Only a few months before, Cowboy Bill Watts had been one of the most beloved performers on the eastern professional wrestling "wheel." Now he was parking his car six blocks from the arena where he was to do battle, hoping that no one would identify him and slash his tires in his absence. "In Scranton I got three tires knifed," he said. "It’s hell on your insurance."
Just 26, boyishly handsome in his crewcut, Cowboy Bill had met and defeated scores of scowling, villainous opponents. He was one of the leading good guys on the circuit, and while legitimate athletes might dismiss his vocation as theater rather than sports, he found solace in his income. The year before, he had grossed almost $40,000 in a business that, by conservative estimates, takes in $20 million a year.
Despite his success, Cowboy Bill felt that his prospects as a good guy were limited. The current world heavyweight champion, or, at least, the one recognized as such by the eastern promoters, was a squat, hatched-nosed opera lover named Bruno Sammartino. Sammartino was firmly established as the leading paragon of humility and clean living, and the Cowboy knew that he could not hope to dent the affection in which the wrestling public held him. Nor could he hope to dethrone the champion, for promoters rarely match one good guy against another good guy.
He and Sammartino had been working together in a series of tag-team matches—bouts that pit two-man teams against each other. One night, with treacherous suddenness, the Cowboy had converted to a bad guy; in a televised match he abruptly turned on the champion, stamping on him and swearing at him. Then he had seized the microphone and shouted at the audience, "In my estimation you’re nothing but a bunch of pigs!"
Up and down the Eastern Seaboard wrestling fans had been stunned and angered by the Cowboy’s betrayal, and almost overnight he had become a box-office attraction second only to Sammartino himself. Fans spat at him, stoned him with chunks of ice and mailed him death threats. Old ladies jabbed him with hatpins. Old men burned their cigars into his flesh. "I’ve had some narrow escapes," said the Cowboy, "but if I don’t get a crowd reaction. I’m not going anywhere."
Now, on this Monday evening in Washington, the Cowboy stood on the threshold of fulfillment. He would wrestle seven times in six days (twice on Saturday), and the following Monday take on Sammartino himself—in Madison Square Garden.
The Cowboy’s opponent at the Washington Coliseum, a one-time ice plant in the city’s heavily Negro northeast section, would be Bobo Brazil, a black giant of 315 pounds. "Bobo’s a big favorite here," said the Cowboy, apprehensively pondering the reception he would get as a white Oklahoman in a Negro stronghold. Not match is dearer to the hearts of wrestling promoters than one that has overtones of ethnic warfare, and there is a fairly brisk demand for Negro wrestlers, virtually all of whom are good guys. Although promoters prefer their crowds intense, to employ Negroes as villains before white audiences would be to invite a lynching. In Canada, a nation less conscious of a distinction between races, a bleached-blond Negro named Sweet Daddy Siki is able to work as a villain, but when he crosses into the States he is transformed into a good guy.
Cowboy Bill’s dressing room was already occupied by eight other villains; the good guys dress separately. While waiting for their matches to start, the bad guys slumped on benches, wearing only their undershorts, their bellies big and their mouths clenching cigars. A short man in a purple polo shirt that announced in gold letters, I AM RIGHT, stood in the center of the room, decrying the increasingly homicidal mood of the wrestling crowds.
"They see so damn many idiotic imbeciles picketing these days, that’s the trouble," he shouted. Fifty-five, his ears thick with cauliflower from his days as a wrestler, his name is Wild Red Berry, and he is said to have become a near-millionaire by shrewdly investing his ring earnings. He keeps his hand in the game by seconding Waldo Von Erich, a villain billed as the champion of Germany, and Gorilla Monsoon, allegedly a Manchurian emigrant.
"I read Spinoza and Kant," Berry went on. "We’re outspoken men but not raucous. We have to be fit for ourselves to know. I don’t want to walk out there and face the setting sun and hate myself for the things I’ve done."
"Knock it off," said one of the bad guys.
A mustachioed, walnut-colored Puerto Rican named Frank Martinez departed from the dressing room for the first bout, making his way up a ramp overhung by chicken wire, which intercepts thrown objects. A handful of "specials"—house cops—flanked Martinez. Although the crowd was 80 percent Negro and Martinez’ opponent was a fair-skinned Carolinian, his reputation as a villain canceled any possibility that his skin would win him sympathy.
Martinez, though destined to be pinned in a matter of 17 minutes, quickly goaded the crowd to life by lifting the Carolinian by his ears and dashing him to the canvas. En route back to his dressing room, he also threatened to punch a vituperative old lady in a purple print dress.
The Cowboy left for his match a short time later—the main event often takes place midway in the show, thus giving the principal villain a chance to escape the arena ahead of the crowd. Behind a flying wedge of 15 policemen, Watts plowed up the ramp toward the ring. On all sides the fans rose in waves, shaking their fists and railing at him with a wild-eyed savagery.
