MOONEYHAM COLUMN: The amazing journey of Johnny Powers: From pro wrestling superstar to promoter, pioneer, entrepreneur
For a blue-collar kid from the steel town of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, it can be stated with relative certainty that Johnny Powers did pretty well for himself.
Powers spent 20 years in the wrestling profession, and during that time achieved an amazing degree of success that would carry over to other business ventures.
A risk-taking, forward-thinking promoter at heart, Powers was a darling of the pro wrestling community during the ‘60s and ‘70s.
With good looks, a 6-4, 260-pound athletic body, and a sharp mind for the business, the wrestler nicknamed the “Golden Adonis” became a major star by his mid-20s.
A three-time National Wrestling Federation world champion and seven-time North American titleholder, the resourceful Powers founded his wrestling organization, was a pioneer in wrestling syndication and produced the first “Super Bowl of Wrestling” at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium in 1972.
Powers just might be better known in the Mid-Atlantic area, however, for his role in heading up an organization during the mid-’70s that posed a serious challenge to the established Crockett Promotions.
“We had a reasonable chance because we had a leg up on the creative side and the talent side. But I didn’t anticipate those old Crockett rascals buying a losing hockey team in Winston-Salem to get a lock on a building,” reflects Powers, now 70 and living back in his hometown of Hamilton.
Powers was booker for the IWA (International Wrestling Association), a direct descendant of the NWF (National Wrestling Federation), which promoted shows in upstate New York, western Pennsylvania and northeastern Ohio from 1970 to 1974.
When TV sports entrepreneur and money man Eddie Einhorn backed out of the fledgling group in 1975, it was Powers who kept the company running as a regional promotion, reshaping the IWA around a three-state circuit consisting of Virginia and the Carolinas.
Powers kept the territory alive for nearly three years before an antitrust case in U.S. federal court took the wind out of the company’s sails.
A lawsuit that Powers filed claimed the Crocketts and area venue managers were working together to keep the IWA from scheduling events in the major arenas in the territory.
“Crockett took the Winston-Salem Coliseum — which was my main town — away from me,” says Powers. “Then I went to court, and 12 nice little folks in a jury totally didn’t understand what an antitrust suit and restraint of trade was. They figured that it had been that way for 30 years, so it must be OK.”
Powers, who never gave up on anything without a good fight, harkened back to the words of his “spiritual papa,” veteran promoter Ignacio “Pedro” Martinez, who had mentored Powers in the art of creative event marketing of pro wrestling.
“He taught me how to promote and survive. He told me that sometimes a town wants you to leave. Sometimes a territory wants you to leave. Sometimes you’ve got to try to read those things and make a choice.”
Unable to break the lock of the territorial system, it was time to for Powers to cut his losses. His three-year run, from 1975-78, was over.
“I think the creative heart went out of me after that. I thought that maybe I had done what I should have done in the business.”
Powers’ creative influence, though, would be far from over.
And while the Carolinas remain just one small footnote in the vast and colorful history of Johnny Powers, he’s looking forward to returning to Charlotte — the traditional heart of Crockett wrestling country — as a special guest this August during the Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest.
Powers says it’s not the wrestling he remembers so much as it is the beauty of the area and its people.
“My best memory of the whole thing is the people,” says Powers. “I was so totally enthralled
by the good-naturedness of the people and also the beauty of the Carolinas. There’s a natural, unique beauty to that area down there ... there’s beautiful, nice people in a great surrounding.”
Not only did Powers leave his wrestling mark on the area, he also made a financial investment locally.
Powers had a real estate broker’s license from New York state when he left the wrestling business in 1978. He later activated it in three other states after having witnessed the beauty and potential along the Carolinas-Virginia coastline.
“I rented a Piper Turbo Navajo and flew up and down the coast from Richmond all the way down to Charleston,” relates Powers.
During that trip, he noticed an old arcade along Folly Beach. Upon further inquiry, he learned that the popular landmark was owned by a Folly Beach church.
“I know Folly Beach well. I flew in on that Piper Turbo Navajo, and the preacher picked me up. We went straight to his church because I had to convince the congregation to allow me to go into business with them.”
Powers pulled in his wrestling interview skills and sold the local parishioners on it.
“I got the thumbs up from all the congregation. I remember it very clearly,” he says.
Before he knew it, Powers owned half of the seven-acre tract on the beach.
He owned the property for nearly a year until his financing was pulled due to a pending usury law at eight percent that the saving and loans association was attempting to break.
He had several million dollars worth of financing for the property, but the move killed the deal.
