By Mike Mooneyham
Oct. 8, 2006
Woo … Mercy Daddy! The Boogie Woogie Man’s coming to town.
Jimmy Valiant, one of pro wrestling’s true originals, will make a rare Lowcountry appearance as part of a church-sponsored event next Saturday at New Beginnings Community Church, 849 Fort Johnson Road, James Island.
And he’s bringing some books with him.
The WWE Hall of Famer, who officially retired from active wrestling last year after a storied career that spanned five decades, is promoting his recently released autobiography, aptly titled “Woo … Mercy Daddy! Welcome to My World.”
A “Boogie” Bike will be given away at the church’s Fall Festival beginning at 3 p.m. The free event includes food, refreshments, a jump castle, dunking booths, kids games and a couple of wrestling matches to boot.
The headliner, of course, is the inimitable Boogie Woogie Man.The book, says Valiant, has been 40 years in the making.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” says Valiant, who had his first pro match in 1964 and logged more than 10,000 matches and four million miles on U.S. highways and back roads.
“You can imagine there’s a few stories in between, and they’re in my autobiography.”
Valiant, now a lean and mean 165 pounds after spending most of his career above the 230 mark, is a survivor and discusses many personal details in his tome. The book covers the good times and the bad times, and years of hard drug and alcohol use and extramarital affairs are written about candidly.
The story has a happy ending, though, as the Boogie Woogie Man meets his current wife Angel, turns his life around and starts his Boogie’s Wrestling Camp in Shawsville, Va., which adjoins the family residence overlooking the waters of the South Fork of the Roanoke River.
All 566 pages, Valiant says, are from the heart. He hopes his story of staying positive through the bad and often challenging times serves as a motivator for readers. The purpose of his book, he says, was to show people what his life had been like, warts and all. And, unlike the vast majority of wrestlers who have penned books in recent years, he doesn’t knock others.
“That’s not my style, and it never has been,” says Valiant. “I could tell dirt on every person who has been connected to professional wrestling in any way for the last 50 years. But I didn’t. What I did was tell plenty of dirt on myself. The reason I’m doing that is if I can help just one human being from making the same mistakes that I have, my life and this book will not have been in vain.”
Man of the people
Valiant’s world, simply put, is amazing. From “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant, an arrogant, strapping, blue-eyed, bleached-blond ’70s-era heel with a chiseled physique, to “Boogie Woogie Man” Jimmy Valiant, a heavily tattooed, bearded crowd-pleaser during the ’80s, the charismatic Valiant transformed himself into one of pro wrestling’s most enduring characters.
Valiant was a favorite in the Carolinas during the early ’80s when he carved his niche as one of the most popular performers to ever come down the pike. He was one of those rare figures who had an instant rapport with his audience.
That loyal following was, as he was wont to say, “his people,” and he knew them well.
Coming out to Manhattan Transfer’s “Boy From New York City,” one of wrestling’s early ring entrances accompanied by theme music, Valiant shucked and jived to the rhythm, relating to his fans in a way no other had done before. He was a man of the people with a larger-than-life persona who prided himself on always being a little different, and that unique outlook served him well in the wrestling business.
“Everyone thought I was just a regular cat – one of them,” Valiant said last week in an interview from his Virginia home.
What most fans didn’t realize was that Valiant was living another life – a dark one – outside the ring.
Valiant, who was born James Harold Fanning but legally changed his name to Valiant after Texas promoter Fritz Von Erich came up with the catchy moniker in 1969, has worn many hats during his colorful 64 years. He was a high school football star, barber school graduate, welder and health club manager before breaking into pro wrestling in 1964.
While Valiant had a propensity for the mat business, it didn’t come easy. He had good height at 6-3, but at 165 pounds was grossly undersized for a heavyweight grappler. He admits he employed steroids and force-feeding to achieve his goal, bulking up to a whopping 290 pounds with rigid training and by eating a dozen eggs a day along with a gallon of milk and six sandwiches for lunch.
“I’m not a big-boned guy. I had the height, but I had to force-feed to wrestle. I took steroids because you had to be big to wrestle. My goal was 300 pounds, and I got up to 290. My whole career was around 230 or 240. I maintained that for 30 years.”
Nowadays he’s back down to 165 pounds.
“I’m so proud of myself because I’m the same weight I was my senior year in high school. I can wear the same Levis I did in high school. Not too many men can do that, especially after weighing 230 and 240 for 30 years.” With flowing blond hair, an All-American physique and a gift for gab, Valiant was an immediate star in a profession that rewarded those qualities. He got off to a good start by working for the late Dick The Bruiser (Richard Afflis) in Chicago.
“Bruiser was the hottest thing in the country,” says Valiant. “I was a green kid, and he took a liking to me. That helped me be a character because of him – his interviews were great and fans loved his style.” And while it’s hard to believe the extremely likable Valiant ever worked as a heel, the fact is he was one of the best, teaming with faux brothers Johnny (Tom Sullivan) and Jerry (Jerry Hill) as they wreaked havoc in the old World Wide Wrestling Federation during the ’70s.