In addition to his black tights and black Western-style ring shoes, the Cowboy wore a boxer’s headgear for protection against Bobo Brazil’s favorite weapon—his "coconut butt." "Take it off, Bobo!" the fans shouted as the match got under way. Bobo butted the Cowboy high on his forehead, but the headgear absorbed the blow and the Cowboy stepped back and withered Bobo with a piteous smile. A toothless young white man charged out of the fifth row, fists clenched, but two cops intercepted him.
Up in the ring the Cowboy suddenly shoved Bobo’s head between the middle and top ropes, twisting a pretzel-like noose around Bobo’s neck. Bobo’s eyes bulged and his tongue hung out. Even though the referee freed him, the crowd was now convinced that Bobo’s only hope lay in divesting the Cowboy of his headgear. "Take it off, Bobo!" the fans pleaded.
Now, at close quarters, the Cowboy whispered a word or two into Bobo’s ear. (Skeptics might have concluded that Cowboy Bill was cueing Bobo, but the Cowboy assured me later that he was calling Bobo filthy names.) Running backward, the Cowboy flung himself against the ropes, then catapulted off them and crashed into Bobo, striking him to the floor with a forearm under the heart.
Tasting the kill, Cowboy Bill leaped high, bent on descending feet-first on Bobo’s chest. In the nick of time, Bobo rolled aside, and the Cowboy crashed clumsily to the canvas. At once Bobo was upon him, ripping off his headgear. A deafening roar of jubilation burst from the crowd.
The Cowboy scrambled to his feet. Bobo charged, and the dreaded coconut butt struck high on the left side of Cowboy Bill’s forehead. Blood spurted out and then poured in tributaries down the Cowboy’s face and over his chest. Suddenly he climbed out of the ring and, with a great arm-waving gesture of disdain for Bobo’s tactics, walked hurriedly up the aisle and through the ramp.
An hour later Cowboy Bill was sitting in a cocktail lounge, refreshing himself with six bottles of beer. Wearing a patch bandage on his head, he spoke of the advantages his career has brought him. He owns a one-third interest in a cattle ranch and is investing carefully in securities. He recently had taken an apartment with pool in Gloucester city, N.J., a town that is central to the wrestling cricuit and from which he was able to drive—in his $5,500 air-conditioned car—to most of his appearances in five hours or less. Best of all, his new career as a villain promised to be even more profitable.
"Look how well Buddy Rogers did," said the Cowboy. Rogers, a bad guy who reigned as champion before Sammartino, retired to a life of ease. "He wears a twelve-carat ring on his pinkie, and he went to his high-school principal at a class reunion and flicked the ash of his cigar and said, "Hey, daddy, I’m that dropout you said would never amount to anything."
Since the Roaring ‘20s, professional wrestling has flourished despite the practically unanimous opinion of sports authorities that all pro matches are theatrical frauds. Certainly it would be an easy matter to fix a wrestling bout, for dozens of the men who regularly wrestle one another work out of the same stable, controlled by a single promoter-manager. Professional gamblers will not bet a dime on a wrestling match. No enlightened sports fan would thrill to a finish in which Sammartino appears to collapse from exhaustion but by great good luck lands flat on his opponent, pinning him to save the day.
When asked if their bouts are fixed, wrestlers respond not with an answer but with another question: "Want to get in the ring with me and find out if I’m a fake?" Certainly there is no doubt that their business is punishing. Punches are pulled, but a good many—usually those thrown to the belly or high on the opponent’s back—land reasonably hard. Broken bones are common to the trade, for not even the most agile wrestler can break his falls night after night.
Despite all skeptics, the advent of television in 1947 multiplied fans at least a thousandfold, and created such outrageous caricatures as wrestlers in long blond hair, Indian headdresses, and fur capes. This mixture of showmanship and violence packed arenas as tightly in New York City as in Wichita Falls, Tex.
At the business end of the wrestling cornucopia stands a lanky, pink-faced man of 58 named Vince McMahon, president of Capitol Wrestling Corp., and booking agent for his stable of 40-odd wrestlers, including Cowboy Bill. From his headquarters in a cheaply furnished four-room hotel suite in Washington, McMahon controls the eastern "wheel"—the most prosperous of a handful of regional circuits across the country. He personally promotes shows in the Coliseum as well as weekly televised matches at studios in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Washington; additionally, he services 80 clubs in 14 states and occasionally exports his boys to ports as distant as Tokyo.
