Sunday, June 30, 2013


                                                                   About Face

     In 1980 while the Southern California wrestling territory still had some talented workers, the roster wasn’t anywhere near as deep as it once was and ticket sales and interest were becoming negatively affected.  Ron Starr along with John Tolos were the biggest heels at the time but they were sorely in need of a strong babyface to work with.  Chavo Guerrero had been the top babyface for years but he was wrestling less frequently in the territory as he was earning more money on his tours of Japan and was occasionally doing shows in other U.S. territories as well.

     Walter Johnson was given a push but both his promo skills and ring work were solely lacking.  While Al Madril, Tom Pritchard worked well in the ring and Chavo’s brother Mando was even better, they all lacked the charisma and presence that Chavo had.  He had left some awfully big shoes to fill.

     By this time, Ron Starr had begun teaming with Tolos and the decision was made to turn Ron into a “babyface”, a “good guy.”  While Ron preferred to wrestle as a heel, the fans responded well to his face turn and one of the most hated heels in the territory was then voted “The most popular wrestler” in the area by the fans as he now had begun to battle Tolos and his cronies.  And it was late in the year that Al Madril was receiving a beatdown in the Olympic Auditorium ring as Ron Starr stormed the ring and delivered standing dropkick after dropkick, including a missile dropkick off the top rope to even up the odds.  The fan response was tremendous as many were jumping up and down and screaming enthusiastically as their new hero was cleaning house of Tolos, the Assassin, and Prof. Ito.

     But while this type of fan reaction to Ron Starr was something new in L.A., it had been going on for nearly two years up North in Roy Shire’s Big Time Wrestling promotion and almost nearly as long in Don Owens’s Portland Wrestling territory.

Anything but “Rotten”

     It was late in 1978 that Ron Starr entered Roy Shire’s Northern California territory but as would be his habit, he was quick about making an impact.  In his first few months in the territory he would have 2 reigns as one half of the San Francisco version of the NWA World Tag Team champions, first with Dean Ho and then later winning the tag team titles on November 23, 1978 with partner Enrique Vera, who was a former National Champion and future UWA Heavyweight Champion in Mexico.

    Ron was soon positioned as one of the top babyfaces in the promotion engaging in both a singles and tag team feud with Buddy Rose and Ed Wiskowski who were managed by the hated Dr. Ken Ramey, who was excellent at drawing heat.  While Big Time Wrestling was undoubtedly at it’s strongest during the 60’s, this feud was definitely a bright spot in the late 70’s and featured 4 people who were all excellent when it came to cutting compelling promos.

     Roy liked the way I did my promos” Ron says.  “He said ‘I like that you don’t yell and scream like so many other guys.’” And the feud was one that Ron enjoyed working and considering that things were changing for California Wrestling as a whole, it still did well and was even later extended to the Portland Wrestling territory as well.

     “I liked Buddy Rose and felt that he was a real good worker and good on the mic.  He was this fat, pudgy kid and sometimes he would ‘blow up’ on me a little bit in the ring but he would always drag out enough to do what he needed to do in the match.  He’d get winded but I’d just tell him ‘Just stay down for a minute and catch your breath’.  Yeah, he was a good guy to work with.”
     Ron began to be pushed more as a singles wrestler and won the Annual 18 man San Francisco Battle Royal in 1979 which included the likes of Superstar Billy Graham, Dory Funk Jr., and Harley Race, and was awarded a trophy as well as a $30,000 dollar check.  Later that night he would face Harley Race for the NWA World Heavyweight title.  Actually, Ron wasn’t the opponent that was originally slated to face the World Champion that evening in the Cow Palace.

     “Jimmy Snuka was originally scheduled to face Harley for the title but he missed his flight.  I then went up to Shire and said, ‘Hey Roy, I don’t want you to think I’m an asshole or anything, but since Snuka couldn’t make it, I’d like to be the one to wrestle Harley for the title.  I think we could have a good match.’ “

     Roy thought about it for a second and said, ‘I think you’re right.  Alright, you’ll be in the match with Harley tonight.” Ron then went out and cut a promo to set up the match.  “I went out and got on the mic and said ‘I know that Jimmy’s not here and he was supposed to wrestle Harley for the title tonight, but since he’s not here…I’ll challenge Race for the title…that is if he’s man enough to accept the challenge!”

