Al Perez – What Might Have Been
In the world of professional wrestling, Al Perez had it all. He was the favorite of many greats in the business and was always on the cusp of greatness, though he never quite got there. A lot of that was his undoing.
We’ve all heard the hype. The ‘can’t miss’ prospect. The number one draft pick. The ones who seemingly have it all but somehow fall short of the mark. This brings us to one Al Perez.
Magnificent physique? Check.
Matinee idol looks? Check.
Above-average ring ability? Check.
If one were to develop a checklist to predict wrestling superstardom, Mr. Perez’s scorecard would show many, if not of all, the boxes checked.
Wrestling’s Unanswered Questions: What If Scenarios and Missed Opportunities
When the average wrestling fan thinks of Magnum T.A. (Terry Allen), questions of ‘what if’ are ever-present in their thoughts. What if Magnum wasn’t driving so fast that night? What if he had avoided that horrific crash that nearly killed him and ended his wrestling career?
Terry Allen likely would have become a multiple-time NWA/WCW World Heavyweight Champion, and his ongoing feud with Ric Flair over the title would be the subject of many a podcast and social media post.
Gino Hernandez, "The Handsome Halfbreed," is another name that comes to mind.
What if Gino kept his head on straight and his ego in check? The sky was indeed the limit.
Al Perez is a true enigma. Not so much a ‘What If?’ but more of a ‘What Could Have Been.’
He had all the ingredients to become a megastar. While he did achieve a modicum of success in professional wrestling, he ultimately fell short of his unlimited potential.
An Early Talent for Wrestling
Al Perez was born in Tampa, Florida, on August 23rd, 1957.
Sidenote: Wikipedia and various wrestling databases show his birth year as 1960. However, during a shoot interview with Devin ‘Hannibal’ Nicholson, Al disclosed his actual date of birth as 1957.
Perez had a vaunted amateur career, wrestling in junior high and high school, placing second runner-up in state competitions during his senior year.
After high school and a year of college, Perez was approached by Larry Simon regarding his interest in a career in professional wrestling.
The name Larry Simon may or may not ring a bell, but perhaps the name Boris Malenko does. Malenko carved out a legendary career as an evil Russian heel (although his initial gimmick was as Otto Von Krupp). Only in this zany sport that we love so dearly can we loathe Boris Malenko from Moscow, who we surely would love as Larry Simon from Newark!
Al Perez’s Wrestling Journey: From Training with Karl Gotch
Perez was also trained by the legendary Karl Gotch, who is universally known in the wrestling world as one of the most proficient shooters of all time.
Al, just a brazen young whippersnapper at the time, made the mistake of equating Gotch’s advanced age with weakness. Here’s what happened, as told by Al Perez.
"When I first started, [Gotch] came hobbling into the gym. I looked at this guy, he was 57 years old, and he looked at me. I was told, ‘The guy has an armbar. It’s supposed to hurt. Make it look like it hurt.’
"So, I looked [Gotch] dead in his eyes and said, ‘Ouch!’
"Back then, I was in my twenties, [Gotch], 57 years old, crawled into the ring and said, ‘Let me show you what I mean.’
"He went from one arm all the way across my body, my legs, my back, everything. It was the most I’ve ever been in pain! He said, ‘That’s what it’s supposed to feel like!’ And that was it. He taught me a lot. Karl Gotch and the Great Malenko."
Once Perez received his Doctorate in Stretchology from Gotch University, he headed off to make his wrestling bones in the territories.
Al Perez bounced around quite a bit, initially working in New Brunswick, Canada, followed by stays in California, Ohio (for the Fullers), Florida (also for the Fullers as part of the Continental Wrestling Alliance), as well as Joe Blanchard’s San Antonio-based Southwest Championship Wrestling. Here, Luke Williams (of Sheepherders and Bushwhackers fame) befriended Perez and ultimately landed him a gig in New Zealand.
While wrestling there, Perez got his first taste of championship gold, winning the NWA British Empire/Commonwealth Championship on two occasions and the NWA Australasian Tag Team Championship with ‘Maniac’ Mark Lewin.
