Legendary Ray Stevens passes away at 60
A few months back, at a Northern California wrestlers reunion, Red Bastien introduced Ray Stevens and talked about his days when he carried pro wrestling in the area on his back.
In the 60s, the general consensus within pro wrestling was that Stevens had followed in the footsteps of Buddy Rogers as being the best all-around performer in the business. He combined not only having great matches, the ability to make an opponent look great, but also was consistently one of the biggest money draws. He took big bumps and bounced his way around the ring to classic matches, whether his opponent could work a lick or not, and continued doing so well into his 40s, as part of two of pro wrestling's all-time legendary tag teams with Nick Bockwinkel and Pat Patterson. He did so in a career that started early, turning pro young, at the age of 15 after being a YMCA wrestler out of Columbus, OH, and burning the candle at both ends and in the middle as well for most of the next 45 years. Not only did he gain a reputation within the business as a world champion drinker and carouser in a business where those things were a way of live, a reputation as being the greatest bump taker in a business of bump takers, and gained a reputation for being fearless in many other sports and activities in life among a group of people that constantly tried to one-up each other.
Stevens shrugged off his special talents in and out of the ring and not-so-jokingly remarked that he hated all those years of being in the main events every night, because it cut into his beer drinking and women chasing time.
Stevens was a legend not just to the fans in the area, but among the wrestlers themselves, for living a lifetime filled with wild antics that coined a phrase in the business that "God takes care of those who don't take care of themselves, little children, small animals and Ray Stevens."
That same night, Stevens joked to Bastien, a former running mate, that they had each lived the life of ten men, and that was by 1958.
Carl Raymond Stevens passed away in his sleep on the morning of 5/3 at the age of 60 at his home in Fremont, CA, between San Jose and Oakland. He was born September 5, 1935 in Point Pleasant, WV. He left in his wake the history of pro wrestling in this part of the country. Its most famous wrestler. Its most famous angles. Its most famous matches. It was like the closing chapter of a time that ended long ago that millions grew up watching. The cause of death was believed to have been a heart attack, possibly from a bad reaction to booze and pills as he had been out drinking brandy and beer that night and took some pills before going to bed. Funeral services were set for 2 p.m. on 5/11 at the Fremont Memorial Chapel on Peralta Blvd. with his body to be cremated.
"He was doing excellent after his quadruple bypass (a little over a year ago)," remembered Alexis Smirnoff, who had been friends with him for decades, crossing paths with him in places like Montreal, Georgia and Australia and had hung out with him regularly since he moved back to the Bay Area. "He was always in a good mood, happy-go-lucky. He was one of the best wrestlers the business ever had. Everyone liked him because he made no enemies and always worked his butt off."
"He had one of the most fun lives of anybody who ever lived. He made a lot of money. He spent a lot of money. And he traveled the world," said Therese Theis, real name Grace Patton, who he married when he was 17 and she was already a top woman pro wrestler, and he credited her with teaching him how to work. "He was really something special in the wrestling business."
In the late 1980s, I was a semi-regular guest on a popular sports talk show on KCBS radio where every six weeks or so we did a segment on pro wrestling. Without fail, nearly every show, somebody would call up and bring up an incident and ask if I remembered it, which took place more than 25 years earlier--in 1962--and talked about it as if it were yesterday and with more passion than anyone talked about whatever big angles were run on television that month.
Pepper Gomez, a former bodybuilding champ in the early 50s who turned wrestler and became a big draw in the area particularly among the Mexican-Americans after being a headliner in Texas, was being pushed in the area as the top babyface with a gimmick of being the man with the cast iron stomach. In every match, wrestlers would punch him in the stomach and then sell it as if they had hurt their hands while Gomez would laugh at the blows. A demonstration was set up once where a car drove over his stomach to no effect. Another demonstration was set up where a group of wrestlers would jump off a ladder onto his stomach, also to no effect.
Enter Ray Stevens, the heel who for the past two years was the big star of a promotion that was already on fire. Roy Shire, who opened up a territory in Northern California in 1960, brought in his former tag team partner from Ohio, Indiana and Georgia, where the two, as the Shire Brothers, Roy & Ray, had held versions of the world tag team titles and made national headlines with a worked feud against famous boxer Archie Moore. On Shire's second show at the Cow Palace, Stevens, who came into the territory billed as United States champion having supposedly beaten Bobo Brazil in Detroit, a title he would go on to hold a record nine times, defended against Bill Melby. Stevens came into town and immediately began running down the city of San Francisco, talking about what a horrible place it was to live. While this was old-hat in pro wrestling, it worked like crazy in San Francisco because it had never been done before and because Stevens was particularly rude about how he did it, in the mold of a Fred Blassie, right down to calling foes, fans and television announcer Walt Harris pencil-neck geeks. People in San Francisco, one of the biggest tourist centers in the world, had never heard anyone insult their city before and had never had a promotion use television as strongly and the result was a sellout crowd for the debut of Stevens and the United States heavyweight title. When that was combined with Stevens' ability to work the crowd in the ring as well, it started a run of big houses with him on top that lasted the next 11 years.
