Although I’m not American, here’s my contribution to Independence Day in the USA, a review of some episodes of an old series called Icons of Wrestling, produced by a fellow Brit called Dale Barnes and featuring the likes of Yukon Eric, Abdullah the Butcher and first up Mr. America, Gene Stanlee.
Show starts off with America, despite the seemingly babyface name, wrestling a very heelish style against the Black Panther in the fifties. In the present, in his eighties, Barnes talks about how he was one of fifteen children! A bit of shoehorned-in context informs us that he was born towards the end of World War One and not long after the death of Rasputin.
More specific to Stanlee, he talks about how when he was five he fell down the stairs and was on death’s door, but he was inspired by seeing a strongman at his church and tried to get himself moving again. This kicked off a lifetime commitment to physical fitness and he became an amateur wrestler and fighter. A bit of unintentionally funny recreated footage sees a child actor with no shoes on picking up bits of wood and metal near the side of a railroad to work out with.
By the time he was a young man he was fucking jacked, with blonde hair and big muscles. He joined the navy during World War Two, as did his older brother Steve, who also wrestled. Steve talks about how close to death they were during some battles at sea. They used their naval background to transition into pro wrestling, Gene specifically going with a pinup boy of the navy gimmick.
Stanlee was an alright wrestler, but realised that his key to success was glamour, having 52 outfits to wear and rolling in money at the time as a sex symbol who drew the women. He had numerous fan clubs full of ladies. He also cultivated a young following with a pamphlet that was the Declaration of Independence, but with his own pledge in the middle and picture of himself and Eisenhower at the bottom. He says he handed out millions of them and got even bigger publicity via television appearances.
Historian Jim Melby comes in as a more neutral voice to offer credence to Stanlee being up there with Buddy Rogers and Gorgeous George as far as colourful wrestlers of note. A bit of archive footage against Kola Kwariani features a cut to the crowd with a girl clapping and the stentorian announcer going “She LIKES it!” in a very David Crockett-esque manner!
We then go to a sixties car commercial with a very attractive young lady in a superhero costume as the spokesperson. Turns out it was his wife, Erin, who he met as her acting teacher and mentor, which he describes in an almost casting couch way. She describes him as a “romanticist”, probably meaning romantic, but inadvertently being closer to the truth with what she said. He was trying to make out with her within a fortnight even though she was married, so she quit going to him, but went back soon after. Her husband at the time was another one of his acting students, with her referring to the situation as a “mess”. It wasn’t like she was the only one he was pursuing either, but she was the one who fell for him and ended up with him.
They planned on relocating to Ecuador (probably to get away from more angry husbands!), but the political situation was shaky, so they stayed in America. She watched him wrestling as a heel and got annoyed by him, but it wasn’t a shock because he had the ability to aggravate people at a thousand yards in real life anyway.
Lou Thesz makes an appearance to quickly discuss his interactions with Gene and Steve, recalling a story Gene told him about being able to subsist on water alone, which Lou rolled his eyes at. Steve steps back in to talk about how much they trained, with him having got heavier since his youth (“We overdid it”), but Gene still working out with an attempt at sit-up despite his body being much older and broken down. Gene got Erin into working out too and they established a yoga retreat and were involved in some goofy stuff with diplomas that sound like they were bought or given out by colleges they started themselves.
The Meltdown #1: A semi-interesting look at a forgotten glamour boy of the early days of wrestling who had some snake oil salesman qualities and probably had women hanging off the end of his dick whether they wanted to be or not.
Next up, Yukon Eric…
Archive footage against Baron Gattoni shows off Eric’s strength. As he was from Everett, Washington, he was billed as a lumberjack. He was the only son of Swedish parents, who themselves were strong lumberjacks, but none as big as Eric, although he was short. He played many sports and joined the army, where he met Man Mountain Dean, who got him into the wrestling business. Lou Thesz speaks about him hauling some massive weight in the gym.
Sputnik Monroe (misspelt Spudnick on the chyron) speaks of his gimmick as a lumberjack and how that contrasted with Sputnik “as this little Elvis thing”. They were great friends even wrestling as opponents and kept up regularly with one another. Despite his grounded nature, Eric actually drove around in a Cadillac convertible with no shirt on to show off and promote the events no matter the weather. Scott Teal also tells a story about how some wrestlers hijacked his trailer and he no-sold it by miming walking around it to the fridge and getting a beer out while they watched.
