FROM THE BAYOU TO BAGHDAD: LIFE THROUGH THE LENS OF BOB ROOP
ByJim Phillips, Senior Editor – Classic Wrestling
Welcome, Bruthas and Sistas, to a newest edition to my writing family. Life Through the Lens will be an expansion of the Breaking In series that will focus on the impact made by some of the key players in the business, and conversely, how the business affected their lives. Whether it be the ups and downs, victories or defeats, the toils and toll of the road have, and will change even the strongest of personalities. It is the anvil to the business’s hammer that can forge the lives of superstars from meager beginnings, as well as shatter them in an instant.
This idea manifested itself during my conversation with Bob Roop. He is not only a fountain of knowledge about the business, but has had some of the most unique experiences in his travels that I’ve heard before. Our journey begins in 1970’s Florida, but will take us around the world. I hope you enjoy our first of these candid conversations with some of wrestling’s legends.
I have maintained the assertion over the years, that alongside Watt’s Mid-South, the Gagne camps in Minnesota, and Continental Championship in Alabama, Florida was one of the most fertile grounds for character development, as well as being a classroom for how to get over, on both sides of the curtain. It wasn’t just Graham, but the intellect of workers like Dusty, Sullivan, Matsuda, as well as Roop that helped to mold the ever shifting angles that made CWF so entertaining to watch.
Just before he got to Florida, Bob was working with Ole’ in Georgia. It was this time working with him that helped Bob develop his booking skills well beyond where he was. Roop had this to say about that time and the transition from Ole’ over to Dusty when he arrived there from MACW.
“I had been working with Ole’ Anderson for three years in Atlanta. I wasn’t the co-booker. Ole did the booking and at one time he was booking four or five territories simultaneously. I think there was a point where he was booking eight to ten shows a night. No booker ever did that. He was so experienced and just a fuckin’ genius. I had ideas, but he didn’t need my help, you see. When Dusty Rhodes came in from Crockett after JCP bought out Georgia, he brought his own crew with him. Before he started he said to all the dressing room, ‘Ronnie Garvin and Bob Roop stuck by Ole’ through thick and thin against Vince McMahon, and I’m going to stick with those guys all the way.”
Things didn’t go as well as Bob had anticipated there and after a few eight hundred mile round trip bookings for a single show to make twenty-five bucks, he decided it was time to take to the roads and try his hand in a new territory. It was off to the CWF for Bob.
Upon his arrival, Kevin Sullivan had the book, and he was running with his devilishly, demonic and dark storylines. He and Roop had historyfrom their days in San Francisco, where their feudhad revitalized Shire’s faltering territory in the early Seventies. Kevin had the idea for the Maya Singh character, and Bob took to it and saw the longterm potentials for the unique gimmick. With his head shaved and face painted, he took on the dual personalities of both himself and the fanatical Indian assassin. He would slip in and out of each respective side of the two in matches and during interviews. The marketability of such a character would be seen to manifest itself again more than once in the years that followed but it was McMahon that really took it to the big stage and gave it a run with the Festus gimmick portrayed by Luke Gallows in 2007 when he was a developmental talent there. Bob looked back on his run as Maya, remembering it’s potential:
“Maya was going to be two people, and if you’ve seen the picture of me, then it tells the story. One side of me was Maya, and the other side was Bob Roop. I was going to be like a multi-personality schizophrenic that you could see. It was self-explanatory, and I could be just beating the shit out of somebody in the ring as Maya, and then switch to Bob Roop and grab a wrestling hold. In interviews also, one minute I could be talking rationally, and the next minute go bezerk, start tearing the place up, and turning Gordon Solie’s desk over then storm off. It was so great, I mean the concept. I had alot of fun with that one.”
At that time in Florida, Hiro Matsuda and Duke Keomuka were the principal owners of CWF, with Wahoo doing some of the bookings and Sullivan picking up the rest. Kevin was also booking a separate territory at the time and often taking guys like Mark Lewin, and King Curtis with him to work the other events, which left CWF lacking three of it’s top heels when this occurred. On one particular occasion this left Hiro in a spot with a television taping the next day and no bookings, or anything set to be able to run the show. He contacted Bob and asked him if he could put it together for him, which set into motion Roop taking over as the booker in Florida.