     Snuka had been in the territory for a few months by that time and had been engaging in a feud with the United States Champion Buddy Rose over the title belt.  Although he was popular, the Cow Palace fans in attendance cheered enthusiastically when it was announced that Starr would in fact be substituting for Snuka and facing Race for the World Heavyweight title.  “They just ‘popped’ when they heard that.”

     Robert Counts who grew up within walking distance of the Cow Palace and was a regular for years at the wrestling events, was there that night at well and remembers his reaction to the announcement.  “I was thrilled!  Though Snuka was popular and impressive, Ron was a step higher in most minds.  Starr was the technical wrestler that I always felt could out wrestle most, and out maneuver the rest.  The ‘dumb wrestler’ is the one who interferes with the twenty count at 18, and instead of attacking, would argue with the ref.  I was a fan who wanted the story to make sense, and Starr was ‘real’, as far as that’s possible to be in wrestling.  Snuka could hit Race with a crowbar and get rolled up in a small package by Race.  That wouldn’t happen to Starr.”

    Starr’s match with Race would be the first 1 hour Broadway (draw) that he was ever involved with.  Always priding himself on never “blowing up” or running out of gas, the match with the Wrestling Legend was a new experience for Ron.

        “I thought I was going to drop dead before it was over!  You talk about someone who could run you ragged…Harley Race could do it.  I was really nervous, worried that I might make a mistake or mess things up because I was in there with Harley Race, even though I had years of experience.  But Harley, he just took me by the hand and led me through it.”

     Roy Shire had definitely taken notice of what Starr could bring to the table, and as it turned out, he was not alone.

     “Buddy had gone up to work for Don Owens in Portland and Roy Shire then asked me ‘What do you think about working in Portland?’  I told him ‘I’ll go wherever you want me to go.’  My first time wrestling there I heard that Roy was talking with Don Owen while watching my match with Buddy Rose and Roy said ‘Now that’s what I call wrestling!’  I liked working there and we taped at the Portland Sports Arena, which was an old skating rink and Don Owen was always pretty good about the payoffs.  The first night I was there I heard some of the other guys griping about the payoffs but I told them ‘I don’t know what you guys are complaining about, because I’ve been to a lot of different territories and I’ll tell you, just from tonight, this is the one with the best payoffs yet.’”

     Tagging with Adrian Adonis, Ron continued the feud with Buddy Rose and Ed Wiskowski as it had worked so well in Shire’s territory and in April of ’79 they defeated Rose and Wiskowski for the Pacific Northwest Tag Team titles.  Ron was beginning a collection of titles as the month before, he had defeated Piper at the San Francisco Cow Palace for the U.S. Heavyweight title.  That feud was also extended to Owens’s territory and even featured a memorable angle where Starr came to the rescue of Women’s wrestling legend Vickie Williams.  Apparently Piper felt that all women should stay in the kitchen and tossed Vickie around before Ron intervened. 

     Like several of the wrestlers in the area, Ron split time during 1979 between Portland and San Francisco, driving back and forth to shows.  In Northern California he also picked up another rival in Bob Sweetan as they competed over the U.S. heavyweight title.  Another veteran that Ron would face is Ernie Ladd, whom he wrestled on the annual San Francisco Battle Royal card on January 26, 1980.  After a brief stop in the Leroy McGuirk’s Tri-State area, Ron soon wound up in L.A. where he split time between there and Roy Shire’s territory for much of the remaining year. 

     Roy Shire had been burnt out on the wrestling business for a few years by that point and by his own admission was running out of finishes and creative ideas.  The strongest years for his promotion had been during his first 24 months of operation and since then there had been a gradual decline in attendance at the shows.  Even when Patterson and Stevens were on top during the late 60’s and early 70’s there were fewer and fewer sellouts at the Cow Palace and 8,000-9,000 attendance numbers became more and more the norm, and by the time the late 70’s rolled around, it was more like 5.000-7.000.  While there were occasional spikes in attendance, they were rare and more often than not came on the nights of the annual battle royals.

     Shire would close shop in early ’81 and Ron Starr would work then work a bit for Antone Leone’s Western States Alliance promotion which was running shows in some of Shire’s former towns.  Ed Moretti worked as a referee for Roy Shire and later as a wrestler before Shire’s promotion closed.  Like many, he had great respect for Ron Starr and even faced him in the ring and had this to say about him on  “Bobby Eugene Nutt (Rotten Ron Starr) is/was one of the best workers I have ever seen, a really nice guy, a good booker…”  With a great track record as a worker, Ron would soon be off to new territories, reprising some old roles and finding himself in new ones.