“Handsome” Jimmy and “Luscious” Johnny were WWWF tag champions in 1974-75, as well as tag titleholders in the Atlanta and San Francisco territories. When Jimmy contracted hepatitis in late 1978 during a second run in the Northeast, Johnny brought in “Gentleman” Jerry, who had wrestled as The Stomper, among other aliases, to earn tag-team gold in 1979. “We did six-mans before The Freebirds,” says Valiant.
As a bad guy, Valiant was spit at, had beer, cigarettes and hot coffee tossed at him. He’d hide his car from arena to arena, but he routinely had his tires slashed and his windows broken. Every car he owned for 20 years was keyed.
Even a sparkling new 1974 Cadillac Coupe deVille he drove from the showroom to the arena wasn’t spared the wrath of unruly fans. A spectator at the old Philadelphia Arena spotted Valiant sneaking out the venue that night, worked a brick loose and threw it out of the building’s window. The brick missed Valiant, but hit the quarter panel of his new car, leaving a big dent in the auto.
The heat got so bad that Valiant was forced to move his three daughters from school to school. His oldest daughter had attended 14 different schools by the time she was in the eighth grade. He couldn’t be around them outside his home in fear that he might be recognized by fans, and told his children to tell people at the school that his father was a salesman.
“It was serious business. I’ve been stabbed and everything in between. It was a rough deal.”
The Boogie Woogie Man
Valiant was a master at ring psychology, fully realizing that less could be more, and using his strengths to camouflage any weaknesses. He also was an innovator who could tweak and even reinvent his character.
He strutted down the aisle to “Pomp and Circumstance” with partner Beautiful Bobby (Bob Harmon) and manager The Grand Wizard at Madison Square Garden in 1970. The flamboyant Gorgeous George had used the intro theme years earlier, but never at the Garden, points out Valiant. He also did his own music, “Son of a Gypsy,” in Memphis in 1979 and introduced ring music to the Carolinas in the early ’80s with his signature “Boy From New York City.”
He also began the second – and most memorable – phase of his career when he threw his razor away and morphed into “Boogie Woogie Man” Jimmy Valiant. He was coming off a strong run in Memphis where he feuded with local favorite Jerry “The King” Lawler and held the territory’s tag title with Rocky Johnson, father of future superstar The Rock, whose diapers Valiant fondly remembers changing.
But Valiant, upon surveying the lay and of the land in the Mid-Atlantic territory, realized he had to come up with something different in order to get over.
“I looked around. There were all these handsome, pretty boy types strutting around.. (Ric) Flair, of course, was there. Buddy Landel was there. I had already done that for 20 years. I wanted to come up with something else.” So he let his hair grow longer and grew a beard.
“Not just any beard,” he jokes, “but a long beard. There were only a few with long beards like mine.”
And he became the hero of the working man. He billed himself as a native of every town he wrestled in, and boasted of a grandmother in every city as well, exhorting his grandma in local interviews “to keep them biscuits and that corn bread hot because your boy is coming home!”
“I tried to think about what else I could do to be different,” explains Valiant, who has an instinctive gift for storytelling.. “I started singing and dancing and kissing people. It didn’t matter who. I don’t know that everybody wanted to do that, but it was so different and it got over.”
Valiant gives credit to Ole Anderson, who was the booker at the time for Crockett Promotions, for working with him on the Boogie Woogie Man gimmick.
“I really had two completely different careers,” says Valiant, who also was among the first to use glitzy lettering on his ring tights. “I lettered everything,” he says, including tattoos that have grown exponentially since his first homemade ink at the age of 12.
“I had tattoos before they were cool,” says Valiant, who covered up that early version at the age of 16 when he drove to Chicago to get an eagle design that has stayed. He added some more when he started with Crockett Promotions. “I was a whacked-out cat back then,” he says matter-of-factly.
Valiant doesn’t even know how many he sports today.
“Too many to count. I did everything in a two-year period. Now the people want to give me tattoos. I don’t want anymore. I’m done. Just like everything else.”
Two different lives
There were few performers more popular during the ’80s than the Boogie Woogie Man. And certainly not in the Carolinas and Mid-Atlantic Wrestling where Valiant enjoyed timeless feuds with the likes of Paul Jones, Ivan Koloff, Baron Von Raschke, The Great Kabuki and One Man Gang.
Fans adored Valiant. They couldn’t get enough of him, and they packed arenas to see Boogie do his thing. What they didn’t know was that the real world was crashing down around their superstar.
“I let my body go, and my spirits went away, all in that period,” he reveals.
“I did it all. I was on cocaine every day for 10 years. It was like an alcoholic who’d hide a pint somewhere so they’ve always got it in case they ran out. I’d always have a couple of eight balls hidden in the house, a few grams here or there, just in case of emergency.”
Valiant had three daughters from his first marriage, and had left the marriage virtually penniless, leaving behind a home, furniture, cars and everything the couple had built together, departing with only a suitcase and some personal belongings.
He also went through a painful divorce from second wife and sometimes ringside manager “Big Mama.”
