By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor – Classic Wrestling
Well hello there once again, Bruthas and Sistas, and welcome back to another installment of my look at the early careers of some of the most influential people in the business – both past, and present. It gives me a lot of joy to be able to bring you these conversations, and reconnect the fans with the classic days of professional wrestling and the people that shaped the product along the way.
After speaking with Kevin Sullivan previously, I knew that I had to reach out to one of the men that he chewed up the roads with. Bob Roop helped to diversify the product in an era of transition that saw the end of the territories, as he stepped away to pursue other interests and eventually go back to college at the age of sixty-four to get his teaching degree. Along the way, he traveled the world, and nearly lost his life at the behest of a murderous psychopath. Come back with me now to the start of our story, and the early Sixties.
Born in the height of the Summer of 1942, in Blacksburg, Virginia, Robert Roop’s life was set on the move at an early age. His father was a college professor that had served in WWII, and he followed work after the war, until the Korean conflict began and he was re-instated to active duty. According to Bob, this may have been the impetus for his love of travel and the discovery of new places to discover. The family finally settled in Michigan when he entered middle school and it wasn’t long before he was approached by coaches in the school.
“We had a small school, and I was the biggest student in the school,” Roop said. “Both the wrestling coach and the football coach asked me to be a part of their squads. I was about two-hundred and twenty pounds, but I was still a kid.”
The wrestling coach set up a tryout match for the beefy youngster with a sophomore wrestler on the team that was wrestling at the one-hundred eighty pound range. With no knowledge of amateur wrestling at all, Bob managed to come out okay, with the other boy not taking any liberties on the green Roop.
Even though he had taken it easy on him, the sophomore was a well-known wrestler on the team and had earned the nickname of Butcher, and he lived up to that. For his size he was one of the most formidable wrestlers at the school and went on to be an undefeated state champion in his senior year. Bob worked out with the Butcher everyday and their skills began to compliment each others, with Roop soaking up the mat knowledge like a sponge.
Bob reflected on the punishment that was inflicted upon him. “He had these big long legs and used the figure four. The figure four on the body was bad enough but you could also put it on the head. He’d squeeze me so hard I thought my head was gonna pop. He tortured me for a couple years. It made me alot better, and I didn’t hold it against him.”
Bob soon started to wrestle under the heavyweight division because they didn’t have on on the team and they were, as a result, forced to forfeit every meet at that weight class because of this. So even if poor Bob got his guts rung out, as long as he didn’t get pinned, it was better to lose three points to a loss than the ten points it was costing them to forfeit the heavyweight class. So, in as easy as that, he was thrown into the breach of facing all the biggest guys in his area. This lead to a 0-22-1 record for the year. Still unskilled enough to stay outmatched, he found himself in some precarious situations to say the least. One such match was when he and his fellow wrestlers faced a team form a local school for the deaf and blind.
Roop described the experience. “Man I wrestled serious guys that year,” he said. “I wrestled guys that looked like men. Now as a special education teacher in my adult life, I’m happy that they had school that catered to children with exceptionalities. In those days, most blind children had to stay home to be schooled because the system didn’t have anything in place to integrate them. But I don’t think there was any age limit at this particular school, because the heavyweight wrestler was a grown man. He had more hair on his back than I had on my whole body. I was looking at King Kong standing across from me, and I had no idea what I was going to do. You had to start with a tie up, so as not to have an unfair advantage. I thought I was toast but he didn’t hurt me too bad,” he chuckled.
By his sophomore year, he was appearing in the Michigan State Tournament and was making marked improvements. He was set to face Dave Bearman, a six foot-nine inch, three hundred pound with twenty-two inch biceps that was only a junior in high school. He had even qualified as an alternate on the Greco-Roman team for the American Games that year. His coach had escorted him to the mat to be sure he didn’t get weak in the knees when he saw his monster of an opponent.
