Joe Scarpa, who entertained pro wrestling fans for decades as Native American favorite Chief Jay Strongbow, died Tuesday at the age of 83.
Scarpa, who had two heart valves replaced in recent years, suffered a fall at his home in late 2011 and was hospitalized. His health never improved.
Scarpa, a member of the WWE Hall of Fame, was one of the top stars in the then-WWWF (Worldwide Wrestling Federation) during the ‘70s and early ‘80s.
Before becoming the popular Indian character, Scarpa was a top attraction under his real name, headlining events mainly throughout the South.
Scarpa, who broke into the business in 1947, retired from the ring shortly after the company expanded nationally, but worked into the ‘90s as an agent and producer. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1994.
Scarpa told The Post and Courier in a 2008 interview that he stumbled upon the gimmick. Gorilla Monsoon, who had been working with Scarpa in California, knew that promoter Vince McMahon Sr. was looking for an Indian to feature in the WWWF. Monsoon told McMahon, and the rest was history.
“A gimmick is what you make out of it,” said Scarpa, whose dad was Italian and whose mother was a Cherokee Indian. “Saying you’re a pilot doesn’t mean you can fly a plane. You have to learn to fly the plane as well. Same with the Indian gimmick.”
Many longtime wrestling fans and some wrestlers themselves were shocked when they eventually discovered that Scarpa had changed his gimmick from straight-shooting “Jolting” Joe Scarpa to an a heavily gimmicked Indian wrestler named Chief Jay Strongbow.
Nick Kozak, who teamed with Scarpa in Hawaii, recalled his surprise at the amazing transformation.
“I’ll never forget this. We were talking about the gimmicks guys were using. I remember Joe saying, ‘Yeah, you’ll never catch me doing that. I’m not a gimmick man. I’m just Joe Scarpa.’”
Kozak remembers later stopping at a bar and seeing an Indian on TV. “The guy was doing his comeback with an Indian war dance. I thought to myself that he looked familiar. I’m looking and looking ... when Joe made a comeback, he used to pump his arms back like a broken chicken wing. I went, ‘Oh, my God! Joe Scarpa! Joe Scarpa is Jay Strongbow? An Indian?’ I couldn’t believe it.”
Scarpa, who worked for the McMahon family for nearly 30 years, had lived in Griffin, Ga., for the past five decades.
He held the WWWF tag-team titles four times — once with partners Sonny King and Billy White Wolf (later Sheikh Adnan Alkaissy), and twice with his “brother” Jules Strongbow (Frank Hill).
Scarpa helped shape the careers of a number of top wrestlers.
“It is easy to see, I am sure, what a great influence Joe had on my career,” said the late great Jack Brisco. “He opened a lot of doors and went to bat for me when no one even knew who I was. He treated me like a son. It was not just with kind words and actions, but with chastisement when I needed it.”
“I taught Jack a lot. He got (upset) at me a lot of times, but I figured if he got (upset) enough, he wouldn’t mess up,” said Scarpa. “He didn’t want me to chew him out again. I got on him strong. But Jackie was always good and I thought the world of him. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have done that with him.”
“I helped a lot of guys. I helped Hulk Hogan,” added Strongbow. “A lot of stuff Hogan did he copied from me. He admitted it too.”
“Chief Jay Strongbow helped me as much, if not more, than anyone else in my career. It truly saddens me to see the wrestling world lose one of its great contributors. He was the star of most of my locker-room drawings,” Bret Hart wrote on his Twitter account.
Scarpa, who wrestled at Madison Square Garden 118 times, said he didn’t consider the legendary Bruno Sammartino a great babyface.
“Bruno never wanted to go on after I went on,” said Scarpa, who thought Sammartno might have carried some resentment against him. “I didn’t care because I knew what I could do.”
Scarpa recalled a meeting current WWE owner Vince McMahon had some years ago with then-NBC sports division chief Dick Ebersol. McMahon looked at Hulk Hogan and others in the room, pointed to Strongbow and said: “I wish he was 10 years younger.”
“I had a lot of confidence in myself. Like Vince used to say ... you know where you’re going and how to get there. I have no regrets.”