Road trip for a friend: A weekend at the Tragos/Thesz Hall of Fame
HERB SIMMONS - For SLAM! Wrestling
|Gerry Brisco presents the James C. Melby Award to Herb Simmons, accepting for his friend Larry Matysik.
As I travelled down the highway to Waterloo, Iowa, I had many miles to reflect back on the reason I was making this trip to the National Wrestling Hall OF Fame, Dan Gable Museum -- my dearest friend Mr. Larry Matysik was being honored by the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Hall of Fame.
Growing up in East St. Louis, Illinois, it was a weekly family event to watch the local televised wrestling program that for a short time aired on Wednesday evening on Channel 5, but then later on KPLR TV-11 on Saturday nights, re-broadcast on Sunday at noon. Living in a housing project with no air conditioning caused my family and those living in the same apartment complex to relocate our small black and white television out to the backyard so we could all sit around and watch the great wrestlers such as Dick The Bruiser, Gene Kiniski, Pat O'Connor, Buddy Rogers, Cowboy Bob Ellis, Rip Hawk, Wilbur Snyder and the list could go on forever.
I became a fan quickly; my brothers and I would practice all the moves, headlocks, figure four leg locks, the iron claw, and all of them that made the wrestling entertainment the best there was. Growing up in that era was something that I truly enjoyed as a young boy. I followed wrestling for years and never stopped. I followed it in the St. Louis area, Chicago, Atlanta, Texas and just about anywhere they would broadcast it to our small television set.
I remember watching Joe Garagiola, who was the first play by play announcer, and would use his sense of humor to entertain the fans.
A recent photo of Larry Matysik and Herb Simmons.
Next came Larry Matysik. He was the voice of "Wrestling at the Chase" from 1972 to 1983. It was my friendship with Larry that opened the door to me to meet many of the great wrestlers. Through him I was honored to meet in my eyes the greatest wrestling promoter in the business, Mr. Sam Muchnick. After I began promoting wrestling events, I was provided the opportunity to meet wrestlers like Dick Murdoch, Greg Valentine, Pat O'Connor, Bruiser Brody, and so many more.
And now I find myself representing my dear friend at the greatest honor that could be given to him. Due to some health issues that restrict Larry from travelling, he asked that I make the trip in his place to receive the Jim Melby Award for his contributions to professional wrestling journalism. How could I tell him no after what he has done for me over the years of our friendship?
What also made my trip so special was back in the 1980s I had the pleasure of meeting the great Lou Thesz. Lou even did a couple of shows for me as a special guest referee. What a gentleman he was. Here I was, this little independent promoter. Sure I was bringing in all the great wrestlers to the area, but now I was bringing in the all-time great Lou Thesz. I was on Cloud Nine. He found out I was from East St. Louis, Illinois and told stories about how he wrestled at the old Social Center. I knew where that was; my Mother had told me stories about watching Lou Thesz there. And to think that I was given the honor of being in the building that his great name was associated with.
To all of those that think as a young boy things can't happen to you, or that following your dreams won't happen, continuing reading and see what dreams can get you.
As I continue to follow that dream here I'm in Waterloo, Iowa at the National Wrestling Hall Of Fame, for the Tragos/ Thesz Hall of Fame weekend.
Baron Von Raschke and Mickey Simmons. Photo by Herb Simmons
With me on the six-hour trip was Mickey, my wife of 39 years. Immediately upon arriving at the hotel, I met friend after friend from the last. Karl Lauer, an old promoter, there to be a part of the panel that was paying tribute to Baron Von Raschke, another great friend of mine. Next was the number one wrestling fan ever that I have ever known, Darla Staggs. We had a bite to eat and discussed our plans for the evening, and Wes Brisco arrived. Wes, the son of Gerry Brisco, had worked for me in the past and it was great to see him again. It wasn't long until his father joined us. Gerry was his usual self, polite and glad to see us. Gerry had also come in for my shows in the past.
We then went to the Convention Center located across from the hotel to get ready for Friday evening's event, which consisted of the legends selling their pictures and books, and a full wrestling card put on by Impact Wrestling. The auditorium was packed, fans standing in line waiting to see their idols. The fans were there and they weren't moving until they talked with them or had their picture taken with them. One legend after another sat behind tables meeting their fans: Jim Ross, Gerry Brisco, Scott Steiner, Diamond Dallas Page, Baron Von Raschke, Danny Hodge, and Larry the Ax Hennig, along with former champion MMA and film star Randy Couture. This is what these fans came for; this was their night to rub elbows with the legends that they enjoyed watching.
Herb Simmons and Danny Hodge.
