By Mike Mooneyham
Feb. 24, 2002
Today’s column is not about the return of the NWO. Nor is it about the ratings, The Rock or Wrestlemania. Many younger readers may have never even heard of the man to whom this article is devoted. But without him, there’s a chance I might not have ever written my first line on the subject of professional wrestling.
This generation’s fans can look to icons like Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair and Steve Austin. When my fascination with pro wrestling took hold in the early 60s, at the top of this fan’s list was a main-event star by the name of Big Swede Hanson.
Wrestling, of course, was an entirely different business back then. There were no paid leaves of absence, time off for injuries or guaranteed contracts. The only thing guaranteed was working and traveling at least 300 days a year and the satisfaction that you were part of one of the most unique professions in the world. It was a business especially designed for real men who often lived their gimmicks and their lives to the fullest. It was tailor-made for men like Robert “Swede” Hanson.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]When Big Swede passed away Tuesday night at the age of 68 in a Columbia hospital, a part of the wrestling business died with him. I know a part of mine did.
I’d like to share a few things about Swede. First, it’s almost impossible to talk about Swede Hanson without mentioning Rip Hawk in the same sentence. As far as teams go, they rank right up there with Martin and Lewis, and Batman and Robin. They were, in fact, so good that it wasn’t long before I was hooked on the business after watching these two larger-than-life stars wreak havoc on their opponents week after week.
Rip “The Profile” Hawk was a cocky, trash-talking early version of “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, who Rip would later introduced to this area as his “nephew” in 1974 shortly after Swede suffered a heart attack and was forced to sit on the sidelines. A stocky 5-9, 240-pound ex-Marine, Hawk appeared to be a peculiar match for the 6-4, 280-pound Swede “Big Foot” Hanson, whose massive mitts and size-17 boots made him one of the most powerful men in this or any other business, as he proved as a two-time Golden Gloves champion in New Jersey with a 64-3 record (he lost to the same fighter all three times; as Swede would admit, “the guy just had my number”).
But the partnership clicked to the tune of an unbelievable 16-year run. Their act was simple: Rip did the talking. Swede was the enforcer. Both were talented workers inside the ring, since actual mat ability was an absolute prerequisite in those days. But they were first-class “bad guys,” and their job was to make the fans hate them. Nobody did it better. They were headliners from Charlotte to Tokyo, from Singapore to the Australian Outback. More importantly, “we were closer than any brothers could ever be,” Rip would say. Both would readily admit that they burned the candle at both ends, but neither would have done it one bit differently.
“It was the hard life we lived, but we had outstanding times,” said Rip. “We lived it all the way. We lived it like we were supposed to. Sixteen years of fun.”
Their out-of-ring exploits would easily fill the pages of a hefty novel, but one of their most interesting adventures occurred while touring the Far East when Swede, after consuming a large quantity of sake, dove into a small pool in the lobby of a swank Japanese hotel and started chasing the goldfish. “Swede didn’t know that goldfish are sacred over there, and the people went nuts … It seemed like we were always in a beef,” said Rip, adding that they were as formidable in bar fights and scrapes outside the ring as they were in actual wrestling matches.
Like the time in Lynchburg, Va., when rowdy fans sliced Swede down the side of his leg and later tried to overturn the ambulance that was transporting him to the hospital. The shaken ambulance driver quickly regained his composure when Swede warned that he would commandeer the vehicle if the driver thought twice about slowing down for the unruly crowd. Swede was back in the ring the next night.
Or the time at the Township Auditorium in Columbia when fans rioted prior to Hawk and Hanson’s grudge match with Nelson Royal and Paul Jones. The bout never started and the show was stopped.
Swede began his pro mat career in October 1957 and wrestled in four different decades. A native of East Orange, N.J., he was a prep football star who passed up a scholarship to Wake Forest when he quit his last year of school to become an aviation mechanic in order to help his struggling mother pay the bills.
He sparred with the likes of Archie Moore and Rocky Marciano, and counted Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis among his friends. Former basketball great “Dr. J” Julius Erving would attend Swede’s matches in Philadelphia, and once gave Swede a pair of his favorite basketball shoes, only to give him a replacement pair when Swede wore out the old ones. He was also a Duke sports fanatic who adorned his Fort Mill trailer with Blue Devil memorabilia.
“We lost a great Duke fan,” Bob Harris, the voice of the Blue Devils for the past 25 seasons, said Friday. “He was not an Iron Duke, he was not a season ticket-holder. As a matter of fact, he never stepped foot inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, although I invited him several times. But he was what a Duke fan was all about. He pulled for Duke, he admired (coach) Mike Krzyzewski tremendously. I once got Mike to autograph one of those mini-balls for Swede. When I gave it to him, he looked at the ball and he looked at me and looked at the ball again. When he looked back up, there were tears rolling down his cheeks. It thrilled him to death. It was better than looking at a kid at Christmas.”
Swede had been married and divorced twice during his wrestling years, but the light of his life was a lady named Patsy Hughes who had booed and jeered Hanson as a fan, but in later years discovered that the big guy was actually just a big teddy bear who wouldn’t harm a fly. It was hard not to chuckle when Swede once recounted the story about going to the movies with his fiancee of nine years and seeing “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” for the first time in 50 years. “I was singing Heigh-ho, heigh-ho’ with the Dwarfs, and my girl was sliding down in her chair,” the big guy admitted.
Swede also loved the five acres on which his doublewide rested, a good stone’s throw from the South Carolina-North Carolina border, and where his ashes will be spread.
As for myself, I’ll remember when I first became a fan, waiting outside the old County Hall every Friday night for that big white Cadillac to pull up, just to get a glimpse of the coolest heels I’d ever seen. I’ll remember the “Blond Bombers” waging bloody battle with babyface duos like George and Sandy Scott, George Becker and Johnny Weaver, and Nelson Royal and Paul Jones, as well as fellow “bullies” like Skull Murphy and Brute Bernard, Aldo Bogni and Bronco Lubich, and Gene and Ole Anderson. More than that, however, I’ll remember Swede Hanson my friend, a hero of my youthful past who helped introduce me to what would become a lifelong passion.
Declining health (diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems and Alzheimer’s) in recent years had frustrated Swede, who, like any good fighter, dreamed of that one last comeback. As recently as a year ago, Swede had called his longtime buddy, Rip Hawk, and talked about “one more match.” Rip politely told him that, at the age of 70, he didn’t think that would be the wisest of ideas. But it didn’t stop the big man from dreaming.
“Nobody will ever know how much that guy meant to me,” wept Rip when learning the news on Wednesday.
I know the feeling.