By Mike Mooneyham
Nov. 19, 2006
He was the diamond ring and Cadillac man – “two hundred and thirty-five pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal with the body men fear and women love.”
Long before “Stone Cold” Steve Austin became a national symbol for the anti-establishment movement, there was Sputnik Monroe, a salty-tongued, anti-authoritarian rebel who sported a trademark white streak down the middle of his hair along with a wild streak in the ring and a cocksure strut that just dared you to get in his way.
Monroe, who recently passed away at the age of 78 following a long battle with respiratory illness, was a character the likes of which professional wrestling will never see again.
“Sputnik was a force. He was a guy who made a difference. There just was never anyone exactly like him,” said Lance Russell, the voice of Memphis wrestling for half a century. “There’s the Jerry Lawlers, the Jackie Fargos, the Ric Flairs, and all these guys who are great in their own right, but Sputnik Monroe was an absolute one-of-a-kind-character.”
“It’s the end of an era, but Sputnik was a man who would want to be remembered the way he lived, full of fun and one who believed in rights for everyone,” added longtime Memphis wrestling announcer Corey Maclin.Monroe was one of the most colorful and controversial personalities in the supercharged world of professional wrestling. But his legacy transcends the wrestling ring.
A hero to fans black and white, Monroe will be forever remembered as a cultural icon who challenged and successfully broke down the color barrier in pro wrestling and helped exact change in the establishment.
Monroe’s tremendous influence was given an entire chapter in cultural historian Robert Gordon’s “It Came From Memphis,” a book which looks at the town’s rich musical heritage that nurtured Elvis Presley and the Stax soul sound, as well as its eccentric, larger-than-life characters like Monroe, who insisted on integrated crowds at his wrestling matches, laying the groundwork for rock shows to do the same.
Monroe captured the imagination of that segregated Southern town’s avid wrestling following in the late ’50s, building a strong rapport with black fans who were forced to sit in the nosebleed section of the old Ellis Auditorium, a section derisively referred to as the “crow’s nest.” He cultivated friendships within the town’s black community, and even though he worked as a heel in the ring, he became a champion for the black cause.
Initially loathed by white audiences for his arrogant persona and detested outside the ring for his friendship with blacks, Monroe would merely turn to the small black audience in the building’s segregated upper rafters, raise his fist in defiance and acknowledge thunderous cheers from those in the balcony who celebrated every performance of the one wrestler who treated them with respect and friendship.
“Sputnik wouldn’t even look at the white people who were booing him when he came into the ring,” longtime Memphis deejay and television personality Johnny Dark told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “Then all of a sudden out of nowhere he’d look up and raise both arms in the air to the balcony. And every single black person in the balcony would stand up and raise their hands and cheer him.”
And, not unlike another Memphis favorite, Elvis Presley, Monroe would become a hero to the rock-and-roll-loving white youth who related to his rebellious nature. His connection to African-Americans also was genuine.
“There was a group of wealthy white kids that dug me because I was a rebel,” Sputnik once said. “I’m saying what they wanted to say, only they were just too young or inexperienced or afraid to say it. You have a black maid raising your kids and she’s talking about me all of the time, so I may not be in the front living room, but I’m going in the back door of your house, feeding your kids on Monday morning and sending them to school. And meeting the bus when they come home. Pretty powerful thing.”
Monroe, one of the town’s top drawing cards, eventually was able to appeal to the promoters’ sense of greed, convincing the local matchmakers that they were missing out on tremendous earnings by confining black patrons to the smaller “blacks only” section of the balcony. Finally, overlooking black and white in favor of the color green, promoters integrated seating and saw their profits climb.
“There used to be a couple of thousand blacks outside wanting in. So I would tell management I’d be cutting out if they don’t let my black friends in,” said Monroe. “I had the power because I’m selling out the place, the first guy that ever did, and they damn sure wanted the revenue.”
Once wrestling’s mixed audience became part of the status quo, the Memphis music scene followed and nightclubs became integrated.
Born to be wild
He was born Rocco Monroe DiGrazio on Dec. 18, 1928, in Dodge City, Kan. His father had been killed in an airplane crash shortly before his birth, and his formative years were spent living with his grandparents. His mother remarried, and at 17 years old, he became Rock Monroe Brumbaugh, taking the name of his stepfather.
