Friday, August 1, 2014

Wrestling Legends: Dick Steinborn: Always Moving, and Moving Forward - By Rock Rims


Dick Steinborn
“You killed him! You murderer!”

     These chilling words echoed in the mind of the young man as tears rolled down his face. Just a few hours earlier he had felt the tremendous excitement and satisfaction that one feels when realizing the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, one that was made all the more important by the fact that he was following in his beloved father’s footsteps. In no time at all it seemed as if the dream had become a nightmare, one he was sure to re-live over and over in his mind, perhaps for the rest of his life. Being only 17 years of age, it was understandably not something that young Dick Steinborn was looking forward to.


The Strength of My Father


     Born the son of legendary strongman, professional wrestler and promoter Henry “Milo” Steinborn, Dick had loved wrestling ever since he could remember and became quite adept at it, receiving instruction from his father and also many of the professional wrestlers who frequented the basement gym of his family’s home during their time living in New York.

     “My dad had a stake in the New York wrestling office along with Toots Mondt and Rudy Miller, and when I was 14 years of age,” says Dick. “He’d always invite the boys to his gymnasium in the basement of our apartment building in Queens, New York. I remember that Stu Hart was beginning to make a name for himself in New York and he’d come down to the gym on Sundays and work out on the mat with my brother and me.”

     Dick took to wrestling like a fish to water, just as he did to almost everything he ever tried, including the 17 different sports he would involve himself with at one time or another during his life. “My dad always said, ‘Dickie can never keep still, he’s always moving.’” At one point Dick Steinborn was diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder, and while it was difficult at times to focus his attention, whatever did catch his attention was something he typically excelled at. It was no different with wrestling.

     He and his brother Henry excelled in amateur wrestling while attending Trinity High School in New York, enough so that the coach from Columbia University placed them both on the school’s Junior Varsity team while the teens were still enrolled in High School. While that was some achievement in itself, Dick, who was easily the better athlete of the two brothers, had greater aspirations. Like his father, he wanted to enter the ranks of professional wrestling. 

     Milo Steinborn, whom Lou Thesz called “The strongest man I ever wrestled,” was admired greatly by Dick for both his accomplishments in the ring and his character as a man. “Dad was the Babe Ruth of the sports world for a few years,” Dick would say. The training Milo provided his son in the weight room and on the mat made Dick’s body strong and well prepared for the physical rigors of life in the ring, but the mental preparation would prove to have even greater value to Dick both in the ring and out of it. “I owe him everything I have,” his son said with appreciation. “Not just in a physical sense but also my training of mind.”

     Still a few months shy of his 18th birthday, Dick was unable to obtain a license to wrestle as a professional in New York, but to his delight, he was able to receive both a professional wrestler’s license and a booking in the state of Maryland. So it was with great excitement and anticipation that Dick would board the train from Astoria, Queens to make the 175 mile trek to Baltimore. He would be appearing in a “dark match” to precede the matches that were to be televised from the Baltimore Coliseum. 

     On that special night on July 24, 1951, for Dick, the noise of the crowd was near-deafening and the atmosphere was electric, and despite it being his very first pro match, the match went smoothly. Approaching the finish of the match, Dick escaped from a headlock that was applied by his opponent Les Ruffin, by whipping him into the ropes. When Ruffin rebounded off the ropes, Dick, who had greatly strengthened his legs with specialized training, leapfrogged over the man (“few people were doing the leapfrog in those days”) and as Dick reached the peak of his leap, he saw a most curious thing.

     “A shoe flew into the ring, which must’ve been meant to strike Ruffin, who was the heel, and I watched it as it arched like a rainbow and sailed over the both of us almost as if in slow-motion.”  The shoe may have missed its mark, but Dickie hadn’t as he had managed to secure the victory over his veteran opponent. His first in-ring experience was a thrilling one and he enjoyed the hearty congratulations he was receiving in the dressing room after the match. This was something he could certainly get used to. But the mood was about to quickly change. 

     Several men had suddenly burst into the room carrying the body of a man that they then laid out on a nearby table. That alone was an expected occurrence but there was something else that Dick found odd. 

     “I noticed that the guy only had one shoe on. And so I said to the boys, ‘Look, fellas, he must be the guy who threw the shoe in the ring!’” The man on the table was dead, and while it was certainly an unfortunate occurrence, like sharks smelling blood, the veteran wrestlers in the dressing room also saw it as an opportunity for a rib and to break in the rookie.

     “’You killed him!’ says one of the boys, and another one added, ‘you murderer!’” recalls Steinborn. “I began to think that something I had done in the ring really did kill the guy. What those guys didn’t realize was that I had the strength of my father, but the emotions of my mother.”

     Devastated, the 17 year-old-rookie wrestler quickly grabbed his bag and headed for the train station. The train ride home to New York felt much longer than the ride into Baltimore as his emotional anguish caused tears to stream down his face during the entire trip back home. He had determined in his mind that his first match would be his last.

     But Milo offered words of comfort to his son and Dick was further consoled by the fact that no one really held him responsible for the death of the one-shoed man, and that in fact it was the combination of the man’s pre-existing ill health and his drunkenness that night which had caused his fatal heart attack. The following week Dick would return to Baltimore for yet another wrestling match and victory, and the rest as they say, is history.

