The decade of the 1960's was the last period of time that professional wrestling existed as a purely underground phenomena, almost completely untainted by what has evolved into “sports entertainment”. Vince McMahon was a college student, modern icons of the sport such as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, the Rock, and John Cena were either babies or had yet to be born, and the vast majority of fans who attended pro wrestling matches still believed that these were actual competitions.
Memories of this era and the men who excelled at portraying pro wrestling as actual conflict have faded to a great extent as those ring “warriors” and their loyal fans have aged or passed on. In an era where information is driven by the visual mediums of YouTube and allied media sites, the lack of existing film or video gives little chance for young people of today to get a sense of the skill and commitment demonstrated by the elite pro wrestlers of this era. It would be of benefit at least to provide a brief summary of those who stood above the pack in the traveling circus world of 1960's pro wrestling. Listed alphabetically, here are twelve exceptional athletes that always gave the paying customer their money's worth during the 1960's:
Dick (the Bruiser) Afflis – pro football player turned part-time wrestler, he (in a move that seems unthinkable given today's NFL salaries) left his low-paying career with the Green Bay Packers to become a headliner across the U.S.. The Bruiser engaged in very little mat wrestling, turning each match into a brawl, and managed to be both a fan favorite or villain depending on the area and the opponent. Bruiser eventually bought a regional promotion in Indiana-Ohio (WWA) and ran it until the end of the territory system in the early '80's. He may have main-evented more shows in Chicago and St Louis than any other wrestler of his time.
Dick Beyer (The Destroyer) – Beyer was a champion amateur wrestler at Syracuse University, but was at first not very successful as a pro due to lack of charisma, until he was given a masked gimmick by the Los Angeles promotion in the early part of the decade. When the booker wanted Beyer to drop the mask, he refused and left the ring during what was supposed to be a “blow-off” match. Hindsight proves Beyer to be correct, as the primitive look of the knitted mask which framed his bulging lips made him a sensation in Japan. At first a villain, his look and persona became a part of Japanese pop culture and to this day he still receives royalties and has a fan club there. Back in the States, he spent most of his time headlining the well-attended bi-weekly Toronto cards. Toward the end of the decade, he put the “Destroyer” gimmick on hold for yet another mask, wrestling as “Dr. X” in the AWA where he main-evented against the champion Verne Gagne.
Fred Blassie – though he had been wrestling for over twenty years and had been a champion in various regional promotions, the marriage of Blassie, Los Angeles and weekly televised matches made the 1960's his most successful decade. Nicknamed “the Vampire” because of his act of “biting” his foes foreheads, Blassie may have gone farther than any other '60's grappler in obeying the adage, “Red turns to Green”. A typical Blassie match of that time would find the mat afterward left a crimson tint from the blood that was spilled. Blassie had many feuds against other well-known performers of his time, including Beyer, the Sheik, Brazil and especially with John Tolos. An otherwise uncharismatic though competent wrestler, the chemistry between Blassie and Tolos was off the charts, and the promotion even put on a card at the LA Colosseum featuring their final battle – at least of that series. Blassie would later be immortalized by comic Andy Kaufman in a short film, and in a second derivation by rockers REM in the song “Man on the Moon”.
Bobo Brazil – (Houston Harris) Brazil became the first black superstar of pro wrestling. He made the rounds of almost all the major regional promotions during the 60's, but it was in Detroit that he found his greatest resonance with the fans. The matching of Bobo versus the Sheik alone drew well over a million dollars during this decade, when those numbers were eye-popping for any sport. A tremendous physical specimen at 6:7 and 290 lbs, he was limited in his mat skills but made up for that with his strongman moves.
Ed Farhat (The Sheik) – The original heat machine, Farhat evolved his “Sheik of Araby” character from the 50's which was a sort of standard issue foreign heel into the ultra-violent persona that still resonates to modern day “hardcore” wrestling. Farhat became the owner of the Detroit territory during this decade, and apparently did not trust anyone other than himself to headline his own bills, as he stayed on top as United States champion for almost the entire decade. As “The Sheik”, Farhat specialized in producing bloodbaths, a strategy that left his forehead a tangled mass of scar tissue. His out-of-control antics rarely involved any wrestling holds, but still he packed houses from coast-to-coast.
Verne Gagne – another outstanding amateur wrestler who even made an Olympic team, Gagne had been made champion of various territories during the 50's. But his prime was found in the 60's: his technical wrestling skills only somewhat compromised by his bland personality and television presence. Gagne also became an owner (an interesting pattern repeated in many of these elite wrestler's careers) of the American Wrestling Alliance – a confederation of promotions in towns throughout the Upper Midwest – during this decade. As with Farhat, Verne apparently only trusted himself as champion because the AWA belt stayed around his waist the vast majority of this ten year period.
