On any given day on social media, there’s an endless churning of supposed scoops, rumors, nostalgia, and informal polls on the best of the best. “Who Is Your Mount Rushmore of Wrestling?” “Who Are the 10 Greatest Heels?” “Best Tag Teams?” Etcetera, etcetera, ad nauseam. The same names rightfully come up, with others shamefully neglected. It’s unusual to see anything on wrestling’s unsung heroes- the folk who rarely, if ever, get the acknowledgment they deserve.
This is that piece.
Those History Hasn’t Been Kind To
There are wrestlers I perceive to be huge stars- Hall of Fame worthy, in fact, who many fans younger than me would look at me blankly as if to say “Who?”
John Tolos, the infamous “Maniac Tolos”, the “Golden Greek” was in my youth a huge draw who was beamed weekly into my New York home from L.A.’s hallowed Olympic Auditorium on Spanish UHF station Channel 41. He faced Fred Blassie on wrestling’s first closed-circuit event and even headlined Madison Square Garden versus our beloved Bruno. Not a huge man, he could nonetheless talk you into the seats being one of the greatest promo guys EVER. “How do you spell wrestling? T-O-L-O-S” he’d tell you time and time again.
Now there was only one problem.
The brain trust, in a cost-cutting measure, taped over the L.A. TV shows each and every week. Hey, the tapes were expensive, they rationalized, erasing mountains of great wrestling history.
And when Tolos’ wrestling career petered out just as the Rock & Wrestling/Hulkamania era peeked, Tolos was one of many who has, to a certain degree, been lost to history.
To this day, it seems that younger fans will know little if anything about perennial main-event stars like Waldo Von Erich, Bulldog Brower, Victor Rivera, and so many others. Hey, they came before the Hulkster and there isn’t a ton of footage of them “out there.”
Unfairly, even tragically, there’s a generation of headliners who are thus “unsung.”
The Question They Never Seem to Ask
Here’s a question I never see asked: “Who are the most consistent wrestlers in history?” The guys who rarely, if ever, had a bad match? Who night after night went in that ring and performed their craft at the highest level- whether at the top, middle or bottom of the card? Now I’m not going to get into the superstars like The Midnight Express and Ivan Koloff who have, in fact, gotten their due for the most part. Instead, let me rattle off some of the names of my many unsung favorites who deserve even greater acknowledgment.
Ever see Homicide live in a bad match? I certainly haven’t. Roderick Strong? A machine in the ring. Others? Tracy Smothers. Davey O’Hannon. Johnny Rodz. Low Ki. Iron Mike Sharpe. Nigel McGuiness, Jose Estrada, and the virtually forgotten Bryan Walsh and Reckless Youth. The “should have been a star”, Eric Adamz is still out there and is worthy of working for any major promotion. They may not make the fans’ “All-Time Top 20” lists, but they and innumerable others sure don’t deserve to be unsung.
Wrestling Book Authors
In a business where much of “wrestling journalism” is little more than clickbait, where fans mistake gossip and scoops for “writing,” the bar is set so low that pretty much anybody who spent a minute in a major promotion is somehow book “worthy.” Well, THESE are the books out of those that I’ve read that stick out in my mind as truly great. I haven’t made a dent in the vast number of wrestling books on the market so if your favorite isn’t chronicled here don’t take it as a slight.
Wrestlers Are Like Seagulls by JJ Dillon (with Scott Teal and Phillip Varriale) is my favorite wrestling book of all time as you see the business from a plethora of perspectives. Starting as a fan, morphing into a ref, a wrestler, a legendary manager, a front office guy for both WWE and WCW- the whole business is laid out for you in a brutally honest manner. While legends often disappoint you in their obligatory tomes, this one pays off.
Swimming with Piranhas: Surviving the Politics of Professional Wrestling by Howard Brody is also unsung because a forgettable legends book most likely got a lot more media attention than this eye-opener from the former President of the NWA. Brody takes you behind the scenes of the brutal politics of wrestling where friends turn on you and espouses on how you stay sane and in business through it all. This one comes with my highest recommendation.
Theatre in a Squared Circle by Jeff Archer, a prolific political and pop culture writer, tackles virtually every aspect of the wrestling business from legends like Killer Kowalski and Don “Dr. Death” Arnold to indy wrestlers on down. It also features various other quality contributors including the late Bill McCormack who may have been the greatest and most unsung wrestling writer of all-time; his beautifully descriptive and flowing pieces were more than mere waxing nostalgic, they’d bring a tear to your eye. Bill went far beyond the standard, “Who was the booker in Chattanooga in ‘72” type material. As this book came out in 1998, it didn’t get the attention the recent boom cycle releases have but seek it out. It’s a great read featuring great writing. Imagine THAT.
