FanPost

In memoriam: Wrestlers we lost, January to June 2019

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As we reach the halfway point of the year, a chance to remember those in the industry who passed on over the last six months.

Gene Okerlund (died on Jan. 2; aged 76) was surely the most famous wrestling interviewer of all time. Hulk Hogan, who inducted him into the WWE Hall Of Fame in 2006, virtually made his forename into a catchphrase. Okerlund had actually started as a singer, fronting Gene Carroll and the Shades in his home state of South Dakota, and later became a DJ and programming director. He was working in advertising for the television station where AWA taped in 1970 when they found themselves short of an announcer - he knew nothing about professional wrestling but learned quickly and by the end of the decade became the regular frontman. His quick wit and facial expressions made him almost a straight man in a way that helped both heels and faces get over, so popular among the wrestlers that he was best man at Iron Sheik's wedding and Jesse Ventura gave him the Mean Gene nickname.

Okerlund jumped to WWF in 1983 partly at Hogan's insistence, becoming a cult favorite who was used for local interviews across the country. A falling out with Vince McMahon led to his contract being allowed to expire in 1993 and a move to WCW, where he stayed until just before it closed, including working two matches in a feud with play-by-play announcer Mark Madden. A drinking problem led to three kidney transplants, the first in 1995, and while he returned to WWF after WCW ended his appearances were infrequent, largely seen on WWE Confidential, Vintage Collection, Raw Old School shows and Legends House. His final TV appearance was on the 25th anniversary Raw last January.

Alexis Smirnoff (real name Michel Lamarche; Jan. 5; 71) was yet another North American (Québecois, in fact) billed as Russian, at least after dropping original ring name Michel "Justice" Dubois in 1977. Over the course of an eighteen year career he wrestled across the territories with stints in Georgia, Texas, San Francisco, St Louis, Montreal, Mid-South and AWA, mostly holding tag titles, plus a lower card run in WWF. His highest profile work came in Japan, where he very briefly held the IWA World Heavyweight Championship in 1979 and later worked for AJPW and NJPW.

Dr Rex Bacchus (Chris Sims; Jan. 17; 35) was a late bloomer on the Florida scene, starting out at age 31, mostly working for I BELIEVE Wrestling but also appearing as a jobber in MLW, Evolve and FIP before succumbing to cancer.

Les Thornton (Feb. 1; 84) was considered one of the best junior heavyweights in the world at his early 1980s peak, holding the NWA Junior Heavyweight title five times in 1980 and 1981 and once more in 1983 when it was a highly regarded touring title, feuding with Tiger Mask and Black Tiger (Marc Rocco) in Japan. Trained in the famous Snake Pit catch wrestling school near his Manchester home but as adept at rough-house stiffness as technical excellence, he made appearances on World Of Sport before trying his luck abroad from the late 1970s. He worked for WWF as enhancement talent between 1984 and 1987, including as tag partner in Mick Foley's first TV match for the company, before moving to Canada and working under Stu Hart at Stampede before forming his own shortlived CIWF in Calgary.

Salvatore Bellomo (Feb. 9; 67), a Belgian billed as from Sicily, went from clean-cut technical face to brutal wildman, working across North America and having runs with NWA's heavyweight and tag titles in Vancouver, NWA Hollywood's tag belt and WXW's Heavyweight Championship. A WWF run from 1983 to 1987 saw him mostly used as a jobber, though he had two house show matches for Iron Sheik's world title. He was the loser in Bob Backlund's last WWF match of the 1980s and was defeated by Bobby Heenan at MSG. He later wrestled in Eastern Championship Wrestling's first ever title match, losing to Jimmy Snuka in 1993.

Koji Kitao (Feb. 10; 55) was at one time the biggest name in sumo wrestling as Futahaguro, the only yokozuna in its history not to win a top division tournament championship having been runner up seven times. After being expelled from the sport in 1987, the first ever to do so, after physically falling out with his stablemaster (though it's now believed most of the story was made up by the latter) Masa Saito linked him up with the AWA where he briefly worked under a mask as Monster Machine. Returning home he trained at the New Japan dojo and debuted at the February 1990 NJPW/AJPW Supershow in the Tokyo Dome, beating Bam Bam Bigelow and drawing the largest TV audience for wrestling in four years. New Japan were looking at him as a future face of the company, but he was fired that July for "disrespectful conduct" towards Riki Choshu.

