In memoriam: Wrestlers we lost, January to March 2021

Mike Mooneyham's Twitter

We're halfway through a year, so it's time for my twice yearly salute to the most significant names from the wrestling business that we've lost over the last six months. For length reasons it's been split in half, so the first three months are covered here with April to June to follow.

For further reading, the obituaries from 2020: January to June, July to September, October to December

Jack Curtis Jr. (died Jan. 2; aged 85) was the son of NWA world light heavyweight champion Gentleman Jack Curtis. Usually used as a low card wrestler, he had a single week run as Southern tag team champion in the Gulf Coast but his greater contribution was as a promoter for Leroy McGuirk and then Bill Watts at Mid-South from the 1970s until the promotion was sold in 1987. He stayed in the business afterwards, running live events for Continental and WCCW.

Bobby Davis (Jan. 6; 83), "The Manager of Champions", was a huge influence on those that followed in his footsteps, large elements of his spoiled persona later taken up by Jim Cornette, Paul Heyman and the former Raymond Heenan, who changed his first name to the same as Davis at the suggestion of Dick the Bruiser. Best known for looking after 'Nature Boy' Buddy Rogers and just as flamboyant, inciting and charismatic as his charge, Davis was a pioneer of using talking skills to get heel heat onto someone else and of managers taking bumps to advance his client's progression - he'd trained for the ring through Midwest Wrestling, the NWA affiliate in his home town of Columbus, Ohio, before injury halted his progress.

Dubbed "The Elvis Presley of Wrestling" in the 1950s, in the knowledge that older fans thought Elvis was an oversexualised disgrace, Davis managed the likes of Don Fargo (then known as Don Juan the Magnificent) and Buddy Austin while working for Vince McMahon Sr., but it would be in New York's Capitol Sports that he would make his name, firstly with the hugely successful Dr Jerry and Eddie Graham, then bringing old friend Rogers into the territory. Sixteen years Davis' senior, Rogers became the NWA's top draw at the start of the 1960s, winning the NWA World Heavyweight Championship win in front of 38,622 fans at Comiskey Park, Chicago in June 1961.

Eighteen months later, after Lou Thesz took the title back, the pair split due to disagreements over Rogers' health problems. Davis followed McMahon Sr. to the WWWF, formed partly due to Vince disagreeing over the title change, and there claimed to have discovered an uncultured mountain man in Manchuria he'd named him Gorilla Monsoon. Davis also acted for Prince Iaukea, Bob Orton Sr and Dr Jerry and Crazy Luke Graham before moving back to Ohio in the late 1960s, briefly running his own Ohio Wrestling Champions promotion and reunited with Rogers before retiring for good to to focus on business ventures. Davis eventually made fortunes on buying the Wendy's franchise rights in central California and made very few personal appearances, one being at Rogers' posthumous WWE Hall Of Fame induction in 1994.

Paul Varelans (Jan. 16; 51) was a big name in the early UFC shows, reaching the final of the UFC 7 tournament. He took part in a "shoot fight" (which was of course nothing of the sort) at ECW Hardcore Heaven against Taz in 1996, the intention being to put Taz over as the real deal, but Varelans refused to do a clean job so Perry Saturn interference set up the ending and the match was never broadcast in full on television. He also appeared in shoot-style Japanese promotion Kingdom in 1997, being knocked out by Yoji Anjo.

Rod McMahon (Jan. 20; 77) was the older brother of Vince McMahon. Aside from occasional visits to big WWE events he was never part of the wrestling business, running a steel distribution business in Houston since 1987. He was set to appear on Raw in 2007 as part of the limo explosion death angle, possibly even vying to take over the company, until that was dropped post-Benoit.

