By Mike Mooneyham
Oct. 20, 2003
Second of two parts
All Big Jim Wilson ever wanted was to make a difference in the wrestling business. What he got instead was a life turned upside down.
“I was doing pretty good,” reflects Wilson. “I played ball, had a nice home, nice family, and everything was bright and sunny and forward looking. Then, bam, they turned the lights out and started beating you over the head with the bats.”
The 62-year-old Wilson, a former All-American lineman from Georgia and seven-year NFL pro, hasn’t wrestled since 1985. Blacklisted by the industry as a wrestler and promoter during the 1970s and 1980s, Wilson’s love-hate relationship with the business has resulted in a fascinating look at the wrestling profession. Co-written with Weldon Johnson, a retired criminology and sociology of law professor, “Chokehold” unmasks a rogue industry, operating in a dark corner of a larger world of entertainment, with its own anachronistic rules and procedures.“I just always wanted to be part of it,” says Wilson, who had been a closet wrestling fan growing up in Pittsburgh. “The way things turned out, though, I was put on the outside, and that was the end of that. I still wanted to be part of it even then.”
Wilson paid a heavy toll for his struggle to reform the wrestling business. A father of six, Wilson lost his house and was divorced by his wife, although the two later re-married and divorced again. To his credit, he was able to put his six children through college with the help of student loans and academic scholarships.
Not surprisingly, none of his children chose to follow in their father’s footsteps.
“They all went the way I should have gone,” says Wilson, who now works in real estate and lives near Augusta, Ga.
To this day, he says his family still wonders what went wrong.
“My kids and my family went through hell because I believed that what we were trying to do was the right thing. I’ve been through a living hell fighting to keep this going. It’s a hurting thing. They saw it all. They lived with it. That just kills me. It ripped us apart. I feel guilty about it, and it hurts to this day. There were some times when I didn’t know if I would even be here.”
A turning point in Wilson’s odyssey occurred when he met black superstar Claude “Thunderbolt” Patterson during the early 1970s. Patterson had been the inspiration for Dusty Rhodes’ street-talk interviews and shuck-and-jive gimmick for the South’s black wrestling audiences. He also was one of Georgia’s top box-office draws.
Wilson says he befriended Patterson because of his lifelong attraction to victims of failed human principles. Patterson had been kicked out of school twice by the ninth grade and married twice by 21. He had a trouble-making reputation in the wrestling business. As a black wrestler, he realized he would never be treated like his white counterparts in terms of payoffs, push and upward mobility. He was the black hope for thousands of black wrestling fans.
Patterson, notes Wilson, also was the only wrestler he knew who packed a Bible inside his gym bag with his wrestling gear, razor blades and pills. “Before his matches, while other wrestlers were entertaining each other with stories about last night’s party, T-Bolt was over in a corner hunched over his Bible,” Wilson recalls.
And, like Wilson, Patterson was outspoken about his treatment by the wrestling establishment. Both would eventually come together as brothers, “blackballed and totally alienated by promoters’ power, racism and greed.” Wilson describes the 1970s territorial turf war that centered on control of the Georgia territory, providing thousands of pages of legal documents detailing cut-throat business methods that the law regards as anti-competitive restraints on trade. The “Battle for Atlanta” would become the dirtiest and bloodiest wrestling war since the classic wrestling trust-busting battles of the 1920s and 1950s.
National Wrestling Alliance promoters across the country immediately banded together to stop Ann Gunkel, who formed the All-South Wrestling Alliance after the death of her husband, Ray, by sending the top wrestlers from their respective territories to Atlanta for loaded lineups to run against Gunkel’s shows.
NWA promoters also used their political clout and strong-arm tactics.
Cancellation of work permits was threatened. Some wrestlers were offered stock in the NWA’s Georgia group. Paternity problems would be exposed. Threats of blacklisting abounded. Other top stars were induced to no-show events, including Andre The Giant and Bruno Sammartino, who later admitted that promoters Vince McMahon Sr. and Bill Watts somehow “persuaded” him to miss his plane from Pittsburgh to Atlanta.
The NWA also interfered with Gunkel’s arena arrangements on Georgia’s wrestling circuit, as well as her access to television. They even went so far, says Wilson, as to entice some building managers with gold Rolex watches.
Wrestlers themselves were threatened. Bob Roop and Ronnie Garvin, a pair of legitimate tough guys outside the ring, testified that they were asked to “beat up” Wilson and Patterson. They both refused.
Wilson says he later discovered that Gunkel’s booker, Tom Renesto (formerly one half of The Assassins), was even working “both sides.”
“It was real obvious by the way he was splitting the cards and killing the finishes,” he says.
Wilson and Patterson eventually left Gunkel’s company to form their own outlaw promotion. Hooking up with the civil rights movement in Atlanta, they worked with a number of politicians and community leaders in the predominantly black neighborhoods, and scored a coup by securing dates at the new Omni arena in Atlanta. On the heels of 23 straight sellouts at the old City Auditorium, Wilson says they were “hotter than a firecracker” because they were splitting the gate 50/50, something unheard of in NWA circles.
But it wasn’t long before they ran into yet more roadblocks.
