By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor
Hello again Bruthas and Sistas, and welcome back to our legacy of the legends, found beyond the gateway to greatness, forever inscribed in the history of the heel. We have seen the Russian Bear, the tandem of one of the scourges of the Orient led by the diabolical machinations of Gary Hart, and now we will examine the career of one of the true greats in the annuls of the sport of professional wrestling.
The word greatest and the phrase greatest of all time, or being the GOAT as it’s referred to these days, is a term that gets bandied around far too often in my estimation. Mostly by the youth of today because they haven’t taken the time to learn the history of whatever sport they are raving over. It’s my contention that the true estimation of who is to be considered the greatest in any competition, can be found in the opinions of one’s peers and coworkers that have been there to witness it and know the dynamics of what they’re speaking. And if you ask anyone in the professional wrestling know, or a true historian, they will normally reply with three names that are always at the top of that list; Buddy Rogers, Johnny Valentine, and “The Crippler”, Ray Stevens.
Carl Ray Stevens was born in the middle of the Depression Era Thirties, in the poverty stricken state of West Virginia. He left his Point Pleasant home for greener pastures, and the opportunities that were to be found in the nearby city of Columbus, Ohio. Stevens packed his few possessions and made the one hundred thirty mile trip while still a teenager. He became enamored with professional wrestling and began to frequent the Toe Hold Club where many of the local wrestlers could be found. He started training and took his first match at the age of fifteen, working for Al Haft. Ray took to the ring like a natural, and what would take others years to absorb and perfect, the youngster did in months. He rose up the card and paid his dues the old way, but the veterans took notice of his potential and began to school him.
It was at the Midwest Wrestling Association in Ohio where he cut his teeth and started his lineage of acquiring territorial gold. He picked up the MWA Tag Team Titles with his partner, Don Stevens in May of 1956, and followed that up with his first singles title the next month when he took home the MWA Junior Heavyweight Title. Not a huge man, at five feet seven inches tall, Ray made up for that in mass at nearly two hundred and eighty pounds, and ring savvy. The road began to call to him and promoters were keen to take a look at the youngster. The NWA had formed eight years earlier in 1948, and it opened the doors for exposure on the national scale for workers like Stevens.
He traveled to Florida and worked the CWF promotion when it was in it’s infancy under the leadership of Cowboy Clarence Luttrall in the Fall of 1956. He made a good impression on the Cowboy, and on November 21 he beat Harry Smith in a match to be crowned the inaugural Television Champion in Florida. He held that title for an period of time before he was on the move again, and the title was put on the shelf, not to be awarded again until 1970. Stevens was the original though, as he was in so many aspects of his career.
The Fall proved to be not only wrestling season for many of the cities across the country, but it would become a time championships for Stevens, and he continued his travels of conquest as he moved onto the Alabama/Tennessee territory. His ring prowess was growing as well as his reputation for being a solid worker that could be counted on to show up, and trusted to protect the business. He had taken a wife at the tender age of seventeen, and she, among others helped him to grow his abilities in the ring. NWA Heavyweight Champion Buddy Rogers also had a hand in his development and as did anyone who worked with Stevens, he saw the potential in him early on. While Ray was in Alabama he took their coveted NWA Southern Junior Heavyweight Title on three separate occasions in 1957 and ’58. The bubble of his success was ballooning out, and he began to look to his next port of call, and it would be the West Coast of the United States, where he made his rise to the top of the business.
Roy Shire owned and operated the Big Time Wrestling in San Francisco, but in the years prior to this he was working the tag team scene, and had worked with Stevens as the Shire Brothers, garnering them both much attention as well as the NWA World Tag Titles in the Summer of 1959. Shire also had a hand in his Steven’s training before he had moved on to run the NWA San Fran promotion and reached out to his old partner to offer him a job with a big push in the territory. Stevens gathered himself and headed to the Bay Area of California to spread his banner, and build his career.
1960 would be the decade that Stevens would not only make his biggest impact, but in the decades that followed the wrestlers that he worked with would remember him as maybe the best of that era, and it all started with the NWA United States Title in San Francisco. He took that title in November of 1960 and held it nine times over during his tenure there, after being awarded the belt as it’s first Champion. He went to war with Pepper Gomez, and established himself as the top heel, to go along with the promos he cut dogging the locals and bad-mouthing San Francisco in general. He always billed himself coming from another city or the other side of the country as well as to further separate himself from the locals, which lent to their dislike of the “outsider”, and added to his heel antagonism of them.
Wilbur Snyder, King Curtis Iaukea, and Dominic DeNucci also battled Stevens for the title over the years that followed. Stevens even got a shot at, and defeated the Living Legend, on one of his stops in California. Bruno actually challenged Stevens, as was the normal for the McMahon’s to do with their Champion from time to time, pitting title vs title in many instances, but never really putting their gold in jeopardy. As in this case, when Stevens beat Bruno two out of three falls but the WWWF used the loophole that the title doesn’t change hands on a DQ, which they still maintain today, and Sammartino was able to bring his title back home. The fans knew that their boy, hated or not, had beaten the great, exalted NYC Champion and sent him packing, even if he still had his belt to take with him. Another milestone in the career of Stevens happened while at Big Time Wrestling, and it came in the form of meeting a Canadian transplant with the right attitude to build a team on.