He got more serious about things by his senior year and he carried a 27-0 record and won the State Title. He garnered a football scholarship to Michigan State, but was disenchanted with football and left after the first quarter of his sophomore year. So with passing grades and a full scholarship, bob dropped out of school, went to Florida and laid in the sun for a few months, before he ran low on money and hitchhiked to California, and decided to join the Army a few months later in the Spring of 1962.
“I enlisted for a three year stretch because I was late for the draft, and was ineligible for the two year stints that went with that,” Roop said. “I had been in the service about ten seconds and I had realized that I had made a real serious mistake. The Sgt. had went from being nice during the indoctrination to screaming at me the second I had finished my oath. I thought, ‘Oh my God, have I screwed up.’”
He suffered on and made it through his Basic Training at Ft. Ord, California, and went on to Advanced Infantry Training at Ft. Gordon in Georgia. He also started training with the fledgling Special Forces unit that President Kennedy has ordered to be commissioned from part of the already existing Black-Ops teams that were clandestinely operating. He was chosen to take on the work of Medic and undertake that advanced schooling as well.
He also had to qualify as a Paratrooper for this assignment, which would more than double his pay for hazardous duty. “The idea of being a paratrooper sounded kinda fun, you know, adventurous, and it was. The other thing in the Special Forces also looked like it would be interesting, especially the medical training. So, I went and did that. I got the medical training and I think I did eleven jumps.”
When the Army tried to get him to re-enlist for another two year stint to complete his training he made up his mind that he had put his time in and it wasn’t worth two more years of his life to complete the three more months of training that was required to get his rank as Medic. In true Army bureaucratic fashion they tried to punish Bob into taking the steps they wanted him to and told him that if he refused to re-enlist then he would be stuck at the base for the rest of his time doing KP. This wasn’t going to break his spirit or force him to stay any longer than he was ready to. So, he persevered and did twenty-two straight days of heavy KP duty.
Roop had to go before a Military Judicial Board to try and get it all straightened out. “I was an E2, I had not even made PFC yet, I was a private with not one stripe on or marks of rank,” Roop recalled. “All I had was my shooter’s badge, and my Airborne wings. So here I am telling these guys these things, and they didn’t wanna hear it. To them, I was the lowest of the low, and the idea that I wasn’t just going to bow down to their request kinda wrangled them, I guess. The Colonel called me a coward for not wanting to re-enlist. So I told him, It’s my understanding, that after taps, at five o’clock when the flag goes down, all the rank comes off, and were all people. I said I’d be happy to meet any and ALL of you out behind the barracks, today, tomorrow, whenever, and I bet we can decide who the coward is. It was after that little performance that I got the twenty-two straight days of KP,” he laughed.
This type of resolve in the face of adversity, and ability to stick to his guns are some of the characteristics that make up the heart of a road soldier. Believe me, I know. Combine that with the love of travel, a hunger for knowledge and experiences that drive you to want to see more, without the fear of failure in the pursuit of the next and newest destination. It’s about putting your sails to the sky and letting the winds of adventure sweep you away. For me, it’s about challenging yourself to achieve where others say you can’t, and the personal satisfaction that comes in knowing you’re stronger than people thought you capable of.
The Army wasn’t done with Bob and they devised, what they thought would be a fitting punishment for the outspoken private. While he had friends shipping out to Hawaii and Germany, the Army sent Roop to the frigid post at Fort Richardson near Anchorage. He just looked inward and spent time in the gym, while focusing on his discharge date. About three months in he met an officer that had an amateur wrestling background. They found a kindred comradery together and started to work out.
As 1964 draws near, his new friend clues him on the formation of the All Army Team that was being launched to consolidate all the Army sports into one team that would compete at the 1964 NAAU Tournament, as well as being slated for the 1964 Olympics in Japan. Bob applied, and with his Michigan State Championship, as well as a pair of letters of recommendation from former coaches, one of which was a flight director in the Army, he was accepted and sent to West Point, NC. as part of that new assignment.
