December 27, 2012
The brotherly bond of Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson
By STEVEN JOHNSON - SLAM! Wrestling
Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson were one of wrestling's greatest tag teams, a diabolical combination of brains and brawn that ruled the roost in the Mid-Atlantic from the 1960s to the mid-1970s.
But it wasn't a pairing born of promotional genius. In fact, when Hawk entered the territory in 1961, Carolinas promoter Jim Crockett had the Big Swede wrestling, and usually losing, opening and midcard matches.
So when Hawk accepted Crockett's invitation to stay in the area for an extended run, he pointed to Hanson, an ex-Golden Gloves boxer, as a possible teammate. Crockett dismissed Hanson with a backhanded wave. "Ahh," he said, "he's just a run-of-the-mill guy." But Hawk, who'd been in the business for a dozen years, persisted, and convinced the promoter to give him a chance to work alongside an underutilized wrestler.
"Even though we were fairly new at that time, we had a heck of a match. We got back and I said, 'Swede, what are you doing? Would you like to team up or not?' He said, 'Yeah, I sure would.'"
And so was born the Blond Bombers team that would stay together for nearly two decades; Hawk, the smaller conniver calling the shots at 5-foot-9 and 240 pounds, and Hanson, the brutish enforcer at 6-foot-4 and about 300 pounds.
"I think, and many people thought, Swede and I were the greatest tag team of all time. And I believe that because we were together 16 years, did everything together, went all over together different countries, all over the United States," Hawk said without a hint of boast. "That Swede and I had more fun going throughout different countries than any man deserves to have, from Australia to Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada."
When Hawk died Dec. 22 at 82 in Hereford, Texas, another chain in the history of pro wrestling snapped. Entering pro wrestling as a teenager, Harvey Maurice Evers perfected a tough guy persona of necessity, working in athletic training shows and taking on all comers for $10 a day. He trained with 1930s legends like Karl Pojello and Dave Levin, yet hung around long enough to mentor Ric Flair at the onset of the "Nature Boy's" career. He was in the ring with Fred Blassie before Blassie became renowned as "The Hollywood Fashion Plate," and accidentally pulled off Cowboy Bob Ellis' hairpiece in a match.
Before "improv" was a chain of comedy clubs, Hawk was practicing it on St. Louis TV with sportscaster Joe Garagiola, when a record he was supposed to smash over Gorgeous George's head failed to break. "I hit him several times with it and he just looked at me like I was a dummy. I guess I was, because the record didn't break and Garagiola is calling me a madman. I said, 'Ah, shut up, you spaghetti eater!' People were upset because I tried to take advantage of Gorgeous George and Garagiola, but it was funny as hell."
THE HAWK-HANSON CONNECTION
Most of all, though, Hawk was the man who gave a helping hand to Hanson, doing what he needed to do to make the tag team click in the ring, and tending like a brother to him outside of it.
"Rip understood how to get heat, and he could bring it up and bring it down. He was a master at it. He really didn't get the credit," said the late Sandy Scott, whose time in the Mid-Atlantic promotion tracked Hawk's. "When he got in with Swede, Swede sort of took the limelight away from him because he was the big punisher guy. He came in and did the damage. Rip was a sneaky, sneaky guy, getting them set up for Swede to come in."
The team had five runs with what morphed into the Mid-Atlantic tag team title, most often swapping it with George Becker and Johnny Weaver, another star Hawk helped recruit into the Carolinas. They held the Texas and Florida versions of the world tag team titles, and were Western States tag champs in Texas in 1977, almost 30 years after Hawk embarked on his pro career.
Neither Hawk nor Hanson had much growing up. Born in Waterloo, Iowa, Hawk was raised on a farm in rural Ohio, where his family had a few cows and chickens, but no electricity or running water. Hanson, from New Jersey, didn't have much more, and it showed in his attire, Hawk said.
