Pro wrestling great Blackjack Mulligan created a character for the ages

Blackjack Mulligan (Bob Windham) was the patriarch of a great wrestling family.

It’s never easy saying goodbye to an old friend. But that’s what the professional wrestling community had to do last week when Bob Windham, better known to millions of fans around the world as Blackjack Mulligan, passed away Thursday at the age of 73.

Mulligan, a giant of a man who was billed at 6-7 and 350 pounds during his prime, was one of the most well-known performers of his generation, particularly in the talent-laden Carolinas during the ‘70s where he teamed and feuded with a young “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. The two would become close friends and even neighbors, with stories of their out-of-ring antics trumping even their most outlandish theatrics inside the squared circle.

Mulligan’s tales of his adventures with the Nature Boy were numerous, and some indeed are better left to those who shared them. “I’ll be leaving God’s green earth with them stories,” Mulligan once said.

Their extracurricular escapades took them from every major nightspot in the Carolinas and Virginia to across the Mexican border to Nuevo Laredo. They even shared a van which would become part of an infamous storyline on television.

“We bought these little old tract houses in Charlotte that this guy sold for $49,500. These were $200,000 places, so I bought four and Ric bought a couple, and we wound up next-door neighbors. And what a thing that was,” Mulligan recalled in a 2008 interview.

Before he knew it, Flair had Mulligan’s 15-year-old son (and future Hall of Famer and Four Horseman), Barry Windham, chauffeuring him in a Cadillac limousine Flair had purchased from the beach music group The Tams. Problem was, laughed Mulligan, that Barry wasn’t even old enough to have his driver’s license.

“I once burned up one of his limousines,” admitted Windham, who is now 55. “I was out driving my buddies around in the Nature Boy limousine and we pulled into a Taco Bell drive-through. The back end of the car caught on fire. We didn’t get to take the limos out after that.”

Mulligan and Flair also were one of the major reasons for the territory’s phenomenal success during that period. They used real-life experiences to develop a lucrative storyline where the aging Mulligan, turning babyface for the first time in his career, parted ways with the younger, boisterous Flair. Dubbed “The Hat and Robe,” it was one of the most famous angles in Mid-Atlantic history, with Flair tearing up a cowboy hat given to Blackjack by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, and Mulligan in return destroying Flair’s prized $7,500 peacock robe.

Flair and Mulligan were no strangers, since the rawboned cowboy had helped indoctrinate the future Nature Boy earlier in Texas. The two had first crossed paths at the Headlock Ranch (then owned by Mulligan and Dusty Rhodes) in Austin, where a green Flair accompanied a veteran crew that included tough guys Dick Murdoch, Bobby Duncum and Ray “The Crippler” Stevens.

Mulligan recalled in an interview that Flair, who sported a brown crewcut and was much heavier at the time, resembled Curly of The Three Stooges.

“Ray Stevens ribbed Ric, the new boy, into taking down a full-grown cow, about 1,200 pounds, and the fight was on. It’s a wonder Ric is alive today,” Mulligan joked. “Ric weighed about 300 pounds then and was big as a house. He loved wrestling and so did I. He was very enthusiastic and was a hard worker, even back then. I can say in all honesty he’s the biggest star of all time.”

The next time their paths crossed in Charlotte, Flair had trimmed down, was sporting bleached blond hair and his own unique style. Booker George Scott convinced Mulligan to come to the Carolinas and take over the No. 1 heel spot until Flair, still learning the business but already considered championship material, was ready to take over.

“I fell in love with the place,” said Mulligan. “I had never seen so many pretty girls in one place in my life. It was a good place to work, but it was long trips and we worked hard.”

Blackjack became the territory’s top heel following the 1975 plane crash that sidelined Flair and paralyzed Johnny Valentine. He filled the role nicely, capturing the U.S. heavyweight title and later the world tag-team title with Flair.

“Blackjack came in and helped lift up a territory that was still in shock after the plane crash tragedy,” said Dick Bourne of the Mid-Atlantic Gateway website. “His arrival after the plane crash was as important a factor in the territory getting back on its feet as anything else. George Scott put a lot of the weight of the recovery of the territory on Blackjack’s shoulders. He also helped Ric Flair prepare to be the number one heel in the territory, and when it was time Blackjack stepped aside and allowed Flair to make that ascension in one of the territory’s most famous angles.”