El Hijo de Anibal (real name Jose Contreras; Jan. 23; 50), while not a major star himself, was well known as the son of Anibal, who was practically a household name in Mexico in the 1970s for his work in EMLL and UWA. His son started wrestling in 1991 as Black Troop - when Anibal lost his mask to Máscara Año 2000 at the end of that year he was told he would be presented with his father's mask and so become his successor; instead he was told at the last minute that a different son would be given the mask. When he was invited to join AAA in 1992 he refused to work under the junior name and became La Saeta Azul, but relented on moving to UWA in 1993, where he stayed until 1995. He returned to the ring in 2001 to deter imposters and had stints in CMLL, Michinoku Pro and AAA, where he made his last appearance at the La Parka tribute show in February 2020.

"Hacksaw" Butch Reed (Bruce Reed; Feb. 5; 66) was a huge star in 1980s Florida and Georgia, becoming one of Ric Flair's most notable rivals, then became part of a memorable WCW tag team before a WWF stint, apparently counting Tony Khan as a big fan. Reed, who had a tryout with Kansas City Chiefs as a linebacker, started wrestling in 1979 around the Central States promotions, claiming their NWA tag title with Jerry Roberts (Jacques Rougeau Jr) in 1980, but really made his name in Championship Wrestling from Florida. Having won their version of the NWA North American Tag Team Championship in 1982 he went on a run including beating world champion Ric Flair in a non-title match, which led to Flair putting a bounty on Reed and having a series of house show world title matches across the country lasting for up to an hour. The high point saw them sell out the Miami Beach Convention Center for what by all accounts was an instant classic, ending in both receiving standing ovations once Flair (unusually for a feud that often ended in DQs) pinned Reed after 42 minutes.

Reed's national profile grew in Georgia, where he had first appeared in May 1981 at the Omni and beaten Bruiser Brody by DQ in the main event over a Harley Race world title defense. Moving there in late 1982 and adopting the Hacksaw nickname, he beat top heel Buzz Sawyer in a hair vs hair match in front of 13,000 fans and went for another hour with Flair at the Kiel Auditorium with 11,029 attending. Working under Bill Watts at Mid-South Wrestling in 1983 as a partner for their main face Junkyard Dog he feuded with the other Hacksaw, Jim Duggan, until turning on JYD and then taking his North American title in July in front of 19,000 fans at the New Orleans Superdome. That October, by which time Reed and Jim Neidhart were tag title holders, he issued an open challenge for his title based on a fan vote, ignored them to pick Magnum TA and lost, only to have the title returned after claiming the contract was to defend against the fans' choice.

Junkyard Dog won the North American title back two nights later anyway, Reed then losing a street fight to JYD at the Superdome in front of 21,700, helping cement Magnum's rise further by dropping the tag title to him and Mr Wrestling II in a steel cage match, and putting Terry Taylor over in a subsequent feud. Reed was turned back face to feud with Skandor Akbar's Devastation, Inc stable and put over new arrival Kamala, then lost again to Flair in front of the Superdome's last gate of more than 15,000, but did reclaim the North American title from Dick Murdoch in October 1985, holding it for three months until Flair put up another bounty, which led to Dick Slater injuring him and taking his title.

Having fallen out with Watts over money and schedule Reed left Mid-South for good later that year, returning to NWA Central States to form the Soul Patrol with Rufus R Jones and then turn heel to join (Jones' shoot son) Slick's stable. Being defeated by Bruiser Brody in a Loser Leaves Town match meant Reed and Slick could move on together to WWF, where the now "The Natural" beat Koko B. Ware at WrestleMania III and challenged Intercontinental champion Ricky Steamboat, a title he was supposed to have won but was punished for no-showing some house shows. Reed ended up being both the first man eliminated in a Survivor Series main event and two months later the first elimination from the first Royal Rumble, losing to Randy Savage in the first round of the WrestleMania IV tournament leading him out of the promotion and to WCW in 1989, where he resumed his feud with Junkyard Dog but was mostly there to put over others, including Sting at the 1989 Chi-Town Rumble PPV.