He started his wrestling career in 1945. Monroe, wearing pink shoes and sequined robes, adopted the ring moniker Pretty Boy Rocque and spent his first several years working shows on the traveling carnival circuit where he would pick fights with local tough guys to sell more tickets. He claimed to have never been beaten in a “shoot” match during the five years he spent working the carnivals.
Monroe spent a few more years wrestling locals in small towns, but eventually moved to bigger shows and bigger markets and changed his name to Elvis Rock Monroe when a promoter in Louisville thought he looked like Elvis Presley.
“It sounded like rock and roll,” Monroe once said. “I would carry a guitar into the ring. I think I could play one chord and then get the hell beat out of me with my own guitar.”
Monroe got the Cold War-era nickname after he gave a black hitchhiker a ride to the arena one day. A fan saw Sputnik walking with his arm around his black friend and became irate when Sputnik pretended to kiss him on the lips. The racist fan made such a fuss that security threatened to throw her out if she didn’t settle down and stop hurling obscenities.
Attempting to tone down her string of racial epithets, she screamed, “You’re nothing but a damned Sputnik,” a reference to the satellite the hated communist Russians had just launched into space. The name stuck with the wrestler the rest of his career.
Monroe was a master showman who walked the walk and talked the talk, combining mat ability with mic skills, but it was his electric personality that propelled him to the top.
“Win if you can, lose if you must, always cheat, and if they take you out, leave tearing down the ring,” Sputnik would describe his life philosophy.
Dubbed “The Sweet Man,” Monroe had bushy eyebrows, a whiskey voice that gave his promos a sharp edge and an impeccable sense of crowd psychology. And, like other originals from his era, he lived his gimmick.
Married six times, Sputnik carried a case of Scotch in the trunk of his Cadillac, driving from town to town in a life of one-night stands and baloney blowouts. He spawned a number of Sputnik look-alikes including a pair of Rocket Monroes (Bill Fletcher and Maury High), Flash Monroe (Gene Sanizzaro) and Jet Monroe (Sputnik’s real-life brother Gary Brumbaugh).
Skirmishes with police weren’t an unusual occurrence for Monroe, who liked to hang out around Beale Street, then the hub of the black community in Memphis, which made him a target of police who would charged him with violating the local vagrancy law. City leaders frowned at a popular local figure like Monroe spending his time socializing in black clubs on Beale Street.
“I got arrested once for vagrancy for hanging out on Beale Street,” he once said. “I got a colored lawyer and went to court. I told them this was the United States of America, and I could go wherever I damned well pleased. They fined me $25, but after about a half-dozen arrests, they gave up.”
But he loved the Beale Street lifestyle, and soon became a favorite of black wrestling fans at the Monday night wrestling shows at Ellis Auditorium, the site where Monroe made his strongest statements.
Years later he would be publicly honored with a display at Memphis’ Rock ‘N Soul Museum, located on that same street, for his role in the integration of public events. Along with exhibits of Elvis, B.B. King and Otis Redding, another display features a gold wrestling jacket, flowered trunks and wrestling shoes, with a plaque that reads, “Sputnik Monroe played a major part in destroying the color lines in Memphis.”
Monroe also enjoyed hanging out at the legendary Sun Records studio with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and other Memphis-based recording greats. His musical influence would be felt nearly a half-century later, with a current Los Angeles indie rock band naming itself “Sputnik Monroe” in his honor.
“He was as rock and roll as any of the artists and singers coming out of Sun,” Jerry Phillips told the Commercial Appeal. Phillips, son of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, was so enthralled with Monroe that he got into the ring as a teenager and wrestled under Monroe’s tutelage as “The World’s Most Perfectly Formed Midget.”
Monroe further infuriated champions of racial purity when he teamed with a young black grappler named Norvell Austin for a stretch in the early ’70s. It was one of the first interracial tag teams in the South and, to make things interesting, Monroe talked Austin into placing a blond streak in his hair. Monroe put fuel on the fire when, after disposing of a pair of white opponents, he poured a bucket of black paint over the head of one of the defeated wrestlers.
“Black is beautiful,” declared Monroe. “White is beautiful,” proclaimed Austin. The two then hugged each other and proclaimed together, “Black and white is beautiful.”
Longtime pro wrestler Burrhead Jones, another black wrestling pioneer, recalled traveling with Monroe and Austin during those early days.