McMahon deals strictly in "super heavyweights," explaining, "I believe the fan gets a bigger kick out of seeing a 300-pounder hit the canvas or go flying out of the ring." When building the cast for an evening’s entertainment, however, he calls on other promoters, each of whom may have his own specialty. There is, for instance, an office in Columbia, S.C., that supplies lady wrestlers and one in Detroit that ships midgets on order. While I was talking to McMahon, his assistant—the former "Jewish Champion," Herbie Freeman—covered a phone with his hands and asked, "You want to use two girls here on the third?"
"Yeh, OK," McMahon said. "I’ll use two girls and a girl referee."
"He’ll take three," Freeman told South Carolina. "No, he don’t need two more."
"Wait, Herbie. I’ll use five and make a tag-team match out of it."
"He’ll take the whole five," said Freeman.
However impersonal, McMahon is a cautious man who has nurtured his gold mine by methods that are in sharp contrast to those of, say, major-league baseball. He does not, for instance, give his big events on TV. Before the cameras, his big-name wrestlers grapple only with lesser performers. Most important, McMahon realizes that the bush leagues—the small-town clubs—are the lifeblood of his business.
"It’s our job to keep the promoters alive," he says. Toward that end, he usually leaves the local promoter with 40 to 50 percent of the receipts, paying the wrestlers himself. No matter how small the town, its promoter is shipped the best McMahon has to offer. Thus Cowboy Bill Watts, only 24 hours after earning $1,000 in Washington, would receive $50 in Harrisburg, Pa.
Harrisburg’s Zembo Temple was a far cry from Washington’s Coliseum. Cherry trees lined the walk leading into a terrazzo-floor lobby. Cowboy Bill changed clothes in a room appointed with bamboo chaise lounges and reminisced on his beginnings. His father is an Oklahoma City steel salesman, a good Presbyterian who years ago gave up his predinner highball lest it have a pernicious effect on his growing children. All the same, Bill impetuously married at 17, was divorced at 19 after fathering a son. Though given an athletic scholarship, he did not graduate from Oklahoma University. He is remembered there as a third-string football tackle and a fairly promising wrestling prospect who, mostly because of disciplinary probation, never saw varsity action. Cowboy Bill left Oklahoma, he says, because of "A love of wine, women and fights."
After a brief trial with the Houston Oilers football club, he obtained an introduction to an Indianapolis wrestling promoter, who put him to work. Wrestling for as little as $25, Big Bill Watts, as he then called himself, drifted to his native Southwest, where he quickly became a popular attraction. Wild Red Berry, he of the Spinoza-Kant leanings, spotted him and tipped off Vince McMahon, who fetched him east and renamed him Cowboy Bill. Now McMahon’s top villain, the Cowboy has earned as much as $4,000 in a single night. "Everything I do gets a crowd reaction," he said. "If I blow my nose, they howl, because I project. I make ‘em feel my loathing for them."
He climbed into the Harrisburg ring opposite his opponent, the "Irish champion" Don McClarity, who was busy signing autographs. One fan—a comely girl—approached the Cowboy’s corner for an autograph, but he tore up the paper she handed him, enraging the crowd. Scarcely had the bout begun when a sallow, sideburned young man, seated at ringside with his girlfriend, arose and challenged the Cowboy to a fistfight. The Cowboy stepped onto the apron of the ring, directly over the young man, and beckoned to him.
Screaming murderously, the young man elected to enter the ring at a point where two portly, smiling policemen conventiently intercepted him and ushered him back to his chair. "He wanted to be stopped," said the Cowboy later, after he had pinned the Irish champion. "A lot of them do that. If he had gotten into the ring, though, I’d have torn his eye out. Never give a mark an even brea, because they’ll never give you one. I’ve got eight stitches on my back where a guy slashed me with a filed-down iron comb."
Occasionally wrestlers will warm up for their match by offering to take on any man in the house; the spectator who comes forward officially becomes a mark. As a rule, he is a college wrestler or a practitioner of judo or karate and is certain he will expose the professional as a fraud. He is disappointed, painfully. He is intent upon displaying the special skills he has learned, whereas the pro instantly calls upon every cruel blow imaginable.
"Karate and judo are a lot of overrated bunk," said the Cowboy. "So what if a guy can break a board in half? That board isn’t hitting back."
After wrestling in a TV show in Washington Thursday, he went to appear at an ice arena in Brick Town, N.J., on Friday, and then flew to Pittsburgh, where he would wrestle twice on Saturday—at a TV studio at six o’clock and a few hours later at a racetrack. Some 50 fans, carrying lunches, waited five and a half hours under a blazing sun to be admitted to the studio. Most of them were women, many wearing their stockings rolled below their knees. They scrambled into the studio, pouncing on the front-row seats, and when they saw Cowboy Bill pass throught the studio they greeted him profanely and obscenely with the sort of language used during race riots.
From the TV studio, Cowboy Bill proceeded to a nearby harness track, where a ring was pitched at the foot of the grandstands. There a tieless, bespectacled man in his 30s turned to me and said, "A lot of this stuff is fake, you know."
