MOONEYHAM COLUMN: Father was inspiration for pro wrestling star Tiger Conway Jr.
Tiger Conway Jr. never forgot the advice his father gave him.
“Work is like taking care of a baby. You give it tender loving care. Don’t hurt that baby, and remember that the baby’s going to crawl before it talks or walks.”
Tiger Conway Sr. was alluding to the wrestling profession, and his words of wisdom were absorbed by a son who would learn by example and eventually follow his dad into the business.
Those words also would provide added impetus for Conway, a black man, to succeed in a business that was dominated by whites during a period when segregation wasn’t a distant memory.
Conway was one of wrestling’s young lions when he broke into the pro ranks during the early ‘70s. An athlete who could move like a cat and perform high-flying maneuvers effortlessly, Conway earned main-event status because of his ability in the ring and a strong connection to his fan base.
His father had been a longtime star in his home state of Texas, but young Conway had seen his dad scratch and claw to make a decent living for his family.
As a youngster he recalled his father coming home off the road, sometimes bruised and battered from a grueling match earlier that evening. But before the morning sun had time to rise, his dad was back on the clock, working a second job putting up fences.
“Everything was manual labor for my father. He was a very strong man,” says Conway.
His strong work ethic and family values endeared the elder Conway to some of the most respected men in the wrestling business.
“That’s why I think guys like Lou Thesz, Luther Lindsay and Danny Hodge were his close friends. I never heard anybody in the business say anything bad about him,” says Conway.
The youngster turned down athletic scholarships from several colleges, including the University of Nebraska, to pursue pro wrestling.
And he was really good at it.
Several years into his pro career, he got the call from Mid-Atlantic booker George Scott, who knew Conway’s dad and had seen Tiger Jr. begin his career in Houston while Scott was working in that territory.
Conway made an immediate impact in the Carolinas, which had become one of the hottest areas in the country, and never looked back.
It’s one of the reasons he’s excited to be making a return as a special guest at this summer’s Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest on Aug. 1-4 in Charlotte.
It will be Conway’s first time ever at Fanfest, and he is eagerly looking forward to the occasion.
“I’m so happy to be making the event,” he says. “I really wish I would have made the others, but I believe I’m happier at this time than ever before. I’m really looking forward to seeing all my fans.”
Conway, 59, held the Mid-Atlantic tag-team title on two occasions — with Paul Jones in 1974 and the late Dino Bravo in 1977. But he also enjoyed Mid-Atlantic tag-team runs with other top performers such as Ronnie Garvin, Swede Hanson and Steve Keirn.
“I had so many good times there with so many people,” says Conway. “I am very thankful for the support I received all those years I was there. I think about those fans a lot.”
Paying his dues
Conway broke into the business in 1971 and hit the mat running.
Within months of his pro debut in Houston, Conway found himself in India working against that country’s claimant to the world title. From there he continued on a whirlwind tour that included stops in Kansas City and Atlanta.
Conway, returning for another stint in his home state of Texas, also found himself paying his dues and doing the honors for some of the territory’s grizzled veterans.
“I was putting over all the old-timers like Mike Paidousis and Gorilla Marconi. Those guys wouldn’t let me do anything,” he says.
For a young and athletic upstart like Conway, serving as enhancement talent was discouraging.
“Those older guys would lock me down and hold me there for 20 minutes. I couldn’t even get up to do any spots. And then they’d beat me.”
The time would come, though, when Conway would not only be able to perform some of his athletic spots, but he’d execute them with near-flawless perfection.
He also would remember what his dad had told him.
“You must learn how to get over. But first, son, you must learn how to work.”
George Scott had worked closely with Tiger Jr. at the time, and he knew what a talent Conway would become in good time.
Conway told all the promoters the same thing.
“All I want to do is learn how to work. If you put me with these people I should learn something. Then you shouldn’t have any problems.”
“Guys like Lou Thesz, Jack Brisco and Danny Hodge would say the same thing,” he adds. “But they knew I was Tiger’s boy. They all let me know I was on my way.”
Conway grew up in Houston, smack dab in the epicenter of a pro wrestling universe that consisted of such famous names and power brokers as the Von Erichs and the Blanchards.
As a youth he remembers joking with some of his second-generation peers such as Tully Blanchard and the Von Erich boys. The difference, he notes, was that their fathers were promoters.
