The date was June 24, 1969. The venue was historic Grayson Stadium in Savannah, Ga.

Four months after one of the biggest “upsets” in professional wrestling history, newly crowned NWA world heavyweight champion Dory Funk Jr. was defending his title against a masked mystery man known only as The Professional.

The man behind the hood, Doug Gilbert, had undergone one of the most amazing transformations ever witnessed in the business. From a smallish-sized, high-flying performer to a powerfully built, 300-pound masked behemoth billed as The Pro, Gilbert's enigmatic character had taken the Georgia territory by storm.

Funk, who at 28 was one of the youngest world champs ever after defeating veteran Gene Kiniski for the crown, was new in the role of touring champion. His hooded foe had earned the title shot by turning back every opponent put in his path.

The massive crowd that assembled under the stars that evening had turned out for a special event featuring some of the top names in the sport.

But there was little doubt as to who was headlining the show.

Funk vs. The Professional more than lived up to its lofty expectations. It was textbook wrestling at its finest, with both men matching hold for hold, until the 60-minute time limit expired, leaving both the performers and the crowd exhausted following a classic confrontation.

The contest ended with the champ seemingly trapped in the challenger's abdominal stretch, with only the expiration of the one-hour limit saving him from defeat. Although The Pro wouldn't go home with the title that night, the match would only enhance his reputation in the territory.

It would be remembered as one of the greatest world title matches out of the hundreds I would witness over the years.

Funk, who held the title for a remarkable four and a half years, also remembers that special summer night in Savannah when both were in the prime of their careers.

“We have a saying, as world champion, part of the job is to 'make' an opponent every time out,” says Funk. “Doug was somebody who deserved it and could live up to it. And he did. He made lots of money in Georgia.

“To quote my brother (former NWA world champ Terry Funk), the important thing is that after you leave, business is good. That's a different way to look at the business. If Doug was better after the match than before the match, then that would thrill me.”

And he was.

While Funk, now 72, would remain in the wrestling business to this day, Gilbert would ride out his full-time career only into the late '70s, using other monikers and other gimmicks along the way. But he would never again approach the level of success that he had attained in Georgia during his memorable run as The Professional.

“As The Pro, he was hot,” says Funk. “He was really at his peak in Georgia during that time. He was a power worker who completely lived up to his reputation. He was a very skilled wrestling technician who never lost what he knew as a gymnast. The name 'The Professional' really fit.”

Gilbert, whose real name was Doug Lindzy, passed away last week at the age of 76 in his hometown of Omaha, Neb. He had battled Alzheimer's disease over the past few years.

Gilbert had always prided himself in good finishes in the wrestling ring. And when it was time to go home, he was just as graceful.

“He went out so peacefully,” his youngest son, Steve Lindzy, shared with Greg Oliver on the SLAM Wrestling website. “When he went out, at the very end, he opened his eyes and I kid you not, it was just pure unadulterated love. It was powerful, just boom.

“He looked at Mom, he looked at (son) Mike, he looked at (daughter) Terri, and he looked at me, and the eyes were just so full of love, and he closed them. And that was it. It was gorgeous.”

Athletic performer

One of Doug Gilbert's first major pushes in the business came in the early '60s as part of a tag team with Dick Steinborn.

Known as Mr. High (Gilbert) and Mr. Low (Steinborn) for their different styles — Gilbert as a high flyer and Steinborn for his ground approach — the popular babyface duo captured the AWA world tag-team title in 1962 from Art and Stan Neilson.

Relying on his gymnastics experience, Gilbert executed such aerial moves as back flips off the top rope, and jumping on an opponent's shoulders, then rolling forward into a cradle.

Gilbert would form another top team five years later with Reggie Parks, and the two would hold the AWA Midwest tag-team belts on three separate occasions.

But it was in 1968, when Gilbert ventured into the Atlanta territory, that he would make a lasting impact on Georgia wrestling fans as a masked man known as The Professional.

Gilbert was brought in by Atlanta booker Leo Garibaldi, and almost immediately turned the territory upside down.

“Essentially the territory was built around him,” recalls Funk. “There were other good guys, but Doug was the hot guy there. He was the top (drawing) card.”

Less than a year after entering the territory, and in the wake of some hotly contested bouts with then-NWA world champ Kiniski, The Pro would get his title crack at new champion Dory Funk Jr.

It wouldn't, however, be the first time the two had ever met.

Funk and Gilbert first crossed paths when Gilbert worked the Amarillo territory for Funk's father.