Powers also obtained another piece of Carolina real estate when he built a waterslide in Greensboro, N.C.
“I was going to go into the waterpark business. My only mistake was that I forgot that Myrtle Beach has about an eight- or nine-month season, and Greensboro, N.C., has about a four-month season. And it’s pretty cold to go down a waterslide in October.”
His trip this summer to Charlotte, he says, will be a welcomed return. It also will mark his first Fanfest experience.
“I have no idea if they’ll even remember me ... 1978 is a long time ago,” he says.
Powers, who will take part in a “Mid-Atlantic Memories” documentary being filmed during the event, says he’s looking forward to reconnecting with a couple of his old wrestling cohorts.
“I don’t have a lot of friends in the business, but one is Angelo Mosca. He’s been to two three (Fanfest) events, and he has really enjoyed them. Another good buddy is Ox Baker.”
Baker, whose shaved head and dark black, bushy eyebrows and mustache made the 6-5, 300-pounder one of the sport’s top villains, occupies another footnote in Powers’ mat history ledger.
Powers’ heel turn against Ernie Ladd with Baker in 1973 sparked possibly the most dangerous riot in pro wrestling history. It’s aptly known in wrestling circles as “The Cleveland Riot.”
Again, it was Powers who came up with the angle, simply using a bit of wrestling logic and marketing wisdom.
“It was the most fun match I ever had,” he says. “We were doing well, but I felt my houses were going to start to come down. I looked up and thought about it.”
It was a case of pure demographics.
“I’m a white boy, and the audience is 90 percent black. I’m a babyface and Ernie Ladd’s a heel in downtown Cleveland. This has got to stop.”
When the menacing Baker interfered to save Powers and hit Ladd with a series of heart punches, irate fans stormed the ring, hurling chairs and other foreign objects.
“I had the match with Ladd, and I had Ox Baker run in, and I did a turn on Ernie,” Powers relates. “They called it the worst riot of all time. Fans were so angry at me. There were 300 chairs flying. My local security left the building, and even the riot police would not come in.”
Baker, notes Powers, still sports a reminder of that incident nearly 40 years ago.
“Ox has still got the 14-inch scar on top of his head from taking a chair. Ox went against Ladd through Bruiser’s territory and all over the country just through that exposure.”
Just how did someone who didn’t grow up a wrestling fan end up in the grunt-and-groan business?
For Johnny Powers, born Dennis Waters, it was a matter of simple economics.
At 15 years of age, he was a tall and lean youngster and, at 6-3, was better suited to basketball.
He eventually would drop out of college to pursue a wrestling career.
“I was going to be a geologist. I was smart enough to ask my teacher how much geology teachers made up north. He told me and I said forget it. I was going to become a wrestler.”
Powers’ mother gave him money to go to a gym run by a wrestler named Jack Wentworth in the east side of Hamilton, Ontario. Powers bulked up nearly 100 pounds in less than a year. Genetically, says Powers, it was a growth spurt that had taken hold. He went from 6-3 and 160 pounds to 6-4 and well over 260.
Wentworth, a tough, English-born light heavyweight veteran who had toured the world, was no slouch.
Powers soon became a product of “The Factory” — the YMCAs and the old, hardcore gyms in Hamilton that spawned many of the sport’s great wrestlers of that period.
Powers learned the business from the ground up.
“I kind of learned to come up the hard way. I never was a strong shooter, but I had to learn to survive real fast.”
One day, says Powers, he made the mistake of questioning the legitimacy of professional wrestling.
“Jack, I don’t think wrestling is on the up and up,” declared the naive greenhorn.
“That’s interesting, kid, why don’t you come in the ring with me?” Wentworth replied.
“He’s 53 and I’m 16. And I’m thinking I can bench-press over 400 pounds. I’ll hurt this old man,” Powers thought to himself.
“He beat the living (stuffing) out of me. He hooked me left, hooked me right, he body-slammed me. He said when you get tired, you can tell me to stop. But when you’re 16 and cocky and think you’re infallible, you don’t want to stop. So I bled from the nose, the ear, all over. I said, ‘Man, you’re 53, I like this business. Teach me.’ And he taught me.”
At the ripe age of 17, Powers found himself on the road to Detroit where he would gain experience working for promoter Bert Ruby.
By the time he was 19, Powers was a well-versed, full-time performer who was more than ready for the big time.
“I was a pretty good all-around athlete, but for some reason in the wrestling business, it became my art form. All things kind of jelled. I had a reasonably innate sense of where I should be in the ring, what I should do with my body and what I should do with somebody else’s body.”
