Grappler's journey through the world of professional wrestling

"Grappler: Memoirs of a Masked Madman" is the true story of one of pro wrestling's most underrated talents.

Just a few short years into his career, Len Denton was ready to hang up his wrestling boots.

The money wasn't particularly good, the traveling was grueling and his career just wasn't talking off the way he had planned.

Tired of doing jobs for hard-nosed promoters and with little monetary reward to show for it, Denton decided to give the business one last shot in the Carolinas.

He told his then-wife that if things didn't work out, they could move back to Texas where he had a job waiting on him on his dad's construction crew.

"After three years I just didn't get a break. I had tried everything I could," says Denton.

Then he got that lucky break he had been waiting for.

Denton had been working undercard bouts for Crockett Promotions when fellow prelim grappler Gene Lewis approached him in the hallway of the arena in Norfolk, Va.

"Gene told me I had a call from Buck Robley," says Denton, referring to the booker for promoter Cowboy Bill Watts' Tri-State Wrestling (later Mid-South Wrestling).

"I heard you could wrestle your butt off," Robley told Denton. "I also heard you wear a mask."

Denton had indeed donned a hood a few times during a stint in Georgia, but with little success. A mask could be a highly profitable gimmick in those days, and Denton recalled an earlier conversation with Carolina-based wrestler Don Kernodle.

Kernodle suggested a name for a masked wrestler - "The Grappler" - and the moniker had resonated with Denton.

When Robley told Denton that an up-and-coming star by the name of Junkyard Dog was taking the territory by storm and breaking attendance records, and that Denton might actually have an opportunity to have a run as the Mid-South champion, he jumped at the opportunity.

"I have a name and I have a mask," he told Robley. "The Grappler."

Denton was a success in Watts' territory, and a new masked wrestler was born. The year was 1980, and Denton remains active in the business to this day.

Denton's ascension as a top-flight performer under a hood is detailed in a new book co-written with Portland-based journalist Joe Vithayathil. Titled "Grappler: Memoirs of a Masked Madman," the book is a candid, entertaining account of Denton's journey through the wrestling business.

Denton, now 56, pulls no punches in describing the long, uphill battle he waged to make a name - and a living - during the territorial days of pro wrestling.

The book is an honest and accurate depiction of the life of a pro wrestler in the territory era who struggled to keep his career alive as the territorial system was dying out.

While Len Denton (real name Edward Lynn Denton) might not be a household name in the business, his wrestling persona of The Grappler made his mark in the profession, holding a number of titles in the various territories.

Just as important, adds Denton, he helped a lot of his fellow wrestlers along the way and was highly respected among his peers.

"In short, I'm proof that not every legend wears a Hall of Fame ring," he rightfully proclaims in the book.

Denton tells his story without the bitterness or regret that is all too often expressed in similar autobiographies. Instead, the Humble, Texas, native writes with candor and humor while taking the reader on a roller-coaster of ups and downs, triumphs and failures.

Soft-spoken and affable outside the ring, Denton was mean, nasty and double-tough inside the squared circle, playing his heel role to perfection.

But it took accomplished veterans like Ric Flair, Swede Hanson and Ox Baker to help mold Denton into a well-rounded performer.

"Ric taught me the psychology of the business - when to do things and why. Being around him was the education of a lifetime."

Raw-boned veteran Hanson helped break in a young and inexperienced Denton as a rookie.

"Back then, they wouldn't just let you walk in and tell them you're a pro wrestler," says Denton. "They wouldn't say anything to you, and you'd have to prove yourself."

Hanson had come through the ranks the hard way, and he was more than happy to test Denton's mettle.

"Swede would chop me so hard that my chest would be bleeding when I'd come out of the ring. He gave me my cauliflower ear with one punch. When I hit the mat, he went, 'Welcome to the world of pro wrestling.' That's what they did back then."

And Baker, one of wrestling's all-time great villains, came up with what would become The Grappler's catch phrase.

