MOONEYHAM COLUMN: Memories golden for Mr. Wrestling No. 2
More than three decades have passed since John Walker has heard those nightly roars from the crowd that would get his blood pumping and adrenaline flowing.
Rabid fans would explode into chants of “Two! Two! Two!” as the white-masked hero set his opponent up for his signature, running “million-dollar kneelift.”
Nowadays, at age 79, Walker’s physical feats are but a distant memory, but the cheers from those adoring fans who idolized the man known as Mr. Wrestling No. 2 remain golden.
While Walker admits his memory might be fading, the rush he got from his days in the wrestling business will be with him until the day he dies.
“You just don’t forget something like that,” he says. “It was a wonderful time. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Walker hopes to relive some of those magical memories as a featured guest at this summer’s Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest Weekend from Aug. 1-4 at Hilton University Place Hotel in Charlotte.
That weekend, he says, can’t get here soon enough.
“It’s fantastic. I can’t wait to get there,” says Walker, whose alter ego as Mr. Wrestling II catapulted him to the hierarchy of the profession during the ‘70s and early ‘80s.
While Walker is eagerly looking forward to his Charlotte return, he hopes to leave this time in a little better shape than he departed nearly three years ago.
“Yes, for God’s sake, yes,” he laughs.
But it wasn’t a laughing matter when he suffered a heart attack during the final day of the 2010 event, just two days after being inducted into the Mid-Atlantic Legends Hall of Heroes, and was hospitalized for several weeks.
“It was the first heart attack I had ever had, and I didn’t even know I had it then. I had a hard time breathing, but I didn’t have any pain,” he recalls.
Walker says he was sitting on the edge of his bed when a friend from Atlanta called to say hello and ask how he was doing.
“I’m doing fine except for the fact that I can’t breathe,” Walker told his friend, who immediately hung up the phone and called the emergency room of a nearby Charlotte hospital.
Before Walker knew it, he was being carted off to a medical facility across the street.
“You’ve had a heart attack, young man,” emergency technicians informed Walker.
“I had never been ill in my life ... at least not that kind of ill,” says Walker, who thought the EMTs had to be kidding.
They were deadly serious, though, and Walker spent the next few weeks hospitalized, waiting for a kidney problem to clear up before he could undergo a triple bypass.
“The doctor said they were going to take good care of me. I told him it was a good thing they were, because I was going to come after him if he didn’t,” Walker laughs. “He thought that was funny as heck. But he did a fantastic job.”
“I’m doing well now, I’m feeling great, and I just walked in the door from the gym,” says Walker, who still works out four times a week.
While he tries to exercise as often as he can, he’s not quite ready to execute a running knee lift.
“I don’t think so. I think I hung that up a few years back.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t miss being around professional wrestling.
“I really miss those fans. Truly I do.”
Walker waxes nostalgic as he looks around his home and sees his many plaques and trophies on display.
“It reminds me of the good days,” he says. “The fans made my day. They were true fans. I remember being at an event and the crowd starting that “Two! Two! Two!” thing. It brought tears to my eyes. It really did.”
And there’s no better fans, he says, than the ones in his old stomping grounds of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.
“The fans there are just unreal. They are true fans and I love them. I worship every dadgum one of them,” says the former 10-time Georgia heavyweight champion. “Charlotte, Charleston, Atlanta, all the way down through the South. Even in Florida. I got over in Florida like gang busters. The response was just unreal. I can’t say enough good things about them.”
Walker also has close ties to the Carolinas — especially Charleston.
“I was born right there in Charleston, South Carolina, at the old St. Francis Hospital. That’s how I got my middle name,” says Walker, whose middle name is Francis.
Walker isn’t sure how long he lived in Charleston since he was only a toddler when his family moved.
“My dad was in the Marine Corps, so we bounced around quite a bit,” says Walker, whose mother is buried in Charleston.
Being a Marine brat, Walker bounced around quite a bit during his early years. He spent most of his life in Hawaii, having moved there in the late ‘40s before leaving in 1958 to go on the road. He returned to Honolulu in 1989 after retiring from the wrestling business and has lived there ever since.
Tale of two careers
Walker, who came up through the amateur ranks, began his pro career in Hawaii where he wrestled sumo-style for three years.
“That was my first go-around in the wrestling business. I got thrown through the air with the greatest of ease by this monster sumo wrestler,” he recalls.
What’s fascinating about Walker is that he actually experienced two distinct careers — one as Johnny “Rubberman” Walker and one as Mr. Wrestling No. 2.
The transformation was nothing short of incredible.
For years Walker competed as a journeyman, going from one territory to another, never staying in one area for more than a few months at a time.
“That’s just the way the business was back then. Promoters didn’t want you to stay too long because you’d wear out your welcome. But it wasn’t bad. They treated me right and I did well. It was an experience I will never ever forget.”
Walker had basically gotten out of the wrestling business, buying a house and opening up a gas station in Kingsport, Tenn., when he got a call from Atlanta booker Leo Garibaldi.
“I was sort of semi-retired, but I was kind of crazy to do that,” says Walker. “Leo called me on the phone one day and told me he had a spot for me. I asked him what he was talking about.”