Blanchard, in particular, liked to spar with him in a game of one-upmanship. Tully’s dad was longtime San Antonio promoter Joe Blanchard, so Tiger obviously had to concede.
“Your dad doesn’t have a territory” was Blanchard’s usual retort, says Conway.
“But that only motivates you to work harder to become what you are on your own. It was given to him.”
There was no denying, though, that Conway’s father had earned tremendous respect over the years as a loyal and hard-working hand. He may not have been a promoter, but those promoters had seen him pay more than his share of dues.
Plasee Dennis “Tiger” Conway was born in 1932 near Shreveport, La., the son of parents who lived on a plantation owned by an African-American.
A pioneer who fought the racism that was prevalent in the South at the time, Conway began his wrestling career in a profession that allowed him to compete only in same-race matches, with some bouts promoted for the “World’s Colored Championship.”
Only as the remnants of segregation slowly dissolved would Tiger Conway Sr. be able to wrestle those outside his race. Billed in the ‘50s as the Texas Negro champion, he worked his way up the ladder as a top-flight performer and a wrestler to be respected — regardless of race.
“Some of the wrestlers would stay at our house,” recalls Tiger Jr. “It was funny to see my dad be so humble to the opposite race at the time of segregation as I was growing up.”
Many other talented black wrestlers who lived in the area never got the chance.
“They just quit. Some of them were my dad’s friends. They were athletic, but they just couldn’t make it while trying to support their families. They had to find a good job to take care of their families.
“Some of them just had such a bad feeling about being pushed to the back because they could not wrestle the white guys. They were trying to do it ... they just didn’t have enough power. They were licensed from day one by the state commission. I learned all of this, and it was drilled into me by so many wrestlers. And I learned that nothing was going to happen until a certain time.”
Conway knew that time would come. He just didn’t know when.
Young Conway excelled in athletics at an early age. He played baseball, football and any other sport he could find available.
The talented youth also was ambidextrous which, he laughs, would fool a lot of his wrestling opponents in later years. “I’d wrestle on one side and then go to the other. I was equally powerful on both sides.”
While Conway laments that amateur wrestling wasn’t offered in area schools at the time, he took on his share of would-be bullies who dared test the mettle of a pro wrestler’s son.
Conway jokes that he “drew a hell of a house” defending wrestling’s honor in his neighborhood.
“They wanted me to show them. And I just really wanted to go home. But my dad told me to take of myself, and then get back home. My mom would end up telling him that I had another fight ... that those kids were jumping on me again.”
Word quickly spread that young Conway was more than holding his own.
“Paul Boesch was gung-ho. They were telling him the stories. He was ready to book me the next week,” laughs Conway.
Conway never missed a Friday night wrestling show at the Sam Houston Coliseum where Boesch promoted. He also traveled with his dad whenever he could get out of school.
“We’d drive up to all of the towns and back to Houston where my dad had a fencing company,” says Conway. “That was his dream. He made one fence owner a millionaire.”
Conway’s interest in pro wrestling only increased as he grew older. With his dad in the business, he had a veritable who’s who of talented veterans to learn from. He absorbed things like a sponge.
“I asked those other wrestlers that my dad trained and that he worked with. But every time I met with one of those guys, they’d headlock me. I thought I was ready to wrestle. But they’d tell me, ‘Not yet kid.’”
It was, as his dad would say, all about building blocks.
After coming off the football field or basketball court, says Conway, his father would take him to the local coliseum to see how the ring itself was erected.
“It was all about the mechanics,” says Conway, “and the tools that go with it.”
And about the psychology of the business.
“Building a person up and then tearing him down. And then going over for the finish. These were the things that it took to be a successful professional wrestler. That’s what I carried. That’s what I would later try to instill in the guys I worked with.”
Wrestling in the Carolinas
Conway vividly remembers arriving in Charleston for the first time.
“The house was down. Johnny Valentine and myself brought it back up. But he just about beat me to death,” Conway laughs.
“I’ll also never forget the building (County Hall) or the promoter (Henry Marcus). What a promoter! I used to have so much fun with Mr. Marcus in the ring when he did the announcing. He would always pull his pants up, and we’d joke with him that what he needed to do was put all that money in the bank. He used to laugh at me every week. But what talent he had to deal with. We were quite a crew.”
Conway, who arrived in the Carolinas in 1974, says he considers towns like Charleston and Charlotte his “second home.”
