Few pro wrestlers made as big an impact in the talent-laden Georgia territory during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as Raul Molina.

While that name probably wouldn’t ring a bell with most longtime fans, his mat alter ego, El Mongol, was one of the biggest stars on the Atlanta circuit during an era in which wrestling was held on a weekly basis in towns such as Savannah, Augusta, Columbus and Macon.

Molina, 86, passed away last Sunday at his home in Lawrenceville, Ga. His oldest son, Raul Molina Jr., said his father had been hospitalized for several days after breaking four ribs and puncturing his lung due to a fall inside his home. Molina, who was in the beginning stages of dementia, also suffered a seizure. With two blocked arteries, his weakened condition and advanced age dictated that open heart surgery would not be a viable option.

He returned home on Friday where family gathered to honor the man many affectionately referred to as “Papa Mongol.” While doctors told the family that he might have six months to live, it was only three days before Raul Molina took his final breath.

But up until his final day, said his son, the man known during his entire career as “Mongol” was smiling and laughing with his family.

His eyes lit up, says Molina Jr., when his 6-year-old great-granddaughter informed “Papa Mongol” that she had a boyfriend.

“My dad did his thumbs up and said, ‘Muy bueno (very good).’”

Raul Molina’s easygoing, gentle demeanor certainly belied his days as one of the most feared and intimidating competitors on the Georgia wrestling scene.

From hated heel to fan favorite, El Mongol rode a wave of popularity no matter what side of the ring he was on. Alternately billed from either Mongolia or Lima, Peru, Molina began his career in his native Mexico in 1951 where Lucha Libre legend Gory Guerrero bestowed him with the name “El Mongol.”

Nearly 10 years later Guerrero, patriarch of the famous Guerrero clan, provided the papers for Molina to cross the border to El Paso.

At first Molina was reluctant. “Not without my family,” he told Guerrero.

But Guerrero, who owned part of the Texas promotion and saw Molina as a potential drawing card, convinced Molina to make the move.

“Gory had watched my dad for years before he approached him about coming to the United States,” says Molina Jr. “He told my dad that he would fix his papers for his whole family to come over and get the necessary permits. He told my dad that they could make some money together.”

After several years working the Texas, Arizona and New Mexico circuits, Molina ventured to California in 1965 where he captured the vacant World Wrestling Association tag-team title with “Manchurian Giant” Gorilla Monsoon (Ithica College wrestling standout Bob “Gino” Marella). It was a title he would later hold with Killer Buddy Austin (Austin Rogers).

By late 1966, Molina had begun his most successful run in the business when, as the mysterious and feared El Mongol, he invaded Georgia with a fury.

Behind the scenes, veteran Enrique Torres had convinced Atlanta booker Leo Garibaldi that there was money to be made with El Mongol, who had cut quite a swath through the Los Angeles circuit.

“My dad sent him pictures and a tape of some of his matches up in California, and they told him to come on down. So we left for Atlanta,” says Molina.

Wrestling in bare feet and sporting a Fu Manchu mustache, shaved head and pigtail, the 5-9, 235-pound El Mongol was a rulebreaker trained in martial arts. Seconded to the ring by dastardly mouthpiece Dandy Jack Crawford, Mongol chopped his way through some of the top names in Georgia before later turning babyface after being attacked by manager Crawford and tag partner Tarzan Tyler.

El Mongol would begin a new run as one of Georgia’s favorite performers. He held the Georgia heavyweight championship a total of eight times over a five-year stretch, with title wins over such performers as Buddy Fuller, Mr. Wrestling (Tim Woods), Bobby Shane, Nick Bockwinkel, Buddy Colt and Dale Lewis. In all, Mongol held the Georgia tag-team title twice with The Pro (Doug Gilbert), the Southern tag-team title with Hans Schmidt, the All-South tag-team title with Ray Candy, and the Georgia TV title.

