By Jim Phillips, Columnist
Long before the days of sell-outs in Kemper Arena, the Kansas City area was known for wrestling. A litany of talent has been grown in that area, like so much of the sweet corn and wheat that lines the green belt between St. Louis and her sister city on the western border of Missouri. One of these talents was Orville Brown.
Brown got his start in wrestling in the Twenties. It wan’t long before he caught the attention of St. Louis promoter Tom Packs, who brought him to the professional wrestling hub on the mighty Mississippi. He had several matches of note, including facing former world champion Ed “Strangler” Lewis. He traveled to Kansas City, and into the hands of promoter Pinky George at the Midwest Wrestling Association. It was here that he would not only find a permanent base of operations, but he would claim the coveted Heavyweight Championship, a record setting, eleven times there over the next eight years. He was recognized as the first N.W.A. champion there in 1948, when the MWA was one of the first promotions to adopt affiliation with the nationwide organization. He was forced to relinquish the title to Lou Thesz following a car crash that left him with career ending injuries, and a forced retirement. He would go on to not only manage Thesz after that, but promote the MWA for the next decade.
After 1958, things began to change in The City of Fountains. The MWA was taken over by Bob Geigel, and his partners, Gus Karras, and New Zealand wrestling talent Pat O’Connors. He renamed the promotion Heart of America Sports Attractions, and soldiered on under the N.W.A. banner. After a failed attempt at using litigation to remain viable in the new enterprise, Pinky George left the Heart of America, and not long after Geigel began his first run as N.W.A. President. It was during this time that Geigel put all his promotional power and N.W.A. influence behind his own local boy, Harley Race, who also had partial ownership in the promotion.
Harley Race was born in 1943, just northwest of St. Louis, in the small town of Troy. He was stricken with polio as a child but managed to overcome the illness. This would not be the first time that personal set backs would test his spirit while he was still a young man, Harley was expelled from high school due to an incident with the principal, that left Race kicked in the head, and the principal battered and bruised by the strapping young man. It was at that crossroads that he decided to follow his love of professional wrestling and make it a career. He grew up on the product that came out of Chicago on the Dumont Network, and he had been doing side work for local promoter Gus Karras for some time at this point. At the age of eighteen, he decided to move to Nashville and begin his formal in-ring training. A few months later he saw his first gold in the Southern Tag Team Championships, but the glory was short lived. In 1960, he nearly lost his leg in a car crash that claimed the life of his first wife, and their unborn son. He was rushed to the hospital and was set to have his leg amputated, when Karras, who had gotten word of the accident and raced to the hospital as well, refused to let them take his leg. It was nearly a year of rehabilitation before he made his return to the ring in Texas where he began a feud with Amarillo’s harbinger of hard core, Terry Funk. It was here that he began to wrestle as Harley Race, and dropped the use of aliases in order to make his own name famous. Little did he know how intertwined with professional wrestling history that name would become.
Race went on the hunt for the NWA World Title in the late Sixties but finally got it in his grasp on May 24, 1973. The belt, made in secret in Mexico, that has been referred to as the “Ten Pounds of Gold” was presented to him a few months later by Sam Muchnick. He had storied feuds with Jack Brisco, Giant Baba, Dusty Rhodes, and Tommy Rich over the next nine years and traded the title back and forth with each of them, giving Baba three title run in the process. His uninterrupted title reign at 926 days, while Bob Geigel was serving as NWA president, is only rivaled by those of Lou These (2300 AND 1907 days), Dory Funk (1563days), Dan Severn (1479 days), Gene Kiniski (1131 days), and Pat O’Connor (903 days). The only two wrestlers with more combined time with that title than Race is Lou Thesz at an astonishing 3,749 days in three title reigns, and Ric Flair, who has 3,116 days across nine times with the belt. Harley Race held the title for 1,799 during his “seven times around” as champion, and defended it as many as five nights a week in his last run. This would be his final reign as NWA Champion and the torch was passed along to Flair at Starrcade, during their grueling steel cage match that goes down as one of the bloodiest, and most ferocious of Race’s career. Race used CSW as a base of operations during his years in the NWA and also captured the Central States Heavyweight Championship on eight occasions, and the Missouri Heavyweight Championship seven times. Alongside the product coming out of St. Louis, with Muchnick’s Wrestling Club at this time, Missouri was the place to be and be seen if you were working in the NWA.
Bob Geigel also worked as a wrestler from his debut in the Fifties, off and on until the mid Seventies, but made in ring appearances into the the end of his career. He held the NWA Central States Heavyweight Championship six times, feuding with Race and trading the title back and forth in the Spring of 1971. He had a rivalry that lasted years with his one time tag team partner, and Central States mainstay, Bob Brown.
