By Mike Mooneyham
April 28, 2002
Few wrestlers knew Wahoo McDaniel better than 16-time world champion Ric Flair.
The two worked against each other more than 1,200 times, and Flair estimates that he took thousands of Wahoo’s trademark tomahawk chops during the course of their classic rivalry, which spanned from 1974 until the late 80s. “I didn’t give nearly as many as I got,” Flair said Friday as he looked back on the career of his longtime friend, who died on April 18 in Houston at the age of 63.
“He and Harley Race were the toughest guys I ever met in my life,” said Flair. “Wahoo was just an incredibly tough guy. Not just the way he wrestled, but the conditions he wrestled under. He wrestled hurt, he wrestled sick. I remember he had a vasectomy at four o’clock in the afternoon, then wrestled at 8 o’clock that night. Wahoo would wrestle under any conditions. He had an incredible work ethic. He wrestled long matches and was as tough as anybody in the ring.”
Wahoo, however, was more than just a drawing card to Flair. He was a teacher and a friend who was instrumental in Flair’s arrival in the Carolinas in 1974.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]“To me, he was the one guy most responsible for me getting my career off to a good start. He was probably the most influential person in my career for the first 10 years,” said Flair. “I respected him so much. If something was going down in the business, I’d always ask Wahoo’s opinion. He was responsible for bringing me down to the Carolinas. I asked him all the time and learned an awful lot about working from him.”
Flair first crossed paths with “The Chief” in Minneapolis in 1972 when Wahoo was headlining for AWA owner Verne Gagne. Flair, a Minneapolis native and a product of Gagne’s wrestling school, was just getting his feet wet in the business.
“We became very good friends there. Even from the distance of our experience levels at that time, he always took me under his wing. We traveled together whenever I was lucky enough to be on the card. We lived close together and just became good friends. We got along great.”
The Flair-Wahoo connection almost didn’t make it off the ground, however, as Flair was involved in a 1975 place crash near Wilmington, N.C., that killed the pilot of the twin-engine Cessna 310 and left Johnny Valentine paralyzed. Flair and Wahoo had been feuding over the Mid-Atlantic heavyweight title at the time of the crash. The angle was so strong that Wahoo, who was one of the first wrestlers to visit Flair in the hospital, startled attendants when they saw him arrive, believing the feud was real and that Wahoo was trying to get at Flair.
No one, with the possible exception of Johnny Valentine (and later, son Greg Valentine), enjoyed a more memorable program with Wahoo than the Nature Boy.
“Wahoo and Flair and (Johnny) Valentine were famous for throwing those chops and bruising each other’s chests and causing the blood to flow,” recalled Superstar Billy Graham. “They’d stand in that corner and chop each other like there was no tomorrow. When I took a chop, I’d only take one, and then I’d go down. I’d tell Wahoo: Now you can start working on me. Take over from down here, buddy. One’s enough for this boy.’ I wasn’t about to stand there and trade chops with a buzz saw. He’d always laugh at me and tell me a few little chops weren’t going to hurt me. I’d tell him, The way you throw them they do.’ At least I knew I wasn’t going to get chopped to death lying on the mat.”
Flair, however, went at Wahoo full-throttle, resulting in some of the most legendary matches in wrestling history. One particularly grueling encounter in Charlotte resulted in Wahoo being taken out on a stretcher and rushed to the hospital for a patch job that required 42 stitches. During the course of that match, Flair crushed a ringside table and tore off one of its legs. He swung it at Wahoo, and a nail protruding from the table caught him in the head, busting Wahoo open over his eye.
“I’ll never forget it,” said Flair. “We had a lot of great matches, but that one got the most notoriety. He was in the hospital for about four hours getting his eye fixed. But he got me back.”
Flair and Wahoo’s exploits went beyond the wrestling ring.
“We went up and down the road a lot, going a 100 miles an hour in my Cadillac chasing him or him chasing me,” recalled Flair. “It was incredible. Of course, it was so kayfabe, and you couldn’t ride with each other. You had to really be careful back then, because there was a big penalty.”
Moncks Corner native Burrhead Jones recalled one such incident while traveling with Wahoo and a couple other workers after a show in Conway. “We had stopped and got a six-pack of beer. I was neutral and got myself a little half pint of whiskey. We went from Conway to Charlotte on a little back road. Blackjack Mulligan and Ric Flair were riding together and after they passed us on a double lane, somebody threw a beer can. Wahoo got hot and told whoever was driving to catch them. A state trooper pulled us over 30 or 40 miles outside of Charlotte. So they swerve the game on the state trooper, but the game came back on Wahoo. Blackjack told the trooper that this crazy Indian’ is trying to kill us back there. When the state trooper came back and saw it was Wahoo, they tried to work and stage a fight. The state trooper held them back and told Blackjack to go ahead, that they were going to hold Wahoo right there. They held him for more than 30 minutes. Nobody got a ticket, but Wahoo didn’t get home until 2 or 3 in the morning. He was so mad. The next night we were in Raleigh for TV, and Wahoo was fit to be tied. Blackjack just laughed about the whole deal.”
“There was no stop sign for Wahoo,” added Jones. “But he was a heck of a nice guy. He really didn’t mean any harm to anyone. He did more harm to himself than anybody else. He used to come over to the house quite a bit when Rufus (R. “Freight Train” Jones) would cook. We’d always have a wonderful time.”
Wahoo and Flair also were involved in their share of barroom brawls, the most notable occurring in Charlotte, resulting in Flair and Wahoo going to court and paying $3,500 fines. The incident occurred when Wahoo was showing a friend his brand new diamond ring. The ring fell on the floor, and Wahoo bent over to pick it up.
“This female lawyer thought Wahoo was being fresh with her, and that’s how it all started,” said Flair. Three male friends, including another attorney, confronted Wahoo, who began putting the boots to the trio. “That’s when she jumped on his back and Wahoo flying-mared her,” said Flair. “That was it.”
Flair regrets that Wahoo didn’t take better care of himself, especially in his later years.
“You couldn’t even tell him back then. He’d say, No, don’t worry about it, I’m fine.’ When he got diabetes, instead of quitting drinking, he’d double up on the insulin and drink just as much … I’d say, Chief, let’s go work out,’ and he’d say, Boy, I’ve been working out 30 years, I don’t need to work out any more. I’m tired of working out.'”
Flair last visited with Wahoo several months ago in a Charlotte hospital. “He was an incredibly tough guy, but he was clearly aware that he some legitimate problems that needed to be addressed. It was probably the first time I ever heard him admit that he really needed help. It was really a sad day.”
Even sadder, Flair says, is that many of today’s fans will never realize just how important Wahoo McDaniel was to the business.
“I guess now I’m sad that not enough people knew enough about him or remember him. What bothers me is here we have probably the greatest athlete to ever be in our sport – the best athlete period to ever be a professional wrestler. Wahoo was such a legend to my generation. He’ll always be that. That’s what saddens me the most. It’s called fleeting fame.”
Flair says he cherishes the time he spent with Wahoo, but will never forget a night 10 years ago.
“Wahoo and Ray Stevens were at my house with my wife and my mother-in-law, drinking and laughing, talking about the old days. They were so drunk when they left, Wahoo ran over one of my wife’s plants – just pulled the tree out of the ground and left it lying there. Some things never change. He just drove over the yard, drove over all the flowerbeds, just like he’d done a hundred times. No stopping for it – just put it in gear and took off. He was one of a kind.”
“We had so many good times together,” Flair continued. “The first time he took me to Mexico – Laredo. That’s a whole other story.”