In 1992, revered long-time St. Louis based wrestling promoter Sam Muchnick was honored at a convention organized by noted wrestling journalist/historian/photographer Dr. Mike Lano. Although the then elderly and ailing Muchnick did not attend, St. Louis saw a plethora of legends salute him. They included; Killer Kowalski, Ted Dibiase, Lanny Poffo, Lou Thesz, Rip Hawk, Red Bastien, Bob Backlund, Ox Baker, and many others. A topic of discussion was of Woody Strode.
On one particularly memorable panel at the event, they had a tribute to Black Wrestling Legends. Ernie Ladd moderated along with Kowalski who started off by, of course, honoring Mr. Muchnick. Ladd reminisced about his own many great headline battles in St. Louis. But as the ironically named “Killer” continued talking, the gentle giant brought up his old friend, Woody Strode. For those too young to remember him, he was a noted African American actor who appeared in such classics as Spartacus, Once Upon A Time in The West, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and all-time great Spaghetti Western epic, Keoma with Franco Nero.
However, some folk don’t realize that the iconic actor was also an NFL player and headline wrestler who divided his time between his passions, ultimately conquering all three worlds. Strode played football for the L.A. Rams before moving to the Canadian football league for the Calgary Stampeders where he picked up a fumble to win a championship game. Like many footballers who moved over to wrestling, he grappled in the off-season in Canada and went full-time in 1951, working the next decade or so into the 1960s. Not surprisingly, he predominantly worked in Western Canada and Los Angeles where he had been a football star.
He was at one point billed as the Pacific Coast Heavyweight Wrestling Champion and the Pacific Coast Negro Heavyweight Wrestling Champion.
Career highlights included his wrestling Gorgeous George and teaming up with other African American wrestling pioneers, Bobo Brazil and Bearcat Wright.
Kowalski grew more emotional as he told a room full of wrestling fans, media, and wrestlers about his friendship with Strode. He talked about sneaking him into then “Whites only” hotels during the Jim Crow days. Kowalski brought him food from restaurants that Strode wasn’t allowed to enter at the time. He spoke of the perils of a Black grappler traveling during those days. Kowalski spoke of how much he loved Woody and tried to help him on his exceedingly tough road. It’s an ugly part of wrestling history that isn’t discussed much anymore. And as this immortal brought up these painful memories, tears poignantly started to flow down both his cheeks.
As I glanced around the room, I saw one man after another, including huge, tougher than tough athletes, wiping away their tears. It felt like a scene in a movie. Simply put, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.” It may very well have been the most emotional thing I’d ever been a part of in the wrestling business in my near half-century of being involved in the sport.
I’ll never forget it.
You see, there’s a brotherhood in this business. You go up and down these innumerable roads and you get to know and love the folk you travel with. And here was a scenario where a great athlete, a former NFL football player no less, was time and time again treated as a lesser human being. And Kowalski, a sensitive soul who wrote poetry, produced a self-help inspirational video, and had a photography book published, was feeling every bit of this injustice. A man who terrorized fans around the world poured his heart, his tear-filled voice breaking in pure emotion.
It was an unforgettable scenario.
Woody Strode died in 1994. During Black History month folk may very well want to learn more about this very special individual who conquered film, football, and the squared circle when the odds were against him on each and every platform. Brilliant promoter Sam Muchnick left us in 1998; with his emphasis on great wrestling, he leaves us endless memories of classic encounters. And my dear friend Walter Kowalski passed away in 2008, a top-five all-time wrestling heel. Legends one and all, we still love, cherish and remember them for the endless great memories they’ve bestowed upon us all these many years later.
Woody Strode vs. Gorgeous George
Evan Ginzburg is a contributor for Pro Wrestling Post. He was an Associate Producer on the movie The Wrestler and 350 Days starring Bret Hart and Superstar Billy Graham. He is a 30-year film, radio and TV veteran. You can meet him at WrestleCon during Wrestlemania weekend where he’ll be appearing with JJ Dillon & Tommy “Wildfire” Rich. Check out his Evan Ginzburg’s Old School Wrestling Memories page on Facebook. He can be reached on Twitter @evan_ginzburg or by e-mail at [email protected].