Without [sincerity], you’re dead in the water,” Jody would say.
The Assassins talked in a firm, intelligent manner towards their opponents, and it worked.
“None of us like to be talked down to. When somebody talks down to you, it makes you angry. You might not be in a position to do anything about it, but your gut instinct is to slap that person right in the mouth. And that’s exactly what wrestling fans wanted to do to the Assassins. Well, they wanted to do a little more than just slap us in the mouth, but you get my point!”
The Assassins – Fighting for their lives
At shows, very little was offered in the way of protection to and from the ring. The Hamilton Brothers (Jody and Larry) and later The Assassins (Jody and Tom) often had to fight their way to the dressing rooms where they would have to hide out for hours until the arena was cleared. On many occasions, they had to be escorted out of the venue by police, the sheriff’s department or snuck out via a paddy wagon. Jody was stabbed twice and he often found out there were more attempts to cut him when changing in the dressing room and noticing light coming through the tears on his shirt! It got so bad with the lack of security that Joe and Tom had to stop doing spot shows and concentrate only on television studio shows where it was relatively safer because the crowd was mostly families, older adults and kids, and the angles were toned down. Still, he had to get special tires called “Goodyear Double Eagles”, where if someone sliced or flattened them, you could still drive 150 miles with the inner tire.
When talking about the infamously rowdy crowds in Puerto Rico, Hamilton said, “We had all kinds of objects thrown at us. The wrestling fans in Puerto Rico had major-league pitching arms. They could have pitched for the Atlanta Braves. One night, the police caught some kids outside the arena selling rocks to the fans for a penny apiece. They had a big basket of marble sized rocks for the fans to chuck at us. Those kids were entrepreneurs!
“They also had armrests on the seats at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan. They were bolted onto the chairs, but one of them had worked loose. Somebody unscrewed the nuts and chucked it at us as we walked back to the dressing room, hitting Tom just above the right temple. All I saw was a blur, but I heard it when it hit. That armrest ricocheted off his head and flew 30 feet into the air. As Tom’s knees buckled, I supported him from behind, while one of the cops caught him underneath his left arm. They quickly hustled us the last 20 or 30 yards to the dressing room. When we got inside, we sat down and peeled off his hood His head looked like he had a softball lodged underneath the skin.”
In the fifteen years of craziness wrestling as The Assassin, Jody Hamilton enjoyed working with The Kentuckians (Grizzly Smith who was Jake Robert’s father, and Luke Brown) the most because they made an “ungodly amount of money” with them. The key was to never get them off their feet, and this made them look like super-strong giants. They took to one of Ric Flair’s adages before he even used it: “You have to beat somebody to be somebody.” Putting someone over to get yourself over. The Assassins were an established team, but they had no problem losing to The Kentuckians in order to boost them in the eyes of the fans. Jody believes that at one point The Kentuckians were the hottest team of babyfaces in the country including Georgia, Florida, Charlotte, California, Oklahoma, and outside of the U.S. in Vancouver, Australia, and Japan. He says that other than Gorgeous George, The Kentuckians flat-out lived their gimmick better than anyone.
“We had some brutal battles with Grizzly and Luke,” Hamilton remembers. “When I say brutal battles, I mean exactly that. They were physically brutal matches. We had bloodbaths every night. One afternoon, a week after we started working together in Florida, we were getting ready to make a trip to Jacksonville. As I bent over to pick up my bag, I almost fainted. When the room started to spin around and I got sick to my stomach, I had to sit down. When the dizziness and nausea still wouldn’t go away, they rushed me to the doctor. When he checked me over, he discovered that my blood pressure was dangerously low. I was a quart low from bleeding myself almost dry, night after night.”
They also had two memorable runs in the Carolinas working with Haystack Calhoun and Johnny Weaver where The Assassins wrestled as Great Bolo and Bolo, which were established names thanks to Tom’s previous stint in the Carolinas and Crockett Sr. wanted to capitalize on that heat.
