By Mike Mooneyham
Jan. 13, 2002
Dick Garza, better known in wrestling circles as The Mighty Igor, died of a heart attack at the age of 70 Monday in a Detroit hospital. Garza, a former Mr. Michigan who parlayed his bodybuilding background into a successful mat career in which he was billed as the world’s strongest wrestler, had battled heart problems in recent years, and had been in the hospital for a number of weeks.
Garza was a symbol of an innocent era in professional wrestling. One of the profession’s enduring images will be the friendly, shaggy-haired, Polish strongman Igor Vodik, wearing cutoffs, a white singlet and a black beret, waving a huge piece of kielbasa (Polish sausage) that he would share with his fans. Sometimes he would bring a stuffed animal or a children’s toy to the ring, and along the way would plant a kiss on the foreheads of as many fans and ring personnel as he could. After a few weeks in a territory, he would amaze audiences with his feats of strength.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]The Mighty Igor was the ultimate babyface. His gimmick was simple but successful. A star in every territory he appeared, Igor was best known in the Carolinas for his mid-70s feud with The Masked Superstar (Bill Eadie) and manager Boris Maximilianovich Malenko (Larry Simon). A memorable angle in which The Superstar smashed Malenko’s lit cigar into Igor’s eye not only spurred one of the top money-making programs in the territory, but it also led to a long, lucrative run in Japan for Eadie.
“The angle was so successful that I took it to Japan and got a 14-year career out of (Antonio) Inoki from it,” Eadie said. “I was the first guy to ever do anything like that to Inoki. We were supposed to have a blowoff match after about the first six weeks at the Tokyo Dome, and there was so much heat they had to send me home. They finally brought me back, and I rode 14 years out of that thing.”
Eadie, as The Superstar, rode the same angle with Dino Bravo in the Montreal territory into a five-year run. Eadie remembers originally coming up with the idea as a rib.
“We needed some kind of victory celebration. Boris didn’t smoke. We got these big, stinky cigars, and every time we got a victory, Boris would have to light up a cigar. Boris would actually almost throw up every time. In this case a rib turned out to be a good thing. Once fans saw him light up that cigar, they thought it (the match) was over. And then when I had the best of Igor at (Charlotte’s) Park Center, Boris jumped the gun and lit the cigar, stood up on the apron and turned around with a big smile, and there I was with a bear hug on me. I just grabbed the cigar and stuck it right in Igor’s eye. It did get him a little bit in the eyebrow, but he sold the heck out of it.”
Igor sold it so well that his vision suffered as a result. “Even when it got better, he went and got sandpaper and scarred up his eye. He wore this big patch to the extent that it almost cost him his vision. He wore it for almost six months. But people sure remembered that angle.”
Garza’s “Mighty Igor” character was childlike, simple and innocent.
“He lived the gimmick,” said Eadie. “When he was out in public, he was Igor. When he was in the ring, he was no different. I have nothing but good memories of him. He was a very good businessman. We didn’t have that much time to talk, but I know that over the years he made some good purchases in Florida. He made quite a few good investments and bought up a lot of property.”
“He was a very gentle man,” Garza’s wife, Donna, told the Detroit Free Press. “Kids just loved him. When he was down in the Carolinas, there was a young boy who had leukemia and was dying, and his big wish was to see my husband. Richard went up to the hospital to see him, and they said it helped make the boy live longer.”
The Dearborn, Mich., native started bodybuilding as a teen-ager in Detroit and was named Mr. Michigan in 1954. He got into wrestling after punching out Brute Bernard while working out at a gym in Detroit. Promoter Burt Ruby heard about it and signed him.
“He was working out in George Jacobs’ gym on the incline bench with 120-pound weights when Brute Bernard walked past a couple of times and finally whacks him (for no reason apparently), despite Garza’s warning,” wrestling historian Mike Lano recounted of a 1998 conversation with Garza. “Garza did not like Brute. He was a bully who’d spit on guys’ steaks if he wanted to eat it. At any rate, Garza rose and clobbered Bernard on the jaw, laying him out. He’s layin’ there and he don’t get up,’ recalled Garza in his heavy Michigan accent. I thought I’d killed him.’ Evidently, Bernard lay unconscious for five minutes until Jacobs got him to come around. When he did, Brute was furious and demanded Jacobs get that SOB to meet me at the Park Avenue Hotel.’ Garza showed, Brute never did.”
Igor was managed for many years by the late Ivan Kalmikoff (Edward Bruce), who, as his spokesman and confidant, would take Igor from territory to territory where he would display his strongman stunts at matches, television shoots, shopping centers and fairs.
One of his favorite feats of strength involved a car.
“Richard would put his back against a wall, and his manager would get in the car and start the car,” recalled his wife. “Richard would keep it from crushing him by pushing back with his legs.”
He also lifted a truck on a pulley, broke chains, bent iron bars and had cement blocks broken over his head with a sledgehammer.
Igor held the AWA world heavyweight title for a week during 1965 before dropping the belt to Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon. Some of his most memorable feuds were with The Sheik and Pampero Firpo in Detroit, Dick “The Bulldog” Brower in Eddie Einhorn’s short-lived International Wrestling Association, and Carlos Colon in Puerto Rico.
Ivan Putski (Joe Bednarski) later adopted Garza’s character and became a star in his own right during the 70s. “He stole it,” said Eadie. “It was something good, but Ivan was never as good as Igor. Ivan was a very obnoxious person. He just saw the gimmick. The most important ingredient was liking people, and Igor liked people. I guess it’s flattery if somebody stole it, but he didn’t do well with it.”
One of Igor’s last major programs was with an up-and-coming Hulk Hogan in Florida in 1981.