We’re also joined by Killer Kowalski to tell the legendary story of him doing a kneedrop on Eric off the top rope where he hit the side of his head and it knocked off the cauliflower part of his left ear. Eric had to go to the hospital to get it fixed up and the promoter ordered Kowalski to go there to apologise to him, even though it was an accepted fact that injuries happen sometimes. When he saw him sitting on the side of the bed with his head bandaged the first thing that came to mind was “Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall”, so he started laughing. The press picked up on it and ran with the story that Kowalski went to the hospital to taunt his victim and called him a “killer”, giving him the name Killer Kowalski.
Archive footage shows Eric, with his strange gait (his chest so big that he couldn’t bring his arms down to his side properly), roughing up wrestlers and referees in the ring. As successful as his career was, his personal life was failing, with his wife leaving him and taking their three children, leading to depression. Sputnik Monroe rejoins the show to recall how he was back in town and called him to arrange possibly meeting up. At the same time, he saw the church he got married at and committed suicide by self-inflicted gunshot on the grounds. Sputnik sums it up in an understated (for him) manner of how you can say a lot of things about Eric but the main thing was “he was one hell of a guy”. Lou Thesz adds to that by saying that everyone liked him in the wrestling business and everyone missed him too.
The Meltdown #2: A better edition that missed out on the actual presence of the focus, but had some great voices to speak for him in his absence.
One more for now… Mr. A. Butcher.
Show kicks off with some footage from Southwest, with Abby pulling out the foreign object to attack and maim willing bleeder Bobby Jaggers as well as an unwilling referee and anyone else who tries to break up the fight until Carlos Colon and Manny Fernandez run him off. Barnes reveals that Abdullah, real name: Larry Shreeve, came from Windsor, Ontario, not the Sudan. His mother, who must’ve been in her eighties at this point, talks about him growing up with a big family in a small house, which she still lives in.
They lived a reduced lifestyle at the same time as World War Two was happening. Abby tells a funny story of how everyone had to do their part to bring in money, so he used to work people as a kid by having a pile of newspapers and crying and telling people he wasn’t allowed to go home until he sold them all, so people would give him money out of pity. One day his dad, who didn’t know about the scheme, saw an adult male talking to him as he walked by and rushed across the street to “protect” his son. The man had bought the story and told him he should be ashamed of himself if he said he couldn’t go home until they were all sold, so Mr. Shreeve apologised and dragged young Larry away by the ear and told him he couldn’t do that scam any more. He promised he wouldn’t, but then just based himself further away and carried on.
His entry into wrestling was via karate and judo and he was an immediate star in his own words, making big money early. A preacher asked him how he got people so excited one time, so Abby told him they were both doing the same thing – working people so they kept on coming back. When he got to where he was making good money regularly he went and picked his mom up from the funeral home she worked at and told her she was done working for life and he’d be looking after her from there on.
Abdullah’s success in Japan is discussed. Antonio Inoki admits he didn’t like his style but did like his character. Abdullah played hardball with the promoters over how much they were willing to pay because he promised something they’d never seen before. TV success saw him being brought back regularly for thirty years. We see clips of him in a really good match against the Hulkster, doing some awesome selling off a high knee. Abby also met his second wife in Japan too. Her dad was the promoter and she was at college. They developed a relationship over time. The promoter wasn’t happy that a non-Japanese man wanted to go out with his daughter, with Abby rebutting that the promoter was of mixed origins himself. He said that entitled him to marry either side, but he said the Butcher couldn’t come to his house any more to do business. Despite that Abby married her and stays married to her. Together they established their restaurant in Georgia.
Abdullah says his wrestling highlight was wrestling Lou Thesz, because he was scared to death of him because Thesz hated “gimmick men”, but it turned out Thesz respected him and had a good match with him.
He stays elusive about how he got the scars on his head, but does talk about how he once cut himself open from ramming his head against a bolt on the ring post. He can look in the mirror and remember how much money each scar got him, although he has one on the side of his head from a fan throwing a chair at him. He was also cut with razors and knives by fans and one time a lady stuck a hairpin “right in my ass”, which he laughs about recalling the pain.
He talks about his legacy as being akin to the film The Champ, with people cheering his name and always recognising him. He also talks about remembering his roots and visiting people where he grew up and gets emotional as he says he’s told his wife that when he dies to scatter his ashes next to wherever they scatter the ashes of his mother when she has died.
The Meltdown #3: Despite being a “foreign menace” monster for his career, Abdullah always had the gift of gab, so that’s put to good use here too.