9 Wrestling Managers Who Changed the Game in 3 Eras

Old-school wrestling fans savor the wild antics of heel wrestling managers. Now mostly out of vogue, they once created joyful chaos. And many times, they came in threes.

"The Mouth of the South" Jimmy Hart, Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, and Mr. Fuji were a trio of wrestling managers that helped elevate the business in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s.

Wrestling Managers: The Triumvirate of Terror

What, might you ask, is a triumvirate? Always best to ask an expert, so here it is, straight from Miriam-Webster: “A group or association of three.”

Under their “Did You Know?” section, they add, “The first triumvirate of the Roman Republic, which consisted of Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, was simply an alliance or partnership, not a formal institution of the government.”

Of course, by now, you are asking, “What the heck does this have to do with wrestling?”

The then World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF/WWF) was ruled by trios of evil wrestling managers on three separate occasions. These triumvirates of terror, trickery, and tumult were ever-present in the “E” for over 20 years.

On each occasion, the terrible trio cornered the heel market and, in general, made life miserable for the reigning babyface champion and the other scientific wrestlers in the promotion.

Jump with us into the wrestling time machine, and take a stroll along Memory Lane, AKA Triumvirate Terrace (just three blocks Northeast of Parts Unknown).

Triumvirate I: Wrestling Managers Bobby Davis, Wild Red Berry, and Homer O’Dell

The WWWF followed a very simple but highly successful formula; bring in a heel from one of the regional territories, pair him with a manager, and then build him up to near invincibility. The desired outcome of this process (nearly always attained) was the main event, a title match against Bruno Sammartino, in front of a packed crowd at the mecca of wrestling, Madison Square Garden.

In many cases, this led to a second and sometimes even a third (called the blowoff) sold-out encounter at MSG. The heel would then leave the WWWF or slide down the card slightly. Enter the next heel, and the process was repeated again and again, and we could keep going because that is exactly what Vince McMahon Sr. did.

Some of these heels were repackaged upon entry into the WWWF. For example, Bob Orton Sr. (known simply as Bob Orton before Junior started wrestling) was repackaged as Rocky Fitzpatrick.

In addition, John Quinn, a journeyman territory wrestler, was introduced as Virgil The Kentucky Butcher.

The formula included a series of TV squash matches against prelim wrestlers, followed by a win at MSG over the reigning number two babyface.

In the early days, this was Dominic DeNucci, Antonio Pugliese (Bruno’s “cousin”), or Edouard Carpentier. Occasionally, a televised beatdown of Bruno’s (and later Bob Backlund’s) manager, Arnold Skaaland, was included to move the heat needle a bit higher.

Let’s take a brief look at each of these members of the first triumvirate:

Memorable wrestling manager trio from the 1950s and '60s: Bobby Davis, Wild Red Berry, and Homer O’Dell.
Memorable wrestling manager trio from the 1950s and ’60s: Bobby Davis, Wild Red Berry, and Homer O’Dell.

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Bobby Davis: Setting the Standing for Wrestling Managers to Come

Bobby Davis is known by many as the original manager. Davis gained nationwide acclaim as the manager of the original Nature Boy (and first WWWF Champion) Buddy Rogers.

In all honesty, an entire story could and should be devoted to Davis. He also managed Gorilla Monsoon and Virgil Butcher during their tenure with the WWWF.

He was a man way ahead of his time who paved the way for many to follow. Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, who will be discussed later, undoubtedly was a huge fan of Bobby Davis.

In 1968, the Butcher sent all his opponents out of the ring on a stretcher with his dreaded pile driver. At one point, Butcher was pitted against Arnold “The Golden Boy” Skaaland.

As usual, Butcher delivered the piledriver and got the duke. Out comes the stretcher, and as Skaaland is being taken out of the ring, Davis and Butcher placed their hands under it and ejected Arnie, sending him hurtling over the top rope.

The following week, Ray Morgan gave us worried and concerned fans the address of White Plains Hospital (so we could send letters and postcards), where The Golden Boy was convalescing.

Bruno was devastated and vowed revenge on Butcher for his dear friend. This was exacted in front of a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden. The goal of any great heel is to generate heat; Bobby Davis could melt Iceland.

Wild Red Berry

Wild Red Berry (born Ralph L. Berry) originally started his athletic career as a boxer; after breaking both hands, he decided to focus on professional wrestling.