“He was very young when I first met him in Amarillo,” says Funk, who was first introduced to Gilbert before the second-generation star had even begun his own pro career. “He worked there as Doug Gilbert. He was heavily into gymnastics. He was maybe 19 or 20 years old. He was a very athletic performer.”

Nearly 10 years later, their paths would cross again, with Funk as a young world champion and Gilbert a top star under a hood.

Funk was amazed how much Gilbert had changed physically over the years.

“I know he was much bigger and much stronger than he was when he was in Amarillo,” says Funk. “But he was still a great worker.”

And, despite the marked weight gain, Gilbert could still perform the acrobatic and high-flying moves that he executed as a much lighter grappler.

Garibaldi, a highly respected booker, had brought Gilbert in, initially as a masked heel, along with a number of other top performers to give the territory a major boost.

“Take a look at my guys ... they all look like athletes,” Garibaldi told Funk.

“There really were some good-looking athletes there,” says Funk, “with Doug Gilbert the foundation around which he (Garibaldi) built the territory. They had the territory going real good, and he was the center of the territory. He was the heart of it. ”

As a new champion, Funk was embarking on a whirlwind tour during his Savannah title defense.

Funk, who routinely worked six to seven shows a week, had title defenses scheduled the following four nights against Cyclone Negro in Miami, Rock Hunter in Norfolk and Richmond, Va., and Abe Jacobs in Burlington, N.C.

But the match at Grayson Stadium had received plenty of buildup. Most of the fans even anticipated the end of Funk's title run.

It was early, though, in Funk's reign, and “it was a mystery every time I went in the ring against somebody. Doug was one of those,” says Funk.

“I had so much respect for him for what he did. He had done a great job in the Amarillo territory. He was such a great athlete. It was really a thrill to be able to walk in the ring and work with him. He was a good friend and a great guy to work with.”

Distinguished career

Gilbert, originally from South Bend, Ind., began his wrestling training by lifting weights and trying his hand at gymnastics in Chicago.

He changed his ring name from Doug Lindzy to Doug Lindsay and later Doug Gilbert when he began teaming with journeyman wrestler Johnny Gilbert (Gilbert Sanchez) as a faux brother team in Minnesota and Georgia in the late '50s.

His return to Georgia, a decade later with a mask, would be marked by an assortment of titles and headline matches. He held the Georgia state championship on several occasions, with wins over the likes of Tarzan Tyler, Johnny Valentine, El Mongol and Paul DeMarco. He shared the Georgia tag-team title with El Mongol, Assassin No. 2 and Bobby Shane.

Putting his mask on the line was a special stipulation that was often used as The Pro unmasked a number of fellow hooded performers such as The Spoiler (Mike Davis), Professional No. 2 (Paul DeMarco), The Blue Destroyer (Gene Kiniski), Big Tex (Stan Frazier) and The Red Demon (Cisco Gimaldo).

Gilbert also held the distinction of being one of the very first wrestlers to body-slam Andre The Giant. He accomplished the feat in Montreal, Canada, in 1972. Three years later he was touted as the first man to take Abdullah The Butcher off his feet during a TV taping in Atlanta.

Gilbert changed his Professional moniker to The Professor during a late 1971 stint in the Indianapolis circuit where he chased Baron Von Raschke for the WWA world title.

Gilbert once again changed his name, this time sans mask as Redbeard, during a tour of Florida the following year. There he feuded with such stars as Eddie Graham and Tim Woods, and with Mike Webster won the Florida tag-team title from Boris Malenko and Bob Roop.

Gilbert donned the mask once again in 1972 while wrestling as one of The New Infernos along with Curtis Smith. The two would win the Georgia tag-team title from Eddie and Mike Graham, later losing and re-winning the belts in a program with Mr. Wrestling No. 2 (Johnny Walker) and Bob Orton Jr.

His final major title was the Central States heavyweight championship which he won in 1978 from Bob Sweetan.

Gilbert wound down his full-time wrestling career in the late '70s, although he returned for a handful of bouts in the WWF during the mid-'80s.

He opened Doug's Gym & Fitness Center in South Omaha in 1980.

Gilbert, who held the Mr. America Over 35 title in the 1980s, “loved to work out and he loved to take care of himself. He loved health,” his son told the Omaha World-Herald.

Douglas Allan Lindzy leaves behind his wife of 40 years, Anne Marie, two sons and a daughter, along with a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

And a whole bunch of wrestling memories.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or mooneyham@postandcourier.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.