Pat Patterson was working in Portland, and hearing about the name that Stevens was building, and after being told how they would be the perfect fit, he went down to the City by the Bay to see for himself. The two licked immediately and after a hair dye job to match Stevens, the Blond Bombers were born. They were not the first, nor the last team to work under that name, but I believe they were the best combination of any of the others. With the accompanying Bombs Away knee-drop finisher that Stevens used off the second or top rope they were a force to be reckoned with. The pair took the World Tag Team Championships there as the Bombers in April of 1965. They held the Tag Titles there twice but took that team on the road and found gold across the territorial map, even beyond the scope of the NWA. They split in late 1967 when Patterson left for a run in Japan. Stevens continued on there, making a rare face turn in 1968-69.
Before we continue on need to check our passports, because Stevens next stop on the road to gold is down under, in Sydney, Australia. Ray got the call from Jim Barnett and made the commitment to head to the World Championship Wrestling promotion there in 1965 while he was still working for Shire, and since the two were close, Shire let his star go, and didn’t look on it as a jump since it was not only in another market but on another continent. Ray made the trip and won their IWA World Heavyweight Title from Dominic DeNucci in January of 1965 on his first run there. He returned in 1966 and took the belt again, this time from Spiros Arion during Halloween time. He also teamed with Art Nelson on that trip and won the IWA Tag Team Titles in November of that year as well. People talk the talk but the line of gold can’t be disavowed, because wherever he went, he took their titles and added them to the list.
He went to the Big Apple as well, during the Summer of Love to bring an end to the near four year reign of Bobo Brazil as the WWWF United States Heavyweight Championship, as well as enrage the fans at the act. Stevens was so good at the insurrection of a hometown hero, by the man from out of town. Bobo regained a couple months later, but the two made big money in the interim with Brazil chasing the gold. This was a formula that Vince Sr. used often for all his babyface champions, and I have often wondered why Stevens didn’t make more trips there to cash in on his talents.
Striking while his popularity was a it’s peak, he also headed across the ocean to Hawaii and competed in the NWA 50th State Big Time promotion ran by Ed Francis and James Blears. They were creating a resurgence of the product there and Ray went to compete for them in 1968, also while he was using San Fran as a base of operations to work out of. He took the NWA Pacific International Championship in May of that year, and only kept it for a month, but sealed his name in their record books, fattened his wallet, and enjoyed the sun bathed beaches while there.
Ray Stevens was known for living the hard, on the edge life long before the term adrenaline junkie was coined. He competed in rodeo, as well as motor racing, including both cars and motorcycles. In the Summer of 1969 he suffered a severe leg break during a motorcycle crash that left him convalescing, and having to vacate the NWA US Title he was holding in San Francisco. Patterson stepped back into the fray and took the title form his ex-partner, and ignited the sparks of a feud that would see Stevens return and re-claim the title that the backstabbing partner had looked to make his own in a Texas Death Match. It told a great story, and the two sold the Hell out of it, which made it so much better for the fans, and the business.
With the Bombers now defunct in that market, Stevens took on partners Peter Maivia in 1969, and then again almost nine years later with Moondog Mayne in November 1977, to win the NWA World Tag Titles there, but elsewhere, the Bombers were still a commodity that could be counted on to draw, and they surely did.
The end of the Sixties brought the desire for change, and Stevens looked elsewhere to establish himself, feeling the San Francisco market, while being so good to him, was nearly tapped out for him and the time to move on had finally come. He set his sights on the frigid land of Minnesota, which was a serious departure from the California coast, in more ways than one.
He found another long standing tag team partner when he got there, as well as a manager in tow. They gelled in short order, and then began to take on any team that wanted to face them. Nick Bockwinkel had made a name for himself around the NWA, as well as AWA at this point, and the two captured the AWA World Tag Team Titles in January of 1972, from Verne Gagne and Billy Robinson. This was the first of three reigns for them with the belts there until 1974, before finally being unseated by the Crusher and the Bruiser. During that time they also traveled to Florida and won the NWA Florida Tag Team Titles in the Summer of 1972.
It was during 1972 that he took on the now infamous nickname of “Crippler”, after he dropped the bombs away onto the leg of Dick Beyer, who was working as Doctor X, and helplessly tied up in the ropes. They played out the story angle that portrayed Stevens as having put the Dr. out of commission, which helped to secure even more heat for Stevens as a heel, as well as allowing Beyer to take time for a run in Japan as The Destroyer, under which he had became enormously popular over there with. This was good business, and protected them both to a better payday.
