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.” 

 

Genius

 

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

 

Sources:

 

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, Kayfabe-wrestling.com

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

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

1 comment:

  1. I have wonderful memories of Dickie. I would love for,my Daddy to talk to him.

    ReplyDelete