     “I’ve wrestled in 44 states and 14 different countries,” says Steinborn of the career that spanned 33 years and included over three dozen wrestling title reigns. “Wrestling’s been my life.  It’s been a love.  You can’t destroy the love of a passion that you have.” 




VS. Antonio Inoki in Japan
     Through the years his love and passion for professional wrestling would grow as well as his ability in the ring and his ability to grasp the finer points of the game. While he speaks of such wrestling bookers and promoters he worked with along the way, like Roy Shire, Leo Garibaldi, and Tom Renesto as “geniuses”, he learned from such men and some of the ring performers he worked with, borrowing some ideas and creating original ones of his own, to become a master storyteller in his own right.

     “One of the greatest workers I ever saw was Dickie Steinborn in Georgia,” recalled former wrestler Dutch Mantell. “He was the smoothest, greatest wrestler I’ve ever seen.  I remember some of the greatest matches I ever saw were between Jody Hamilton, “the Assassin”, and Dick Steinborn…this is when they used all the psychology, when they had the fans standing and crying.  I mean if you watched it, you actually believed it.  It was that good.”

     Jody Hamilton also fondly remembers those matches as well, citing Steinborn as his all-time favorite opponent. “We once did a 2 hour 45 minute match with no falls and we kept the crowd!” said Hamilton.  Imagine the ability to tell a story in the ring that would keep a crowd engrossed for nearly three hours and that ended in a draw without a single fall being scored!

     During his extensive travels as a professional wrestler, Steinborn always remained a student of the game, despite how much he had already come to grasp about the business. He incorporated various styles into his ring work, adding dimension and versatility to his ring repertoire, and he could often emulate the best moves of some of the performers he came across.

     Such was the case when he was asked in 1968 to substitute for Tim Woods as the masked Mr. Wrestling after Woods left the Georgia territory in a dispute with the Atlanta office. As Mr. Wrestling, Steinborn worked a match against “The Professional” Doug Gilbert, the outcome of which saw Mr. Wrestling unmasked.

     “It turned out that Mr. Wrestling had lost the match,” recalls Ron Starr, who at 18 years of age at the time, was still a fan, but would later go on to win more than 30 titles of his own as a professional wrestler.  “But when Mr. Wrestling unmasked, it wasn’t Tim Woods, but Dickie Steinborn! I could’ve sworn that it was the original Mr. Wrestling in the ring because Dickie worked the match with the same exact style as Doug Gilbert, and I could not tell the difference whatsoever. It was one of the greatest matches that I ever saw.”

     “Be careful what you decide to do in life, for you will succeed,” is one of Dick’s observations on life and a motto he lives by.  There is no doubting his success in the ring and his ability to comprehend and use what it took to emotionally suck the fans into what transpired in the “squared circle” was recognized by his peers. This would lead to him booking angles in Puerto Rico and Canada, as well as promoting several towns in Georgia for Gunkel Enterprises. Oil painting is one of Dick’s hobbies outside of wrestling, but in the wrestling arena, the wrestling ring was his canvas and his creativity and ability to think outside of the box, led to incredible masterpieces being produced in the performance art he loved so much.

     But all work and no play make for a dull boy, and when it came to pulling ribs or practical jokes, Dick Steinborn’s creativity excelled in that arena as well.


“I’m Thinking of a Number…”


     It was the summer of 1958 in the Houston, Texas wrestling territory run by promoter Morris Siegel, and Dick Steinborn had just arrived, where he would a strong impression by winning the Texas Heavyweight wrestling title within three weeks of his arrival. But it was on a road trip he was on from Houston to Fort Worth, along with Larry Chene, Bull Curry, and “Big” John Tolos where he would make another great impression.

     “I get in the car with Larry Chene,” recalls Steinborn, “and I’m sitting in the front passenger seat and sitting behind me is John Tolos who’d just come up from California.  \He was 25 years old but in some ways he acted like he was 17. It was so obvious that he was just a big kid.  \And about 75 miles out of Houston we stopped for lunch. 

     “So I’m sitting in the restaurant with Larry Chene and Tolos and Curry are on the other side of the restaurant and Larry said, ‘How are you at ribbing?’ I said, ‘I love to rib.’ Larry then says, ‘Let’s tell Tolos that you’re coming in as a mentalist.’ ‘Well how the hell am I’m going to do that?’ I asked.” Chene and Steinborn would then work out a scheme involving the use of codes in order to successfully pull of the rib.

     “So we get into the car and Larry Chene asks me in front of the other guys, ‘So, what’s Morris bringing you in as?’  I said ‘as a mentalist.’

     “From the back seat Tolos blurts out ‘Oh, Bullshit!’And Larry says, ‘What are you talking about?’”

     “I turned around and said to Tolos who’s in the backseat, ‘Think of a number and write it down and pass it to Bull, and then Bull you whisper it to Larry.”

