By Mike Mooneyham
Dec. 7, 2003
The pro wrestling community is mourning the loss of two Tennessee-based grapplers who passed away last weekend.
Joey Rossi, son of veteran Nashville performer Len Rossi, died Nov. 30 at the age of 51 after a bout with cancer. Larry Booker, also 51, died in Memphis after collapsing during a match Nov. 29 at the Mid-South Coliseum.
Booker, who gained notoriety in the business as one of The Moondogs, suffered a heart attack during a Saturday night show that had been promoted as a birthday bash for Jerry Lawler. Booker, who was reprising his Moondog Spot role with a new partner billed as Moondog Puppy Love, collapsed in the middle of a four-team concession-stand battle royal that had included The Rock N Roll Express (Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson). The match went to an immediate finish when the participants realized that Booker, who had slumped over in a corner, appeared to be unresponsive.Medical personnel were summoned to the ring as the announcer explained to fans that the surreal scene wasn’t part of the show. Booker never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead on arrival at a local hospital. A coroner reported that his death was from a massive heart attack “due to complications from diabetes.” The state of Tennessee does not require wrestlers to undergo physical examinations before performing.
The crowd was informed of his death following the show, and a 10-bell salute was performed, with Brian Christopher (Brian Lawler) asking the fans to pray for Booker’s family, who had been in attendance.
Booker had been a fixture at the Mid-South Coliseum and the Memphis wrestling scene for nearly a quarter of a century. He earned his initial fame in the business under the name Larry Latham, teaming with Wayne Ferris, the future Honky Tonk Man, as The Blond Bombers (managed by current Ohio Valley Wrestling owner and trainer Danny Davis) during the late 70s. Holding the AWA Southern tag-team belts, the pair turned back such challengers as Robert and Ricky Gibson, Hulk Hogan and Tommy Gilbert, and Steve Regal and Hector Guerrero.
Booker is perhaps best remembered for his role in one of the most famous hardcore matches in the history of the business, teaming with Ferris against Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee in Tupelo, Miss., on June 15, 1979. More popularly known as the “Tupelo concession-stand brawl,” the action spilled out of the ring and into the concession-stand area where a variety of weapons (and condiments) were used, including gallon jars of mustard and a popcorn machine. Thirteen years later Moondogs Spot and Spike (Booker and Bill Smithson) attempted to reprise the match, this time with Lawler and Jeff Jarrett in Kennett, Mo. The legendary encounter has been imitated many times since, including at WCW’s 1995 Uncensored pay-per-view in Tupelo, where The Nasty Boys battled Harlem Heat in a falls-count anywhere match that prominently featured a makeshift concession stand.
During the ’80s and ’90s Booker was part of a group of performers who used the Moondog moniker, patterned after the successful gimmick of late Oregon-based star Lonnie “Moondog” Mayne. The various incarnations of Moondogs included Moondog Spot (Booker), Moondog Rex (Randy Culley), Moondog Spike (Smithson), Moondog Cujo (“Cousin Junior” Lanny Kean), Moondog King (“Sailor” Ed White) and Moondog Splat (Bubba White). Wearing cutoff jeans and carrying giant bones to the ring, The Moondogs were brawlers who threw chairs as readily as they did punches. Void of technical wrestling skills, the Dogs used their dinosaur-looking bones as foreign objects with which to pummel opponents and draw blood.
The 300-pound Booker, now sporting shaggy hair, a scraggly beard and wild-looking eyes, adopted the Moondog Spot character when he joined Moondog Rex (Culley) as the WWF tag-team champs in 1981 after Culley’s previous partner, Moondog King (Sailor White), a Newfoundland native, was denied entry back into the United States from Canada. A magazine storyline, however, explained King’s absence by claiming that he had been hit by a car that he was chasing.
Spot and Rex returned to Memphis in 1983 to feud with The Fabulous Ones (Stan Lane and Steve Keirn) in one of that territory’s hottest box-office draws. The program culminated with The Moondogs “injuring” Keirn, prompting The Fabs mentor and local legend Jackie Fargo to return for revenge as Lane’s partner.
