Indelible memories. These are the memories that stay with you over decades. Sometimes they are good memories that make you smile. Often, they are embarrassing memories that make you winch long after the event ended. Then, there are those indelible memories upon which your perspective changes as time passes. This is one such memory of mine.
Late-1974, and I am just turned 10-years-old. I do okay in school, but have no friends and most of the time; I prefer it that way (despite the growing concerns of my parents). My one and only interest, obsession rather-is professional wrestling. Since 1968, I have been hooked. My parents are somewhat nonplussed by my single-minded fanaticism, but my Dad likes to watch the WWWF shows with me on the weekends-those shows make him laugh (which is a rarity in our home). My Mom, while not particularly enamored of the wrestling that I love, often tells me stories about when she was in her twenties, watching Argentina Rocca and Don Eagle on television. So, while my obsession does disturb my parents a little, they allow me to indulge in it as long as I keep my grades high in school.
I have a collection of wrestling magazines that take up the entire space of my bedroom closet. They are from any and every publisher that I can find, though because I was raised in New England, they are top heavy in the Weston publications, known colloquially as "Apter mags". (Years later, when I discover that 90% of what was printed in the Weston publications was fiction, I will systematically burn or shred every, single issue that I own in anger…feeling ripped off). On my walls are posters and photos of all the wrestlers that I like. The wall is adorned with Bruno Sammartino, Sonny King, Killer Kowalski, but most of all Chief Jay Strongbow. He (like many children and adults in the WWWF territory of the 1970's) is my all-time hero. Bruno was the Champion and we loved him, but Strongbow was OUR champion. I live and die week in and week out following Strongbow's exploits. I hope that soon he will find a way to regain the tag team titles-especially considering that they are owned by the Valiant Brothers. The Valiant Brothers are evil. They are not evil because they are managed by that goofball, Lou Albano; they are not evil because they took the WWWF Tag Team Titles from my favorite team-Tony Garea and Dean Ho; they are not even evil because they are bad guys and cheat. No. The Valiant brothers are evil because one-half of that team is made up of Handsome Jimmy Valiant.
I remembered Handsome Jimmy. He used to be called Gentleman Jimmy when he first came to the WWWF. He was young, muscular and never EVER broke a rule…ever! He was a partner to Chief Jay Strongbow. They were great and they were going to take the tag team titles from King Curtis and Baron Scicluna-no doubt. But that never happened. Jimmy turned on the Chief. He stabbed him in the back and took up with the Grand Wizard and Beautiful Bobby Harmon. So Jimmy was evil. If Johnny Valiant was with Jimmy, then he was evil too. Returning to late-1974, a new guy has just entered the WWWF. He is an old friend of Bruno's. I vaguely remember him from when I first started watching wrestling. But I don't recall much. However any friend of Bruno's had to be a great guy, so I welcomed Spiros Arion into the fold with open arms.
BACKGROUND: Arion had indeed made a splash in the WWWF in the late-1960's. He won the International Tag Team title three times, with partners Antonio Pugliese (also known as Tony Parisi), Arnold Skaaland, and Bruno Sammartino. In 1970, he disappeared from wrestling as far as we knew. In actuality, he was working for promoter Jim Barnett in Australia and making a fortune, as well as becoming something of a legend in Australian wrestling history. For the remainder of his North American career, Arion would divide his time between the WWWF and Australia.
Arion was cast as a good guy. He had a great finisher called at first "The Hot Seat", but later changed to the more familiar "Atomic Drop". (Interestingly enough, when Arion returned to the WWF years later to challenge Bob Backlund, announcers Vince McMahon and Bruno Sammartino played the angle that Arion had "stolen" his finisher from Backlund, in order to make Backlund look better. It didn't work.)
Although he was cast as a hero, Arion did a few things that just didn't seem to fit the mold. In one of his first interviews after making his return to the territory, he stated that he was glad to be back in the WWWF, and hoped to soon gain a shot at the Heavyweight Championship. This was a little strange as Arion and Sammartino were friends, and it was well known that Bruno rarely took on babyface challengers. Another somewhat strange issue with Arion was that he bragged on interviews about never having lost a singles match in the United States. That type of speech was more akin with a heel than with a hero.
In retrospect, with the aid of experience, maturity and time, it is easy to see that Arion was being set up for a heel turn. Unlike today's turns, this one took a lot of time to develop and was done slowly and subtly. In total, from Arion's return to the territory, to the actual heel turn itself, 8 months elapsed.
As 1974 turned to 1975, Arion was teamed with Chief Jay Strongbow. They made a terrific team and mowed down all their competition. I was excited, because I could foresee those evil Valiant Brothers getting whipped for the tag team titles, and Chief Jay gaining long-sought for revenge on Jimmy Valiant. It was guaranteed to happen! But then things went off the tracks a bit.
Arion was wrestling Killer Kowalski in a TV match. Kowalski had Arion in a dangerous spot and was cheating-trying to injure Arion (based on the frantic call of Vince McMahon on play-by-play). Suddenly, Arion's friend and partner, Chief Strongbow rushed the ring and gave Kowalski a beating-driving him out of the arena. Strongbow had saved the day!
But Arion was not happy. Far from being happy, he was irate and was pushing Strongbow all over the ring and screaming at him. When Vince got Arion to come over to the cameras for an interview, Arion apologized for losing his temper, but related that because of Strongbow's interference in his match; he had just lost the first singles match of his career in North America.
