In 1987, "The Wild-Eyed Southern Boy," Tracy Smothers prayed to himself. He was preparing to face a 550-pound unmuzzled bear for the second night in a row as The Humane Society, and World Wildlife Fund watched on. After witnessing what the bear had just done, he was scared for his life.
Thirty-plus years later, fans still call him out on the presumed inhumane treatment of the bears, but he’s quick to set them in their place.
The History of Bear Wrestling
Putting aside the mythic tales about how Kentucky’s great woodsman Daniel Boone (1734-1820) wrestled a wild bear into submission, 1877 is probably the first time America experienced its first organized bear wrestling show.
In November that year, the Daily Eagle reported a "Pyrenean Bear, who wrestles all comers under the rules." Later that month, Pete, the wrestling bear, defeated his opponent/trainer at New York’s Gilmore Gardens.
Many other wrestling bears surfaced, led around the country by their handlers that kept this controversial spectacle alive. Arguably the most well-known of these bears and handlers was the duo of American black bear "Terrible" Ted, and his handler, Canadian wrestler "The Bearman" Dave McKigney. They started working in carnivals around 1958.
Terrible Ted and McKigney later moved to bigger venues like Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Billed at 7’0" and 680 lbs, Terrible Ted was a handful even for the famed eccentric strongman The Great Antonio, who tussled with Terrible Ted in his hometown of Montreal, Quebec.
In recent years, bear wrestling has all but vanished. According to the Coalition for Humane Animal Control, taking a wild animal out of its natural habitat is considered senseless animal exploitation. Forcing bears to engage in unnatural behavior, physically and mentally harassed, abused, and stressed is animal exploitation for profit.
"The Wild-Eyed Southern Boy" Tracy Smothers
Fast-forwarding to more modern times and surely an era where wrestling a bear would seem absurd, Tracy Smothers grew up 25 miles outside of Nashville, in a rural Tennessee town called Springfield, near the Kentucky border.
Calling himself "The Wild-Eyed Southern Boy," Smothers mainly worked as an accomplished tag team specialist and assured that every significant promotion fired him on at least one occasion.
Smothers appeared in Continental Championship Wrestling in the late ’80s and later in WCW, teamed with Steve Armstrong as The Southern Boys and then the Young Pistols. Jim Cornette’s Smoky Mountain Wrestling from 1992-95 is where Smothers reached his peak and achieved his greatest singles success by winning their heavyweight title twice and having an intense feud with Dirty White Boy (Tony Anthony).
Some also remember Smothers as babyface enhancement talent Freddie Joe Floyd in the WWF in 1996 and ECW as part of the comedy heel team, the Full Blooded Italians (FBI), in the late ’90s that could really get the raucous crowd going.
Tracy Smothers and Ginger "The Shooter" Bear
As a teenager, Tracy Smothers played various sports, including football, baseball, wrestling, and golf. Still, nothing prepared him at 20 years old to wrestle a 750 lbs black bear named Ginger "The Shooter" Bear.
As part of an interview for The Hannibal TV, Tracy Smothers opened up about bear wrestling and the inherent dangers of removing a wild animal from their natural habitat and essentially forcing them to perform in front of an unruly audience.
"I knew who Ginger was; it was a big deal in that area. I wanted to get into the business, and when I saw that, I said, ‘Oh man!’ I love bears and animals and wanted to try it! So someone kind of dared me, and we got like 12 guys in a passenger van belonging to one of the guys’ father. I didn’t drink, so I drove. They wouldn’t let more than eight people wrestle the bear, and you had to sign a waiver saying that they aren’t responsible for whatever happens, which makes you think a little bit!"
The handler was very protective of his battling bear and wouldn’t allow abuse to fall upon her, so he’d give wannabe challengers who got out of line a stern warning:
"Don’t tackle or punch my bear. If you get cute with her, I’m going to use the cattleprod to turn her loose on you to tear your ass up!"
A big contingent of football players from Middle State Tennessee ventured down to wrangle with Ginger taking on all challengers at this ample bar in Murfreesboro, Tennesse. Even though the battling bear was declawed and wore a muzzle, Smothers remembers when a 6’3" 270 lbs burly young man and potential NFL prospect underestimated the colossal mammal’s power and paid dearly.
"The big ole boy was cocky, had his girlfriend there, and many students had shown up to watch him. He really screwed up, man. When they started to count down from five, he got into a three-point stance like he’s coming off the ball to tackle that bear, but he didn’t make it."
