MOONEYHAM COLUMN: Pro wrestling great Danny Miller filled big shoes
Danny Miller might have never left his hometown of Fremont, Ohio, had it not been for his big brother.
Danny, the younger brother of Dr. Big Bill Miller, a collegiate and professional Hall of Fame grappler, made the decision to turn pro in 1955.
And he’s never looked back.
“I might have been walking behind a plow somewhere had I not got into wrestling,” the jovial Miller laughs.
Miller recently marked his 81st birthday, but the memories of his days in the wrestling business are never far away.
For his achievements in the wrestling business, specifically his contributions in the Crockett territory during the 1970s and ’80s, Miller will be inducted into the 2013 Class of the Mid-Atlantic Hall of Heroes at Fanfest Weekend on Aug. 1-4 in Charlotte.
“It’s a wonderful honor,” says Miller. “I really look forward to seeing my old friends and fans. It’s going to be pretty exciting.”
Like his brother, Danny attended Ohio State University, where Bill was a nine letterman and in the Hall of Fame for wrestling, football and track.
But Danny stayed in school for only a year before joining the military.
Stationed in Fort Jackson, it was a brand new experience for Miller.
“It was very good. I got to see a lot of things I would have never seen in Ohio,” says Miller, who served from 1953-55, following the end of the Korean War.
“When I got out of the military, Bill trained me to come into pro wrestling.”
Miller, who stood 6-1 and weighed 245 pounds, couldn’t have had a more qualified trainer teaching him the ropes.
Brother Bill, at a towering 6-6 and tipping the scales at nearly 300 pounds, had been an All-American heavyweight wrestler, a two-time Big Ten heavyweight champion and conference MVP his senior year. He also was an All-American shot-put and discus track star who would be voted into the Ohio State University Athletic Hall of Fame in 1997 for both wrestling and track.
Danny learned well from his big brother.
He vividly recalls his first pro match, on Nov. 15, 1955, in Springfield, Ohio.
“Evidently they had someone was who hurt, sick or couldn’t make the show. I was shaking all over and scared to death.”
At the time he broke in, says Miller, there was no shortage of seasoned, grizzled veterans based in the territory. He knew very well what they could do to a young upstart. He plotted his strategy accordingly.
“The only way I could get away from them was to get to the ropes so the referee would make them break. I had mat burns on my cheeks, my shoulders, my chins, my elbows, my knees. I told my brother Bill that I didn’t know if this was the right business for me.”
As it turned out, though, it was the perfect business for Miller, who enjoyed a successful 34-year career.
“As time goes on, you get smartened up. You learn to go with the program. But at first I got put in with those older guys, and they didn’t want to see the younger guys get that chance because they might get knocked out of a booking. It was kind of a vicious cycle.”
Even being the brother of Big Bill Miller didn’t help.
“He wasn’t in the picture. He probably laughed all the way to the bank.”
Miller would hit his stride a couple of years later when he began teaming with Nelson Royal.
Like Miller, Royal also broke in with promoter Al Haft’s Columbus promotion and showed early promise.
Royal, who would later become a Mid-Atlantic star, had started wrestling at the age of 17 under the watchful eye of legendary Indian wrestler Don Eagle. For nearly two years, he trained with Eagle and wrestled in nightly events held at National Guard armories for $5-10 a night.
His pairing with Miller was good for both performers.
“We started in the business together. We kind of both learned together. Nellie was very good,” recalls Miller, who would enjoy a lucrative program working against Royal several years later in the Amarillo territory.
“Those were the days when you wrestled at the county fairs up in Maine and Vermont where it was colder than a well-digger. You took your shower out in the pens with the cows and the horses. It was a lot different then than it is today.”
The two began teaming in Boston, and later moved to Montreal. Brother Bill, meanwhile, had added a fictional sibling to the mix. Ed Albers, who resembled Big Bill and was even slightly larger but not nearly as athletic, was given the moniker Ed Miller.
Ed, however, broke his ankle in a 1957 match. With baby brother Dan couple of years into the wrestling game, Bill made the call.
“It was my first big break. I was doing just preliminary matches. Bill and Ed were out in Calgary at that time with Stu Hart. When Ed broke his ankle, Bill called and asked if I felt comfortable enough to come out there and tag with him. We were very successful. I spent the last three months of 1957 there.”
Their main opponents were another brother team, George and Sandy Scott, whom Miller would become well acquainted with during his later years in the Carolinas.
The two teams battled it out at the Calgary Stampede, Hart’s big promotion of the year, and sold out the Calgary Corral.
“Ed was at ringside when Bill and I wrestled,” recalls Miller. “Of course here’s baby brother Dan. I was a midget compared to Bill and Ed.”
Ed would later join Danny and Bill for six-man matches in the Buffalo, Toronto and Calgary territories. Danny and Bill would team sporadically throughout the years, with one of their biggest wins coming in 1965 at Madison Square Garden where they defeated Gorilla Monsoon and Cowboy Bill Watts for the WWWF tag-team title.
