Hall of Fame grows some more
GREG OLIVER -- SLAM! Wrestling
|The Hall of Fame members in attendance. -- photo by Steven Johnson
SCHENECTADY, NY - The feeling around the third annual Pro Wrestling Hall of
Fame induction ceremony on Saturday night was most definitely one of
growth, that something truly magical is starting to build and build as the
roster of inductees swells.
Again and again, the wrestlers being honoured got up and talked with
heartfelt appreciation for the dedication of the PWHOF people and the
beginnings of a solid foundation for the long-term preservation of
professional wrestling history.
Hall of Fame founder and president Tony Vellano was singled-out by numerous
wrestlers, and was given a Mohawk name (in English, it's He Who Assembles
The Boys) by Billy Two
Rivers. Vellano was humble but confident on the stage. "The applause is
for all of us because we're becoming one group to keep this alive," he
Master of Ceremonies George
'The Animal' Steele echoed Vellano's statement as he assessed the crowd
of 300, made up of wrestlers and their families, supporters of the Hall of
Fame and wrestling fans. "Right now, we're all becoming one team," he said.
"You people see what's going on here? It started out as a Tony Vellano idea
and it's becoming a movement. The generosity is right there. We saw it
again tonight," said Davey O'Hannon, the former wrestler who introduced
2004 inductee Terry Funk.
"My peers in the business and the fans that support us, spread the word.
It's going to get bigger and bigger and bigger. You know why? Because it's
filled with integrity, and it's filled with honesty, and it's filled with
decency, and that's the people you see here tonight. And it's never going
away. How can you not be a fan of professional wrestling? I spent a little
over 20 years as an active wrestler, and I'm excited to be here tonight
with the people being honoured."
While everyone at the fundraising dinner was supportive of the Hall of
Fame, which is about to move to a new, bigger location within Schenectady,
it was for the inductees that people came.
Former NWA world champions Terry Funk and Harley
Race were not only the last two of this year's inductees, they were
also among the most moving, and well-spoken speakers.
"I grew up on wrestling," Funk said. "I just absolutely love it. A lot of
kids wanted to play cowboys and indians. I never thought much about that. I
never thought much about ever using my brain on anything other than
wrestling, because I just loved it. I just loved being a part of it. It's a
great thing. It's a great hook. I've been able to do it all of this time.
It's just a wonderful thing that you share with your counterpart, your
opponent in the ring. You get in the ring with him, and it's wonderful to
go out there and capture the fans, to capture the people. It's just a great
doggone feeling. It's just something I've loved doing all of my life. I'd
like to do it for another gazillion years."
However, Funk acknowledged that many in the room aren't able to get around
as well as they used to. "But look around, the truth of it is we're all
getting older, moving a little bit slower. [I'm] not feeling too well now.
But just really do love what I've done, loved the fans, loved the people
that I performed with. You guys gave me an award, a wonderful award, put me
in the Wrestling Hall of Fame. I want you to know that Terry Funk didn't
get in there to the Hall of Fame on his own. Who put me into the Hall of
Fame is all of those guys that I wrestled, all of those guys that did
favours to me, all of those guys that took bumps for me, all of those guys
who put their shoulders to the mat. Sometimes we forget about those people.
Those are the ones that really need to be up here."
Former AWA champion Nick Bockwinkel, having already introduced his old foe
Gagne into the Hall of Fame, paid homage to Race, Funk and other NWA
World champs and their amazing schedules. Bockwinkel figured that he
wrestled any where from 150 to 200 matches a year, meaning roughly that he
only worked about half a year. The lesser schedules mean that both he and
Gagne can still move around well. The NWA World champs could work upwards
of 400 matches a year, if TV spots and double shots were included. "When
Harley Race and Terry Funk walk up, you're going to understand why. They
wrestled that many times a year, and they probably spent, I don't know how
many hour matches in a row. Every night of the week, they may have wrestled
a match that went one hour. Now the only reason I bring this up is that
myself, Mr. Gagne, we kind of had a soft, cushy trip compared to these
guys, and I want them to know, gentlemen, I salute you," Bockwinkel said.
Upon taking the stage, Harley Race paid tribute to Killer
Kowalski, who was in the audience and a previous inductee. "Mr.
Kowalski came to Minnesota in the '60s, and he turned Minnesota around.
This guy could do UNBELIEVABLE stuff, that he was doing in the '60s. [I
was] reminded of one of them today. You think back to people like Walter,
Verne, the Vachons, Terry, and the room is full of them. Greatness that was
around decade after decade after decade," 'Handsome' Harley said, leading
the crowd in a standing ovation for the workers in the room. If Kowalski
were in the WWE right now, Race believes, "the ratings wouldn't be where
they are, they would be through the goddamn roof."
"I've had one of the most interesting lives of any human being on the face
of the Earth. I've been able to do exactly what I love to do my whole
entire life," Race said. "I started on Gust Karras' carnivals when I was 14
years old. I went from that to one of the greatest businesses on the face
of God's green Earth, and it's called pro wrestling. I sat back there all
evening long as each one of these people came up here, and I was thinking
to myself, 'What in God's name keeps a group of individuals like us in a
business where you beat yourself totally apart, day after day after day
after day?' There's only one thing -- because we damn well loved what we
did, and what we're doing right today. This group here that assembled this
Hall of Fame has done something that will last an eternity. There's nothing
once we walk out these doors that can take this away from us. There's
The evening started off with the posthumous induction of William Muldoon in
the Pioneer Era division, Gordon
Solie and Vincent McMahon, Sr. in the non-participant category, Fred
Blassie into the Television Era section and Dr. John Bonica, a former
wrestler and world famous anesthesiologist, was given the New York State
After dinner, The Destroyer
(Dick Beyer), who was last year's New York State Award winner (along with
the late Ilio DiPaulo), introduced this year's living award winner, Len
Rossi (Len Rositano). Rossi, who was from Utica, NY originally, talked
about starting his career in 1950, and how great it was to see some faces
he hadn't seen in a long time, like Verne Gagne, who he established he
hadn't seen in 49 years. "I'm still a fan of all of you," said Rossi, whose
got into wrestling as well.
