I spent some time over the weekend reading old newspapers on-line. I ran across some old articles when professional wrestling was covered as well as any other sport. The Phenix-Citizen used to run articles each week back in the 1960s. Matches were held on the baseball diamond at Darnell Field – now Darnell-Nelson Field – and on Dillingham Street in the St, Nick Arena,
I never remembered it being called the St. Nick Arena, but that is what the stories and advertisements called it. A man named Nick Fucci was the local promoter back then. I guess he was trying to compete with Fred Ward’s wrestling in Columbus. There really was not that much competition. Fred Ward had the bigger names at the time and a bigger venue – the Columbus Municipal Auditorium. Fred Ward also had a smaller venue – the Front Street Arena – for his Saturday television show to be filmed.
The thing that caught my eye in The Phenix-Citizen was a photo. I could not believe the newspaper had used a photo of my favorite wrestler Chief Little Eagle. He was pinning his opponent using his favorite finishing move – the bow and arrow. Of course, Chief Little Eagle was about as Native American as Nikita Koloff (Nelson Scott Simpson) was Russian. My favorite wrestler’s real name was Richard Thomas Bryant and while not a Native American, he was the most loved wrestler to pretend to be one in the South.
After seeing the photo of Chief Little Eagle, I searched his name in Google. What I found was not what I expected. I expected to read he had retired from wrestling and gone on to run a business in his Native state of Texas. Instead, I found a post on a wrestling site by another wrestler who was popular in the area in the 1960s Dick Steinborn which stated, “Chief Little Eagle, real name Richard Bryant, was a professional wrestler for various territories in the 1960s and 70s. After retiring from the squared circle, Bryant became a very religious man. He would try and teach the word of God to anyone who would listen. On July 7th, 1990, Bryant took a homeless man named Dolph Adams into his home to give him food and shelter. Little did Bryant know that Adams had a criminal record. That morning, after breakfast, Adams took out a gun and shot Bryant in the back. The bullet severed his spinal cord and went into his heart, killing the ex-pro wrestler. Adams would then rob Bryant’s home of several valuables. Adams was eventually arrested and charged with murder.”
No, I did not want to read that he had been murdered.
In the photo of Chief Little Eagle, pinning his opponent, was another wrestler named Lenny Montana, real name Leonardo Passafaro. As I scanned through the old newspapers, I found an interesting story about a match Montana would have in the third week of Fucci opening the St. Nick Arena on Dillingham Street. Montana was to wrestle World Champion Lou Thesz. Can you imagine The Rock taking on Steve Austin in a 2,000-seat arena in Phenix City? Well, that was what the match was akin to in those days. And, the cost of admission for ringside seats was $1.50, $1,25 for general admission and .50 for children. Later in life, I had the pleasure of meeting Lou Thesz, but that has nothing to do with this column.
Later on in Montana’s life, he turned to crime as an enforcer for the Columbo crime family. He also played a part in the film The Godfather. He acted in several movies after that before retiring. After his death, his likeness was used for the character Luca Brasi in the video game The Godfather.
It was nice to see the photo of Chief Little Eagle and Lenny Montana wrestling at Darnell Field. It reminded me of all the wrestlers I saw as a youngster in Phenix City and Columbus. There was Dandy Don Carson, Greg Peterson, Big Bill Dromo, Tito Kopa, Tarzan Tyler, Dr. Jerry Graham, Bad Boy and Billy Boy Hines, the Assassins, Mr. Wrestling and Mr. Wrestling No. 2, Bob Scarpa, Bullet Bob Armstrong, Haystacks Calhoun, Mario Galento and Dick Steinborn to name a few. They were all great wrestlers of their time.
One thing is for sure about professional wrestling, it evolves with the times. The wrestlers get bigger and stronger. They make more daring moves. Yes, I know wrestling is not a true sport. It’s entertainment. It always has been entertainment.
Everyone remembers Ric Flair and Johnny Valentine were in a plane crash back in the 1960s. Johnny Valentine was crippled and Ric Flair broke his back. There was another guy in the plane that day – Tim Woodin – Mr. Wrestling. That was a no-no at the time because good guys and bad guys did not hang around together. Wrestlers never broke kayfabe back then. When people started talking about Mr. Wrestling being on the plane and injured in the crash, he had to return to the ring almost immediately and wrestle in pain to end the firestorm. Ric Flair wrote in his book about the plane crash that Mr. Wrestling did not save his career by doing what he did by getting in the ring injured, he saved wrestling that night. I, for one, am glad he did that for the sports entertainment he loved – and we as fans loved as well.
One more thing, remember Mr. Wrestling had already taken one for the sport in 1968 when he lost a finger to Arnold Spurlin. That is what cost Mr. Wrestling his career.
Mark Clark is a local sports writer for The Citizen of East Alabama.