May 26, 2004
From 'Handsome' to 'Boogie' and backJimmy Valiant winds down his career
By STEVEN JOHNSON -- SLAM! Wrestling
SHAWSVILLE, VA - Sometime on Christmas night 2004, Jimmy Valiant will climb out of a wrestling ring in the middle of a small arena in Greenville, S.C. In all likelihood, he will have had his hand raised in victory, as he has throughout most of his career. He'll get a huge ovation from his devoted fans and most certainly a hug from his beloved wife, Angel.
And then, after 40 years, after 10,000 matches in cavernous coliseums and junior high gyms, after half-a-million miles crisscrossing a network of superhighways and barely paved roads, Jimmy Valiant's career as a professional wrestler will be over.
His voice is certain, quiet and strong, as he foretells these events. His blue eyes gleam as he strides toward a simple, tasteful, black and gold plaque on his southwest Virginia homestead that commemorates his final match on Dec. 25, 2004.
The date has been booked for nearly four years and harbors no special significance, other than the fact it represents the end. "I made the plaque purposely," Valiant says, gently stroking his fingers over the lettering. "I look at it every day, every week. I'm going to make it. I'm going to keep going."
The handsome stranger
By the calendar, Jimmy Valiant will have been going for more than 40 years as of Christmas night, since it was 40 years ago this month that he first stepped into a ring, wrestling in the first live match that he ever saw.
Even more remarkable than the sheer longevity is that his career has been divided neatly into two diametrically opposed personas - the venom-spewing, arrogant "Handsome" Jimmy Valiant and the wistful "Boogie Woogie Man," who continues to spread good cheer on independent wrestling shows every weekend of his life.
"I'm very fortunate because for 20 years, I've had two completely different careers," he said. "I've been around the world five times, man. I've seen it all. I've done it all ... I'm very fortunate to be able to go out on my terms. That was my plan, mine and Angel's."
Born in Tennessee and raised in a very religious household in Hammond, Ind., near Chicago, James Fanning watched a little bit of wrestling as a youngster, but reserved his athleticism for the gridiron at Hammond Tech High School. After he graduated in 1961, he worked at a local health club, and, curiously, given the current length of his white mane, as a barber.
At the health club, he met a pair of would-be Russians, Boris Volkoff (Frank Zela) and Nicoli Volkoff (Steve Gob), who were capitalizing on Cold War sentiment to rile up proud American wrestling fans. Strong and fit, Fanning took up Zela on his offer to train for the ring, figuring it could bring a few extra dollars to his young family.
His first match in May 1964 was a tag team affair, and Fanning quickly took to his line of work, working as Jimmy Valentine, Jimmy McDonald, and Big John Vallen, a name given to him by The Sheik gave him that was close enough to that of wrestling legend Johnny Valentine to create a subliminal connection.
In 1969, he worked in the Dallas area, when promoter Fritz von Erich gave him the name that would last the rest of his life. "Vallen" was too close to "Valentine" for von Erich's taste. "You're Jimmy Valiant," he announced, and that was that.
From there, WWWF owner Vincent J. McMahon called von Erich, looking for a handsome, strapping wrestler to fill a vacant roster spot in the Northeast. Valiant made his debut in Madison Square Garden in New York in June 1971, going to a 15:00 draw with Beautiful Bobby Harmon, who later became a tag team partner.
But it was in Dick the Bruiser's Indianapolis promotion that Valiant found his true tag team ally. He and his manager, Bobby Heenan, looked for a replacement sidekick when Heenan decided to shift his focus to the Minneapolis area. In London, Ont., they scouted a young wrestler called John L. Sullivan, who worked for Dave "The Bearman" McKigney's promotion.
"So we met Johnny there and what a good-looking, big kid, you know, talented," Valiant said. Asked Heenan of Jimmy: "What do you think of bringing him in as your brother?" Valiant smiled in agreement and, with Heenan, hit the TV airwaves to extol the virtues of "one bad cat" named Luscious Johnny Valiant.
The duo formed perhaps the best-known tag team in wrestling during the mid-1970s. "It just took off and we were on fire," Valiant said. They held the tag title in the Indianapolis-based WWA in 1974, knocking off the dream team of Bruiser and Bruno Sammartino, and their blood-splattered faces were a fixture on the covers of national wrestling magazines.
