By Mike Mooneyham
April 11, 2004
“The ring gets in your blood and once it’s there it courses through your veins and deep into your heart. That is why I am happily reminded with every beat of my heart, that I am, and will be while I breathe, a wrestler.” – Jack Brisco
Just mention the name Brisco to any serious wrestling fan, and it instantly conjures up images of greatness.
The name and the tag can now be applied to a book that chronicles the life of one of professional – and amateur – wrestling’s greatest stars.
“Brisco – The Life and Times of National Collegiate and World Heavyweight Champion Jack Brisco” traces Brisco’s storied wrestling career, from three-time state high school champion to NCAA champion at Oklahoma State, to two-time champ in the pro ranks.The fact that mat historian and co-author Bill Murdock not only brings Brisco’s fascinating stories to life, but captures the essence of that important time period in the wrestling business, makes the read all that more engaging.
The rich history of professional wrestling oozes throughout the pages of this grappler’s tale, as readers get a ringside ticket to some of the watershed events that helped shape the industry as it moved from the days of territorial wrestling toward the era of sports entertainment.
Regarded as one of the most talented pure wrestlers in the history of the sport, Brisco was a natural athlete – a three-time high school state champion in Blackwell, Okla., and an all-state fullback on the football team who passed up a chance to play for the legendary Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma Sooners in order to wrestle for national powerhouse Oklahoma State, where he was NCAA runner-up in 1964 at 191 pounds and champion the following year, finishing the season without a single loss.
Under the guidance of former world junior heavyweight champ and Tulsa-based promoter Leroy McGuirk, Brisco turned professional and soon became established as one of the top workers in the wrestling business. Brisco enjoyed early stints in Oklahoma, Texas, Australia and Japan, but it was working for promoter Eddie Graham in Florida that put his name on the pro wrestling map.
“It was really great. I felt like I really learned to be an accomplished worker here,” Brisco recalls. “We had a fabulous crew. It was the who’s who of wrestling. The territory was on fire. But I had to bide my time because there was so much talent.”
Graham’s creative genius as a booker, paired with announcer Gordon Solie’s astute commentary and ability to sell angles and characters, helped propel Brisco, with his boyish good looks, innate ability and charisma, into the territory’s top star and a bona fide world title contender.
Probably best remembered for his classic matches with Dory Funk Jr. during the ¡¥70s, Brisco’s legacy in the wrestling business would include a pair of significant developments later in his career. Brisco was partly responsible for breaking Hulk Hogan into the business after “discovering” a powerfully built individual named Terry Bollea playing bass guitar in a rock band at a local Tampa bar. Brisco arranged for the muscle-bound musician, who just happened to be a wrestling fan and frequented the Tampa armory on Tuesday nights to watch Brisco wrestle, to meet with Graham and trainer Hiro Matsuda the next morning. Bollea later changed his name to Hulk Hogan, and the rest is history.
As a part owner of the Florida and Georgia promotions, Brisco also was a key player in the 1984 acquisition of WTBS wrestling programming rights by WWF owner Vince McMahon, a pivotal point in wrestling history commonly referred to as “Black Saturday,” covered in lesser detail near the end of the book. Brisco, along with brother Jerry, covertly sold Georgia Championship Wrestling to McMahon , claiming business partner Ole Anderson (Al “Rock” Rogowski) was running the company into the ground.
Of course, a book about Jack Brisco wouldn’t be complete without an extensive discourse on Dory Funk Jr., Brisco’s bookend in one of the greatest programs in wrestling history. On that count the narrative delivers in spades.
The near-mythical Funk-Brisco matches will go down in wrestling lore as among the greatest ever, but a bone of contention between the two participants seems destined to live just as long. The dispute revolves around the decision to place the coveted NWA world title on Brisco in a March 1973 match with Funk in Houston. Coming off a remarkable 4Ä-year run with the belt, Funk had tired of the grueling schedule and had agreed to turn the title over. Brisco, 31 years old at the time, was the heir apparent to the crown and the choice of the NWA board of directors.
Graham, an influential member of that board, assured Brisco, the hottest star in Graham’s Florida territory, that he would relieve Funk of his championship duties. But the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray, and this one would ultimately blow up in Brisco’s face. Days before the planned title change, Funk allegedly injured his shoulder when he rolled his truck while rounding up cattle on the family’s Flying Mare Ranch in Texas. Brisco, however, remains convinced that the injury was an angle set up by Funk family patriarch Dory Funk Sr. so that his son wouldn’t have to lose his title clean, in the middle of the ring, to a fellow babyface.
“The switch was supposed to happen in Houston on a Friday night,” Brisco recalls. “I remember being in Miami Beach that Wednesday night. Eddie pulled me aside and told me we needed to talk. He took me back to the shower and told me that old man Funk had called and told him that Junior had a wreck in his old pickup truck, hurt his shoulder and wasn’t going to show up. Eddie and I both were steamed. We had waited on this deal for a long time. We both knew then and there that it was BS. No medical records were ever shown, and Junior went on to wrestle for years after that and never complained about any shoulder injury.”
Funk maintains that the injury was real, and says he has provided medical records to prove it. “The accident did happen, and I wrote a response to him in regard to that. It happened on my father’s farm. He had called my brother Terry and I out there, and we were moving cattle from one place to another. We were using his old pickup truck to chase the cattle when I ran the truck over a six-foot embankment and into a creek.”