Powers soon discovered that he was a natural for the wrestling business.
“Sometimes you walk through a door, and you were meant to be invited in. All the stars align so that somehow things fit for both sides.”
Before he knew it, Powers was being matched up against one of the biggest stars on that era, Bruno Sammartino.
“I couldn’t even rent a car. I wasn’t 21 when I started against Sammartino,” says Powers, who had come highly recommended by the likes of Cowboy Bill Watts and Killer Kowalski to promoters Toots Mondt and Ace Freeman.
Being somewhat of a marketing whiz at an early age, Powers knew he had to create an appealing image in order to get over with the wrestling audience.
“I had already gotten over as Lord Anthony Landsdowne. It was a Bert Ruby-Jack Britton name, but I guess because they thought Canadians were British. I was going to change my name, but I had hoped I wasn’t going to have to do a job.”
Powers pondered long and hard about a catchy new moniker.
“I had always liked John Wayne, so that was easy for the first name. And I always wanted to feel like I was powerful in some stages, so that became John Power. So it just kind of morphed as I was going along.
“As I walked in to the television (studio), they asked me, ‘So what’s your name, kid?’ I told them Johnny Powers. It just flowed. It was one of those serendipitous things. It resonated and hooked in place,” says Powers, who legally changed his name in 1965.
Next was picking a finishing hold.
“I liked the figure four leglock, because it actually could be a tightened-up hold that if some mark wanted to challenge it, you stood a reasonable chance of making it a shoot. When they asked me what my hold was, I told them it was a Powers Lock. To me it was unique because I had longer legs, and that morphed into a Power Lock.”
The size was already there. Powers was 6-4 and fluctuated between 245 and 265.
“It was pre-anabolic steroid. It was the tough, old-fashioned keep-at-it-everyday way.”
There was no doubt about it. Powers could deliver the goods inside the squared circle.
He also was intelligent, creative and always looking for a new adventure.
“I always was mentally agile. That doesn’t mean I thought I was smart ... there’s a difference. But I was scouting around for things to do. I actually found wrestling after I could gather the art form under what I call my umbrella. I was bored.”
Powers, still a relative rookie in the wrestling profession, had bigger goals than becoming a top-tier talent in the ring.
At the age of 22, Powers was a quasi-celebrity in Toronto, traveling across Canada marketing dumbbells, barbells and other exercise equipment, along with the likes of hockey stars such as Bobby Hull and Olympic figure skating champions Otto and Maria Jelinek.
As a principal in Pro Management Inc., a sports celebrity management firm, he developed and took sports fitness equipment nationally on a major retail store promotion campaign all the while actively competing internationally as Canadian heavyweight champion.
“I got introduced to a world at a very young, impressionable age and got a sense of selling tickets to things other than a bleacher seat in a coliseum,” says Powers.
A bleached-blond “bad guy” early in his career, it was hard to maintain a heel persona when he went to Toronto and sold physical training products across Canada with young, aspiring hockey stars.
Turning babyface was a marketing decision. But he always loved the concept of working heel.
“I loved being a heel more than a babyface. The heel controls the ring more. A good heel is the creative maestro. And even if you’re a better worker in the ring than the heel, from a creative, storytelling standpoint, there’s so much you can do as a heel. You’re limited as a babyface because historically there’s so many avenues in which to participate, but as a heel it’s only limited by your creative mind.”
Constantly expanding his vision, Powers bought a small town from promoter Frank Tunney in the Toronto territory. He even had the unbridled audacity of asking the veteran matchmaker if he could buy points in the wrestling office.
Tunney laughed at him.
“Here’s a cocky, 23-year-old kid and he wants a piece of the action,” laughs Powers,
Recognizing the youngster’s drive and ambition, Tunney advised Powers to go across the border and talk to Buffalo-based promoter Pedro Martinez.
Powers had wrestled for Martinez and had worked his way up through the main-event hierarchy. Martinez agreed to sell points to Powers in his territory.
“Actually I bought Akron, Ohio, and I lost my (behind),” Powers laughs.
Promoting, Powers discovered, was a slightly different “art form” than he had envisioned, but he wasn’t ready to give up.
“For a working-class guy out of a steel town called Hamilton, Ontario, all of a sudden my world was expanded. I then thought that maybe I could function in other milieus and different environments.”
At the age of 24, Powers ended up buying part of Martinez’s territory, and would help originate the global syndication of a black-and-white library of American pro wrestling films and videotapes with sales to Japan, Singapore, Philippines, Mexico and 23 other countries.