Stevens also took the time to get down to the Western States Sports promotion and work for the Funks. He won the Amarillo version of the NWA Brass Knuckles Championship three times there in quick succession from June to September, 1975. I’m not sure that taking gold everywhere was his passion as much as it was breaking into new markets and getting that fresh, newly pressed heat from fans that may have not seen him previously. Either way, the gold finds the talent as much as the talent it, and accordingly, championships were never far away from Stevens.
Like all great tag teams, an eventual split up and feud is always imminent, and that occurred in 1977, after they came into dispute over his treatment at the hands of Heenan, and the obvious favoritism that shown towards Bockwinkel. The two men held the belts longer than any team up to that point in the company’s history. Stevens took a short run as a face during and after the split but it was short lived as he reunited with his old Blond Bomber partner in 1978 to take the AWA World Tag Titles again, after the High Flyers had to forfeit due to Jim Brunzell being hurt outside of the business at a softball game. The pair held the titles for nearly a year after that before Verne Gagne and Mad Dog Vachon came calling in June of 1979. Not long after Pat Patterson began to cultivate his now, long standing relationship with the McMahon family and it’s various promotional incarnations.
Stevens took to the roads after the split and headed back to Florida to team with Mike Graham and once again become one half of the NWA Florida Tag Team Champions in October of 1979, and then traveled to Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling the following month to beat Jim Brunzell for their Heavyweight Championship there as well. He lost that title back to him though in a rematch on Christmas Day that year.
The entire time through the Seventies, as we noted earlier, Stevens also traveled back to San Francisco to honor his commitment to his old partner Roy Shire and pick up the Tag Team Titles there, selling out the Cow Palace every time he decided to show up. The new decade was closing in and with the Eighties, again, came change for the Crippler.
He went back to Mid-Atlantic after closing up for Shire, and picked back up where he left off and pursued the NWA World Tag Team Titles, this time with Greg Valentine. The two men dominated their competition until they were beaten by Ricky Steamboat and Jay Youngblood, who were in the rise of a strong babyface run there as well. Stevens wasn’t going to be discounted, however, and returned with new partner Jimmy Snuka, and manager Gene Anderson to regain the belts on June 22nd, 1980. They held them until the Fall of that year when the Masked Superstar and Paul Jones beat them for the belts. Ever resilient, and not willing to take the loss lightly, Stevens returned yet again but with the Russian Bear this time and won the titles for a third time in February of 1981, but dropped them back to the pair of Jones and Superstar the next month. Seeing that it wasn’t his time there any longer, he took to his nomad roots and moved again, and headed back to the Northeast.
He we worked in the WWF for a few years as Vince was trying to gobble up all his competition nationwide in 1982. Ray worked an angle that saw his turn on his old teammate Jimmy Snuka, and after giving him a sound beating, cemented a babyface run for Snuka. The life on the road, and wear and tear on his body took him out of the ring there though for a period of rest that saw him put on the blazer and work commentary with Vince Jr. He left there after a few years, and headed back up to Minnesota with his new job on the stick and did announce for their ESPN show there as well.
His longing was for the ring though, and in 1987 he was drawn back into a feud against Larry Zbyszko when Larry helped Curt Henning screw Bockwinkel out of the title at a taping that Ray was calling the play by play at. Zbyszko had helped Henning win by using underhanded tactics(shocker), and turned Henning heel in the process, with Stevens taking up the charge of his old partner, saying that Nick was cheated of the title retention. Events escalated, and Stevens came back out from behind the announce table to get in the ring against Larry and they worked matches for the next year or so. He eventually retired from professional wrestling while working for the AWA in 1992.
Ray Stevens was tailored and fitted into the suit of the heel, and it was there that he always found his greatest success. He was a natural that was considered by many to be the best to ever lace em up, and certainly the best wrestler of the Sixties. This is easily accounted by the sheer number of titles he won, and his ability to draw big money no matter where he worked. He was a thinking man’s wrestler, that knew how to brawl with the hard hitters, while being able to take you apart at the joints, and make it sell the whole time without ever really hurting you. He was a master of the art of professional wrestling, and made it all look so easy. A man that could be counted on by the simple giving of his word, he embodied so many things that the old school way of doing business was about then, and still should be today. He passed away at his home from a heart attack while he slept in 1996. He was sixty years old.
Like many others of his generation, Ray Stevens has yet to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, but was inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2006 as a part of the Blond Bombers as well as the NWA Hall of Fame in 2013 on his own. Though, being an old school guy at heart myself, I’m sure that while the recognition of a promotion, and to be added to their HOF is nice, it’s the opinions of his friends, and fellow wrestlers that meant more to him in the end. Ray Stevens rose to prominence in the business during a time long before the sports combine style of finding stars that they employ now. It was a time of earning your way in through honor, toughness, and respect of the men that came before you. A time when paying dues meant a little more, and your feelings meant a little less. They did it the old way, the right way, and to be considered the greatest among that generation is an accomplishment that few coming up in the business today will ever understand.
I hope that you enjoyed this retrospective look back at the life and travels of one not only my personal favorites, but of a man that changed the business in his wake wherever he went. 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.