     “Larry is driving with his left arm out the open driver’s side window with his left hand gripping the bottom of the window frame. He then starts tapping his left thumb on the door 7 times. I tell Tolos, ‘your number was 7.’  Tolos is astounded and blurts out ‘Tre-men-dous!’So we go through the numbers thing 3 or 4 times, and with each success Tolos would exclaim, ‘Tre-men-dous!’ says Steinborn with a hearty laugh.

     “So now I thought that I’d make it more interesting”, continues Steinborn. “So then we did names and then I asked for everybody’s wallets.  I told them I’d be able to tell them how much money they had in their wallets. Larry looked at me like, ‘How the hell is he going to that???’”

     Knowing how much Chene and Tolos received for working in the semi-main event the previous night and how much Curry got for working in the main, Steinborn used some brilliant deduction to figure how much each had spent on food and how much was contributed to gas and was right on the mark in guessing what each man had in his wallet. “Tre-men-dous!” proclaimed Tolos.

     A few years later Tolos and Steinborn would catch up with each other when they’re working a card in Detroit. Steinborn was showering after finishing his match and the rest of the wrestlers were out watching the other matches. So when he came out of the shower Steinborn found the locker room empty…save for John Tolos sitting alone on a bench.

     Tolos then looked up at Steinborn and after several years of not seeing him, the first words to come out of John’s mouth were “I’m thinking of a number.” Years later Tolos was still spellbound by the “mystical” powers of Dick Steinborn.


At the End of the Tunnel


     Life is not always fun and however and Dick Steinborn would see what some might think were more than his fair share of trials.  He has been married four times during the course of his life, the first time being when at the age of 20, he married Carol Kerce, a beautiful young woman he had met at a roller rink in Orlando, Florida, when he was working in his father’s promotion.  They had wed on Carole’s 17th birthday on August 2, 1954. Life was wonderful for the young couple and a few years later they produced a daughter, Candi. 

     Several years before this beautiful union, Steinborn’s mother had given him his first camera as a present on his fourteenth birthday, saying, “As we get older, we forget about certain things and sometimes even what people looked like.  But when you click that shutter, you will capture and have those memories forever.” The pictures from the time period in which Dick and Carole got married shows two young people in the prime of their lives, deeply in love and seemingly without a care in the world. Tragically, that would come to an end.

     At the age of 28, Dick Steinborn would become a widower, as his beloved wife Carole passed away from cancer. Overcome with grief, Dick Steinborn took to the bottle in an effort to escape from his grief, taking on Florida wrestling promoter Eddie Graham as a drinking partner.

     But the inner strength he possessed allowed him to eventually overcome if not forget his grief and Dick Steinborn persevered, and would continue on in life, ready to meet any challenges it might bring.  But it wasn’t always easy. His second and third marriages would end in divorce, the third marriage ending during a time that was already particularly difficult for Steinborn. 

     In 1984 Dick was involved in an auto accident that left his spine twisted even two years after the crash.  His wrestling career, which he had aspired to ever since he could remember and had participated in for 33 years, was suddenly over. Steinborn was devastated.  It wasn’t just a matter of a loss of his livelihood, which was bad enough, but it was the loss of something he loved, something he excelled at. He had derived a certain amount of self-worth from his ability to perform, create, and express himself in the art form known as professional wrestling.

     “I went into a two year depression,” he says. “I lost my family, lost money, lost everything.” It was then that the divorce between him and his third wife Sheila took place. “She told me that I had nothing left,” he recalls. While Dick had felt that way at times during his depression, he knew that we can’t believe every thought that we have, and that hope is the last thing to die. While he had the emotions of his mother, he still had the strength of his father. He refused to accept Sheila’s pronouncement. “I said, ‘I still got me.’”
Steinborn in 2004 at the age of 70
(Photo courtesy of Dick Steinborn)
     And so after two years, Dick Steinborn would once again resume the exercise workouts that he had been neglecting and received counseling to deal with his depression. Life is a story, and Steinborn realized that no matter how bad a particular chapter might be for the main character in the story, and as long as we keep turning the pages, there is the opportunity for the story to change for the better.

     Dick Steinborn would not only resume those exercise workouts but go on to open his own business as a personal training consultant, training several business professionals in the Richmond, Virginia area.  Putting them through the paces in the gymnasium which occupies the first floor of his home, the walls of which are decorated with tons of amazing photos of him and other former wrestlers, Dick has been gratified to have been able to help others in the area of self-improvement. “All of my clients showed significant increases in strength and fitness,” he says proudly.

     And he would find love again as well, marrying for a fourth time and enjoying the companionship of his wife Hazel, until she passed away in December of 2012. Again, it would be another trying time for Steinborn, as it has only been a year and a half at the time of this writing, since he has lost his wife. But he continues to keep active and continues to keep positive. He continues to engage in the art of photography, a passion that he cultivated since he received that first camera on his fourteenth birthday from his beloved mother; he also continues to oil paint; he works out three days a week in his home gym and boasts a trim 30 inch waist; and he is working on his autobiography with his co-writer Scott Teal, owner of the Crowbar Press publishing company.

