An Article by Mike Mooneyham
(Published in March 1995)
His friends remember him as a fighter. John Minton used that same tenacity to combat a foe tougher than any he ever faced inside a wrestling ring.
But that battle ended March 20, 1995, when cancer took the life of one of pro wrestling’s most famous personalities.
John William Minton, better known to millions of fans worldwide as Big John Studd, passed away at the age of 46 after a 17-month-long battle with Hodgkins Disease.
“He fought the good fight,” said longtime friend and former pro wrestling tar Superstar Billy Graham, who remained close to Studd and spoke to him just hours before his death.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]Graham first met Studd in California in the early ’70s and teamed with him in a memorable series of matches against Chris and John Tolos. The two became friends outside the ring as well.
“We instantly hit it off and had a very good relationship and maintained it throughout our careers,” said Graham, who retired from wrestling in 1988 after suffering a myriad of health problems due to longtime abuse of steroids.
“We were close friends. He would always call whenever I was in the hospital and check on me continually. When I lived in Burbank and he would come in to do movies, he would always come by the house without fail. He was the only wrestler who did that on a consistent basis. He was quite loyal.”
Their friendship took on a new dimension in recent months, however, as Studd fought in a tug-of-war with his disease.
“Towards the end of his life we talked quite a bit,” Graham said. “He had a tremendous energy towards God during the last six months of his life, and he would often call me to talk about the Lord. He was always pretty positive about beating Hodgkins, but I believe he was also preparing himself to meet the Lord. That’s what we discussed a lot. I called him a lot the last several weeks, we talked quite a bit and I was able to witness to him. He said he had no fear of death because he was going to heaven. He’s all right now.”
Their last conversation was two hours before Studd’s death.
“I talked to him right before he died,” said Graham. “I was speaking at a church in Raleigh on March 19. I had called him the day before I came in and that Sunday, but he was unable to talk. He had told me on Friday that the doctors told him if the chemotherapy didn’t work, he’d have a week to live.”
Studd just weeks before had been put back on chemotherapy after the cancer had put holes through his liver and spread throughout his body.
“John knew his time was near,” Graham said. “On the airplane on my way back home (to Phoenix) from Raleigh on Monday (March 20), I had a real burden to call John. As soon as I got home, I called him. His wife put the phone to his ear. He couldn’t speak, but I could hear him breathe. I told him not to be afraid, to go ahead on and meet the Lord. I told him not to have any fear, to just let go and his pain would be over. His wife said he was blinking his eyes quite a bit through our conversation, which was his way of saying that he understood every word I was saying. Two hours later I received word that he had passed away.”
Studd, who at 6-7 and 320 pounds was one of the sport’s biggest men during an era when grapplers of that size were rare, was a frequent opponent for the late Andre The Giant (Andre Rousimoff). The 18-year veteran wore four-inch lifts in his boots to bolster his height and virtually stand eye to eye with Andre, who was billed as 7-4 but was actually closer to seven feet tall.
Studd gained notoriety during the WWF’s heyday for his feuds with such stars as Andre and Hulk Hogan, and as part of the “Bobby Heenan Family” with Ken Patera and King Kong Bundy. A top heel throughout most of his career, he began his last headlining stint as a babyface (good guy) in the WWF in 1989. Studd, with his weight at that time approaching the 400-pound range and suffering from limited mobility in the ring, won the WWF’s first pay-per-view Royal Rumble that year and began a new feud with Andre – this time with Andre as the heel – but with both well past their prime. The magic of earlier that decade was never recreated, and with the box office and payoffs down this time around, Studd left the organization shortly afterwards.
“He had great runs with Andre, Hogan and Black Jack Mulligan,” said Graham. “He sure drew a lot of money.”
Wise business investments in real estate during the peak of Studd’s wrestling career allowed him to leave the business without ever having a financial need to return. Studd also added to his earnings by getting acting jobs in a number of television shows and movies.
Originally from Butler, Pa., Studd was a college basketball star but broke into pro wrestling in the early ’70s. Trained in Los Angeles by Charlie Moto and Walter “Killer” Kowalski, he wrestled as The Mighty Minton and Chuck O’Connor early in his career. He teamed with mentor Kowalski in the WWF in 1976 as The Masked Executioners, and the pair won the WWF tag-team belts from Toni Parisi and Louis Cerdan. He teamed with Bill Eadie in the Carolinas-Virginia in 1980 as The Masked Superstars to win the Mid-Atlantic tag-team belts.
Studd also held tag-team titles with Ric Flair (Mid-Atlantic), Ken Patera (Mid-Atlantic), Bull Ramos (Texas), Jimmy Garvin (Global) and The Super Destroyer (National).
Studd, who got his ring name “Big John Studd” from Houston promoter Paul Boesch in the late ’70s, was known as a family man but somewhat of a loner in the wrestling profession. Throughout his career he had remained protective of the business and of steroids. Graham, however, said that Studd admitted taking Human Growth Hormone to increase his already large size. Studd, a native of Burke, Va., was called as a witness in the Vince McMahon steroid trial in 1994. Too weak from cancer to appear at the trial in person, Studd testified from his home and finally admitted publicly that he used steroids purchased from WWF ringside physician Dr. George Zahorian.
“He wouldn’t admit to steroids at all, except to his closest inner circle,” said Graham. “He went to a lot of high schools and spoke, and his philosophy was that if you told the kids, it would give them the green light. Even when all the publicity hit the media, he kept pretty tight-lipped about it.”
“He took his share of Human Growth Hormone,” said Graham. “He thought it was safer than steroids. But when Lyle Alzado died, he was concerned of his own health because of the possible link. He later said that a doctor told him his use of Human Growth Hormone could have helped trigger the tumors that he had.”
It was Studd’s desire to become as big as Andre that fueled his use of steroids.
“He wanted to be another Andre,” said Graham. “He always told me that was where the money was, and if Andre ever stepped down he could fill his spot. His bones grew as a result of the Human Growth Hormone. I even noticed the widening of his eyes from some older pictures. John had a marked increase in bone size.”
Studd first encountered health problems in October 1993.
“John had filled in for Jimmy Snuka on an independent show for Killer Kowalski in Boston,” Graham recalled. “After the match he was very winded and had no stamina and knew something was wrong. He felt a lump underneath his armpit while taking a shower. He went to the doctor, and they found a big tumor in the middle of his chest. That was the beginning.”
Graham said that Studd refused to yield in his battle with Hodgkins. He spent nearly five months in the hospital in 1994 fighting the disease, and at one time experienced a fever of 108 degrees.
“He fought it all the way,” said Graham. “He didn’t give in. He always thought he was going to beat it. At one point the cancer went into remission after chemotherapy, and the doctors told John that he could wrestle in six months. But it came back again, and they told him that a bone marrow transplant would be his only chance. They couldn’t find a match, however, and they had to perform a procedure where they pull your own bone marrow out. The procedure had only a seven percent success rate, but they told him he’d be dead in a month without it. But he beat the odds. He was one of the seven percent. It sent the cancer back into remission.
“But about six months ago his lungs collapsed. He started getting night sweats again, sick in the morning, running a fever and all symptoms of the cancer coming back. At one point he had registered a temperature of 108.5. The doctors said they had never seen anything like that without brain damage occurring. But again he came through.”
Studd, however, was forced to re-enter the hospital one last time.
“He thought he would be in for about five days,” said Graham. “But it took a turn for the worse. He was positive the whole time. He never gave up.”