Bruiser Brody came to the ring like a hurricane making landfall, a six-foot, eight-inch bearded mountain of anger and violence. By the time he’d been in the business for five years, he was already a legend, with his fur-covered boots and the length of chain he swung recklessly through the smoke-thick air of arenas large and small across the world.
Bruiser Brody died on July 17, 1988 following a pair of surgeries that could have saved his life. What happened in the death of Bruiser Brody is well-known: Brody was stabbed in Bayamon, Puerto Rico by Jose Gonzales, who wrestled as the Invader and was booking the World Wrestling Council for Carlos Colon. Gonzales asked Brody to step into the locker room shower for a private conversation. Unbeknownst to Brody, Gonzales held a knife hidden inside a towel in his right hand. No one knows what set it off, but Gonzales stabbed Brody twice in the chest and was trying to get at the big man again when wrestlers like TNT (better known as Savio Vega in the WWE) and Tony Atlas pulled him away.
Brody lay bleeding on the shower floor for 30 minutes before an ambulance arrived, and then paramedics couldn’t carry him to the ambulance. Atlas lifted Brody and helped him to the ambulance, and then he rode with him to the hospital.
Wrestling journalist Mike Mooneyham wrote about those tense moments as part of a series on Atlas:
“Atlas recalls Brody saying, ‘Don’t drop me, brother,’ as the wrestler helped lift his fallen friend out of the ambulance. Atlas talked to Brody and slipped his shoes off as the wrestler desperately waited for medical attention, which was slow in arriving. Atlas says Brody had two eight-inch cuts, and his feet had turned blue. Stab wounds had punctured his liver, pierced his lung and severed arteries to his heart.
Atlas’ patience grew thin [while awaiting medical attention at the hospital], and he eventually grabbed a doctor who was walking down the hall.
‘I’ve got a patient for you,”’the wrestler said urgently. ‘I’ll be with you in a minute,’ replied the physician.
That’s when the 6-3, 290-pound strongman commandeered the doctor to Brody’s room. When the doctor asked Brody how he was doing, he replied, ‘I’m just waiting on you, brother,’ says Atlas.”
At 4:30 a.m. the next day, Brody died.
Gonzales told a jury that he feared for his life when talking to Brody that day. The 5-foot, 8-inch grappler weighed a stocky 250 pounds, but he gave up nearly a foot in height and 50 pounds to Brody. If a disagreement became physical, it wasn’t a stretch to realize who’d likely end up on the losing side.
But Gonzales has never said why things became physical. The prevailing opinion has always been that their argument was over payoffs or a match finish. Brody had a habit of letting promoters and bookers know when he felt he wasn’t being paid adequately or used properly, and due to his status as an ‘attraction’ rather than a territory wrestler, Brody could (and would) hold up promoters for more money.
What was the real reason for the death of Bruiser Brody?
In an interview with WrestlingClassics.com, “Hangman” Bobby Jaggers told the interviewers that he did, in fact, believe the death of Bruiser Brody was over payoffs–that Brody believed he was being shorted. Jaggers also told the interviewers that he didn’t feel bad about going back to Puerto Rico to work for Carlos Colon, because if he had been the one who was killed, Brody would have gone back and continued to wrestle for WWC.
But what if Jaggers is wrong? What if the reason for Brody’s murder wasn’t money?
In Emerson Murray’s book, Bruiser Brody (Crowbar Press), Dave Meltzer gave some insight into another reason for Gonzales’ actions in the death of Bruiser Brody. Brody and Gonzalez met in 1976 when they were both working for Vince McMahon Sr. in the WWWF. Brody and Gonzales wrestled one another at New York’s Nassau Coliseum where Brody allegedly brutalized Gonzalez for real. Meltzer says “Gonzalez held the grudge for over a decade.”
