It’s an appropriate time to reflect upon some of the pro wrestling personalities who passed away in 2017.
Many represented an era that will forever be etched into the memories of longtime fans.
They touched our lives in many ways. For those of us lucky enough to see them perform, we will never forget them. For those of us who knew them, we were blessed.
They were athletes and performers who lived by the credo that “the show must go on.”
Some lived out of a suitcase, spending more than 300 days a year on the road, working the territorial circuits during a time when the profession was much different than it is today.
Others never got to realize their full potential.
Some died far too young.
But they all made an impact in professional wrestling, a world full of colorful figures who come in all shapes and sizes, with their stage being a ring in which their personalities often reached larger-than-life dimensions.
Burrhead Jones was one of those special characters. He never won a world title, nor did he ever command the six- and seven-figure salaries commonplace in the business today. But what he did was much more noble and inspiring. He worked his way out of Berkeley County cotton fields, survived the rampant racial discrimination of the time, and achieved his dream of becoming a professional wrestler.
The Moncks Corner native became a regional star in several Southeastern territories and is perhaps best remembered for his mid-‘70s program with the late Blackjack Mulligan (Bob Windham).
Melvin Nelson, the man behind the inimitable Burrhead Jones, passed away Oct. 15 at the age of 80. And, as he was wont to proclaim, “There’ll never be a cotton-pickin’ nuther.”
Pro wrestling also lost one of the best of his generation when WWE Hall of Fame manager Bobby “The Brain” Heenan passed away Sept. 17 at the age of 72.
Heenan was the blueprint for great managers. “He formed in my mind as a fan and performer what I thought a manager should be. Best ever,” said Jim Cornette. “He was even better than me when using my own gimmick.”
Heenan, though, was much more than an outlandish, heat-seeking mouthpiece for star performers. He was an extremely entertaining color commentator whose humor and wit were unparalleled in the business. And, early in his career, Heenan was a bump-taking machine whose injuries cut short a promising career in the ring instead of outside it.
Another WWE Hall of Famer, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, passed Jan. 15 at the age of 73.
Snuka was one of the biggest stars in the wrestling business during the early ‘80s. The Fiji native, who grew up in Hawaii and changed his name from James Reiher, was known as one of pro wrestling’s most exciting high-flyers during the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Another one of pro wrestling’s most iconic characters, George “The Animal” Steele, passed away Feb. 16 at the age of 79.
The WWE Hall of Famer earned his greatest fame in the 1980s playing the role of an uncontrollable wildman with a bald head and hairy torso who chewed on turnbuckles and sported a green tongue (he used green breath mints to tint his tongue in the school color of alma mater Michigan State).
In real life, Steele had a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State and a master’s degree from Central Michigan University and, early in his career, became a high school teacher to supplement his wrestling income. Born William James Myers in Detroit, he began wrestling in the early 1960s under the ring name “The Student” and wore a mask to conceal his identity as a respected teacher and football coach.
The great Ivan Koloff
Ivan Koloff, who spent several decades terrorizing opponents and striking fear into fans all around the world, passed away Feb. 18 at the age of 74.
Known as “The Russian Bear,” Koloff permanently etched his name in wrestling history when he dethroned Bruno Sammartino in 1971 at Madison Square Garden, ending the Italian strongman’s seven-and-a-half year reign as WWWF heavyweight champion.
Koloff was one of wrestling’s top heels as a menacing Muscovite who spoke in a raspy Russian voice, wore heavy stomping boots, toted his trademark Russian chain, and boasted the cross and sickle emblazoned on his ring garb.
But Koloff, who was born Oreal Perras and raised on a dairy farm in Ottawa, Canada, was better known to a later generation of wrestling fans as “Uncle Ivan,” a gentle soul who embraced his fans and did charitable work for organizations including The Children’s Miracle Network. He also started a ministry in North Carolina with wife Renae and shared his testimony at churches and prisons and performed marriage ceremonies.
Lance Russell, one of the greatest wrestling announcers to ever speak into a microphone, passed away Oct. 3 at the age of 91.
The “voice of Memphis wrestling” since the late 1950s, Russell provided the soundtrack to a glorious era that showcased such legendary figures as “The Fabulous” Jackie Fargo and Jerry “The King” Lawler, star performers whose acts would never have shined as bright without the steady hand and unflappable voice of the venerable announcer.