A prudent decision this was, as Berry held the National Wrestling Association’s (pre-National Wrestling Alliance) World Light Heavyweight Championship on nine separate occasions. He also held several regional championships after the advent of the National Wrestling Alliance.

Berry turned his attention to managing in the late 1950s. He worked The Fabulous Kangaroos, Hans “The Great” Mortier, and Gorilla Monsoon. Ironically, the very glib and articulate Gorilla needed a mouthpiece. After all, he was originally found running naked through the jungles of Manchuria and spoke nary a lick of English.

I believe he went on a sightseeing expedition after graduating from Ithaca College, fell ill, and lost all previous memory. Which magically came back to him in 1969, when he saved his longtime enemy Bruno Sammartino, who was being attacked by Monsoon’s partner, Professor Tanaka.

Wild Red Berry was known for his nonstop banter, suit, cane, and a hat that came out of the pro shop at Caddyshack.

Homer O’Dell

Homer O’Dell was only in the WWWF for a brief period and had come to New York from the Mid-Atlantic territory, where he had wrestled and managed for several years. He managed Bull Ramos, a wrestler who has the distinction of being in the main event, versus Bruno Sammartino, for opening the new Madison Square Garden in early 1968.

The partnership of the Wild Apache and Mr. O’Dell was short-lived, as the two squared off in Boston (June 15, 1968) and Philadelphia (June 29, 1968).

By the end of the 1960s, all the wrestling managers mentioned above were out of the WWWF. However, O’Dell left the Northeast and resumed his wrestling and managerial career in the Carolinas, managing several legendary tag teams, including Aldo Bogni and Bronco Lubich, Rip Hawk, and Swede Hanson.

While Berry retired, Davis began a career as a fast food magnate with Wendy’s.

Triumvirate II: Wrestling Managers The Grand Wizard of Wrestling, Lou Albano, and Freddie Blassie

Fortunately, the wrestling fans of the WWWF were treated with a new triumvirate that may have been the most entertaining in the history of professional wrestling.

The
The "Three Wise Men of the East" – The Grand Wizard of Wrestling Ernie Roth, Captain Lou Albano, and Classy Freddie Blassie.

Lou Albano

It’s nearly impossible to encapsulate the wrestling career of one Louis Vincent Albano in a couple of paragraphs.

Lou Albano was born on July 29, 1933, in Rome, Italy, Albano initially had ambitions to pursue a career in professional boxing. But instead, he was told by Willie Gilzenberg, a then boxing promotor who went on to become the President of the WWWF, that he should consider a career in wrestling.

Lou’s in-ring career was mediocre at best, although he did achieve a modicum of success teaming with Tony “The Stamford Stomper” Altomare as The Sicilians. The pair initially teamed in the Midwest, generating considerable heat enough to garner the attention of some “other” Sicilians, who subtly suggested that the team tone down their act a notch.

Albano and Altomare captured the WWWF United States Tag Team Championship, a vaunted accomplishment for two run-of-the-mill wrestlers at best.

In 1970, Bruno Sammartino advised Albano that he wasn’t an outstanding wrestler but had great potential as a manager. Bruno even went to Vince McMahon Sr. to pitch him the idea. Vince agreed and initially paired Lou with Oscar “Crusher” Verdu, a Spanish strongman with limited articulation skills (although he had a lovely coiffure).

Albano guided Verdu to two consecutive Madison Square Garden sellouts against Sammartino for the WWWF Heavyweight Championship. But, then, Captain Lou, as the saying goes, was off to the races. He was in Ivan Koloff’s corner on January 18, 1971, when The Russian Bear did the unthinkable and pinned Bruno to become the WWWF Champion. Albano also managed thirteen different tag teams to WWWF gold.

In 1984, Lou formed a team of a different ilk with the popular rock star Cyndi Lauper. They helped usher in the “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection,” which elevated the already increasing popularity of the World Wrestling Federation into the stratosphere. Albano became a national treasure, seen in music videos, films, and his TV show as Super Mario.

Captain Lou Albano was, in his own words, “often imitated but never duplicated.”

Freddie Blassie

Freddie Blassie set the wrestling world on fire for years in Southern California. His rivalries with legends such as Rikidōzan, Bearcat Wright, and The Destroyer have forever been etched into wrestling history, and his feud with John Tolos went on for years on the West Coast. The Blassie-Tolos rivalry was so hot that they had a legendary closed-circuit match in California.

Blassie ventured east on several occasions to challenge for the WWWF Championship against Sammartino and Pedro Morales.