Having joined Genichiro Tenryu's Super World of Sports promotion, a working arrangement with WWF led to him and Tenryu beating Demolition at WrestleMania VII. Infamously, working against John Tenta in April 1991 having been told he was losing, Kitao started being uncooperative, no-selling and shooting on the former Earthquake, disqualifying himself by kicking the referee before grabbing a live microphone and telling the audience that wrestling was fake and Tenta should never beat him. Fired on the spot, Kitao went into martial arts and appeared in the worked shoot promotion UWF, where having agreed to a draw Nobuhiko Takada deliberately legitimately knocked him out, before being picked up by Tenryu for his new WAR promotion and opening his own Buko Dojo which produced former Dragon Gate champion Masaaki Mochizuki. He later reconciled with Choshu and wrestled with Inoki against him and Tenryu for NJPW in 1995. Kitao retired in 1998 and returned to sumo coaching in 2003 before eventually succumbing to kidney disease.

Pedro Morales (Feb. 12; 76), who had been battling Parkinson's Disease, was arguably the biggest Hispanic star in the history of the company that is now WWE, the Puerto Rican a huge favorite with the Latino crowd. WWWF champion from February 1971 to December 1973, a solitary title run that nevertheless is still the fifth longest total reign in company history (behind Sammartino, Hogan, Backlund and Cena), he sold out Madison Square Garden for 21 of his main event 30 title matches - losing once there between the start of his championship reign and the end of the territorial era in 1983 - and was the first person to achieve the Triple Crown of world, Intercontinental and tag titles. He also held the WWA world title twice in 1965-66 when it was one of the three widely recognized world titles.

Starting in New York as a 17 year old having finished his education in Brooklyn, an undistinguished mid-carder in his early days flitting around America, he was convinced to move to the WWA in California and, billed from Mexico, became an instant star for his flying ability, holding the world title for a combined thirteen months. He also held the tag titles with four different partners, had a celebrated team in the AWA with Pepper Gomez and defended the world title in Japan, losing by countout to Giant Baba. During a two year spell in Hawaii's Mid-Pacific Promotions from 1968, during which he unsuccessfully challenged for Pat Patterson's NWA US Heavyweight Championship, he was spotted by Gorilla Monsoon, who convinced Vince McMahon Sr that he had found the perfect replacement for an increasingly tired and injured Bruno Sammartino. As such he not only took the world belt just three weeks after Ivan Koloff famously ended Bruno's record title run but broke the MSG gate record with that match, his first defense (against Blackjack Mulligan in March 1971) and then three more times within a year, including the first ever US indoor six figure gate. Eventually he faced a briefly returning Sammartino in a face vs face match at Shea Stadium in September 1972 in a 65 minute draw. Unfortunately the New York territory outside MSG wasn't doing as well so Sammartino was convinced to return full time with a much higher downside than Morales for much less work, leading to Pedro dropping the title to Stan Stasiak in Philadelphia - with a dirty pin that wasn't announced in the arena for fear of a riot - so Bruno could win it back at MSG nine days later.

Morales eventually left WWWF in early 1975, still never losing, but a run in NWA San Francisco saw only brief tag title success alongside Patterson. He then didn't get over well in the AWA despite a long unbeaten streak, merely had two runs as NWA Florida Tag Team champion with Rocky Johnson in Championship Wrestling from Florida, and was mostly a tag match enhancement guy in Mid-Atlantic despite a couple of good runs in New Japan at the same time. Regardless his return to WWF in 1980 saw him get a major push including winning the tag titles with heavyweight champion Bob Backlund (they had to forfeit the belts a day later under a rule stating no world champ could hold a second belt) before completing the Triple Crown by beating Ken Patera for the Intercontinental title in December 1980. That six month reign, which included a countout win over Hulk Hogan, was followed by his beating Don Muraco in a Texas Death match to start a fourteen month run from November 1981, collectively giving Morales the longest combined reign with the IC title at 619 days (The Miz is 20 days behind at time of writing). A combination of age and Vince Jr's national rollout saw him gradually phased out, only appearing in a battle royal at WrestleMania II, and he retired in November 1987 to become a road agent and Spanish announcer before switching to the WCW announce desk in the 1990s. Morales was inducted into the WWF Hall of Fame in 1995.

