Burrhead Jones fighting toughest battle yet

Burrhead Jones (Melvin Nelson) at his Berkeley County home in 2006.

He’s affectionately known as “The Local Legend.” Anyone who ever met him will never forget him.

And, like he’s said in countless interviews over the years, “There’ll never be a cotton-pickin’ other.”

Melvin Nelson, much better known in and out of wrestling circles as the inimitable Burrhead Jones, is fighting one of his toughest battles yet. Two months shy of his 79th birthday, Burrhead is now blind and immobile, confined to a room in a New York hospital.

“My legs are giving out on me and I’m blind,” Nelson said last week. A procedure he hoped might preserve a portion of his failing sight never materialized. “I was too far gone,” he said. “If it had been diagnosed earlier, they might have been able to stop it. But there’s no cure for it.”

Nelson believes he was born with glaucoma, a condition that causes damage to the eye’s optic nerve and gets worse over time. He lost total sight in one eye several years ago, with the second eye going dark soon after.

In recent years Nelson has undergone surgeries on both knees, but one of his legs recently became immobile and prompted his latest hospitalization. “If I had been able to see, it would have never happened,” he says. His arthritis worsened and he reinjured his knee. He has spent most of the past six months in and out of the hospital.

His latest stint has been for three weeks, but he faces several months of rehab when he leaves. “I’ve got to learn how to walk all over again,” he says.

His biggest regret so far? “I just can’t get the wrestling matches on TV like I want,” he laughs, explaining that he can’t access cable in his room. “I miss not seeing it.”

Such declining health, especially for someone who has battled the likes of Blackjack Mulligan, Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan, might have undone a lesser man. But the affable Nelson, in his typical folksy, down-home demeanor, jokes that there are situations far worse than his. And that he’s had a wonderful life that has afforded him many opportunities that he remains thankful for.

Most of all, he was able to do something he loved, and that was professional wrestling. It was a world full of colorful figures that came in all shapes and sizes, with the ring as their stage. Burrhead Jones was one of those special characters.

He performed in front of thousands and traveled around the world, but it was his rural Berkeley County roots that helped prepare Melvin Nelson for a career in professional wrestling more than 50 years ago.

“I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” says Nelson, who didn’t let his hardscrabble youth discourage him. His humble beginnings provided a sturdy work ethic that would serve him well in later years.

Nelson never won a world title, nor did he ever command the six- and seven-figure salaries commonplace in the business today.

What he did do 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 business would ultimately accord Nelson the respect he had earned. In many ways, he said, the wrestling profession was like the large, close-knit family he had left behind years earlier.

“Wrestling is one big family that sticks together,” Nelson said in a 2003 interview. “I’ve gotten to meet many interesting people along the way. I never sensed any prejudice among the boys. Traveling was a great experience for me. I may have a 10th-grade education, but I’ve got a Ph.D. in common sense and knowledge. I can hold a conversation with anybody, no matter what level they’re on, no matter if it’s the President of the United States or a wino in the gutter. The experience of life and traveling around the world, meeting people from different walks of life, has given me that gift.”

Nelson moved back to Berkeley County in 1990 after winding down his wrestling career, and retired after 15 years at DAK America, formerly the DuPont fibers plant, in Moncks Corner. “I was fortunate enough to come out and get a good job as warehouse manager and stuff like that, and learn how to run the computer,” he says.

He even took part in a wrestling match at age 65 as part of a special event.

Nelson left his native Lowcountry 10 years ago for New York City where he has lived ever since on the first floor of a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment he shares with wife Viola. He had done the same more than 60 years ago when he set out for a better life. It was that desire to achieve better things that prompted Nelson, at age 17, to go in search of new horizons. In 1955, he moved to New York, carrying only a shopping bag and the hope of a steady paycheck.

“I had no idea what I was going to do,” Nelson said. “I left the cotton field with a sack on one arm Friday afternoon, and by Saturday afternoon, I was in New York City. I had little education and little experience. I didn’t even know how to use a telephone, because we never had one.”

But he learned that, and much more. “I got to see so many people and got to go so many places I would have never gone to had it not been for the wrestling business.”

When looking back over the past seven decades, he sees a life of joy and simple truths.

“A person can make anything out of life that he wants to. God has given me more than I ever expected.”

For those who might want to give Burrhead some words of encouragement or simply say hello, he says he carries his cell phone with him, and would love to hear from his fans. His number is 843-607-5482.

He also vows that his fans haven’t heard the last of Burrhead Jones.

“I love all of the fans ... each and every one of them. I’ll overcome this. I’m 79 years old. I’m one of the old-timers. I’ll be back in the saddle.”

But, he laughs, “Just not in the ring.”

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