Two incidents from my life still stand out in my mind today as defining moments for me. The first was all too real, and the second (which was also "real") started to open the doors to me of how the business worked. I learned from both of these incidents thanks to being able to take family vacations when school was not in session.
As a child, my only passion was professional wrestling. I read all the magazines, subscribed to some newsletters, and watched every television show that even remotely dealt with professional wrestling. Books about wrestling were almost non-existent at that time (1970's), and I treasured my mail-order copy of Joe Jares' Whatever Happened To Gorgeous George? When February or April rolled around, I always begged my parents to consider a vacation to someplace that was outside of the WWWF territory. I didn't care if I went to Disneyworld or not-as long as I had the chance to watch Championship Wrestling from Florida. I would be happy going to Oklahoma, if it meant I would get to see Tri-State Wrestling. I was hooked.
February 20, 1975: My parents decided to go to Orlando so that I could experience the wonders of Disneyworld, Sea World, Busch Gardens in Tampa and Cypress Gardens. I wanted to watch Jack Brisco. After a long day where my Dad got into a fight with the rental car representative, and yelled at me for asking why Orlando had pawn shops and strip clubs on almost every corner (I was almost eleven and wondered about the world), we had finally settled into the "5-star" hotel, that turned out to be 5-star quality…for roaches. I was watching television, hoping to see an ad for a nearby wrestling card.
The News came on and as I was about to turn the channel, I heard the reporter mention "…famous professional wrestlers involved in a plane crash." I sat glued to the set wondering who they could be. When the reporter named Ron Read, Dennis McCord, Gary Williams and Robert Shoenberger (pronounced "Shane-burger"); I had no idea of whom he spoke! I read all the magazines and had never heard of those guys…until the reporter stated that the men were better known as Buddy Colt, Mike McCord, Gary Hart and Bobby Shane. I was about to call my Dad over to the set when the reporter then stated, "All of the wrestlers suffered serious injuries. Mr. Shoenberger was pronounced dead at the scene."
Thud. Dead? Wrestlers didn't die! They were superhuman! They always came back week-after-week from terrible beatings. They couldn't just…die. Could they? Reality.
They could and they did. My parents decided that going to a wrestling show on that particular trip was a definite no. In retrospect, it was a wise decision. Reports came later that when Shane's death was announced at cards held that week, fans actually cheered the news (so hated was Shane and his "King of Wrestling" gimmick). I think that if I had been present for that, I probably would have stopped being a wrestling fan.
The second incident occurred a few years later-again on vacation-this time in Hawaii. It was April of 1977, and I had just come from watching Ken Patera "break" Billy Whitewolf's neck with his dreaded swinging neck breaker hold. By this time, I knew that wrestling was usually a work, but some things still made me believe. The Whitewolf angle was one of those things. Not long after the angle had aired, my Dad and I went to a local WWWF show where the main event was Whitewolf vs. Patera. Before the main event started, the ring announcer stated that Whitewolf's injuries were so severe that he had been forced to retire from wrestling. In his place, Chief Jay Strongbow would wrestle for his fallen brother. The match was a brawl with the Chief uncharacteristically choking out Patera until he was disqualified. I walked away believing Whitewolf had been legitimately put out of the business. After all, wrestlers always came back from injuries...except this time.
So, move ahead a few years and my family and I are in Hawaii on the big island of Hilo. It was late night and I was flipping channels when BAM! There it was. Ed Francis Presents Big Time Wrestling!! I saw Ripper Collins, Phil Watson, Nick Bockwinkel vs. Andre the Giant (in a match where Andre sold having his hand broken…I had never seen Andre sell ANYTHING before!!). They went to the interview segment and Lord James Blears called out a new arrival and an old friend to Hawaii for an interview. Billy Whitewolf.
Okay...wait a minute. Weren't you crippled just a week ago?
Whitewolf gave a standard babyface promo, never once mentioning Ken Patera, Jay Strongbow or the WWWF. He stated that he had just returned from a tour of Australia. AUSTRALIA?!!! Wait a minute! I *knew* that wasn't true!! What in the heck was going on here? Welcome to the reality of fantasy. Something wasn't right.
Years later I learned the truth. Whitewolf (Adnan Al-Kaissie), and Strongbow (Joe Scarpa) simply hated each other. Whitewolf hated Strongbow so much that he quit in the middle of their reign as WWWF Tag Team Champions. He walked away from the big money crowds of the major East Coast cities. Whitewolf had been friends with Ken Patera for years and asked him to do an angle whereby he could walk away from the territory without causing uproar. Hence the broken neck angle, which made Patera an even more feared heel, and ironically resulted in some major paydays for Strongbow as he sought revenge at every house, hall, and arena in the territory. The Whitewolf incident gave me my first glimpse at the facts that not only were matches worked-but so were some of the "friendships" as well.
The Aftermath: Gary Hart continued on with his career and became one of the most respected managers, bookers and creative minds in the business. Hart died in March, 2008. After an aborted comeback, Dennis McCord disappeared for several months and came back 75 pounds lighter, with a new name and a new image-Austin Idol. Buddy Colt was forced to retire from wrestling in ring as a result of his injuries. He managed, did commentary and worked in the office of CWF for many years until retiring completely. As of the date of this article (July 15, 2014) Colt-now using his real name of Ron Read-is alive and well running several businesses in the greater Tampa area.
Billy Whitewolf worked the Hawaii territory and did a European tour before ending the character. While in England, Adnan created his Sheik character-that of the incredibly oil-wealthy Iraqi. As Sheik Adnan, he had massive success in the AWA, and did a final run in the WWF with the turncoat Sgt. Slaughter under the name "General Adnan". Al-Kaissie retired not long after the WWF run ended and currently lives in Minnesota.
Thanks for reading.
By Harry Grover
As unique content strictly for the Professional Wrestling Historical Society