Next time: We’ll visit some of the other places Ron’s career takes him, we’ll also travel back to the beginning, and we’ll hear the good advice Ron gave Hulk Hogan.

Saturday, June 29, 2013


     I was 11 years old and I was pissed. We were so close and yet so far.  We were that close to victory and yet again it was snatched from our grasp at the last second.   And yet when I say “we” that is not to say that I was an actual combatant in the contest.  And yet like the thousands of others in 1980 Southern California who witnessed Ron Starr narrowly escape defeat in the wrestling ring, we felt as if we had lost as well. 
     And that’s what a good “heel” does in pro wrestling.  He collaborates with his opponent to suck you in, to be emotionally invested in the match and its outcome, to make you feel as if your hero’s defeats and victories are your own.  And the heel tactics that he employed were often subtle.  He didn’t yell or scream as heels so often do, rather he was matter of fact and very articulate in his promos.  I think what got to me and others as well, was that it often seemed as if he didn’t have to cheat.  He just seemed very competent in the ring, with an air of great confidence, and with him being a heel or bad guy, it just made me want to see him lose all the more.  If I was able to articulate it back then, I’d say his being so damn good is what pissed me off the most.  He got heat from being a heel that could actually wrestle and back up everything that he said.
     Ron Starr began that run in Southern California in the early part of the year after recently working in Leroy McGuirk’s Tri-State area promotion, and shortly before that in Don Owens’s Pacific Northwest territory as well Roy Shire’s Northern California wrestling territory.  As a matter of fact he would still make trips up to Shire’s neck of the woods to wrestle shows while he was making his mark in Southern California.  And as was typical for Ron Starr when he entered a territory, making his mark didn’t take him long to do.
     “I’ve wrestled in Africa, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Canada, Japan, and all over the United States.  The West Coast was one of the places that I really loved wrestling in.  Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oregon…I had good times there” Ron recently told me.
     Initially he wrestled in promoter Mike LeBelle’s territory under a mask as “Spoiler II,”, and it was under this mask that he would make waves in the area, utilizing his dreaded claw hold that he administered with a gloved hand.  Within a few months even our perennial champion Chavo Guerrero fell victim to his claw hold, losing a televised matched before eventually losing the America’s Heavyweight title as well on April 18, 1980.
     The Spoiler II would eventually unmask to reveal himself as Starr and would not only draw the ire of wrestling fans by wrestling in single matches, but soon would enlist partners and join the tag team ranks as well.  Only his first tag team partner, the Hood, with whom he won the Los Angles version of the NWA World Tag Team titles, wasn’t exactly a new acquaintance. 
     Johnny Mantell, who wrestled in Los Angeles under a mask as the Hood, had been a friend and ring opponent of Ron’s in both Northern California and Oregon, having spent many miles on the road with Starr.  Mantell credits Ron with really teaching him much during his formative years in the wrestling business and the chemistry and genuine friendship really became evident.  In Los Angeles many people found it difficult to think of one without thinking of the other and for the longest time some even thought Ron Starr (and in some cases Roddy Piper) was the man wrestling as “The Hood”.
     In fact Los Angeles wrestling legend John Tolos considered them so indistinguishable from one another, that was one reason he nicknamed them “Donny and Danny…The Dildo brothers.”  Of course it was also the jokes that they so often played on people that also contributed to that nickname.
   “We had so much fun, but we really played some terrible jokes at times, although none of it was mean spirited.  Ring announcer Jimmy Lennon was the sweetest guy and one time Johnny told him ‘Hey, did you hear that Ron’s brother is a talented pianist and recently played his first concert? He’s really proud.’”
     Lennon then approached Ron with a smile to offer his sincere congratulations.  A horrified Ron Starr then responded, “How could you say that?!  Is this a cruel joke?!  Don’t you know that my brother just lost his fingers in a car accident?!”
     “Lennon had tears in his eyes as he apologized over and over again.  I kind of felt a little bad about that one as he was such a nice guy.”  One rib that Ron definitely doesn’t apologize for and recalls with a very hearty laugh is the one he played on Roddy Piper when he, Piper and Tim Brooks were sharing an apartment when working the Portland territory in 1979.
     “This girl showed up at the arena and had given me a Doberman pinscher puppy which I then took home to the apartment.  Roddy was a great guy but he had the most sensitive stomach and would easily get nauseated.  So I went into the kitchen and mixed up some mayonnaise, mustard, horseradish and little strips of meat and placed in on a newspaper.  I then went and placed the newspaper under my bed.  Then at one point when we were all in the living room I gave Brooks the ‘high sign’, as if to say, ‘watch this.’”
     Ron continues “I said ‘Hey Roddy can you do me a favor? ‘  He said ‘sure’.  I then said ‘Go into my room and reach under my bed.  I have a .22 gun that I want to clean.’  So Roddy goes into my bed and reaches under the bed and all of a sudden we hear retching ‘Bleh…Bleh…’ he thought the dog had thrown up and thinking that he had it on his hand, he threw up to!”