“They used every tactic in the book to quash us, and they were successful,” says Wilson. “They closed the Omni gates at 8:30 on us at one of our biggest shows. They paid the guy off at the building. We had 9,200 people in the building and more than that (waiting) outside. It would have been the first sellout at that building. The promoters were paying everyone off. I guess racism worked both ways.”
“They call Atlanta the city too busy to hate,’ but why did they hate me and T-Bolt? The city too busy to hate’ meant they were cutting up the money. It was the white and black people cutting up the dollars.”
Big Jim Wilson, who had been blackballed by the NWA in 1973, became a bad word among the entrenched wrestling establishment. Even friends such as Jack and Jerry Brisco and Tim Woods, all of whom would later acquire a piece of Georgia Championship Wrestling, would eventually distance themselves from their ex-colleague. Wilson had even put together an investment group with the Briscos, Woods, Johnny Walker (Mr. Wrestling No. 2) and Carolinas star Paul Jones.
“Every time I went to work in Florida I’d stay with Jack,” says Wilson. “When I went to Charlotte, I’d stay at Jerry’s. Jack and I did things together and got along great, but I understood his position.”
The last time Wilson saw Jack Brisco was in January 1976 when they watched the Super Bowl together.
Wilson would never again wrestle for the NWA.
Wilson also had asked too many questions to Georgia politicians about regulating and unionizing pro wrestling. It was a nasty little political secret, he says.
“They cut our knees out from under us. They paid everybody off. They spent more than a million dollars fighting us.” Wilson would spend the next decade running opposition against the NWA, working with such outlaw promoters as Eddie Einhorn, Pedro Martinez and Angelo Poffo. Ruffling the establishment’s feathers by appearing on a number of TV shows saying wrestling was fake and complaining about his treatment in the business, his experiences would result in 10 years of court battles and federal antitrust litigation against the wrestling industry.
None was more controversial than his 1985 appearance on ABC’s “20/20″ in which he went public about wrestling’s darkest secrets, including his story about being propositioned by a prominent NWA promoter. The expose, which featured mid-card performer Eddy Mansfield graphically demonstrating on camera how wrestlers cut their foreheads with razor blades, is best remembered for “Dr. D” David Shults slapping reporter John Stossel, which resulted in alleged partial hearing loss for the newsman and a subsequent $400,000 settlement with Vince McMahon and WWE. The telecast also delivered the worst-kept secret in the profession that wrestling matches were predetermined.
Unfortunately for Wilson, three thousand pages of Justice Department investigations of the wrestling industry, along with evidence he had compiled in a litany of lawsuits, was virtually overlooked in the piece.
Although his wrestling career started 35 years ago, Wilson’s goal remains to help move the business closer to needed reforms. The intended victim of his crusade is the industry’s business and labor practices. His reform includes a pro wrestlers’ bill of rights that includes industry-wide health and safety standards, organizing a labor union or guild, and the restoration of state athletic commissions.
Wilson realizes that the chances for a union may be even slimmer now, with only one major promotion operating in the country and little interest among today’s younger performers to unionize. Wilson, though, wants to keep the fire burning.
“In my mind and in my heart, I still want to do what’s right for the business. We can do it. It can be done if we all pull together. But it’s going to take a joint effort.” Some, including Jesse Ventura and Roddy Piper, have advocated unions in recent years.
“Wrestling operated under some of the most unfair working conditions in the country,” said the former Minnesota governor. “I don’t know how they got away with it for so many years.”
Perhaps the most sobering message of his story is the plight of many former wrestling stars, some of whom retired broken and penniless, living in poverty and illness, deserving better than what the business gave them. Wilson chokes up when the name Johnny Valentine is mentioned.
“Damn, that just kills me,” he says. “They had to collect money to put Johnny Valentine in the ground. I sent in a hundred dollars, and I didn’t have a hundred dollars at the time, because he was one of the guys that I loved to watch, and I respected the man. How insidious is that? It’s just not right.”
Unfortunately there are many more like Valentine who have met similar fates.
“It can still be a good business, but there are too many guys like Johnny getting hurt at the end of the trip. The boys are dying off. It’s a disgrace. It just isn’t right.”
Wilson finds it a little ironic that some of the wrestlers who fought him tooth-and-nail over the past three decades would now be in a position to benefit from his proposals.
“That’s the sad thing about it. A lot of people just really didn’t know how bad things were. I feel like it’s got to be a new day.”
His quest to generate industry reform remains as strong as ever. But he has no illusions that change will come without stiff opposition, nor does he harbor any ill will against those in the business.
“I don’t know if some of the guys will take umbrage or not. I understand what was going on, and that’s just the nature and the culture of the business. It’s everyone for themselves. They don’t want the guys pulling together. But I’ve forgiven them all.”
As for the writing the book, a project that has been in the works for 18 years, it was more of a catharsis for the socially conscious Wilson.
“I got some stuff off my chest for whatever that’s worth. I’m not looking to make any real money out of the thing, so that’s out of the way. My real objective is that something positive could come out of this thing that will be an upgrade of the business for the guys. I’ve put my heart and soul into it.”
“Chokehold: Pro Wrestling’s Real Mayhem Outside the Ring” can be ordered at www.xlibris.com/chokehold.html or at www.amazon.com.