     And if the stories that Dick Steinborn has shared with me are any indication of what we can expect from that book, it’ll be a must have. Not just for the great, entertaining stories of which Dick has a multitude, or for the wrestling history such a book would contain, but for the inspiration one receives when he gets to know Dick Steinborn the man, not just Dick Steinborn the wrestler. For Dick Steinborn is not just a man who has survived, but a man who has thrived, and who even at the age of 80, still makes a meaningful contribution to this world. His father said that he was always moving and couldn’t keep still. And thankfully, despite whatever life threw at him, Dick Steinborn always managed to eventually move forward.

     He is a great example of the fact that we are not just products of what we experience in life, but in how we ultimately choose to respond to those experiences. As Ralph Waldo Emerson so aptly stated many years ago, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” – RR




Author’s conversations with Dick Steinborn, Ron Starr

“Interview with Dutch Mantell”, by Wade Keller, PW Torch Newsletter #216, March 1, 1993

“The Assassin Interview”, by Bill Kociaba,

“Florida’s Great Wrestling Cities: Orlando, and promoter Milo Steinborn, by Barry Rose,

“Lord of the Ring”, by Karen Shugart, INSTYLE WEEKLY, June 28, 2011

Monday, March 24, 2014


Enrique Torres by S. Montgomery
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, yet some seem to be worth much more than that, not only in terms of words, but in terms of emotions stirred and memories reawakened. They have the power to capture a moment, a place in time, whether those moments are a part of history at large, or in our own personal histories. They can bring back not just the sights, but the sounds, the scents, and the atmosphere of the event they capture. The have the power to remind us, and they have the power to move us.

     Great photography is an art, and the ability to take a great picture is a skill which not all possess, just as not all can skillfully wield an artist's brush. While I wish I could capture through a camera's lens what great photographers are able to, I don't have that gift, yet it is not jealousy I feel for their talents, but admiration. Their work need not be displayed in a museum to be appreciated, for it's not the venue or medium in which they appear that make them art. It's their ability to stir the imagination and inspire us that does.

     In the world of professional wrestling there have been photographers whose work has stood out, work which has proven to be timeless, work which in a mere moment brings flooding back to our minds all the reasons why we became fans of pro wrestling, and why for some of us, we have remained fans for many years.

     Their have been many great wrestling photographers over the years, with Tony Lanza, Theo Ehret, George Napolitano, Bill Apter, Gene Gordon, Dan Westbrook, Koichi Yoshizawa, Mike Lano, Viktor Berry and Jim Fitzpatrick being some of the individuals whose work graced the wrestling magazines and wrestling arena programs during professional wrestling’s territory days.  And the first time I laid eyes on the work of photographer Shirlie Montgomery, it was as if I had discovered the time machine I had always longed for since I was a child. For Montgomery, her camera was her paint brush and the world was her landscape. And in the beginning, her world was San Jose, California.


Girl Photographer


     “Can’t” was very likely a word that Shirlie Montgomery never learned the meaning of during her 94 years on planet earth.  Born in 1918 in San Jose, California, located 45 miles from San Francisco, she would eventually travel to various parts of the world, but for her, the center of her world would always be San Jose.

     She was an only child and although it might be accurate to call her a “Daddy’s Girl”, she was anything but sheltered as she gladly trudged along with him on hunting and fishing trips and to sporting events such as boxing and wrestling.  She would never fit within the confines of what a girl “was supposed to be like and enjoy” and nothing she took interest in or captured her imagination was considered to be off-limits.  Her longtime friend Kirk McCelland hit the nail on the head when he described her as “fiercely independent.”

     Growing up during the great depression and World War II, Shirlie would witness the transformation of San Jose from an agricultural town to being an integral part of the “Silicone Valley” and an urbanized metropolitan city which is the third largest in the state of California and the tenth largest in the United States.  And fortunately, Shirlie was able to capture much of the treasured history of the city through the lens of her camera.  And one part of the city’s history included the professional wrestling events that were staged at the San Jose Civic Auditorium.

     A few years after graduating from San Jose High School in 1934, a series of jobs led her to becoming the photographer at the De Anza Hotel in downtown San Jose where she would take pictures of visitors to the hotel or its bar, the Danzabar which would be offered for purchase.  The hotel was located next to the offices of the San Jose Mercury News, one of the newspapers she would begin to work for as a freelance photographer and one of the sportswriters suggested she combine her love of professional wrestling with her love of photography.  It was now with camera in hand that she’d be ringside at the wrestling events presented in the Civic Auditorium, which was built on land donated years before by her great uncle T.S. Montgomery.

The Sharpe Bros. Mob Szabo - Photo by S. Montgomery
     “The promoters thought that was better than sliced bread because sometimes the pictures would get into the paper,” Montgomery later recalled.  “They actually ran wrestling photos in those days.  It was wonderful for me.”

     It was also wonderful for the subjects which she shot as well as the many fans who would view those wonderful photos over the years, which were featured not only in newspapers like the San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Examiner, but in national wrestling magazines which eagerly and proudly displayed her photos.  Some of the wrestling luminaries she photographed in either posed shots, candid shots, or action shots included Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Gorgeous George, Lou Thesz, Enrique Torres, Lord James Blears, Ben and Mike Sharpe, Leo Nomellini, and Ray “The Crippler” Stevens.

