By Mike Mooneyham
June 1, 2003
Greg “The Hammer” Valentine has walked the aisle many times during his 30-year wrestling career. Last August, though, he walked an entirely different type of aisle.
At a church youth rally at the Lee County Civic Center in Fort Myers, Fla., Valentine answered an altar call, “prayed the prayer” and became a born-again Christian. It was a huge turnaround for the wrestler who admittedly had lived the life of a rock n’ roller and indulged accordingly for more years than he cares to remember.
Valentine, 53, says it was divine intervention that led him to his new Christian walk. The seeds had been planted months earlier when his wife, Julie, attended an AIM (Athletes in Ministry) conference in Phoenix with longtime friends Road Warrior Hawk (Mike Hegstrand) and his wife. Valentine would later receive a call from wrestler-turned-evangelist Ted DiBiase, who asked if he would be interested in joining him on a Christian missions trip to India in December. Valentine agreed, but when the wrestler he was scheduled to work with backed out, it put a major crimp in plans.“Who was I going to wrestle, myself?” Valentine asked DiBiase. “Ted told me not to worry about it, that he had one of the Power Team guys who we’d train when we got over there,” says Valentine, who added that he had serious doubts about training someone on such short notice. But he remembered his dad, the legendary Johnny Valentine, once telling him: “If you’re a good performer, you can have a wrestling match with a broomstick and have a riot.”
Valentine wasn’t sure where all this was leading, but when the overseas-bound team invited him to attend a youth rally at Fort Myers’ Lee County Civic Center, he says he felt the urge.
Ironically, 10 years earlier in that same building, Valentine had quit the then-World Wrestling Federation after a dispute with Vince McMahon, telling the owner “to shove it where the sun don’t shine” after being asked to do the job in a tag-team match with Kerry Von Erich against The Beverly Brothers. “You’re going to ask me to drop the fall? It should be the guy who has been messing with drugs (Von Erich) to teach him a lesson,” Valentine told McMahon, but to no avail.
The experience last August, Valentine says, was totally different. “I felt like God had always been talking to me, but I wasn’t talking back too often. But this hit me like a lead balloon. I was bouncing. It was as though the world had been lifted off my shoulders.”
Valentine recalls the 120-mile drive back home to Tampa that night.
“I had gotten my Corvette out of the shop after blowing the engine. It drove down horribly. But on the way back, the engine was humming and I was humming. It was the greatest feeling in the world. When I got back home, I got rid of the rest of my demons. The devil had been gnawing at me for a long time.”
Several weeks later Valentine went with DiBiase to India, where he was able to share his testimony and wrestle in front of huge crowds. He calls the trip “the greatest spiritual experience” he has ever been part of.
“I saw children healed,” says Valentine. “Many were saved. I’ll never forget it.”
Valentine began his circuitous journey the product of a broken home. Born John Wisniski Jr. and raised by “Assembly of God, born-again Christians” who made sure he stayed on the right path, Valentine sang solos in the church choir until his voice changed and regularly attended Bible camps. But a single incident during his high school days would have a dramatic – and negative – impact on his life.
“I met this little man with a beard who gave me an LSD pill. The rest is history … I got into the psychedelic thing.”
Growing up in Seattle, Valentine says, was an extension of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury scene, where the emergence of a counter-culture whose siren song was free love and new drugs reverberated across the country. As a result, he says, he began heavily indulging in drugs.
While visiting his father, with whom he had been estranged for most of his life, he became fascinated with the wrestling business. After taking a tour of Texas with the senior Valentine, he decided to wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps and vowed to clean up his act.
“I got off everything because I wanted a clear mind to really learn this profession.” Johnny Valentine, regarded as one of the toughest grapplers in the history of the business, sent his 19-year-old son to Calgary, Canada, to train with Stu Hart at his infamous “Dungeon,” the family basement where Hart would break in aspiring wrestlers and where the sounds of grunts, groans and broken bones provided background music.
Valentine proved his mettle, and within a year was working the pro circuit. With long blond hair and facially a spitting image of his dad, the shorter, stockier Valentine began his career as Johnny Valentine Jr. and later worked for The Sheik (Ed Farhat) in the Detroit area, performing under the name Johnny Fargo and teaming with Don Fargo as The Fargo Brothers.
Valentine would hold a slew of titles during his career, including the U.S. and Intercontinental crowns, and NWA and WWF tag-team belts. His dog collar match with Roddy Piper at the 1983 Starrcade in Greensboro, N.C., is one of the most requested bouts among tape collectors.