"I said, 'Well, you're going to have to change your ways, dressing up real fine and wearing suits and all that if you go with me,'" he said in a series of interviews for The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame series of books. That was all tied to a lack of self-respect, Hawk believed; Hanson told him early on in their relationship that he'd been considered just a prelim fighter by boxing and wrestling promoters, and that took its toll on him.
"He'd tell me, 'You know, Rip, nobody ever treated me decently.'" Hawk recounted. "Swede loved meeting nice people because growing up, he really didn't hang with the right people. But he grew into it and it made him happy. He felt like he was part of the world. When I first met him, I don't think he was too happy with who he was or where he was going. But he ended up on top."
In fact, their income each reached about $70,000 in the 1960s, affording them a lifestyle they never dreamed of as kids. Unbeknownst to the wrestling fans who threw eggs and beer at him, Hawk donated the first professional-style goalposts for the football team at Charlotte Catholic High School.
And when Hawk bought a 30-foot cruiser to enjoy the lakes around Charlotte, Hanson followed suit. "I remember when he brought his mother down from New Jersey, took her out, got her on that boat. He was so proud to have that boat. It was really a good thing for him. He'd take his wife and his mother and go out on that boat. He was a proud person, proud that he was successful," Hawk said.
RIBBING THE SWEDE
But Hawk was just as sneaky with Big Swede as he was behind a referee’s back, and that led to riotous moments that he’d recall more fondly than any title belt. Case study: Hanson had a bad habit of misplacing his dentures, and Hawk pocketed them one night on an airplane flight when Hanson had sipped too much cooking sherry. The next morning, a frantic Hanson was looking for his chompers, when Hawk wondered aloud whether flight attendants mistakenly tossed the teeth with other loose items when they cleaned the aircraft.
"He goes, 'Oh my God! Do you think that was it?' I said, 'Well, I don't know.' He said, 'I gotta go out to the airport and check that place out.' So he went up and down and all around, checking out that trash place, digging through beer bottles, whiskey bottles, hamburger wrappers and God knows what else. He called me up sadly and said, 'Rip, you don't know what happened, Rip. I've lost my teeth. They're not in the trash. They weren't on the airplane. What am I going to do?'"
As it happened, they were scheduled to do an interview that night in Richmond, Va., Hawk said. So Hanson portrayed the strong silent type, pressing his lips together tightly as the camera rolled to avoid exposing his undentured gums. On the way back, Hawk reached into his pocket and announced he'd found the missing teeth. "That was one mad son of a bitch. He was going crazy. He said, 'When we stop this car, I'm going to get out and bust your ass.' Then we started laughing and decided it was pretty funny. We had a good laugh over that and any time we talked about it, we laughed about it."
When promoter Jim Barnett lured Hawk and Hanson to Australia -- they were tag team champions there in 1970 -- small mining towns and subpar accommodations were the order of the day, despite the promotion's relatively generous payouts. During one swing through the countryside, Barnett made arrangements for them to stay in a fleabag hotel, and Hanson promptly hopped in the tub to clean off. "He's got all this pink looking stuff in the tub. I said, 'What the hell have you got in there, Swede?' 'Oh, I don't know. I guess it's just some bath soap they left here for us. They put pink bath soap in here for us, in that bottle. Isn't that nice?'"
Hawk took a closer look at the packaging and threw up his hands. "He was taking a bath in rat poisoning. They had that poison around because there was so damn many rats around that area. Those rats in that outback are so big they're like dogs. Here he is taking a bath in it. I read that label to him and he almost shit. He got out of that tub and finally rinsed off with some clear water and got rid of it. To me, that was a funny thing."
TAGGING ON PRANKS AND RIOTS
Of course, Hawk and Hanson were tag team partners, so they knew how to work in unison to set up manager Homer O'Dell for a big rib. Passing through Virginia, Hawk was napping in the back of O'Dell's black Cadillac when inspiration hit him. He put a handkerchief in his mouth and pantomimed to passing motorists that his hands were bound and he had been kidnapped.