“It was unbelievable. The people there were just so nice to us. I felt very respected in the Carolinas.”
Conway was one of the young lions back then.
“I learned from everybody,” he says.
Where the real learning took place, says Conway, was often outside the squared circle and on the long road trips that took the crew from one city to the next.
“You learn the highway. You learn the road. It never changes. You do this every week. That’s what it was, and that’s how it was. But what an experience it was working and riding with guys like Paul Jones and Wahoo McDaniel, and on the other side Johnny Valentine and Super Destroyer. It was really something.”
One of Conway’s favorite programs was with a young Ric Flair. The Nature Boy, just a couple years removed from Verne Gagne’s training school in Minnesota, was destined for greatness, and everyone knew it.
But, like other relatively green hands, he still had to earn his stripes.
“I told Wahoo McDaniel that Flair was still learning,” relates Conway. “I didn’t have a clue what was going on, but I had heard the gossip because (Verne) Gagne and (Joe) Blanchard were friends. I think he came away too fast from his training when they were grooming him to be champion.”
As a result, says Conway, he and Wahoo came up with a plan to help indoctrinate Flair by giving him his first cauliflower ear,
“I’m the one who started his cauliflower ear, and Wahoo’s the one who finished it,” laughs Conway. “ I feel like I’m the one who helped him on his way, and he knows it.”
Flair, says Conway, was a quick study.
“Flair got it. Whenever he turned around, he was with a top worker. You can’t go wrong that way. He was always ready to accept a challenge and step up.”
Conway would enjoy a memorable run with Flair, and one that included heat-drawing promos from both sides.
In one memorable interview designed to draw a big house at the next stop on the circuit, the brash and boastful Flair bellowed, “So this is how you pay me back, Tiger Conway Jr., even after I helped you get a job at the Waffle House in Charlotte!”
Conways chuckles at the fiery exchanges that went on between the two.
“They were hilarious. But I really liked working with Ric because he knew how to settle down. Ric wanted to learn everything he could about the wrestling game, and he turned out to be a hell of a worker. He was one of the best. He was groomed well. He had it all. No one else got it the way he got it. They pushed him to the top.”
As was the case with Flair, Conway was always more than willing to impart wrestling knowledge to those coming up the ranks.
In fact, he saw it as a duty, much like he had observed veterans like Lou Thesz helping him and others learn the ropes.
“The major satisfaction I got was that I gave something back,” he says.
Conway was always there to pass on advice to those willing to learn.
“If you had made that comeback last night five minutes earlier, this whole building would be redone next year,” Conway recalled telling a promising rookie.
He spoke from experience. He knew the kind of reaction a well-worked match could get along with some masterful storytelling in the ring.
“I’ve seen people jump out of their seats and take bumps,” he says.
“When Tom Prichard was a rookie, we tried to make him quit and think about something else. I wasn’t the only one. There were Chavo Guerrero, Wahoo, Scott Casey, all of us. Magnum ran away for us, and we finally caught him. But we were building his body and mind.”
“They were lucky to have us in that circle,” he adds. “These guys turned out to be great workers in a short period of time. Whoever they gave to us, by the time they finished watching us, they were ready to set the stage on fire. I feel so good about being one of the boys who helped those guys finally make it.”
Conway is not one to throw verbal jabs at anyone.
“It doesn’t help you or the other person,” he acknowledges.
But he can’t deny that racism was a part of the business, and that management was a tough nut to crack during the territorial days.
Some top talent, he admits, was overlooked. Some was favored over others.
“Top positions, top dollar, they got a shot at it. It (racism) played a big part because they (promoters) didn’t trust ... they really didn’t trust themselves. They went for all the deals, and then they changed all the deals.”
Conway had seen many talented black wrestlers before him fight for their spot in the business.
Luther Lindsay, who Lou Thesz called the greatest black wrestler ever, died at the age of 47 during a match at the Charlotte Park Center in 1972.
Lindsay, like Conway’s dad, had both spent time as Texas Negro champion.
Conway, who never got the opportunity to work with Lindsay, greatly admired the former intercollegiate wrestling champ and Golden Gloves boxer who had been an All-American guard at Hampton Institute in Virginia.
“When I did get a chance to wrestle there (Charlotte), I prayed then that I would someday be as great as Luther had been.”