The wrestling event promoted by IPW was a class act. The main Event featured Wes Brisco in a Lumberjack match. Among the Lumberjacks were Baron Von Raschke and Danny Hodge. As Brisco threw his opponent out of the ring, Brisco's foe decided he wanted to confront Hodge. Boy, was that a mistake! Hodge, who can make applesauce out of an apple with the squeeze of his hand, let the fans know he was still able to handle himself. Brisco, then at the urging of the Baron attempted the Brain Claw on his opponent only to have him avoid it. But then the end came as Brisco applied the figure-four leg lock on his opponent quicker than I had ever witnessed. The crowd went crazy as some of the children in the audience along with Gerry Brisco joined his son Wes in the ring to celebrate victory.
After the evening several of us retired to the lounge. Some of the fans from my promotion, Southern Illinois Championship Wrestling, were there and listened as the Baron told some stories. That fellow is a one-man show; when I have brought him in to some of my events he is the show stopper. Every fan enjoys Von Raschke.
The next day we started off early with a delicious breakfast, sitting the Baron again, and this time Larry Hennig. With the two storytellers sitting at the same table, others in the room could hear them talk and as I looked around, no one was eating! They were focused on listening to these two great legends. Soon I think Baron and Larry either realized they were being watched, or they got hungry and they began to eat – then so did the others. After breakfast I talked with Hennig about his days as tag team partner with Harley Race. We talked about the business in general. Larry paid me a compliment, and said he had heard about my organization and that if I had been doing it for so many years that we must be doing it the right way. I responded to him by saying, "There were three people that influenced me in the business, and they told me that if you treated the boys right, they will treat you the same way. They also taught me that if you treat the fans well they will support you. Those three gentlemen were Sam Muchnick , Bruiser Brody and Larry Matysik.
My wife and I then walked the four blocks to the Dan Gable Museum. The crowd was already starting to lineup. Lucky for us we had VIP passes so we didn't need to stand in line. My wife, who has been with me every step of the way in my wrestling promotion career – nearly 40 years – and has met all the greats, was even taken aback by how beautiful the museum was. The layout is perfect. That day in honor of Larry Matysik and the St. Louis Wrestling, they were playing the video of clips from matches that Larry had produced playing in the Museum Theater and fans with VIP passes were sitting in there enjoying them. Before I got to the door way of the theater, I could hear Larry's voice calling the play by play, as I walked in the room, a fan stood up and stated, "That guy can really get you into the match with his enthusiasm." It's something that I have heard over and over -- no one can call the action like Larry.
The Q&A panel at the museum included, from left, Gerry Brisco, Larry Hennig, Karl Lauer, Baron Von Raschke and Danny Hodge. Photo by Herb Simmons
We then attended a question and answer session featuring Larry Hennig, Baron Von Raschke, Danny Hodge and Kaul Lauer. They told stories on each other and had the packed room laughing. This was my first time meeting Hodge, who I had heard a lot about, but let me tell you this, if I ever need help in a fight that he is the guy I want on my side. Danny can take a set of pliers and break them. About half way through this session, Gerry Brisco came in and, just as I have was honored by Matysik asking me to attend this event, I was honored by Gerry introducing me to the crowd as a promoter that truly knows how to run a wrestling event. Gerry has been in for me on a few shows. As he stated, it takes a lot of work to put these shows on, and he stressed to the crowd to support local wrestling events, especially ones like the SICW and the Impact Wrestling that put on the show the evening before. We were then joined by Jim Ross, good old J.R. What a guy he is. A man who tells it like it is. If you don't like it, so be it. He told a great story about Dick Murdoch.
Next on the agenda was the Tribute to the Baron. This was where the Baron took us from his early days growing up to his amateur days then to the days of professional wrestling. Once again little Jimmy Raschke from Omaha, Nebrask-ee, entertained the jam-packed room with his fans. He also worked his George Clooney lookalike routine. I had him tell the audience about his first trip to St. Louis at the Kiel Auditorium for his first match against Pat O'Connor. He told them how he had a vision problem back then and he got turned around and entered the arena from the wrong side. It was a true story because I was there that evening.
Charlie Thesz and Darla Staggs. Photo by Herb Simmons
I had the pleasure of meeting the one and only Charlie Thesz, Lou Thesz' widow. What a lady! She is known by everyone there and respected by all. I talked with her several times that weekend and each time she talked about Larry Matysik. She is truly a major supporter of this Hall of Fame, not only because it has Lou's name on it, but because she believes in the dream that Lou had for many years and that is a museum mixing the amateur and professional aspects together.
That evening was the induction ceremony in the banquet hall, and I was once again impressed by the professionalism that I was witnessing. Sadly, often in wrestling you don't see this class act all the time. Back in the Wrestling at the Chase era, when the shows were in the Khorassan Room at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel, one of the top-notch hotels in St. Louis, you saw tables with white table cloths, nice lighting with chandeliers, and people dressed in suits and evening gowns. This was what came to my mind when I walked into this big banquet room. I even mentioned it to my wife, all that was missing was the wrestling ring and the smoke from the cigars that clouded underneath the lighting, WOW, how I was enjoying this moment.