Funk did end up dropping the title two months later, but it was to Harley Race instead of Brisco. Funk says he was pressured to work the Brisco match in Houston just two days after the injury, but it would have been physically impossible, with 17 stitches in his face and a dangling right arm that he couldn’t lift from his side.
“(Texas promoter) Fritz (Von Erich) and (NWA president) Sam Muchnick went crazy to get me down to Houston. They wanted me to go into the ring and work. But I was in the hospital under sedation and couldn’t even raise my arm above my shoulder.”
“If he was willing to drop the title to me,” asks Brisco, “why didn’t he do it later?”
According to Brisco, the answer is that Funk Sr., a member of the NWA board that determined the world title-holders, had arranged with Kansas City promoter Bob Geigel for Dory Jr. to drop the belt in that city. “The match could have been anywhere,” says Brisco. “They were just waiting on Senior to agree to it. He didn’t want Junior dropping the belt to a babyface, he wanted him to drop the belt to a heel, in the heel’s hometown, with the referee giving him a fast count.”
“That was all great for business,” reasons Funk. “Jack drew great money when he returned to the Amarillo territory to work with me. If we brought Jack in, it would be an automatic sellout.”
Funk Sr. died of a heart attack at the age of 54 a week after his son dropped the title to Race.
Brisco, however, did earn a measure of vindication when he won the belt from Race in Houston on July 20, 1973.
The Funk-Brisco controversy doesn’t end there.
Brisco claims that Funk Sr. treated him poorly when he first came through Funk’s Amarillo territory early in his career, forcing him to do two-minute jobs to Funk, who was being groomed for his own world title run.
“He never did a two-minute job for me in his life,” Funk claims. “I have never even had a two-minute match with Jack Brisco in my life. I don’t know that I’ve ever had a two-minute match. I would have never asked him to do anything like that, nor would my father. That never happened. We had too much respect for Jack and Bobby Backlund and all the collegiate wrestlers.
“My father used to always tell me, and I still believe this today, that the greatest real wrestlers are the NCAA champion wrestlers. I believe in those more than I do the shoot fighters. A lot of shooters didn’t come from the collegiate ranks. The best shooters came from the collegiate ranks. We always had respect for those guys.
“There’s nobody that my father or I would have ever recommended higher than him as he left the Amarillo territory, and when he was in Florida working for Eddie Graham. Eddie took a long time to build Jack. None of that ever came about because my father, myself or anybody had anything but respect for Jack, or would ask him to do anything in a professional wrestling ring that would embarrass him.”
“That’s bull,” retorts Brisco. “He apparently has very selective memory … I don’t know what his old man had against me,” retorts Brisco. “Eddie Graham had pushed me for the title, yet he and Senior were best of friends for years and years but they ended up being enemies over this deal.”
Take away those two issues, though, and the two share a mutual admiration society.
“He was one of the greatest workers and the greatest champions of all time. I sincerely mean that,” says Brisco. “All the promoters loved him, all the boys thought a lot of him. He was always 100 percent business and did it with great dignity. I never saw a flaw in him until it came time to losing.”
“I must have wrestled Jack 300 times, and they were all a pleasure to work,” says Funk. “He is the smoothest worker I’ve ever been in the ring with. He could do anything that was asked of him. He could accomplish anything that you wanted him to accomplish. He had that fabulous background, along with the people behind him. Jerry (Brisco) was great too. I never had a bad match with Jack, as a heel or a babyface. He was just a terrific worker.”
Brisco finished out his career as a headliner, teaming with brother Jerry in the Mid-Atlantic area for a memorable series with Ricky Steamboat and Jay Youngblood, and winding down in the WWF. Unlike many stars who went to the well once too often, Brisco retired from the business and never looked back, refusing to return for a retirement match or one last shot at the brass ring.
“I feel like I got out at the right time. I felt myself slowing down,” says Brisco, who quit wrestling nearly 20 years ago at the age of 43 and turned his interest toward the Brisco Brothers Body Shop, often mentioned on WWE telecasts in connection with Jerry, a longtime agent with the company. “My mind was still there and I knew what to do, but my body was flagging behind, and that’s one thing that I never wanted to do, to outstay my ability.”
“Jack was as smooth on the mat as anyone I’ve ever seen in almost 40 years of watching amateur wrestling or my near 30 years in the pro wrestling game,” writes Jim Ross on the book’s back cover. “Jack Brisco was and is one of my heroes and, lucky for me, has become one of my most cherished friends.”
“Brisco” is a must for any serious wrestling fan. Readers get a special look at one of pro wrestling’s greatest periods, the ¡¥70s, when names like Brisco, Funk and Race ruled the wrestling universe. And they get to see it through the eyes of one of the true greats.
The 284-page softbound book, published by Culture House, is available for $24.95 and can be ordered on-line at www.wrestlingmuseum.org or calling Culture House at 641-526-8836 or the International Wrestling Museum at 641-791-1517. It can also be ordered on-line by visiting www.jackbrisco.com.
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 World Wrestling Entertainment.” For wrestling updates during the week, call The Post and Courier Info Line at 937-6000, ext. 3090.