If I had a dollar for every wrestling promotion I’ve personally seen gone under the past several decades I’d be sitting on a small fortune. Promoters will pick your brain, then ultimately ignore everything you tell them, throwing their ofttimes clueless buddies and family members and romantic interests in rings and, of course, through tables- themselves included. Yes, nepotism and cronyism still reign in their little fiefdoms. I’d guesstimate there’s a 95% plus failure rate and most need only to look in the mirror to figure out why. Hell, I’ve seen promoters lose everything- fortunes, wives, girlfriends, licenses, and their homes in the inevitable divorce settlement. So maybe- just maybe- it’s time to acknowledge someone who has somehow managed to “do it right.” He is none other than Sheldon Goldberg of NECW (New England Championship Wrestling) “fame” who has been out there almost twenty years which is like dog years in indy wrestling. So just how does he do it? Instead of regularly bringing in ex-WWE and ECW guys to pop a crowd he builds his own local stars. In the eyes of those local fans, THEY are the “superstars”. And he knows how to use TV as well to his benefit in building angles into matches that pay off. You don’t survive two decades in this cutthroat business otherwise. Goldberg was also ahead of the curb in his pushing of women’s wrestling before it became fashionable, and it wasn’t about them being straight off the pages of Playboy either- they could (gasp!) wrestle. And, on top of this, the man regularly posts sage-like wisdom to the boys- you should be studying each word. He’s one of those rare survivors in this business, an unsung hero.
Indy Heel Managers
Yes, we are quite aware that there were few heel managers as great as Lou Albano, Fred Blassie, The Grand Wizard of Wrestling, Bobby Heenan, Jimmy and Gary Hart, Johnny Valiant, Paul Heyman, JJ Dillon, Paul Jones, and Jim Cornette. All rightfully acknowledged time and time again.
But once silicone and a pretty face became the vogue, what about the indy guys performing the lost art of heel managing nightly in an Elks Lodge or VFW Hall near you?
Currently, I’m going with New York-based AJ Pan, Vinny The Guido and the illustrious Mr. Big- the self-professed “Manager of Champions and Champion of Managers”.
Now AJ can TALK. Which isn’t something a whole lot of indie guys can do. Thus, he fills that traditional mouthpiece role oh so well. He’s that old school heel manager you just want the face to grab and give a beating to. In other words, he does it right. “Managers should be the cream in the coffee, not the center of attention,” Johnny Valiant once told me. AJ “gets” this. Kudos.
Vinny The Guido, similarly, is that old school “little guy with a big mouth” who the fans also want to see slapped around. He draws heat like few others and when the face inevitably gets his hands on him, the fans explode in delight. What more could you ask?
And Mr. Big- who is just that at a burly 6’2- with a gravelly voice to match- is resplendent in a fittingly devilish all-red outfit. At 65 years old he reminds you of those ex-wrestling stars who aged out of the ring and into a managerial role but could still kick your a*s if need be. The man can talk AND mix it up. And even more importantly, he promotes each one of his proteges and matches like his life depended on it- which in today’s indie world is old school in and of itself.
The late, great Dale Pierce as manager Marcial Bovee also warrants a mention. Tearing up unsung territories and indie areas like Arizona, Ohio and in later years Washington, there wasn’t a venue this colorful gentleman didn’t incite to almost near-riot levels. He was a dear friend who passed not long ago; he was also a wrestler, author, teacher, lecturer, historian, and a true renaissance man. RIP.
And probably the best d**n manager who never got that WWE/NWA/AWA exposure was the late, great Larry Sweeney of ROH fame. My God, that man was a mix of all the legendary names I mentioned- funny, sharp, could take a bump, and a heat magnet of unbelievable proportions. He was my friend and to this day his suicide is like a knife in my heart. If you don’t know his work, search it out. You’ll only thank me.
Indy Wrestling Photographers and Videographers
Whenever I go down to my local indy, it feels like that old TV chestnut, Cheers. “Everybody” knows my name, and I know many of theirs. You see the same wrestlers, fans, and, of course, those devoted photographers and videographers at ringside. Now you know d**n well with 37 fans in the stands, these folks are generally not making a dime for their Herculean efforts. But they capture what they consider Art. There are hundreds of photos taken on each show, posted free online and they become cherished mementos.