Reed's fortunes changed at Halloween Havoc 1989 on forming the masked Doom with Ron Simmons. Debuting at Halloween Havoc 1989 as Woman's trump card against the Steiners, they were built strong at first but lost the rematch at Clash Of The Champions X four months later, unmasked and lost Woman. However, now managed by Teddy Long, Doom surprisingly won the rubber match at Capital Combat in May 1990 and then claimed the tag titles, beating the Rock'n'Roll Express and Four Horsemen along the way. Reed turned on Simmons after the Fabulous Freebirds won the titles at WrestleWar 1991 but lost the cage match blowoff at SuperBrawl I. Reed left WCW afterwards, returned for a short run the following year teaming with the Barbarian with whom he beat Dustin Rhodes and Barry Windham at Clash of the Champions XX, but soon went to the USWA for yet another go-round with Junkyard Dog, beating him for the Unified World Heavyweight Championship but dropping it to Todd Champion a week later. Reed went on to be part of the last days of the Global Wrestling Federation, holding its North American championship for a month in 1994, and last wrestled in 2016. He reunited with Simmons at Teddy Long's SmackDown wedding to Kristal Marshall in 2017 but was later part of the concussions lawsuit against WWE.

Rusty Brooks (Kurt Koski; Feb. 11; 63) was a regular heel enhancement worker who became better respected as a trainer. The bulk of his jobber work was spent with WWF in 1984 and 1985, facing Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Ricky Steamboat and the British Bulldogs on television. After leaving the company he had a stint in the Poffo family's ICW as Super Duper Mario before touring the independents winning several tag titles, most notably Global Championship Wrestling's tag belts with Jumbo Baretta while they were managed by Ox Baker and later Boris Malenko. By the 1990s he had established the Rusty Brooks Pro-Wrestling Academy, largely in his backyard as he felt it was less expensive than room hire costs, and later teamed with Malenko to open the School of Hard Knocks in Florida. Brooks is credited with training MVP, Luna Vachon, Gangrel, Norman Smiley and Konnor from the Ascension. He retired in 2002, returned in 2009 and finally hung up his boots in 2013.

Tom Cole (Feb. 12; 50) was at the center of the WWF ringboy scandal. In 1992 Cole claimed that while working as a teenage ring crew member, arena ring announcer Mel Phillips had sexually abused him and that he was fired after turning down a proposition from talent relations executive Terry Garvin. When the story went public both, as well as Garvin's senior Pat Patterson, resigned (Patterson returned months later) and the tabloid media jumped on the story, leading to features on Larry King, Geraldo Rivera and Phil Donahue's shows. Cole, who reached an out of court settlement and won his job back, was actually in the audience for the Donahue show (which featured among others Vince McMahon, Bruno Sammartino and Superstar Billy Graham) with the idea that if his name was brought up McMahon would point him out to deny everything, but his name was never mentioned and apparently Cole had no idea of Vince's plan. Cole was later fired again for unrelated reasons.

Dean Ho (Dean Higuchi; Feb. 20; 82) was a territorial headliner for most of the late 1960s and 1970s. A former bodybuilder who finished sixth in the Mr America contest in 1956 and opened a gym a year later (running it until 1990) that many top wrestlers used, he started under his real name in home state Hawaii and Portland's Pacific Northwest, with a trip to Tokyo Pro Wrestling (the promotion where Antonio Inoki made his name) in 1966. He moved to Vancouver in 1968, feuded with NWA World Heavyweight Champion Gene Kiniski and claimed the NWA Canadian tag titles five times between 1969 and 1976. As Dean Ho he became a headliner in Texas, holding the US tag titles twice, then got over immediately in WWWF and held their tag belts with Tony Garea for six months from November 1973. Working for Georgia Championship Wrestling in 1976 he held their version of the NWA tag titles for a month while taking up mentorship of a young Ricky Steamboat, teaching him a martial arts gimmick and the details of ring psychology. His most successful run came in San Francisco, booked as the ukelele-touting "Happy Hawaiian" top face, winning their version of the NWA US title in 1977 and again in 1978 for a total of five months, being tag champion twice and having a hot feud with Don Muraco that at one point led promoter Roy Shire to blade after getting caught up in a brawl. There was one last Vancouver tag title win in 1981 before retirement in 1983.

