December 5, 2010
King Curtis Iaukea dead at 73
By GREG OLIVER - Producer, SLAM! Wrestling
King Curtis Iaukea, who died at his home in Honolulu, Hawaii on Saturday at the age of 73, is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating, colourful characters in wrestling history. The deep, rich scars on his forehead were testament to a simple adage he lived by: "I thought a little red brings in the green."
But "Da Bull" was never one to do a "little" of anything, said Rick Martel, launching into a story about Curtis' 40th birthday. They were wrestling in Wellington, and Curtis had brought his father to New Zealand for the matches. Having consumed more than his share of adult beverages, Iaukea stepped into the ring with Martel, and vowed to show the young punks in the dressing room how to properly "get juice" from a forehead. "Here comes the finish, and finally I hit him over the head with something. Then he goes [makes sound of cutting] right across. Ugh, man, it poured thick, real thick. Even Mark Lewin was disgusted. He f------ let him have it at the end. 'You son of bitch.' The front row just went 'Ewwwww.' Here I am, I'm holding him, and it's going down my forearms. He's laughing. ... That was his birthday that day, and he did it right."
That love of blood, though, led to the end of his active wrestling career and almost cost him his life. Iaukea contracted a nasty bug in Singapore in the late '70s. "I got a virus in through my cuts through the mats. It hit me right at the beginning of '79. I got to Japan, boom. Oh my god, nothing but a clear liquid coming out," he said. After recuperating in Hawaii, he gave it one last try in Florida, where he'd had a great run in 1976 against Dusty Rhodes.
"The night before I was supposed to go back to Tokyo, nine months after they told me what I had, I passed out in the ring with Dusty Rhodes in Miami Convention Hall," Iaukea recalled in 2006.
His friends couldn't believe the transformation of the 6-foot-3, 280-pound madman. "One of the saddest things was after his illness in Florida, he was so weak that I had to help him up a small step at the Sportatorium on a visit to the office one day," said Sir Oliver Humperdink. "Such a huge man with an even bigger persona needing help to maneuver a rather small step."
However, Curtis Iaukea's life was never one of small steps.
Growing up in Hawaii, Curtis Iaukea was destined for great things. His grandfather served as a diplomat in the courts of King Kalakaua and Queen Lili-'uokalani, and his father retired as a Honolulu police captain. It seemed that Iaukea would be a star on the gridiron. Out of high school, he ended up at the University of California Berkeley, where he lettered in football in 1956 and 1957 as a 223-pound lineman. When he was a junior, he started wrestling on the side to make a few bucks. He elected to follow a coach to Vancouver to play for the Lions in the Canadian Football League rather than stay in school. He said that he got $500 for signing, and averaged $8,000 a season.
By 1959, it was evident that wrestling was a career path.
"A pro football player can get a rest during a game on timeouts or when he walks back to the huddle," Iaukea told the Oakland Tribune that year, "but in wrestling there's a guy on your back every minute you're in the ring."
"The flying tackle is terrific," he declared. "I really enjoy hitting those ropes. When you come off them you're really whipping through the air."
He had a number of mentors in the wrestling game. A cousin, Charley Kalani, was a veteran wrestler in Honolulu, but it was Lord James Blears and Joe Blanchard that deserve the most credit.
"He changed my whole life around. I was a football player," Iaukea said of Blears. "The Lord met me when I was surfing, out on the water, when I was a senior in high school. The Lord started me. The ring work, the Lord, he was semi-retired at the time, him and Leslie Holmes."
Blanchard was a fellow beach bum in Hawaii. "He hung around the beach with us. He was a big, good-looking guy. He wasn't 350 pounds then, he was 260 with a 34" waist, and looked great. He had been playing football. He played up in Canada one year. You just start talking to people on the beach and you get acquainted. We started going surfing together. He became a friend."
Iaukea had long been a wrestling fan. "I used to sell papers outside the old Civic Auditorium. Sunday evening was the wrestling at eight o'clock. I can remember when I was eight, nine years old, and Hans Schnabel was the greatest heel here. I just died to see Hans Schnabel."
The rebellious life that he picked up at the ultra-liberal Berkeley influenced his decision to quit the CFL after two seasons. "In the meantime, wrestling is going, and I've got a contract with Japan. I got tired of f------ whistles blowing in my ears, brother! That's a hard way to make a buck."
It was in university that his mind was expanded to include recreational pharmaceuticals.
