By Mike Mooneyham
Oct. 19, 2003
First of two parts
Today’s brand of professional wrestling paints a picture of glitz and glamour. Many of its top stars are millionaires, and the owner of the biggest company in the industry achieved billionaire status several years ago.
But the history of professional wrestling is far from glamorous.
Many pro wrestlers of yesteryear lived in poverty and illness, and others are alive today but struggling and in great need. Jim Wilson, possibly the most significant wrestling name most current fans never heard of, has devoted a large portion of his life trying to change things for the better.
More than 30 years ago Wilson stood up against an antiquated system whose secretive society seemed to have more in common with the Mob than with legitimate business. Making the transition from pro football to pro wrestling, Wilson was amazed at what he describes as greed, abuse and betrayal, a business that operated on the margins of respectable commerce, falling between the cracks of accepted business standards intended to govern other entertainment industries.It wasn’t long before Wilson embarked on a long and lonely campaign to clean up the wrestling profession. It was a mission that became an obsession, ultimately costing him his family, his friends, his job, his home and almost costing him his sanity.
Wilson, now 62, along with Chicago-based criminology and sociology professor Weldon Johnson, has written a self-published book titled “Chokehold” that chronicles his amazing but painful odyssey from football stardom to disgruntled wrestler and reformist. The stories in this lengthy, meticulously researched manuscript are told in memory of those forgotten men whom Wilson “never met but knows very well” – former performers whose names once lit up arena marquees but were used and abused by the ruthless industry Wilson describes.
Wilson himself has spent a lifetime surmounting obstacles. The son of a decorated Naval officer in World War II, Wilson was plagued with a birth defect, an abnormal spine that would prevent him from ever being involved in contact sports, or so doctors told him.
That didn’t deter Wilson, however, as he went on to become coach Vince Dooley’s first consensus All-American in 1964 and helped restore winning football at the University of Georgia. The only player to go both ways at the school after the two-platoon system was put in, the 6-3, 260-pound lineman was the strongest and most powerful college player Dooley had ever seen.
Wilson, one of only two players in the history of the university to play for three coaches (Wally Butts, Johnny Griffith and Dooley), would be elected to the University of Georgia All-Time Team. He would be inducted into the Georgia State Sports Hall of Fame 37 years after leaving the UGA campus.
Wilson also played seven years as an offensive lineman in the NFL, named to the 1965 All-Rookie team along with Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus. He would cross paths with another All-SEC standout, Joe Namath, in the pros, a number of years after their first encounter in an eighth-grade all-star basketball game back home in Pennsylvania.
As a Yankee outsider, it was a real learning experience to see two Southern cultures, one white and one black, even on a college campus. Coming from a middle class neighborhood outside Pittsburgh, the South’s apartheid was new to him.
Wilson, a “closet wrestling fan” as a youngster, started his second career in the off-season for Georgia mat legend Ray Gunkel in 1968 while still playing football for the Los Angeles Rams. Gunkel, a former amateur great at Purdue who was part owner of the lucrative Georgia promotion, was high on Wilson, whose legitimate athletic background and connection to pro football automatically made him a draw at the box office.
“The money was great,” says Wilson. “Linemen were making 25 to 30 (thousand), and some weren’t even making that. (Mr. Wrestling) Tim Woods was making around 50 (thousand) a year back then. I saw wrestling as a way to make some money, but it was a completely different lifestyle. It’s like the circus – all the carny and the secret talk, and everybody had guns back in those days. You pack up and go to the next town, and you do it over and over.”
After several years on the mat and the end of his seven-year NFL career due to injuries (12 surgeries – two spinals, four knees, three elbows, two shoulders and a compound dislocated fracture of the thumb), his magic carpet ride in the wrestling business was derailed. Wilson began to ask questions – too many questions – that challenged a deeply engrained system with more than its share of deep, dark secrets.
Wilson assumed the heady task if challenging the questionable labor practices of the monopolistic National Wrestling Alliance, a nationwide cartel of promoters who controlled the business until the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) rose to power in the mid-1980s. He told his fellow wrestlers that they needed a union – a pro wrestlers’ labor association much like the one he had been part of in the NFL, where he was a labor union coordinator for the Rams when the National Football League Players Association became an effective force in pro football in 1968.
Unlike pro football, the wrestling business offered no pension or health benefits. It was an industry where labor relations was conducted without contracts or conscience. His campaign to reform the profession by organizing a union and shining a light in wrestling’s dark corners became an overriding mission that would dominate the rest of his life.
“Professional wrestling needed to change then and it needs to change now,” says Wilson, who now works in commercial and residential real estate in southern Georgia. “I hope my efforts at least created awareness of wrestling’s abuses and the need to correct them.”
Many of Wilson’s wrestling contemporaries have died or have long since retired. Wilson was officially blackballed by the NWA in 1973, although he continued to wrestle for 12 more years, mostly for outlaw promotions.
Wrestling bookers and promoters called Big Jim Wilson “trouble,” pointing to his refusal to do blade jobs (intentionally cut himself) and lose matches when ordered. He drew the ire of many for complaining about pay, working conditions and lack of unionization.
Some say his fall from grace resulted from his naiveté concerning the business and a misguided belief that professional wrestling operated by the same principles as pro football.
Perhaps Wilson’s major miscalculation was believing what promoters told him early in his career – that he was on a track to be the world champion. While the handsome, powerfully built Wilson was a rare commodity in the wrestling business – a highly sought-after NFL product whose collegiate credentials surpassed even those of fellow college stars-turned-wrestlers Wahoo McDaniel, Ernie Ladd and Bill Watts – he lacked the ring polish and political clout necessary to carry the gold.
Wilson, though, contends he was denied the strap because he shunned the sexual advances of a prominent male promoter. From that point on, he says, his career took a downward spiral.
Wilson understood that pain, suffering and hardship were all part of the price one paid as a pro wrestler. What he didn’t understand was why the system, namely the promoters who controlled the business, manipulated the wrestlers like puppets, to the point of sometimes breaking the law.
Although his ring career would extend into the mid-1980s, it effectively ended in 1972 when Gunkel, by then middle-aged and out of shape, died of a heart attack after a match with Ox Baker in Savannah. The man who “promised” the crown to Wilson was gone, and so were any aspirations Wilson had of achieving greater success in the wrestling business.
One of pro wrestling’s fiercest territorial wars ensued when Gunkel’s 35-year-old widow, Ann, formed her own rival promotion after being squeezed out of the NWA-affiliated Georgia Championship Wrestling. Ann, an ex-model and close acquaintance of cable magnate Ted Turner, used her considerable attributes to wage a torrid battle with the NWA. Due to the close relationship her late husband had with the Georgia crew, all but two wrestlers and one referee bailed out and joined her upstart outfit. Ironically one of the two who stayed on was Wilson, since he felt the NWA had already made an investment in his career. But after being told by a promoter in late 1973 that he’d never wrestle again for the NWA, Wilson reluctantly joined the opposition.
“I never wanted to leave (the NWA),” says Wilson. “I had always thought the sky was the limit for me.”
It was just the beginning of a painful journey for an athlete who had been promised fame and fortune, but instead found heartache and despair.
MONDAY: All Big Jim Wilson ever wanted was to make a difference in the wrestling business. What he got instead was a life turned upside down.
“Chokehold: Pro Wrestling’s Real Mayhem Outside the Ring” can be ordered at www.xlibris.com/chokehold.html or at www.amazon.com.