Art Michalik (Feb. 23; 91) was an NFL linebacker who played for the 49ers and Steelers between 1953 and 1956, his main NFL legacy being indirect responsibility for the introduction of face guards - during a rookie season game against the Browns he caused severe facial injuries via a stray elbow to legendary quarterback Otto Graham, who returned to the field after attaching a plexiglass bar to his helmet. Michalik also had an off-season wrestling career that lasted more than twenty years, mostly in California. Initially he was in the shadow of 49ers team-mate Leo Nomellini, whose own fame led to the first ever sellout at the Cow Palace and the largest US wrestling gate of 1953 for a main event against Lou Thesz. Michalik went to a draw with Gene DuBois second from top of a big Cow Palace show in March 1955, where a Nomellini-Thesz rematch ending in a DQ was the main event, and continued in main event matches beyond the end of his NFL career. He twice won the Pacific Northwest tag team titles with The Destroyer and toured Japan in 1962 at the invitation of Rikidozan, including a main event win over Antonio Inoki. Michalik concentrated mostly on his teaching career from the mid-1960s onwards but continued wrestling, including as a main eventer on Japanese tours, until 1975.

Don Serrano (Hector Serrano; Feb. 23; N/A) was a highly respected worker, considered too short and poorly built at the time to make a major impact but someone who put the travel hours in and worked with practically every star of the 1960s and 1970s. Puerto Rican by birth, and occasionally billed as kayfabe brother of Pedro Morales, he held the Canadian Junior Heavyweight champion in Quebec and his career height is acknowledged as his spell in All Star Wrestling Association as Super Soul Davis between 1973 and 1974. He's also a footnote in a far bigger story - in September 1977 he beat The Super Destroyer on a Championship Wrestling from Florida card in Fort Myers, thus launching the public in-ring career of one Terry Bollea.

Jocephus (Joseph Hudson; Feb. 24; 42) was a star in the revitalised NWA. Starting his career in 2009, he was a four time champion in Tennessee's US Wrestling Organisation by 2012, his last reign lasting over 300 days. When USWO closed he moved on to Resistance Pro Wrestling and held its heavyweight title for nearly a year from November 2013, as well as twice being tag champion and having short runs with the NWA Southern Heavyweight Championship in 2013 and 2014. RPW wound down in 2018 as its owner William Corgan was reviving the NWA brand and brought Jocephus with him, his promo and increasingly malevolent cult leader-like character skills drawing in fans as he chased champion Tim Storm. After an attack led to Storm losing his title, the pair met in an empty arena match (filmed at the Impact Zone) which Jocephus won after blinding Storm. Having drawn David Arquette into the feud promising the actor "absolution" after his infamous Nick Gage deathmatch, Jocephus and his unnamed "special advisor" lost a hair vs hair tag match blowoff to Storm and Arquette at New Years Clash in January 2019. While still working the Jocephus gimmick, he also became the mysterious masked The Question Mark, a sensei who took Aron Stevens under his wing as a Mongrovian karate master in a series of popular comedy vignettes that ran up to this January.

"Jumping" Johnny DeFazio (Feb. 26; 80) was an early star of the WWWF, holding its Junior Heavyweight Championship four times between 1965 and 1972 and only vacating it upon his retirement - this is the title that moved to New Japan and eventually became the Super J-Cup prize. The Pittsburgh native began wrestling in 1962 as part of Capitol Sports, the WWWF precursor co-owned by Vince McMahon Sr, where only his frequent tag partner Bruno Sammartino was said to be a more popular face. His biggest moment was winning the International tag titles in December 1971 with Geto Mongol. DeFazio continued working primarily low card matches on live events around his home state, continuing after the formation of the WWF, until retiring in 1988. In later life he became an Allegheny County councilman in 2000, serving as Council President until 2019.