“All I can remember is a lot of blood spilled with those guys,” Lane recalled last week. “They were working an extreme, hardcore style before the term hardcore was coined. They used tables, chairs and whatever was available. We’d brawl throughout the Mid-South Coliseum.”
Lane, who now lives in Greensboro, N.C., where he is an offshore powerboat racing commentator for Superboat International, not so fondly recalled The Moondogs’ favorite gimmick.
“They’d hit us in the head with those big, old bones, and we’d juice and that kind of stuff. They were like big cow bones that you’d get from the butcher’s shop that were about a foot and a half long. Those things really hurt.”
Booker and Culley, as Moondogs Spot and Rex, returned to the WWF in 1984 for a mid-card run with Jimmy Hart as their manager. Culley, though, would drop the gimmick in favor of another – the original Smash in Demolition – before being replaced by Barry Darsow.
One of The Moondogs’ (Booker and Smithson) final major programs was with Lawler and Jarrett in the Tennessee-based United States Wrestling Association, one of the last remaining regional territories in the post-WWF expansion period, during the early ’90s. The feud featured chairs, boom sticks, garbage cans, glass bottles and plenty of blood, with The Moondogs’ brutal squash matches every Saturday morning on Memphis television setting up the weekly Monday night house shows at the Mid-South Coliseum.
“It was one of those gimmicks that fans really bought into,” said Lawler in his book, It’s Good to Be the King … Sometimes.’ “They acted real crazy. They had these huge cow bones they gnawed on as they came into the ring and they used them as weapons … They were fun. Every match with them was a hardcore match.”
Booker’s in-ring activity had been limited in recent years to independent promotions in the Memphis area. His last major appearance was on an NWA-TNA show in March, teaming with Hacksaw Jim Duggan to defeat Mike Sanders and Glenn Gilberti.
The West Tennessee native was laid to rest Thursday. Among those in attendance was Jerry Lawler, with whom “Moondog Spot” had shed literally pints of blood over the years, but with Larry Booker had shared a longtime friendship.
This hardcore pioneer seemed to enjoy his alter ego and kept the Moondog persona until the very end, dying doing what he loved best. That it happened in a wrestling ring, at the Mid-South Coliseum, in a concession-stand brawl, is probably best left to Memphis wrestling lore.
– Joey Rossi, whose real name was Joseph Rositano, died after a battle with an aggressive form of cancer. A second-generation performer, he was the son of Len Rossi, who had been one of the top babyfaces in Tennessee, along with Jackie Fargo and later Jerry “The King” Lawler, during the ’60s and ’70s. Rossi teamed with his father until 1972 when the elder Rossi was injured in a car accident and forced to retire from the ring. Rossi, however, would come out of retirement for several years after his career-ending injury for special matches, including family battles with Angelo Poffo and sons Lanny and Randy (the future “Macho Man” Randy Savage).
Joey Rossi held the Mid-America tag-team title on two occasions in 1973 with Bearcat Brown, his dad’s longtime partner, and also that same year with Don Greene. Rossi also held the NWA world six-man tag-team title in 1979 with George Gulas and Ken Lucas.
Rossi, who retired from the business in the late 80s, reflected on his career in a yet-to-be published interview in Scott Teal’s Whatever Happened To? newsletter.
“The business was changing. They didn’t want guys like me around anymore. I got tired of the traveling. I was tired of being away from my family. I was sick of putting up with the promoters. I just didn’t want it anymore.” Rossi said he told partner Gypsy Joe prior to a battle royal in a small town in Alabama that he was tired of the politics. He left the building before his match that night, and along with it, the business.
“That was it. I hung my boots up the next day. Now they’re up in the attic somewhere.”
Active in local politics, Rossi was elected alderman in 2000 in Nolensville, Tenn., for a two-year term and was re-elected last year to a four-year run. His work for Nolensville had stretched back to an incorporation committee that established town government in 1996. He also had been a member of the planning commission since its inception.
Since the mid-1980s he co-owned Len Rossi Health Foods and Rossi’s Record Room, a used records store which his father opened in 1974.
Rossi’s life changed two years ago when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. He continued trying to exercise, eat right and keep the fighting spirit, but his health deteriorated. He dropped 80 pounds from his 325-pound frame during chemotherapy treatments.
