By Mike Mooneyham

Jan. 23, 2005

“Pistol Pez” Whatley, one of the South’s most entertaining wrestling characters during the ’80s, passed away Tuesday at the age of 54. Whatley, who had battled heart problems in recent years, died due to kidney failure in a hospital in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn., where he had been a high school and collegiate wrestling star.

Pezavan Whatley’s career had taken him around the world to venues in Japan, Australia, Mexico, England, Germany, Africa, Hong Kong, Malaysia and the Caribbean. But it was in the old Southern territories where he made his biggest mark. Whether working as fan favorite “Pistol Pez” Whatley or as cocky alter ego “Shaska” Whatley, the Tennessee native left a lasting impression on the wrestling audience.

“I liked being a hero, making people like me, but I liked making people cheer against me too,” Whatley told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in a recent interview.

Pez Whatley

Pez Whatley

Whatley came by his pro credentials honestly. He held the distinction of being the first black prep athlete in Tennessee to win a state wrestling championship, first in 1967 and again in 1969, at Chattanooga’s Notre Dame High where he was a standout running back on the football team. He also was the first black wrestler at UT-Chattanooga, where he was a teammate of George Weingeroff, son of legendary Tennessee manager Saul Weingeroff and a future pro himself.

Whatley made his rounds through just about every major outfit in the country and held a number of titles along the way. He broke in working Tennessee independents in the early 1970s for promoters Phil Golden, Nick Gulas and Angelo Poffo. He teamed with Ray Candy as The Soul Patrol to win the Mid-America tag-team title in 1977. Wearing a gaudy wig and teaming with Rip Rogers as The Convertible Blonds, Whatley held one half of the ICW U.S. tag-team title in 1982. He held the NWA Southern title in Florida on several occasions during 1984 and defeated Rick Rude for the Florida version of the NWA Southern crown in 1985.

Whatley teamed with Tiger Conway Jr. as The Jive Tones during the late ’80s for Bill Watts’ United Wrestling Federation and later for Crockett Promotions where he and Conway took part in a well-received mid-card program with The Lightning Express (Brad Armstrong and Tim Horner).

Whatley’s work as Willie B. Hert in the Continental territory during the late ’80s earned him main-event status with the ascension of Eddie Gilbert as that promotion’s booker. An angle in which Gilbert and Paul E. Dangerously (Paul Heyman) attacked Whatley’s real-life teenage son turned him into one of the territory’s biggest babyfaces.

“Pez was a pistol,” said Burrhead Jones, who teamed with Whatley in Continental. “Eddie Gilbert put us together to help draw a larger black audience in Montgomery, and sure enough we did. Pez will be missed in many ways.”

Whatley spent most of the ’90s working behind the scenes for Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling. He served as an instructor at the company’s Power Plant where he helped train a number of performers, in addition to occasional stints as a road agent and overseeing the ring crew for house shows.

Jody Hamilton, one of pro wrestling’s greatest masked stars as one half of The Assassins and later director of the Power Plant, had nothing but praise for Whatley.

“He was very good-natured and affable and a good instructor in the ring. I have nothing but good things to say about him. He was just a nice, honest guy. To me, that’s a very redeeming trait in life. In the wrestling business you meet so many people who aren’t standup, and Pez was a standup guy.”

It was as an active performer, though, that Whatley carved his niche in the business. He enjoyed his greatest success throughout the South – in the Carolinas and Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky territories.

Whatley was involved in a number of classic angles during the ’80s. Perhaps none was more memorable than the one in which Whatley turned heel on partner Jimmy Valiant. The two had been born only 75 miles apart – Whatley in Chattanooga and Valiant in nearby Tullahoma, Tenn. Their ensuing program, however, would cover the entire Mid-Atlantic territory and have fans talking about it for years to come.

The brilliantly executed split came when the charismatic Valiant referred to Whatley as the best black athlete in wrestling. Infuriated by the seemingly innocuous remark and its racial implication, Whatley attacked the Boogie Woogie Man, using a pair of scissors to cut his long pony-tail.

Whatley subsequently changed his name to “Shaska,” joined the hated “army” of former fan favorite “No. 1” Paul Jones and embarked on a moneymaking feud with Valiant that culminated with Whatley losing his hair to Valiant during the Great American Bash Tour on July 5, 1986, in Charlotte. Jones exacted revenge three weeks later by defeating Valiant in another hair vs. hair match at the Greensboro Coliseum.

Outside the ring, though, the two were anything but enemies.

“I liked him right off the bat,” Valiant said Wednesday from his Shawsville, Va., home. “Pez was always laughing. He was a real sweetheart.” Valiant had been one of Whatley’s first opponents years earlier when the rookie turned pro in the Nashville territory.

“Pez was an old-time trooper,” said Valiant. “He was old school all the way. He was a real shooter as well as a great worker.”

Like well-respected journeyman Brad Armstrong, noted Hamilton, Whatley always seemed on the verge of breaking through to that elusive next level, only to be lost in the shuffle of a new power structure or circumstances beyond his control.

“He was a hell of a talker and a hell of an interview,” said Hamilton. “His work was good in the ring, and he was excellent on the microphone. Had he gotten the proper break, he could have been very big.”

Whatley, who continued to work independents in the 1990s while doing enhancement matches for both WCW and the WWE, had experienced declining health in recent years. He was working with the WCW ring crew when he first took ill.