The 93-year-old Angelo Savoldi was inducted into the Pioneer Era of the
Hall, but was unable to attend.
Ida May Martinez introduced Lord Roger
Littlebrook (Eric Tovey) into the Midget Category. "How'd he get the
name Lord?" she asked with a laugh. "We all know he's a devil!" Martinez
carefully avoided using the term 'midget' lest she offend, but during a
brief awkward moment, Steele yelled, "he's a midget", breaking up the
crowd. Littlebrook, who has had some health difficulties of late, was quick
to say his piece on the podium. "I didn't ever think I'd get this far," he
said. Steele, who spent a lot of time with the midgets in Detroit over the
years (which is where Jack Britton booked the midgets out of) said that the
smaller grapplers were always "very large in the wrestlers' hearts."
When introducing his longtime adversary and employer Verne Gagne into the
TV era category, Bockwinkel had a hard time wiping the smile from his face.
"I get to talk uninterrupted about Verne Gagne," he joked. According to
Bockwinkel, Gagne set a "hell of a standard" for him to follow, and always
gave 110% in the ring. "I knew how to tweak his ego to get him up to 120%,"
The 78-year-old Gagne took the stage, and verified that it was indeed
strange to have Bockwinkel praise him. "It's so unlike you to send plaudits
at me!" It was equally strange to find himself at a table with his most
feared opponent. "I never thought I'd find myself sitting between the
Gagne explained that he using to listen to the wrestling matches on the
radio and his idol was the famed football star-turned wrestler Bronko
Nagurski. "If it was good enough for the Bronk, it was good enough for
me." Gagne spent eight years as an amateur before turning pro for 32 years.
As for The Great Johnny Mae Young, who else could induct her into the
Ladies Category but The Fabulous Moolah? "If it hadn't been for her, I
probably wouldn't have been in the business," said Moolah, before a video
of Young in action as a youthful woman in action screened, set
appropriately to Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot."
After accepting the induction ring and plaque, Young talked about just
having signed a new deal with the WWE and her scheduled appearance with
Moolah Sunday night in Columbia, SC. Then in an instant, she flipped back
60 years, and recalled a bout in Minnesota in 1939 with Nagurski as the
referee where she flipped him over during the match, making the newspapers.
"It touches me that you think enough of me to put me in the Pro Wrestling
Hall of Fame," she said. "This will be the greatest memory of my life."
Steele had the duty of bringing up Mad Dog and
Vachon for their induction into the Tag Team Category. "I can't imagine
the household of the Vachons," he said.
Butcher Vachon got the chance to speak first (one of the rare times, he
said) and thanked his brother for bringing him into pro wrestling. "With my
brother, you didn't have to be all that talented, but you did have to keep
up," he said. After Mad Dog's speech, Paul Vachon sang as well, his voice
somewhat suffering from months of radiation treatment to fight throat
"I believe that the reason that I'm here today is that I met so many
wonderful, unbelievable people," said Mad Dog Vachon, recalling an auto
accident in 1954 in Texas. "I went to Houston, Texas. My son Mike was two
weeks old. I just bought my first car. I couldn't drive it. My first wife
Dorothy drove the car. I wrestled in Fort Worth Monday, Tuesday in Dallas,
Wednesday San Antonio, Thursday Corpus Christi. The next day was Friday.
Houston was closed. Morris Siegel never promoted around Christmas or New
Year's week. But at 10 o'clock in the morning, coming back from Corpus
Christi, the day before Christmas, a beautiful, sunny day, a drunken person
hit our car and sent my first wife Dorothy to the hospital. I survived
that. There was a man and his wife there from Houston. They were going to
Brownsville. They just came 200 miles. My wife was in the hospital. We left
with the ambulance. They picked me up, my daughter was two years old, my
son was two weeks old, and took all of my luggage. We had a gallon of syrup
because my son was allergic to milk, we had to give him kaero milk from a
can with water and syrup. It broke all over my suitcases. This man and his
wife picked up all of my clothing, all my suitcases, went around back to
Houston, went 400 miles out of his way. A good Samaritan to this day, and
to this day, I never knew his name," Vachon said.
Among the other wrestlers and promoters in attendance were Gloria
Bertinili, Ray Apollo (Doink), Dominic DeNucci, Dewey
Robertson (The Missing Link), Al Mandell, Karl Lauer, Ox
Baker, and a host of wrestlers who worked the independent show in
Schenectady Friday night.
The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame also got two substantial donations during
the dinner, and announced plans for two other fundraisers: The Buffalo
Bisons AAA baseball game on July 17th and subsequent wrestling show will be
a money raiser for the Hall of Fame, and on September 18, there will be a
wrestling show and banquet dinner in Toronto.
For more on the Hall of Fame, be sure to check out www.pwhf.org.
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Greg Oliver founded SLAM! Wrestling with John Powell way back in
1996, and has been writing about pro wrestling since 1985. He is the
author of the recently published book The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame:
The Canadians from ECW Press. Order it from the SLAM!
Wrestling Store. He can be emailed at email@example.com.