By Mike Mooneyham
April 28, 2001
There were wrestlers, and there were wrestlers. Johnny Valentine was a wrestler.
Over four decades covering the business, I’ve seen my share of legitimately tough customers who made their living putting their bodies on the line every night and living out of a suitcase. There was none tougher than the man we all respectfully called “The Champ.”
So when word began to filter Tuesday afternoon that the final three count had tolled for this true wrestling icon, a sense of sadness and deep loss filled the wrestling community. Not just among the older fraternity of fans and wrestlers, but also among the current generation who had heard remarkable tales about this legendary performer.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]The incredible sledgehammer blows that could be heard throughout an arena. A simple stare with those piercing blue eyes that could work a crowd into a frenzy. A seemingly never-ending feud with Wahoo McDaniel with matches brutal beyond description that gave new meaning to the words “chopped meat.” A man of deep intellect whose creativity extended beyond the wrestling mat to the painter’s canvas, opera and gourmet cooking. A bizarre sense of humor that earned him the reputation as the sport’s greatest ribber. They were all Johnny Valentine.
He was 72 when he died on Monday, but it had been more than 25 years since Valentine last worked inside a wrestling ring. Cut down at the height of his career, at the age of 47 years and already a 27-year veteran, he forever will be linked with the 1975 plane crash outside Wilmington, N.C., that ended his career and nearly ended the career of a young Ric Flair, and left a gaping hole in the wrestling business that has never been filled.
The accident left him paralyzed, forcing him to maneuver for the rest of his days with the assistance of crutches, wheelchairs and a permanent brace on his right leg. None of it, however, stopped him from working out almost daily and displaying the toughness that made him a legend in the wrestling business.
Valentine, who once admitted he never threw an easy punch, earned his respect the hard way – with blood, sweat and tears. And he always insisted that promoters call him “The Champ.” Valentine, who stood 6-3 and weighed 245 in his prime, was the biggest box-office attraction in the Carolinas during the early ’70s as he successfully defended his thousand silver dollars against the best the area had to offer. With his trademark sledgehammer blow, he never was defeated for that bowl of silver.
Johnny Valentine was extreme decades before anyone ever thought of ECW. He was doing Texas death matches, cage matches and ladder matches before they were in vogue. He was box office wherever he went, and wherever he went nobody would ever forget him. The words icon and legend are overused and often misused, but Valentine was both.
Valentine had been in and out of intensive care since August when he fell off his porch in a freak accident, fracturing his back and twisting his colon. Both of his lungs eventually collapsed due to a staph infection, he had ongoing problems with his respiratory system, his kidneys had stopped operating and his bowels had completely shut down.
Making matters even worse were the financial and bureaucratic battles Valentine’s wife, Sharon, was forced to wage with HMOs, insurance companies and doctors in the fight to keep her husband alive. Even more unsettling was the fact that professional wrestling, an industry that for years considered its workers as independent contractors with no unions or little health insurance support, had basically neglected not only one of its own, but one of its finest.
Valentine had been given only hours to live after contracting pneumonia four days after back surgery upon arriving at a hospital near his home in River Oaks, Texas. But, true to form, Valentine survived for eight months, continuing to overcome insurmountable obstacles and fighting bravely until he drew his last breath at 3:07 a.m. April 23. It was how he lived, though, that has left an indelible impression on a generation of wrestling fans.
McDaniel, Valentine’s most famous ring rival, said no one was tougher than JV.
“We sure had some good matches, but he liked me,” Wahoo said last week. “That was one good thing. There were some guys he didn’t like, and he’d beat them silly.”
Valentine, who was born Jonathan Wisniski near Seattle, Wash., had his first pro match in 1949 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and was a top drawing card throughout the world. It was his raw strength and stiff style that captivated audiences, and often put fear in the hearts of his opponents.
“He was tough, he was strong, and I’m telling you, if you didn’t get your hands up and fight him, he’d beat you to death with his own hands,” said McDaniel. “I’d hit him as hard as I could. I’d beat him with that strap, and goose pimples would come on him. But I think he liked it. John was as tough as any man I ever crawled in the ring against. He was a great wrestler, he had a lot of talent and he was a very smart individual.”
Sandy Scott, whose brother George brought Valentine into the Carolinas in the early ’70s, recalled some of the brutal matches between Wahoo and Valentine.
“I refereed one their matches over in Winston-Salem or Greensboro. All I would hear is Valentine saying `Harder! Harder! Harder!’ Wahoo would say, “My hand’s about busted!” John would say “Harder!’ If he were around today, half of these guys wouldn’t be here. They’d have bruised ribs and bruised chests. We lost a good one.”
“He was the hottest thing I had in the territory,” said George Scott. “He was unreal. We did ungodly business with him.”