The Miller Brothers usually worked as heels, but it didn’t matter to Danny.
“The fantasy of wrestling is: What can I do to give these fans their dollars’ worth? I always contended that the first match on the card was very important. If you put the people in the palm of your hand, then you can manipulate them and do anything you want to with them. But you have to gain their confidence first before you get their response. Once you have a million dollars, it’s not too hard making the second.”
Miller enjoyed strong runs in a number of territories, working for such promoters as Sam Muchnick in St. Louis, Fritz Von Erich in Texas, Ed “The Sheik” Farhat in Detroit, Dory Funk Sr. in Amarillo, and Eddie Graham in Florida.
Proficient in both singles and tag-team competition, Miller would acquire a slew of titles over the years, including the Florida heavyweight and Brass Knuckles crowns. As a tag-team specialist, he held titles with the likes of brother Bill, Fritz Von Erich, Jose Lothario, Whipper Billy Watson, Ronnie Etchison and Nick Kozak.
One of his most memorable runs was in the Mid-Atlantic area during the early ’70s.
Miller first arrived on the scene in 1971 and captured the Eastern States title from The Missouri Mauler (Larry “Rocky” Hamilton). He became the first Mid-Atlantic TV champion in 1974 with a win over Ole Anderson.
In the interim he formed a top team with Les Thatcher. “Les was very talented, and we had a great time together,” said Miller. “He was like a brother to me.”
He recalls a 1971 match the two had with The Masked Marvels (Billy Garrett and Jim Starr) in Norfolk, Va.
“We won the match, and the fans went over the barriers. The TV crew was there. We had sold the place out. The fans put us on their shoulders and carried us out of the ring. The place was electrified.”
Despite their popularity and their wins over such top teams as The Marvels, Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson, The Mauler and Brute Bernard, and Art Nelson and Gene Anderson, Miller hints that politics in the booking office may have prevented them from going further.
“The people in Charlotte didn’t see that. It would have been to their good advantage to have Les and I as tag-team partners (champions),” he said. “We were enthusiastic. We didn’t walk to the ring — we ran to the ring. We had red, white and blue outfits, and we were quite popular.”
Miller, though, has nothing but fond memories of Jim Crockett Sr., who passed away in 1973.
“Jim Crockett Sr. was a big guy. What a man he was. He would sit and observe. He was honest as the day was long.”
Miller says he still remembers going into Crockett’s modest office in Charlotte, and talks about the standards which Crockett demanded.
“If somebody came in his office with their shirt outside of their pants, they got sent away without their check,” said Miller. “When you walked into his office, you presented yourself as a professional person. He was really a straight-laced guy. He was good to work for because you knew where you stood with him. He had his rules, and he ran a great business.”
Miller spent 22 years in the ring. He was 45 when he had his last match with Abe Jacobs at the Charlotte Coliseum. But his wrestling career would last another decade as he joined the office end of Crockett Promotions after retiring from the ring.
“George Scott was the booker at the time, so I went in and helped George with paperwork and stuff like that,” says Miller, who also handled the TV tapings in Raleigh.
“George would just hand me the sheet and tell me to run the show,” said Miller.
Miller, who moved to Florida in 1985, also spent eight years helping promote Crockett shows in the Greenville-Spartanburg area and working with Henry Marcus in Charleston and Columbia.
“Henry Marcus was quite a character,” said Miller. “I spent a lot of time with Henry. He was from the old school. We had our disagreements at times, but we got along fine.”
Miller worked for the Tampa Electric power company after he retired from wrestling. He spent 11 years with the company.
“It was pretty interesting for me because I had been in wrestling for 34 years and didn’t know anything else. It was a smart move on my part.”
The job also offered something that wrestling never did: health care benefits and life insurance. “In wrestling, being self-employed, you don’t have those privileges,” he said.
“I’m just enjoying retirement, and the government’s taking good care of me, God bless ’em,” added Miller.
He has lived in Tampa since 1985. He and other wrestlers meet about every two months at an Irish pub called O’Briens. “It’s a mix of the old and new,” he said.
His brother Bill graduated as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine before entering the U.S. Navy. After a highly successful pro wrestling career, Bill retired in 1974 and returned to his first love of veterinarian medicine, opening a practice in Ohio. He died in 1997 at the age of 69 shortly after finishing a workout at a gym.
Dan Miller’s career took him to many parts of the globe, including most of the 50 states, Japan, Mexico, South America, Canada and Australia.
“Wrestling is what I did all my life,” he said. “I often sit back and wonder to myself had I been in another business for 34 years, where would I be? At my age now, it’s a good memory. I’m glad I did it. I got to see a lot of the world I would never had been able to afford to go and see myself.”
Monday Night Raw will return to the North Charleston Coliseum for the first time in more than five years on June 24.
Ticket prices are $95, $50, $35, $25, $15 (plus applicable fees). Tickets are available at the North Charleston Coliseum box office, online at www.ticketmaster.com, or charge by phone at 1-800-745-3000.
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