Before the Death of Bruiser Brody: His Legacy
Brody had that kind of reputation with many wrestlers. If he wanted to take liberties, he would. If he didn’t want to cooperate, he wouldn’t, as has been well documented in a cage match in Florida against Lex Luger. He was, in many ways, the last of an outlaw breed–a wrestler who looked out for himself. He wrestled on his terms, and no one else’s. If he thought a promoter or another wrestler was looking to get over on him, watch out. Brody often refused to do jobs. He sometimes changed the finish of a match while the match was going on. Brody was not above shooting on his opponent during a match to send a message to another worker or to a promoter. And he was nomadic. He wouldn’t hesitate to leave a territory without “doing the honors” for a local star on his way out. Brody also had the reputation for never losing a locker-room fight. For one thing, he was legitimately tough. And he always landed the first punch.
“He had an air about him that got him over almost everywhere he went,” former NWA world champion Harley Race said about Brody. “On the other hand, he took advantage of that attitude, too. If you were in the ring with him, if you didn’t have the guts to cut him off, he’d just eat you alive.”
Brody, Stan Hansen, and Abdullah the Butcher were among the innovators of a stiff brawling style that featured blood and foreign objects, a precursor to the ‘Extreme’ wrestling phenomenon that came to the forefront in the 1990s and continues to this day in promotions like CZW and IWA-MS. But Brody could do anything in the ring. While he was noted for his brawling style, he also wrestled a one-hour draw with Ric Flair that’s considered a classic wrestling match as well.
Was Gonzalas Ever Convicted in the Death of Bruiser Brody?
Brody’s killer was never brought to justice. Gonzales stood trial for the murder but was acquitted–largely because there were no prosecution witnesses. Subpoenas for Dutch Mantell and Tony Atlas had been issued before the trial, but they arrived in the mail after the jury had already reached its verdict. In a lengthy article for Solie.org, Mantell shared what happened:
“… I was told by the detectives that Jose Gonzalez would be charged with first-degree murder and advised me that when the time for the trial came, I would be subpoenaed and transported back to PR to testify. They told me that airfare and hotel would be arranged for me and that security would be provided.
That’s what they said. However, that’s not what they did.
I was depressed when I left PR and even more so when I got back to Birmingham. If you’ve ever been to Birmingham, you’d know what I mean. I told my wife in detail everything that had happened. She told me that nothing would be done to Jose Gonzalez. I got mad at her. How could something not be done? I told her to wait and see.
I waited, and I saw that she was right.
I got two separate subpoenas for the trial. The first trial date was postponed. The second trial was scheduled for January 23-26, 1989. I still have my subpoena. It was issued 1/3/89 but according to the post date, it was not mailed until 1/13/89. That meant that it laid on somebody’s desk for a full 10 days. Remember the trial was to start on January 23rd? I received the subpoena on January 24th. I had already heard the verdict by the time I opened the subpoena.
I never heard from the detectives again, not even to this day.”
The Death of Bruiser Brody: Was it a fix?
Brody’s murder and the subsequent botching of the Gonzalez trial make it look like the fix was in. Atlas believes Brody was never going to be allowed to leave the hospital alive. And he had serious concerns for his own safety. Again, from the Mooneyham article:
“Atlas takes a deep breath and pauses for nearly a minute when informed of a report that an American doctor, who had been asked to assist with the surgery by three medical students he was training, reportedly was ordered by ‘security men’ to leave the operating room that night and later kept out of the post-mortem.
‘I should have never left (the hospital),’ Atlas says, repeating the words for emphasis to no one in particular. ‘I had a queasy feeling when I left. I should have never left that man’s side.’
Atlas says he didn’t see anyone resembling security while he was at the hospital.
‘I didn’t see any security. I was there a long time,’ says Atlas, who estimates he was there for nearly two hours. ‘If there was any security in the building while I was there, they would have probably thrown me out. They were scared to death of me in there. I was stomping around that hospital. … You’ve never seen me mad. Vince (McMahon) has locked his office before because of me. I had a pretty good temper.’
Atlas now feels he may have made a mistake when he returned to the outdoor stadium that night and gave others a report on Brody’s condition. Atlas had been told at the hospital that his condition was stable.