After returning to Texas for a spell, Perez ventured to Puerto Rico, where he struck gold once again, winning the World Wrestling Council (WWC) North American Heavyweight Championship and the WWC Puerto Rico Heavyweight Championship. He also captured the WWC World Tag Team Championship with Joe Savoldi as the New York Rockers.
Puerto Rico was where Al Perez would meet Playboy Gary Hart. Hart would profoundly influence Al’s career over the next several years.
The Profound Influence of Gary Hart
Gary Richard Williams (Hart) is one of the most prolific minds in the history of professional wrestling, having been a wrestler, manager, booker, and promoter. He even survived a 1975 plane crash involving Austin Idol, Bobby Shane, and Buddy Colt. Tragically, Shane perished in the crash.
Gary Hart took an immediate liking to Al Perez.
In his excellent book, My Life In Wrestling: With A Little Help From My Friends, Hart explains his thoughts on Perez.
"There was a young wrestler I met during my travels in Puerto Rico named Al Perez," Hart began,
"Al and I became good buddies and hung out at the pool. When I became the booker, I contacted Al and brought him into World Class, where I managed him. Al Perez was magnificent. He was the most gifted athlete of anyone I had ever managed and was trained by Karl Gotch- a real hooker and shooter.
"Al knew how to wrestle, was in fabulous condition, and was the most gorgeous creature that ever stepped into a wrestling ring. We had to beat the women off with a stick!
"Even though the women loved him, he was a great heel, because he had a mean, vicious streak in him. He was the sweetest guy in the world – unless you flipped his switch. That came across in his work, and the people knew that he was a bad dude.
"When he became the World Class Champion, people believed it. He carried the belt well and made an excellent champion.
"Perhaps more importantly, though, was that he never got into the drug scene. He didn’t even smoke. He might have a [drink] occasionally, but he took no steroids at all. He was completely and absolutely drug-free."
It doesn’t get any better than that in terms of receiving the ‘rub’ from a wrestling legend.
The Latin Heartthrob and His WCWA World Heavyweight Championship
In World Class, Al Perez turned heel and became "The Latin Heartthrob," managed by Hart.
On August 21st, 1987, just two days shy of his 30th birthday, Al Perez captured the coveted World Class Wrestling Alliance (WCWA) World Heavyweight Championship (by forfeit) from reigning champion Kevin Von Erich.
Although Perez did not win the championship in the ring, he held the title for 198 days, one of the longest reigns of anyone in the history of the territory without the last name of Von Erich.
The Heartthrob eventually dropped the belt to Kerry Von Erich on March 6th, 1988. He and Mr. Hart were about to embark on their next journey. Destination: Jim Crockett Promotions.
Things Begin to Misfire for Al Perez
So, let’s do a quick inventory before moving on, shall we?
A legitimate athlete (high school wrestler); outstanding physique; model-like good looks; trained by the very best (Malenko and Gotch); an excellent moniker (The Latin Heartthrob); many regional titles, and a six-month world title reign in a fairly major (albeit not one of the big three) territory. And to boot, a partnership with Gary Hart, one of the very best in the business.
So far, this rocket has flown a perfect trajectory towards the stratosphere.
Eight days after Al Perez dropped the WCWA belt, Gary Hart and the Heartthrob were in Atlanta for a Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) TV taping. In his first appearance for the company, Al got the win over Tony Suber.
Al was booked strong for several months, losing only in tag team matches or disqualification (mainly to Nikita Koloff). Here is where the Hearthrob Express began to misfire.
A point worth noting is that Perez and Hart went to Jim Crockett Promotions at the behest of Dusty Rhodes. Dusty, at this time, was the main booker for JCP.
Al Perez’s Challenges Under New Wrestling Booker
Just so we are all on the same page, here is a quick definition of the wrestling term "booker" (courtesy of Wikipedia): "The person in charge of setting up matches and writing angles is a "booker." It is the wrestling equivalent of a screenwriter. A booker can also be described as someone who recruits and hires talent to work in a particular promotion."