The wrestling team soon found its own way of standing out from the rest of the pack, with no restrictions, and free reign to do as they pleased while in training. “There were no boundaries, there was no one in charge of us,” said Roop. “The wrestling team lived in a barracks with the military band. They had the top three floors and we had the basement to ourselves. Now, there’s a rigid formality to military barracks, and everything is orderly. We looked like a bunch of rats were living down there. The wrestlers we both officers and enlisted men, and none of wore uniforms. We’d walk of practice in the summertime in shorts, and maybe a tanktop, maybe not. Now I’m still just a Private, and we’re walking past Colonels and Generals looking like that. The recruits were jumping out of their ass to salute these guys, and we just ignored em.”
While stationed there with the All Army Team he met another man that would become famous in his own right in the world of professional wrestling. Jim “Baron von” Raschke was also on the team and the two became fast friends.
He spoke of the Baron and remembered their time at West Point. “It was a thrill to meet Jim at West Point in 1964. We became very good friends, and he made me as an international wrestler. In 1962 he had wrestled in the World Games in Greco-Roman as a heavyweight for the United States team and took third place. He was the first American to medal in Greco-Roman. Well, here I’ve got this level of guy to workout with everyday. For his workout, he’d let me, cause I could never do it on my own, but he’d let me start off by putting him flat on his back and he would go into a high bridge where he was just on the top of his head and his heels. I’d get on top of him and try my best to break him down. He made me so much better than I ever would have been in the three months we were together as teammates.”
Just before finishing up with his time on the All Army Team, he was approached by the coach of one of his opponents, and offered a full scholarship to attend the university that he worked for. This is where the story takes a personal note for me Bruthas and Sistas. The coach worked for Southern Illinois University, which is only fifteen minutes from where my hometown is. Not only that, but both my Aunt and Mother worked and retired from S.I.U., as well as having more than a few friends that have worked and attended Southern. I’ve stomped all over that campus and it was like a second home to me for a few summers when I was in high school. Bob jumped at the chance to not only further his education, but get it all free. It was off to Carbondale, Illinois for the standout amateur grappler.
Entering college in the late Sixties, he saw turbulent times there as did the rest of the country. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) set off the first bomb in a classroom to protest the Vietnam War, and set fire to the original building that housed the university which resulted in it’s destruction from the the damages. He furthered his amateur career and standing while Southern, and went 66-18 during his time there, only losing three matches his senior year. He also competed at the National Amateur Athletic Union matches during this time as well, and captured the NAAU Light Heavyweight Championship in 1969, the year before he graduated.
He explained why these matches meant so much to him and why he held that standing with higher regards. “The NCAA tournaments were strictly for college wrestlers. The NAAU tournaments were to open to anyone, former NCAA champions, Olympians, and wrestlers from foreign countries. They were athletes of all ages. So you know, to place at that level was even more of an accomplishment to me than in college. They fit my style better, though, because in order for you to go down to the mat, the guy had to take you down.”
In 1968, Bob got the opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games in Mexico City. He went to Alamosa, Colorado to train at altitude so his lungs could condition themselves to the elevations he would experience in Mexico City. He took seventh place in the Games, losing out to Anatoly Roshchin from the Soviet Union who went on to win the silver in the Greco-Roman Heavyweight division. The Soviet Team trained year around in those days and they ruled the wrestling events for many years. The Americans only trained heavily for three months before the event.
After the Olympics, he returned to S.I.U. to finish out his degree. It was during his senior year that one of his teammates had told him about Lars Anderson, a wrestler that he knew who had went into professional wrestling through Sam Muchnick in St. Louis. The stories of traveling the world to far away places like Japan and Australia very much appealed to Roop, much more so than the money that his teammate was frothing at the mouth over. For Bob, it was about the experience of the journey than the dividends of the bottom line. Money will only ever fill your pockets, adventures in travel, especially internationally, fill your soul.
“I changed my major a few times during college and finally landed on International Politics, thinking that I’d apply for a job with the government or an independent company to work international relations with, and that would allow me to travel,” Roop said. “Professional wrestling sounded like the perfect way to do it, so once I got the hunger a friend of Muchnick set up a meeting in St. Louis and we drove the two hours up there.”