“That was a dark time,” says Valiant, “going from one divorce to another. My first wife was so sweet, but I did her wrong. I carried a lot of guilt over that. Then I did the same thing to my second wife. I was married 17 years the first time and 13 years the second time. That’s 30 years. Both marriages ended because of my fault. I don’t blame anybody but myself.”
What broke up the second marriage to Big Mama, he says, was a knock on the door of his Charlotte home. “Some lady had filed a $2 million paternity suit. I had a 6-year-old boy I knew nothing about,” says Valiant, who already had a 6-year-old son with his second wife. The children were only three months apart, and a blood test revealed it was his son.
“That blew that marriage. We were supposed to have been in love, and here I have two sons the same age with different mothers. Both times were my fault. But God had big plans for me and wasn’t finished with me. He hooked me up with a true angel.”
Valiant left his second wife in an even better financial situation, leaving behind a home, a fleet of five vehicles and a lucrative flower shop business in Charlotte.
“I was 50 years old and virtually starting over again.”
Saved by an angel
Valiant credits his current wife, Angel, who co-wrote the book, with giving him a constant source of inspiration. He met her while doing a grand opening appearance at a Wal-Mart in Pulaski, Va. “She walked through, and that was it, brother.”
“Are you married,” he asked her as she was having her photo taken with the wrestler. “Do you want to get married” was his next question. “I knew I had to talk fast.”
He got her number after making his pitch.
“I’m not like this. I’m going to call you if you please give me your number,” he told her. “I want to get to know you. If you don’t, chances are you’ll walk out of that door. You’ll go one way, I’ll walk out the door and go another. Chances are our paths will never cross again.” “She was sharp enough to give me her number,” Valiant laughs. The two were married exactly four months later to the day. “That’s how slow we took it.”
Jimmy and Angel, a physical therapist by trade and 15 years Valiant’s junior, have been married for 15 years. “Angel and God saved my life. I don’t take one thing now. I’m clean. I run every day. I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. Angel is my baby. I just told her today that this is the greatest time in my life. I tell her I love her everyday. This whole book is a love story.”
“We’ve never had one cross word – not one argument – one time in 15 years,” he adds. “People ask me if I’m crazy, but we just refuse to do that. Man, we love each other, and it’s all wonderful. If you can make it once, you can make it two times, you can make it three times. I’m proof.”
Valiant has three daughters, ages 44 and 42 and 39, and two sons, “Handsome” Jimmy and Todd, both 26. He’s been a vegetarian for 15 years. “I’m back to nature,” he says, joking that he and his wife, also a vegetarian, could go out and get some Roquefort dressing, pour it on the backyard and have a salad.
He’s also totally free of all drugs.
Valiant smoked for 10 years and dipped tobacco for 30 years. The only way you can beat any habit, he says, is to have a good enough reason to want to and to go cold turkey. Years ago he tossed a pack of cigarettes out of the car window and never looked back. He did the same with smokeless Copenhagen tobacco, tossing his cache out of the icebox and into the garbage.
“I’ve never gone back to any of it – cocaine or any drug. I’ve never looked back,” he says.
Valiant, who spent the past decade wrestling primarily for independent promotions, worked his last match in a six-man bout on Jan. 29, 2005, at Wrestle Reunion in Tampa. He occasionally serves as special referee and operates his wrestling camp in southwest Virginia. But he’s booked every weekend of the year and is still in great demand on the independent circuits.
Valiant had his signature beard shaved by longtime rival Jerry Lawler in an August 2004 Memphis angle several months before his retirement match. “I was going to do it anyway. I wanted to give it back to a business that had been so good to me,” he says.
Valiant has had his shares of ups and downs, but says he wouldn’t do anything differently. “Not even my personal life. It’s history. I made the best of it at the time. God took care of me and showed me the light. I enjoy every single second of my life.”
He also holds no grudges.
“I don’t have one bad feeling in my heart or any bad blood toward any wrestler that I ever worked with. I love them all.”
How does he want to be remembered?
“As a goodwill ambassador for the greatest sport in my life. I have my wrestling camp here and my hall of fame museum. It’s something that I give back to the people. They can come any Sunday, 52 weeks out of the year, from noon to 4 p.m. and be our guests. They can watch the kids train, and they can go into any building and enjoy all that we have here. I’ve got the old Boogie wagon with the flames on it, I’ve got bikes and trikes. It’s all free. I’ve got thousands of pictures on the wall. People can come and enjoy and look at everything we have here. Angel and I built this together. It’s something we give back to the wrestling fans. That’s how I want to be remembered. I want to help make the other kids’ dreams come true.. I’ve already lived my life, and all my dreams came true. Now is their turn, and I want to be a part of that.”
The silver-maned Valiant, who was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1996, hopes many of his longtime fans, particularly the ones he entertained on those long-ago Friday nights at the former County Hall, will turn out for Saturday’s event to chat, get an autograph or purchase a book.
“It (the book) weighs three pounds, man, it’s big. Buy two books and put one in each hand and work out with them. Do your curls.”