King Kong Bundy (Christopher Pallies; 3/4; 61) was one of the great giant heels of the 1980s, instantly recognizable with his bald head, black singlet and enormous frame, billed at 6'5 and 468 lbs and probably not much smaller than that. A high school wrestler trained at the legendary Monster Factory, he actually started as a jobber (often as Chris Canyon, inspiring the later Kanyon's ring name) and got his first push on arrival in Dallas as Big Daddy Bundy eight months into his career. He started as a face but turned with Gary Hart and the Great Kabuki to rival the Von Erichs and changed his name and look accordingly, helped by losing a hair vs hair match with Kevin Von Erich, though before then he'd already held the US title in North Texas. Moving to Mid South in 1983, where either Jim Ross or Bill Watts gave him the key gimmick of demanding a five count after his finishing splash, he soon went to the AWA (where he became Boom Boom Bundy as Bruiser Brody was working as King Kong Brody), teamed with Rick Rude and Jim Neidhart in Memphis, and worked face against the Road Warriors in Georgia.

While spending most of the first half of 1985 in New Japan, where he only lost via countout, DQ or in a bodyslam challenge against Inoki, WWF picked him up through a talent exchange. After beating SD Jones at the first WrestleMania in "nine seconds" (actually 24) he joined the Heenan Family and "injured" Andre the Giant, leading to their blowoff at the 'Colossal Jostle' at MSG. Bundy then did the same to Hogan, leading to their cage match at WrestleMania II and two follow-up matches on Saturday Night's Main Event ending in countout and defeat, the latter involving both a legitimate referee injury and a post-match attack by Andre that helped build to the WrestleMania III main event. At that show Bundy was in a comedy six-man tag involving Hillbilly Jim and four midgets, during which his splash legitimately badly injured and ended the career of 52 year old Little Beaver. Bundy left wrestling in 1998 but returned as a mystery partner of Terry Funk in ECW in 1993. A year later he returned to WWF as part of Ted DiBiase's Million Dollar Corporation but by now was a much less impressive specimen, losing to Undertaker at WrestleMania XI and departing again that fall, mostly working independents against legends until 2007.

The Destroyer (Dick Beyer; Mar. 7; 88) has a case for being the greatest non-Mexican masked wrestler of all time thanks mostly his fame in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s. How big was he? His hour long two out of three falls draw with Rikidozan in May 1963 drew a 64.0 rating (peaking at 72.6) and more than 70 million viewers, at the time the highest Japanese TV audience ever and maybe still the most watched wrestling match in history. Born in Buffalo and playing in the 1953 Orange Bowl for Syracuse University, while working as their assistant coach he had some matches in New York from the mid-1950s and won a leading Rookie of the Year award. The Destroyer gimmick debuted in 1962 in Los Angeles, the mask adopted at the suggestion of Freddie Blassie, who had seen him work heel during a short run in Hawaii and whose WWA championship Beyer would take that July and hold for ten months. That title was regarded as the second most prestigious in the world at that time only behind its NWA equivalent, and the hype around the Rikidozan match was mostly based around him being billed as world champion even though he had dropped it back to Blassie the previous week. Popularizing the figure four (he would later influence and befriend Ric Flair when in the AWA) and regarded as among the best workers and promos, he sold out LA's Olympic Auditorium three times over in 1963 against Giant Baba. That led to his Japanese venture, where huge amounts of international wrestling coverage in the media piqued interest nationally, meaning after the TV match he and Rikidozan had a series of sellout draws at the 12,000 seater Metropolitan Gym, Tokyo's biggest arena before the Budokan Hall - it was only a week after Beyer left the country that Rikidozan died after being stabbed.