Working under the nickname of Bulldog, Robert Brown was born in 1938, north of the border in Manitoba, Canada. He originally worked on the police force, and spent some time as a minor league hockey player, before turning to professional wrestling in the late Fifties. He captured his first NWA-CSW Heavyweight Championship in June of 1968 before heading up to NWA All Star Wrestling in Vancouver where he worked the hot tag team matches there with partner Gene Kiniski. Brown spent time between the two promotions for the next several years. He worked as booker for CSW, and had memorable runs against Harley Race, “Time Keeper” Mike George, a young Ted Dibiase, and Marty Jannety just to name a few. He even dropped the title to Bruiser Brody as Brody stomped through the territory in early 1980. During his record nineteen times as the Heavyweight Champion in Central states, “Bulldog” Brown faced and defeated many of the top names that came through the territory in his time there. He held his last Heavyweight Championship in CSW in 1987, and after losing the title on Christmas 1987 he ventured onto Canada’s Stampede Wrestling. One of the men he battled for the title in early 1983 was named Dewey Robertson. While that name may not ring a bell to the majority of wrestling fans, it was his alter ego that resonated with so many young fans like myself, that were consuming the product in mass amounts in the Eighties.
While the man that became famous in his later years at Mid-South and WCCW as the green faced, head butting menace known as The Missing Link, Dewey Robertson had a very successful run under his own name in NWA-Central States after arriving 1981. He won every major title that the promotion had to offer while he was there, beginning with the TV Title in October of that year. In 1982 the tag titles became the next prize he sought to claim, winning them the first time with partner Rufus R. Jones, and later again with “Mr. Electricity”, Steve Regal (not to be confused with current NXT GM, Steven/William Regal), and two times with Hercules Hernandez, of later WWF fame. In February he made his Grand Slam title legacy there complete when he beat Manny Fernandez to capture the CSW Heavyweight Championship, which he held one more time after defeating “Bulldog” Brown.
Harley Race took that title from him in June of 1983 and Dewey made his way to creative pressure cooker of Bill Watts’s Mid-South where the Missing Link was born out of that rich soup of talent and wrestling psychology that thrived there. During his time at CSW he left an indelible mark on the promotion. In the later years of his career he came to grips with his addictions to drugs, alcohol, and his steroid abuses. He found healing in his faith and received help from Ted Dibiase, as well as a Christian group in Canada. He passed away in August, 2007 from lung cancer. He was 68 years old.
“Bulldog” Bob Brown worked as a color commentator at Stampede Wrestling after his retirement with Ed Whalen. He spent a short time in the WWF wearing the black and white stripes of the third man in the ring as well. After suffering from a pair of heart attacks that left him momentarily dead by the laws of man, he was finally revived. He soon took a job as a security guard at The Flamingo Floating Casino in Kansas City. Known as no frills, and a hardened ring veteran that would take on all comers, Brown would march to the ring in his blue trunks and buzzed haircut and work a hard hitting match every night. I was able to find a short story told about him at his funeral in Kansas City by one of his peers in the business…..
…..”Brown and Geigel were on their way to Wichita to a match once, and all of a sudden Brown started having a heart attack—I mean he was dying. When they got to Topeka they pulled in to a hospital and all of a sudden he passed a kidney stone. Then they went on to the match and wrestled.” That’s one tough old dude. He died on February 5, 1997 at the age of 58, a hell-raiser to the end.
Bob Geigel sold his Heart Of America Sports Attractions to Jim Crockett Promotions in September of 1986, only to buy it back again six months later with partner George Petraski, in another attempt to make a run with the product. He closed it for good in 1988 and the championship was retired a few months later under it’s last champion, Akio Sato. Sato was best known for his WWF run as one half of The Orient Express, with his partner Pat Tanaka. Geigel worked as a security guard in his later years, and was the owner of a bar in his beloved Kansas City. He suffered a broken hip in early 2014 and was admitted to a nursing home where onset complications from Alzheimer’s Disease began to surface. He passed away that October at the age of 90.
Harley Race had a career that spanned every major promotion. His run in the WWF as “King” Harley Race under the leadership of Bobby Heenan gave us some truly golden moments. He also worked in Puerto Rico at the WWC, Stampede in Canada, and spent some time in Japan before returning to the United States and getting his last big run in WCW. After getting injured at a house show in his home state of Missouri, he fell out of regular in-ring competition and started building a stable of villains to manage, most notable of these being Big Van Vader. In 1999 he started his own World League Wrestling in Eldon, Missouri. He has sent many of his students on to Japan and the NOAH wrestling promotion there. Recently in 2017, he fell in his home and broke both his legs, one in multiple places. He has been rehabbing and continues to promote his WLW while he is on the mend. His son Leland has followed his footsteps into the wrestling business as well and is building a name for himself on the indy circuit, as well as working at his father’s promotion and school, now in Troy, Missouri. We wish him a speedy recovery, and our best wishes.
While CSW/Heartland of America may not have been the juggernauts of the territorial system that a, AWA, or WCCW may have been, it was the sister promotion to the St. Louis Wrestling Club, and those two promotions together formed the spearhead of not only the formation of the NWA, but it’s backbone in the center of the country as grand territories rose around it. It was a conduit for many of the greatest workers in the history of the business to funnel through as they traveled the “NWA corridor” from St. Louis to Texas
Well, I guess that wraps it up for this week. I hope you learned a few things you may not have known, and are building an appreciation for the legacies and history of this great business that I love so much. It truly is gold, Bruthas and Sistas…..DIG IT!!!