“Hiro came to my house and asked me if I could help, and we had tons of mutual respect, from being shooters, or what have you. He wanted to know if I could have the TV ready to go by the next day, and I told him I could have it in an hour. I said that if we needed it sooner to drive me to the Sportatorium and I’d have to together by the time we get there. I had been at the shows, and I knew what was going on, but I wasn’t going to do it Kevin’s way.”
This was the start of a division between the two that would ultimately lead to the dismissal of both Lewin and Sullivan by Roop from that promotion. Roop moved away from the “Prince of Darkness” gimmick, that had pervaded every angle of the show, and his opinion was fine for one spot, but not as a core idea for the whole promotion. Bob chose to focus on the talents of guys like Barry and Kendall Windham, Steve Kiern and Stan Lane, Ray Candy, The Sheepherders, and a young Lex Luger. Bob never worked as the Maya Singh character again after that, and to say that Sullivan was unhappy with his displacement by Matsuda, would be a bit of an understatement.
Roop began to focus on the polishing of Lex Luger into a main draw for CWF, and began to accompany him to the ring. Luger in his early days was a bit of a divisive character in the locker room, and wasn’t always looked well upon by his peers in the business. I’ve heard tales of his ineptness in the ring, and over abundance of ego getting the better of him in the face of his pushes, and when I asked Bob about this he was very candid in his reply:
“I took on the job of managing Lex, and going to the ring with him. He needed somebody out there, and to be surrounded by talent to get through a match. If he was with someone that didn’t know how to lead him, it was rough going.”
I stopped Bob at that point and interjected a follow up, inquiring about the level to which Luger has been rumored to be uninterested in actually learning the craft, and that some in the business considered him to be, for lack of a better word on my part, a meathead. Again he was quick to a response:
“Well, that has some basis in fact, but here’s the deal; that was by choice. He was obtuse to a certain extent, because he would sit in the dressing room around guys who had busted their balls to become pro wrestlers, worked their way up from the bottom to where they had a career and maybe spent years on the road doing it. Now here comes Lex Luger and he’s been in the business six months, and says in the dressing room in front of everybody, while hes’s flexing in the mirror, ‘I wanna be Mr. Universe, and I’m just wrestling to get me there.’ He broke in on top, because he looked the part, but he had a hundred dollar body and a ten cent mind at that time.”
Sometimes, more often than not in many cases to be honest, this is the way that ticket sales drive the business. If it weren’t for their love of it, the older workers could have easily made people like Luger look like a fool in the ring, but it was that old school idealism of protecting the business at all costs that led them to hand feed, and lead someone who may not know shit, and elevate them to being able to draw strong, which means that everyone gets a bigger payday. In theory, anyway but we will look farther into that side of the business later in the article. First I’d like to make a stop in Japan, as we talked about his time there and the differences in the product as compared to American professional wrestling.
While we all know that the Japanese product has been more hard hitting historically, it’s their respect and love of the athleticism of the business and the display of heart by those athletes that has always placed it on a different bar for me. When Bob spoke of working there, I naturally tried to steer the conversation towards that topic and we shared the same feelings about their dedication to the sport of professional wrestling. I think this exemplifies that point so well
“Japan was always a great place for me to go. I loved it. The people were friendly, and it wasn’t dangerous. There weren’t any maniacs running around,. (chuckles) My first tour over there was in 1970 and I was with Ernie Ladd, Nick Bockwinkle, Lars Anderson, and Rocky Johnson. We were working against All Japan(AJPW) with both Giant Baba, and Inoki. This was before they split off and went on their own. It was great.”
Bob had four successful tours in Japan, one of which featured a match between him and Antonio Inoki that went thirty minutes on television there. Take the time to watch this match and enjoy the story that the two tell. Roop also talked about his time there with Boris Malenko:
“We’d run through different parts of town to see the city and get our workouts in. Sometimes the bus with the Japanese boys would drive by and see us running on their way to train and they respected that. Here was two American guys who didn’t just sit around the hotel not doing shit, you know? They were there at the venue two hours before the show started to work out, everyday.”
He also spoke about the Japanese fans, and the difference in their behavior at the matches as compared to their Korean counterparts:
“You could probably behead a guy, or maybe force him to commit Hari Kari right in the middle of the ring, and the people would never get out of their seats or throw anything into the ring. The way they showed their disapproval was that when they clapped after the match, they didn’t put as much enthusiasm into it as they would have if they approved of your performance. I never saw one anti-social act from the fans. Not one fist shake, or the bird, not spitting on you…nothing. They would just ignore you if they disapproved.”