One of the top heels in the business, Valentine established a reputation as a partier who lived hard and worked hard, perhaps forming his most notorious tandem with “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, who had teamed with Valentine’s father until the 1975 airplane crash that paralyzed “The Champ” and ended his wrestling career. Mid-Atlantic booker George Scott saw that Greg was a carbon copy of his dad, working the same stiff, rugged style, and having a unique charisma. When he was first brought in, however, he was billed as Johnny’s brother, since the promotion didn’t want fans knowing that Johnny Valentine, the territory’s top draw, was nearly 50 years old at the time of the plane crash.
The pairing of Valentine and Flair was a natural. Their bloody defeat of “Minnesota Wrecking Crew” Gene and Ole Anderson for the NWA world tag-team belts on Christmas night 1976 at the Greensboro Coliseum set the stage for one of the greatest runs in Mid-Atlantic history. “Ric was probably the wildest, strangest, most multi-talented person that I’ve ever run across, and I could never repeat some of the things that really went on (behind the scenes),” says Valentine. We were hard workers and we really respected the business. Back in those days it was like being rock n’ roll stars. We got even beyond that.
“I don’t know how Ric still does it. I couldn’t do it anymore because I couldn’t schmooze Vince. I got sick of that game. It wasn’t just about Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper. I was there, too, and I brought some realness to the sport when they were just doing damage to it and making everything goofy. There was room for me, and there’s still room for that seriousness. That’s what it has to go back to, because ratings are way down.”
Valentine played a major role in the WWF’s national expansion during the mid-80s and was a top attraction as part of “The Dream Team” with Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, managed by Johnny Valiant. He later dyed his hair black and joined forces with Honky Tonk Man as the Elvis-inspired duo of “Rhythm and Blues,” managed by Jimmy Hart.
During the past decade Valentine has worked mostly on independent shows. If anything, he says, he had gotten even farther away from his Christian upbringing.
“I turned to drugs just to numb myself,” says Valentine. “I’d work these small shows and walk around like a zombie. I wasn’t anywhere near a church or thinking about anything in that direction. It was wild how I’d gotten so far away from talking to God. I remember one night I got so messed up that I thought I was going to die. I talked to God and told him I’d never do it again. That’s when I finally started cleaning up.
“I made lots of money and I never really suffered any serious injuries. I was very blessed. When I look at all these guys who I came up with who have since passed away … I was like a rock n’ roll star who did every wild thing imaginable. But there’s nothing better than Jesus Christ in your life. I was so bitter, and I worried all the time. But I’m a changed man.” Valentine also says that his dad, who died in April 2001 at the age of 72, was saved toward the end of his life.
“My dad began going to church the last five years of his life. There was a preacher right across the street (from where he lived). That was great. And my stepmother, Sharon, is a great Christian woman. The last time I saw my dad was in a hospital, and I’m not sure if he knew I was there. He had been in the hospital for the last months of his life and was on a lot of pain medicine. His brain was gone, but he still gave me a grip. And I know God took him to a better spot. I just wish he could have been here to see what God has done in my life.”
Valentine will be in the Lowcountry June 27 for Miles Road Baptist Church’s annual Family Fun Night. The event, which is free and open to the public, will begin at 6 p.m. and will feature food, refreshments, games and a wrestling exhibition featuring such names as Valentine, “Boogie Woogie Man” Jimmy Valiant, Ricky Morton of The Rock N’ Roll Express, The Barbarian and George South. The church is located at 816 Miles Road in Summerville.
Valentine, who headlined many shows at the old County Hall during the 70s and 80s, has many fond memories of wrestling in Charleston.
“I remember the promoter, Henry Marcus, and the old building that had no air conditioning. It was one of the hottest places I’ve ever wrestled. I virtually thought I was dead a couple of times. They’d pack us behind the stage in those dressing rooms. I remember Wahoo (McDaniel) being on one side, and me and Flair on the other side, way up on the third story, and we’d open all the windows just to be able to breathe. But it was a great era, and I was glad to be part of it.”
Valentine adds that he still has some unfinished business with WWE, however, claiming that the company owes him royalties. He says he hasn’t received any royalties in five years, but was assured after recently calling the office that he would be getting some.
“They did call me right back, and said they didn’t have my address, although it’s been the same for 20 years. We’ll see what they do. I never signed away my royalties. They owe me some money. But I don’t want to throw stones at anybody. I was very bitter for a long time because I let Vince get to me. But when I got saved last August, I’m not bitter anymore.”
Mike Mooneyham can be reached by phone at (843) 937-5517 or by e-mail at [email protected]. He is the co-author of “Sex, Lies and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation,” published by Crown. For more wrestling news, check out www.mikemooneyham.com.