An article by Mike Mooneyham
(Published July 23, 2000)
He looked more like your average businessman than a professional wrestler. His size and physique were small for a grappler by standards 30 years ago, much less today, and the way he conducted himself during interviews was a far cry from the ranting promos now prevalent in the business.
He didn’t use any catch phrases, would have laughed at the thought of a wrestler having intro music, and probably would have frowned on the direction his beloved business took into the new millennium.
But no wrestler in the pre-Ric Flair era was more popular in the Carolinas than George Becker. He was a wrestling icon before the word became commonplace and overused.
Word quietly filtered down earlier this year that Becker had passed away at the age of 85 on Oct. 25, 1998, in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., where he had lived for the past quarter of a century with his wife of 31 years, Joyce. Becker had suffered from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease the past seven years.
“Thirty-one wonderful years (of marriage),” declares Joyce, who was 32 years his junior. “George was an excellent husband and father. And he’s in heaven now. There’s no doubt about that.”
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]Becker, whose illustrious career spanned from the ’30s until the early ’70s when he was still a main-eventer well into his 50s, was diagnosed with the mind-robbing disease seven years ago.
“He couldn’t remember what happened a week ago or 10 minutes ago, but he could sit here and tell you everything that happened 20 years ago,” says Joyce.
Becker, who lived at home for the duration of the disease, was hospitalized for a week last October when he developed a blood clot that went to his lungs and eventually claimed his life. But, says his wife, he was in excellent physical condition until the end.
“Both of us were health nuts. We worked out every other day. I still run six miles a day. George still had the body he had 30 years ago.”
It was, not surprisingly, pro wrestling that brought the two together. Joyce Grable was a young, up-and-coming ladies performer when the two met while Becker was wrestling and booking the Carolinas territory for the late promoter Jim Crockett Sr. Her real name was Fowler, but she used the ring names Barbara Nichols and Joyce Grable, taking the surname of another popular lady grappler of that era, Judy Grable.
“When George would do the booking, he would ask for me,” says Joyce, who at the time was based in Columbia and trained by The Fabulous Moolah. George and Joyce dated for six months before marrying in 1968.
“Everybody up there gave it (the marriage) six months. But I guess we got the last laugh.”
Joyce, who started in the business in 1964, worked until 1973 when her husband’s career began winding down. The two moved to Alabama while Becker was still doing special shots in the Carolinas, but relocated to the Florida Panhandle several years later and made it their permanent home. Their son, Craig, now 30 and living in California, was a three-time All-American swimmer at Clemson University. Becker had three other children (Beverly, George Jr. and Oreen) with his first wife, who died of cancer.
“George made a lot of new friends down here,” says Joyce. “But he made friends wherever he went.”
Becker spent several years working at a school for special children after officially retiring from the ring.
“He used to bring them home with him,” recalls Joyce. “He would always buy presents for all the kids out at the school. He didn’t have any favorites; he liked them all. He was such a caring man. George would have given you the shirt off his back.”
Joyce sums up her late husband with these words: “Everybody loved George. He was the most laid-back person in the world to be around.”
Many of his fellow wrestlers shared that sentiment.
“Another legend gone,” lamented longtime colleague Sandy Scott. “What you saw was what you got with George. He was true and straight down the line. He absolutely adored the fans.”
“The most important thing about George,” adds Scott, “is that he helped a lot of folks that he didn’t want people to know about. At Christmastime and different times of the year, people would come by his house, and he’d give them a few bucks or whatever they needed. He was a really good guy, and that showed throughout his career. He just had that kind way about him.”
And while George Becker was the ringwise veteran and elder statesman of the territory, Johnny Weaver proved to be the ideal complement as his young babyface partner. It was a match made in wrestling heaven, especially since the Carolinas-Virginia territory was a hotbed for tag teams during the ’60s, and the majority of main events consisted of tag bouts featuring some of the best combos in the business. Becker and Weaver ruled the roost, holding the Southern and Atlantic Coast tag-team belts and enjoying profitable programs with such vaunted duos as Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson, Skull Murphy and Brute Bernard, Aldo Bogni and Bronco Lubich, The Masked Bolos, The Andersons, The Masked Red Demons, The Masked Infernos, The Missouri Mauler and The Great Malenko, and The Mauler and Hiro Matsuda, just to name a few.
