By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor
Welcome back Bruthas and Sistas to our history of the heel and look into the lives of some of the best to be bad that ever worked in a ring. We have thus far seen the threat of the Russian Bear, traveled to the mystical orient with Gary Hart and his Kabuki, and studied the legacy of the Blond Bomber. For this installment I have chosen a truly enigmatic person who lived his gimmicks to the fullest, and always found his fame under the guise of heel.
Keith Franke was born on a foggy Buffalo, New York Wednesday, the fifteenth of September, 1954. Some may see it as a harbinger of the life that would await him, as well as the all encompassing way he would envelope your consciousness, leaving you captivated and lost in his showmanship. Hated by some of his peers and ridiculed by so many more uneducated fans that thought the package represented the jewel that was hidden within, at his core his was misunderstood and looking for a release.
Buffalo, at that time, was one a major rail center for the United States and an inland port for the Northeast, as well as being in the top ten in the nation for manufacturing and steel production – all ran with the energy created by the mighty Niagara river. Ship building also made a sizeable portion of the local economy, providing numerous labor related jobs to the immigrants of Eastern Europe that had settled in that area. It was this blue collar world that Franke grew up around and settled into the ideal that hard work is part of the daily experience, and having a little dirt under your fingernails showed that you weren’t scared put your time in.
He played sports, focusing on the fall free for all that was high school football at his Kenmore West alma mater. In the Sixties, football was everything in the United States (especially in a city with it’s own team) and the Bills were a powerhouse in those middle years when they were in the AFL winning won back to back National Championships under coach Lou Saban. Driven by the desire to attain that me level of success, Keith dropped out of school in his senior year to pursue his dreams.
Making his way to the Canadian Football League, he played for a short time but never really broke out there the way that he thought he would or aspired to. It was during this time that he was introduced to professional wrestling as a supplemental income by some of his teammates in the locker room. Many pro football players in Canada, as well as America, would double down and work their off time in the wrestling ring. That talent pool has always been a source for professional wrestling to pull from and it has given us many legends from those years.
Franke had been told about a place across Lake Ontario in Toronto where he may be able to get the wrestling training he was seeking. Like all wrestlers that eventually make it, he left his comfort zone and went to meet with Fred Atkins. Atkins was a Kiwi and had been a name in the business in it’s early days when he held the Australian Heavyweight championship in 1942, and then also here in the States in the city that was the wrestler’s mecca at that time; St. Louis. I remember hearing of his matches with Thesz, Gotch, and O’Connor. Truly the stuff of legend.
Atkins was working a shoot job as a trainer for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the “Iron League” and wrestling in his off hours. He would train someone if they showed potential and the ability to pay. Franke was ready to pay not only his rate, but also his dues. He was put to the test by the old school taskmaster, but learned the how and more importantly the when and why of the business for the next two years, and slowly but surely, as it was done in those days, he was let in to the fraternity of the locker room and shown how to dance in the ring. It was then that he became addicted to the bump. Maybe it was something in his football background or the gritty environment that birthed him, but whatever the spark, he was a firecracker in the ring. In 1974 he took the name Keith Franks and worked that way for the remainder of his stewardship as a trainee.
He worked for those early years not only learning and taking in all aspects of the dance, but he was also being noticed on the bigger stage in America, specifically Minneapolis. He moved there to work as a wrestler full-time and started on a schedule there in the tail end of the Seventies. Adopting his now famous Adrian Adonis namesake, he started out as a biker thug clad in spikes and studded leather years before Demolition made the look mainstream. Adonis took up the role of the heel and found his calling.
The AWA of the late Seventies and early Eighties was a powerhouse of talent. There is no disputing that Verne had an eye for talent and how to enhance it to guide it towards it’s potential. He was an old school, smash mouth, my way or the highway type of character that ran a tough, tight ship. His training camps were talked about in the same breaths as Stu’s Dungeon for their strenuous regimen that would break as many souls as it delivered. Both stables, however, can proudly hold up a who’s who list of amazing talent that they produced, and everyone that hit it big there would go on to help shape the decade to come no matter where they chose to work, including Adonis.
He was working his way through matches on the huge AWA circuit that ran from Minnesota as far west as here in Denver, and north into parts of Canada. It was known for torturous road trips that, also, meant a lot of time to build friendships and talk about the business. Adonis was drawn to another man new to the territory, and the two clicked. For my part there comes a time in the tag team lexicon that you just can’t talk about one man without mentioning the other, even if and when they achieved success on their own. This is one of those times, and when the biker met the body, history was made.