As the legends and the guests began to arrive, the buzz around the room was one that I will remember forever. While people were telling stories of best matches that they watched with some of these legends, the legends were walking around talking with everyone. This was priceless, no one thinking they were better than the common people, everyone enjoying this time together.
Before the ceremony began, I was approached once again by Kyke Klingman, who is the Director of Operation for the Museum, and he again thanked me for attending on behalf of Larry Matysik and he was thankful for the video of action involving some of the stars in the Hall of Fame that I brought to be added in to the museum. It was footage that they didn't have before and now, thanks to Larry, it will be in the Hall Of Fame.
J.R., the Master of Ceremonies, was in prime form. He is great at what he does, unscripted, other than the program listing the names. Everything else he mentioned about each of the inductees came from his knowledge of each of them and truly from his passion for the business.
Kari Williams, Darla Staggs, Herb Simmons, Mickey Simmons and Shelley Bonin Melby show their pleasure with the selection of Larry Matysik for the Melby Award. Photo by Joyce Paustian
The first inductee for Larry Matysik, which meant my moment was coming. He was receiving the Jim Melby Award, and they played the video of the acceptance speech that Larry had me bring along to play. I can tell you when the video was playing and I looked around the packed room, there wasn't a single person not giving it their full attention. This video set the mood for the evening. It was Larry, speaking from his heart about this crazy business we call "RASSLIN." As he took the crowd from his early days of writing articles for the magazines, to his start with the late great NWA President and promoter Sam Muchnick to becoming a play-by-play announcer and then to his days of working with the WWF for a decade, those in attendance sat with their eyes and ears open as he walked them step by step over his career. He talked briefly about the wrestling war in St. Louis and how at one point he was done with wrestling, he had enough, didn't want anything to do with it. Then he threw me under the bus, he told them how this guy, Herb Simmons, kept coming to him asking for suggestions on some wrestling events that he was promoting. He then blamed me for pushing him into the producing the Classic Wrestling Videos from the Wrestling at the Chase days, and he blamed me and a few others for pushing him to write a book.
At the end of the video when he told the audience that he had talked with the late Gene Kiniski on several occasions before Gene's death. "Big Thunder" once told him that if he had any regrets in life, it would be that he couldn't do it all over again. And that's what Larry told everyone, if you only have one regret, and it's that you cannot do it all over again. I must admit as I looked around the room, several guests and yes, several of those tough wrestlers that we admire, had tears in their eyes.
Jim Ross asked me to come forward and accept the award for Larry. The clock stopped ticking at that time. For months I knew this moment would be coming, but what was I going to say? Especially after watching the video Larry had sent and seeing the emotion of those in attendance. I knew it was going to be a hard act to follow. As I approached the stage Gerry Brisco stood there with the plaque, he stuck his hand out and I knew he could see I was going to have trouble following that video; he got close to me and whispered, "Say what's in your heart." Those were the best little five words that I heard. As I walked up on the stage I shook hands with J.R.
I looked out at the crowd and remembered what my good friend Bruiser Brody told me one time, and that is when you are in front of a crowd speaking pick out one person and focus on them, and it will calm any nerve issues you have – and believe me, I was nervous! I looked out and there were so many people there, so following the advice, I focused in on my wife and made the statement, "How do you follow that video by Larry Matysik?" I was overwhelmed with emotion. I thanked Jim Ross, Gerry Brisco and Charlie Thesz on behalf of Larry, and to the entire committee for seeing the talent that he had in his writing ability and for all the years of being in the business.
The second inductee was a gentleman I had never met until this weekend: Larry Hennig. The father of Curt Hennig and the grandfather of WWE's Curtis Axel, he was receiving the Lou Thesz Award. What a guy he is. As he approached the mic, he told everyone that a friend that he had once told him if you were asked to give a speech the first thing you had to do was get the attention of the audience. With that, he reached in his pocket and pulled out a whistle and blew louder than any whistle I had ever heard blown! Boy, did he get everyone's attention! There were several stories he told, and you could tell that him receiving the Lou Thesz Award was very emotional for him, and he had tons of family in attendance.
Darla Staggs shows off Larry Matysik's name on the list of James C. Melby Award winners.
Up next was the Frank Gotch Award, and it went to the man who invented the "Diamond Cutter," DDP, Diamond Dallas Page. Jim Ross made it clear that Dallas was a man that started in wrestling when he was 35, and that was late to get in the business. However, he worked long and hard to get where he is today. DDP gave a great overview on why, and how he got started, talking about his mentor that helped him get into the business, "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes. Dusty helped him and he has never forgotten that. He talked about Gerry Brisco and others.