And in the meantime as we get back to Los Angeles

     …Ron was still enjoying his successful run as a heel in 1980, feuding with mainstay Chavo Guerrero as well as continuing to wrestle in tag matches.  Ron had a good amateur background having wrestled in high school and college, and along with his professionalism and lessons learned as a pro, he had developed a great reputation as someone who could have a good match with most opponents.
     Add to that his great ability to draw heat; it wasn’t much of a surprise that when World Wrestling Federation Champion Bob Backlund came to town, Ron was the man tabbed to face him for the title.  It was also a card that would feature a young Hulk Hogan appearing in Los Angeles for the first time, years before Hulkamania was running wild.  And while Ron lost his bid to defeat Backlund for the title, things could’ve been worse.  For while Ron wrestled for the World title that night, his partner the Hood got stuck wrestling “Smokey the wrestling bear.”
     I also asked Ron about his memories of working with another visiting wrestler, someone whom is a legend in the business but about whom opponents have differing view on what it’s like to work with him.
     “Mil Mascaras was a good wrestler and I liked working with him and I knew how to get heat.  The very same day our match was announced, the Olympic sold out.”  Years later Ron would face Mascaras in the ring again in Puerto Rico, where Mil teamed up with the Invaders in a 6 man tag match against Ron and the Funk brothers.  But it was after a wrestling card in Houston, Texas that Ron would have an encounter with Mil that was more impressionable.
     “I was wrestling on the same card that Mascaras was but earlier in the night.  Later on in a bar a guy came up to me and said ‘You really had a great match tonight Ron.  I always enjoy your matches.’”
     Ron was dumbfounded as to whom the man was and the fact that he spoke to Ron as if he knew him.  “I soon realized that it was Mil Mascaras!  I had never seen him without his mask because he even showered with it on.  I was surprised at what a good looking guy he was!  He liked me and even gave my number to a promoter in Guatemala who later gave me some work.”
     And in 1980 Bob Backlund wasn’t the only man to hold a WWF title that Ron would challenge for and Mil Mascaras wasn’t the only international wrestler who would show respect to Ron Starr.

To some he was known as “Champ”

     While he never made the big money that today’s WWE wrestling superstars earn, he still got to travel throughout the country during his wrestling career as well as to other parts of the world. 
          “I miss the places I got to go, like Puerto Rico and Japan…People save all of their lives hoping to go there.”  And not only did he get to travel outside of the Continental U.S., he had the respect of the people he wrestled in front of and against in those other lands.  Ron made several trips to wrestle in Japan, and it was and still is a place where they have the utmost respect for actual wrestling ability.  And on several occasions he challenged Tatsumi “Dragon” Fujinami for the WWF Jr. Heavyweight title.  While many fans today may not be aware of whom Ron Starr was, there are still plenty who do and respect and admired his work and ability, as did many of his opponents. 
     .  “I did my first tour of Japan in 1976, when I was working out of the Tampa office.  They kind of used us as foreigners as jobbers but they always let us get our stuff in.  Fujinami was a guy I liked working with and he always called me 'Champ'.  The first time I wrestled him I was kind of nervous and I was wary, as I didn't want him to shoot in on my leg.  They work tighter over there.  He was light as a feather but still a tough son of a bitch.  He knew what he was doing in the ring.”
     And without a doubt, so did Ron Starr.

Next time: There’s a change for Ron in Los Angeles, Roy Shire displays his confidence, memories of Buddy Rose, and Harley comes to town!