By Mike Mooneyham
July 23, 2006
They didn’t call him “The Big O” for nothing.
Bob Orton Sr. stood six foot three inches tall and packed 250 solid pounds in his prime.
Breaking into the business in 1950 and not officially retiring until July 2000, Orton devoted nearly half a century to the profession. Serious, methodical and punishing, in the same mold as the great Johnny Valentine, the rawboned Orton was a no-nonsense wrestler who made fans believe.
More than size, however, he was a thoroughbred in the wrestling business whose pedigree has lived on through sons, WWE Hall of Famer Cowboy Bob Orton and former grappler Randal “Barry O” Orton, and grandson and current WWE star Randy Orton.
Orton, who passed away last Sunday, just a week shy of his 77th birthday, was a wrestler’s wrestler.
A top draw
Like his offspring, Orton was a main-event attraction throughout the country, but it was a brief run here in the Carolinas from 1965-66 that many longtime local fans still remember.
Orton arrived in the territory defending his Southern heavyweight title, with top area babyface Johnny Weaver his number one contender. It was as part of a team with Boris “The Great” Malenko, however, that Orton gained his greatest notoriety here.
Malenko, one of the top interviews in the business who was noted for ranting with one eye shut, shared the Southern tag-team title with Orton. The fact that Orton was from Kansas and Malenko was billed from Moscow (even though he was actually from New Jersey) put further heat on the unholy alliance.
“I was a hayseed from Kansas with a blond crewcut as Southern heavyweight champion,” Orton told The Wrestling Observer. “You talk about heat. The fans thought I was a traitor teaming with a Russian. We went into Raleigh. George Becker was the booker. They were running a building and doing one-quarter houses. He (Malenko) got on television one time and all he did was smash a chain onto a chair. We almost sold out. But we had too much heat. Tom Renesto wanted us to hold it down. We tried to calm things down but the more we tried, the hotter it got.”
A tag-team match in Richmond, Va., pitting Orton and Malenko against perennial favorites George and Sandy Scott convinced him it was time to leave.
The two heels barely escaped with their lives following a riot in which fans attacked both men. They were finally pulled to the safety of the dressing room by manager Homer O’Dell, but not before Malenko was stabbed in the abdomen by a knife-wielding spectator and Orton was knocked out by a chair and trampled by unruly fans.
“We got Malenko back to the dressing room with Orton, and they put them in an ambulance. And darn if the crowd didn’t come around and try to tip the ambulance over,” Sandy Scott recalled Friday night from his home in Virginia. “They wouldn’t let the ambulance out. They finally did, and that was that.”
Orton quickly left the area and returned to Florida as a good guy. Malenko stayed and continued to terrorize the territory as its top heel.
“I liked working with Bob,” said Scott. “He was a very strict, tough-looking type of guy. He also was very convincing. And if any of the fans wanted to get into it, he was ready for them, too.”
Scott, recalling another incident years later when he went to visit Orton in Kansas City, said Orton was literally tough as nails.
“We went by Bob’s, and he was redoing his place outside. He stepped on a nail that was sticking out a board. The nail went up through his foot.”
Scott says he was amazed when Orton merely shrugged it off, saying, “Ah, hell, don’t worry about it, you get that all the time.”
“That’s the type of guy Bob Orton was,” said Scott.
Orton, a high school football teammate and longtime friend of actor Ed Asner, experienced perhaps his greatest success in the Sunshine State where he enjoyed the advantages of a fertile wrestling territory and the promotional genius of talents such as Eddie Graham, Cowboy Luttrall and Gordon Solie. Orton had a money-making program with Graham before turning babyface and winning the Florida version of the NWA world tag-team belts with Graham as his partner.
He also captured numerous other titles in various NWA territories, including the NWA U.S. heavyweight title in Central States Wrestling and the AWA Midwest heavyweight title.
Orton’s career started to wind down by the mid-’70s. Injuries had taken a toll on the veteran, and what was initially believed to have been a broken collarbone was later diagnosed as a serious abscess over his right kidney. He also worked after having his spine fused with bone from his hip after having his fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae removed.