From there he and partner Lars Anderson went to work a pair of shows in Korea, pitting them against their fan favorite of Kim Il and his partner. The two worked singles the first night and Bob shot the ring to help Lars win and this got heat from the crowd that was much different than they had experienced in Japan with a vocal crowd that gave them plenty of heat. He told me a great story about the happenings at the next night’s show that I could not exclude from this article:
“We finished up where we did a team angle on Kim Il, and kicked him in the head a few times and hit him with a chair. He was bloodied up pretty good. I don’t know why the Hell we were doing that. We weren’t coming back, there wasn’t a Sunday show. (chuckles). All of a sudden the chairs start flying, and there’s chairs in the ring. They sold beer in the quart bottle there…glass! Oh my God, what a weapon. The chairs were flying by like frisbees and were were like, ‘Holy shit, let’s get the Hell outta here!’ We went to leave and the aisle was full, and we tried to make our way to the back. Lars was trying to do a T-Rex gimmick to try and scare them back and I was getting hit form behind with a chair by an old guy that could barely raise it up to try to swing it at me a second time. I looked past him and there was three more old guys with chairs headed our way. I put my shoulder into Lars back and told him we had to go. We pushed our way up the aisle towards the exit, which was under an overhang of seats with a railing there. There were about two dozen people up there with their beer bottles high over their heads ready to rain em down on us as we tried to get through there. You’re talking about a fractured skull if one of them hits you in the head directly. There was no security whatsoever. We put our heads down and cleared that tunnel to the door so fast. Bottles were whizzing past us, and I’m not sure how many people we knocked down. One hit Lars in the head and he had a knot on there the size of an egg. We got back to our dressing room and there’s one way in with no way out. We were in there for at least three or four hours after the match because about two thousand people had stuck around after to try and find us. We finally got out around two in the morning when the police came to enforce their national curfew and the people all took off.
We’re going to move ahead, and discuss another pivotal point in Roop’s career and talk a little about the formation of All Star Championship Wrestling. For those that aren’t in the know, or missed it in my Wrestling Territories series, ASCW was an “outlaw” organization that ran in competition with the NWA affiliate in the Eastern Tennessee market for a number of years in the Eighties. The territory was being booked by Roop, flanked by Ronnie Garvin, who were both working for Ron Fuller, who had control of NWA Knoxville. It was financial and personal disagreements that caused All Star to be put into motion and while I will choose not to stir up the reasons behind it, I would very much like to talk about the effects of the events that transpired on both the men and the business, as compared to just throwing dirt at either.
“I felt that if I didn’t stand up and say something to Ron about what was happening that I wasn’t standing up for myself, nor could I respect myself as a result. He wasn’t hearing it, and wouldn’t look me in the eye. So I went back and, saw Malenko. He and Garvin and I were kind of a brain trust there, not anything political, but with the angles we had going. Both those guys had great experience. With their ideas and my booking we had the territory rocking and it was sold out everywhere. I told them that I was going to give my notice and leave because I could work anywhere and I wasn’t going to stick around and get cheated. So Ronnie Garvin said, ‘Let’s take it.’ I thought it for about three seconds and decided, yeah that’s not a bad idea. We shoulda thought it out a little, (chuckles), but we tried.”
It was during the process of trying to establish a television deal that fellow wrestler and would-be ASCW wrestler Dick Slater, went behind the backs of Roop and Garvin to tell Eddie Graham in Florida about their goings on up in Knoxville. Graham got the word back to Fuller and it was an all out war in the territory for supremacy that left everyone involved broken, including the territory itself. Ticket sales sank as the fans found themselves wondering what to make out of all the back and forth competition and shifting of talents. Bob spoke about the “outlaw” label as we finished talking about those years:
“We had always been told coming up, and I was stupid enough to believe it; that if you do opposition you’re going to be blackballed forever because nobody will ever trust you. The promoters just say that to prevent guys form doing that. If you’re talented then you can go and find work. Sometimes, you have to set your own terms in life.”