     “It was a wonderful way to make a name for yourself because it was such an unusual thing for a woman to do,” said Montgomery in a 2003 interview.  It wasn’t a bad way to make a living, combining her hobbies and passions, and besides, as she often said, “I always liked the ‘Big Boys.’”  She would add, “I’ve never seen so many good-looking, heavily muscled, bronzed bodies as I saw at a wrestling.” 

     Obviously the lady knew what she liked.  Getting the close-up action-type shots which she was partially renowned for weren’t without their hazards however, as she recounted in a 1953 article she wrote for the San Francisco Examiner.

     “Most of the pictures are taken at a distance of ten to fifteen feet. I usually sit in the corner of the steps, right up against the ring. The occasionally leads to complications, as in a tag match when the outside partner is standing about six inches in front of me. In leaning over to “tag”, one of those big feet usually whistles back right alongside my ear.

A wrestling photographer has to learn to dodge flying feet and bodies while still sitting down, because the ringside customers frown on any attempt to stand up and block their view.

Lord Blears joins Shirlie at Ringside
     “Once while I was shooting a picture of action taking place in the center of the ring, Sandor Szabo, who was in my corner, felt that the other team was taking an unfair advantage. He jumped in to help his partner without being tagged, but in going over the ropes, his foot ‘tagged’ ME, and I had a black eye for the rest of that week!

     “The next biggest problem is the spectators. They take sides and they threw things, so that you not only have to watch the inside of the ring, but the outside as well.”

     After the Wednesday night matches at the Civic Auditorium Shirlie could often be found at Gleen Neece’s Ringside Bar nearby on First Street along with friends and some of the wrestlers, where many of Shirlie’s photos would grace the walls, for the enjoyment and pleasure of the wrestlers, Glenn Neece and his workers, and any patrons who might have been fortunate enough to have viewed them.

     Shirlie’s amazing work would eventually lead to her being inducted into the Slammers Wrestling Hall of Fame and her original photographs are much sought after by collectors.  Of her work as professional wrestling’s “girl photographer”, Shirlie would say,” It gave me a great experience, and if I may say so, I was quite good.”  An understatement if there ever was one.


More Than a Thousand Words


     A couple of months before this writing, I had been spending about an hour or so on a somewhat leisurely Sunday afternoon leafing through some old wrestling magazines from the 70s.  What had been an hour could’ve easily become several hours as I fondly recalled the first time I had seen the common advertisements in these magazines.  How many times as a kid had I considered sending away for “Sea Monkeys” or the correspondence course which could make me a “Master of Kung-Fu”, or wondered if learning how to customize a van with shag carpet might be a useful skill to have, or wondered what were “the secrets for picking up 1000’s of Women?”

     While I would outgrow the desire to send away for such things or the wonder that a “Love Doll” could really look so life-like, I still got a kick out of looking at the ads and what I had clearly not outgrown was the child-like wonder I felt while looking at the pictures in the wrestling magazines.  They, along with the ads in the magazine and the fictitious stories which accompanied the wrestling pictures, took me back to an amazing, much simpler time.  A time when kayfabe along with the performance of the wrestlers and the promotion and production of the live wrestling events and television wrestling shows made possible the suspension of disbelief.  It was those things that made professional wrestling so amazingly great during the territory days and with so much of the videotape from such days being lost to us forever, the wrestling magazines from that time are for many people an important way to recapture those great times.

     For they bring back not only memories of what wrestling was like, but what life was like.  They help bring back a flood of memories of the wrestlers we watched, the angles we enjoyed, and the people we enjoyed such spectacles with.  They brought back memories of the music we enjoyed, the clothes we wore, the other television shows we watched, who our best friends were, what our preoccupations were, what we dreamed, who and what we loved, who we were, and who we aspired to be.  And it’s not so much a longing to live in the past as it is to relive the things that made us smile, that perhaps provided a bit of escapism for us at one time.  And I challenge anyone to relive in their minds something that once made us smile and see if we don’t find ourselves smiling in the present moment.  And who could ever get enough of that?

     And some of the photos which entranced me the most as I was leafing through those magazines a couple of months back, were the ones taken by Larry Barnhizer of Modesto.  The Uptown Arena in Modesto was an iconic venue for many years in Northern California, with the city itself hosting wrestling since at least the early 1900s.  And with the California wrestling territory, particularly the Northern section, never getting the type of coverage in the East Coast based wrestling magazines; it was most definitely a treat to view and get lost in Larry’s distinct photos along with the accompanying correspondence report.

     And I began to notice that in the early-mid 70s, whenever there was coverage provided of Northern California in the wrestling mags, it was usually provided by Larry.  I thought I just had to get a hold of Mr. Barnhizer to tell him how much I appreciated his work and if it was possible to use some of his amazing photos in my book on Professional Wrestling in Northern California.  I found Larry to be a very enjoyable person in addition to being an amazing photographer.

     Spending most of his life growing up in Riverbank, California and Modesto, ironically enough, Larry’s first live pro wrestling event in the Northern part of the state may have been one being photographed by Shirlie Montgomery.

