Monday, December 31, 2007

The gurus of grapple, By Jon Geddes - The Daily Telegraph - 7th December 2007

THEY were the legends who thrilled and chilled Aussies with their antics in, and often out, of the wrestling ring for two decades.

Stars such as Mario Milano, King Curtis, Brute Bernard, Bulldog Brower, Spiros Arion, Killer Kowalski and the sinister Professor Tanaka - who threw salt in opponents' eyes - became household names.

And let's not forget our homegrown heroes Ron Miller, Larry O'Dea and George Barnes, who matched it with best of them.

Forget the glitz and showbiz associated with today's WWE. World Championship Wrestling was the real deal.

People of all ages religiously tuned into World Championship Wrestling, an institution on TCN 9 at midday on Saturdays.

"We did three TV shows a week and 300 live shows a year - which would average 15,000 a week," 66-year-old Miller said, who is retired and living at Tweed Heads.

"You would have 1000 people at the airport to meet you. We stayed in first class hotels and would get upgraded by the airlines."

On one trip to Tokyo, Miller and the other wrestlers were mobbed by 10,000 fans.

Miller said the big years for the WCW program were from 1964 to 1978 and the reasons it was so successful were the weekly TV show, the different nationalities, the characters and those fantastic language-crunching interviews.

There is no bigger character than King Curtis, who made a huge impact whenever he visited.

"For the last 26 years the King has had a hire company with surfboards and everything on Waikiki Beach, in his native Hawaii," Miller said.

"He was a really good professional guy and the master of the interview.

"In those days he was absolutely incredible. None of his rants were scripted. I don't know where he got it from. It just came to him from the top of his head.

"And then there was Mario Milano. He came to Australia in 1966 and never left."

After leaving the ring, Milano had a number of businesses including a pizza shop and travel agency and lives in retirement in Melbourne.

Killer Karl Kox became a prison warden. One day an inmate reminisced how he used to watch Kox all the time.

"Now I watch you all time time," Kox replied.

A former Australian champion himself, Miller has revived those halcyon days with a DVD called Ruff Tuff & Real, which provides an amazing insight into what really was a phenomenon in Australian life.

The DVD includes rare footage of the dark time Milano grew a moustache and turned bad guy, with referee Bob McMaster suggesting he may have been hypnotised or mesmerised by his manager.

And what about those sensational moves - the sleeper hold (Mark Lewin), the Texan brain buster (Killer Karl Kox), the coconut butt (Bobo Brazil) and the Indian death lock (Chief Billy White Wolf).

Commentator Jack Little - wrestling's version of Frank Hyde - would often warn the audience that a competitor had a "foreign object down his trunks".

There were also those mysterious wrestlers, often masked, who hailed from "parts unknown".

Miller and his long-time tag team and business partner O'Dea started their wrestling careers at a small gym in Wentworth Park.

"We did all the hard yards in the small clubs and gyms and learnt some hard lessons and how to respect the business," Miller said.

"By 1973 we owned it."

But WCW wasn't to last forever and it took something with the viewer appeal of World Series Cricket - which took its regular time-slot - to spell the end.

Miller and O'Dea remained close friends until O'Dea died in 1997.

These days Miller keeps fit by diving into the water rather than on to the canvas mat.

"I've got new knees and new hips. I'm like a mechanical man. Most of the guys are like that," he said.

And Miller told a story proving the old wrestlers really were a special breed.

He said Killer Kowalski, 79, got married for the first time last year to his blushing bride of 78.

When Killer was asked: "Why would you get married now?", he replied: "She told me she was pregnant so I had to do the right thing."


Ron Miller: Retired and living in Tweed Heads

King Curtis: Runs a beach hire business on Waikiki Beach

Mark Lewin: Living in the US and is married to a Tahitian princess

George Barnes: Ran successful trucking business

Spiros Ario: Retired and living in Greece

Ox Baker: Farmer, New York state

Killer Karl Kox: Prison warden

Professor Tanaka: Ran a fishing boat before passing away

Brute Bernard: Died playing Russian roulette in a bar

Skull Murphy: Committed suicide after a failed romance

Bruiser Brody: Stabbed to death in a dressing room in Puerto Rico. Nobody saw a thing.

Big Bad John: Fatally shot in Tennessee bar

Abdullah the Butcher: Runs a restaurant in Carolina. "He doesn't have a menu, he tells you want to eat," Ron Miller said

Steve "The Crusher" Rackman: Executive manager of a gym

Jan Jansen: Former Bondi parking ranger. Now in the fitness industry on the South Coast

Media Man Australia Profiles

Ron Miller