Bob also traveled to Iraq in the Seventies, accepting a booking in Baghdad against the European Heavyweight Champion, Iraqi wrestler Adnan-al-Kaissie. Other wrestlers, such as George Gordienko and Andre the Giant, had earlier wrestled in Iraq so Bob felt no undue concern going there to honor a booking. Unbeknownst to Roop, al-Kaissie and Iraqi pro wrestling were promoted by Saddam Hussein, First Deputy to the president of Iraq and the power behind the office. At that time, Hussein was using wrestling to strengthen his newly installed Ba’ath political party, drawing crowds of up to 300,000 live spectators and televising the events throughout the Middle East. When al-Kaissie didn’t beat Roop in their match, Saddam Hussein directed there be a rematch, with Roop held political hostage for eight days until the second match took place. Bob barely survived that second event, put into deadly peril by Hussein-created mob violence, and had to scramble to make it out of the country at all. This is the subject of an upcoming book by Bob that I urge all of you to seek out when it is released. I don’t want to get any deeper into the story itself but I do want to touch in its aftereffects.
Roop retired from the ring after he was injured in a car crash in the late Eighties. He moved back home to Michigan and started the next phase of his life and stepped out of the wrestling spotlight for many years. Bob went back to college as well and earned a teaching degree and began working with special needs children or children with exceptionalities, as he prefers to call it. During the years following his Iraq experience, Bob used alcohol as a crutch to recover from the traumatic event. He was not a heavy drinker, but steadily imbibed in the late evenings to ease his sleep and the recurring nightmares accompanying it. It wasn’t until four decades later, when he began writing about his Iraq experience, that he learned he had been suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for all that time.
Researching the symptoms of PTSD for another reason, Roop found these indications were all things he had at one time or still exhibited in his everyday life. Conferring with a colleague trained as a Psychologist confirmed that self-diagnosis. One of the reasons Bob said he wanted to complete the book, beyond helping him to exorcise his own demons about the experience, was so that people suffering from PTSD could hear his story, and come to better grips with their own past experiences. Bob put it better than I can for him in saying:
“I want to encourage people that aren’t seeking help to do so. I write about PTSD in my book, my main point being; if I could have had psychological and emotional help before or during the thirty years I self-medicated with alcohol, then I could have saved myself and my loved ones a great deal of unnecessary angst. I was lucky and managed to get through it, but not without pain and suffering along the way. If my story can help others, especially our wounded warrior military veterans with PTSD, avoid or at least ease that same pain and suffering, then my harrowing and traumatic experience would have a positive effect and, even all these years later, a happy ending.”
Sadly Bob lost his wife Molly in 2017, but now co-owns and happily shares a home with two adult sons in Lansing, MI. He has recently came stepped back out onto the wrestling scene and started taking bookings for fanfests, legends events, and Hall of Fame appearances. I very much hope to see him this year in Las Vegas at the CAC gathering, along with many other friends in the business. We spoke for nearly twelve hours in total in our conversations leading up to this pair of stories, but it seemed like five minutes under the learning tree with a man who has his base of knowledge for the business. For me it was class in not only the history and workings of the business, but a lesson on world travel, and the cementing of a longtime friendship. I want to leave you with some thoughts from Bob that takes in all of these things, and for myself to say to you, my Bruthas and Sistas…the only thing that can diminish your horizons is when you put limits on your achievable expectations. What will you see when you look back at you Life Through the Lens? Peace.
“My experience in the wrestling business and the years to reflect on that in my leisure, have shown me things with greater insight. You have these life events happen to you and all of a sudden, after some inflection you can put things into perspective. What’s real? What is truly valuable? What is meaningful? Certainly I like the affection, respect, and comradery of a group that loves and respects pro wrestling. We honor the people that have allowed us to ride into the business on their shoulders, on what they created. To make it in a business that was financially lucrative that afforded you to see the world, was something we had to earn the right to be a part of. I have a completely different take on today’s wrestling. Regardless of how it’s being run, the boys don’t have any say-so over that. So, I dont knock any of today’s wrestlers. They’re wrestlers just like we were. Are they working under different circumstances, well Hell yes. Are things different, yes. Do they suddenly have it easier, yes. However, in some ways it’s even harder to get into the business today because there aren’t fifty promotions that you could go to to learn your craft. The amount of available jobs are much smaller than it used to be so there are less opportunities out there to earn a real living. You can knock the business all you want and wish things were different. I saw some shit I couldn’t believe the last time I watched, but apparently it works. I won’t knock the wrestlers though. They’re doing the same thing we would be doing. They’re out there, trying to earn a living.”
– BOB ROOP –
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