"The Valiant Brothers, man, we've been on top of the mountain; we've looked both ways, baby," Valiant said, slipping into his classic hyperkenetic interview style. "We were like Coca-Cola, we were all over. We were like buttered toast, man, coast to coast."
In the WWWF, the Valiants held the tag championship for more than a year and headlined Madison Square Garden against Sammartino and Chief Jay Strongbow in 1974 at a time when tag team matches rarely topped the marquee in New York City. They are the only tag team in the WWE Hall of Fame.
The Valiants were tag champions in Georgia and San Francisco, among other places, and had an encore in the WWWF in 1979 with "brother" Gentleman Jerry Valiant, who was added to the family when Jimmy contracted hepatitis and was sidelined for several weeks.
After five years, the Valiants went their separate ways. Jimmy often wrestled in Tennessee, recording seven reigns as Southern champion as part of a years-long, money-drawing feud with Jerry Lawler.
Despite his wicked ways in Memphis, which included bashing a guitar over Lawler's head, Valiant clearly had a soft side. "I used to change The Rock's diapers," he laughed. "Me and his father, Rocky Johnson, were tag team champions together in Mid-South," the Tennessee-based territory.
Eventually, he found his way to Virginia and the Carolinas, only to learn from booker Ole Anderson that the attractive, bleached-blond role was being filled by a young wrestler named Ric Flair. Perhaps, Anderson suggested in his gruff manner, a change was in order.
Valiant grew his hair long and his beard even longer, and started entering arenas to the strains of "Boy from New York City" by The Manhattan Transfer. The tattooed Boogie Woogie Man, a modified hippie who reveled in hugging and kissing even his most hated opponents, was born.
"I looked around ... and there's Ric Flair and Buddy Landel, they're all over and they're big stars," Valiant said. "So I said, 'It's time to move on.' So I grew a beard and started doing the singing and dancing and kissing, and doing something different."
With remarkable charisma and showmanship, Boogie charmed fans and feuded with every top star in the Mid-Atlantic area throughout the 1980s, working as many as nine matches a week against the likes of Ivan Koloff and Jos LeDuc, who infuriated fans by shattering Boogie's boombox. But, in 1988, when the checkbook caught up with the champagne lifestyle of Jim Crockett Promotions, TV mogul Ted Turner bought the company and moved it to Atlanta.
By then, Valiant was 47, and not of a mind to pull up roots and move to Georgia. So he started wrestling on cards in front of small audiences that would not have filled so much as a single section of Madison Square Garden. He was "the big name" that came to the small town, a profession that was moderately profitable. But something was missing.
In April 1991, the now-Angela Williams spotted Valiant as he signed autographs at the opening of a Wal-Mart near Christiansburg, Va. It was a big deal, a wrestling celebrity at the Wal-Mart, and Angela dragged her mother, Angel, to see the famous wrestler who had sold out Madison Square Garden in New York.
Valiant looked up at Angel. Angel would have to be in the picture with Angela and him, he declared. While the three were lining up for the picture, Valiant asked Angel if she was married.
"I said, 'No,' she remembered. And he said, 'Well, do you want to get married?"
Understandably, Angel, a physical therapist by trade and 15 years Valiant's junior, wanted to know who she was dealing with first. She agreed to talk to him on the telephone and go on a safe double date with a friend.
"And I'm thinking, "I'll take my car and that way, I can leave,'" she said. At the last minute, Angel's friend backed out of the engagement. She decided to meet Valiant nonetheless.
Angel has changed her man's diet; no longer does the small-framed Valiant force feed himself a gallon of milk and a dozen eggs a day to keep up his weight, as he did during his time in the WWWF. They both are vegetarians, just like wrestling's best known vegetarian Killer Kowalski. She found a farmhouse near the Blue Ridge, and she and Jimmy Valiant settled into it and started the next phase of his life.
"She's saved my life and she's turned me completely around and I owe it to this beautiful woman," Valiant said. "I'm going to die with this lady."
