By Mike Mooneyham
Dec. 8, 2002
The trademark white mask, white trunks and white boots spoke volumes about the man. But it was his name – Mr. Wrestling – that told the story.
From collegiate champion to professional wrestling star, Tim Woods embodied the spirit of the game – so much, in fact, that he adopted the name “Mr. Wrestling” 37 years ago. While the billing may have initially appeared presumptuous and even arrogant to some, it didn’t take long for Woods to make believers out of the skeptics. No one was ever more tailor-made for the role than the man who would end up carrying it straight into the annals of wrestling history.
To a generation of fans, Tim “Mr. Wrestling” Woods epitomized wrestling. To those fortunate enough to have known him, he represented the best the sport had to offer. So when Tim passed away last Saturday evening at the age of 68, it was hard not to feel that a little bit of the business we loved died with him.
Woods’ achievements in both the amateur and professional ranks were monumental. Before turning pro in 1962, he had been one of amateur wrestling’s most decorated athletes, having won a number of state and regional titles in high school and later as a star at Michigan State, where he captured two Big 10 titles and twice finished second in the NCAA championships, along with being a three-time AAU national champion.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]One of an elite few to master both disciplines, the Ithaca, N.Y., native seamlessly bridged the gap between the amateur and pro styles. His decision to don a hood, conceal his identity and work as a fan favorite after only three years as a pro was a risky move. Few in the 60s would have imagined a masked grappler as a babyface, since hoods in those days were exclusive to the profession’s most hated heels. Then again, few had the credentials that Woods brought to the table.
His approach to professional wrestling was simple, and he stuck with the basics.
“He is poetry in motion,” said the late Gordon Solie. “What he is doing out there is what the Greeks had in mind when they invented the sport.”
Although he would eventually drop the mask, the name would stick. Woods, whose given name was George Burrell Woodin, was a hero to a legion of fans who spoke of him in the same reverential tones reserved for such legendary stars as Johnny Valentine, Lou Thesz and Ric Flair. Between his pro debut in 1962 and his retirement in 1984 before a sellout crowd at the Omni in Atlanta, Woods held a slew of prestigious titles and became one of the most respected professional wrestlers of his era. He held victories over every world champion over a two-decade span, a lofty list that included names like Thesz, O’Connor, Kiniski, Race, Funk, Brisco and Flair. Named wrestling’s most outstanding performer in 1974, Woods held then-world champion Harley Race to a draw in October 1973, marking the first sellout in Atlanta’s Omni.
Woods also was a major force in the resurgence of Mid-Atlantic Wrestling in the 70s. It was while working for the Charlotte-based Crockett Promotions that Woods was involved in the 1975 plane crash that ended the career of Valentine – with whom he had engaged in a torrid feud at the time – and broke the back of future legend Flair. In a crafty move that may have saved business in the territory, an injured Woods wisely gave authorities his real name and listed himself as a promoter so fans wouldn’t discover in newspaper reports that he had been on the same flight as his “hated” ring rival.
The highlight reels Woods leaves behind will forever be etched in the memories of longtime fans. There were the brutal matches with Johnny “The Champ” Valentine over the thousand silver dollars; the classic pairing (and later feud) with Mr. Wrestling No. 2 (Johnny Walker); the bloodbaths with Ric Flair and Black Jack Mulligan over the U.S. title; the “amateur rules” matches with Jack Brisco and Baron Von Raschke; and his unique standing cradle finishing hold, a three-quarter nelson where he would pin his opponent while standing on his head. Fans will always remember popping when Woods took a baseball bat to Jimmy Snuka and manager “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers more than 20 years ago.
One of Woods’ personal highlights was being inducted into the prestigious George Tragos-Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame last year in Newton, Iowa (in 1996 he had been inducted into USA Wrestling’s Hall of Fame/All-American Club at the World Championships in Atlanta). Woods, who considered his entry into the Thesz shrine as one of his greatest honors, had been longtime friends with the six-time world champion, who died in April at the age of 86.
“Lou was the greatest wrestler of all time,” Woods said earlier this year. “I was scared to death the first time I wrestled him (in 1965). Lou would test you and decide whether he would beat you like a dog or give you a little more respect. We worked a match five minutes, and I think he realized I had some wrestling experience. Since that time, we’ve been very, very close friends.”