A benefit concert was held for him in May to raise funds for alternative therapy. In his final months, Rossi spent a great deal of his time with his family, including his wife and three children. This summer, the family was able to take a trip to Florida.
Among the honorary pallbearers at his funeral last week were veteran mat stars Lorenzo Parente, Frankie Cain (formerly one of The Masked Infernos and The Great Mephisto) and the Gulf Coast Wrestlers Alliance.
Rossi said in the WHT interview that he had no regrets about his wrestling career.
“From the time I was 16, I was on the road. Oh, the education I had. I’ve done things, seen things and been places that people dream about all their lives, things that most people never get to do. They don’t believe that you saw the things that you did. They don’t believe it. They think, This guy is telling a bunch of lies.’ Frankie Cain has an old saying. Gentlemen, I’ve wined and dined with kings and queens, and I’ve slept in ditches.’ It’s the truth. It was an incredible experience. I tell people stories and they don’t believe me.”
– Mick Foley’s return to WWE as a consultant and figurehead general manager is a short-term move to help justify the reinstatement of Steve Austin.
Foley is on the verge of landing his own CBS action pilot in which he will play a Tampa detective who’s just as ruthless as the criminals he hunts, according to Daily Variety.
Foley has authored three books, two memoirs and a new novel. His autobiography “Have a Nice Day” spent more than 26 weeks on top of the best-seller list in 2000. Foley is currently working on another novel and a children’s book.
– NWA-TNA once again has postponed the Bound for Glory pay-per-view that originally was scheduled for February. The event, which was to have featured Hulk Hogan, will be moved to either May or June.
NWA-TNA announcer Mike Tenay announced on last week’s show that Hogan’s knee was not responding to treatment, and that he also was being pulled off a Jan. 4 show at the Tokyo Dame that he had committed to.
– Roddy Piper will return to NWA-TNA at this week’s pay-per-view.
– Ric Flair agreed to fill in for the injured Kurt Angle, among others, on the Smackdown tour of South Korea, Australia and Singapore this past week. Flair will go straight to Raw the moment he touches down Monday. The company’s greatest goodwill ambassador, however, said he was excited to make the trip.
“I like representing the company, and this is one of the capacities I’d hope to represent them in,” Flair told the WWE Web site. “Even though I’m wrestling, I kind of think of myself as a spokesperson for the company when I do this kind of stuff, especially when I do media like I’ve done this week for the tour. I think it’s important sometimes to have someone that’s been around for a while to talk on behalf of the company. One of the first questions you get is, How has the business changed?’ No pun intended, but if you haven’t seen the evolution of the business the last 20 years, it’s hard to explain and answer those questions. But I have seen it change. I’m just real excited to be part of the company at this level. It’s all very positive.
“I had no problem with it. They’ve been so good to me about putting my schedule around my kids’ athletic events and stuff at home. It’s not in any way, shape or form a heroic move. People say things like that, but I’m just glad to be going. It’s a great bunch of guys to hang out with. How can you go wrong? And it’s not like it’s hard. The length of the trip is the only difficult part.”
– Sgt. Slaughter (Bob Remus), who appeared at the North Charleston Coliseum several weeks ago as part of a South Carolina Stingrays promotion, has dropped nearly 100 pounds. Sarge, who had ballooned to 390 pounds at his highest point, now tips the scales at 290 and wants to drop 30 more.
The WWE agent began losing weight prior to gall bladder surgery last year and continued to shed pounds while working with a chiropractor-nutritionist who put him on a low-sugar, high-protein diet. Slaughter had been unable to train for the past five years due to back problems that plagued him throughout his 30-year ring career.
Slaughter told the WWE site that his recent Raw match with “Legend Killer” Randy Orton was a milestone for him because he also wrestled Orton’s grandfather (Bob Orton), father (Cowboy Bob Orton Jr.) and uncle (Barry O).
“I’ve beaten the other three, but I didn’t beat Randy,” he said. “But I wouldn’t mind getting a rematch with him when I get in better shape, so I can make the legends look better than they have.”