By Mike Mooneyham
Jan. 21, 2007
First In A Series
Pro wrestlers have always been a wayfaring lot, especially during the sport’s bygone era, when most grapplers spent nearly 365 days a year on the road. Back then wrestling was divided into more than 30 different territories that spanned the entire country.
An old adage among promoters, which served as both advice and warning to those coming into their respective territories, was that if a wrestler wanted to buy a home, it had better be on wheels. Very few journeymen were able to stay in one territory for any length of time and make a decent living.
Cowboy Bob Kelly was one of them.
Kelly was a rare character in the wrestling business who spent virtually his entire career in only one territory. While most wrestlers of that era bounced from one locale to another, not wanting to outstay their welcome or drawing power, Kelly was able to carve out a successful career working on the Gulf Coast circuit as one of its top stars.
With the exception of an occasional visit to another area while on vacation, where he would make a special appearance on another promoter’s show, the Louisville native spent most of his career wrestling in one territory.“I might go home to Kentucky and work there for a week or two or work for Bruiser (in Indianapolis), but never went to another territory to get over.”
Then again, Kelly wouldn’t have had much time to work in other territories, as he not only wrestled on the Golf Coast circuit, but he also served as Gulf Coast Wrestling owner Lee Fields’ right-hand man in the wrestling office.
“It was a unique situation. I don’t know how the bookers and offices worked in other territories, but I helped run the office for Lee,” said Kelly, whose major towns included Mobile and Pensacola in a geographical area that stretched from northeastern Florida to Louisiana. “I never wanted to go to any other territory. When we got to Mobile, it didn’t take long until I knew I had found a new home and a new family, the Fields.”
Best territory nobody heard of
Kelly, now 70, has been a mainstay in the Mobile area since the mid-’60s when Fields hired him. Kelly knew they would be lifelong friends from the very first time they talked.
Kelly was in North Bay, Canada, when wrestler Terry Garvin (Terry Joyal) called Fields and asked him if he could use a hand. Garvin gave Kelly a ringing endorsement and handed the phone to his friend.
“That was a long way from North Bay, Canada, to Mobile, Ala. I told him I didn’t have much experience, but I told him I’d do anything he wanted me to do. I already had four kids at the time, but I packed them all up. I loaded up everything I owned. It was like I knew him. He didn’t treat me like a referee or a beginner.”
Fields, says Kelly, was looking for someone who wanted to do things differently. Fields eventually entrusted Kelly with some of the territory’s top towns. They began doing so well in Louisiana that they were “kicked out” by politicos who saw an opportunity to pad their coffers.
“The politicians considered Lee an outsider,” says Kelly. “As long as we weren’t making a whole lot of money, they weren’t saying anything. But when we started selling out in Lafayette and Baton Rouge, they figured they could do that themselves and they took Lee’s license.”
At the time Fields was using the money out of Louisiana to help keep his struggling Mobile operation up. “He was about done in Mobile,” says Kelly. Fields borrowed $25,000 on his house to keep the promotion afloat, and Kelly asked his boss for one year to promote Mobile and Pensacola. If he didn’t double up those towns, he told Fields, he’d be gone.
Fields gave Kelly six months, about as long as the money would last, and the rest is history.
Kelly secured bigger buildings, began weekly shows, changed nights and doubled the houses in less than a month. He virtually saved Fields’ business.
While Kelly is reluctant to take credit for the turnaround, his arrival on the scene coincided with the territory’s ascension. The office at the time was only running Mobile and Pensacola during the summer months; Mobile was drawing 800-1,000, with Pensacola in the 700-800 range. Mobile grew to 2,500-3,500 every week, and Pensacola picked up as well.
Kelly, who also was in charge of TV in Pensacola, and Hattiesburg and Meridian, Miss., never did the same thing in one town as he did in another. He shuffled lineups and finishes, and the crowds grew accordingly.
“I knew I could so some things differently around here and they would work. I can’t say it was easy, but once you get on a roll, it wasn’t that bad either.”
Kelly jokes that the Gulf Coast territory, which was part of the National Wrestling Alliance, was the best territory that nobody heard of.
“Gulf Coast Wrestling was the best territory in the wrestling business, and nobody knew about it. But I enjoyed every dad-gum minute of it.”
Most of the crew that worked for the Gulf Coast promotion liked the setup as well. The weather was good, there were no icy roads to deal with, and the pay wasn’t nearly as bad as some other territories similar in scope. Most wrestlers also got an opportunity to prove themselves. Some got their start there. Some made a lot of money.