There always seemed to be a glass ceiling.
Conway, one of five children (three sisters and a brother who died at birth), reflects on the long and hard road his dad traveled to make a name for himself.
Tiger Sr. had come off a plantation in Louisiana, where he shared a one-room sharecropper-style house with 10 brothers and sisters, with seven dollars in his pocket that he had earned from picking cotton.
Conway also recalls other black athletes “with necks like football helmets” who would work out with his dad by lifting railroad crossties as weights.
“They had exceptional ability,” says Conway, “but they never got the chance.”
His dad, who passed away in 2006 at the age of 74, instilled that same work ethic in him.
“The promoters knew it too. So many other black wrestlers before me had quit. But I’m not sure if they thought I would last that long. I could not let my mentors down. I could not let my father down. I could not let my family or myself down.”
For Conway, the key was to listen and to learn.
“I enjoyed the people I worked with no matter how the cards were dealt to me. I knew when to hold ‘em and I knew when to fold ‘em. The changes came at certain times around certain people. These guys knew each other very well. They knew how far to go. The new generation were the ones that you didn’t know. You had to get to know and learn.
“It’s not going to be me to talk about someone because I had great memories about this life. It wouldn’t do me any good to talk about my brothers. I am not jealous of anyone. I know how I like to be treated and what I want. Sometimes it went the other way, but after being turned down so many times, sooner or later something works. God makes sure things work right — and wrong also.”
For his dad, the son of a sharecropper, things definitely worked out.
A number of real estate investments made him a millionaire, even though he never moved out of Houston’s Fifth Ward. In 1995 the Texas Senate passed a resolution commending him on his wrestling career, calling him “a man of uncommon strength and talent.”
Conway reflects on his days in the business, and prefers to think about the positive times and the colorful characters he met along the way.
Unique individuals like Wahoo McDaniel.
“Wahoo was so good. He was a real technician. He had great respect for me, and I appreciated that. He was an incredible individual. I really admired his record and his background.”
Conway recalls a time in Lumberton, N.C., home of the Lumbee Indian tribe, when he and Wahoo had to “fight for our lives.”
“Wahoo said he didn’t think these people liked blacks or Indians,” laughs Conway. “And they made sure they let us know. I thought it was bad, but Wahoo told me if I thought that was bad, I needed to be over there where (heels) Flair and Valentine were.”
In addition to Mid-Atlantic tag-team title runs with Jones and Bravo, Conway held tag-team gold with a number of performers including Dusty Rhodes, Mr. Wrestling No. 2, Mike Graham, Kerry Von Erich, Bull Ramos, Jose Lothario and Iceman Parsons.
“I thank God I had such great partners,” he says. “I really enjoyed working with Paul Jones. He was one of the best and a very good worker. I learned from our team.”
Conway both teamed with and wrestled the late great Jack Brisco.
“Wrestling Jack when he was champion was a thrill. We worked a 30-minute match on Raleigh TV. He beat me with 30 seconds left. It was up and down. I’ll never forget it.”
Conway even got the chance to work heel later in his career when he teamed with Pez Whatley as The Jive Tones.
“It was something that Dusty (Rhodes) put together that I didn’t think would work. I just didn’t think the fans would buy that. But I really liked working heel. I knew if I was a heel, I was going to heat someone up. I wanted to be heel like Dick Slater. What a worker he was.”
Conway also recalls memorable road trips he took with the late Andre The Giant while listening to R&B favorites such as The Temptations and Johnnie Taylor.
“I love music. And I made Andre listen to music in my van. He would go to sleep listening to R&B. I had the stereo in his ear. But he liked it. He’d tell me, ‘I am so mellow now.’ I told him to listen for the beat.”
Then there was the time a patron at Swede Hanson’s nightclub issued a challenge to Conway.
The customer used a racial slur and told Hanson that he wanted to “whip” Conway.
Being a close friend of Conway, Hanson told the troublemaker to never again use that word in his bar, and that he could easily arrange for Conway to meet his detractor.
“Swede was my buddy. What a good man,” says Conway, who gladly accepted the challenge.
“He was in his car and saw me getting out of my car,” relates Conway. “When he rolled his window down, he got out of his car and started cursing me. I pushed the door on him and pushed him back into the car. He opened the door again and came out.”
The man uttered the words, “I can’t stand you,” even though he had never personally met Conway, and the finish came before he could complete his sentence.