In the famous angle, Stevens came out and started yelling that the other wrestlers weren't jumping hard enough onto Gomez' stomach. So Gomez let him jump off the ladder, again to no effect. He then claimed the other wrestlers weren't jumping from a high enough distance, since all the jumps were from halfway up the ladder. So being the leading daredevil of his time, he climbed to the top of the ladder, jumped onto Gomez' stomach, and again he didn't sell it. So he did it one more time, and instead dropped his knee to Gomez' throat, called in those days the "Bombs Away," which became the most dreaded finishing maneuver in this part of the country. Gomez was coughing up blood by the end of the angle, something unheard of in those days, and left the territory for several weeks with the story being that he may not ever be able to talk again let alone wrestle again because of ruptured vocal chords. When Gomez returned for his grudge match, it broke a record set by Elvis Presley for the largest crowd ever to attend an event at the Cow Palace in San Francisco--in excess of 17,000 fans--roughly 2,000 fans more than the buildings capacity at the time, with thousands more turned away and a $65,000 house, which stood as a Northern California record for nearly 20 years. The crowd is still the largest for any event ever at the Cow Palace, for any pro wrestling event ever in Northern California, and with the exception of perhaps the 1993 AAA show at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, would be the largest indoor crowd ever to attend wrestling in California. Stevens selling out the Cow Palace wasn't all that unusual in those days, as during a 12 month period in 1961-62, he was arguably the biggest draw in pro wrestling averaging 12,000 fans every two weeks and drawing approximately $1 million in the building, figures that were totally unheard of anywhere in the world during that time period since there were few arenas of that size that drew crowds that large so regularly. But that night was like nothing ever seen before. When it was over, with so many turned away, Shire started talking about sending the rematch to Candlestick Park and talked of breaking the Buddy Rogers-Pat O'Connor record for the biggest crowd in pro wrestling history set the year before.
"The fire department got really mad at us," recalled Gomez about their first Cow Palace match. "I think we'd have drawn 50,000 people (for the rematch) to Candlestick Park."
It didn't materialize, as Stevens, who was as much if not more of a daredevil outside the ring as he was in the ring, broke his ankle in a go-cart race and was out of action for eight months. By the time he could return, Gomez had been programmed in another direction, and by the time the two could be brought back together, the fire wasn't there to do a ballpark show. However, largely based on that angle, Stevens and Gomez were able to draw against each other for the next five years in both singles and tag team matches before briefly forming a championship tag team.
"Shire thought we could do it (outdoors) later on, but when the time came for him to return and have our rematch, he didn't want to chance it.
"We had a lot of great matches," Gomez remembered. "Of all the wrestlers I ever faced, and I wrestled Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne, Killer Kowalski, Don Leo Jonathan, The Bruiser, (Edouardo) Carpentier, Wilbur Snyder, Pat O'Connor, to me, he was the best heel I ever wrestled, and I'm not saying that because he just died because I've always said it. I knew where he was all the time. I didn't like him at the time, but today I look back and smile a lot about it."
"They (Shire and Stevens) came here together," remembered Harris, the television voice of pro wrestling in Northern California during the 1960s who became more famous nationally as the voice of Roller Derby. "He was Shire's meal ticket because he could do amazing things in the ring. The fans loved him. They loved him even when they hated him. We ran a popularity contest in `61 or `62 for the fans to vote in and it shocked everyone when he won it, because when we'd go to the arena, everyone would boo him."
Harris recalled one famous angle when Stevens, still a heel, bought him a suit to apologize for all the grief he'd given him over the years. By the end of the hour, Stevens was mad at Harris again and he ripped the suit to bits.
"Ray did a lot of crazy things, some you could print and some you couldn't," said Harris. "He had a tag team partner who was gay (in real life, not in storyline nor known among virtually any fans) and we talked about on the air how a wrestler had just gotten married in the ring in Hawaii. We were always in competition with Hawaii to see who could draw the biggest crowds. Stevens immediately said that he could guarantee his partner would never get married in a wrestling ring."