“Although our careers would take us down different paths, I’ve never forgotten the amazing times we had and the friendship we shared,” said Flair. “I will always be indebted to Jack Mulligan for guiding me during an important part of my career, and for being a friend I could always look up to.”

Mulligan, who like Flair had trained under wrestling great Verne Gagne, was a fixture in the Mid-Atlantic area from the mid-1970s through 1981, and some of his greatest programs involved Flair as both an opponent and a partner. Whether it was in a small high school gymnasium or in front of 15,000 fans at the Greensboro Coliseum, Mulligan and Flair treated the fans to a performance they’d always remember. The “Mully and Rickus” show never failed to deliver.

“Those were some fun times,” said Mulligan, who at one time owned the Knoxville wrestling territory along with Flair. “I’ve had some real highs and some real lows, but I’ve been very blessed.”

The pride of Sweetwater, Texas, was, indeed, one of pro wrestling’s true originals. A master storyteller with a gift for gab that made him one of the best interviews in the sport, the man affectionately dubbed Bobby Jack Windham was one of the greatest performers and most charismatic characters the business has ever seen.

The towering grappler cast an imposing shadow as he went head-to-head with other behemoths of the day such as Andre The Giant, Big John Studd, The Superstar (Bill Eadie) and The Super Destroyer (Don Jardine). He was a football player (at the University of Texas at El Paso before suiting up for the New York Jets in the 1966 AFL preseason) before Wahoo McDaniel, another gridiron product who would later become one of his most celebrated rivals, convinced him there was much more money to be made in the wrestling game. Bob Windham, as he was known at the time, took Wahoo up on his offer, and the legend of Blackjack Mulligan would soon be born.

Dressed in black — cowboy boots, hat and trunks — with a thick western mustache, the former Marine was a larger-than-life character. His dreaded claw hold, featuring his gloved hand, struck fear both into opponents and fans alike.

Working in Verne Gagne’s AWA (where he was named Rookie of the Year in 1970) and later in the Northeastern-based WWWF territory, Mulligan would headline major shows against such favorites Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales. He became such a heat magnet that irate, knife-wielding fans nearly killed him during a match with Morales at the Boston Gardens in 1971, requiring hundreds of stitches to close his wounds.

During the ‘70s, he was part of a top tag team with Blackjack Lanza. Managed by Bobby “The Brain” Heenan on the Indianapolis circuit, the two later captured the WWWF tag-team title in New York with Lou Albano as their manager.

“I knew he was a major attraction from the first time I saw him wrestle — shortly after I had started my own career,” recalled Flair.

That match pitted The Blackjacks, Mulligan and Lanza, along with manager Heenan, against The Crusher and The Bruiser. But it was more than a wrestling match; it was a full-scale riot.

“I knew from that moment on that I was going to love this business,” said Flair. “But little did I know that our paths would cross again a few years later when George Scott brought Jack into the Carolinas, where I was making a name in the sport. It was also one of the greatest things that ever happened to me in my career.”

Mulligan and Lanza, one of the most celebrated teams of the ‘70s, were both inducted by longtime manager Heenan into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006. Health problems had already begun to plague Mulligan, and initially he was averse to attending the ceremony. But later, with some prodding from his old running buddy Flair, he consented.

The only regret I have is that I’m not 21 years old,” he said in his induction speech. “I wish I could do this again, I really, really do.” It would be his last major public appearance.

While Mulligan’s career winded down in the late ‘80s, his legacy continued with sons Barry and Kendall Windham.

While Kendall enjoyed moderate success, Barry joined his father in the WWE Hall of Fame and held the NWA world heavyweight title. Mulligan’s daughter Stephanie married former pro star and current WWE producer Mike Rotunda. Two current WWE stars, Bray Wyatt (Windham Rotunda) and Bo Dallas (Taylor Rotunda), are Rotunda’s sons and Mulligan’s grandsons. Their sister, Mika Rotunda, also works for WWE.

Like his dad a decade earlier, Barry enjoyed an incredible run working for Crockett Promotions during the ‘80s and into the ‘90s for WCW, and at one time was considered one of the best in-ring workers in the business.

“My dad had kept us all pretty sheltered from the business,” Barry said in a 2014 interview. “He kept us away from the shows. I was 11 before I got to go to my first (wrestling) show. I went with him to some workouts, but he didn’t let me come around that much. But I could understand why he did that.”