“I just had a good crew in here,” says Kelly. “The boys all got along together. I never really had any drug or alcohol problems (with the crew), and didn’t have any fights in the dressing room to speak of.”
That’s not to say that everyone who worked the territory fit in.
“If we had a boy who called and wanted to come in and we knew he was a troublemaker, we just would figure out some way not to use him,” says Kelly. “We wouldn’t have room for him. If they wanted to come in and do some jobs, they’d be welcome.”
Unlike many bookers, Kelly would watch most of the matches on his shows, take notes and give advice. When a wrestler needed to be put in line, Kelly was firm and up to the task, but wouldn’t do it in front of the other boys.
Kelly also got the chance to oversee a young Bobby Shane’s ascension as a major heel in the Gulf Cost area during the early ’70s.
“When he came in the office and told me what he had in mind doing, I thought we could do some business,” Kelly says of his initial talk with Shane. It only took one conservation with Fields to sell him on Shane’s gimmick.
Shane (Bobby Schoenberger), an up-and-coming star formerly dubbed the “Boy Wonder,” had come into his own as an outspoken villain, and the once soft-spoken fan favorite popped the territory with his new cocky and outlandish persona.
Kelly saw his potential as a heel and pushed him to the top.
“He was in the same category as Ric Flair,” says Kelly. “I really think he would have been better than Ric Flair. Bobby Shane purposely would change things around to make his matches different. He had a great wrestling mind. He was very, very good and was destined to be a major star.”
Not long after his success in the Gulf Coast territory, the 29-year-old Shane was tragically killed when a small plane piloted by wrestler Buddy Colt (Ron Reed) crashed into Tampa Bay while attempting to land. Shane drowned in the back seat of the plane. Colt and two other grapplers, Dennis McCord and Gary Hart (Gary Williams), survived the crash.
Perhaps the most popular performer in the Gulf Coast territory was Kelly himself. He was a blue-collar wrestler and a favorite of the fans who had watched him emerge from the ranks of refereeing and doing everything from sweeping the floors to putting up the ring.
Kelly was even once pictured in the local Mobile newspaper building a cage prior to a fence match with veteran tough guy Don Fargo (Don Kalt). “He wasn’t going to get out of this one,” he later joked.
“For me to figure out a way to get the fans to buy a ticket to see me wrestle a champion wasn’t easy. But I didn’t rush it. If I ever got them with me, they would help push me to the top. And that’s what happened. They got behind me all the way.”
Kelly, though, had a number of beloved babyfaces in the territory to contend with. There were Fields, the promoter, along with the likes of longtime good guys Ken Lucas, Buddy Fuller and Billy Wicks.
“I had some tough, tough guys to overcome, but I did it. It’s was one of the accomplishments that I’m very proud of.”
Kelly, a member of the wrestling team during his stint in the U.S. Marine Corps in the early 1950s, enjoyed his first-main event success in Louisiana while still working as a ref in the Mobile area. Fields, who also had owned the Baton Rouge-Lafayette area, worked with Kelly on a plan to elevate the referee to a star attraction on his shows.
A match with rugged Jack Dalton put Kelly on the wrestling map. The plan was for Kelly to lose his first few bouts, but at the same time elicit sympathy from the crowd who’d view the rookie as a major underdog. Kelly kept getting beat, but he kept coming back. He eventually beat Frank Dalton and got a chance at the meaner “brother” Jack.
“We packed the joint,” says Kelly. “We did great business with that one.”
Jack Dalton, who later changed his name to Don Fargo, was one of Kelly’s favorite opponents and took part in what Kelly calls his most memorable match. It was a sentimental favorite, says Kelly, because his father got to see him wrestle in person. Kelly’s dad saw only two of his son’s matches – his first official pro bout in 1963 – and one in 1972 against Fargo in Pensacola. Kelly remembers it as if it were yesterday.
Kelly, who used the bulldog headlock as his coup de grace, emerged victorious and recalls fans jumping into the ring at the sold-out arena following the match.
“It was pandemonium. I looked for him (dad), but I didn’t see him at first. When I jumped out of the ring, he was standing right outside, and he put his arm around me and put my arm in the air.” The match would become even more special after his father died later that year due to heart problems.
“I’d give anything in the world if someone had taken a picture of that. I just know that someone somewhere has a picture of that.”
Kelly’s mother, who never saw her son wrestle in a live match, passed away last week.