In 1974, a recently retired Blassie returned to the WWWF as a heel manager, where he remained for the rest of his career. His proteges included Nikolai Volkoff, Blackjack Mulligan, Ray Stevens, Spiros Arion, Victor Rivera, and many others.

Like Albano, Blassie frequently intervened in matches and, in many cases, got the worst of the exchange, to the absolute delight of the crowd.

Fred Blassie’s most notable charge was The Iron Sheik, who ended the nearly six-year reign of WWF Champion Bob Backlund on December 26, 1983, at Madison Square Garden.

Although Sheiky Baby would drop the title to Hulk Hogan several weeks later, Blassie was an integral part of what would be a seismic shift in the world of professional wrestling.

The Grand Wizard of Wrestling

The Grand Wizard of Wrestling rounds out this Trilogy of Terror.

The Wizard, born Ernie Roth on August 30, 1926, originally made his wrestling bones in the Detroit-based Big Time Wrestling territory, managing The Original Sheik. The Wiz was then known as Abdullah Farouk, a shady, underhanded character who hurled insults against the United States to anyone who would listen.

The Grand Wizard arrived in the WWWF in 1971, managing Blackjack Mulligan and Beautiful Bobby Harmon.

On December 1, 1973, Stan Stasiak, under the tutelage of The Wiz, upset Pedro Morales for the WWWF Championship. However, Stasiak was a transitional champion and dropped the belt to Bruno Sammartino on December 10.

The Grand Wizard added many heels to his stable. Killer Kowalski, Ernie Ladd, Ox Baker, and Crazy Luke Graham benefitted from the wizardry of Mr. Roth.

On April 30, 1977, Superstar Billy Graham upended reigning WWWF Champion Bruno Sammartino in Baltimore, Maryland, ending his second title reign. However, unlike previous heel champions Koloff and Stasiak, Graham was given a legitimate (albeit argued by many prematurely ended) title reign, dropping the belt on February 20, 1978, to Bob Backlund. The Wizard-Graham pairing was electric.

Unlike his cohorts Albano and Blassie, Wizard did not get physically involved or take bumps. However, Ernie Roth, resplendent in his turban, wraparound sunglasses, and sequined jackets, was unique and unforgettable.

For more information on Ernie Roth, please check out Evan Ginzburg’s incredible story, ‘The Grand Wizard of Wrestling – Ernie Roth Remembered’ on prowrestlingstories.com.

The Grand Wizard of Wrestling – Ernie Roth Remembered

Triumvirate III: Wrestling Managers Jimmy Hart, Bobby Heenan, and Mr. Fuji

This final trio was able to ply their craft on a much larger stage than their predecessors.

By the early 1980s, the World Wrestling Federation was in the hands of Vincent Kennedy McMahon, who was hellbent on building a wrestling empire and who truly embraced the world in WWF.

While Davis, Berry, and O’Dell, as well as Messrs. Albano, Blassie, and Roth, operated primarily in the Northeast (key cities New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston, Baltimore, Providence, and New Haven), Hart, Heenan, and Fuji had the benefit of national and eventually international exposure, as McMahon methodically purchased television time and staged live events all over the country.

Although there were other wrestling managers in the mix (Harvey Whippleman and Slick, to name two), we will focus on the main three for conciseness. The essence of the players hadn’t changed, but the size of the stage and the crowd sure did.

Bobby Heenan

Bobby Heenan is another iconic figure for which a paragraph or two could never do justice.

Heenan came to the WWF in 1984, after a very successful American Wrestling Association (AWA) run, where he managed the reigning champion, Nick Bockwinkel.

Heenan hit the ground running, forming the Heenan Family, which included greats such as Andre The Giant, Big John Studd, King Kong Bundy, Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff, “Ravishing” Rick Rude, “King” Harley Race, and many others.

Heenan was in Andre’s corner for his main event match against Hulk Hogan for WrestleMania 3, arguably the most significant match in the history of wrestling.

A print of The Heenan Family.
A print of The Heenan Family. [Photo: Reddit]
Heenan transitioned into broadcasting in the mid-1980s. His partnership with Gorilla Monsoon is mentioned in any Mount Rushmore discussion of great announce teams. Bobby left the WWF at the end of 1993 and debuted for rival World Championship Wrestling (WCW) on January 27, 1994.

 

Heenan became an integral part of Monday Nitro in 1995 and was the color commentator at Bash at the Beach on July 7, 1996.

