With pro wrestling/sports entertainment playing to empty arenas, anxiously awaiting a green light to reconnect with a live audience, it’s an ideal time to take a look back at some of some of the greats of yesteryear who helped pave the way for those who followed.
Classy Freddie Blassie may have been 85 years old when he took his final breath 17 years ago. But it’s doubtful any wrestler ever packed as much punch in one lifetime as the man who made “pencil-neck geek” part of the pro wrestling lexicon.
The self-proclaimed “Hollywood Fashion Plate” and “King of Men” is remembered as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – heels in wrestling history. His string of 67 years in the business, dating back to the mid-1930s when he came up through the ranks with fellow St. Louisan Lou Thesz, is unparalleled in the business.
Blassie’s passing represented a great loss not only to the pro wrestling community, but more intimately to World Wrestling Entertainment and the McMahon family. He claimed the distinction of working with four generations of McMahons – Shane and Stephanie McMahon, Vincent K. and Linda McMahon, Vincent J. McMahon and Jess McMahon. For his loyalty, Blassie held a lifetime position with the company, unofficially serving as its goodwill ambassador.
It was a far stretch, however, from the decades he spent as one of the game’s most hated villains, boasting his superiority over other wrestlers he liked to call “pencil-neck geeks,” and inciting riots and driving fans to violence. He was stabbed 21 times, doused with acid, lost vision in his right eye after being hit with a hard-boiled egg and had last rites administered to him twice. Once, after a judge fined an attacker $115, the defendant replied, “If I’d known it was gonna be that cheap, I would have cut him again.”
His gift of gab and colorful interviews had helped make the sharp-dressed, silver-haired wrestler a celebrity in the newly expanding medium of television during the 1950s. A trendsetter and master showman, Blassie was a favorite among the Hollywood set, appearing in a number of films and TV talk shows while at the same time drawing sellout wrestling crowds from coast to coast. One of the first wrestlers to venture successfully into other media, Blassie made the hilarious cult movie “My Breakfast with Blassie” with the late Andy Kaufman, a parody of the popular art house movie “My Dinner with Andre.” Blassie also released two albums, “King of Men” and “I Bite the Songs” in 1977, and his single, “Pencil Neck Geek,” is considered one of the greatest novelty records of all time, making the top of the popular Dr. Demento Show playlist.
When Blassie was forced to retire from in-ring competition due to a pair of shot knees, the McMahons enlisted his services as a manager and later as part of their front-office staff.
Larger than life
Even though confined to a wheelchair in his final years, the beloved Blassie, who was inducted into the WWF Hall of Fame in 1994, remained a larger-than-life figure in wrestling circles. And if anyone had ever doubted his devotion to the company and its owner, those doubts were surely erased only three weeks prior to his passing.
In his final public television appearance May 11, 2002, on Raw, Blassie ordered The Dudleys to “get the tables,” prompting the rowdies to slam their opponents through a slab of wood and garnering one final – and farewell – pop from the crowd.
“I was really happy that Freddie got to be in the ring one more time and hear that tremendous ovation,” Bubba Ray Dudley said afterward. “I thought it was great as the icing on the cake of his career to be a part of something that was so live that night in Philly, out there with The Dudleys and Stone Cold Steve Austin. I’m just glad he got to hear that live crowd one more time.”
Backstage, with the cameras off, Blassie verbally tore into Eric Bischoff after the former WCW boss introduced himself as a “new member of the (WWE) team.” The 85-year-old ruffian “made mincemeat” out of Bischoff, an observer related, noting that the gravel-voiced Blassie colorfully and graphically expressed his distaste over Bischoff trying to run his boss (Vince McMahon) out of business during the heated Monday Night Wars.
But that was Freddie Blassie – brash, bold, blood and guts, take-no-prisoners. A veteran of thousands of wrestling wars, Blassie’s career spanned the gamut from the days of the Depression through the Golden Era of wrestling, through his final major run as a wrestler during the ‘70s, and his role as a heel manager for such rising stars as Hulk Hogan and Jesse Ventura. Blassie also was there for the WWE’s national expansion in the mid-1980s, managing the Russian and Iranian combo of Nikolai Volkoff and The Iron Sheik, who often would win their matches by using Blassie’s ever-present cane.
Longtime fans still talk about Blassie’s epic battles with the likes of The Destroyer, John Tolos, The Sheik, Bruno Sammartino, Bobo Brazil, Pedro Morales and Dick The Bruiser. Blassie, who had a kidney removed in the mid-1960s, was still a main-eventer and one of the top draws in the business when he was forced to retire at the age of 55 due to a California athletic commission ruling. Vince McMahon Sr. offered him the opportunity to finish out his career as a manager in the old WWWF, where he would join an illustrious stable of managers that included Captain Lou Albano and The Grand Wizard.
Blassie always had impeccable timing. That he passed away during a Monday Night Raw segment when Ric Flair was cutting an old-style promo was surely coincidental, but there’s little doubt that Blassie would have given the interview a thumbs up.
Few were more effective at whipping crowds into a frenzy than Blassie, who once claimed to have caused a rash of fatal heart attacks among television viewers in Japan who were stricken by the sight of him sinking his teeth into the bloody foreheads of idols such as Rikidozan and The Great Togo. Elevating the portrayal of the heel to an art form, his penchant for biting his opponents and drawing blood had earned him the nickname “Vampire” in Japan, where he was one of the top foreign stars and horrified that sedate society with his heinous tactics. Blassie played the gimmick to the hilt, often sharpening his teeth with a nail file to promote his bloodthirsty gimmick.