Al rolled through 1988, with victories over Ron Simmons, Jimmy Garvin, and Brad Armstrong. He took "The Russian Nightmare" Nikita Koloff to the limit on many occasions. But like many others, Al happened to be in the right place at the wrong time.
In late 1988, Ted Turner purchased Jim Crockett Promotions. Management changes are quite commonplace during corporate takeovers, and one of the casualties, in this case, was Dusty Rhodes, who was forced to give up the ‘book.’
Unfortunately for Al Perez, the new booker* did not share Rhodes’ opinion of The Latin Heartthrob. Perez had been booked against reigning WCW champion Ric Flair at the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, a stone’s throw from Al’s digs in Tampa. Flair was booked to go over clean, much to the dismay of Perez.
Two Perspectives on the Al Perez and Ric Flair Match
What follows next are two versions of the ensuing events, one from Al’s shoot interview with Hannibal TV, the other from Gary Hart’s book.
"Dusty was out, and Flair was friends with the booker, and he was the world champion. The new booker wanted to build him back up, and I was the only one he hadn’t beat.
I walked into the office, it was my turn, and the new booker said, ‘Hmm, I see something in you, but I don’t know what it is.’
Well, the next thing you know, I was booked with Flair.
I told Flair, ‘I will put you over anywhere, everywhere, any time, but I will not let you beat me at home. I’m coming back to Florida, Dusty’s opening the territory here again, and I’m going to work at home.’
Ric said, ‘No problem, I understand.’
He beat me in all the towns up until Florida. When it came to St. Pete, I told him in the dressing room, and he said, ‘We’ll do a double DQ.’
I agreed and said thank you.
The booker came over twenty minutes later and said, ‘How do you figure my world champion beating you is going to hurt you?’
I said, ‘It’s not.’
He said, ‘Good.’
I said, ‘Because he’s not going to beat me.’
He said, ‘If you’re not going to let him beat you, I don’t need you.’
So I said, ‘Okay, goodbye.’
Gary Harts Perspective
"Eventually, I pushed for Al Perez to get a run with NWA Champion Ric Flair. Dusty booked a couple of matches between them, and things started off well until Kevin Sullivan approached me with a serious issue.
‘We have a potential problem,’ Kevin said. ‘Al told me he’s planning to stretch Ric and take his belt during his match at the Bayfront Arena in St. Petersburg, Florida.’
I figured Al must have been kidding around and that Kevin took him seriously, so I brushed it off. But, to be sure, I asked Al if he really said that. To my disbelief, Al confirmed it.
‘Ric can’t wrestle, and I can,’ he told me. ‘The Bayfront Arena will be the perfect place to do it. I’ll take that belt from him, and if they want it back, they can give me a big fat contract.’
That was Al’s mindset, and I couldn’t talk him out of it, no matter how hard I tried. His taking Ric’s belt was non-negotiable, and it put me in a real bind. I was always loyal to my talent- but there’s a limit.
Al Perez was looking to sabotage an NWA World Title match that I fought for him to get. I knew I had to do what was right for the business, so I told Al that I couldn’t be a part of his scheme.
Then, I found Kevin and confirmed what Al had told him. Kevin told me not to show up at the Bayfront Arena for their match and that the office would handle it.
Consequences and the End of a Partnership
I obviously wasn’t there that night, but from what I understand, Al entered the ring, and his whole family was there. He was a Florida boy, and the Cuban community turned out to support him.
As he stood in the ring, Doug Dellinger, the head of security, went down and told him to get out of the ring.
It was then announced that there was a clause in the contract that said that I had to be in Al’s corner, or the contract wasn’t valid, and since I wasn’t there, the match couldn’t go on.
They finally got Al out of the ring. Eddie Gilbert came in to wrestle Ric that night, and they fired Al on the spot.
Al called me as soon as he got home, wondering why I didn’t show up, adding, ‘I thought we were partners.’