"Homer stopped at a red light; he was busy talking up front with Swede. I got up and banged my head like I was banging against the window and people in the next car looked at me and then I fell back down, like they pushed me down. I got back up and acted like they pushed me down again," Hawk laughed.
That night, police arrived at the hotel and arrested O'Dell, placing him in handcuffs. "They got me for kidnapping. ... They think I kidnapped you. Some people turned us in. They got my license number and everything," O'Dell whined to Hawk.
Hawk's reaction? "Well, to me, that was the funniest thing in the world. Swede and I laughed like hell and Homer was ready to go to jail. We finally told the cops, 'Nah, just pulling a rib on him.' Homer was upset as hell because he couldn't imagine somebody would do that kind of thing to him. I thought, 'Well, that was pretty nice of those people because if it had been somebody really being kidnapped, they'd have been turned in and picked up.'"
The Blond Bombers had to intervene to prevent the skirt-chasing Flair from coming to a premature demise. Flair wrestled as Hawk's storyline nephew in 1974 when Hanson was recovering from a heart attack. The three were clubbing at a Norfolk, Va., club one night when "Nature Boy" started flirting with a young girl who was the designated sweetheart of Al Denaro, a New Jersey crime type that Hawk and Hanson knew. "I said, 'Ric, Don't screw with that girl," Hawk said. "You could get in a lot of trouble. That guy's a big-shot gangster and he brought her down from New Jersey. If I were you, I wouldn't play around with her.' So I left him up there went somewhere else, had a couple drinks."
Flair never was one to heed warnings, though, and it wasn't long before Hanson breathlessly tracked down Hawk, telling him Flair had the girl in his room, even as two of the gangster's muscle men lurked at the door. "I called him on the phone and said Ric, 'What the hell did you do that for?'" Hawk said. "'There's two guys waiting outside. They're either going to beat the hell out of you or they're going to shoot you, I don't know what.'" It took some fast talking on the part of Hawk and Hanson to settle down the gangster. "I said, 'Al whatever you do, Ric didn't know what he's doing. He's only 26 years old, he's goofy as hell.' And boy, Al was really hot. He was really pissed because he had brought that girl down. Finally, after a long talk, lot of hours with that guy, he finally cooled down and I asked him to pull those guys off and Swede was begging with him." They admonished Flair never to try that stunt again -- "You could end up out in the ocean, out in the bay," Hawk cautioned --though whether he took the advice is unclear. "I was proud of the guy, still am," Hawk concluded. "But he comes close to Brute Bernard for embarrassing people."
And no Hawk and Hanson account would be complete without a riot story. In Lumberton, N.C., upset by the taunts of a member of the Lumbee Indian tribe at ringside, Hawk hauled off and knocked his tormentor to the floor. The riot was on, and someone, perhaps a law enforcement official, started pumping gunfire into the ceiling. "I thought. 'Jeez, are we back in the Wild West?' Swede and I jumped back into the ring because it looked like the safest place because that guy had the gun up there. He shot off about four or five rounds into the ceiling. These Indians, that got their attention and then some of these other cops around there started hitting those Indians with clubs, so we just continued our match like nothing had happened. But damn -- after it was all over, they were waiting for us. We hung around there for quite a while before we could leave."
When Hanson died in 2002, Hawk felt as though a part of him died too. They'd kept in contact since they stopped wrestling in the early 1980s, and, from his home in South Carolina, Hanson regularly updated Hawk on the state of their old friends and foes in the Carolinas.
"We shared a lot of good times and some bad times. Since he passed away, every day I think about Swede," Hawk said in 2008. "What a nice guy, a wonderful person, a big teddy bear. If I had to do it all again, I'd want a partner like Swede, someone you could wrestle with and have fun with."
With Greg Oliver, Steven Johnson is co-author of The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame series, including The Tag Teams (with a long entry on Hawk and Hanson) and The Heels (with more on Hawk), as well as the new Heroes & Icons. He is a reporter and editor in Virginia.