Abe Jacobs rode Kiwi Roll to pro wrestling stardom

MIKE MOONEYHAM/STAFF Hall of Famer Abe Jacobs was a Mid-Atlantic favorite.

If you followed professional wrestling back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, chances are good that you’ll remember the venerable New Zealander Abe Jacobs.

Chances are even better that you’ll remember his signature hold — the Kiwi Roll.

Jacobs compiled an impressive record during his career, but says it probably wouldn’t have been possible without his famed coup de grace. It was his “best friend” in professional wrestling, he says, and it won him the vast majority of his matches.

“I learned the hold coming along as an amateur,” he says. “One day I was working out with someone in the gym, and I happened to grapevine a leg and kind of rolled with it. The guy screamed, ‘Hey, hey, hey, my knee, my ankle.’ That’s when I knew I had something special.”

Fans still ask him all the time about the hold, even though Jacobs hasn’t wrestled in nearly 30 years.

“It was probably the most spectacular move in the ring. People really popped if they had never seen it before, and if they had seen it a few times, they wanted to see it again.”

He invented the maneuver, and nobody has ever been able to copy it.

“It’s not often that someone comes up with a hold that’s never been copied. A lot of wrestlers have tried, but they’ve never been able to quite figure it out,” he laughs. “There’s just one little thing that they’re not able to figure out once they get the roll started.”

Jacobs prided himself in keeping in tip-top shape during a wrestling career that spanned nearly 40 years — three decades as a pro and one as an amateur.

In his prime he stood 6-2 and weighed in the 240-pound range. His great conditioning and keen wrestling skills made him a favorite opponent for many of the top performers in the business.

Jacobs was an amateur standout in both wrestling and rugby in his native country. Born and raised on a ranch that included a 15-acre horse pasture, he rode to school on horseback and acquired a love for the rugged outdoors.

“I used to milk about six cows, and then I’d ride to school on horseback. At that time, there were no roads good enough for cars.”

But wrestling was his first passion.

Jacobs caught his first big break in 1958 when the New Zealand Wrestling Union gave him a start as a professional in his own country. Encouraged by his success, the one-time New Zealand amateur champion packed his bags at the end of the 1958 season and headed for the United States.

Jacobs would travel the globe four times and wrestle on all seven continents. He would have a Hall of Fame career going up against the best in the business, facing such stars as Buddy Rogers, Johnny Valentine, Gene Kiniski, Ric Flair, Dick “The Destroyer” Beyer, Dick The Bruiser and Killer Kowalski.

Jacobs met former NWA champion Pat O’Connor, whom he considered to be the best in the business, in New York in a rare match-up that pitted two New Zealanders fighting for the world championship on foreign soil.

He wrestled in front of 36,000 fans at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1961.

He once held the great Lou Thesz, who rated Jacobs as a superior wrestler to even O’Connor, to a one-hour-draw.

“Wrestling has been my life,” says Jacobs. “It’s what I wanted to do as a kid. I started when I was 10 years old in school.”

But it was in the Carolinas-Virginia territory, working for promoter Jim Crockett, where Jacobs enjoyed much of his success.

Jacobs has many fond memories of Friday nights at County Hall in Charleston, where he was a regular for more than 20 years. But the most special, he says, was a reunion held in 1998 at the old building.

“Going back to that building had to be the greatest memory. Seeing the old arena once again was very special. I got to see a lot of the guys I hadn’t seen in a long time. That was probably the best memory of all.”

It was at County Hall and in the old Mid-Atlantic territory where Jacobs developed a special relationship with a generation of fans.

An accomplished singles performer, Jacobs mostly appeared in tag-team matches, teaming with the likes of Luther Lindsay, George Becker, Johnny Weaver, Sandy Scott and Nelson Royal. He also formed impressive combos with the sport’s big men — “special attraction” stars such as Haystacks Calhoun, Haystacks Muldoon, Sailor Art Thomas and Klondike Bill.

“I was always in good shape, and those (big) guys didn’t do a lot on the ring. They rarely went off their feet, so I had to do most of the work. I worked my (behind) off to get them over.”

Jacobs’ typical “bologna blowout” consisted of a rather unusual mix. In addition to the requisite bologna and bread, he’d routinely pick up half a dozen chicken legs before the show to feast on after the matches and on his way to the next city, and “powder them up” with a pound of garlic he’d carry with him. He was infamous for his penchant for raw onions.

“People still ask me about those raw onions,” he says. “I’d get a raw onion, peel that sucker and eat it like an apple.”

He’d wash it down, he says, with a few cans of Schlitz beer. “Now I can’t even remember the last time I had a beer,” he laughs.

Back then Jacobs was on the road an average of six nights a week. He figures he probably logged more than two million miles during his career.

“There were a lot of long trips, that’s for sure,” he says.

His many travels abroad took Jacobs to 25 different countries including Japan, most of Asia, South Africa, Australia, Europe and South America.

“I was all over. You name it, I’ve been there. I wasn’t married at the time, so I could make those trips and stay gone for a long time.”

One of Jacobs’ most memorable periods in the wrestling business was his stint teaming with Don Curtis in Florida. The two won the world tag-team belts from Duke Keomuka and Hiro Matsuda in 1964.

Jacobs had been working in the Portland area when he got the call to come to the Sunshine State. He had known Florida promoter Eddie Graham from his days wrestling in New York where Jacobs had teamed with Argentina Rocca against Eddie (Edward Gossett) and faux brother Dr. Jerry Graham.