After meeting with Sam, convincing him that they would make good workers, and he had an urge to travel, Muchnick suggested two promoters that favored amateur wrestlers. Hearing the choices of Verne Gagne in chilly Minnesota, or Eddie Graham in sunny Florida, the choice was a simple one, especially after coming off a tour of the north of Alaska and growing up in Michigan. A call was placed to Graham and he was headed to Florida with Larry Kristoff, a fellow Olympian from the ’64 and ’68 games, and had taken 2nd at the World Games.
They attended the matches at Fort Homer Armory and Bob was taken in by the spectacle of it all. The psychology of the business drew him in and excited him about this new business that he was getting himself into.
After the matches the pair was escorted back to their hotel by Jack Brisco, and roop recalled a funny moment when Kristoff explained his expectations in the business to Jack. “We had something in common because of our amateur backgrounds that we could communicate through. Well, Larry started off by saying that wanted to make fifty thousand dollars his first year. Now, this was 1969, and Jack had been in the business for nearly eight years, and if he had made twenty grand in any of those years, then it’s probably been a good year. Jack looked at him, smiled, and broke it to him that he wouldn’t be making that much to start. I was broke, married and had a young son, so twenty five grand a year was five hundred bucks a week and in those days it wasn’t too bad.”
He put his back into the workouts and soaked up the business like a sponge. Early in his career he was booked in a twenty minute match against Hiro Matsuda in Miami, and instructed by the referee to go through the twenty minute time limit and go “Broadway” in the match.
With his in-ring abilities still limited, Roop recalled to me how things went. “I was working with Hiro. I had about a minute and a half of material, and I didn’t yet understand that there was going to be a ring director. It wasn’t that anyone hadn’t told me, maybe I just hadn’t picked up on it because of nerves. I thought, oh my God twenty minutes, I’m going to have to do my routine fifteen times. (We both laughed). So, I went out there and the twenty minutes went like nothing. Hiro was just, a master. He didn’t even have to talk to me. He knew just how to position himself to make me look good.”
For what many people who don’t really follow the business realize, is that in the days of territorial wrestling and, into the later years somewhat, it was taught during your on the job training how to move in concert with one another to make the product look good, get each other over, and keep the business safe. It’s this dance that has been lost to the younger generation. They may know how to hit their set list of moves and spots, but being able to just go out there, knowing only the outcome of the finish and make a beautiful match was a work of art that came out of their knowledge of their business, and how to protect each other in that ring while still selling it all as reality. That dance of generals is something glorious to behold and I urge all of you, young or old that read this, to seek out the video of the great workers like Stevens, Blassie, Matsuda, Bockwinkle, and a litany of other old school wrestlers that didn’t need that structured checklist of spots to hit in order to paint a masterpiece.
Over the next several years Roop continued to satiate his wanderlust and traveled the world and back again. His time at Championship Wrestling from Florida allowed him to flourish in the ring, as well as learn the workings of the business from the inside out. He ran several successful angles that included him feigning a career ending knee injury at the hands of Eddie Graham’s figure four leg lock. While he was recouping, he worked the area under the mask as The Gladiator, only to be unmasked later and shown that it had been him the whole time, terrorizing the promotion. I personally loved this angle, wherever it was worked through the years.
Bob traveled the world and back during his time in the professional wrestling business. We talked about trips to Japan, the philosophy of the outlaw wrestling promotion, and he told me a chilling tale of a trip to Iraq that nearly left him killed by outraged fans when he defeated their declared Champion, Adnan Al-Kaissie in the Mid-Seventies. His career is one that deserves a deeper look, and to that end, I have decided to extend our interview beyond the parameters of the Breaking In series, and have decided to devote a feature story to his sometimes off the rails career and some of the one of a kind experiences he’s had over the years.
Until then, always remember….. Bruthas, Sistas, Marks, and Maniacs…..no matter what you do to get your foot in the door, when you’re given the opportunity, break it down!! Peace