Recently prolific photographer Lyle C. Williams passed away and the “wrestling community” took notice for a change. Known best for his CZW work, but regularly shooting for many East Coast area indies he was just one of those guys who in a profit-driven business was about the “Anything I can do for you” mentality. There’s not a whole lot of universally beloved figures in this sub-culture but Lyle is one of them as evidenced by the Memorial Show set for him July 12th. Maybe he’s not as unsung as I think.
In the New York area, photographer Evan Arnow, Dave King, Eric L. Cooper, Eric Rosen, and Video Editor Richard Ruiz, as well as other mainstays, regularly document our beloved indies. Their work is appreciated and savored by many. Thank you as well.
Vets Who Pass It On
In wrestling, there are always those vets looking for one more payday and a “money mark” to give it to them, while on the other end of the spectrum there is also a long list of those who devoted their lives to the business and want to pass on their knowledge and experience and wisdom.
These two friends readily come to mind.
Chris Michaels was a former ECW tag team champion, self-professed “WWE jobber” who worked with all the greats and a long-time East Coast indy wrestling mainstay. At age 58, he is in tremendous ring shape and still wrestling semi-regularly as part of Team Splendid. He is a true locker room leader and will tell any kid within ear range, “Get real gear, get rid of those kick pads, get in the gym, look like a professional wrestler.” And so on. He prides himself on “devoting his life to this” and wants nothing more than to respect the art of professional wrestling and teach it to the next generation.
Cueball Carmichael is a great vet and promoter who, much like Chris Michaels, passes it on with a strong Internet presence, pulling zero punches, and telling clueless so-called promoters and indy wrestlers just what then need to hear should they care to listen. He’s wrestled the best of the best around the world and like Chris is in great physical condition in his 50’s. That he cares enough to offer priceless wisdom and experience is a gift to those humble enough to seek him out.
Facebook Wrestling Page Admins
I have mixed emotions about Facebook admins.
They range from truly dedicated and passionate individuals who devote themselves tirelessly to their hobbies to seemingly unhinged obsessives who remind me of the “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely” adage. I’ve seen them reprimand fans for expressing sorrow at the death of celebrity Robin Williams “THIS has nothing to do with professional wrestling!” they ranted, taking mourning fans to task in their moment of grief. I’ve also seen them toss qualified and knowledgeable folk off their sacred page for disagreeing with them on whatever bug they had up their a*s that day. The “Don’t speak ill of the dead” ethic is also regularly tossed out the window; on any given night as a deceased great’s lifework can be joyfully buried by the “fans” and history rewritten. “He was just a jobber” they’ll say with relish despite it being far from true. Throw in 37 rules “THAT happened in December 1979 and THIS is an 80’s page!” and it gets that much more oppressive. I’ve even been reprimanded for making jokes because there’s certainly no room for humor in the ever-so-serious world of Facebook wrestling pages. When “What was the first match you attended?” was posted yet again in the “let’s beat the same questions to death’ contest, I responded “Gotch-Hakenschmidt”, laughing at my own advancing age. Now the ever-so-self-important Admin wasn’t going to tolerate THAT kind of renegade humor on their holy scripture. I was publicly taken to task like a little schoolboy before telling said dictator to screw himself.
You get the ofttimes ugly picture.
So, with that off my chest, I’d like to acknowledge just one of literally thousands of wrestling admins out there who does, in fact, do a wonderful job in Stephen Faust’s Official Tito Santana Group, Arriba!
Now there isn’t a single day- EVER- that Stephen isn’t posting on all things Tito. It’s seemingly his life’s mission. There’s a photo of young Tito. Older indy Tito. Main-event Tito. IC Champ Tito. Ice cream cone Tito. T-Shirt Tito. El Matador (unfortunately) Tito. You get the idea. Now I happen to be a big Tito fan and am honored he’s in our film 350 Days, so I happen to enjoy this page that obviously isn’t for everyone if- God forbid- they aren’t fans of said Tito. But my point is this- with zero financial incentive, this man passionately works on this, cares about this, loves this. There’s no ego involved and certainly no power trip. It’s like the ancient fan clubs come to life for a new generation.
Much respect, Stephen.
In short, folks, for many pro wrestling is a thankless business. They’ll often put in way more than they’ll ever get out of it. And while this isn’t any kind of all-inclusive piece- I just hope that the many worthy notice that some of us do, in fact, admire, appreciate and honor them, too.
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