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Piper, Saito, Jacobs headline '08 Tragos/Thesz Hall of Fame list
By RICHARD KAMCHEN - SLAM! Wrestling


Roddy Piper at a Toronto Blue Jays game in 2005. Photo by Mike Mastrandrea

The Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum promises another copasetic group of inductees at its 10th annual George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame ceremonies in June 2008.

"Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Abe Jacobs and Masanori Saito (a.k.a. Mr. Saito) have been selected as living inductees to the hall, while Penny Banner will receive the Frank Gotch Award for bringing positive recognition to the sport outside the ring.

Stu Hart , Ray Gunkel, and Leo Nomellini will posthumously be enshrined into the hall.

"That's very kind," Piper said about his induction from his Oregon home, and chuckled at the memory of wrestling Thesz many, many years ago. "It's a nice gesture and a wonderful honour."

The former Winnipegger, who began his pro career at the not-quite-ripe age of 16, went on to become one of pro wrestling's biggest stars, and helped ensure the success of the WWE's first WrestleMania. Fans likely best remember Piper for his decades-long feud with Hulk Hogan and his infamous Piper's Pit interview segment.

But perhaps less well known is Piper's boxing, amateur wrestling and judo background.

"Roddy is a tough guy who can really wrestle," said "Judo" Gene LeBell, a Frank Gotch Award winner in 2005, in a museum press release. "He can take care of himself, believe me. He belongs in this hall of fame, for sure."

Still busy acting, Piper is in the midst of reading a script for an upcoming Jack Black project.

Piper also continues making the odd appearance on WWE, most recently showing up last June to embarrass Vince McMahon on RAW as part of Mr. McMahon Appreciation Night, and soon after ruining Matt Striker's birthday on ECW.

Abe Jacobs, a veteran of over 8,000 matches, is no stranger to accolades acknowledging his long career. His birthplace, New Zealand's Chatham Islands, celebrated him by bearing his likeness on its Millennium $10 bill. It was legal tender for 2000 and 2001.

Nevertheless, there is something very special to him about this induction.

"It's something that's surprising. It's probably the Hall of Fame of wrestling and I feel honoured to be chosen and be inducted."

Jacobs debuted in 1958 and wrestled in a multitude of main events against the great NWA World Heavyweight Champions of his time. He wrestled all over the world for 25 years, and won a number of world tag team championships along the way.

"I worked with Abe many times and he could really wrestle. He definitely deserves to be in this hall of fame," Danny Hodge, Class of 2000, said in a statement.


Mr. Saito
- Courtesy of the Wrestling Revue Archives: www.wrestlingrevue.com
Saito, a great amateur in Japan, competed as a super heavyweight at the 1964 Tokyo, Japan Olympic Games (where he finished in seventh in freestyle). He went on to enjoy success in both North America and Japan as a pro, winning many championships, including twice claiming both the then-WWF and IWGP World Tag Team Titles, and once capturing the American Wrestling Association's (AWA) World Heavyweight belt.

"Masa is one of the truly great wrestlers of his era," Class of 2004 member Brad Rheingans said in the release. "Everyone in the business respects him. I am really excited that he has been recognized in this manner."

Penny Banner said she felt humbled by being chosen the first woman to receive the Frank Gotch Award.

"First I thought winning the first Women's AWA Title was the highlight of my career. Then along came the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame induction. And now -- Wow!"

Banner, who also had a long feud with the NWA Women's Champion June Byers, has published an autobiography, Banner Days, that chronicles her life both in and out of the ring.

Since retiring from the ring, she has won hundreds of medals and ribbons in the Senior Olympics in track and field and swimming. She remains active in the wrestling industry as the commissioner of the Professional Girl Wrestling Association (PGWA).

"Penny has been a credit to the sport, both in and out of the ring, for decades and this is an honour that many people are excited about," museum board member Bill Murdoch said in a statement.

Banner said she found out about the award when she returned home following a hernia operation last July.

"That piece of news put a real spark in me and I thank the committee and all who voted me in," she said. "I wish to thank everyone involved and hope some fans show up in Waterloo. And I am so happy to hear that Stu Hart, one of my favourite promoters of all time will also be inducted."

Hart of course was the world famous patriarch of the Hart wrestling family, and a noted amateur and professional wrestler. He became renowned as a trainer and promoter of the Calgary-based Stampede Wrestling territory. He died in 2003.

His son Bret "The Hitman" Hart, Class of 2006, has been invited to accept the award on behalf of the Hart family.

Gunkel claimed two national All-American wrestling titles as a heavyweight in the 1940s, and became well known as a champion professional wrestler and promoter in Georgia. He died of a heart attack in 1972 after a match in Savannah against Ox Baker.


Leo "The Lion" Nomellini
- Courtesy of the Wrestling Revue Archives: www.wrestlingrevue.com
A Big Ten heavyweight wrestling champion and Hall of Fame lineman with the San Francisco 49ers, Leo "The Lion" Nomellini would win tag team gold in the AWA, and on several occasions, the Minneapolis and San Francisco-versions of the NWA tag team belts. He also briefly held the NWA singles title. Nomellini died in 2000.

"Leo was a tremendous all-around athlete and a great professional wrestler," according to Verne Gagne , Class of 1999, who was Nomellini's teammate in college and wrestled with him professionally for years. "This is another great honour for him."

The Hall of Fame weekend runs from June 27th to 28th, 2008 in Waterloo, Iowa with the inductions taking place at the museum at noon on Saturday the 28th. The James C. Melby Award will also be presented to a wrestling historian.

A fan fest will follow the induction ceremonies and will include all current inductees, several past inductees, and several book authors, according to the museum's associate director Kyle Klingman. Regular admission of $5 has been the usual charge.

There will also be an induction banquet at the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center, which will cost $60. To make a reservation, call the museum at 319-233-0745.

A celebrity golf outing will take place on Friday the 27th in Burns Park at noon, and a pro wrestling card will follow at 7:00 at Young Arena.

RELATED LINKS

  • Previous SLAM! Wrestling George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame coverage
  • Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute website
  • Roddy Piper's website
  • Penny Banner's website

    Winnipeg correspondent Richard Kamchen can be e-mailed at richardkamchen@hotmail.com.