James Janos, or Jesse Ventura as he is better known, has had one of the most colorful and widely varied lives of any person I’ve ever heard of, let alone that of a wrestler. There seems to be no pond that he hasn’t taken the time to dip his toes in. He got to the AWA pond not long after Adonis just off a successful run in Don Owen’s Portland territory. Verne has been given credit by Ventura himself with coming up with the Body moniker. It would stick with him forever, and once again stands testament to the eye that Verne had on how to set people on the right path to success, even though he may have floundered as a business man in his own personal ventures. So at some point, that has never come to full light on whether it was Verne that saw them together, or they presented the idea themselves, but either way a Connection was born.
In my estimation it’s always best to have heels holding the tag team titles. The main spot is usually reserved for the biggest drawing babyface in the company but its usually the heel tag champs or secondary heel champion, i.e. Intercontinental or Television Title holders, that draw the real numbers and put the asses in the seats, no matter what the merchandise numbers may reveal. There is no arguing that the East-West Connection was a great heel tag team. With the combination of the strutting peacock that was Ventura, alongside the skulking opportunist that was Adonis, there was plenty for everyone to hate, and that equaled fame for the duo.
It was their diversified styles that, when brought together, was their strength. Adonis knocked around the ring and played the role of mechanic, while Ventura antagonized and taunted their opponents into apoplectic fits of rage that the two would inevitably use to their advantage in some deceitful victory. It was beautiful to watch.
The pair tasted their first tag team gold in July of 1980 when one half of the then tag team champions, Greg Gagne, no-showed the event and his partner, Mad Dog Vachon was forced to forfeit the titles to the East-West Connection. They held those titles for eleven months before Gagne came back around with Jim Brunzell, and the High Flyers un-seated Ventura and Adonis. Not long after this the team left the AWA and headed back to Adonis’s old stomping grounds in New York.
Upon their arrival they were put with Freddie Blassie and they hit the tag ranks. During the Fall of 1981 however, there was already a heel team seated with the belts in Fuji and Saito, and they were drawing well in that spot. It was unusual for heel tag teams to face off, let alone one defeat another for the gold in those days so that left the East-West Connection a bit out in the cold. They were on a bigger, better paying stage and each was smart enough not to let that pass them by and slowly the two started to work singles matches until they got their shot at the tag titles. They both had shots at Bob Backlund and his Heavyweight Title, and Adonis had a strong run with Pedro Morales and the IC strap into 1982 but a series of losses and injury would eventually put Ventura behind the mic and at the announce position, where he really stood out with his verbose abuse of the gold blazered Vince McMahon on the Saturday Night’s Main Event brand.
Adonis also started to shift gears and look for a new direction to set himself apart on the ever expanding roster of talents that were flooding in during those years in the WWF. He had to keep working and he took the concept he had with the Body and partnered with the redneck Dick Murdoch, forming the North-South Connection. It wasn’t a stroke of creative genius but the two hit a stride and took the WWF Tag Team Championships from the Soul Patrol, Johnson and Atlas, on April 17, 1984, putting an end to their historic run with the titles. The North-South Connection held them for a little over eight months when they were defeated by the U.S. Express.
During their reign with the titles, the pair partied all across the country and seldom hit a gym while eating at whatever greasy spoon they decided to whip into. It wasn’t long before Adonis packed on the weight and began to resemble the fatter stature that most fans associate him with. It never impaired his ability to work or move around that ring, which in some aspects would lean to his benefit more than it’s detriment when it came to standing out in the crowd. While Ventura was spreading his wings as one of the voices of the company it was Adonis that crawled into his cocoon, only to re-emerge as some obese Tammy Fay butterfly that would make EVERYONE take notice.
Adonis missed out on a Wrestlemania I appearance, and was working as a heel mechanic under Bobby Heenan, but toward the end of 1985, he took Jimmy Hart as his manager and shortly after competed in the Wrestling Classic tournament, but when out in the quarter-finals to the Dynamite Kid. In 1986, he ceremoniously gave away his leather jacket to Roddy Piper, who continued to wear it for years later and became known for that himself, as well as Rhonda Rousey in recent history. All that goes back to Adrian.
Once he had shed himself of every vestige of his former persona, his new creation emerged donned in leg warmers, tights that were too small, and that classic overdone make-up. With the tiny phrenetic Jimmy Hart in tow, blaring his squeaky voice over the megaphone, it was the perfect combination to hate. Adonis had taken the original gimmick that started them all, the Gorgeous George fancy-man, effeminate complete with spray bottle. Adonis upped the ante with see through shawls of sheer fabric that he would swat at his opponents as he taunted them just out of distance. He knew that role so well, and he played it at a master’s level.