Ann Casey (Lucille O'Casey; Mar. 1; 82) was one of America's top female wrestlers from the late 1950s into the 1970s. Spotted and trained by the Fabulous Moolah, she split from her camp early to handle her own bookings knowing that way she wouldn't have a large cut of her earnings taken away. A natural babyface pitched as a country sweetheart who counted Elvis Presley as a fan, Casey worked under the likes of Vince McMahon Sr and Leroy McGurk and wrestled at Madison Square Garden in 1964. With work for non-Moolah affiliated women's wrestlers running dry Casey rejoined her troupe in 1971 with the carrot of taking Moolah's USA Women's Wrestling Championship. Later the same year Casey also claimed the NWA United States Women's Championship, recognized as such in the Mid-America and Gulf Coast territories for the rest of her career, which somehow wasn't ended when she was shot six times by her drug trafficking son's partner in 1972. Her appearances became less frequent after leaving Moolah's umbrella again in 1976 and she retired in 1990 while still holding both titles - in fact she retained the USA belt in her final match.

Jim Crockett Jr. (Mar. 3; 76) was one of the most influential and high profile promoters of the territories era, establishing all-time stars, creating memorable live experiences and giving a WWF-rivalling national base to the National Wrestling Association, which he spent three terms as president of. Jim Crockett Sr. had established Jim Crockett Promotions in 1935, which as the dominant promotion in the Carolinas made him a key figure when JCP joined the National Wrestling Alliance in 1950. As Crockett Sr. became ill he assigned his son in law John Ringley as successor, but after Ringley was caught cheating on his wife (Jim Jr's older sister) he was ostracised and after Jim Sr died in April 1973 responsibility reluctantly fell upon his 29 year old son. Jim Jr. had previously had no direct involvement in the business so put faith in booker George Scott to manage the roster, changing its focus from tag teams to singles action and bringing in stars such as Blackjack Mulligan and Wahoo McDaniel. Most importantly he managed the rise of young prospects Roddy Piper, Jimmy Snuka, Ricky Steamboat and especially Ric Flair, who made his name in a brutal feud with McDaniel. Mid-Atlantic also brought in the NWA United States Heavyweight Championship as its top title, first held by Harley Race in January 1975 and the lineage of which is now the WWE version.

Crockett was first elected as NWA president in 1980, being re-elected twice more until 1991, though for much of this time it was a mere figurehead role. His election was helped by his working relationship with Toronto's Maple Leaf Wrestling, but when their owner Frank Tunney died in 1983 and was succeeded by his nephew Jack they switched their working agreement to the WWF. In response Crockett and AWA's Verne Gagne formed a relationship that led to their companies and several others forming Pro Wrestling USA, an attempt to counter Vince McMahon's company's national expansion plans, but infighting primarily between the main two leaders meant it fell apart within a year. Regardless, in 1985 Crockett spent a million dollars buying out WWF's key Saturday night TV time slot on Superstation WTBS, giving his company the traditional highest rating wrestling time slot on cable. As with McMahon, Crockett had thought much broader than his father ever did and both were now in an arms race for viewership, star names and reach, JCP drawing a total of 1.9 million fans in 1985. It's standing was boosted by Dusty Rhodes' booking ideas (Scott left the company in 1981), the one-day territory crossover Jim Crockett Sr Memorial Cup event launched in 1986, and the supercard status of Starrcade, which began in in 1983.