He also became the Los Angeles-based WWA’s last heavyweight champion before the territory merged with the NWA.

In late 1970 El Mongol and Bobo Brazil defeated Mr. Ito and The Great Ota in the first racially mixed match in Atlanta history.

Classic TV historian and former wrestling newsletter editor Steve Beverly remembers Mongol well.

“I sold pictures for him when I was 13. He was one of the nicest of the group wrestling in Georgia at the time. He also was one of the best ever at drawing heat from a crowd, yet he never did a verbal interview. His manager, Dandy Jack Crawford, handled that end of it quite well. His matches with Paul DeMarco drew huge crowds all over the state.”

At the peak of his popularity, Molina and wife Maria opened a restaurant aptly named Maria’s Mexican Restaurant in 1970 in the Georgia Motel near Chamblee. Naturally, many of the area’s wrestlers would frequent the establishment, which became a meeting place for fans and grapplers alike.

The Molinas expanded the operation to a larger site in downtown Atlanta six years later when business picked up due to his dad’s popularity and the great food served there. A second business was opened in nearby Griffin two years later. Mongol operated the Griffin eatery, while Maria ran the Atlanta restaurant. Both did all the cooking.

“They were excellent cooks. Dad was a very strict owner. That’s why we worked for our mom instead of our dad,” laughs Molina. Molina, who accompanied his dad to many of his matches, said traveling to different cities and watching his father perform was the experience of a lifetime.

“My mom would get mad at him sometimes because we’d go to towns like Columbus and wouldn’t be home until 4 in the morning, and I’d have to go to school that day. She really hated that. But my dad told her that he couldn’t take that away from me. I wanted to be with him and his profession. Of course my mom didn’t win.”

Molina, who was the oldest of five children, even considered trying his hand at wrestling, but never got far.

“Wrestling was not for me. I love wrestling, but I tried getting in the ring when I used to travel with my dad. I’d work out in the ring with guys like The Samoans and Dickie Steinborn. One time my dad and one of the Samoans flipped me up in the air, and I fell on my shoulder. I had it in a shoulder strap for three or four months.”

While that effectively deterred Molina from pursuing a ring career, he nonetheless enjoyed many years of traveling with his dad and meeting hundreds of wrestlers along the way. It was an education one couldn’t get in school. At a young age Molina had a ringside seat to a colorful but secretive world, one of great joy and successes, but also one of many trials and tribulations.

“They were all good people,” he reflects. “It was a hard life for many. But everyone has problems. To me it was really awesome being a part of that. I enjoyed all of it.”

Even when El Mongol was one of the most hated grapplers in the territory.

“They were booing up a storm during that time,” laughs Molina. “But it really didn’t matter to me. I’d go everywhere with my dad.”

Just as Gory Guerrero had helped bring Mongol into the United States, and Enrique Torres had helped bring Mongol to Georgia, Mongol helped facilitate bringing in other Hispanic performers to the Atlanta area.

“A lot of times, I’d travel with some of the younger generation wrestlers that my dad helped get here,” says Molina. “Guys like Sabu Singh and Roberto Soto from Puerto Rico. I’d travel with them when they went to the smaller towns (on the circuit). I was good friends with all those guys. When I couldn’t go with my dad, I’d go with them. That’s how much I loved wrestling.”

Molina says his father was a disciplinarian who expected his children to toe the line.

“He was an awesome dad,” says Molina, who is now 62. “He was very funny. He was a good person all the way around with everybody. If he liked you, that was it. He was with you all the way and wouldn’t let you go. But if he didn’t like you, stay away. There was no in between. He was very strict and didn’t play around. When he told you something, he meant it. When he told us once and he’d give us that look, we knew we better straighten up real quick.”

One of those patented Mongol chops wasn’t out of the question for those who didn’t walk the straight and narrow. Once when Molina Jr.’s future brother-in-law defied a rule, he found himself the surprised recipient of a smack from Mongol.

