By Jim Phillips, Columnist
Welcome back again friends to this week’s installment of our little wrestling history class. Let’s stay on the PCH and continue to wind our way up the West Coast and stop off in Portland to take a look at what has been called, “one of the best territories to learn the trade in that ever existed.”
Pacific Northwest Wrestling has roots that go back to the Twenties, long before their association with the NWA. Originally focused on boxing and wrestling, Herb Owens became the owner of PNW in 1922. He booked in tried to grow his little territory throughout the next decade. After his passing in 1942 his son Don took over the business, and implemented a grander vision for Portland wrestling.
Don Owens was born in 1912, in the small town of Eugene, Oregon. Growing up in the business, he started doing odd jobs early on for his father. Selling popcorn and soda pop didn’t keep him pacified for long, and he moved onto working in the office. Once he took over as the leader of the promotion, he began to attend meetings of the fledgling NWA. He became one of the founding members of the official organization in 1948, and renamed his territory NWA Pacific Northwest, but it would always be known as Portland Wrestling. Just like that, Down Owens Sports was up and running.
In the early Fifties, Owens began to attempt to secure television time for a weekly wrestling program he intended to air. He found a home for his product, and ran an hour long wrestling program on station KPTV for the next three years before he had a better offer, with more control of the program at KOIN-TV and named it Portland Wrestling. With the help of associate Harry Elliot, Owens continued to expand into the West Coast market from Colorado to the ocean and up to Alaska, and across the border into British Columbia on a CBS affiliate out of Seattle. Elliot was now running shows all over the Northwest area, and booking them with Owens’s talents.
Once the Sixties rolled around, Owens began to seek out a venue that he could call his own, and base his promotion out of. He thought he had found his spot in 1961 when the Portland Memorial Coliseum opened. He ran several cards there, selling out many of these shows. The need for a strong drawing venue became more of a must-have after he lost his television time-slot, when CBS ended it’s relationship with the pair, due to internal shifting at the network. Elliot retired, and left the promotion to pursue other interests. Owens soldiered on alone at the helm, and when it looked like things were going to get tough for the PNW promotion, a glimmer or new prosperity shone down on him.
It looked as though he had found the missing piece of the puzzle when Owens ran across an old bowling alley for sale. Seeing past the overhaul needed to the possibilities that it held within, he bought the facility in North Portland and began renovations immediately. He gutted the structure and set it up as the new home for Portland Wrestling. The Portland Sports Arena was now in operation, and the word was getting out all across the Northwest and into Canada that Oregon was becoming a place to congregate to. The next decade would be the one that really opened things up for Owned and PNW on the national stage.
The influx of star power into the PNW territory steadily grew stronger as the Seventies got rolling. Many of wrestling’s biggest names made their way into the area and stopped off to make huge impacts before moving on to the East Coast, and Minneapolis markets to cement their legacies in the business. One of the first to show up was a ripped Fijian, with the propensity for flight.
James Reiher was born on May 18, 1943 in Fiji, in the midst of the fighting in the Pacific during WWII. His family migrated through the Marshall Islands, and ended up in Hawaii as young James was becoming a teen. He was an avid bodybuilder and worked out in the gym of professional wrestler Dean Ho. Lots of future wrestling stars worked out there and James fit right in with them. He even won a few bodybuilding competitions in Hawaii, but it was the world of wrestling that he ultimately decided to take a crack at.
In the early Seventies he relocated to the Northwest and sought out Owens’s thriving PNW promotion. James decided to change and ring attire over the course of his time in Portland. He adopted the name that led him to fame and fortune, when he started wrestling as Jimmy Snuka. He captured his first PNW Heavyweight title from Bull Ramos in 1973. Ramos, who had gotten to be famous for his hard hitting heel style, and had a match where he broke Moondog Mayne’s arm so bad the bone was sticking out through the skin. Ramos is also credited with creating what would later be known as the Texas Bullrope Match. Snuka held the Title six times during his tenure there as well as capturing the Tag Titles half a dozen times with partner Dutch Savage as well. It was his feud that lasted nearly two years with another future WWF superstar, that really drew money in Portland.
Long before his time with Vince in New York, and his run as skeptic extraordinaire for his Tru Tv show, Conspiracy Theory, Jesse “The Great” Ventura hit the northwest wrestling territory in the mid-Seventies after breaking into the business in the Central States territory. He fought both Jimmy Snuka and Dutch Savage independently during feuds, capturing the PNW Title from both men. The first time from Snuka in August of 1975, and the second in July of 1976, from Dutch Savage. Snuka won his sixth and last Championship from Ventura in 1977, but departed the promotion for the Texas territory not long after, at the end of 1977. Ventura went on to compete in the tag rankings, and win his last Tag Title with Jerry Oates before he too left, in 1978, for his time in the AWA. He had won the tag titles twice with Bull Ramos, and twice with one of the men that electrified audiences in the Portland area, and caused everyone in the wrestling community to turn it’s head toward Oregon to see what all the talk was about.