Garibaldi explained that he had a wrestler by the name of Mr. Wrestling (Tim Woods), and that he wanted me to come down and put a mask on.”
Walker told Garibaldi that he had tried a mask once in Florida, but had nearly gagged himself behind the hood.
“It’s something you’ve got to get used to,” says Walker, who was prodded into agreeing to give Garibaldi’s plan a shot.
“He gave me a guarantee, so I finally went to Atlanta and put the mask on.”
And the rest was history.
Sporting a white mask trimmed in black, Walker would become the top star on the nation’s first SuperStation, Channel 17 out of Atlanta, and would be a staple in Georgia for the next decade. Walker was so popular that even then-President Jimmy Carter called Mr. Wrestling No. 2 his favorite wrestler. Walker was invited to Carter’s 1977 inauguration, but declined the invitation upon learning that he would have to unmask, feeling that removing the hood would damage his mysterious aura.
He did, however, accept a personal invitation from the President’s mother, “Miss Lillian” Carter, to visit her at her home in Plains, Ga.
He arrived for the private visit with his mask.
“I always admired her for many reasons,” Walker says of Lillian, Carter, who passed away in 1983 at the age of 85. “She never, ever asked me to remove my mask. I respected that. We really enjoyed each other’s company. She was a great lady. It was quite a treat spending time with her.”
Walker can’t speak for very long without the mention of a man who, for years, served as his bookend in the wrestling business.
Rarely was there a Mr. Wrestling No. 2 without a Mr. Wrestling.
Tim Woods, his hooded predecessor, would play a big part in Walker’s success. The two would form one of the top teams in the business during the ‘70s, drawing sellout crowds to Atlanta’s Omni and throughout the Southeast for matches with such formidable teams as The Assassins.
“That’s where our careers actually started. We had a lot of fun,” says Walker.
With Woods the top star in Georgia during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Walker would assume that title for the rest of the decade. With Woods, by then working with and without the mask, the two would draw major business as both partners and rivals, including a series of 12 consecutive sellouts at Atlanta’s City Auditorium, culminating in a mask vs. hair match in which Woods had his head shaved.
Walker and Woods would become best friends as well as solid wrestling partners.
“Timmy and I were extremely close,” says Walker. “We never had a cross word with one another all the years that we were together. We got along better than brothers. He was a man that I looked up to and thought so much about. He also had a great sense of humor.”
Woods, says Walker, also was one of the smartest men he had ever met.
“I asked him one day, ‘What the hell are you doing wrestling?’ He said he loved it. And besides that he loved me too.”
“I said that makes us even.”
Woods, a three-time AAU national champion, died of a massive heart attack Nov. 30, 2002, at his home in Charlotte at the age of 68.
“Not only was he a great talent, he was a great man,” says Walker.
Walker smiles when thinking of his friend, and shares a story that still makes him laugh to this day.
“Timmy was very proud of his wrestling ability. And he should have been. I always told him he was the man when it came to wrestling,” says Walker.
“But one day I got him in the bathroom. I told him I would get down on my hands and knees, and I bet him that I could take him down. He laughed like hell.”
It would be Walker, though, who would get the last laugh in this exchange of mat maneuvers.
“I dropped down to my hands and knees, and he brought his leg up close to me,” relates Walker. “I thought to myself, ‘That’s a mistake.’ I reached over and grabbed him by his toe and I shot my elbow into his knee. I tipped him over and he fell into the latrine.”
The comical scene is still firmly etched in Walker’s mind.
“See there, I’m going to tell all the boys that I dumped you into the latrine,” Walker told the embarrassed Woods, laughing hysterically all the while.
“Don’t you dare! shot back Woods. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
“That’s exactly what I wanted,” replied Walker. “You weren’t supposed to be expecting it.”
All that amateur and college experience couldn’t help him on that occasion, Walker chuckles.
“But Timmy eventually laughed,” says Walker. “We really did have so much fun together. Our wives also got along great. We were very good together. I miss them all. I think about the good times that we used to have.”
‘Love of my life’
Walker’s great partnership outside the squared circle was with his wife, Olivia, a talented seamstress who designed exquisite costumes and ring robes for such wrestling stars as Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes and Paul Orndorff, as well as for celebrities such as Dolly Parton, Porter Wagner and Liberace.
“She was not only a tremendous seamstress, she was a tremendous woman,” says Walker. “She was the best woman you would ever want to meet. She was the love of my life and I think about her every day.”
The relationship lasted from 1962 until her passing in 2003.
“We hit it off for 43 years, brother,” says Walker. “She was absolutely unreal ... it was wonderful.”
Walker retired from the business not long after Vince McMahon’s national expansion in the mid-’80s.
He makes his home in the town of Mililani, a bedroom community for Honolulu, with the mountains and the ocean as scenic backdrops.
These days, says Walker, he’s facing life’s challenges as they come, taking things one day at a time.
“I kind of live day to day. It’s tough sometimes, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. The good Lord looks after me. He’s been taking care of me pretty darn good.”