‘I got the funniest feeling in the world when I told someone about his condition, and that they were going to visit him. I should have never said where he was. Why did I say anything? I’m stupid at times. My mouth flies open before my brain thinks. I was raised up with all this honesty, but you don’t realize that a lot of people use that as a weapon against you.’
Atlas says he returned to the stadium to wrestle the last match of the evening with The Iron Sheik.
‘I’m working with The Sheik and I’m telling him the story in the ring. The Sheik went back and told the other boys. Abdullah (The Butcher) called a meeting the next morning. All of us went and refused to work the next day. We boycotted. Nobody really knew what was going on, but I told them.’ Atlas says he was a marked man because he was the only wrestler to publicly divulge the suspect’s name 17 years ago. He went to the police department with Sika the Wild Samoan (Sika Anoai) and gave authorities the story. Atlas was told he would be contacted regarding a trial date. He never was.
That same night he was warned by another wrestler to leave on the first plane out.
‘Don’t go to bed tonight. Go to the airport and catch the first flight out of here’ he was told.
‘I would have never made it out of Puerto Rico,’ says Atlas. ‘Somebody would have come up beside me at the airport and stabbed me.’
Atlas says he wasn’t home an hour before getting a call from Colon.
‘Brother, you deserted us,’ Atlas says Colon told him. ‘Those were his words. I told him I didn’t have anything against Brody or Jose. But after what I had seen, I felt the best thing for me to do was to leave. He told me there was going to be a trial, and I told him to let me know when it was so I could come down.’
Atlas never got the call …”
As he lay bleeding on the floor of the shower, Brody was clutching a photograph of his then-7-year-old son. He’d asked Atlas to make a sketch of his son but had kept hold of the photo when he walked to the shower to talk with Gonzalez. Brody’s last words to promoter Carlos Colon were “Take care of my family.” Colon and Victor Jovica testified on behalf of Gonzalez at trial.
While he was researching his book, Murray was repeatedly warned away from learning more about the death of Bruiser Brody. From a PopMatters.com interview in February 2016:
“Murray tracked down the Coroner’s Report on Brody’s death, which is included in the book, and attempted to obtain the transcripts of Gonzalez’s trial. ‘My wife and I spent a whole day one day just calling around, trying to get copies of the court records,’ says Murray. ‘Finally, we got somebody that was literally in the basement and had all the court records there with her and she said, ‘Call me back in four hours, I’ll go look for them.’ We call her back and she gets on the phone with my wife and is whispering, and says, ‘The court records aren’t here. They’re supposed to be here. I don’t know where they are. Don’t call here again,’ and hangs up. It’s just the court transcripts of what was said. Why would you destroy that? But I was never able to find them. So, just to put an extra little conspiracy thing in there. I don’t know if they were destroyed or what, but the people down in the basement told me they’re not where they’re supposed to be.”
Brody was 42 years old when he died. He left behind a widow, Barbara, and a young son, Geoffrey.
Jose Gonzalez continued to work for Carlos Colon for many years and kept a picture of himself shaking hands with Brody in his office. He is 71 years old as of this writing. Brody would have been the same age.
Wrestling fans will likely never know the real reason for the death of Bruiser Brody. Was it money? Was it an argument about a finish? Or was it years of seething hatred from a match gone wrong? In the end, Mooneyham’s article on Atlas is the closest thing to closure one can find:
“Nothing justifies what happened that night,” says Atlas. “Brody only had one person to stand up for him, and I look at that person every day in the mirror. I know he had a lot of friends, but nobody ever tried to say anything, or raise any money. And everybody tried to blame me because I didn’t go back. Go back? The others didn’t say anything. The dressing room was full of people. How come Tony Atlas was the only one who saw something? Were their eyes closed, or did they go blind? Every babyface on that card was in that dressing room. But they all went back (to Puerto Rico) and made themselves some money.”
Trivia: Bruiser Brody had a degree in journalism from West Texas State University, and worked for a time as a sportswriter