NWF world champion
Powers, one of the top wrestling names in Canada and in the Buffalo-Cleveland market, continued to look for ways to expand his sphere of influence.
“The NWA was pretty much a closed shop. At that time Vince McMahon Sr. was just regional. You kind of danced to their tune.”
Being young, bold and confident, Powers asked his veteran adviser, Martinez, if they had to “put up” with playing second fiddle to the established organizations that basically ran the wrestling industry in this country.
“We were trying to build a business, and we got stymied and blocked all the time,” says Powers.
Not at all fearful of the consequences, Powers took the ball and ran with it, co-founding the National Wrestling Federation along with Martinez.
In 1968 at the age of 25, Powers was in charge of his own national wrestling company.
“I was young, but nobody told me I shouldn’t do it,” he reasoned.
“In fact, (Detroit promoter Ed) Farhat, Tunney, McMahon all pulled my H1 permit (visa) to get across the border three times. They tried to keep me out. It was because they couldn’t figure me out. That’s because I don’t think I could figure myself out.”
Powers’ group got off to an impressive start.
“We had guys like Abdullah The Butcher on the third match. In my opinion, for a period of time we had the most stacked-talent cards that existed in the U.S. and probably anywhere. We could move the talent up and down in all kinds of different directions.”
It wouldn’t be long before the superstar-turned-promoter would achieve a lofty status as one of the biggest American wrestling celebrities in Japan.
With the legendary Shohei “Giant” Baba affiliated with the dominant National Wrestling Alliance, the younger Antonio Inoki was looking for a comparable association with another major U.S. promotion.
Powers, with his newly created National Wrestling Federation, was more than willing to do business with the ambitious Inoki.
The two, only 30 days apart in age, instantly connected. They were both rebels willing and ready to shake up the wrestling establishment.
Three years after helping create the NWF, Powers, the group’s world heavyweight champion and top star, sold it in 1973 to Inoki and New Japan Wrestling.
“I sold that to Inoki, and it just clicked. Inoki was ready to be a superstar. He was iconoclastic. He was a rebel.”
Powers was defeated by Inoki for the NWF world heavyweight title on Dec. 10, 1973, at Tokyo’s Sumo Hall.
Going up against Inoki, says Powers, was one of the greatest thrills he ever experienced in the wrestling business
“Even though I lost the title, there was a majesty about the match in Japan. There was an international presence about that match in Tokyo. The presentation was unreal. I never before felt the kind of enormous pressure and attention that came with it.”
The perfect wrestler
Powers’ three wrestling heroes were Lou Thesz, Buddy Rogers and Johnny Valentine, and he took notes along the way to develop his own hybrid style.
“I was morphing Thesz’s style with Valentine’s style, along with a Larry Chene-Buddy Rogers style. I mixed it up and tried to make it a Powers style. It takes you about four of five years to come into your own.”
The perfect wrestler, he says, would be a composite of the three.
“I still believe that a combination of Thesz, Valentine and Rogers were innovative in my era. They broke ground. The business has changed because of the highspots. Larry Chene could do one death walk over the edge of the mat and hit the concrete floor in an arena or auditorium, and people would go quiet that he might have died. Now the guys can do so many highspots that it’s diluted the effect of the highspots and it’s become a gymnastics exercise.”
“And I’m not being disrespectful to the box office, because the box office is great,” adds Powers. “But it’s changed the physical interface with the audience. Even a good story or a good book or whatever has to stay close enough to reality and yet push the boundaries so you’re exploring new arenas of imagination.”
Powers especially liked working with Valentine, although in one of their early encounters he admits he didn’t quite comprehend Valentine’s unique ring psychology.
“I had so much respect for him. One time we had a match in Toronto, I was already primed and ready to lock up. He wouldn’t let me even touch him for 15 minutes. I thought this was going to die, and I was really getting frustrated. Valentine was almost 15 years my senior, and I had so much respect for his art form. I let it be, but with somebody else I wouldn’t have done that.”
Eventually, though, Powers “got it.”
“When we finally touched, which was probably 16 or 17 minutes in, the crowd blew out. Now I understood Valentine’s art form. We went for about an hour, and we probably put on eight different holds, and we were on the mat part of time. But it was an artistic success.”
To go up against six-time world champion Thesz in his hometown of Hamilton was an honor for Powers. In the “uniqueness” category, Thesz ranks as Powers’ second favorite opponent.
“I wrestled Lou Thesz in my hometown when I was 22 years old. It was a thrill. Outdoors in my old hometown ballpark. I revered him. Not only did he have the reputation ... he was just so classy.”
Thesz, who respected workers who could really wrestle, would test Powers early in their encounter.