     “The first live match I saw in Northern California was in San Jose, at a card that featured the Sharpe Brothers, Leo Nomellini, and Bobo Brazil.  I’ve always had an innate love of the sport I guess.”

     His family had moved around a bit while growing up (“We were almost like gypsies,” Larry said with a laugh) and it was in the late 60s when he met Modesto wrestling promoter and policeman Johnny Miller when Miller was visiting some friends who lived in the same apartment complex in Modesto where Larry was staying.

     We got to talking and he invited me to see the matches he was promoting at the Uptown Arena in Modesto,” remembers Larry.

     “I went and I really enjoyed myself but I didn’t go too often for the first couple of years, but Johnny and I became friends and he told me I should come to the matches more often. And it was in around 1970 that I started going more often and I also began sending in match results and articles from the local events to some of the wrestling magazines back east.”

     After a while Larry would buy his first camera and took it with him to the Uptown Arena on particular Friday night.  The move didn’t escape the notice of promoter Miller. 

     “I would get my first camera in 1973 and I took it with me to the Uptown Arena with me and when Johnny saw it, he asked, ‘What are you going to do with it?’ ‘Well’, I said, ‘I thought I’d take some pictures and send them in to the wrestling magazines and see if maybe they’ll publish them.’

     “Johnny looked at me and said, ‘Why not? It couldn’t hurt. Do it and we’ll see what happens.’”

     At first, not much happened as the editors of the wrestling magazines wanted something different than what Larry was turning in, and they asked him for more action shots rather than wrestlers standing near the corner.

     “It was very, very hard,” remembers Larry. “It took me about six months of shooting before they liked my pictures. Editors wanted different types of moves, the choke hold, body slams, and flying-ariel attacks. I would look at the various pictures and say, ‘how can I improve them next time?”

     But improve on them he did, and the Northern California wrestling fans that saw his work in popular magazines like Wrestling Revue, Inside Wrestling, The Wrestler, the Big Book of Wrestling, and Wrestling Monthly were soon coming up to Larry and telling him how much they enjoyed his wrestling articles.  The 1974 issue of Wrestling Round Up had a feature presentation of about a dozen of Larry’s pictures in what they dubbed Larry Barnhizer’s Scrapbook.  Larry’s name was placed on the cover of the issue which is a virtually unheard of experience for a pro wrestling photographer. 

     “One year, Bill Apter ran my photo of Kurt Von Brauner choking Moon Dog Mayne in a 1975 issue of The Wrestler and picked it as one of the 8 best photos of the year.”

     And Johnny Miller, who was sometimes featured in some of the articles was enjoying the increased recognition as well, beaming when fans came up to him and recognized him from the pictures and articles Larry got published in the wrestling magazines. Larry remembers with a laugh that one particular profile he did on Miller got the promoter so excited, “that he had someone drive him around all over Modesto so he pick up all the copies he could find!”

     In addition to shooting photos at Modesto, he’d also capture the fast and furious action taking place at other venues, such as Sacramento and Stockton. But it was the Uptown Arena, the converted 2nd floor warehouse with it’s distinctive exposed overhead rafters and wooden beams that would be his main stomping grounds and it was the photos that he took and the articles he wrote covering the wrestling action there that gained him the most recognition. At times, his coverage of the wrestling cards he shot photos at and did write-ups on might be the only ones representing the Northern California wrestling circuit in a given month. And without the TV publicity that larger cities like San Francisco and Sacramento would get, the added publicity that Johnny Miller’s cards received due to Larry’s work was a blessing.

     Eventually Johnny Miller would discontinue promoting wrestling in Modesto in 1979, and although it was the end of an era, Larry’s career as a wrestling photographer would continue, as he would later photograph events for promoters Red Bastien, Antone Leone, Leo Nomellini, and Roland Alexander.

     One of his most cherished photos is one he took of Hulk Hogan and Nick Bockwinkel at the Oakland Coliseum in 1982 at an AWA event promoted by Leo Nomellini.  The shot would be featured in an article in the September 1982 edition of the Wrestler entitled “Bedlam in the Bay”.  The picture was blown up to a two page spread, and one would be hard pressed to remember many occasions where that occurred in a wrestling magazine.

Larry Barnhizer presents Smirnoff with an Award
     “I had to run around the ring to catch that photo and snapped the shot as soon as I came to a stop,” says Larry. “I wasn’t sure if it’d come out right, but it did. Later when the magazine came out, I was standing with Leo Nomellini when Hulk Hogan walked by and Leo shouted out, ‘Hey, Hulk, this is the guy that took that picture of you!’ Hogan gave me a smile and a ‘thumbs up’ and said, ‘Thanks man.’”  Sometimes like Shirlie Montgomery he got a little too close to the action, such as when his camera got kicked into his face while shooting a six-man tag match involving the Von Steigers.

     “A foot caught my camera and smashed it against my face.  It hurt and cut me up pretty good.  I was so mad.”

     But in all, Larry had no regrets about the time and effort his put in as a professional wrestling photographer for over 30 years. 

     “I came along and wrestling started to really grow in Modesto and Stockton, and I owe a lot to Johnnie Miller, who really encouraged me.  Before, Modesto was just a forgotten town.       