"Then why do you come?" I asked.
"Oh, it’s not ALL faked. These fellows just put a little color into it, but they get hurt, all right."
Suddenly my astute neighbor was on his feet shouting epithets. Waldo von Erich, Red Berry’s German protege, had entered the ring to oppose a pudgy wrestler named Chief White Owl—a classic morality match pitting Nazism against the original American. "Swine hunt!" bellowed by neighbor, striving to make himself understood to the Hun in perfect Warner Brothers German. "Pig! Filthy German!" Then, turning to me again, he advised, "He’s not a man, he’s a pig." When the Cowboy entered the ring, a paper cup—packed tightly with ice—flew from the upper grandstand and struck him hard on the top of his head, and a number of fans opened fire on him with wire staples shot from rubber bands.
One the whole, though, Cowboy Bill emerged from Pittsburgh in fairly good shape, his features marred only by a bandage covering the wound which had been opened in Washington by Bobo Brazil’s coconut butt. Curiously, not opponent had leaped to exploit so obvious a target. Good guys are strong on charity.
Now the Cowboy moved on to New York for his showdown match with the prima good guy, Bruno Sammartino. Unlike the Cowboy, who had been willing to switch images for a better dollar, Sammartino possessed a wistful reverence for the sport he had learned as a boy in Italy. "The fans here in this country, they criticize the gimmicks, but they buy it," he sighed.
"A man named George Wagner was one of the best wrestlers to ever come out of this country—he had everything—but he was nothing," Bruno said. "So he bleached his hair and changed his name to Gorgeous George, and they paid a fortune to see him. The others saw his success and they did the same, and it ridiculed the whole game."
As champion for more than two years, Bruno has earned close to $200,000 annually. (He is not, by the way, the only world champion in America, for at last word Lou Thesz was recognized as champ by midwest promoters and others, and Pedro Morales, whose Mexican blood makes him big in Southern California, reigned in the West.) "Now, I am getting tired of it," Bruno said. "I’ve had my jaw broken and my wrist broken and I’ve had my nose broken ten, eleven times and cannot breathe out of it. But it’s so hard to get out when you’re at the peak making money."
The Cowboy, meanwhile, had gone into New York declaiming that it was time wrestling had a champion capable of speaking good English. For weeks he had been hurling insults at Bruno, warming New York’s Italian population to a nice ticket-buying temperature. Finally, with the moment of truth at hand, he donned a royal-blue Stetson and set off from his hotel to the Garden, followed by a band of children shouting. "You stink, Watts!"
In contrast, only adulation fell on Bruno Sammartino’s large ears as he climbed into the ring wearing his bejeweled championship belt. After representatives of the International Bruno Sammartino Fan Club had come forward to present Bruno with a trophy for "ability, determination and fair play," the ring announcer bellowed that victory would be awarded the first contestant to pin his man twice. The formalities over, Cowboy Bill promptly doubled up Bruno with a rabbit punch and downed him with a kick in the belly.
While Bruno lay helpless, the Cowboy repeatedly leaped into the air and stamped on him with his right foot. Each time, the Cowboy’s left foot hit the canvas first, breaking the impact of his descent, and his right foot landed flat-soled on Bruno’s ample belly. The crowd responded as if Bruno were being torn apart by mad dogs. Six cops moved swiftly to eject a trio of ground-floor spectators for hurling missiles at the Cowboy. The Cowboy went on to batter Bruno from ringpost to ringpost and win the first fall easily.
Bruno, though, coming out for the second session on wobbly legs, summoned fresh strength from a reservoir of outraged anger and fell upon the Cowboy, fists flailing. Bruno then flung him to the canvas and quickly pinned him. Inexplicably, the Cowboy remained on the canvas, writhing in a compulsion of pain, and could not answer the bell for the third ession. The crowd thundered jubilantly as the referee held Bruno’s arm aloft in victory. Then Bruno, good guy that he is, went to the Cowboy’s aid. "Don’t do it, Bruno," the crowd pleaded, wise to the Cowboy’s ways.
Sure enough, the Cowboy lashed up with a forearm to Bruno’s groin. While the referee restrained Bruno, the Cowboy allowed a police escort to whisk him to his dressing room.
Though he had not dethroned Bruno, Cowboy Bill did not appear entirely crushed when I saw him an hour later with a blonde in the hotel cocktail lounge. There would be rematches with Bruno shortly (all of which the Cowboy lost), and then exotic trips to San Francisco and Japan to tap fresh box offices. Meanwhile, he remained matchless in his arrogance.
"How’d you do tonight, fella?" asked a man passing the Cowboy’s table.
"None of your business," the Cowboy said.
*Look Magazine, circa 1965 by Myron Cope