"That's just medicine for the mind. I came out of Berkley, you've got to remember, bro! You've got to remember that I went to Berkley in '55, when it all started before the Sixties. That's when Timothy Leary found the cookie, acid, yeah!" he laughed, answering the next question before it is asked.
"Did that help me in my interviews, you want to know?"
"You can't take any kind of drugs before a match, your timing is off. You're going to hurt the person you're with, and yourself. You really can take it because of the paranoia, you can't take it before you go to work either, I mean, before you're cutting interviews -- that's erroneous. A good drop of acid, say a guy took it on a Sunday on his day off, it would go and keep him loaded for 10 days; any more acid that he's going to take ain't going to get him no higher, and his mind is going to really wander. But yeah, that's how he's going to come up with some far-out interviews."
"He could run the whole scale. He could be up and down and over and funny and grrr," recalled San Francisco announcer Walt Harris. "He just had a flare for it. You could just sit and listen to him talk when he'd come out for an interview."
"It's been seven long years ..." and "Meeesssterrrr Francissss" were frequent lines, as he would launch into another rambling, intense interview, his back to the camera, belt over the shoulder, his words rising like lava from a volcano. His schtick wasn't that different in Hawaii in the 1970s as it was as a manager in the WWF in the late-'80s.
Blears also hooked him up with countless promoters around the world, and encouraged him to keep moving.
"I go in only for six weeks to three months. So I never got attached to anywhere," said Iaukea, lying a little. He did fall in love with New Zealand, and built a house in Auckland. It was a good base for trips to Australia, Japan, Singapore and Hawaii. His widow, Jeannette, is Australian.
"There was no one like Curtis," manager and booker Gary Hart once said. "Curtis was more than a main event wrestler. Curtis was an attraction much like Andre the Giant or Mad Dog Vachon or George 'The Animal' Steele. I'm not saying that they were the same, but I'm saying that when you saw these guys, you said, 'Whoa, look at this!'"
One's opinion on the dual entity of Mark Lewin and King Curtis is entirely dependent on one's ability to put up with chaos. Lewin was often the booker of a territory, and he knew he could trust Iaukea. Their reputation was that Mark Lewin was nasty, and Curtis was an easy-going Hawaiian. "He and Lewin were joined at the hip, so wherever Lewin went, he was going to go too," said Bob Roop.
"[Iaukea] got off on the wrong track and let himself get fat, and he got doing drugs and that kind of crap," said Blanchard. "He got mixed up with Lewin and those guys."
When asked about the pair of them, Iaukea imitated former Australian promoter Jim Barnett's high-pitched, effeminate, nasally voice, after Barnett had returned from a trip to American for an NWA convention. "Oh my gawd, I've just been so insulted, but the word is out in the U.S. that if you're not on dope you can't get booked here Down Under."
Iaukea sighed. "The wild days of Big Bad John and Thunderbolt Patterson. That was a wild bunch down there under Jim Barnett, oh my God. That went on for five, six years or so."
"I booked Mark for many years, I was his manager for many years. I worked against him in Australia for many years, in Michigan for many years. I never had no problems with Mark Lewin, or Curtis Iaukea. I only had good times, and made some of my biggest money with those two guys," said Hart, continuing.
"Just because you were difficult to do business with didn't mean you were a bad guy. It meant that you were taking care of your business. They would shoot fingers at Mark Lewin or Curtis Iaukea because they were difficult. But if Dick the Bruiser, he was one of the biggest assholes in the world, he wouldn't do anything for anyone. He wouldn't go out in and put a guy over in the middle of the ring in St. Louis. Mark Lewin would go to Houston, Texas, cut his head open, and you'd beat him 1-2-3 right in the middle if Mark thought he could make money for you."
In all, King Curtis Iaukea put 30 years into the wrestling business, including a run as a manager in the WWF in the late '80s and in WCW's Dungeon of Doom in the mid-'90s.
In Hawaii, he and his wife operated a concession stand on Waikiki beach, a catamaran business and a carpet cleaning business. "If you live in Hawaii, you need more than one job," joked Jeannette. More recently, as a hobby, the primarily-house bound Iaukea raced pigeons.
Curtis Iaukea, a Hawaii sports legend as a high school athlete and later a pro wrestler, died Saturday after a long illness.
"He died peacefully, with family around him," his son, Rocky, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. "At his home in Papakolea." Iaukea was 73.
Greg Oliver: "One of the greatest compliments I ever got was from Gary Hart, who said that the bio on The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels (written with Steven Johnson) was one of his favourite pieces, and nailed his personality perfectly." Greg can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.