Danny Hodge – perhaps the least known of these 12 on a national stage, Hodge may have been pound-for-pound the greatest pro wrestler not only of this decade, but of any. NCAA champion at the University of Oklahoma, Hodge was blessed with strength and reaction times reminiscent of a fellow Oklahoman who plied his trade in a different sport – Mickey Mantle. Hodge was held back from greater acclaim by his desire to not venture far from his home base in the Oklahoma-Arkansas-Louisiana territory. He did hold the National Wrestling Alliance Junior Heavyweight championship (for those under 220 pounds) for the bulk of the decade. Perhaps the greatest compliment was paid to Hodge by Lou Thesz, the undisputed best wrestler of the prior two decades. Thesz was known for not respecting his opponents of lesser caliber, but when word reached him before a match the two were about to have that Hodge wasn't happy with the pre-determined finish given to him by the booker, he merely replied, “then we'll do it the way Danny wants”.
Don Leo Johnathan – one of the first second generation wrestlers, Johnathan was an athlete in wrestling who compared to a contemporary, Wilt Chamberlain, in pro basketball. Standing almost 6:10 and weighing 320, Don Leo could nonetheless perform acrobatic moves like the flying dropkick as good if not better than his much smaller peers. He suffered from lack of recognition in the major wrestling hotbeds since he rarely performed at those places, spending most of his time during this decade in the Pacific NW and the AWA. His name was perennially on the short list of wrestlers that the NWA promoters considered to hold the world championship. Don Leo was brought into the Montreal, Canada promotion when a young Andre the Giant was just cutting his teeth in the ring, and Johnathan helped give the future icon legitimacy by doing clean jobs for him.
Bruno Sammartino – though scathed by later wrestling critics for his lack of technical wrestling skills, he was THE box office draw of the 1960's, holding the WWWF (the precursor to today's WWE) title for the last seven years of the decade. Staying almost exclusively in the Northeast, Bruno's ethnicity tapped into the collective psyche of the Italian population, and the strongman had a rabid following throughout the region. He was the only wrestler to go mainstream in the Sixties, even being featured in a Sports Illustrated cover story. Many of the other major stars on this list was imported during the decade to go “round the horn” in a program with Sammartino, usually culminating in a blow-off match at the monthly card at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Ray Stevens – undersized and without a tremendous physique, Stevens had charisma oozing out of his pores. He was an early-day extreme athlete, competing in rodeos as a steer wrestler when he wasn't bulldogging opponents in the ring. Ray's specialty was in taking bumps, as he sacrificed his body to put over the believability of his matches. He dominated wrestling in Northern California during the Sixties, holding that promotions version of the United States championship while bouncing back-and-forth as a face and a heel. While he would go on to be known as half of one of the greatest tag teams ever in the Seventies, with partner Nick Bockwinkel, his on-again off-again duo with Pat Patterson – with the two of them either being tag champs or spilling each other's blood – captivated the San Francisco territory for many years.
Johnny Valentine – his blond good looks were a 180 degree contrast to his fierce ring style. JV was known among his peers as one of the legit toughest wrestlers of all. He made matches look realistic by pushing the line between pulled and actual punches, and was as good at receiving punishment as he was giving it. Valentine traveled more than any other of these twelve greats during the '60's, main eventing territories in Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Texas, Los Angeles, Ohio, Michigan and Missouri. His career would be ended by injuries he received from a small plane crash in 1974 that left him crippled. JV would have easily been made world champion by any of the major alliances, but he chose the greater freedom of being able to leave regions for greater paydays. His son Greg would become a famous wrestler in his own right during the 1970's and 80's.
Fritz Von Erich (Jack Adkisson) – though his wrestling fame would later be eclipsed by that of his sons, and by the epic tragedy that their lives would become, the pseudo-German FVE was paradoxically voted the most hated heel during the first half of the decade, and then most popular during the latter half after a face turn. He had an extremely large frame and tremendous tendon strength, featured in his finishing hold the “Iron Claw”. He mainly worked in the Dallas Texas region, a territory that he bought during this decade and, much like Farhat/Sheik in Detroit, one where he kept himself on top due perhaps to not trusting others to keep the promotion thriving. FVE made headlining visits to Toronto and St Louis, but it was in Dallas and Houston that his persona became legend.