By Mike Mooneyham
March 23, 2003
Sailor Art Thomas, whose chiseled physique and massive strength made him a top name in the wrestling business during the 60s and 70s, died Thursday at age 79 at a hospice facility near his home in Madison, Wis.
The 6-4, 275-pound Thomas, a former bodybuilder and one of only a handful of big-name black stars during that era, succumbed to cancer.
Thomas parlayed the gimmick of a seagoing strongman into a main-event act throughout the country as well as in Canada and Japan. Originally dubbed “Seaman” Art Thomas, the gentle giant formed top teams with other black standouts such as Bobo Brazil, Thunderbolt Patterson, Dory Dixon and Sweet Daddy Siki.
Thomas appeared in a number of main events locally during the late 60s, teaming with Carolina favorites George Becker and Johnny Weaver in a series of hot-selling six-man matches against the villainous trios of Aldo Bogni, Bronco Lubich and Homer O’Dell, and Gene, Lars and Ole Anderson. Thomas later joined forces with New Zealand veteran Abe Jacobs after a falling out with Weaver.
While Thomas possessed tremendous brute strength, his ring ability was limited to mostly power moves such as the bear hug. Promoters compensated by routinely pairing him with skilled technicians in tag-team bouts.
“I had the experience of having big partners back then,” said Jacobs. “I started out with Haystacks (Calhoun), and then I had Klondike Bill and Man Mountain Mike. I had a bunch of big guys because I was pretty fast and I could work around them. You could work around Art, and he could draw money.”
Although the amiable Thomas was known outside the ropes as a reserved, soft-spoken individual, Jacobs recalled that he had his limits. “A lot of people thought of Art as just a big kid and would try to take advantage of him, but when they tried it was a different story. Art was a quiet guy, but he wouldn’t let anyone run over him. He would rear up pretty strong. He’d only take so much.”
“You’d never meet a better fellow than him, but he was very gullible,” recalled Burrhead Jones, who worked with Thomas and Patterson on the Florida circuit during the early 70s. “He wasn’t a technical wrestler, but he was a heck of a fighter and a very strong man who didn’t know his own strength.”
Jones recalled an incident at Madison Square Garden during the 60s in which Thomas, paired with Brazil in a tag-team match against Cowboy Bill Watts and Gorilla Monsoon, refused to go up for a slam from Monsoon or Watts, both large, powerful men in their own right. When an irate Watts attempted to confront Thomas backstage after the match, Sailor called him out – for real.
“We’re not in the ring now. You want to try it now? C’mon, c’mon,” Jones recalled Thomas as saying.
“He started walking toward Bill, and Bill took off,” said Jones.
Jones recounted another story at the old Sunnyside Garden in New York where promoter Phil Zacko was going over the finish of a match between Thomas and Al Costello of The Fabulous Kangaroos. Thomas was instructed to shoot Costello into the ropes, knock him down with a shoulder block and cover (pin) him. “Where am I going to get the cover to cover him with?” Thomas deadpanned. “Everybody in the dressing room broke down on that one,” said Jones. “Zacko almost swallowed that stogie of his.” Jacobs said Thomas possessed one of the most impressive physiques of any wrestler during that period.
“Art was one of the few wrestlers who really worked out with weights back then,” said Jacobs, who first met Thomas in New York during the early 60s. “He was a super strong guy. He was always up first thing in the morning looking for a gym so he could go and work out on the weights. He also didn’t drink and didn’t smoke. Maybe a couple of beers at the most, and you really had to talk him into that. He really took care of his body.” Jacobs said he and Thomas had good chemistry together in the ring. The arrangement also worked since Jacobs did all the driving from town to town. Thomas, who had poor eyesight, didn’t drive, never owned a driver’s license and did much of his traveling via Greyhound bus, Jacobs remembered. “We did a lot of miles down the road. He was a good guy, but unfortunately he was often taken advantage of.”
“Art was a very gentle giant,” Patterson said Friday night from his home in Atlanta. “I never heard him say a bad word about anyone.”
A top draw in the Carolinas and Virginia, Florida, Texas, St. Louis and Detroit territories, Thomas also achieved great success in the Midwest, particularly in Chicago and Indianapolis where he wrestled for Dick The Bruiser’s promotion and feuded with Baron Von Raschke over the WWA title. Thomas also teamed with Bruiser to win the AWA tag-team belts from Black Jack Mulligan and Black Jack Lanza.
“A good guy, a great, great body,” a wrestler “before his time,” was how the late great Lou Thesz described Thomas, whose reign as Texas heavyweight champion earned him a series of title shots with the former six-time NWA world champ.
Born in Arkansas, Thomas came to Wisconsin as a young boy with his mother, and when she died while he was still an adolescent, he wound up in an orphanage. As soon as he could Thomas enlisted in the Navy where he developed an interest in boxing and wrestling. He and a pair of other weightlifters later toured the country with carnivals, sometimes showing up at county fairs and challenging the locals.
Rita Adair, one of Thomas’ seven children, called her father “a humble, traditional, religious man with the patience of a saint.” “He never spanked us,” she told The (Wisconsin) Capital Times. “He made sure we saw him get down on his knees and pray every night before he went to bed.” Adair also recalled Thomas saying how in the orphanage he had prayed, every day, for a family. “You guys were the gift,” he told her. “You were the gift.” Thomas went to work for a meatpacking plant in his hometown of Madison after retiring from wrestling in 1983.