“I headbutted him right in the nose,” says Conway. “He’s hollering and screaming, ‘My nose is broke ... my nose is broke!’ I told him to get back in his car. I then told Swede that there was some trash outside that he needed to be picked up. I knew it was over.”
An ambulance ended up picking up the pummeled patron.
Ironically, says Conway, the customer later returned to Hanson’s bar and profusely apologized for making a mistake, and asked Hanson to relay his apology.
Although Hanson banned him from the bar, Conway says Big Swede later gave him another chance, even hiring him to work there after he had turned over a new leaf.
“Swede and I did a lot of laughing going down the road. We had a lot of good times.”
Conway’s high-flying and acrobatic moves earned him a legion of fans.
He came up with his own signature spots, and also picked up a number of maneuvers from aerial artists such as Jose Lothario and Mil Mascaras.
“I flew all over the ring. I just added some little things to those spots that were Tiger.”
Conway possessed such leaping ability that he was able to dropkick performers with razor-sharp precision.
“I once dropkicked (Blackjack) Mulligan right in the mouth. They didn’t know I could jump like that.”
Conway says he learned to do back flips at swimming pools.
“Not many blacks can swim. I know that because I had to save a lot of them,” he laughs.
Conway recalls an incident at a pool involving Bob Roop, Bobby Shane, Bob Orton Jr. and himself.
“Bob Orton was shooting with me in the pool while our wives were taking sun. And I’m fighting for my life. Orton is sitting on top of my head. Every time I come up he pushes me down because he thought I couldn’t swim. But I showed him. I fooled him. We had some real fun back in those days.”
Today Tiger Conway Jr. is a successful businessman and a proud father of five who has been married to the same woman for more than four decades.
He says he fortunately heeded some sage advice from his father upon entering the mat ranks.
Informing his son of the high divorce rate among pro wrestlers, Conway Sr., who was happily married for 56 years, advised: “Always remember this. Your family is all you’re going to have one day. Family is so important. One day it’s going to mean so much to you when you don’t have them anymore.”
“I didn’t understand that at first,” says Conway. “I learned that as we traveled down the road back and forth every day. I understand it real well now.”
Fortunately he was able to avoid the pitfalls along the way. He says he owes a lot of his success to his wife.
“She gave me that power to do that. And I gave it back to her because she allowed me to wrestle. And now she’s worked for 33 years since we came back from Charlotte in 1979-80.”
Conway says his wife had attended the University of Houston as an accountant major, but she didn’t get the degree because they got married her junior year. She later received her real estate broker’s license from the women’s wrestling great Penny Banner (Weaver).
“My wife is smart. She got into this new industry (Automated Data Processing), she knew about it and she wasn’t concerned about it because money was no problem.”
Conway officially retired from the business in 1996, although the process had actually begun five years earlier. He did a number of overseas tours following runs with Mid-South/UWF and NWA/Crockett Promotions.
Then he got an offer from WWE owner Vince McMahon.
But Conway realized he would be used as talent enhancement. He knew he would be putting younger stars over and eventually transition into a job as a road agent.
He met with McMahon when WWE was in Houston for a Royal Rumble pay-per-view.
He turned McMahon down, he says, because he wanted to be with his children.
McMahon’s response, however, surprised Conway.
“Vince gave me the greatest compliment. He said, “What a choice. I had no idea that you’d be telling me that.’”
McMahon admired Conway for his stand, and it made the decision that much easier.
“There comes a time when you just have to sit back and regroup. Don’t punt yet. Just take a knee.”
Conway, who will be 60 soon, now has two sons and three daughters, ranging in age from 19 to 43, along with seven grandchildren. His children are all athletic, he says. One of his boys, Neiko Conway, is a top defensive back at Midwestern State University in Houston.
Conway never pushed his kids to play sports, but they were all natural athletes.
“I produced a lot of athletes. But no wrestlers.”
He started his own fence and construction business 12 years ago.
“All of my friends are successful ... in real life.”
Conway says he’s at a good place in life.
“I’m more of a man than I ever was. I’m mature enough now to know about life. It’s a great way to look at it.”
The sprawling Afro that Conway sported in the ‘70s, by the way, is history.
“I have a pony tail now that came after my knee operation. I asked my surgeon what he put in there. My hair used to just stick out. Now it’s growing out the back of my head.”