“John and I were always pretty close,” said McDaniel, who had his first match with Valentine more than three decades ago in Fort Worth shortly after Valentine had dethroned Fritz Von Erich for the Texas heavyweight championship. “I beat him that night when I came in. We pounded one another. Everywhere we went we had a big run. Just think how many more matches he and I could have had over the years.”
Flair, who teamed and feuded with Valentine several years before doing the same with Johnny’s son, Greg, called JV “a master psychologist with a distinct style that nobody could copy.”
Flair said he still flinches when recalling those torrid Valentine-Wahoo bloodbaths. “They made believers out of everybody. It was just unbelievable. That blow to the back of the neck was brutal.”
Valentine was, indeed, the hottest star in the Carolinas-Virginia territory until tragedy struck in 1975 when a twin-engine Cessna 310 plane carrying David Crockett and four wrestlers took off from Charlotte for Wilmington for a Saturday evening show at Legion Stadium. Also on the plane were Valentine, Flair, Tim “Mr. Wrestling” Woods and Bob Bruggers.
The overloaded plane ran out of gas and the engine started to fail as it crossed the Cape Fear River and approached the runway. The plane, however, never made the landing, cutting across several treetops and a utility pole before crashing.[ad#MikeMooneyham-468×15]
The pilot was critically injured and died two months later. Bruggers, whose back was shattered, never wrestled again but was able to make a full recovery. Valentine broke his back in three places, as did the 26-year-old Flair, but the latter returned to the ring within six months. The others suffered an assortment of injuries, including head trauma, bruises and broken bones.
But the landscape of Crockett Promotions – and the entire wrestling business – was changed forever.
As fate would have it, Valentine initially had taken a seat in the back of the plane, but moved to the front next to the pilot at the request of Flair.
“I was in the back playing chess with Tim Woods,” recalled Valentine in a 1998 interview. “Ric Flair talked me into the front seat. Flair absolutely didn’t want to sit up front with the pilot. Something must have told him. I said, `What the hell, we’ll play later.’ Otherwise he could have been in my condition.”
“I remember it well when Flair switched seats with him,” Woods recalled on Tuesday. “I was there, and that was true.”
Valentine claimed the crash was caused by pilot error. The pilot, a Vietnam veteran, had trouble getting the plane off the ground in Charlotte and had poorly distributed the weight of his passengers on board. At that point he made the fatal decision to dump fuel from the gas tank to lighten the load. “We were almost there
just a few minutes away,” said Valentine. “I remember looking at this big gas gauge right in front of me showing empty. I asked the pilot about it, and he said we had a main wing tank full. Ric Flair started looking at that gauge, too, and he began hollering like a banshee. I sort of built it up and said, `We’re out of gas, we’re out of gas,’ but I was just joking, or so I thought.
“The pilot changed over to the wing tank, and both engines started. One quit, and then the other quit. He had forgotten, though, that one of the engines was still running on the main tank. Had he switched back, we would have made it in on one engine, because we were not very far. But it was a mistake that ruined us. He was a military pilot, but he panicked.”
The plane leveled off at several thousand feet, began to plunge and landed on top of a tree before nose-diving into a railroad embankment, about 100 yards from the runway.
“Just before we hit the ground, our tail hit a wire and that kind of straightened us out. Otherwise we would have gone nose in. That saved most of us.”
After spending 10 days in a North Carolina hospital, a plane was chartered to take Valentine and Bruggers to a hospital in Houston, where the two underwent back operations in which their spines were attached with clamps.
Bruggers, walking out of the hospital in only three weeks, was the more fortunate of the two. A piece of bone lodged itself into Valentine’s spinal column and caused major damage.
Valentine might have died then had he had not been transferred from the North Carolina hospital to a facility in Houston. He always maintained that a lack of care and expertise contributed to his paralysis.
“They didn’t know what to do with us at that hospital in North Carolina. They were constantly rolling me around, because they were worried about my skin. They were turning me and rolling me around with my broken back. They used a cleanup crew to turn me clear over on my stomach. It was crazy. It was like a story out of the past. I’m just fortunate that I found out about Houston, or I might have died.”
“They were moving him every six hours, and then they’d get a guard from out in the parking lot to turn him over,” said McDaniel. “They finally flew him and Bruggers out to Houston and put those rods in their back. I went out and saw them, and they were hurting but in a lot better shape than they were down here. They were coming around. Bruggers played golf with me the day he got out of the hospital, but John never recovered. Bruggers had a broken back worse than John’s. They said he’d never walk, but he was young and he came back. John was coming back well, but then his nerves just quit growing.”
Ironically, Wahoo could have been on that same plane, but backed out at the last minute.