“We had some rugged good times on the road,” he said. “Neither one had a ride. I had to chauffeur them around everywhere they wanted to go. Sput just had that special way about him. He would always get in tight situations, but he could talk his way out of anything.”
He recounts the time promoter Billy Golden had Jones and Austin, at that time the Alabama tag-team champs, and Monroe, who managed the pair, parade down the middle of a Selma, Ala., mall with their bulky belts in tow, plugging a local show later that night. “Here we are – two black men, one with a white streak in his hair, and Sputnik talking his (trash), in a crowded mall on a Saturday afternoon in Selma. It was a sight to see,” said Jones.
Jones says Monroe wanted him to put a blond streak in his hair like Austin’s so they could draw more money.
Jones, however, flatly refused.
“I had to turn heel on him,” he jokes. “I told him that God didn’t make any blond black men.”
He did it his way
Sputnik didn’t mellow with age.
He was an authentic tough guy who never caved in to being politically correct. He kept his arresting shock of white hair until it naturally disappeared.
“Sputnik made the most out of what was essentially a little guy,” Russell said of Monroe, who won the world’s junior heavyweight title from the heralded Danny Hodge in 1970. “He would have never made it in the WWE if he was the only heel that ever lived. But he sure was big in his mouth and his heart.”
Monroe was two days shy of his 70th birthday when he wrestled his last match in a small Texas town. His knee gave out for good and, combined with four herniated discs in his lower back and two in his neck, it was time to say farewell.
Monroe spent his post-retirement years in Houston where he worked as a security guard and as a shuttle bus driver for a rental car company at the airport.
Monroe’s last major public wrestling appearance was in July 2005 when he and Billy Wicks reprised their Memphis feud at a legends show. The two had set an attendance record for a match in 1959 at an outdoor stadium in Memphis in front of more than 17,000 fans and guest referee Rocky Marciano. (Marciano collected $1,500 for his ref duties, while Monroe and Wicks both got $750). The mark lasted all the way until the Monday night wrestling wars of the late ’90s.
“He was my ‘Sweet Man,'” Wicks, 75, said Thursday night from his home in Waynesville, N.C. “In the last five years, we became very close. We’d call each other regularly, and we’d talk about guys in the business and things in the past.”
“I was influenced a lot by listening to him and the stories he told off the camera as much as I was on the camera,” said Russell. “He was a special guy like that. He’d do a lot of things that would irritate the fool out of you. But he was just being Sputnik. He did everything with a splash.”
Folks down South, particularly in Memphis, also still talk about Sputnik Monroe.
“Just last year, we were in downtown (Memphis), and he wanted to go to Beale Street,” recalled Dark. “And we parked at Peabody Place and walked, and on the way down there at least four young black kids walked up to him and hugged him and told him their parents had his picture on their wall of their house growing up, that they knew who he was and what he had done.”
Sputnik died in his sleep at a nursing home in Florida, but not before battling the loss of half a lung, prostate cancer, gall bladder surgery and gangrene. Down to 145 pounds and given 72 hours to live, he was brought out of his drug-induced coma long enough to say goodbye to his son, Bubba.
Wicks, whom Monroe jokingly referred to as “Granite Hands,” had a bet that Sputnik would read Wicks’ obituary first.
“I called Sputnik up that Friday morning,” said Wicks, who had last talked to Monroe about two weeks before he went into the hospital for the last time. “I’d always call him late in the morning because he would sleep late, but he always seemed to be glad to hear from me. I talked to his wife, Joanne, and asked her how my Sweet Man was doing. She then informed me that he had passed away during the night. I told her he was a double-crosser because we had a deal that he was going to read my obituary before I had to read his.”
“He was a very big-hearted guy, but he was a con man at the same time,” laughed Wicks. “But I loved the guy. I really cried at first and got very emotional, but now I’m celebrating. Like I told him, he was a hero to me but certainly not a role model.”
The unlikely pioneer lived life on his own terms. But he single-handedly and uncompromisingly bettered the lives of many. He made a bold statement when he refused to perform unless fans, regardless of their race, were allowed to sit anywhere they liked. He demanded equal treatment for his black fans and used his craft to literally fight for social change.
“Like Sputnik used to say, “Often imitated but never duplicated,'” said Wicks.
He just may have been the most improbable civil rights hero the South has ever seen.