Under a hood as The Zodiak, Orton captured the Southern heavyweight title twice and teamed with Taurus (Dennis Hall) to win the Florida tag-team belts.
Steven Johnson, who may have been the last writer to interview Orton, talked to the wrestler about his career a week before his passing.
“While his body had been battered by his nearly 30 years in the ring – he often moved around with the aid of a wheelchair – he remained as witty and sharp as he was cantankerous,” Johnson wrote on the SLAM Wrestling Web site. “He stayed in regular contact with many of his old wrestling colleagues, and beamed with pride at the success of his grandson, Randy, in the WWE.”
“His style is damned near duplicate to mine,” Orton told Johnson. “He moves just like me, every damn thing. I didn’t teach him, I don’t know what he saw – some tapes I guess. But I think mostly it’s just him, he’s just a little like me, weird, you know? It’s wonderful to see Randy doing so well with Vince (McMahon).”
Orton’s first big national break had come in the early ’60s when he teamed with “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers on the East coast. The two blond bombers headlined against the likes of Johnny Valentine and Antonino Rocca, Valentine and Argentina Apollo, and Rocca and Bearcat Wright.
“I’d get in that ring and just look up like this,” he recalled with an upward nod of the head, “and those Puerto Ricans would be ready to kill,” said Orton, who added that he enjoyed working with Rogers despite the NWA and WWWF champ being overly protective of his spot.
Former mat star Abe Jacobs worked with Orton in Florida, the Carolinas and New York during Orton’s first run there.
“Buddy Rogers was one of the greatest ever, but Bob Orton didn’t have to look up to him,” said Jacobs. ” He actually looked a little better than Buddy because Bob was a big guy. When he wanted to be, he could be great.”
Orton spent the last years of his life in Las Vegas. The years of bumps and bruises had taken a toll and had left him confined to a wheelchair. But he still maintained his contacts in the wrestling business and was a fixture at the yearly Cauliflower Alley Club banquets in Vegas.
“He always talked about Vegas. He liked Nevada better than Florida,” said Jacobs. “There were no bugs, and the weather was good all the time.”
Jacobs said that Orton would routinely call him on Sunday mornings. Usually he would just leave a message, says Jacobs, who by that time is normally out on the golf course.
“Bob usually did the rounds. He called everybody,” said Jacobs. Buddy Colt usually got a weekly call from Orton on Saturday mornings, said Jacobs, who related a call Colt made over the weekend to Paul Jones.
“Bob Orton didn’t call me, and he calls me every Saturday,” Colt told Jones. “He must be dead.”
“Unfortunately,” said Jacobs, “he hit it on the head.”
The patriarch of the Orton wrestling family passed away as the result of a series of heart attacks.
“He had a heart attack at home, and they took him to the hospital where he has another more severe heart attack,” grandson Randy told the WWE Web site. According to Orton, his grandfather underwent an eight-hour surgery that gave him a 20 percent chance to survive. He survived the surgery but died about 10 hours later.
Orton was influential in helping his grandson transition into the business.
“He always told me to keep my mouth shut and my ears open,” said Randy, who at 24 became the youngest wrestler ever to win the WWE heavyweight title. “Dad always said it too, but I heard it from Grandpa first. He had a lot of fun old stories that were real interesting; it’s a shame he’s gone. As I was growing up I knew how important he was for my father, and he was just as important for me.”
“He’s got the whole package, doesn’t he,” Orton said in his interview with Johnson. “You talk about getting even with a lot of people; it’s sure doing it for me. When Ric Flair, in particular, won the NWA heavyweight title, “I cried for God’s sakes. Guys like Killer Kowalski that should have been the champions, or whatever. Then they get those guys … Women in the audience could beat them.”
– George’s Sports Bar, 1300 Savannah Highway, will air the Great American Bash pay-per-view at 8 p.m. tonight. Cover charge is $7.