He took this new character to Wrestlemania II, and was booked against an obvious foil that would be intolerant of his prissy ways. He met Uncle Elmer in the third part of the show that emanated from L.A. Memorial Arena and like most Elmer matches, it was over quickly. Adonis dropped a head-butt on him and got the win in just over three minutes. He worked runs against JYD and had a shot at Hogan later that year but it would be next year that gave him his greatest success in the business. As most things do in professional wrestling it all came full circle for Adonis when he got the chance to work with maybe the greatest heel in the WWF in many years, but one who had recently been route toward the role of baby face.
Roddy Piper took a leave of absence after his loss to Mr. T at Mania II, and while I wasn’t able to find any physical ailments for him during that time, it was well known that he disliked T. It’s very possible that after having to go under to someone that he deemed unworthy of even being in the business, he may have just been “done” for a bit and needed a break to reset, which is exactly what came to pass. During this hiatus, Adonis took over Piper’s Pit and changed it to the Flower Shop, and used it as a forum to taunt not only Piper, but Orndorff as he was about to get his run at Hogan. He even went so far as to get Piper’s henchman, Bob Orton Jr., in on the action and totally sell the idea of Piper returning as a good guy, which he did in grand Piper fashion on an episode of Superstars that led to the two meeting at SNME in October of 1986. Adonis worked an injury to allow Piper to re-take his namesake Pit set and further build the storyline that would eventually culminate at Wrestlemania III in March of 1987.
Not only did the match hold the hair-vs-hair stipulation, which was particularly bad for Adonis, it was going to be billed as Piper’s “retirement” match because he was going to be leaving to film the now classic “They Live.” The two worked the match to perfection as you would expect them to. It had all the bells and whistles of a big Mania match with the anticipation for it being palpable, and they did not fail to to deliver on it’s promise. It only lasted a short six minutes and change, but they did so much in that time. Adonis bounced all over the ring, and Piper was able to unleash his kept anger on him in the process. It ended with Jimmy Hart interfering and Brutus Beefcake coming to help the Hot Rod. Piper put Adonis under with the sleeper in true hair match fashion, but had trouble cutting the thick wet hair of the Adorable One. When Brutus stepped in to help another gimmick legend was given light with the birth of The Barber, yet another historic moment that can be traced back to Adonis
While theirs was one of many great matches had and stories told that evening at the Pontiac Silverdome, we all know, and remember it rightly so that Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat stole that show, and cemented themselves in history with what many, fans and wrestlers alike, consider the greatest match of all time. While that match is unparalleled, I still think that Piper and Adonis match stood out amongst the rest.
Not long after, under a cloud of suspicion on the part of many in the WWF, Adonis was let go by the company just as he was to start a run with Beefcake. It was cited that he was released due to dress code violations but many in the business felt that there was tensions between McMahon and Adonis, though those rumors have never been substantiated. Whatever the real reason, his time in the WWF was done and he moved on to other pastures so to speak, and continued to work.
He took his Adorable gimmick back to the AWA, where he had a short lived run managed by Paul E. Dangerously. He then took some time off to mend a hurt ankle but turned back up in New Japan Pro Wrestling in the Summer of 1988, seeing action and re-uniting with the likes of his old North-South Connection partner, Dick Murdoch. The two would compete for the IWGP Tag Team Titles at the end of June but fail to take them from Choshu and Saito. This would be the last time he went for championship gold.
Adorable Adrian Adonis, Keith Franke, was killed in a freak auto accident on the 4th of July in Canada on his way to a wrestling event. The car he was in swerved to miss a moose that the driver failed to see in the glare of the afternoon sun. Adonis and three other men went off the side of the road, plunged off a bridge, and fell into the creek below them. He died from head injuries he sustained from the fall only a few hours later. He was only thirty-four years old.
The history of this business is riddled with the names of the men that were taken too soon and Adonis is surely in that list. He was great beyond his years as a performer, and can be cited as one of the few men in the business that didn’t need to carry a singles title to be over, or get that way. Some men need that belt to elevate themselves to that next level of competition, Adrian Adonis did not. He played to very opposite heels and found success in both, which is a huge nod to his abilities in that ring, and in front of the camera. He caught your attention with his audacious behavior, and then kept it there with his unabashed arrogance, and presence between the ropes. He was one of the best, and one of my favorites.
Thank you Bruthas and Sistas, and until next time, keep in mind; you may love to cheer for your heroes, but it’s the heels that keep you coming back. For how can you have a triumphant defender, without an equally evil villain for them to conquer.