Windham knew Blackjack Mulligan was one huge, imposing figure in the ring. But at home, he says, “he was always Dad.”

“I’m sure it was difficult at times for him to balance home and wrestling, especially at times like that, when he was so hot.”

Lowcountry native Burrhead Jones (Melvin Nelson), who first met Mulligan in New York during the early ‘70s in the old WWWF, says Mulligan helped put him on the wrestling map with one of the Mid-Atlantic territory’s most memorable angles in 1976.

The match saw a much smaller Jones take a seemingly vicious beating at the hands of Mulligan in a bout televised in Raleigh, N.C. It was a textbook angle that is still talked about in wrestling circles today.

“That angle gave me a big push and a big name in the business,” said Jones, 78, who now lives in New York City. “It got me started real good.”

At the old County Hall in Charleston, Mulligan was a fixture during the ‘70s and ‘80s, battling the likes of Flair, Andre The Giant, Tim “Mr. Wrestling” Woods, Johnny Weaver, Big John Studd, Greg Valentine, Rufus R. Jones, Paul Jones and McDaniel, with whom he engaged in countless bloodbaths over the years.

“He was one the biggest reasons why I fell in love with pro wrestling,” said longtime fan Chris Wilkinson. “His character was believable. The memory of seeing Blackjack against John Studd at County Hall ... nothing pretty, but a good fight.”

“Jack was an iconic, larger-than-life character. Like John Wayne and Waylon Jennings rolled into one with a touch of Bugs Bunny,” said Richard O’Sullivan of New York City, a writer and producer who followed Mid-Atlantic Wrestling during its heyday.

“Simultaneously heroic, scary and hilarious. I learned more about storytelling from a Blackjack Mulligan interview than I ever learned from a school book. He painted these vivid portraits of life down in Eagle Pass, Texas, that made me feel like I grew up there. I never saw Uncle Reba Joe or Spider Grip or Sarah Joe Puckett, but I knew them somehow and it provided his character background.”

At 6-7, Mulligan was a natural opponent for Andre, and their matches drew sellout crowds throughout the U.S. and Canada.

“One of my most memorable moments was when Dick Murdoch and I threw a party for him in Virginia Beach,” Mulligan recalled. “We had this special suite on the beach, and we surprised him with a birthday cake and a garbage can full of beer. He really loved that. He actually cried ... he had tears in his eyes. He was just a great, lovable guy. That really was a great time.”

As hated a heel as Mulligan was, in later years he would become one of the most beloved and revered figures in the Carolinas.

Once he turned heel, he said, there was no turning back.. “It was ridiculous. It was so easy it was silly.”

Heel or face, Mulligan created a character for the ages, one that would be remembered for years

“Blackjack was a character ... a guy you really liked being around,” said longtime promoter Jim Crockett.

“He was an impressive guy. And for his size, I don’t think there was a better big guy in the business for that stature,” added Bill “Masked Superstar” Eadie.

“He was larger than life but down to earth and a real man,” said former pro Bob Blackburn who, like Mulligan, served in the Marines. Blackburn recalled an incident in a Maine dressing room where a number of “marks” were trying their best to impress Mulligan with their exploits.

“Nelson (Royal) and Gene (Anderson) had taught us to keep our mouth shut ... So as I was there tying my boots, Mulligan says to me, ‘What are you going to tell me?’ My response was ... Nothing, I’m just tying my boots.”

“He tells the mob of knuckleheads to go away and looks at me and says you stay here and sit with me. As both Marines, we were able to find common ground quickly.”

Former women’s champ Susan “Tex” Green trained with Mulligan — then Bob Windham — under Joe Blanchard in Corpus Christi, Texas, in the late ‘60s.

“We gave Joe Blanchard eight hours a day in a tin building in south Texas. There were no ceiling fans or air conditioning, and Joe wouldn’t even let us pull up the double doors to get a breeze.”

Green, only 14 at the time, says the grueling training helped her later in her career.

“We were glad because Joe had us prepared for what we had to deal with overseas. We were very well trained. Joe had many of the stars from the ‘60s train with us a few hours before the shows on Thursday night. Guys like Johnny Valentine, Wahoo, Toru Tanaka, Thunderbolt Patterson all helped. Bob and I were the two that went on to make a name in wrestling that fans remember around the world. When we got it, we were like kids in a candy store.”