The wrestling camp
To get to Boogie's Wrestling Camp and Hall of Fame, you travel down a long and winding road in southwest Virginia, an appropriate metaphor for Valiant's long and winding career. Allegheny Springs Road cuts through a swath of mountains south of Roanoke, passing red barns and silos into a rich, hilly pastoral area.
There, on the left, is Boogie's camp - "Boogie-land," if you will - with hot rods and motorcycles and a six-door stretch limousine, and even the "Boogie Wagon," a 1979 Ford LTD Brougham station wagon nearly as decorated and accessorized by ink as Valiant himself. (Valiant even has tattoos of boots on his feet.) A series of small buildings at the Boogie Wrestling Camp (BWC) contains mementoes from his career, a training ring, and other wrestling gear.
Around the ring, a dozen wrestlers stand ready, as they do every Sunday starting at 12 noon. They range from veterans of independent federations to newcomers. Since 1992, Valiant has been teaching at this camp and sending wrestlers off to their fares - the job market is constricted by the World Wrestling Entertainment monopoly. Still, he'll graduate 20-30 wrestlers again this year, with a formal graduation ceremony in September.
On this day, Valiant needs a moment to freshen up. He has not yet been to bed. The previous day, he wrestled matches in Batesville, Miss. and Tuckerman, Ark. - yes, Mississippi and Arkansas. He ate in the car, keeping his tights on between matches, and took a mobile sponge bath to minimize down time between venues. Then, he and his road mate, Bruiser Graham, drove 700 miles through the night to be ready for the opening of camp in Virginia.
What keeps a 61-year-old man, reasonably well-off by his own admission, going beyond the limits of reasonable endurance? Valiant smiled. "It keeps me young."
His white hair is tied in a ponytail and covers part of the camp logo on his leather jacket. Throw a white robe on him, put a staff in his hand, Lawler once said, and you'd have Moses.
Now he is teaching, though, showing his students how to fall properly. He goes through "chain" wrestling - how to come off the ropes to set up a move, how to turn into the turnbuckle, how to set up a series of counters by turning, twisting, and contorting in just the right way. BWC is a learning lab, and Boogie is the professor.
Curtis Gardner is a willing student, though a tired one. A night stocker in Newport News, Va., his work day does not end until 3:30 a.m. He then drives five hours to camp, from the hustle bustle of Hampton Roads, Va. to a place so obscure he thought he had taken a wrong turn during his first visit.
"But this is the only real wrestling school in Virginia," he explained. "And Jimmy is so good with everybody. He takes the time to explain everything. And he encourages everybody, no matter what their level is."
Valiant's museum, which adjoins the wrestling building, is small, neat, and eye-catching with honors big and small. A plaque cites him as World Wrestling Association Rookie of the Year for 1965. He was named National Wrestling Alliance Athlete of the Year for 1977. Another celebrates his role as grand marshal for the 1997 Appomattox Railroad Fest Parade.
And perhaps most special is the proclamation from the Hammond, Ind. City Council honoring one of its most famous sons, James Harold Fanning, a/k/a Jimmy Valiant, dated Oct. 28, 2002. "That meant a lot to me," Valiant said. "That was where I grew up."
Even as he approaches his final bell, bookings are not a problem. Valiant's "Farewell Tour" will run every weekend this year; his appointment calendar is blocked off with matches through Christmas night. He regularly puts 100,000 miles on his vehicle every year and needs a new car every three years.
After Christmas, his work in the ring will not be over - it'll just be confined to training purposes. The camp will continue at the same time every Sunday. Valiant envisions working with wrestlers of all ages and all stripes until the day he dies.
"My kids keep me involved in it," he said. "At BWC, we're all family. We take care of each other. A lot of these kids, they might not have got their hugs at home ... I'll never get out of it."
He and Angel are working on a book about his life - with 40 years of tales from the road and the ring to draw upon, it should be The Iliad and The Odyssey of wrestling. They hope to have it ready in another year or so.
And there might even be a surprise waiting for the patient and vigilant Angel, who will retire at the same time. The Boogie Woogie Man is stepping aside, and so is his appearance. Next year, he will be "handsome" once more. "My wife has never seen me without my beard," Valiant smiled. "But now she will."
Steven Johnson is a writer from Virginia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.