Returning to LA Beyer retook the WWA title for two months and then again in November for another four. Moving to Minneapolis and the AWA in 1966 Beyer became known as Doctor X (as seen in a T-shirt regularly sported onstage by Debbie Harry), aside from occasional unmaskings and one match against his former tag partner Blackjack Lanza where he voluntarily unmasked and wrestled as himself. This was done supposedly so he could wrestle as the Destroyer elsewhere. He eventually left the territory in 1973, reclaimed the more famous identity and spent the next six years in All Japan having been made a huge offer by Baba to help establish the company, having legendary crossover feuds with Mil Mascaras and Abdullah The Butcher. Because he was also under contract to NTV he also became part of Uwasa No Channel, a hugely popular prime time comedy sketch show, which led to him recording a Christmas album. Beyer went into semi-retirement in 1984, though he would return to All Japan every summer until 1993 in tours where he would never lose (his last clean loss in Japan was in 1978) between teaching and sports coaching jobs. In 2017 Beyer was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, the highest order that can be conferred upon civilians other than royalty or politicians by the Japanese government, for "a lifetime spent promoting goodwill and bi-cultural exchanges between Japan and the United States"; news of his death filled the front pages of Japanese newspapers.

Wally Yamaguchi (Yusuke Yamaguchi; Mar. 9; 60) is best known to US fans as Yamaguchi-san, manager of Kai En Tai in 1998, most remembered for reacting to Val Venis sleeping with his wife by nearly, um, choppy-choppying his pee-pee. That, fair to say, doesn't do justice to his influence and reputation domestically. Having worked as a journalist, referee (he administered Akira Hokuto's famous bladejob against Shinobu Kandori at Dream Slam I) manager and announcer he helped Atsushi Onita form the infamous hardcore promotion Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling in 1989, was in on Gran Hamada's shortlived Universal Lucha Libre in 1990, and when that fell apart in 1993 helped its roster set up Michinoku Pro, who provided the rest of Kai En Tai under a WWF working agreement. Simultaneously he operated his own independent dojo where students included Gedo and Jado, now New Japan's lead bookers. Fluent in English and having acted as translator before the infamous Ali vs Inoki match, he had the responsibility of booking and managing gaijin on Japanese tours. Yamaguchi suffered a stroke in 2017 and later had heart problems. (For the record, Mrs Yamaguchi wasn't really his wife - her name was Shian-Li Tsang and she's now senior director of marketing at Adidas)

Roger 'Rip' Kirby (Willis Kirby; Mar. 18; 79) held regional titles consistently between 1967 and 1983, most notably a four month run as NWA World Junior Heavyweight Champion in 1971. A cousin of Les Thatcher, he was trained by Dick the Bruiser and The Sheik after having invaded the ring at his first ever live show in his home town of Muncie, Indiana only to get knocked out of the ring by Roy Shire. Ironically Shire would be his boss when he win NWA San Francisco's Junior Heavyweight title. The small for the time (5'10, 230lbs) heel also held NWA titles in their Central States, Mid-America, Florida, Georgia, Western States, Gulf Coast, California, Tennessee and Pacific Northwest territories, plus the WWA and Puerto Rico's WWC. He toured Japan six times, wrestled often in Mexico, briefly took on the Nature Boy name due to a resemblance to Buddy Rogers and had a brief WWF run immediately before retiring in 1987.

Al Wilson (April 6?; 77) genuinely was Torrie Wilson's father, who made his own mark on WWE in late 2002 in a romance angle with Dawn Marie. The pair eventually got married, in their underwear, on the first SmackDown of 2003 only for Al to "die" of a heart attack in bed on their honeymoon. Wilson, of whom I can find no other biographical details, passed days before his daughter was inducted into the WWE Hall Of Fame.

'Mighty' John Quinn (April 22; 77) had two distinct big phases in his career - as The Kentucky Butcher in late 1960s WWWF, then as a huge heel in Britain in the 1980s. The Ontario native, brother of NHL Hall of Famer Pat Quinn, toured Canada and the US under a variety of names and won the NWA International Tag Team Championship as half of the Masked Yankees in 1966 before entering the WWWF full time in 1967 and sticking with his more familiar title. Having beaten Edouard Carpentier at MSG he unsuccessfully faced Bruno Sammartino for his heavyweight title there in March 1968, the company's second show to draw over 13,000 at the newly opened Garden and the first of several matches between the two. Spells in WCCW and Georgia Championship Wrestling were followed by a tour of NWA affiliates for most of the 1970s, winning the NWA Canadian Tag Team Championship nine times and the NWA Pacific Coast Heavyweight Championship twice in 1976 and 1978 while in Vancouver, as well as titles in Tri-State, Mid-South and Stampede, for whom he held the North American title five times. Quinn moved to the UK and began appearing on World Of Sport in 1979, gaining notoriety for promos where he claimed the British were cowards in World War 2, to the point where that June 10,000 fans at Wembley Arena, the biggest wrestling crowd in more than thirty years and never since topped by a domestic promotion, saw Big Daddy beat him in 102 seconds. He later surprisingly won the British World Heavyweight Championship but jumped to the rival All-Star Wrestling with the title and held it for more than two years, later regaining it on three further occasions. In 1984 he toured All Japan, where he teamed with Hogan in a six-man where opponents included Inoki and Tatsumi Fujinami. Quinn left Britain in 1987 and retired shortly afterwards.