Ross talked about how DDP saved Jake Roberts' life with Page's efforts to get his clean and sober. You could see the passion DDP has towards helping others. He made the statement that he feels like he had been given to opportunity to be in the business, and he feels that he has a special gift to give back to those that are in need of support.
The next presentation was the George Tragos Award. This went to former UFC champion Randy Couture. More than just a mixed martial arts star, Couture also is a movie star, appearing in the film, The Expendables. He was very humble and appreciative for the award, and talked about all the challenges that he had to overcome. He talked about he won and lost matches, and that when he got knocked down he had to get back up and learn what not to do. He talked about if you never give up good things will happen to you.
Next on the agenda were the actual honorees, to be enshrined in the Tragos/Thesz Hall of Fame. First was the late great Wilbur Synder. J.R talked about how great Synder was, how he had the long lean look, and the flattop haircut. Danny Hodge accepted the award on behalf of Snyder.
Next was Rick Steiner. Rick, who is now in the real-estate business, talked about travelling the road for 18 years with his brother, knowing that your brother is always there to have your back meant everything. He talked about the first match he had with Larry Hennig, and when he had to face Danny Hodge. You could just feel from the tone of his voice that he was truly appreciative of this honor.
Last but certainly not least was Scott Steiner. It was clear that from the times he had to stop and regain his thoughts, and his visual emotions that he was just as grateful for this award as his brother. He talked about all the obstacles that a worker encounters. He talked about how without the great fans that supported him and his brother over the years they would never had made it. He became choked up when he told the audience that the best thing happened to him 14 years ago, and that was when he married his wife. You could tell that Scott was not only proud to be involved in this ceremony, but truly humble and thankful.
After the Steiners, there was one last highlight. Ross invited Charlie Thesz to the stage to make a final statement. As Charlie began she talked about how Scott Steiner pulled it all together, and addressed how Lou always had a dream of amateur and professional wrestling and Boxing all sharing a common place. Hearing Scott talk about his college wrestling days leading into his professional years just pulled everything that Lou dreamed about. She went on to say that Lou was here with all of us tonight. She knew that he was with each of us here tonight helping to carry on the dream he and George Tragos had. What a feeling went through my body as she was talking about Lou Thesz, a man that I had the pleasure to know and have work for me. In my mind, Charlie was the person who pulled it all together with those final comments.
Left to right, Gerry Brisco, Scott and Rick Steiner, Herb Simmons, Diamond Dallas Page, Randy Couture, Larry Hennig and Danny Hodge. Photo by Joyce Paustian
On my trip home I had time to reflect on that weekend. I must admit, when my friend Larry Matysik first asked me about travelling to Waterloo, Iowa, for this event to represent him I had reservations. I had never been near Waterloo, and had no idea of who would build a Hall Of Fame there. On the trip up I kept wondering about what kind of place this would be, maybe just is one room with some pictures hung on the walls, and a few newspaper articles. I was really trying to visualize what I was in for.
I'm ashamed of myself for even having such thoughts. When I walked in to the Dan Gable Museum I stopped in my tracks. The place is beautiful, so organized, and so full of information, photos on the walls, reading material on every professional and amateur wrestler. There were wrestling videos playing, and the staff was second to none.
So after arriving back home and catching up on some much need sleep, due to Darla Staggs and company for making me a night owl, I had time to put my thoughts together.
Yes, my report is long, but the National Wrestling Hall Of Fame, The Dan Gable Museum, home to the Tragos/Thesz Hall of Fame, is worthy of the extra words.
I spent the weekend with some of the greats of all time in the wrestling business. I witnessed the best place on earth for wrestling fans, and me the small independent wrestling promoter from Southern Illinois, living what I consider a dream to come true. I also was shocked to learn that the Museum operates as a non-profit, which means they depend solely on contributions, and for this establishment to be operated in the professional manner that I witnessed is a tribute to everyone involved with the operations of it.
In closing, I would just like to say the statement Jim Ross made was very fitting – there are wrestling fans, and then there are those that claim to be wrestling fans, and that's all right. But in order to be a full-fledged wrestling fan you need to visit the Dan Gable Museum.
I will always remember and cherish my visit.
2014 Photo Gallery from the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Hall of Fame weekend
Previous SLAM! Wrestling George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame coverage
Southern Illinois Championship Wrestling website
Herb Simmons lives in East Carondelet, Illinois, and was mayor of the town for 32 years. He is currently the Director of St. Clair County 9-1-1. Herb and his wife Mickey have been married 39 yearsm and have four children: Herb Simmons Jr., Jason, Jerame, and Jessica. Besides his family, his other passion is his promotion, Southern Illinois Championship Wrestling website.