A man of diverse talents, Woods was an accomplished musician and photographer, and also raced drag-type cars and motorcycles. After retiring in 1984, he developed several patents dealing with air conditioning, heating and refrigeration, and later managed a consulting business in Charlotte.
One of wrestling’s real “good guys,” he worked tirelessly for a number of charitable organizations, including the Asheville-based Eblen Foundation, which assists families in western North Carolina deal with chronic illness.
“The only thing, I believe, that could eclipse Tim’s accomplishments on the mat or in the ring is what he accomplished out of it on behalf of countless children, adults and families who were battling illnesses, disabilities, and may have been less fortunate than others,” said Eblen Foundation executive director Bill Murdock. “Tim, selflessly, used his celebrity to advance the cause of many charitable endeavors and would always go to great lengths to ensure that the events and causes that he lent his name to had total access to him and his assistance at every level.
“He would never just show up,’ but would continually be in contact with the organization to offer anything he could to make the event and the organization a success. Tim helped establish the Eblen Charities and the Eblen Celebrity Golf Invitational and was one of our most popular celebrities since its inception. Everyone wanted to golf with Mr. Wrestling.”
Nearly 40 years have passed since I witnessed my first live wrestling match that featured Tim as a newcomer to the business. It was, of course, a very different business back in the 60s, when ring ability, grit and toughness separated the men from the boys. But it was easy to see then that the wrestling prodigy was destined for stardom.
I last heard from Tim via an e-mail note he sent on Thanksgiving Eve, just three days before he was stricken with a massive heart attack at his home in Charlotte. I thought at the time how the inspirational message so beautifully reflected how Tim lived his life.
“As you go through your life, take the time to live. Take time to appreciate and enjoy the beauty that surrounds you, to make a difference, to do something that you truly care about.”
I also remember the words he spoke to me during our last conversation: “Be thankful. Enjoy life, be thankful for your friends, be thankful for what you have and what you’re able to share with other people. There are some awfully nice people in this world.”
On Wednesday morning at a Church of God in Charlotte, there was a service for Tim. Not surprisingly, it was a “celebration of life,” for a man who had achieved everlasting fame.
– More sad news to report: George “Two Ton” Harris, one of pro wrestling’s most colorful managers during the 60s and 70s, died of a heart attack Nov. 29 at the age of 75.
Harris, who got his start in the business in 1944 as a referee before going on the road full-time as a wrestler in 1948, spent the biggest part of his career with the Charlotte-based Jim Crockett Promotions, where he managed such teams as The Masked Red Demons (Billy and Jimmy Hines), Aldo Bogni and Bronco Lubich, The Missouri Mauler and Hiro Matsuda, and The Alaskans (Mike York and Frank Monte).
Harris, as “George Harris III,” also managed Pat Patterson during his classic feud with former partner Ray Stevens during the late 60s.
“Bunk” Harris, who also was dubbed The Baby Blimp and weighed well over 300 pounds for most of his career, was noted for his “I Got Him Now” yell.
Harris retired as a full-time wrestler in 1979, but continued to work for the Charlotte office until 1989. He worked for WCW after Ted Turner took over until June 1990.
Harris lived in Stuarts Draft, Va., and in recent years had worked as a bus driver for a rehabilitation center.
Moncks Corner native Burrhead Jones recalled an encounter he had with Harris in the 70s that left a scar on his forehead that he still carries today. It occurred during a tag-team match in which Jones and former football star Charlie Cook were defending their Tennessee tag-team belts against Sam Bass and Jerry Lawler, who were being managed at the time by Harris.
“I was just starting out in the business, and I couldn’t do it (blade) myself. They stuck my head through the ropes, and George did the job on me. My forehead was literally sliced. George said I must have moved, so I guess I must have. Johnny Walker rode with me in the ambulance to the hospital. I had to take 10 stitches on the outside and 10 on the inside. Today it just looks like a long wrinkle across the forehead.”
Jones added that there were no hard feelings, and that he always enjoyed working with “Two Ton.”
“He was a great guy. We did some good business around Memphis. He’ll really be missed.”