Weaver, who still lives in Charlotte where Crockett Promotions was based, noted that their greatest run featured winning the tag-team belts from Bogni and Lubich, losing them to Hawk and Hanson, and later regaining them.
“Every team was very different,” says Weaver, who teamed with Becker from the mid-’60s until 1973. “It was all teams back then, and the matches were two out of three falls. Hawk and Hanson were the roughest. The Andersons were also really good.”
Becker and Weaver set attendance marks throughout the area, including a record at Charleston’s old County Hall for a match with The Red Demons in which the champions put their belts and their hair on the line against the masked pair’s hoods and identities. Becker and Weaver had Klondike Bill in their corner to neutralize Demons’ manager George “Two Ton” Harris. The popular champs kept their straps and their hair, while The Demons unmasked and were revealed to be Billy and Jimmy Hines.
Weaver noted that he was only 26 when he first came to the Carolinas from Indianapolis, and that Becker’s experience helped him immensely.
“George was a great partner and a great man. He was also a very good tutor. I was the `young blood’ so I did most of the wrestling, and I’d tag George when I’d get in trouble.”
Tim Woods, who was a major star in the ’60s and ’70s as the masked Mr. Wrestling, said Becker, with whom he sometimes teamed in six-man bouts, was a perfect match for the younger Weaver.
“George always kept in great shape,” says Woods. “He kept his weight down and always looked good. Of course, he had a young partner (Weaver) at the time who covered a lot of territory for them, but that was their style and they used it effectively.”
Weaver can only chuckle when thinking about the many tag matches they won with Weaver using the sleeper hold and Becker, all 5-8 and 185 pounds of him and jokingly referred to by his opponents as “skinny legs,” applying his vaunted abdominal stretch.
“I can’t count that high.”
Weaver adds that Becker was unflappable and a steadying influence on him.
“Nothing bothered him. We made all our trips together, and we never had an argument.”
Becker, a native of Brooklyn, was already a major star when professional wrestling first became a dominant force on television, teaming with “brother” Bobby Becker (the two weren’t actually related; Bobby’s real name was Ray Schwartz) in Los Angeles and eventually bringing their act to the Carolinas where they won the Southern tag-team title from Mr. Moto and Kinji Shibuya. The popular team, however, came to an end when Bobby died later that year of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Becker, who held a version of the world lightheavyweight title in 1939, spent the last part of his career working in special matches, serving as a troubleshooting referee and participating in six-man matches.
“We did a lot of six-man tags,” recalls Weaver, “with guys like Sailor Art Thomas, Les Thatcher, Nelson Royal and Paul Jones.”
“George was extremely over and drew a lot of money for Jim Crockett,” recalls former mat star Abe Jacobs, who during the early ’60s headlined a number of shows tagging with Becker at the old Park Center in Charlotte against teams such as Kurt and Karl Von Brauner and The Medics. “They wanted George and me to go to Florida to work with The Von Brauners, but it never happened. That’s when Jim Crockett offered George the book to get him to stay because he couldn’t afford to lose him.”
Scott also recalled when Becker was approached about taking over the book.
“Things got so bad that everybody was coming to George and talking to him about it. Finally George went in and talked to Jim (Crockett). George said he’d retire and take the book and maybe work some six-man tags. Jim never wanted George to retire.”
Scott, whose team with brother George rivaled Becker and Weaver for the top babyface duo in the territory, joined up with Becker and Weaver in many of those six-man tags whenever George was out.
Becker also had a stint at the end of his career with a short-lived promotion that he formed with Tony Olivas and Mike Gallagher following a falling out with Crockett. Gallagher, who had wrestled for many years as one half of a noted heel team with brother Doc, later went on to establish Shakey’s pizza chain. Becker finally hung up the tights, but continued to field offers urging him to return.
“They would call him and he’d say, `I’m too old to do this,’ but they’d always talk him into it,” says Joyce.
Becker finally left the business for good and was content driving a school bus.
Joyce says she and George didn’t talk much about wrestling in later years.
“He loved wrestling. He loved meeting people. That was his life. But we didn’t talk a lot about wrestling after he left the business. George was from the old school. He would say wrestling just wasn’t like it used to be.”
Joyce says those who knew George will never forget him.
“George was one of the most gentle men you’ve ever been around. I was lucky to have him for 31 years.”
And so was professional wrestling.