Smothers continued, "That bear took him off his feet so fast with a leg sweep [the handler saw what he was about to do], and BZZZT cattle prodded the bear right in the butt. The guy went straight back and hit his head. They told us if you go down, put our hands up, and turn our head because she was trying to bite us. But he didn’t have time to do any of that because blood went everywhere after he hit his head. Then she was right on top of him [trying to bite him], and WHAM! [The bear] broke his nose and knocked him out. She pushed his nose into his brain, and he never played a down of football again. An ambulance carted him out."
"This was the first thing I saw [at the bar]!" remembers a shocked Tracy Smothers retelling the story. "I’m not exaggerating. It was ‘like that!’" he says while snapping his fingers to emphasize how quick the massacre was that night on that barroom floor.
"Although Ginger was an older bear, she was the toughest bear of any of them that ever was. After seeing the blood from the guy’s head and nose going everywhere, everybody thought, ‘Fuck this!’"
After seeing what happened to the football player after wrestling the bear, Tracy Smothers tried to flee the bar, but his friends prevented his desperate escape.
"I had the keys, so I took off and ran to the car. All the guys told me, ‘No motherfucker, you’re gonna do it! You said you were gonna do it. You already signed the waiver!’ They were taking bets and everything! I had never had a beer in my life, but I had to have a beer shot that night!"
In his interview, Smothers didn’t go into too many details about his match against Ginger, but we’re confident it was no easy feat to survive.
"I figured a good offense is a good defense. I went three three-minute rounds with her. Remember, the bears are kind of playing, but you gotta be real careful if you get into it with them."
Man Versus Bear
Later as a wrestler, Smothers had another encounter with a bear, and knowing already what a challenge they could be, he tried not to engage the massive, hairy beast. But ultimately, he faced danger head-on once more thanks to the ribbing by his co-workers.
"There was a huge bar called The White House in Louisiana. After the pro wrestling show in Alexandria, many people went to that bar afterward. I remember Jim Duggan, Doc (Tom Prichard), Terry Taylor, a lot of the boys. I was with Chavo Guerrero Sr. and DJ Peterson, God rest both of their souls. I was single at the time in ’86 and had nice clothes on that night. I was sipping some beers and told them I had wrestled a bear before. They [the handlers] don’t like more than seven or eight guys to wrestle the bear per night because they get tired of playing around. So they call number eight, and they put my name in, and they ribbed me! I yelled, ‘No! I don’t want to do that; I’m wearing my nice clothes. I’m trying to hook up!’ I was talking to this tall blonde girl and everything!
"Bears wrestle. It’s a natural thing for them, and they’ll just play around. But the harder you try, the harder they do as well, but you have to try and not piss them off," advises Smothers.
"I was trying to get away from him, but then he was leaning on me, all fifteen hundred pounds, and I couldn’t get him off," says Smothers.
The encounter that started as a playful affair for the bear soon became a serious matter where he believed his life was in danger.
Smothers inadvertently struck the huge grizzly bear in the stomach when maneuvering away from the beast. "Somehow, I came around into him, and my head caught him right in the stomach when close to the ropes. But when I butted him, the bear synched up on me [and shoved me], and I went, ‘Whoa!’ I thought he snapped me in two! I sometimes wonder how I’m living."
He continues, "So I started punching him, it was like a baby hitting a man! I was screaming, ‘Get this motherfucker [off me]!’ Nick Adams (former wrestler and bear handler) dove on the bear, chained him, and started trying playing with him because Nick raised him since he was a cub. My clothes looked like I’d been in a street fight. They were all ripped off. I was sweating and blown up."
The bear appeared to have had his fill of fun and games and decided to get down to business.
"I was determined to get out of there as hard as I could go because I saw him looking at me, and he roared and came at me," explains Smothers. "I got out of the ring, took a hell of a bump on the floor, and shat my pants. I thought I had a heart attack! Everybody was laughing and pouring beer on me. It was all in good fun, but it wasn’t funny for me. Good thing I’d brought sweats and a t-shirt to wear after cleaning myself up!"
When asked if he hooked up with the blonde he started talking with before the match with the grizzly bear, Tracy Smothers answers, "No. I never saw her again. She hooked up with one of the bouncers, one of those big boys who worked in an offshore oil rig who’d work as a bouncer when back in town. I wasn’t even thinking about her after the match!"
Just a 550 lbs Grizzly Cub!
Thinking that his bear wrestling days were over, Tracy Smothers recounts the circumstances that got him jostling with yet another bear in Continental Championship Wrestling in 1987.
"The champion Dutch Mantell was working with ‘Wildcat’ Wendell Cooley, who was chasing the belt and said he’d do anything to get a title match. He then signed a contract without reading it, and Dutch tells him about the bear. Wendell had a bad knee, and it got worse. I don’t think he wanted to wrestle the bear, but I think he got hurt legitimately."