“About the time we went to lock up, he bitch-slapped me to sort of test my mettle. I looked at him and thought that he could probably hook me to death,” relates Powers.
In total awe of the master matman but wondering how he might respond, Powers pondered his next move.
“Do I punch him back in the mouth, or do I take it and keep on going. I bet that I could punch the heck out of him ... I’ll still go down, but I’ll punch the heck out of this old man.”
Thesz, however, was one step ahead of him.
“As I thought about it, he broke out in a smile. I knew he was watching me thinking this process through. He was literally reading this kid’s mind.”
The end result, says Powers, was never in question. Thesz would “allow” Powers to have some dignity while going down in defeat.
“Of course he was going to go over the entire time, but instead of beating me in the middle of the ring, he set it up so I hooked a leg over the second rope, he dropkicked me, I fell back and got counted out.”
Another favorite, says Powers, albeit one with a style far different from Valentine or Thesz, was Abdullah The Butcher.
“I always had great matches with was Abdullah. I could let him go. If you’re comfortable enough with you are, then you allow that other individual to get over and become comfortable with who they are. Sometimes it’s limited. Sometimes it’s unbelievably creative. For sheer craziness, going up in the stands, bloods, guts and thunder, it was Abby.”
Much like Abdullah, The Sheik (Ed Farhat) was another ideal opponent for the babyface Powers.
“The Sheik and I sold out and turned away five or six thousand people. Twelve thousand was a sellout at Cleveland Arena. We were sold out well before. And this was when we had 48 shows a year in Cleveland. To draw a building and a half ahead of time ... there’s no feeling like that in the world.”
A heel turn by Powers in 1973 at the Cleveland Arena resulted in one of the biggest pro wrestling riots on record. It also was “the most fun match” Powers ever had.
“I was doing well, but I felt my houses were going to start to come down. I looked up and thought about it. I’m a white boy, and the audience is 90 percent black. I’m a babyface and Ernie Ladd’s a heel in downtown Cleveland. This has got to stop.”
“The best guy to turn it around was the strongest babyface,” he concluded.
And that would be Johnny Powers,
He then booked a match with Ladd that would take a surprising turn.
“I had Ox Baker run in, and I did a turn on Ladd. They said it was the worst riot of all time. It was the Cleveland riot. Fans were so angry at me. They ended up rioting. There were 300 chairs flying around. My local security left the building. The riot police would not come in. Ox has still got the 14-inch scar on top of his head from taking a chair. Ox went against Ladd through Bruiser’s territory and all that just through that exposure.”
Back in business
Powers was a savvy booker and promoter, but he admitted making some mistakes when he went to the Carolinas.
“I had retired from the business after Cleveland in 1975. I was managing a small public company that owned the hockey arena franchise and ice skating franchise and a whole bunch of things like that. I was brought in to creatively do a turnaround on it from ticket sales and revenue streams.”
In the meantime, his old partner, Martinez, had started a venture known as the IWA, the first truly national wrestling organization, along with Einhorn.
“He was a money man who was a wrestling fan,” Powers says of Einhorn. “ He wasn’t intelligent about the business. Pedro hooked up with him. It was Einhorn’s idea and his network. At that time he had a good-sized lock on all the collegiate basketball programming. He sold that to Corinthian Broadcasting for a pretty good sum of money at that time.”
Martinez had worked with the Chicago businessman for only a couple of months when he called Powers asking for help.
“Pete, I’m not in the wrestling business, I’m doing fine,” Powers explained to Martinez. “I’m going to be taking a reasonable share in a small public company. I’m in the sports promotion business, not the wrestling business.”
But Martinez told Powers that the new group had no underlying territory. They were doing fine in most cases, he said, but were running shows across the country with what amounted to “a bunch of renegades.”
In other words, says Powers, they had no basic business.
“In a territory, you can have one or two or three good towns, just like McMahon had in New York and Boston and Philadelphia. But you better have spot shows to keep the boys booked five or six or seven nights a week and keep them out of trouble and also to amortize your territory cost,” says Powers.
Martinez knew that his only chance of success was convincing Powers to come out of retirement and take over the creative and booking end.
“Nobody understands what I’m talking about. You do. I trained you how to build it and do it,” he told Powers.
“As a favor to Pedro, and not so much as I wanted to go back into the business, I agreed,” says Powers. He told Martinez to book him as a worker.
Powers flew in from New Jersey, rented a car and drove to Winston-Salem, N.C., where he already had a television show.