Tito Carreron had pushed the idea of teaming with Jacobs to the Florida matchmaker, but when Curtis was instead paired with Jacobs, Graham knew he had a successful team on his hands. Jacobs had met Curtis, whose real name was Don Beitelman before he had it legally changed, years earlier in New Zealand.

“He and I used to go to the gym and work out when I was an amateur over there. Don was one heck of an athlete,” recalls Jacobs.

Jacobs still proudly wears a belt buckle holding that original world tag-team emblem. Curtis’ widow, Dotty, has the other.

“He and Don was great friends, and one of the most treasured things I have from the wrestling days was a beautiful belt buckle that Abe had made for Don from when they were tag-team champions together,” says Dotty Curtis. “He and Don shared their pretty new knees with each other up at the Eblen Golf Classic (in Asheville, N.C.) years ago. Don had one knee done, and Abe called Don many times and they chatted before Abe did both his knees. I couldn’t believe it when I saw him after his operations. He grew a few inches and was walkin’ tall!”

Jacobs worked as manager at Ricky Steamboat’s gym for 11 years after retiring from the ring. He continued working at gyms when Steamboat closed his facility, and about six years ago, took a part-time job shuttling cars for Avis.

“Driving is something I’ve been doing forever,” he says. “It pays for my golf.”

In his spare time, Jacobs still works out, watches his diet and plays a lot of golf.

Jacobs participates in nearly a dozen tournaments a year to raise money for a variety of causes.

His time in the ring left Jacobs with broken ribs, dislocated shoulders, neck and back injuries, fractures in his leg, a number of turned ankles and two knees that have been replaced.

Still he has absolutely no regrets about his decision to get into wrestling.

It has provided him with a good living, he says, and has given him a chance to see the world.

“I’d do it all over again. I just love wrestling. It’s something that I wanted to do as a kid. I’d watch these big guys and want to do what they did. I wasn’t big as a kid. I was nicknamed ‘Teeny.’ But I shot up in height and weight. I’ve always been lucky and in good shape. I still work out regularly.”

Jacobs’ exact age remains a mystery and is a running joke among friends and colleagues.

“The first thing people ask me at work is how old I am. To me, I don’t know that I’ve ever asked anyone how old they are because it doesn’t make any difference.”

Jacobs will admit that his first amateur matches, in boxing and wrestling, occurred in the late ‘40s. “It’s when I moved over from the Chatham Islands to finish high school.”

Most memories have been good, he says, admitting that “you have to take the good with the bad.”

What happened during a show in 1972 marked one of the low points in his career. It was the night his good friend and regular tag-team partner, Luther Lindsay, died during a match at Charlotte’s Park Center.

“I was there the night he passed away. He drop-kicked the guy (opponent Bobby Paul), jumped on him with a big splash, and the referee counted one, two, three. Luther went to stand up, and then fell down. And that was it. I was on the next match. They were trying to give him oxygen. When I came back after my match, they told me he had passed away.”

A heart attack had claimed Lindsay at age 47.

“Luther and I were close. “He was a straight cookie. He was a tough guy too ... a good boxer and a good wrestler.”

A bull of a man at 5-8 and a solid 250 pounds, Lindsay had been an All-American guard on offense and defense at Hampton Institute in Virginia, and had played football for the minor league New Jersey Giants of the American Football League. But the former intercollegiate wrestling champ and Golden Gloves boxer turned to pro wrestling in the early ‘50s and carved out a successful career during a racially intolerant period.

Lou Thesz, in his autobiography “Hooker,” called Lindsay (real name Jacob Goodall) the greatest black wrestler ever.

“His place in history is not because he was black; it is in spite of the fact that he was black,” Thesz wrote.

“He was one heck of an athlete and a great partner,” says Jacobs, who was Lindsay’s best friend in the business.

Lindsay’s widow asked Jacobs to choose the pallbearers.

Jacobs, who still lives in the Charlotte area with wife Evelyn, was named one of the “Top Ten New Zealand-Born Wrestlers” by Fight Times Magazine. He was inducted into the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Hall of Fame in 2008. His status in the Chatham Islands, where he still owns a sheep and cattle ranch, was celebrated when his likeness graced its commemorative special edition Millennium $10 bill in 2000 and 2001.

A “gentleman’s gentleman,” Jacobs remains universally respected by his peers and colleagues.

“The only thing that exceeds Abe’s incredible wrestling ability is his tremendous heart,” says Bill Murdock, executive director of the western North Carolina-based Eblen Charities, an organization that assists children, adults and families in times of need. “Since retiring from the ring, Abe has been involved in innumerable charitable endeavors including being instrumental in the beginning of the Eblen Charities. If Abe Jacobs isn’t in a class by himself, it certainly doesn’t take long to call the roll.”

Abe Jacobs is one of more than 100 wrestlers profiled in the new book, “The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: Heroes and Icons” (ECW Press, $22.95), written by Greg Oliver and Steve Johnson with Mike Mooneyham, and foreword by J.J. Dillon.

— Old School Championship Wrestling returns to the Hanahan Rec Center on Feb. 10.

Former WWE star Gangrel will team with Dr. Creo in a three-way bout with Legit and current OSCW tag champs Vordell Walker and Callie Casanova. Also featured will be Malachi and John Skyler against Josh Magnum and Pete Kaasa.

Adult admission is $10 cash at door; kids 12 and under $5.

For more information, visit www.oscwonline.com or call 843-743-4800.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook.