More than half a century ago, I watched in awe as Pampero Firpo terrorized opponents while blazing a path of destruction throughout the wrestling world.
Bearded and wild-haired, the “Wild Bull of the Pampas” struck fear into fans across the pro wrestling landscape. I know because I was one of them.
As a youngster, I would shudder when Firpo, in his fear-inducing, guttural roars, would describe in broken English how he would “destroy” his next unfortunate opponent. To make the display even more convincing, Firpo would rub a shrunken head – purportedly that of a South American tribal leader – during his intense interviews.
But that was then, a bygone era in pro wrestling, long before the advent of sports entertainment and a new order of social correctness. Good guys were good guys, bad guys were bad guys, and there were no blurred lines in between. Especially in the wrestling business, where neither glitz nor glamour was needed, just an eclectic group of true originals who lived their gimmicks.
An early pioneer of hardcore wrestling, Pampero Firpo was one of those unforgettable characters. A heel of the first order, he was wild, he was scary and he made you believe.
Firpo, whose real name was Juan Kachmanian, passed away peacefully in his sleep on Thursday, just months shy of his 90th birthday. He leaves behind a loving family and a treasure trove of wrestling memories.
My memories of Pampero Firpo are golden. As a youngster, I feared Firpo the wrestler. When I grew up, I admired and respected Firpo the man.
A year ago, I asked the great Firpo if he liked the Costco hot dog he had earlier in the day. As a kid I would have never envisioned myself asking the “Wild Bull” such a question.
But he loved Costco hot dogs, and it had become a weekly ritual that his daughter would treat him to when she’d pick him up from his assisted living facility en route to her home.
Three thousand miles away, Firpo answered without hesitation, in his signature gravelly voice that made wrestling fans tremble more than half a century ago.
And with the drawn-out catchphrase he popularized long before “Macho Man” Randy Savage made it a staple in his interviews.
“Ohhh yeahhh!” Firpo growled over the telephone line, immediately taking me back to a time when I was a youngster, watching the “Wild Bull of the Pampas” terrorize his opponents in the ring.
It was a good time. And we talked and we laughed about that time in wrestling that we both would never forget.
One thing, though, became immediately clear. While he no longer followed the business, his advanced age and fading memory never diminished his love for professional wrestling.
Pro wrestling, said Mary Fries, had been very good to her father. When reflecting on his life, he told his daughter, “I accomplished my destiny.”
“And he did that through wrestling,” she said.
For Pampero Firpo, his working days didn’t end once his 33-year wrestling career was over. He spent the next 25 years working for the U.S. Postal Service in San Jose, Calif., retiring at the age of 78.
Coincidentally, the feared grappler worked at the same post office where noted wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer would mail out his popular Wrestling Observer in the weekly newsletter’s infancy.
Most likely, he handled or processed hundreds of newsletters that went through the bulk mail department, said Fries.
Meltzer made mention of Firpo in one of his newsletters, stating that when he first began following wrestling in Northern California, the three names most mentioned were Pepper Gomez, Peter Maivia and Pampero Firpo.
“Firpo was the one imitated the most, not any of his moves, but his interviews,” wrote Meltzer. “He would call (announcer) Walt Harris “Mr. Harreese,’ and use the guttural voice that Randy Savage would see when he was breaking in and copied, from his interview pattern, cadence and the ‘Oh, yeah.’ The promo he did repeat over and over was, ‘Two nights ago, I was wrestling in St. Louis and I bit off my opponent’s ear. It was very tasty.’ That line was repeated by everyone for months. Every promo he did was copied. Every kid constantly said ‘Mr. Harreese.’”
Fries tried to keep her father connected to those glory days. In recent years Firpo talked to old friends like Fred Curry, Jim Raschke and Don Leo Jonathan, with whom he had his first match in the United States in 1957.
“My brother and I think it’s really good to try to keep him connected,” she said then. “He’s really loved and cared for.”
It was very gratifying, she said, that fans still remembered and asked about him. Two years ago, Firpo was honored when he was inducted into the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in Wichita Falls, Texas.
Unlike his unique ring persona, Firpo was humble and soft-spoken.
“I really appreciate all the fans. They love me with their heart, and I know that,” he told me.
“My brother and I are very proud of my dad for his dedication to our family and to professional wrestling,” said Fries. “He always maintained what he referred to as a ‘professional ethic’ … he protected the business by staying in character in public and gave one hundred percent to the fans. He remained grateful to his fans for supporting him whether they cheered or booed.”
The man known as Pampero Firpo was one of the game’s greatest heels during a career that spanned from 1953-86.
Boxing great Jack Dempsey gave him the name “Pampero Firpo.” Until then, he had been wrestling as Ivan The Terrible. He was looking for a gimmick and Dempsey, recalling one of his famous opponents in the 1920s, Argentine boxer Luis Angel “Wild Bull of the Pampas” Firpo, suggested that the grappler be billed as Firpo’s son.
“It appealed to my dad because my dad's (real) father was a real shooter,” said his daughter. “He was a contender for the Olympics. His parents were of Armenian descent and born in Turkey. His father ended up in Greece in an orphanage run by the British Red Cross.”
Firpo’s father, she said, ended up moving from Greece to Lebanon, and then to Argentina where he became a local boxing promoter.