“I was lucky I wasn’t,” said McDaniel. “I was wrestling in Richmond that Friday night, and the next night we were going to be in Wilmington. I called the airport and asked them if there were any flights going to Wilmington. He said there was a flight leaving at 11:15, and that if I could be there by 11, they could get me on the flight. I drove that rental car right to the front door and left it. I called Bruggers, who was a buddy of mine, and said, ‘Bruggers, don’t get on that damn plane, they’re overloaded. You’ve got five guys on a Cessna 310. Don’t get on there. He said he would get a ride.”
Wahoo went on to Wilmington for the show, but he still had an uneasy feeling about the plane.
“We were sitting there getting ready for the matches and an ambulance driver walked up and asked if those boys were flying on a plane. I said they were, and he said he thought they crashed. He got on the radio and told me they just got Valentine and Flair out of the plane. They weren’t cut up real bad, so they didn’t say much. They were hurt – they had broken backs – but you couldn’t immediately tell it by looking at them. I went straight to the hospital. When I got there, everyone was sort of in shock. John was stitched up a little. I called George (Scott), and he told me to get the show over the best I could. I put it together and went back out there. They had kind of settled back, but you could tell they were in shock.”
George Scott also had been booked to be on that flight.
“I was supposed to be on that plane, but I canceled out the day before. Had it not been for John, I think the other guys (in the back of the plane) would have been dead because he held them there. He was in the front, and his arms went right through the dash.”
David Crockett had been a last-minute substitute on the plane, filling in for brother Jim, who was forced to stay home because of the flu.
Valentine, who was the U.S. heavyweight champion at the time of the crash, said he probably could have wrestled for another 10 or 15 years had it not been for the career-ending injury. He said his greatest triumphs in life were his first small steps after the accident.
“John was as tough as they come,” said Thunderbolt Patterson, who enjoyed several successful runs with Valentine. “I’m just glad the pain’s finally over.”
George Scott, who was booking the Carolinas when he brought Valentine into the territory, earlier this year attended a Cauliflower Alley banquet that honored the legend.
“I guess rather than going through all the pain the son of a gun was going through, he is probably better off. We took up a collection for him. He wouldn’t give up.”
“He was one of the great ones,” said Sandy Scott. “He didn’t budge, and you didn’t get anything. He was a hard worker and he expected you to be the same way. He mellowed a little with his ribs when he came into the Carolinas. We were up in Calgary with him years before that. He had got into some problems up there, but always got his way out of them with the guys. The Carolinas was dead at the time. He told everybody, `Hey, this is the way we’re going to do it, and if you don’t want it, there’s the door, goodbye. That’s the way I work,’ and that’s the way it was. It took about seven months, but boy did he get over.”
Wahoo remembers George Scott telling him that Valentine would never get over in the Carolinas with his slow, methodical style.
“I told him that if he didn’t, George was going to lose his whole thing because nobody will be over. I told him to take my word for it, that he works a style, but when he gets over, nobody else will ever be able to get over. It was that slow, rugged, brutal style. He was a brilliant man with the best timing in the world. He could wrestle a guy who looked like he should be in the hospital, and make him look good.”
Woods was the last person to wrestle Valentine.
“He had a very strong constitution,” said the former masked Mr. Wrestling. “He may not have been the most popular guy there ever was, but he sure as hell had everyone’s respect. He earned it. He had some incredible matches with Flair and Wahoo. You could hear the chops a block away.”
Woods also remembers hearing his leg snap while Valentine had him in the figure four leglock during a televised match for Valentine’s thousand silver dollars.
“I was out for several months after that,” said Woods. “I even moved to California just to get away from things. Things were going hot and heavy when I came back. And then we had the plane wreck. I had just bought a house here and had been in it only two weeks when the plane wrecked. I was making more money than I ever made in my life just before that wreck. I had made the statement to my wife: `This is too good to last.’ I’ll never say that again. But we were all very lucky we didn’t die.”
McDaniel said he last saw Valentine at a WCW Slamboree reunion show nearly 10 years ago.
“I tried to talk to him, but it was hard because people were all around. I tried to get a hold of him two or three weeks ago in the hospital, but they told me it was hard to get through. They said he was having a hard time talking, and I left a message. I didn’t want to bother him.
“It’s a shame he’s gone. He was a blessing to this business. Everywhere he went he drew money.” Valentine captivated audiences around the world, but he was revered by his contemporaries.
“Johnny Valentine was my idol,” said Swede Hanson. “He was my kind of wrestler. He took a liking to me when I first got into wrestling. He said he liked the way I wrestled and he gave me a lot of advice that really helped me. When you go in there and you hit somebody, don’t keep pounding on them. Just stand over them and laugh, and the people will get hot at you. I’ve seen him come into an arena, walk out to the ring, and somebody would start booing, and that’s all he’d have to do. He’d just stand there, not say a word or point or nothing. He’d pick out a spot and pick out one guy and just stare at him. That whole place was in an uproar. They were going crazy.”