Legendary Seattle sportswriter and wrestling historian J. Michael Kenyon passed away May 3 at the age of 73.
Born Michael Glover, Kenyon was to pro wrestling what Hunter Thompson was to Gonzo journalism. The spicy journalist was an eccentric force of nature who lived several lifetimes during his 73 years. And more often than not, the colorful scribe was a better story than the one he was writing.
Kenyon held the distinction of being the first beat writer for the Seattle SuperSonics during an early run with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. A decade later, he covered the arrival of the Mariners. In true ink-stained wretch, vagabond fashion, he quit the paper four different times. He also was one of the city’s first sports radio talk show hosts.
Over the years, he also promoted hydroplanes, rodeo, football, basketball, croquet, drag racing and horse racing, the latter during a stint living in England. But longtime grappling followers will fondly remember the media icon for his devout passion for professional wrestling, and for his painstaking mission of preserving wrestling history.
Among those we said goodbye to in 2017 were unique individuals who contributed to the wrestling profession – wrestlers, referees, announcers, managers, promoters, writers, photographers, historians and memorable fans. The list includes:
Rex King (Timothy Smith), Jan. 9, age 55; James W. “Chip” Burnham III, Jan. 9, 61; Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Jan. 15, 73; Jun Izumida, Jan. 25, 51; Tom Drake, Feb. 2, 86; Bruiser Bob Sweetan (Robert Carson), Feb. 10, 76; Chavo Guerrero Sr. (Salvador Guerrero III), Feb. 11, 68; George “The Animal” Steele (Jim Myers), Feb. 16, 79; Nicole Bass, Feb. 17, 52; Ivan Koloff (Oreal James Perras), Feb. 18, 74; Johnny K9 aka Bruiser Bedlam (John Croitoru), Feb. 22, 53; Tom Jones (George Thompson), March 4, 77; “Outlaw” Ron Bass (Ron Heard), March 7, 68; Dennis Stamp, March 13, 68; Jan Ross, March 22, 55; Hurricane Smith (Bob Grimbly), April 1, 83; Warren “Rhubarb” Jones, April 2, 65; Fishman (José Ángel Nájera Sánchez), April 8, 66; “Pretty Boy” Larry Sharpe (Larry Weil), April 10, 66; Rosey (Matt Anoa’i), April 17, 47; Jason “Doc” Young, April 19, 42; Brazo de Oro (Jesus Alvarado Nieves), April 28, 66; Hans Schroeder, April 29; J Michael Kenyon (Michael Glover), May 3, 73; Professor Steve Druk, May 5, 84; JD “JD Justice” Bledsoe, May 7, 50; “Pretty Boy” Doug Somers (Doug Somerson), May 16, 65; “Rotten” Ron Starr (Bobby Eugene Nutt), June 8, 67; Buddy Wayne (Steve Finley), June 17, 50; Elliott Murnick, June 19, 75; Jay West, June 21; Mr. Pogo (Tetsuo Sekigawa), June 23, 66; Smith Hart, July 2, 68; Diane Von Hoffman aka Moondog Fifi (Phyllis Burch), July 6, 55; Buddy Wolff (Les Wolff), July 11, 76; Dale “TNT” Mann, July 17, 77; Ron Rossi (Ron Wilkins), July 17, 62; Beautiful Bobby Dean (Bobby Tovey), Sept. 2, 40; Otto Wanz, Sept. 14, 74; Bobby Heenan (Raymond Louis Heenan), Sept. 17, 72; Ken Hawk (Kenneth David Stidger), Sept. 26, 75; Scott Eland, Sept. 27, 43; Lance Russell, Oct. 3, 91; Burrhead Jones (Melvin Nelson), Oct. 15; 80; Bill Kersten, Oct. 20, 84; Stan “Krusher” Kowalski (Bert Smith), Oct. 20, 91; Devil Murasaki (Akio Murasaki), Oct. 23, 75; Tokyo Joe (Yukihiro Sakeda), Nov. 4, 75; Tugboat Taylor (Dick Taylor), Nov. 8, 71; Spyral/Snake (Brandon Kaplan), Dec. 4, 36; Tom Zenk, 59, Dec. 9.