     “It’s been an exciting and terrific saga and I admit to still being thrilled when people like editor Reg Noble say, “Larry Barnhizer’s photos are worth more than a thousand words!”  But mostly I want to be remembered for giving Professional wrestling in Northern California an extra boost by the thousands of pictures I’ve taken.” – RR


In addition to my personal conversations with Larry Barnhizer, the following sources were used for this article:


“San Jose native, Shirlie Montgomery dies at 94”, by Mary Gottschalk, San Jose Mercury News, November 11, 2012 

“Photography: Subjects Land Atop the Camera, by Shirley Montgomery, August 2, 1953, “Shirlie Montgomery: Girl Photographer”, by Bob Bortfeld, August 11, 2013

Shirley Montgomery Obituary by Joe Holt

 “Mantecan boosts pro wrestling with photos, articles”, The Manteca Bulletin, by Matt Miller, January 21, 1990

Manteca resident focuses on wrestling”, by Paul Burgarino, Staff Writer, The Oakland Tribune, November 25, 2007

“Molding His Image With a Camera”, by Ucilia Wang, August 3, 1996, Photographer captures wrestling at its toughest, by John Branch, Editor, The Riverbank News, August 15, 2001



Sunday, February 23, 2014



    “The color of this business is green, not black, brown, or white.”  These were the words of wisdom that a young wrestler named Chavo Guerrero heard from a man he considered to be one of his mentors, “The Big Cat”, Ernie Ladd. 

     For Ernie Ladd, he understood that the world he lived in, as well as the world of wrestling in which he worked, had many who were not color blind; but he also understood that it was an issue for those particular individuals, and he would not let their personal issues obscure his focus and vision as a professional wrestler, and that was to entertain the wrestling fans and make as much money as possible while doing it.

     There were times when he was certainly confronted with racism, whether it was from fans, a promoter, or in a few cases, a fellow wrestler.  That was nothing new in pro wrestling when Ladd entered the game in the early 60s during the off-season while signed to the San Diego Chargers.

  Great black wrestlers who had started out before him, like “The Black Panther” Jim Mitchell, Seelie Samara, Woody Strode, Bearcat Wright, and Luther Lindsay, had known what it was like to being limited at times to only working with other black wrestlers, or ethnic wrestlers of color, as they were not allowed to wrestle white men in some regions of the country.  There had even been separate “Negro” regional and World wrestling titles.

     And while some of the opportunities for black wrestlers to work in some areas or work against or team with their white counterparts, or challenge for some titles were limited, it did not limit the ability with those who had the talent, to shine and entertain while in the ring.

     For instance, George Hardison, who was most often billed as “Seelie Samara”, had a great ring career, and was often billed in main events not only in the U.S., but overseas as well, such as when he challenged the legendary Jim Londos for a version of the World Heavyweight Wrestling title in Sydney, Australia during the summer of 1946.  In Boston during the late 30s, he was the top man in Charley Gordon’s promotional war against legendary promoter Paul Bowser.  In Gordon’s mind, the color of Samara’s skin was irrelevant.  What was relevant was that he had the look of a champion and was popular with local fans.

     I suppose for those of us who grew up in California, we weren’t always aware of the overt racism that existed in other parts of the country, not that racism didn’t exist here or doesn’t still, but fortunately, it wasn’t as prevalent a problem as it was in some regions.  That was most beneficial on a social level of course, but it had its benefits in the world of wrestling as well.  For the performers, it allowed them more opportunities for them to be utilized in a way that acknowledged their athletic gifts and performance skills, thus also increasing their earning potential.  And for the fans, it allowed us to witness some great wrestling talents who would entertain us and provide us with moments that we would re-live in our minds for years to come.
      Things weren’t perfect in even California, as wrestling promoters and sportswriters still felt the need to identify Samara as “the Sepia Wrestler”, the “Joe Louis of Wrestling”, the “Dusky Samson”, or the “Negro Sensation.”  And there was the unfortunate incident where the San Jose wrestling promoter had to rearrange the lineup for his May 24, 1944 wrestling card because Jim Henry, who was white, refused to wrestler Samara due to his color.  In spite of those less than idyllic conditions, there was no denying Samara’s popularity and he was a top contender for the Pacific Coast Heavyweight title in the Northern California Wrestling territory during the 40s.

     Woody Strode, the great athlete from UCLA, who would along with former UCLA footballer players Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson break color barriers professional football and Major League Baseball, would make his debut in Southern California’s pro wrestling circuit during the 40s, and proved to be very popular as well.  In his fascinating autobiography, Goal Dust, it become evident that Woody never saw his color as a limitation and growing up in California, he was surprised that the color of one’s skin was such an issue for many people in other regions of the United States.  Just as his close friend Kenny Washington had done, Woody had married outside his race, and while that may have been an issue for some, it wasn’t for Woody.  While others may not have been receptive to other cultures, this was a limitation Strode did not have, and he warmly embraced the culture of his Hawaiian wife. 

