An article by Mike Mooneyham
Published May 19, 1996
Ray Stevens, who died in his sleep of heart failure on May 3, 1996, provided pro wrestling with one of its truly unique characters throughout a period that spanned the modern history of the sport.
Known as “The Blond Bomber” and “The Crippler” during a career lasting five decades, Stevens left an indelible mark on the business. He began his pro career at the age of 15 and found himself in main events against the legendary Gorgeous George at the tender age of 17.
Stevens would wrestle through the early ’90s and hold numerous titles. Perhaps his most well-known championship reigns were with longtime partners Pat Patterson (NWA world tag-team title in the ’60s) and Nick Bockwinkel (AWA world tag-team title in the ’70s with Bobby Heenan as manager). Both teams are widely regarded as among the best in the history of the sport.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]Stevens, one of the top heels in the business throughout his career, first gained national notoriety in the ’50s when he teamed with Roy Shires as The Shire Brothers. He would later become the top draw in Shires’ San Francisco territory throughout the ’60s and much of the ’70s, and would hold the U.S. title nine times during the ’60s and ’70s and the world tag-team belts on several occasions with longtime friend Patterson.
Stevens’ grudge match with Pepper Gomez broke Elvis Presley’s record for the largest crowd ever to attend an event at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, drawing more than 17,000 fans to a building designed to accommodate 15,000, with thousands more turned away. It still stands as a Cow Palace attendance record and the largest for any pro wrestling event ever in Northern California.
Stevens, despite a far-from-imposing 5-8, 230-pound beer-belly physique, during his prime was regarded as one of the best workers in the business. His coup de grace, the “Bombs Away” knee drop from the top rope, was an innovative maneuver during that period and was one of the most feared in the sport. A broken leg suffered in a motorcycle accident in 1969 slowed him down, but he continued to provide quality matches and carried many far less superior wrestlers to memorable matches.
Stevens, born Carl Raymond Stevens 60 years ago in Point Pleasant, W.Va., had a well-earned reputation of living life to the fullest. His colorful, tough-talking ring persona was a true reflection of his fast-lane, devil-may-care lifestyle outside the squared circle. Stevens, who also made headlines for his bar-brawling antics and run-ins with the IRS, often remarked that he hated being in main events because it cut into his beer-drinking and women-chasing time. Even though the hard drinking and fast living caught up with Stevens in the end, he continued to buck the odds until his passing.
Stevens had experienced heart problems in recent years and had quadruple-bypass surgery late last year at Stanford University.Therese Theis, whom Stevens married when he was 17 while she was already a top performer on the women’s circuit, told The Wrestling Observer newsletter: “He had one of the most fun lives of anybody who ever lived. He made a lot of money. He spent a lot of money. And he traveled the world. He was really something special in the wrestling business.”
“Ray was a great influence on me as a professional wrestler because of his attitude,” former NWA world champion Dory Funk Jr. said. “He would go after it and try anything – inside the wrestling business or outside. He was an excellent worker. The thing that fans appreciated about him was that, like him or hate him, he worked his tail off.”
“I first met Ray in Sydney, Australia, in 1965,” recalled Funk. “We had our suits made over there. We had tailor-made shirts with white collars and cuffs, with a colored background on the shirts. Ray took us out one night to some of the clubs, and he wound up with his shirt torn. Someone grabbed a piece of his shirt, and pretty soon everyone in the club felt they should have a piece of Ray’s shirt. By the time we got back home, he still had his tie and his white collar and white cuffs and cufflinks, but he had no shirt whatsoever. Ray had a great time over it. He was a tough guy who’d fight at the drop of a hat, but he wasn’t a quick-tempered guy. He was a fun-loving person.”
Stevens returned to California and moved back in with Theis, his first wife, in 1995. Perhaps realizing that his days were numbered, he attended several old-timers’ reunions during the past year and was a special guest at the March 16 Cauliflower Alley get-together.
A heart attack was listed as the cause of Stevens’ death. Stevens reportedly had been drinking brandy and beer that night and took some pills before going to bed.