“My father grew up around boxing, but it never really appealed to him,” said Fries. “He told me he was in the ring one time, punched a guy and knocked him down, but then ran over to make sure he was OK. It just wasn’t for him.”
“He had a lot of respect for Jack Dempsey,” she added. “He met a lot of the boxing champions like Max Bear, Jimmy Braddock, Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis.”
Firpo once told a newspaper reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer that Louis’ mainstream popularity remained strong long after his boxing heyday had ended. The two became friends after the boxing great refereed one of his matches.
Calling Louis “a real man and a real genuine champion,” Firpo recalled: “Joe loved peanuts, so we stopped at a supermarket in Cleveland so I could buy him peanuts. What a pair we must have made ... the greatest boxing champion and me, with my long and wild hair. People couldn’t stop looking at us, and when they figured out who we were, they came and asked for autographs.”
It was in his homeland of Argentina where Firpo, while staying at a hotel frequented by the ruling Perón family, was introduced to “Chimu,” purportedly the shrunken head of a tribal leader from Ecuador. According to the story, a tribesman had been so impressed with Firpo’s strength and athletic ability that he awarded the grappler with the macabre oddity.
Firpo would later put the shrunken head to good use, enhancing his image as a heel of the first order by talking to and rubbing the head during interviews while promising the destruction of his opponents.
“It’s really kind of spooky looking,” Fries said understatedly. “My brother got some of my dad’s memorabilia when we moved him out of his place into the assisted living facility. We went through his belongings, and he had a suitcase that looked ready to go (for a wrestling event).”
In it, among other wrestling keepsakes, was found the long-lost shrunken head that Firpo had used as a terrifying prop for years.
Days of old
When reminiscing about his days in the ring, Firpo would reel off names like Nick Bockwinkel, Bobby Heenan, The Crusher, Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon, Danny Hodge and Lou Thesz.
Thesz, he recalled, was the “big daddy” of them all as far as skill on the mat. Firpo, though, was the polar opposite.
Known as a barbaric brawler, the extremely unorthodox and legitimately tough Firpo achieved his own level of success, holding a number of titles such as the U.S. heavyweight championship, the Americas crown and the NWA world tag-team championship. With the late Larry “Missouri Mauler” Hamilton, he shared the Southern tag-team title during a run in the Carolinas in the mid-‘60s.
The bushy-haired Firpo packed a powerful punch with his stocky, 5-8, 230-pound frame, engaging in bloody feuds with stars such as The Sheik, Bobo Brazil, Johnny Valentine, Wild Bull Curry, The Crusher and The Mighty Igor, with most of his victories coming from a crushing bear hug or a dreaded claw hold that he called “El Garfio,” a trademark death grip that would allegedly render his opponents unconscious.
Firpo was rechristened “The Missing Link” in Hawaii where he became one of the top stars on the island, turning from monster heel to beloved babyface. It also was there that a young Randy Poffo (later Savage), mesmerized by Firpo’s intense interviews, got the idea for what would become his signature catchphrase years later.
“We grew up in the wrestling business,” brother Lanny Poffo once told CBS Sports. “We were in Hawaii when ‘Handsome’ Johnny Barend foreshadowed a heel turn on ‘Gentleman’ Jim Hady. We remembered stuff like that. He (Randy) even did the ‘Ohhhh yeahhhhh!’ copied from Pampero Firpo. He did it differently because Firpo was an Armenian from Argentina, so he had his own unique accent. But still, we were influenced by that.”
Wrestling as a heel or babyface, depending on his opponent and territory, the colorful Firpo spilled blood in rings from one corner of the country to the other, sometimes inciting riots when matched against fellow villains like The Sheik.
Fulfilling a dream
Now far removed from the “Golden Era” of professional wrestling, the bushy beard, crazy mane and maniacal look long gone, Firpo took his place as one of the oldest members of the pro wrestling community.
Although he no longer watched wrestling on television, when his daughter would bring him his Costco hot dog, he would be able to “visit” once a week when she’d pull up matches on YouTube from the old Chicago Amphitheater from the early ‘60s. His eyes would light up watching old friends like Lou Thesz, Buddy Rogers, Pat O’Connor, Nick Bockwinkel and Antonino Rocca.
After 8,882 matches, the legend known as Pampero Firpo is proud of what he achieved in the ring those many years ago. He is particularly gratified that he never let anyone down, including promoters or fans.
“I was always there when my presence was necessary,” Firpo told an audience at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Texas in 2018. “I remember many times that I had to ask my helpers to put on my wrestling shoes because my injuries were so painful that I could not do it on my own.”
His dream, says Mary Fries, was to bring his family to this country. “He said the fact that they ‘demanded my action’ allowed him to support his family and travel the world.”
One of his proudest moments came when he became an American citizen in 1965.
“He visited five continents and 21 countries, becoming fluent in eight languages and conversational in several others,” says his daughter. “He is grateful to wrestling. It allowed him to bring his sisters and his parents to the United States from Argentina, which he said was always his dream since he was a little boy.”
“I know he’s at rest,” she said Thursday. “I looked out the window today, and out of nowhere there was a huge rainbow. I know he’s being welcomed up there by everyone. Nick Bockwinkel, Lou Thesz, Don Leo Jonathan, Randy Savage. Everyone loved him. He was the Wild Bull. My heart is full, and I’m really at peace with this. What an extraordinary life.”
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