This article was originally published in Wrestling Perspective, Volume XIV, Issue #107. Copyright © 2003 Wrestling Perspective.
Listen, You Pencil Neck Geeks
By "Classy" Freddie Blassie with Keith Elliot Greenberg
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Pencil neck geeks (and you know who you are) can rest a little easier these days. Freddie Blassie, their main tormentor, has moved on to Heaven. He leaves behind a wrestling legacy second to very few and a memoir, Listen, You Pencil Neck Geeks -- the story of an incomparable man and his peers told in his own words.
Born in St. Louis, Blassie passed away at the age of 85 from heart failure, an irony in itself because no one who ever graced a wrestling ring had more heart than Freddie Blassie. He gave all of himself in every match; and he had the scars to prove it. During the course of his career he was stabbed at least 20 times by enraged fans and also lost the sight in one eye. Add to that having a kidney removed because of hepatitis, and we're surprised he made it as far as he did. Yet, when everyone, including Fred, thought his career was over, he simply came back to the ring better and meaner than before.
At least he didn't leave us empty-handed. For pure story-telling, Listen, You Pencil Neck Geeks, ranks right up there with Lou Thesz's Hooker. The book captures the essence of Fred and his life and times, with little apology. As with most of the greats, Blassie knew he wanted to be a professional wrestler early in life, and so began hanging around a gym where wrestlers trained. He was lucky enough to be trained by Billy Hanson and George Tragos. He kept his day job as a butcher; at night he took whatever matches he could, working curtain raisers in small arenas and taking on all comers at carnivals. Fred was looking to the future, honing his craft while looking for a territory where he could get a decent push.
World War II interrupted his plans. He enlisted in the Navy, where he saw service in the Pacific Theater of Operations. He was also the 7th Naval District boxing and wrestling champion. Upon his discharge in 1946, Fred lit out for the Midwest as Sailor Fred Blassie. Where before he was taking on all comers, now he was taking on the likes of Buddy Rogers, Ernie Dusek and Killer Kowalski. His popularity in the area peaked with a 1950 title shot against Lou Thesz in Louisville.
Fred was enamored of the Los Angeles area since his days in the Navy and returned there in 1952 to try his luck. He hoped he would appear on the promotion's nationwide televised matches. He dropped the Sailor gimmick to become Fred McDaniels, and, with "brother" Billy, formed a fairly decent tag team. (When the two returned to Fred's old stomping ground of Louisville, they became Fred and Billy Blassie.) He would also work as a single in the mid-card range, continuing to gain in experience as well as popularity. His clean style and good looks went over well with the fans.
Figuring his apprenticeship was now over, Fred returned to the South in the fall of 1953 as a hero. Less than six months later, he defeated Don McIntyre for the Southern Heavyweight Championship, at the time one of the most important regional titles and defended all over the South. He would go on to hold that belt a total of 14 times over his seven-year tenure in the Southland, taking on the top heels in every venue.
But there is only so far one can go, and Fred sensed it was time for a change - not of venue, but rather of character. If he could pack them in as a babyface, imagine what he could do as a heel. He bleached his hair blonde and became the nastiest character in the South. The same people who came to cheer him now came out in droves to see him get his. Fred also discovered that as a heel he had a special gift of riling people up to the point of riot, and he soon acquired the scars to prove it. He was knifed several times over the years and numerous times required a police escort out of town, lest upset fans run his car off the road. His feud with Favorite Son Ray Gunkel was so intense that, looking back, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that Freddie was lucky to survive. In those days, Southern fans took three things seriously: their politics, their religion, and their wrestling.
He could have stayed down South, and if he had, he still would have gone down as one of the greatest heels, though his fame would be limited to the Atlanta area. His move back to California in 1961 at the behest of good friend Jules Strongbow would make him into a media superstar. He was phenomenal, winning the WWA and NAWA titles from Eduoard Carpentier (Edward Weicz) and scoring decisive victories over past NWA World Champs Thesz and Dick Hutton (two of the greatest wrestlers ever to hold the NWA title). He also defeated every other superstar thrown into the ring with him, becoming in the process more than just a superheel, but a Persona. Blassie's ring style, combined with his extraordinary interview ability and media charisma, made him synonymous with wrestling in California.