Denton was in the Knoxville territory traveling with Baker when the menacing bad guy growled in his intimidating voice: "Let me tell you something kid. You need a catch phrase - something they'll remember you by."

The words then seemed to flow like wine, Denton recalls. Baker recited Denton's future signature spiel.

"They've got a name for you. When you're the greatest wrestler in wrestling today, they don't call you a great wrestler. They call you The Grappler. Beat me ... if you can."

"Use that, and you'll make money," Baker added.

Denton did, and the rest was history.

Denton's most successful run was in Watts' booming Mid-South territory during the early '80s.

With a mask and controversial loaded boot, The Grappler became one of the most hated heels on Mid-South's star-filled roster.

But first, he had to pass muster for Watts, who had a well-deserved reputation as one of the toughest promoters in the business.

"I was there for about two or three weeks, and Billl wasn't sure I was the guy," recalls Denton. "He told Paul Orndorff he wanted me to go 30 minutes to a draw."

Watts personally flew to the show to watch the audition. Orndorff gave Denton heads-up that Watts was sitting in a chair on the stage, and that this would be his test match.

"If you don't do good here, you can forget about them putting (Ted) DiBiase's North American title on you. They'll get rid of you instead," Orndorff warned.

Most newcomers with just a few years experience might have buckled under the pressure, but not Denton. He had been put through similar tests while breaking into the business as a teenager.

"I first went to Amarillo and got fired in two weeks. But I had a passion for wrestling in my blood. I knew I was going to make it."

It also wasn't his first rodeo with Watts. Dory Funk had sent Denton to Watts a couple of years earlier. At the time, Denton was green and undersized.

"You can lose about 10 pounds, and we can use you as a midget," Watts laughed at Denton.

The last laugh, however, belonged to Denton.

"I came back later and was able to draw a lot of money, and I was proud of that."

His "tryout" match with Orndorff went smoothly, and Denton was on his way to achieving the success and monetary benefits he had been looking for.

"Thank God we had a good match and everything went great. And the story went from there. We worked an angle where Teddy (DiBiase) hurt my leg, I came back with a loaded boot and stole the North American title."

It was while working for Watts that Denton earned the biggest payday of his career - three thousand dollars for a match in which he and The Super Destroyer (Scott Irwin) defeated Dusty Rhodes and Andre The Giant for the Mid-South tag-team title in front of 22,000 fans at the Superdome in New Orleans.

Before he knew it, The Grappler held the North American heavyweight title, the Mississippi heavyweight and one half of the Louisiana tag-team title. He became as much hated as Junkyard Dog was loved. "In 1981, wrestling Junkyard Dog in New Orleans was like cursing the Pope in St. Peter's Square," laughs Denton. Only the alert and speedy action of an officer prevented Denton from being shot by a homicidal ringside fan during a heated bout with JYD.

With Denton pulling in big money, he began to envision even bigger payoffs and greater success on the other side of the fence. But, much to his chagrin, he found out that the grass wasn't always greener on that other side.

When he asked Watts for a bigger cut, the promoter responded by helping facilitate Denton's departure.

Only now can he laugh at his folly.

"Can you imagine that? I was averaging three grand a week, and that wasn't enough money for a 21-year-old kid."

"I learned a heavy lesson," he adds. "I killed my own progress. I got a big ego, and I paid dearly for it."

Denton's next stop was in the Carolinas where Ole Anderson had just taken over as booker.

Even more hard-nosed than Watts, Anderson would have none of Denton's ambitious plans.

"I walked into Ole's office to get my check. I wrestled every night and drove three thousand miles that week. My check was three hundred dollars."

The stunned wrestler placed the check on the desk and told Anderson he couldn't even feed his family on that paltry sum.

Anderson's response was short and sweet: "Well then ... let them starve."

Message received, and lesson learned.

"They made me pay for it dearly. It took me about five years in the business to make that level of money again. Everybody's expendable. If they can get that big of an ego, they're gone."