As Hulk Hogan walked towards the ring, Heenan exclaimed, “Whose side is he on?” Hulk then turned on Randy Savage and Sting, the team he had ostensibly come out to assist, and formed the New World Order (nWo) with Scott Hall and Kevin Nash.

Heenan, although a heel his entire career as a wrestler, manager, and color commentator, was very vocal bashing the nWo and advocating for WCW.

Raymond Louis “Bobby” Heenan passed away on September 18, 2017. His contribution to the world of professional wrestling is immeasurable.

Mr. Fuji

Mr. Fuji was born Harry Fujiwara in Honolulu, Hawaii, on May 4, 1934. Fuji’s wrestling career spanned twenty years and included stints in many significant territories. Fuji was best known as a tag team specialist, as he captured the WWWF Tag Team Championship on five separate occasions.

Fuji retired from active wrestling in 1985 and transitioned into a managerial role. His first client was George Steele; however, Fuji is most noted for managing Don Muraco and the Demolition tag team.

In addition, Fuji co-starred with Muraco in a series of entertaining vignettes. Oddly, neither Fuji Vice nor Fuji General was nominated for an Academy Award, although the masses critically acclaimed both.

Mr. Fuji, although an accomplished wrestler and manager, is best noted as being perhaps the greatest ribber in the history of professional wrestling.

A rib is a prank played on a wrestler, or backstage employee of a wrestling promotion, by another wrestler. Fuji was noted for his mean-spirited ribs, such as nailing the contents of Fred Blassie’s suitcase to a hotel room ceiling. Nothing or no one was safe from a Fuji rib.

Mr. Fuji – 5 Times He Took His Devious Ribs Too Far

Jimmy Hart

Last but certainly not least is “The Mouth of the South,” Jimmy Hart.

Born in Jackson, Mississippi, on January 1, 1943, Hart achieved his initial fame in the music world in 1965, when his band The Gentrys scored a top five hit in “Keep On Dancin.” Hart later relocated to Memphis, attending the same high school as Jerry Lawler, who eventually persuaded Hart to enter the world of professional wrestling.

Hart formed the First Family of Wrestling, which included notables such as Hulk Hogan, Kevin Sullivan, Lanny Poffo, Rick Rude, Ox Baker, and the Iron Sheik.

Ironically, Hart was Lawler’s arch nemesis for many of his years in the territory, although he would occasionally manage The King during his heel turns. In addition, Hart was an integral part of the Andy Kaufman-Jerry Lawler feud, fighting with and against Kaufman.

Hart managed a bevy of legends during his tenure with WWF, including singles stars Honky Tonk Man, Greg Valentine, and The Mountie, and tag teams such as The Hart Foundation, Natural Disasters, The Fabulous Rougeau Brothers, The Nasty Boys, and Money, Inc.

Hart left the WWF in 1994, rejoining the recently departed Hulk Hogan in World Championship Wrestling.

Jimmy Hart was voted Pro Wrestling Illustrated Manager of the Year in 1987 and 1994.

With the late JJ Maguire, Hart helped compose the entrance music for many WWF stars, including Shawn Michaels’ “Sexy Boy.”

"Mouth of the South" Jimmy Hart
“Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart. [Photo: WWE]

The Legacy of the Nasty Nine Wrestling Managers

These nine men terrorized the WWWF/WWF from its creation in 1963 to the inception of the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection.

All the heel champions of this era (Rogers, Koloff, Stasiak, Graham, and The Iron Sheik) fell under the purview of one of these nasty nine. Yet, these gentlemen were essential to the storylines developed to fill arenas across the northeast and the world.

Who could ever forget The Grand Wizard looking directly into the camera and spewing venom at Bruno, Pedro, or Bob Backlund? Or Lou Albano floundering like a fish out of water after one of our heroes clobbered him?

These “evil” men made life hell for our heroes, but they also kept us glued to our television sets every week and sold us on buying tickets to that next event in the hope that they would receive their long-awaited comeuppance.

They will never be forgotten.

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https://danandbenny.podbean.com/

Benny J. Scala is a senior writer at Pro Wrestling Stories and co-host of the Dan and Benny In the Ring podcast. He is also a writer/promoter for Jimmy Valiant's Boogie’s Wrestling Camp and Hall of Fame Museum (BWC). Benny is a licensed Florida Realtor and recently joined the writing staff of the Through The Fence Baseball website. He has been a fan of professional wrestling since the late '60s. He can be reached by email at bennyjscala@yahoo.com.