That popularity stood the L.A. promotion well when a rival group headed by promoter John J. Doyle and featuring the wrestlers from Roy Shire's San Francisco promotion hit town. It didn't last long. Doyle's group booked the brand new (at the time) L.A. Sports Arena and on Oct. 7, 1961, featured a card headlining Ray Stevens vs. Ray Stern and Dick the Bruiser vs. Cowboy Bob Ellis. Strongbow booked the same arena the night before, with a card headed by Blassie vs. Ricki Starr. Blassie drew 12,138, while the opposition did 4,000. Later that month, Blassie sold out the Olympic Auditorium, beating Antonino Rocca. The next night, Doyle's group drew only 3,500 fans for Stevens vs. Brazil. End of war.
In 1962, Blassie invaded Japan in a series over the WWA title, which he had dropped to Japanese legend Rikidozan. The Japanese had never seen anything remotely like him. Blassie later claimed that he caused 27 heart attacks. An exaggeration, but his impact on the Japanese wrestling fans was no exaggeration. They nicknamed him "the Vampire" because of his biting style and the blood that always resulted.
Their feud took them back to Los Angeles, where Blassie triumphed in their rubber match. However, there was a new challenger in town, a new superheel named the Destroyer (Dick Beyer, trained for the pro ring by Hutton). The Destroyer defeated Blassie for the WWA belt and drove him from the territory. This gave Blassie time to tour Georgia once more, where he engaged in several lucrative feuds before coming back and not only defeating the Destroyer, but also unmasking him in the process. (Before anyone could see who he was, a second threw a towel over his face and he beat it back to the dressing room before his identity could be learned.)
Blassie's next big series was one of the strangest in pro wrestling. He lost the title to Bearcat Wright on Aug. 23, 1963. Wright became the first African-American to hold a world belt in a major promotion (he had earlier held the laurels of Paul Bowser's Boston AWA promotion), and became Los Angeles's biggest draw since Gorgeous George. The promotion scheduled the rematch with Blassie for December 1963 with Fred regaining the title. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, Wright decided he didn't want to relinquish the belt and double-crossed Blassie. A rematch was scheduled, and according to wrestling lore, when Wright strode down the aisle to discover his opponent was not Fred Blassie, but Gene LaBell, a championship martial artist who served as the promotion's policeman, Wright turned around and ran back to the dressing room, where he collected his things and left Los Angeles, never to return. To make matters even worse, the entire sordid affair was leaked to the press, who made the most of it. When it was announced that Wright lost the belt via "forfeit" to Carpentier, the result was a bad taste left in the mouths of the Los Angeles wrestling fans, which voted with their feet and stopped attending the matches.
Blassie left for the greener pastures of the WWWF in 1964, wrestling champion Bruno Sammartino in several closely contested matches that sold out every arena where they were booked. Blassie tells a funny story about their meeting in City, where Blassie knocked Bruno back into the dressing room and followed him there. One of Bruno's followers took things too seriously and was on the verge of pulling a gun to dispose of Fred when Bruno intervened, telling the guy that he, Bruno, would take care of Blassie in their rematch. I saw an article in a recent WWE Magazine written by Blassie's "biographer" Keith Eliot Greenberg. Greenberg re-tells the Jersey City story giving the impression Bruno was mobbed up. Could this be the next spin on history by the WWE? I wonder.
In 1965, a return trip to Japan, was cut short when Fred was diagnosed with hepatitis. The result was the loss of a kidney and a warning never to step in the ring again. So Blassie turned to selling cars in Georgia, a career for which he had little enthusiasm or talent. (Strange for a man who made his career selling in the ring.) Realizing his only calling was in the ring, made his plans to get back into the necessary shape. A slower, less frenetic Fred Blassie returned to L.A., winning both the America's single belt and the WWA tag title with Buddy Austin. He even pinned the great Karl Gotch during this welcome home stand.
In 1968, he returned to Japan, the highlight of which was meeting and marrying his second wife, Miyako. They remained a close couple until his death.