“Pez hadn’t worked for WCW for six months prior to the company going out of business (in 2001),” said Hamilton, who had gotten Whatley an even higher-paying job as head of one of his ring crews after the Power Plant moved. “He got very sick that last time coming off of the road, and I told him he needed to go to the doctor.”

Whatley was treated for bronchitis, but the doctors also found that his high blood pressure was a result of an enlarged heart that would eventually stop pumping. He was diagnosed with a congenital heart disease and was taken off the road permanently.

Whatley had several brushes with death over the past couple of years from heart-related problems. He suffered a massive heart attack in January 2003 along with subsequent kidney problems that led to a lengthy hospitalization. His kidney failure was exacerbated by the fact that he had hypertension and diabetes that he had been unaware of.

Languishing on kidney and heart transplant lists, Whatley was pronounced dead on two occasions while awaiting a transplant that never materialized. But experimental medicine designed to rebuild muscle around the heart apparently had taken effect, said Hamilton, who last talked to Whatley a couple of months ago. Whatley told him that his heart muscles had strengthened sufficiently enough to keep from having a transplant.

“He called me and sounded great. He said he was blessed and so fortunate. He said the new medicine was working and that he was getting better. That’s the last time I talked to him.”

Despite his medical problems over the past two years, Whatley continued to support longtime friend Rocky King and even helped him promote some shows and charity events.

“They were always inseparable,” recalled Valiant. “If you saw one, you saw both. They traveled together for many years. Rocky, God bless him, worked underneath (on the wrestling shows) and Pez was usually on top, but they were always together.”

Valiant last saw his old friend nearly three years ago at an independent show in North Carolina where they were reprising their classic angle.

“We’ll really miss Pez. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for him,” said Valiant.

Whatley leaves behind four children. Hamilton noted that his family had remained close-knit through some very difficult times.

“I really have to take my hat off to his family,” he said. “They all pooled their money together and put all the kids through college. They later pooled their money and helped Pez with his medical bills.”

The once-muscular 240-pounder had lost considerable weight and moved noticeably slower than during his wrestling days, but he was happy to be alive and hosting a weekly television show in Chattanooga promoting amateur wrestling.

“It’s a miracle I’m here,” Whatley told the Chattanooga Times Free Press shortly before Christmas. “I’m walking, talking proof there is a God.”

“He was always an impact, a positive impact,” said Baylor School wrestling coach Jim Morgan, who coached Whatley at UTC. “When he came to us from Notre Dame, he made an impact because of his ability and his spirit. He was the glue of the team. Most recently he was making an impact with his promotion of high school wrestling. He was a heavyweight in every way. He was a winner.”

“Pez was a good guy and will be missed by a lot of people,” added Hamilton. “He was genuine. He was the real deal. He was not only a man, but he was a gentleman. The world is a sadder place without him.”

– Two of the biggest names in WWE history will be returning to the company’s grandest stage.

Hulk Hogan, the company’s biggest star of the ’80s, and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, the company’s top moneymaker in the ’90s, have signed on for appearances at this year’s Wrestlemania. Although no official announcements have been made, sources have confirmed that both megastars will take part in the event. Hogan reportedly will work his first match with the company in nearly two years for a lofty six-figure sum.

Austin recently signed a three-movie deal with WWE. The first film, tentatively titled “The Condemned,” has Austin playing a cop on death row who is given a chance to get out by playing in a deadly reality TV show. The game consists of him surviving long enough to find the person who put him falsely behind bars.

A Rock appearance at Wrestlemania appears to be far from a sure thing, since there are a number of issues reportedly unsettled between the wrestler-turned-actor and WWE boss Vince McMahon, not the least of which is a new contract.

– Joanie “Chynna Doll” Laurer created another stir – this time at a New York City strip club.

According to a recent edition of The New York Post, Laurer and her “Surreal Life” co-star supermodel Marcus Schenkenberg were making out at New York City’s Scores West when she decided to jump on stage and do an impromptu striptease. Management stopped the display once Laurer went bottomless. Laurer had jumped into the fish tank at the Coral Room with Schenkenberg filming her with a video phone earlier in the evening.

“It’s like ‘Beauty and the Beast,'” remarked one of Schenkenberg’s stripper acquaintances.

Laurer recently was arrested for beating up ex-boyfriend Sean “X-Pac” Waltman. Waltman claims Laurer beat him up in front of his kids – before he called the police. Writing on his Web site, Waltman claims, “She assaulted me, struck me in the head and face countless times.”

Laurer insists she has since apologized to Waltman’s two children and now wants her ex “out of my life for good.”

The odd couple, who were once engaged, have been embroiled in a war of words since breaking up last year, but have been promoting a sex tape at the same time.

Waltman last week accused “Surreal Life” producers of taking advantage of Laurer and sending her out for publicity in her very erratic state.

“You and I both know what she was paid to do your show,” Waltman wrote on his Web site. “That amount of money is nominal compared to what you are making by exploiting her making a spectacle of herself for 13 days and giving her the platform to become an even bigger joke than Anna Nicole Smith. How she was allowed to go on further representing your show after the Howard Stern appearance is mind-boggling. If it was not obvious at that point that she was in no shape to go and do another media appearance, then I question the common sense of everyone involved.”

Mike Mooneyham can be reached by phone at (843) 937-5517 or by e-mail at [email protected]. He is the co-author of the New York Times best-seller “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.