Mulligan was mesmerized by Patterson’s soulful, shuck-n-jive speak interviews. Like Dusty Rhodes, he admittedly incorporated some of Patterson’s colorful talk into his act.

“His style was so cool and different,” said Mulligan. “I loved it.”

While the soul rap promos helped get fans into the buildings, Mulligan could back it up with his performance.

Mulligan, a devout born-again Christian who posted daily Scriptures on his Facebook page and was involved with a prayer team, had learned from his mistakes. He spent two years in a minimum-security prison for a federal counterfeiting conviction in 1989 after running into legal trouble with his real estate holdings. Son Kendall got 27 months.

“I became very, very wealthy. But I outstretched myself, and got in a bind. And then I did something real, real rash. I made some bad decisions hanging around lawyers, with people in the real estate business, and it cost me a couple years of my life. I was so strung out on money that when the dominoes started ... you make bad decisions. You make strange, weird decisions that you normally wouldn’t make. And you’re 50 years old.”

But, he would later add, that was the old Blackjack. In recent years Mulligan had come to terms with his declining health and knew his time was drawing near. “I’ve made my soul clear with the man. I admitted everything I did ... I apologized to everybody. I’m sorry I did it. I’m forgiven. I’m born again, and I’m going to heaven.”

Mulligan was a folk hero and legend, and in his self-published 2008 autobiography “True Lies and Alibis,” he talked about becoming “hopelessly lost in the fairly tale world of professional wrestling,” and being “frozen in time to the past.”

“We wined, dined and romanced in those days, and we were stars,” he wrote. “And we hung out in bars and rarely could distinguish between truth and fiction.”

Sixteen-time world champion Flair said Mulligan was one of the toughest men to ever come down the pike.

“Whenever I hear the young guys talking about wrestlers who they think are tough, I say to myself, ‘God, I wish they could have only known Jack Mulligan and been out with him for just one night!’ They really have no idea what guys like Jack

Mulligan and Harley Race are like. He’s one of the three men, along with Harley and Wahoo, who were the toughest guys I’ve ever met in the business. Jack always stood up for the business and for his friends, no matter what it took and who he took down. There was no bantering back and forth, no pushing and shoving with Jack Mulligan — just wide-open fisticuffs and a full-fledged fight that usually didn’t last very long.”

O’Sullivan agrees. Mulligan was a believable a character and a man among men.

“You knew what he was fighting for. You knew he had mouths to feed down on the Headlock Ranch. He was one of a kind. Aside from his skills on the mic and his aura, it’s amazing when you watch his matches how influential he was. Jack was hulking up before there was a Hulk Hogan. The bulging eyes, the pointing at his opponent in anger, the hitting the big boot off the ropes.

“Except unlike Hogan, those punches he threw looked like they really were gonna knock someone’s head off. Then there were the matches with John Studd. That was ECW before there was ECW. All the things people thought were new were things Blackjack Mulligan had done 10 or 15 years earlier.”

Health issues, though, had plagued Mulligan for a number of years. He suffered heart attacks, his weight ballooned, and he had turned down a number of requests to make appearances over the years. He attributed some of his problems to a case of the bends he had suffered in a diving accident.

In addition to the challenge of traveling to the various events from his ranch in Clermont, Fla., Mulligan would assert that he didn’t want his fans to see him in his condition.

Blackjack Mulligan, however, remained one of the most remembered and revered characters from a territory and generation that produced more than its share.

“He was a giant of a man with a giant heart who sometimes had a giant temper,” said Bourne. “But it was that heart that always came through in the end.”

“Bob and I spoke early last month and I could hear that young Bob’s voice as we relived our early days in wrestling,” said Green. “Bob said he was getting tired and I told him that it was OK and that I would give him a hug over the phone waves. I told him I loved him and he told me I would never know how much that meant to him. He will be missed by many, but I know I will him see again at ringside when my number is called.”

“You’ve seen it all when you’ve lived as long as I have,” Mulligan said in a 2008 interview. “I don’t believe it. I probably should have been dead a long time ago. I sometimes wonder what I’m still doing walking around. God knows when he’s going to stop this heart.”

Former wrestling star Les Thatcher said he had little doubt that his longtime friend had found another arena and another main event.

“Now he and Wahoo can beat the hell out of one another and sip some Jack Daniels.”

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