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