Denton's Mid-Atlantic experience, though, wasn't all bad.

He got the "education of a lifetime" by being the driver for future NWA world champion Ric Flair.

With Flair's license revoked for going too fast in his brand new Cadillac and souped-up Lincoln Continental, Denton got the duty of driving the Nature Boy from town to town.

During those road trips, Denton learned lessons that would become invaluable in his wrestling journey.

"Ric Flair was a tremendous help. When I got the honor of driving him, since he had lost his license in Charlotte, he would school me after we got into the car after the matches. He'd school me on the wrestling and he'd school me on the promos."

More importantly, says Denton, it was Flair who taught him the psychology of the business.

"He'd ask me why I did something in my match and explain the psychology. I had an open book to the world champion. How could you ask for any better?

"It really was a break of a lifetime. He explained psychology to me. Here was a guy fixing to be the world champion. They didn't bring him in for nothing. We spent a lot of time on promos. You gotta have that character. He'd make me do two-minute promos. And I learned so much during that time ... not to mention just being in his presence."

Denton also had the opportunity to book for Harley Race on the Kansas City circuit.

"Doesn't get much better than that," says Denton.

Still involved in the wrestling business, but mostly on the writing end, Denton makes Portland, Ore., his home.

He worked in the Pacific Northwest for a good portion of his career, holding the territory's major title on seven different occasions and the tag-team title a total of 10 times, with partners including Scotty The Body (Scott "Raven" Levy), Steve Doll, Don Harris and the late Brian Adams.

It was there that he became close friends and business partners with Roddy Piper in the dying days of Portland wrestling. Piper even writes the foreword to Denton's book.

Denton's dedication to his craft shines through in the book, and he still gives advice to young wrestlers trying to break into the business.

The business, of course, has changed since The Grappler wreaked havoc, and he tells aspiring performers that developing their own unique characters is a must.

"If you can't talk, and you don't have a personality, that's 95 percent of this business. You have to be able to put (butts) in the seats."

Denton also tells them to study other successful wrestlers and take bits and pieces of the best.

After all, he says, that's what he did.

"I used Ox Baker's promo. I used Don Kernodle's name. Nothing's sacred," Denton laughs. "But if it will make you a living, put it all together and make yourself a personality. Use all those things to make you a different person."

In Len Denton's book, there are no regrets. He had a passion for the business, and he followed his dream.

He went to his first pro wrestling show at the age of 13, and was hooked from that time on.

Denton even passed up a possible shot to play in the big leagues. He was offered a partial baseball scholarship to a college in Kansas and was scouted by the Cincinnati Reds.

Playing in a summer semi-pro league, he was 2-4 and had thrown out two runners trying to steal. A scout for the Reds was impressed. The next day, however, he was on the road to Amarillo to start his pro wrestling career.

"If it doesn't work out, call us back," the scout told Denton.

He never looked back.

After his first week wrestling in the Texas Panhandle, his initial showings were so unimpressive that he was booked to referee his following six shots.

He was given the cold shoulder by the aging vets in the dressing room. It wasn't uncommon treatment for rookies, but did nothing to boost Denton's sagging confidence.

Booker Art Nelson called him a scrawny, little (expletive). Killer Karl Kox harassed him. Swede Hanson pounded him with hands the size of frying fans.

But it was all part of Denton's indoctrination into a business that he would still be involved in 37 years later.

"It was a great career," says Denton.

One that could only happen in the world of professional wrestling.

To purchase the book, visit www.grapplerbook.com.

Dr. Ken Ramey, one of the top managers in the business during the '60s and '70s, passed away Friday at the age of 83.

Ramey's most famous teams were incarnations of The Medics and The Interns (Billy Garrett and Dick Dunn, Garrett and Jim Starr, and later Starr and Tom Andrews).

Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or mooneyham@postandcourier.com, or follow him on Twitter @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.