“I booked myself on some radio promotions, got a map out and spotted some things, found the towns like Mount Airy around there, and booked the buildings. Within about four to six weeks, I had the beginning of an infrastructure in which there was territory in at least three states — North and South Carolina and Virginia.”
Powers to the rescue
Johnny Powers was a natural promoter.
“I knew what to look for. There was nothing I didn’t know about the business from a building of a territory (standpoint). I had done that with Pedro. But with Pedro it had been dormant. It was dead. I went and rebooked all the television shows in Schenectady, Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, Erie, all those towns. That was my doing. That was me going in places like Rochester and paying a modest $400 a week for 13 weeks. I owned the hour. I had done all of that before.”
The IWA, with its top-notch production values, was ahead of the larger promotions in a number of aspects. The company offered guaranteed money to attract top names and placed its tapings in TV markets all around the country. Slick production innovations such as freeze frames and slow-motion replays were utilized.
The territory began slowly building, with Winston-Salem as its key town.
Then, suddenly, Powers got a call from Martinez informing him that Einhorn had canceled all the television shows.
“We’re off the air as of this weekend,” Martinez told Powers.
According to Martinez, Vince McMahon Sr. had called the owner of Corinthian Broadcasting and asked him why he was letting his “prize guy,” who he had just paid a lot of money to buy his collegiate basketball network, be involved in a not-so-legitimate business like pro wrestling.
Einhorn was smack dab in the middle of McMahon’s territory with a strong television presence on WOR in New York. The IWA was viewed as an “outlaw” promotion operating outside the jurisdiction of the NWA and WWWF.
“None of the promoters ever helped one another. That’s a myth. If there was ever any cooperation, it was of a self-serving nature,” says Powers.
“He (McMahon Sr.) was worried because Einhorn went to the ballpark in New Jersey and drew $108,000. That’s not shabby in ‘75. McMahon was worried. He was still a regional promoter.”
Powers, in fact, had tried to by the territory from McMahon and Mondt back in the late ‘60s.
“I was cocky enough to want to try it,” says Powers. “Pedro Martinez had once owned part of the territory from Toots Mondt. Why couldn’t I go in with his understanding and buy out McMahon?”
Einhorn lost an estimated $500,000 and the promotion effectively folded in October 1975.
Unable to get into major arenas such as Madison Square Garden and the Nassau Coliseum, the sports magnate called it quits.
Powers, meanwhile, had already moved his family down to the Carolinas, and had given up a position and a stock portfolio.
But he wasn’t ready to quit.
“I came here to help you out. I don’t think I want to do this,” he told Martinez.
Powers asked for a couple of hours. He called stations in Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Lynchburg and Charleston. He asked the station managers to keep the Saturday IWA wrestling slot open.
“I put together a television show. I had a show on that weekend. I incorporated IWA wrestling in North Carolina. I changed the name of the television show, and off we went.”
Having been used to the three-state territory with the Buffalo-Cleveland operation, Powers tightened up the territory template in the Carolinas and Virginia.
“I was very familiar with the formulas and the setups. I had always believed that if I could get in a car and drive somewhere, then I could influence the television station, the media and the arena. I just continued on, but with a smaller base.”
Some of the talent left. Some went to the opposition.
“They stole The Mongols and eventually ended up stealing Igor. Mascaras went off on his own way. But I kept Brower, Ladd and a bunch of those guys,” says Powers.
“I already knew the (Bulldog) Brower-Powers program would work, so I used that as a main seeding for a territorial angle. I ran that for about a year, and then I found out Winston-Salem had cashed me in.”
It was a crushing blow to Powers and his plans to strengthen his company’s presence.
“It was our biggest town, and we had come close to selling out there. All you need is one good town and a couple medium towns, along with a bunch of fringe towns, and you’ve got yourself a ballpark. That’s the same thing Crockett once had. Then we went to court, and I lost. I probably should have never thought that I’d win.”
The battles that ensued over arenas in Crockett’s territory ended up in expensive court fights.
Powers had loved a challenge, and that’s why he had bought out the territory from Martinez.
“But when we lost Winston-Salem,” he says, “it took the core town out.”
Powers had contended that two North Carolina promoters — Jim Crockett of Charlotte and Joe Murnick of Raleigh — had illegally controlled the booking of wrestling shows in several regional towns.
The lawsuit sought $1.5 million in damages as a result of business allegedly lost because of the leasing arrangements with the promoters. Cities named in the suit were Charlotte, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Fayetteville, N.C.; Greenville, S.C.; and Richmond, Va.