Jody Hamilton becomes “The Flame” – One of his most memorable promos from Continental Championship Wrestling in 1985
In one of the most memorable promos of the time, Jody Hamilton became “The Flame” in Continental Championship Wrestling in 1985 where he feuded with “Bullet” Bob Armstrong. In 1986 he went into business for himself and opened Deep South Wrestling.
On becoming a promoter, Hamilton said, “When I’m asked what the worst part of being a promoter is, I always answer, ‘When you look out into the arena at eight o’clock and see fifteen people … and they’re in the general admission section.’ The biggest eye-opener, however, was the fact that most of the main event guys had no loyalty at all. That was the one thing that I could never understand. They were like whores. The kids who worked underneath were far more loyal than most of the main event guys.”
After almost three years he eventually sold the promotion in 1988 when he got hurt and broke his back taking a bump off the top rope and landing incorrectly. The person who bought it didn’t know anything about the business and shut it down two months later without ever promoting a show. Before this, he had gotten into a promoter’s feud with Joe Pedicino (Pro Wrestling This Week and who eventually married Boni Blackstone) claiming he stole Jerry Blackwell from him. He later helped book WCW with Ric Flair and Jim Barnett, although he claims Flair wouldn’t listen to anybody (similar to Dusty, according to Hamilton). Jody also became head of the ring crew from all over the country and later director of the WCW Power Plant as a TBS employee.
“In 1991, I talked Bill Watts, who was running WCW at the time, into subsidizing a wrestling school and letting me run it (The Power Plant). I wanted to keep my hand in training new talent, and I figured the best way to do that was rid myself of the overhead and let WCW cover the expenses. Mike Wenner, Buddy Lee Parker, and Pez Whatley were the original trainers. That school was one of the highlights of my career.
“During the final year that WCW was in business, they took me out of the gym and put me strictly in charge of the rings. Eric Bischoff had to justify Paul Orndorff’s salary, so he put Paul in charge of the training center. After I left, nobody of any value to the company came out of that gym. All of the guys who made it in the business that was connected with WCW were those trained by me and my system.
“Contrary to the opinions of a lot of bookers and promoters down through the years, wrestling fans are not stupid. Wrestling fans are just as intelligent as any other group of people. To treat wrestling fans as if they’re stupid, illiterate, inbred, or whatever is one of the worst mistakes that a booker or promoter can make.
“In his book, Inside Out, Ole Anderson was correct when he said corporate America did a lot of damage to the wrestling business. It destroyed World Championship Wrestling and put them out of business. Some of the credit, however, has to be given to the wrestlers themselves, and the bookers held the door open.”
Hamilton continued, “One of the questions that I am often asked is how the stars of my generation compare to the stars of today. It’s really impossible to accurately answer that because this is a different era. We’re living in a completely different time and operating under completely different circumstances. To keep it simple, we were better at some things, but the wrestlers of today are doing things that we never dreamed of, and they’re doing those things well. Modern professional wrestling will have its own special place in the history of our sport.”
From 2005 to 2007, Jody was the head trainer and head of operations for Deep South Wrestling (same name as his original promotion), one of the former developmental territories of WWE until they closed its doors. He was very happy to be able to pass along the knowledge he had acquired from people like Sonny Myers, Tom Renesto, Mike DiBiase, Nick Roberts, and his brother Larry. He felt that because of this, he could close out his career knowing that he made a positive impact on the future of the sport.
“Pro wrestling is a hard, double-tough business, full of danger and riddled with career-ending injuries. The athletic ability of the modern-day wrestler is unsurpassed by that of athletes from any other professional sport. In almost every match, moves are made that could seriously injure, or kill, the participants. To me, that’s not bullshit. That’s not fake. That’s not phony. That’s reality.”
The Assassins (Jody Hamilton and Tom Renesto) were inducted in the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2013 and in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame in 2015.
Jody Hamilton is the father of semi-retired pro wrestling referee Nick Patrick.
All quotes used in this article come from “Assassin” by Jody Hamilton with Scott Teal which can be purchased from Crowbar Press here.