By Mike Mooneyham
Feb. 1, 2007
Second in a series
Cowboy Bob Kelly chuckles when fans approach him today.
The longtime Gulf Coast wrestling star has a hard time believing how folks who watched him four decades ago still remember. But they do. On a daily basis.
Kelly, who started his career in 1959 as a referee, worked his last match in 1987, although his final full-time year was 1977 when he officially retired in Mobile.
He says he’s amazed that fans still remember.
“It’s unbelievable that people still remember. I can hardly go anywhere without being stopped by people who want to talk wrestling. If they’re 35 or 40 years old, they grew up with Cowboy Bob Kelly. The older ones brought these kids.”
It’s hard for locals to forget a hometown hero.
Local legendKelly held every title the Gulf Coast promotion had to offer. His slew of crowns included the city championships of Mobile and Pensacola, the U.S. tag-team championship with partners Mike Boyette and Ken Lucas, the Gulf Coast tag-team title with Bobby Fields and the Gulf Coast heavyweight title. He became the first Mississippi state champion after defeating Rocket Monroe in a tournament final in Hattiesburg.
Kelly also gained notoriety by driving a stock car during the ’70s. Guf Coast Championship Wrestling owner Lee Fields bought the Mobile International Speedway in 1972, and Kelly bought a race car that same year and raced until 1976. After 19 years, Fields called it quits, and sold the territory to his second cousin, Ron Fuller (Ronald Welch), in 1977. Fuller later renamed the company Southeastern Championship Wrestling.
Kelly remains active at age 70 and owns a wrecker service in Mobile. He goes in every day to make sure things are running properly.
“I’m working every day. I might look it (70), but I don’t feel it,” says Kelly, who will be an honoree at the Cauliflower Alley Club’s annual reunion in Las Vegas in April.
“The wrestling business has given me some awfully good memories and friends. I’m so thankful I spent my time in Mobile. I was just blessed. I really did enjoy what I did and what happened to me since then. The wrestling business is responsible for that. People today call me because I’m Cowboy Bob Kelly. It’s still a blessing.”
A great team
One of the greatest blessings in Kelly’s life, he says, was meeting Lee Fields.
“Lee was my best friend. He always will be. I loved Lee like a brother.”
Fields, who real name was Albert Lee Hatfield, was part of an extended wrestling family that included father Virgil “Speedy” Hatfield, a referee and matchmaker, and brothers Don and Bobby Fields (Hatfield), all direct descendants of the original Hatfields (of the feuding Hatfields and McCoys fame).
Lee purchased the promotion in 1959 from his cousin, Buddy Fuller (Edward Welch), father of wrestlers Ron and Robert Fuller. Fuller had begun promoting in the Mobile area in the early 1950s.
Fields died seven years ago of a rare form of leukemia at the age of 69.
Kelly has a hard time talking about his friend without getting emotional.
“Meeting Lee Fields was another blessing in my life. How else could you explain an old country boy from the farm in Kentucky, with no wrestling experience, and no family member even smart to the wrestling business, staying in one territory and making it to the very top and staying there? When Lee died on June 4, 2000, I lost my best friend. I thank God for the quality time he gave me on this earth with Lee Fields. I miss him very much and think about him every day.”
Kelly and Lee’s brother, Bobby, were regional tag-team champs and drove more than a million miles criss-crossing the territory together. The group cooked, partied, and rode bulls and horses every Sunday for years at the Fields’ farm. Kelly was like a member of the family. He felt as close to Lee as Fields’ own brothers.
“I was always invited. If I didn’t come, they’d call me. I felt like I was part of the family. They never ever made me feel like anything but family. People always thought I was their brother and just wouldn’t admit it.”
“Lee trusted me with everything,” adds Kelly. “When he’d leave and go somewhere, I’d be the only one who knew where he was. He’d confide in me, and I’d confide in him … I still haven’t got over it. I sure miss him.”
NEWS AND NOTES: Funeral services for Scott “Bam Bam” Bigelow, who died Jan. 19 in Hudson, Fla., were held Friday in New Jersey. A memorial service was held Saturday … Doug Gentry, one of the founders of the Ring of Honor promotion, passed away Friday at the age of 34 due to complications from a rare heart bacteria … George’s Sports Bar, 1300 Savannah Highway, will air the Royal Rumble pay-per-view tonight beginning at 8 p.m. Cover charge is $10 … Old School Championship Wrestling will hold a show at 6 p.m. tonight at Weekend’s Pub, 428 Red Bank Road, Goose Creek. Main event pits The Barbarian against Josh Magnum. Admission is $5. For more information, call 824-1477.