‘Yes, we were partners,’ I said. ‘However, I didn’t condone what you wanted to do, and I made that very clear with you. I’m sorry you lost your job, and if there’s anything I can do to help you in the future, please don’t hesitate to let me know.’
We left it at that and went our separate ways. It was an unfortunate ending to a great partnership."
It was the ultimate example of ‘he said, he said.’
Regardless of whose version of the story you believe, Al Perez needed a new location to ply his craft.
Life After Controversial Exit from Jim Crockett Promotions
Fortunately for The Heartthrob, Dusty Rhodes had returned to Florida in an effort to re-ignite the once legendary Florida territory.
Renamed the Professional Wrestling Federation (PWF), the territory was founded by Steve Keirn and Mike Graham, with Gordon Solie, the dean of professional wrestling announcers, calling the action.
No stranger to gold, The Latin Heartthrob once again found himself a champion, capturing Graham’s PWF Florida Heavyweight Championship on March 11th, 1989. Perez would hold the title for 73 days before dropping the belt to Dustin Rhodes.
Disappointment in WWE
After a brief stop back to Texas for World Class, The Heartthrob Express landed in the then World Wrestling Federation.
Unlike his stint at Jim Crockett Promotions, Al received, at best, a lower mid-card push.
Although he compiled wins over Paul Roma, Barry Horowitz, and George South, Perez found himself on the short end of the duke against Boris Zhukov, Hercules, and Koko B. Ware.
Al conveyed his disappointment to WWE management. Al felt that between his looks, physique, and in-ring ability, as well as his prior history of winning regional titles, his placement on the card should have been much higher.
At this time, the WWE was very much gimmick-based. Ax and Smash (Demolition), Honky Tonk Man, The Million Dollar Man, Hercules, The Bushwhackers, and Bad News Brown, amongst many others, graced WWE rings around the world in 1989. Although Al Perez had the ‘Latin Heartthrob’ moniker, he used his real name and wore very basic ring gear.
When management suggested that he shave his head and upgrade his black and white attire for something more colorful, Al resisted. In his mind, he had quickly risen to the top of the card everywhere he had wrestled without a gimmick. Why should the WWF be any different?
The Squash Match Standoff: The End of Al Perez’s WWF Career
Al eventually met with Pat Patterson, Vince McMahon’s right-hand man at the time.
During the meeting, Patterson allegedly commented on Perez being able to go ‘both ways.’ Perez assumed that Patterson was referring to sexual proclivities, while Patterson maintained that he was referring to working as a heel or babyface.
Perez stood up and kicked the table Patterson was sitting at, kicking his fledgling WWE career to the curb.
Shortly after this meeting, Perez was asked to put over the reigning WWF Champion Ultimate Warrior in a squash match. Al refused, which effectively squashed his career in the WWF.
His last recorded match in the company was a victory over Jim Powers on July 23rd, 1990. You can view this match below:
Al would go on to the Global Wrestling Federation and several tours of Japan, but his allure as a major wrestling attraction was clearly on the decline. He retired in 1994, at the very young (in wrestling terms) age of 37.
Looking Back on the Wrestling Career of Al Perez
By no means can it be said that Al Perez had a lackluster wrestling career. Although he never reached the pinnacle in either of the two major promotions (JCP/WCW and the WWF), he was a main event star in several territories, including a six-month world championship title reign in WCCW.
What can one say if the ‘can’t miss’ prospect has a 10-year career and retires with a .261 batting average?
On the one hand, anyone who plays at the major league level for a decade clearly is a good ballplayer. But, if they retire with an average closer to the Mendoza Line (baseball jargon for a sub-.200 batting average) than what was predicted for them, were they a disappointment?
Such is the conundrum for The Latin Heartthrob.
And although Al Perez may have failed to reach his full potential as a professional wrestler, it appears by all accounts that he has achieved superstardom as a husband and father.
Al’s marriage is nearing the 40-year mark, which is virtually unheard of in the wrestling game.
Perez has also been working for UPS in Tampa for over a quarter-century.
The man who could never seem to find permanence in wrestling indeed has appeared to hit the mark in the game of life.
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