“In my whole career 92 people dropped dead of heart attacks. My ambition was to kill 100, and I failed,” Blassie once boasted.
The claim, though, was an exaggerated myth, according to Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer. “Legitimately there were three (deaths) in Japan from elderly men watching a match with Togo in Japan and it became this myth that (Blassie) exaggerated,” noted Meltzer.
‘Worst Since Hitler’
Fortunately Blassie lived long enough to see the release of his autobiography, “Listen, You Pencil Neck Geeks,” co-written with Keith Elliot Greenberg, in which he details his seven decades in the business and candidly recounts his rise from a teenage tough guy working carnivals in his native St. Louis to the pinnacle of his profession as the man wrestling fans loved to hate.
Famed Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jim Murray once called Blassie “the worst villain since Hitler” and claimed that he “wrought something of a revolution in the unmanly art of exhibition wrestling.”
“My grandmother, the only person who thought the moon shot was a fake and professional wrestling real, absolutely hated Freddie Blassie – which is an indication of just what a cad the man was,” the late Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard wrote in a 1989 column.
Those who knew him, however, painted an entirely different picture of a man who was sometimes cantankerous, sometimes gruff, but always more affable and lovable than his gimmick would lead one to believe.
“He was a Rembrandt,” noted WWE announcer Jim Ross. “He was an artist (who had) an amazing gift.”
The late George “The Animal” Steele (Jim Myers), who spent several decades himself with the WWF, spoke fondly about Blassie in the book.
“Spending time with Blassie, I saw the effect he had on fans over a career of 50 or so years. After we both retired, we went out to California to do a radio show. We were walking back to the hotel, when some guy pulled up and said, ‘You’re Freddie Blassie.’ He pointed at an old man in the passenger seat, and told us, ‘My dad has Alzheimer’s. He doesn’t recognize anyone. But he just looked out the window and recognized you.’ We went over to the car, and Freddie had a rational conversation with the guy. The son couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘I haven’t heard him speak like that in 10 years.’ It gives me chills just thinking about it.”
Blassie was a contemporary of six-time NWA world champion Thesz, who died in 2002 at the age of 86. The two spoke the same dialect of German, their parents had mutual friends, and Blassie was working in a butcher shop when Thesz first met the teenager. Like Thesz, Blassie was a child of immigrants who grew up in a working-class neighborhood in south St. Louis. Blassie had made his wrestling debut in a carnival at the age of 17; unhappy with his choice of occupation, his family persuaded him to keep his “real” job as a meat cutter. But after serving in the Navy in World War II (he wrestled under the name of Sailor Fred Blassie while stationed at Port Hueneme in California), Blassie returned to the world of wrestling, which was at the time still something of a carnival sideshow.
Blassie was a major star in every territory he appeared, but attained his greatest popularity in Southern California where his bloody feud with “The Golden Greek” John Tolos set box-office records. The man fans loved to hate would become an even bigger babyface when Tolos, in one of wrestling’s most famous angles, “blinded” Blassie with a mysterious powder on May 8, 1971. Weeks after the angle, it was announced that Blassie’s career was finished. When Blassie made his inevitable return, the Olympic Auditorium wasn’t big enough for his revenge match against Tolos, so the show moved to the L.A. Coliseum. The Aug. 27, 1971, bout, which drew more than 25,000 fans, was the largest live crowd in the history of pro wrestling in California and at the time was the largest money gate in U.S. wrestling history.
Now donning a sombrero and teaming with such fan favorites as Rey Mendoza and Mil Mascaras, Blassie had suddenly become a hero to Los Angeles’ Latino crowd. Tolos and Blassie, whose feud spanned 27 years, would wrestle their final bout nearly a decade later.
Blassie held the NWA Southern heavyweight title a remarkable 14 times during the ‘50s and early ‘60s while wrestling in Georgia. More important during his time in Georgia, though, was a dramatic heel turn which unleashed unheard of villainy upon the unsuspecting babyfaces of the day, labeling his detractors “pencil-neck grit eaters.”
“One of the first big matches I had after I got out of the Marine Corps was with Freddie,” recalled renowned heel Rip Hawk (Harvey Evers). “I wrestled him on Atlanta TV and had gone in there as a preliminary (wrestler). The match got over so big that I was main-eventing with him the next week at the City Auditorium. I was only about 25, and he was a great performer even back then. He was a nice guy and easy to get along with.”
Blassie defeated Eduardo Carpentier for the WWA world title on June 12, 1961, a month before scoring another major upset over Thesz in a two-out-of-three falls match.
The morning after Blassie’s death, longtime friend Regis Philbin paid tribute to him on his show, “Live with Regis & Kelly.” Blassie had been one of his first guests when Philbin started out with his own late-night talk show decades earlier, Philbin recalled, noting that the two had become friends during his frequent appearances.
Philbin showed several pictures from past Blassie appearances, including shots of himself with Ernie Ladd and (promoter) Jules Strongbow, a shot of Philbin’s jacket after it had been torn up by Blassie, and a picture of Blassie and a team of wrestlers engaging in a tug of war with the San Diego Chargers.
After traveling became too difficult for his bruised and aging body, Blassie remained a lifelong WWE employee, working in the front office, making personal appearances and doing charity work.
“Freddie did a lot of things with the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). Sometimes he was older than the guys he was visiting. The world was a better place because Freddie was here; my world was enhanced by meeting him,” said John Layfield.
Reach Mike Mooneyham at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham. His latest book — “Final Bell” — is now available at https://evepostbooks.com and on Amazon.com