The suit claimed that the IWA was being kept out of those cities by illegal lease and protection agreements that gave Crockett and Murnick monopoly over the public arenas suitable for wrestling. It contended the leases were in violation of state and federal laws.
The city of Winston-Salem was named as a defendant because of a decision by the mayor and Board of Aldermen to give Crockett a lease at its coliseum for 12 events a year.
“That didn’t mean that other buildings didn’t give you a lock,” says Powers. “We actually had locks in our Buffalo territory. But it was like a chess move that caught me unexpectedly, and I didn’t have the talent and monetary resources to survive in it. Sometimes the door is only half open. The product isn’t fully the right product at the right time to get legs underneath it.”
It took more than two years for the court case to be resolved. In 1978 the federal jury ruled that Crockett did not have a stranglehold on auditoriums in Charlotte and Winston-Salem for his events.
Powers had charged in the suit that Crockett’s leases for wrestling venues in Charlotte and Winston-Salem violated antitrust laws, but the jury found there were no violations.
“The jury’s decision vindicates Jim Crockett Promotions of illegally operating wrestling events in Charlotte. It shows that the Crockett family operated lawfully,” Crockett’s attorney would say after the verdict.
End of the IWA
Powers ran the territory for nearly three years. But he had seen the writing on the wall.
“Business was going OK, but I was in the survival mode after the court case. I had leased a modest Lincoln Town Car with a moon roof. I pulled up at a ballpark, and Sonny King and Mike Boyette and Big Bad John were there. Their eyes were so glassy most of the time that I was always afraid they wouldn’t find the ring.”
Powers says King approached him and accused him of making “lots of money.” He told King that the car he was driving was leased.
“Sonny said he wanted to buy into the office. I asked him how much he was going to pay.”
“Nothing” was King’s reply.
“In fact,” adds Powers, “he wanted to take over the office and control the office. He said he didn’t think I was doing a good job with the town. That meant I didn’t put Sonny King on top as the world champion. He just felt he was God’s gift to humanity and the wrestling business in particular.”
Powers says King then told him that he had an attorney in Chicago, and that “they were going to come in and crack me wide open.”
Powers took off three weeks, closed the territory down, ran reruns on TV, and explained to the stations that it was a summer hiatus.
King and his crew were gone by the time Powers returned.
There was a time, says Powers, when he walked around with a .357 Magnum in a small purse while carrying large sums of cash to make the payday. He had another wrestler carry a gun and guard the purse while Powers went to the ring.
“It was a cash business then,” he says. “We had an interesting scenario with some of those boys.”
A great run
Johnny Powers retired as a pro wrestler for the final time in 1983 at age 40.
With more than 5,000 bouts in 27 countries to his credit, he eventually figured it was time to move on to other ventures.
A media and brand builder, the cerebral Powers would become heavily involved with the production and marketing of television, pay-per-view programming live events and the licensing and sale of branded consumer products.
Since retiring he’s been in corporate finance, did small cap public companies, and some real estate syndication.
“I think I retired seven times, but I didn’t tell anybody. I started playing around in real estate because it was a lot easier on the body than the wrestling business. I basically retired at 39 in 1982.”
In recent years Powers served as a director and promoter for mixed martial arts shows. His stable of fighters included Dan Bobish, a past Division III NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion and Ultimate Fighting King of the Cage champ.
Powers was an innovative force in the MMA world dating back to his time in Japan where he helped develop the strong man style.
“I worked stiff-style with Inoki, and they liked that. They liked that strong style,” says Powers, who was known as “The Iron Man” in Japan. “What was really taekwondo I introduced that style to Inoki. I think Inoki, Gotch, Thesz and Powers coming in with the title kind of kicked off the MMA world.”
Powers, who did more than 30 tours of Japan, was honored in 2006 with having developed a unique fight style and given the Japanese title of soke, which means family head or originator.
As a worker, promoter and booker, Powers says he was getting tapped out.
“I think there’s only so much creative juice that all of us come into this world with. I thought that maybe I didn’t have enough want to, and if I didn’t have enough want to, I was sure I wasn’t going to be able to contribute. And I was always embarrassed if I wasn’t giving at least my max most of the time as a booker, as a promoter, as a worker. I just got tired.”
After all, there was very little Powers hadn’t at least tried in the wrestling business.
He even presented the first “Super Bowl of Wrestling” in 1972 at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium.
“I went to a Ringling Brothers three-ring circus. It was boring in ring one and two, but ring three was terrific. Why couldn’t I do that in the wrestling business?”
So Powers booked Municipal Stadium, got three rings, bought the Ten Commandments chariot from the back lot at Paramount, and booked 50 wrestlers. The mega-show was headlined by a match between Powers and Johnny Valentine.
