By Mike Mooneyham
July 16, 2006
He’s affectionately known as “The Local Legend.” Anyone who’s ever met him will never forget him.
And, like he’s said in countless interviews over the years, “There’ll never be a cotton-pickin’ other.”
So goes Melvin Nelson, much better known in and out of wrestling circles as the inimitable Burrhead Jones, who leaves his beloved Lowcountry next week to begin the next chapter of his life in New York City.
Burrhead, a month shy of 68, on Friday will board a flight en route to the Big Apple. He did the same nearly a half-century ago when he set out for a better life.
This time, he jokes, he’s leaving with a little money in his pocket. “Last time I didn’t have two pennies to rub together.”
Burrhead is moving to be closer to three of his children, ranging in age from 43 to 48, who live in Manhattan. He realizes there’ll come a day when he may need their help. He wants to help them while he still can.“I’ve also got a bunch of homeys that I haven’t seen in quite awhile,” he says. “I guess I’m doing this in reverse. Most people retire and come back home. I retired and I’m going up there.”
Burrhead moved back to the Lowcountry in 1990 after winding down his wrestling career, and has lived in Moncks Corner ever since. He’s worked for DAK America, formerly the DuPont fibers plant, where he spent his final day on the job Friday. He even took part in a wrestling match at age 65 as part of a special show two years ago.
But everything has a start and a finish, and Burrhead is obediently following the path.
“God has given me more than I ever expected. He’s never steered me wrong.”
The one and only
The world of professional wrestling is full of colorful figures. They come in all shapes and sizes, and their stage is a ring in which their personalities often reach larger-than-life dimensions.
Many, if not most, of today’s characters are carefully crafted, molded and tweaked by a creative team that builds personas from scratch. It’s a far cry from the old days when most wrestlers were their gimmick.
Burrhead Jones was one of those special characters.
Burrhead never won a world title, nor did he ever command the six- and seven-figure salaries commonplace in the business today.
What he did do was much more noble and inspiring. He worked his way out of Berkeley County cotton fields, survived the rampant racial discrimination of the time, and achieved his dream of becoming a professional wrestler.
Unlike others who garnered big incomes during their prime only to pull into their senior years with little to show for it, Burrhead saved his money wisely. And unlike others who fell prey to drugs and other vices and often didn’t reach old age, Burrhead stayed clean and found steady employment long after his wrestling days were over.
He never forgot his work ethic, and what it took for him to have a better life.
“I just wanted to get out of the cotton fields. Farming and logging wood was about the only things to do when I was young. I was picking cotton for 25 cents a day. I went to New York and was making 40 dollars a week. You couldn’t tell me nothing. I was making good money.”
Beating the odds
Burrhead left his mark on the wrestling business. He was a black man who battled the odds in a profession that mirrored a segregated society.
“To make it as a black man back in the ’70s, I had to be dedicated to the business and want it real bad,” he says. “A newcomer to the business – black or white – had to pay his dues by spending some nights in the bus station or in his car just to have some money to live on. We always couldn’t afford a motel. I saw guys come in with a $5,000 car and leave with a $50,000 vehicle – a Greyhound bus out of town. The grass always looked greener on the other side.”
He also endured a number of stereotypical gimmicks during that time.
Billed “from the cotton fields of Louisiana,” he once dragged a cotton sack to the ring for a match with a wrestler in Baton Rouge. He was the first black wrestler to wrestle a white opponent in Dothan, Ala. He worked a match in Montgomery, Ala., in which the loser got tar and feathered. Working as a heel (“bad guy”) at the time allowed him to get away with it, he says.
“I looked like the bird on Sesame Street. They used molasses, and I swallowed one of the feathers and almost choked. But I got $25 extra in my envelope.” According to the script, good-guy wrestler Jimmy Golden came to Burrhead’s rescue, generating sympathy for him and turning him into a fan favorite. Addressing the crowd, Golden said, “Burrhead, I don’t care what color you are, you bleed just like I do. You don’t have to like me if you don’t want to, but I just want to be in your corner and see justice done.”
The angle worked and played to sellout crowds for weeks.
The same gimmick didn’t fare as well in Hattiesburg, Miss., where the local NAACP chapter forced the cancellation of matches as a result of a tar-and-feather bout.
“They didn’t accept it in Mississippi,” says Burrhead, “because I was a babyface (“good guy”). In other words, I wasn’t doing anything to deserve getting tar and feathered.”
It all was no worse, he reasoned, than some of the gimmicks that promoters saddled other wrestlers with. The bottom line was to make the fans feel emotion – and keep the turnstiles clicking.
Lifetime of memories
The business ultimately accorded Burrhead the respect he had earned. In many ways, he says, the wrestling profession was like the large, close-knit family he had left behind years earlier.
“Wrestling is one big family that sticks together. I’ve gotten to meet many interesting people along the way. I never sensed any prejudice among the boys. Traveling was a great experience for me. I may have a 10th-grade education, but I’ve got a Ph.D. in common sense and knowledge. I can hold a conversation with anybody, no matter what level they’re on, no matter if it’s the President of the United States or a wino in the gutter. The experience of life and traveling around the world, meeting people from different walks of life, has given me that gift.”
“Burrhead was just happy to be there,” says 16-time world heavyweight champion Ric Flair. “He was a great guy, always in a super mood. He and (storyline cousin) Rufus R. Jones were quite a pair.”
Dick Bourne of the Mid-Atlantic Gateway Web site recently traveled to the Lowcountry to film a three-hour shoot interview with Burrhead that will be distributed through his site. It was one of the most memorable he’s ever done.
“Meeting the one and only Burrhead Jones was a real thrill,” says Bourne. “His angle and brief feud with Blackjack Mulligan in the Mid-Atlantic area in 1976 was a real classic, something fans talking over old wrestling still talk about to this day, which is saying something since that was 30 years ago and most of us can’t remember what happened on Raw two weeks ago.
“I fell in love with the guy as soon as I met him – what a warm and gracious man. He seemed genuinely appreciative that I had taken the time to come visit and his eyes lit up as we talked about wrestlers and events he maybe had not thought about in quite awhile. Right away, I knew Burrhead was a man comfortable in his own skin, seemingly very at peace with his place in the world right now, and gratified that fans remember his long and storied career.”
Pro wrestling provided Burrhead Jones with a lifetime of memories. He leaves us with some memories of our own.
And there never will be a cotton-pickin’ other.
– George’s Sports Bar, 1300 Savannah Highway, will air the Victory Road TNA pay-per-view at 8 p.m. tonight. Cover charge is $7.