As the weeks passed, little things began to be notable whenever Strongbow and Arion were teaming. Arion wanted to be tagged in to work more of the match-even insisting on being tagged when Strongbow was in the middle of his war dance and making a comeback. Several times, Arion would leave the ring in disgust before their match was even finished.
Again, in retrospect, what I was seeing was a beautifully crafted angle that would lead to Arion turning heel. The subtlety that was put into this angle makes heel turns of the last 30 years pale by comparison. But at that period in time, all my ten-year-old self knew was that Arion wasn't happy about something. BUT, they were finally going to get their title shot next week on television! All would be right when they were declared the new WWWF tag team champions!
Next week arrived and I was totally ready to see the evil Valiants dethroned. Oddly enough (but a pleasant surprise nonetheless), the WWWF Champion-Bruno Sammartino had agreed to sit with Vince McMahon to do commentary for the title match. Sammartino rarely made television appearances and he had never (at that time) done color commentary. Bruno put over how much he respected Strongbow and Arion, and how far back as friends he and Arion went in time.
The match started and at first, the Valiants were on the ropes. Arion and Strongbow were working perfectly together. But then a mishap occurred. As Arion was climbing out of the ring, Strongbow was knocked off-balance and stumbled into Arion, knocking him off the apron of the ring to the floor.
In a rage, Arion re-entered the ring. Instead of attacking the Valiants, however, he turned his wrath on Strongbow!!! He beat Strongbow down until Strongbow was lying supine on the mat. As he continued to kick the fallen Chief, Sammartino stated that he was going into the ring to see if he could calm his friend, Arion.
When Sammartino entered the ring, Arion backed off and allowed Sammartino to check on Strongbow. When Bruno went down to one knee, Arion attacked HIM from behind! Ripping Sammartino's shirt and stomping him until a cadre of wrestlers rushed the ring, Arion had just made one of the most effective and most dramatic heel turns in WWWF history.
I was stunned, simply stunned. I couldn't understand why a simple bump had turned Arion into a raging warrior. Why did he attack Bruno too? Bruno was only trying to help! Weren't they old friends? I decided that maybe it was all a mistake of anger in battle and hoped that next week they would patch their differences.
The next week on television, Arion came out to explain himself. But he didn't come alone. With Arion came "Classy" Freddie Blassie. Arion announced that he finally had a man he could trust in Blassie (Blassie?!! TRUST?!!!!) Arion stated that he was tired of being disrespected and ignored. His first and only order of business was to take the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship away from his ex-friend Sammartino. When questioned about Strongbow, both Arion and Blassie made it clear that Strongbow was a non-entity. He was no concern of theirs. They were after Sammartino.
At that point, Strongbow rushed to the ring and began pummeling Arion. Blassie interfered and in the chaos, Strongbow became entangled in the ropes. Arion went outside the ring, grabbed Strongbow's sacred ceremonial headdress…and began tearing it to shreds. With each tear, Arion would stuff the feathers in Strongbow's mouth, down his trunks, and throw the remainder on the floor. By the time he was done, Strongbow was battered, bruised and in tears. Arion had destroyed an heirloom and literally had spit on him and his proud Cherokee heritage.
That was when I lost it. I started screaming the phrase that is the title of this article and ripping every picture of Spiros Arion that I had into small pieces. My parents, alarmed at the outburst came into my room to see what was causing me such stress. My Dad shook his head and said: "Oh Jeez-he's at it again!" and left the room. My Mom, who was always very wise in the subtlest of ways, said to me: "Hon, maybe you might want to not tear ALL of his photos. You never know-he might decide to be a good guy again." My Mom, the least inclined to favor wrestling in our house, had already proven that she was smarter than me and my Dad when it came to how professional wrestling worked.
Arion would continue to divide his time between the WWF and Australia until 1980. At that time he left both territories and headed to England to work for Joint Promotions. He was introduced to British fans as "The Iron Greek", and also as the "Mountbatten World Heavyweight Champion". When he dropped the title, Arion retired from wrestling. He moved back to his native Greece, where (as far as we can tell) he still resides today.
Strongbow would continue to be a mainstay of the WWF for the rest of his career. He would occasionally work other territories (most memorably Detroit and Georgia) where he would reprise the angle of getting his "sacred headdress" destroyed with Don Kent in Detroit, and Ernie Ladd in Atlanta. Strongbow would retire from the ring shortly after the WWF expanded to a national promotion. Strongbow worked for over a decade for the WWF as a road agent before quietly retiring. The famous Cherokee (who actually an Italian from New Jersey) died in 2012.
Indelible memories. Years and years later, after I became more educated as to how and why wrestling does what it does, I looked back to that time in the Summer of 1975, when Arion made his heel turn. Now, instead of being outraged at his act of betrayal, I was instead admiring the artistry that was executed by everyone involved in the angle from the announcers, to the wrestlers to even the ring attendants. Even to this day, when someone wants me to "explain" wrestling to them and why I still enjoy it after so many years. I inevitably use the Arion heel turn angle as a point of example. It was wrestling perfection.
But back then…I HATED HIM!!!!
By Harry Grover
As unique content strictly for the Professional Wrestling Historical Society