Three rings were set up, side by side, with more than one match going on at a time.
A forerunner to the major stadium shows, the ambitious event was, by most accounts, a financial flop despite attracting major media coverage. While Municipal Stadium held in excess of 70,000 people, the “Super Bowl of Wrestling” reportedly drew less than 15,000.
“It cost me about 30 grand. But that’s risk-taking. I drew probably 60 or 70 thousand dollars. You can be ahead of your time. There’s a magic to box office. Anybody that tells you they know the formula ... it’s not true. The public knows the formula. They either buy it or don’t buy it.”
His last “official” match was against old nemesis Bulldog Brower in Lagos, Nigeria, in front of an audience of 60,000, although he would return the following year for a few matches in the Caribbean.
He made the emotional decision to try another career.
There were no more wrestling mountains left for Johnny Powers to conquer.
He had enjoyed a near-seven-year-run in the Buffalo area.
“That’s a long run in any kind of art form. The TV was hot. The town was hot. I didn’t make too many mistakes as a booker.”
Powers was successful because of a determination and drive.
“I didn’t come from money. I wasn’t a Trump whose dad already had a multimillion-dollar real estate business. Everything I did was a grassroots, start-up business. If you don’t have a deep-pocket fallback, you can’t weather the ups and downs that come with every business.
“I’m working class, so if I go and try to figure out something, I go and ask the waiter or the bartender or the doorman or the cab driver. I ask the regular folks that are in the trenches of life.”
In the end, says Powers, he was basically a ticket salesman who loved to market things.
“I actually consider myself as an artist in the wrestling business, but basically I’m a ticket salesman. If it’s to sell a product to a congregation in Folly Beach, S.C., or in the wrestling business. It’s a similar form of persuasion.”
He’d still do it again.
“But for 10 years ... not 20. I would have figured out a different way to satisfy my creative urges ... I became a large star for a few years. And then, the way things often go, you get usurped. But in the early and mid-’70s, it was a great run. All the way to ‘80.”
The sport has taken its toll on him. He has an artificial hip, a knee replacement and has had both shoulders replaced. He also suffers from a chronic bad back.
“I was a power lifter. I bulked up, I wasn’t a juice guy. When you start doing 500- or 600-pound squats and deadlifts and all that stuff. When you quit, you don’t heal. Your body just tells you what you did all those years. I walk a little bent over. I can straighten up for a short while and look good.”
He returned to his home area to be closer to his 95-year-old mother.
“Irish and Italians are mama’s boys. I’m blessed she’s still here. I was on the road for so long. I lost my dad when I was on the road. I made a pact with myself that I’d be close to her at this stage of the game.”
These days, he says, he’s quite content at home reading a good book. Or writing poetry.
“I probably average reading five or six hardcover books a week. I don’t have another creative passion. That’s kind of gone.”
What does he say when he looks back at a career that has had its share of hits and misses, but one that was never anything less than exciting?
“We gave it a good try.”
-- Old School Championship Wrestling returns to the Hanahan Rec Center today with its “Caged Carnage” event.
Former WWE star Gangrel will team with Dr. Creo to defend their OSCW tag title against Caleb Konley and Michael Frehley. A “decade-long feud will come to an end” in a bout pitting Malachi against Josh Magnum in Magnum’s final match.
Other top bouts include a battle royal to decide the No. 1 contender for the OSCW title, and a No. 1 contender match for the Hardcore King title between Big Country and Nick Kismet.
Also on the bill: a Four Corners match with the winner getting a crack at the title of their choice (and using it when they choose); Hammer vs Asylum in a Hardcore King title match; Brady Pierce vs. Jon Malus for the IC title; and BJ Hancock vs. John Skyler for the OSCW title.
Among those also appearing will be Billy Brash, Calie Cassanova, Brandon Paradise, Ladies Man, Jesse Windham, Kevin Pheonix, Reginald Vanderhoff, Ms Harden, Brett Wolverton and Bob Keller.
The show will be dedicated to the late Reid Flair.
Bell time is 5 p.m., and doors open at 4:30.
Adult admission is $10 (cash only at door); kids 12 and under $5.
For more information, call 843-743-4800 or visit www.oscwonline.com.
-- Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Friday at the North Charleston Coliseum for the first Monday Night Raw show here in five years on June 24.
Ticket prices are $95, $50, $35, $25, $15 (plus applicable fees) and will be available at the North Charleston Coliseum box office, online at www.ticketmaster.com, or charge by phone at 1-800-745-3000.