Silver King (Cesar Gonzalez; May 11; 51), who passed away due to a heart attack during a match in London with Juventud Guerrera, was one of the best tecnico wrestlers in Mexico at his late 80s/early 90s peak, credited with inventing the reverse huracanrana and the running jump to the middle rope and plancha often known as the 'Silver King dive'. His knowledge and studying of international styles meant he was popular with American visitors due to his adaptable working methods. Son of Dr Wagner (so brother of Dr Wagner Jr), he started at age 17 as El Invasor before changing his name and image less than a year later when he began working down the card for the UWA. Losing his mask as early as November 1987 he subsequently teamed with El Texano as Los Cowboys, becoming the first WWA World Tag Team Champions in 1991 and its UWA equivalent a year later. The team were also invited to appear at WCW's Clash of the Champions XIX, losing to the Fabulous Freebirds. In October 1993, by then having lost both titles, Silver King beat El Texano for the UWA World Light Heavyweight Championship but kept working alongside him and both moved to CMLL in 1994. It was there that Silver King had his greatest singles success when he took the World Heavyweight Championship in July 1994 and added the tag belts with Texano that December. He dropped both belts in June 1995, by which time the pair had also claimed the IWA World Tag Team championship in Japan. The first team-up with his brother gave him another CMLL tag run from February 1996. The following year he joined WCW and was part of its undercard luchador experiment, making five PPV appearances, joining Eddie Guerrero's Latino World Order and unsuccessfully challenging for Juventud's Cruiserweight title.

Released in late 2000, Gonzalez moved to New Japan and became the third Black Tiger to no great success, though he kept the gimmick on returning to CMLL in 2003 and held the Trios Championship with Wagner Jr and Universo 2000 for fifteen months. When Rocky Romero became Black Tiger CMLL unsuccessfully repackaged Gonzalez as El Bronco, unmasking him after losing to LA Park in 2006. After that he returned to being Silver King, regaining a mask on working for All Japan in 2007 where he won the World Junior Heavyweight Championship the following year, then moving over to AAA where he joined Konnan's La Legión Extranjera, who were forcibly dissembled after losing a ten-man tag in the Triplemania XVII main event. He spent the next few years in a variety of stables, mostly as rudo, and was rebilled as Silver Cain as he adopted another new mask and won the tag titles with Último Gladiador at 2010's Triplemania XVIII, which they held for nine months. Later the same month Silver King (keeping up with all this?) beat Máscara Año 2000 Jr to take the IWRG Intercontinental Heavyweight Championship and unsuccessfully challenged twice for Wagner Jr's AAA Mega Championship. Then came a reunion with his brother followed by a double cross in the Triplemanía XX main event and the reveal that he was behind the main rudo stable El Consejo, despite which Wagner Jr still managed to win the match and leading to the stable falling apart. Meanwhile Gonzalez, as Ramses in a different mask, was also the main rudo opposite Jack Black in the movie Nacho Libre.

Ashley Massaro (May 16; 39) was a fitness model and bikini contest regular who after winning the 2005 Raw Diva Search was immediately teamed with Trish Stratus and pitched against the trio who became Vince's Devils. A role in Stratus' feud with Mickie James was ended by injury and the next year and a half was spent on typical mid-00s Divas activities - lots of bra and panties matches, valeting (for Paul London and Brian Kendrick), appearing on the cover of Playboy in February 2007 and entering feuds with others jealous of the attention she received as a result, the latter leading to an unsuccessful shot at Melina's Women's Championship at WrestleMania XXIII. Written off to compete in Survivor: China, where she was second to be voted off, Massaro returned in the build to WrestleMania XXIV's Playboy Bunnymania Lumberjill match, where she and Maria lost to Beth Phoenix and Melina. Three months later, in July 2008, she requested and was granted her release due to her daughter's ill health. Having revealed during the 2017 CTE lawsuit that she had battled depression for years Massaro, popular among colleagues and latterly working as a radio DJ in Long Island while training for a comeback at Mikey Whipwreck's school, was found hanged.