Crockett was also forming his own expansion plans, buying out promotions in Oklahoma and Kansas City for syndicated television and holding events in Florida and Memphis. Then in 1987 he bought out the UWF - the former Mid-South Wrestling, for which Crockett paid $4.2 million - and Championship Wrestling from Florida, leading to his now promoting the whole company as the NWA itself, given he owned six of their territories. However, while Flair's programs with Rhodes and Lex Luger still drew heavily, such overspending following that boom year and taking on existing debts from the takeovers left him in dire financial straits. A legacy of ageing stars and too many Dusty finishes hurt the live business, while stars were leaving for WWF's exclusivity deals, NBC coverage and the slipstream of Hulk Hogan. Crockett was eventually forced to sell JCP's assets for $9 million in November 1988 to Ted Turner, who renamed the umbrella company World Championship Wrestling. Crockett attempted a return to promoting in 1994 with a company that would have given Paul Heyman his first booking role but it lasted for one taping and the pair disagreed over philosophy, so Crockett retired from the wrestling business and moved into real estate.

Buddy Colt (Ron Read; Mar. 5; 85) was a vicious territory heel, famous for his taped thumb weapon, whose career was cut short near its peak. Starting out in Nick Gulas' Tennessee-based NWA Mid-America under his real name and a cowboy gimmick, claiming the Central States Heavyweight Championship twice, Read became Ty Colt during a run in the West Coast's WWA and then Buddy in 1969, bleaching his hair and copying the mannerisms of his hero Buddy Rogers. Over the next five years he won Georgia Championship Wrestling's version of the NWA Heavyweight Championship six times, Championship Wrestling from Florida's NWA Southern Heavyweight Championship four times - as top heel in the hottest period in the state's territorial era, being shot at while at ringside in Orlando in 1972 - and the North American title in the Funk family's NWA Western States promotion in Amarillo. Colt's career came to an end on February 20th 1975 when a plane he was piloting crashed in water near Tampa Bay after sudden bad weather led to him losing sight of the runway. Rising star Bobby Shane was killed, fellow passengers Gary Hart and Austin Idol were seriously injured, while Colt broke both ankles, which were both fused after becoming gangrenous. He remained in Florida for several years afterwards, firstly as a heel manager for King Curtis Iaukea, Abdullah the Butcher and Larry Hennig until he realized people wouldn't boo a man with such limited mobility, then as color commentator alongside Gordon Solie, though he did act as protege Brian Blair's face manager in 1982, even working a handful of handicap matches. He was also a part-owner of the company until it closed in 1987.

Barry Orton (Mar. 19; 62) - son of Bob, brother of Bob Jr., uncle of Randy - started his career as a musician but switched to the squared circle in 1976. He was most recognized as an enhancement talent in the WWF from 1985 to 1988 and again from 1990 to 1991, working usually in that role across North America, including UWF and various NWA territories. He did find success in ICW, where he and Bob Jr. won the Southeastern Tag Team Championship, and in Stampede, as the masked Zodiak in a headliner tag team with Jason the Terrible, and toured New Japan with his brother in 1988. Orton retired in 1991 and over the following year appeared in the media claiming sexual harassment allegations against Terry Garvin on the back of the ringboy scandal (see Tom Cole entry), appearing on several talk shows following the topic.

Blade Braxton (Troy Ferguson; Mar. 28; 46) wrestled as both Braxton and The Midnight Rose, as well as acting and working in production of and independent horror movies, but will best be remembered as one of the main writers behind the cult website Wrestlecrap. Glorying in the depths to which professional wrestling can sink, he co-authored The Wrestlecrap Book Of Lists and hosted Wrestlecrap Radio, which began in 2002 and has been cited as the longest running wrestling podcast.

Ice Killer (Juan Carlos Varela; Mar. 30; 60) was a top heel in AAA from 1992 to 1997. His career started as Canalla II in 1979; the gimmick, based on Jason Voorhees, came when he debuted on the first ever AAA show in May 1992. He didn't win any belts during that period but worked against most of the big names of the mid-1990s, becoming respected enough backstage that he headed the internal wrestler's union.

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