     He did admit however, that as a black wrestler, he was limited to being a “babyface”, as most wrestling fans and the public in general were not willing to accept a black “heel.”  Fighting cleanly against a white heel was one thing, but for a black wrestler to cheat, to fight dirty against a white babyface would’ve been a cause for riots.  Wrestling as babyfaces, the wrestling ring was one of the few places, if not the only place, that in that time a black man could be cheered for beating up a white one.

     Over a decade later, when Ernie Ladd was in the beginning of his career, he was in that same position.  He was popular with the fans, wrestling cleanly, and teaming with Ed Carpentier to win the WWA International television tag team titles in Los Angeles in 1967.  Still, Ladd wasn’t making the kind of money he was hoping to, and years later would say he “practically starved while I took my lumps for three years and had my nose rubbed on the mat.”

     The solution in Ernie’s mind was simple:  Turn heel.  It was a decision that many felt would only invite trouble, but for Ernie, turning heel was the only logical step for him to take, because as he said, “That’s where the money was.”  And keeping his eye on the money is what led Ernie to make virtually every decision he would make for the rest of his pro wrestling career.  Soon he would leave pro football and within a few years of doing so and turning heel, he would be earning twice as much annually from pro wrestling as he did as a four-time AFL All-Star.

     Heat, Heat, and more Heat, was the key to Ernie Ladd’s success in pro wrestling, and as the demand for someone, somewhere to give him his come-uppings increased, so did the size of his payoffs.  Ladd parlayed his natural charisma, confidence, and amazing verbal articulation into a villainous wrestling character that the fans loved to hate, and more importantly, paid to see.

     Ladd would become a true mercenary, always on the move from one territory to the next, never staying in one place too long.  Long before Bruiser Brody was doing it, Ladd maximized his payoffs from promoters by giving them only a limited number of dates in which to use him, making him a very special attraction.  Of course, limiting one’s dates of availability to any given promoter is meaningless if one can’t draw a crowd, but for Ernie that was never an issue.

     Billing himself as the “King of Wrestling”, his apparent arrogance riled the wrestling fans, as he spoke boastfully during interviews, insulting his opponents and referring to the interviewer as “Mister Announcer.”  Upon entering the ring for a match, he would then take his sweet time in removing the crown he had worn to the ring, knowing that the longer he took the more upset the fans would get.  People do not get upset about situations they don’t care about.  People do not get upset with people that don’t matter.  Whether the person or the situation should or shouldn’t matter isn’t the issue.  The fact that a person gets upset over it, whether or not it’s rational to do so, means that they have made an emotional investment.  Whether they cared for Ernie or only cared to see him get his ass kicked, the bottom line was: What happened next mattered.

     Mrs. Ladd didn’t raise no dummy, and Ernie was such an astute business man both in the ring and at the negotiating table, that he never let pride or ego get in the way of making a dollar. Whereas many big men at that time and much more thereafter would use their physical size to simply roll over their opponents, Ernie used his to put his over.

     Such was the case when in 1972, Ladd devised an angle in which he allowed the comparatively diminutive Ruben Juarez, all 5 “7” of him, to rip the street clothes off of him and unload an offensive barrage on Ladd that had “the Big Cat” reeling during a TV taping in Los Angeles.  The fans went wild, not believing what they were seeing!

     While fans and those in the know were not surprised that Ernie Ladd could draw a “standing room only” crowd headlining with someone like John Tolos, no one else would’ve predicted that the America’s Champion Ernie Ladd could do that with Ruben Juarez!  But that was exactly what he did, as nearly 11,600 fans, nearly 1200 more than what was considered a sellout for the Olympic Auditorium, gladly paid to see Ernie defend the title against Juarez, a title Ladd was able to retain.

     “The Cat, he was too much, man,” marveled Jake Roberts, himself a master of ring psychology, who worked with Ladd in the Mid-South Wrestling promotion during the late 70s and early 80s.

    “I got him at the end of his career,” he said.  “But still, he had that sneaky…I mean it’s hard not to hate a big man that begs off.  ‘You big, sorry, @&%*, how dare you beg off, after you just kicked the @&%* out this guy for 20 minutes.  Now the tables are turned, you beg and ask for mercy?’  God, you’ve got to hate that guy.  How could you not?  Everyone in the building wanted to kill that bastard.”

     For those who’ve seen his work, whether it was live or on television, or via videotape, no one can deny that Ernie Ladd was an incredibly talented and compelling performer, who had the honed gift of causing the view to become completely engrossed in what he said and did.  For most of those who’ve had this experience, the color of his skin was never a factor.  For many of them, Ernie wasn’t the King of black wrestlers; he was simply the King of wrestling.  As Tony Atlas would put it, “He was not seen as black.  He was seen as Ernie Ladd.” – RR





“Sportslights: Big Ernie’s Sharp”, by Harold Scherwitz, San Antonio Light, October 3, 1967

Doubling His Salary as a Wrestler; Ernie Ladd Holds No Regrets Since Quitting Football, Associated Press, Great Bend Daily Tribune, Great Bend, Kansas, June 22, 1972

“The Big Cat” was seldom tamed, by Steven Johnson, Greg Oliver, Slam! Wrestling, March 11, 2007
Thanks to Pat Hoed for use of his photo of the 1975 Olympic Auditorium program