Atsushi Aoki (June 3; 41), killed in a motorcycle accident, is reigning All Japan world junior heavyweight champion, the promotion having decided to keep the title on him until November to honor the planned six month stint for his fourth reign with the belt. Having begun training in Pro Wrestling NOAH's dojo in 2005 he deubted in a tag match against Mitsuharu Misawa and Akira Taue, testament to an early promise that saw Wrestling Observer readers vote him as Rookie of the Year in 2006 with four times as many votes as runner-up Cody Rhodes. His real breakthrough came when invited to take part in the 2009 New Japan Best of the Super Juniors, finishing second in his block (behind Prince Devitt) before losing in the semi-final to eventual champion Koji Kanemoto. Returning to NOAH he became a tag specialist for the next few years with a variety of partners. He made the final of the 2009 Junior Heavyweight Tag League with Kota Ibushi and then won the same competition with KENTA a year later; with Go Shiozaki he won the AAA World Tag Team Championship, though they only held it for two weeks; with Naomichi Marufuji he won the GHC Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship in December 2010 but injury to his partner meant they had to drop the titles after four months. Aoki then found his most successful partnership yet with Kotaro Suzuki - they immediately won the 2011 Tag League, followed by claiming the Junior Heavyweight titles that October which they held for nine months.

Aoki and Suzuki were among five men to leave NOAH for All Japan at the end of 2012 after Kenta Kobashi was fired, and in April 2013 the pair became All Asia Tag Team Champions for nine months. Aoki went solo afterwards and picked up his first singles title, the World Junior Heavyweight Champion, in May, which he held for ten months. In the meantime he re-entered the tag fray to even greater success teaming with Hikaru Sato, winning the Junior Tag League three times in a row from 2014. In the middle of that run the pair faced each other for the vacant World Junior Heavyweight Championship in February 2016, which Aoki won but then dropped the title to Sato anyway four months later. Two more tag title runs followed regardless, after which came another Junior Heavyweight singles title run from February to August 2018. His fourth and last run with that title began on May 20th when he beat Koji Iwamoto. Aoki had been All Japan's president of talent relations since 2016, acted as assistant booker and was a well respected head trainer at their dojo, where he worked among many others with gaijin Zack Sabre Jr and Eddie Edwards.

Willie Williams (June 8; 68) was a super heavyweight karateka, finishing third in the World Open Karate Tournament 1979. In February 1980 he fought Antonio Inoki at a sold out Tokyo Sumo Hall for the WWF World Martial Arts championship, a title Inoki created specifically for his worked shoot "martial arts" bouts, most famously against Muhammad Ali. The match, which went to a fourth round double count out, achieved legendary status in Japan and is regarded as an important influence on modern MMA - despite being worked it was named the greatest professional fighting match in Japan of the 20th century by a panel of experts in 2003. In 1992 Williams was brought into worked shoot organization RINGS, where he had a 9-4 record over three years, and fought unsuccessfully against Inoki again on the January 4th 1997 Tokyo Dome show.

Lionheart (Adrian McCallum; Jun 19; 36) was at the time of his passing World Heavyweight Champion in ICW, the hugely popular Scottish promotion - this was his first reign with the title, having won it in a career vs title match in December 2018. He had previously held their Zero-G Title twice including going in as holder to Fear & Loathing IX, the event that holds the record for Europe's most attended independent show with 6,193 fans at Glasgow's SSE Hydro. Lionheart, who debuted in 2002, was also PCW's Heavyweight Championship three times and worked dark matches for WWE and TNA, as well as running his own Pro Wrestling Elite promotion since 2011. To the wider world he may have been best known for breaking his neck in two places in 2014 after taking AJ Styles' Styles Clash badly - he was reportedly told he may never walk again but was back in the ring a year later.

(Previously: wrestlers we lost in 2018)

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