Born Paul Perschmann in Las Vegas, on November 27, 1952, Buddy Rose made his debut into wrestling in the early Seventies. Trained by two of the best, Billy Robinson and Verne Gagne, the young Rose showed up in the PNW territory in the mid-Seventies. He began to work the tag team ranks and won his first Tag Team Championship on October 25, 1976. He would hold that title eleven more times between then, and 1988, with a myriad of partners. Rose had a substantial feud with Jimmy Snuka while in Portland, but it was the heat and fan reactions to his rivalry with Roddy Piper that really tore the house down. Piper had shown up in the territory in early 1979, after his run in Los Angeles and also for Roy Shire in San Francisco. The feud put both men on the wrestling map, and opened the door for them to move beyond Pacific Northwest and start making some serious money. They battled over the PNW Title, and created some historic matches from until the end of 1979 until Piper left the area for Georgia in 1980. Buddy Rose held the PNW Title eleven times before he left the territory and headed to the AWA in the mid-Eighties, where he and tag partner Doug Somers had their historic run of matches with The Midnight Rockers. These are the years that I was exposed to “Playboy” Buddy Rose, with his big gut and thinning, bleached blond hair. With Sherri Martel as their manager, Rose and Somers were firing on all cylinders, and a joy to watch work. As heel tag teams go, they were among the best.
The early Eighties were good to PNW as well, and they saw many new faces coming into the promotion to replace the gaps left by the departure of guys like Piper, Snuka, Ventura, and Rose. Young workers who were large, pumped, and lookin to make a name for themselves. Among these was a local Portland boy that was exploded onto the scene.
William Albert Haynes III was born on July 10, 1953 in Portland. He got his training in Stu Hart’s infamous Dungeon and also worked for awhile in Stampede Wrestling before returning to his home city and beginning his run with Owens and PNW. He changed his name and patterned his gimmick after the wildly popular Sixties protest film Billy Jack. He added his own last name to separate himself from the movie icon, after creator Tom Laughlin threatened a suit against him for infringement. For the next two years Billy Jack Haynes made his bones in Portland and won his first Championship in 1983 from Tom Billington, better known as The Dynamite Kid. Upon winning the strap, he would embark on a feud with Rip Oliver that would last until he left for the WWF in 1986. The two traded the PNW Championship back and forth five times during those three years.
Rip Oliver had a long tenure with Pacific Northwest. He held their Championship a record twelve times between April 1982, and September 1991. Like many of his PNW brethren, he worked in and out of Portland all through his wrestling career. He had a great heel gimmick known as “The Oliver Carry Out Service”, where he would bring a stretcher to the ring, and use the slogan “You break em, we take em.”. As a fan of heel work, that is damn glorious! Also, like many of the alumni from Portland, he worked for Vince in the powerhouse Eighties incarnation of the WWF. He even appeared on an episode of SNME, where he battled for the Intercontinental Title under the mask as Super Ninja, against Champ Ultimate Warrior. He is one of numerous journeyman wrestlers that made their reputations in the territories, only to fall into obscurity once the boys from New York took the game over. It’s a sad reality of how the WWF impacted many lives during their consolidation of the market in those days.
Billy Jack Haynes was in the WWF for only a short time, and left under a cloud of mysterious circumstances that has turned into a game of “he-said, she-said” in the later years of his career. After leaving NYC he returned to his home and opened up the Oregon Wrestling Federation in the early Nineties, and retired a few years later in 1996. He has not been without controversy in his career, but it can’t be argued that he created one of the most memorable gimmicks in wrestling. He was one of many workers from that generation that filed suit against the WWF(E) in 2014, only to see the case dismissed two years later. Haynes continues to live in Oregon.
Roddy Piper, Jesse Ventura, and Jimmy Snuka all went on to become huge stars in the McMahon camp. They all had the foresight to head to the Northeast at the right time, and all had extremely marketable gimmicks that Vince could run to the bank with. These careers will be examined further in the final episode of Wrestling Territories, when we look at the WWF.
“Playboy” Buddy Rose went on to the WWF as well, and had a short run there that ended in the early Nineties. His gimmick of the out of shape, sex symbol was so over, that Vince McMahon reportedly only allowed Rose to be exempt from his regimented workout program that all other superstars were required to adhere to. He had his retirement match in Tampa, at the 2005 Wrestle Reunion show. He partnered with longtime ally Col. DeBeers, and faced two of his most fierce rivals in Roddy Piper and Jimmy Snuka. His years of working the portly, fleet of foot heel finally caught up with him in 2008 when he passed away at his home in Vancouver. Sugar diabetes and heart problems caused by his weight were cited as cumulative causes of his death. He was only fifty-six years old.
The Eighties took it’s toll on Pacific Northwest, as the Oregon Boxing and Wrestling Commission restructured it’s policies, and tightened down on the promoters and wrestlers that were forced to work under them. That, with the continued encroachment of the WWF, and newly founded WCW in Atlanta, sucked the talent pool dry not only at PNW, but nationwide. The last dagger to the heart of the promotion came in 1991, when their Portland Wrestling was canceled after thirty-eight years of broadcasting. It was the longest running non-news program on television when it was taken off the air.
Don Owens tried to continue on but finally retired from promoting in 1992, and sold his PNW promotion lock, stock, and barrel to referee Sandy Barr, the father of Jesse Barr, aka future WWF talent, Jimmy Jack Funk. Owens then sold the building that was his Portland Sports Arena to a local church. He passed away on August 1, 2002 at the ripe old age of ninety.
While the video library of Pacific Northwest Wrestling isn’t as readily available as some that you may find, that promotion rivals Mid-South in the level of stars, and gimmicks that were created there. As I said above, I was unfortunate, in that this is one of the few territories from those days that I did not have access to. The matches I’ve found are great ones, and can be found on YouTube, even though some may be in poor condition. I remember well, reading about them, and all the other territories in Pro Wrestling Illustrated and the other magazines I’d scour through while Mom was grocery shopping when I was a little kid. The magazine rack at our Food Town grocery store, which is long since gone, was always a favorite haunt of mine. I miss those days.
Until next week Bruthas and Sistas, remember; Our wrestling history is gold….DIG IT!!
Portland Wrestling | November 22, 1980 | KPTV