So with Dutch Mantell and Robert Fuller booking the match, Tracy Smothers again tussled with a bear, wrestling in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Florence, Alabama. He’d wrestle the bear along with a singles and a tag match for three straight nights.
"That Siberian grizzly bear was only ten months old but 550 lbs,” Tracy remembers. “It gained 100 in a month, was declawed, and had only its back teeth. This bear was called Terrible Ted, but it was not the original one owned by "The Bearman" Dave McKigney.”
Gordon Solie (the "Dean" and "Walter Cronkite" of wrestling announcers) did an especially admirable job when calling the match. If you shut your eyes and eliminated the word "bear," you’d swear he was calling a match between the NWA World Champion Harley Race and challenger Ric Flair at Starrcade ’83. In his patented silky voice, he’d articulate counter holds, falls, and by uttering phrases like, "Although this bear is amicable by nature, once he gets standup competition going, he naturally just wants to wrestle," helped give the match much-needed validity.
Watch Tracy Smothers Face 550 lbs of Supple Muscle:
Smothers says The Humane Society and The World Wildlife Fund were there because they thought what they did to the bear was inhumane.
Smothers, a God-fearing man, prayed after the tag match and before facing the bear for the second straight night. He worried about the unpredictability of his overgrown furry opponent.
"He was young. You don’t want to get crazy, and he’d never been in front of so many people for a wrestling show. You didn’t know how it was going to react."
While hoping God might be listening, he remembers being spun around by a female reporter. He now found himself in front of a camera and hit with a barrage of unwelcome questions.
"Don’t you think it’s inhumane to do this to a bear?" asked the prodding reporter, perhaps trying to inflame Smothers to answer inappropriately. Noticing the Humane Society and World Wildlife Fund representatives were merely a stone’s throw away, he blurted out, "Look, lady, I got to work twice, wrestle twice, and I gotta work three nights in a row. Why are you worried about the bear?! Why aren’t you worried about me, by Gawd!"
The expression of relief was discernible when remembering that this bear was “only” a 550 lbs cub; this time, it was a much more controlled situation than wrestling bears in bars surrounded by his plastered, rowdy friends egging him on.
Watch Tracy Smothers face "a bear" once again in 2016 for Olde Wrestling:
Semi-Retired But Still Kicking
The battle-worn Tracy Smothers asserts to have suffered over forty concussions and 13 mini-strokes. In 2010, he lost two front teeth a couple of weeks after taking a Jerry Lawler dropkick at a Cleveland, Ohio, show promoted by J.T. Lightning. Smothers eventually got partial dentures he says cost him $3,000. But before, he milked the accident while working in pizza delivery because people’s sympathy gave him good tips. Regrettably, he lost them and decided against getting another set when told that a replacement denture would cost another three grand.
Tracy Smothers has a strong message to overly opinionated smart marks (as he calls them) who assumed he was broke just because he didn’t have his two front teeth.
"I had the money, but for all of those who said I was broke, ‘F**k you smart marks, you can go to hell because you have no respect for the business or the people in it, and the only fight you assholes have been in, is a freakin’ video game. They know as much about the inside of the business as I know how to make a nuclear weapon. They pick apart everything we do and talk shit about everybody because physically, they could never do anything athletic in their life. They’d do well getting off the couch to go to the refrigerator to get something to eat."
Smothers also claims that many years after wrestling these bears, he is still unfairly maligned by some fans and only did what he got booked to do. "I get so tired of hearing bullshit about people saying things like, ‘Well, that’s inhuman,’ Well, it was over thirty years ago, so get over it, motherfuckers!"
Tracy Smothers is semi-retired from wrestling, and doctors diagnosed him with Stage III Lymphoma in December 2019. In an update on May 2020, he happily admitted that he is doing better after six rounds of chemo but needs to be careful with his immune system with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The reality of most men and women who decide to enter the squared circle is filled with fine memories that are often clouded by sadness.
"I got to travel a lot of the world; I wouldn’t have done that with any other job," Smothers noted. "I could have played the game better politically and personally and done a little better. It’s like anything, a lot of politics; that’s all part of it. The saddest thing is that a lot of my friends are dead. It’s so sad. It just breaks your heart to see their kids, widows, etc. It’s just terrible."
You can read more about the life and career of Tracy Smothers by picking up his book, If You Don’t Buy This Book, Everybody Dies! written by John Cosper. There are signed copies available as well.
The Death of Tracy Smothers
On October 28, 2020, Tracy Smothers sadly passed away after a long and arduous battle with cancer. He was among the most selfless people in the business, and many considered him a great friend. Our thoughts go out to his family and loved ones. We’re sure the “Wild-Eyed Southern Boy” is still taking care of business and taking names in the ring in the sky. Thank you for everything, Tracy!
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