Returning to L.A., he feuded with old partner, Austin, and suddenly found himself the biggest babyface in the area. Not that his style had changed. It didn't, of course, but fans were so used to him that he now became their hero. His feud with John Tolos was one of the greatest in Los Angeles history, if not wrestling history as a whole. Though not the same wrestler he once was, Fred proved he could still pack them in. His victory over Tolos on Aug. 27, 1971, drew 25,847 fans to the Los Angeles Coliseum and a resulting gate of $142,158.
A return tour of the WWWF in 1971-72 saw him feud with champion Pedro Morales. His last stand was back in Los Angeles where feuded with Killer Kowalski. In 1973, Blassie announced his retirement and returned to the WWWF as a manager. His gift of gab suited him perfectly in this role and he quickly outshone fellow managers Lou Albano and the Grand Wizard. He would manage Hulk Hogan during his first stint in the promotion, and was rewarded when his charge the Iron Sheik defeated Bob Backlund for the belt in December 1983. However, even his body couldn't match his will and Fred was forced into permanent retirement by the late Eighties. He spent the rest of his life working for the WWF home office in various capacities and attending Cauliflower Alley Club get-togethers in the area. It was here that I got to meet him. I can remember him talking about Buddy Rogers, whom he despised as a human being. When someone asked if it was true that Buddy had a heart attack before his match with Sammartino, Fred answered that the story was just that, a story, Buddy at his best. To punctuate his point, Fred said, "George Washington said 'I cannot tell a lie,' Hitler said 'I cannot tell the truth,' and Buddy Rogers said ‘I can't tell the difference.'"
Bill “Potshot” Kunkel asked me to give Fred his best at the next Cauliflower meeting. During a break in the proceedings I sidled up to Fred and relayed the message. Fred looked thoughtful for a minute and I showed him a copy of Bill's old newsletter, Main Event . Fred perused it for a minute and suddenly the light of recognition came upon him accompanied with a large grin. "Yeah, Bill Kunkel. Well, you tell that pencil-neck geek I said, 'Hello.'" He asked if he could keep the newsletter, and of course, I said, "Yes." That was one hell of a night. Fred was honored by the club that night. He took the opportunity to display the diamond ring he bought Miyako for their anniversary, underling his speech by saying she was his personal Pearl Harbor to the laughs of the crowd and Miyako herself, who, by this time, had to be familiar with her husband's sense of humor. Chatting with Miyako later, I found her as charming as she was beautiful. I snapped a photo of her with Charlie Thesz. Unfortunately I lost the photo, one of the few things about wrestling I regret, if only because they were the perfect wrestling wives, and it was one hell of a photo. Later Fred was in an animated conversation with Thesz, Tom Burke and myself. In the midst of making one of his points, Miyako interrupted him. "Come Fred, it's late. We have to go." A look came over Blassie's face, almost as if he was woken from a dream, and his demeanor changed from his usual animated aggressive to docile. "Yeah, I guess so," he answered, and strode off with his wife. It would be the last time I saw him.
Fred was noted for his timing in the ring, and his timing in life was no less sure. From the timing of the publication of his memoirs, it seems he was composing his final epitaph. Before he bid us all farewell for the final time, Fred made an appearance on Raw, involved in an angle where Eric Bischoff was trying to get his tag team, Three-Minute Warning, to do something dastardly to the fragile Blassie, now confined to a wheelchair. But lo and behold, the Dudley Boys ran down to make the save and Fred shouted his last line as a wrestler when he told D'Von to "get the table."
He still had it. In fact, he never lost it, but we lost him and are the poorer for it.
The Phantom of the Ring is a regular contributor to Wrestling Perspective. To read more of his great writings, subscribe to Wrestling Perspective today.
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Copyright Notice: This article is Copyright © 2003 - 2006 Wrestling Perspective. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be quoted, reprinted or distributed without written permission from Wrestling Perspective publishers Paul MacArthur and David Skolnick.
The Phantom of the Ring, "The Patron Saint of Pencil Necks," Wrestling Perspective, Volume XIV, Number 107, (2003).
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