“We still laugh about it. He chopped my brother-in-law right across his chest. I guess he thought he was in the ring with another wrestler. It was so funny the way he did it. He had that handprint on his chest for a while.

“As the years went on, you respect somebody like that more and more even though at first you don’t realize it. he instilled a lot of good values in us. I respected him so much.”

More than anything, Raul Molina Sr. was a dedicated family man. Unlike many of his colleagues who uprooted families while bouncing from territory to territory, Molina never veered far from his home base of Atlanta.

“He always was a family man. Once we got to Atlanta, he became an all-around Georgian. He wasn’t like many who traveled and went outside the state. He never did. He had many opportunities to do so, but he always told them he was fine making his money here.”

Even when he left the main office in Atlanta to work for Ann Gunkel’s All-South promotion, he remained steadfast in his loyalty to his family, choosing not to pull up stakes.

Mongol, the Georgia heavyweight champion at the time, knew his days with the NWA-affiliated Atlanta office were nearing an end when Tony Atlas approached him in an Athens dressing room prior to a two-out-of-three falls title defense against Crazy Luke Graham. Atlas relayed the message that the office wanted him to drop two straight falls to Graham.

Mongol, though, would have none of that. When Atlas returned later with the same message, Mongol gave him the same answer.

“Tell Luke Graham if he can beat me two straight falls, then go for it,” he told Atlas. Graham’s response was straight to the point: “No way.” Graham, who had teamed with Mongol several years earlier in California, knew full well that Mongol was more than capable of handling himself in the ring.

To add insult to injury, the office further demanded that Mongol cut off his trademark pigtail. The pigtail had been an important ingredient of Mongol’s overall ring presentation, something he had worn since Guerrero came up with the idea back in Mexico.

With his restaurant doing well and job security not an issue, Mongol told the office what to do with their demands. He took his name and skills to the rival Gunkel promotion, and would wind down his wrestling career in 1980.

“After Ray Gunkel passed away, it wasn’t the same,” says Molina Jr. “My dad never liked it like he had before. Ann Gunkel did things pretty much her way, and it just wasn’t working out. She took a lot of the smaller venues. But she did try to take care of my dad. Ray had told his wife before he died that if you don’t do nothing else and stay in the business, then I want you to take care of Mongol. Those were his exact words.”

Molina says his dad watched bits and pieces of the current wrestling product, but it was a far cry from the wrestling he remembered. He would take his father to make occasional special appearances for promoters who would advertise the legendary wrestler. But unlike others, Mongol refused to charge for autographs or even photographs, often taking hundreds of signed 8x10s and giving them away to fans. He was old school all the way, thanking the fans who remembered him and supported him all those years.

“He wasn’t going to those places to make money,” says Molina. “That’s what kind of dad I had. He appreciated what the people did for him. Now that he was retired, he didn’t just want to sit down and sell stuff and make money off of it. The fans put money in his pocket when he was wrestling. Now it was his turn to repay them. That’s just what kind of person he was.”

Bits and pieces of those glory days can be found in memorabilia and souvenirs that Molina has collected over the years. There are images of his dad gracing the front page of Atlanta City Auditorium wrestling programs, photographs of his dad wrestling Gene Kiniski for the NWA world title and other mementos from an illustrious career.

Mongol had a number of tag partners over the years, but he really liked teaming with Doug “The Pro” Gilbert, says Molina. His matches against the likes of Paul DeMarco, Rock Hunter and The Assassins stand out.

“Probably one of the bloodiest battles that fans talked about for a long time was his matches with Louie Tillet,” says Molina. “They had some big matches here and some big brass knuckles matches down in Tampa, Fla. They’d sometimes wrestle for an hour at a time. They were something else.”

It was, he says, a special time to be a fan and a wrestler.

“It was really nice while it lasted. Those were times I’ll never forget.”

Reach Mike Mooneyham at bymikemooneyham@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.