"I met him in 1965 in Australia for Jim Barnett," said Dory Funk, who was later business partners with him in the 70s in the Amarillo promotion when Stevens and Terry Funk combined their wrestling with rodeo bulldogging. "Ray had been there for about a week before I got there and he was already the top draw there. Ray and Mark Lewin had a great run in Australia. I worked with him in Melbourne and he did a fabulous job. An action shot of our match was in the newspaper. I saved it for a long time and wished I still had it. I think it may have been the only singles match we ever worked together.
"He had a terrific attitude. He'd bust his tail to have a good match with anyone. A guy came into the territory, Hercules Cortez, who did a strong man gimmick. When Barnett told us, the guys all had long faces because nobody wanted to work with the gimmick. Ray then volunteered, saying that he could draw money with the guy because the guy drew money elsewhere, and he worked with him and drew money with him. I was 22 years old, a kid in the business, and learned a lot from him in 12 weeks. He had a great influence on me as far as the kind of attitude you should have being the top guy in that it becomes your job to make everyone else look good."
"When he got in the ring, you immediately knew you were seeing something out of the ordinary," remembered Ed Giovanetti (pro wrestler Moondog Moretti), who started watching Stevens every few weeks at the Cow Palace from the beginning of his run when his brother took him to the matches starting when he was three years old. "You could tell by the way he carried himself and the way everyone reacted to him that he wasn't just another wrestler. He could make anyone shine. He could make an opening match wrestler seem like the best wrestler in the world. He made every match seem like not only the most important match you had ever seen but the best match you had ever seen."
While the Gomez angle and subsequent match was clearly the most famous, his matches with the likes of Cowboy Bob Ellis, Dick the Bruiser, Wilbur Snyder, Bobo Brazil, Domenic DeNucci, Big Bill Miller, Bearcat Wright, Bill Watts and Fritz Von Erich were also long remembered. On an international level, his most famous match during his reign as King of San Francisco was against Bruno Sammartino. Stevens, at the time was billed as world heavyweight champion on the West Coast while Sammartino was WWWF world champion and the king of the wrestling magazines, which at the time were the only source of information outside the local region for the serious fans. Stevens scored a count out win in the July 15, 1967 match after using his Bombs Away in a title vs. title match at the Cow Palace. At that period in time, NWA rules allowed titles to change via count out and count outs were considered clean finishes in the territory, although not on the East Coast. This politically enabled Sammartino to keep his title in his area while Stevens could be regarded as having cleanly beaten him in his area. Lou Thesz once even lost the NWA heavyweight title to Whipper Watson via a count out finish and Stevens' U.S. title several times changed hands with count outs. Stevens was announced as unified world champion that night, which fully established him in all the area fans' eyes as the top wrestler in the world.
"He had the reputation of being the very best worker (in the world)," Funk said about that time period. "If you ask most of the guys from those days, they'd say when Ray was in California, that he was the best. There are great workers and there are guys who drew big money and he had the whole thing together. He was a wild man, a folk hero to the guys. He was Ric Flair before Ric came along."
With the exception of Gomez, his greatest area rival was probably his long-time tag team partner, Patterson. Known as "The Blond Bombers" in their heyday, (Stevens first nickname in California was Ray "Blond Bomber" Stevens), the two were considered by many as the best tag team in the world in the 60s and were the total prototype of numerous teams that followed including the Flair & Greg Valentine tag team of the late 70s in the Carolinas and even the Brian Pillman & Steve Austin tandem in WCW in 1993. By the time of their feud, the inevitable babyface turn had taken place, making Stevens the most popular wrestler ever to appear in the area at least until the marketing of Hulk Hogan took wrestling by storm. Even at his peak, Hogan never matched Stevens' peak as a draw in the area.
Ironically, the feud with Patterson had an similarity to the Gomez feud. The two were set to have a grudge match on August 9, 1969 at the Cow Palace for Stevens' title, but two days before the match, with a big house expected, Stevens broke his leg while racing motorcycles. Patterson captured the vacant title and held it for an 11 month reign, downing one babyface after another before the inevitable showdown with the one person fans thought was going to master him. The first and most remembered Stevens-Patterson match was on July 11, 1970, an old-style Texas death match. Stevens, who never lost a Texas death match in the territory until his send-off in the territory in 1971, captured the U.S. title from his Bombs Away rival for the ninth and what turned out to be the final time, with Haystacks Calhoun as referee.
At 5-foot-8 1/2 and 225 to 235 pounds, he was short and thick giving the appearance of a fireplug type. Still, the most noticeable part of his physique, particularly after his late 30s, was his well-earned beer belly. Size was never a detriment in California, as Stevens' ability as a performer and a talker made people believe he could tear up anyone, no matter how big or how imposing they looked. In most cases that was probably the case, as his success in out of the ring brawls was also well known in the area since he had a propensity in those days for regularly getting press he wasn't looking for regarding his out of the ring antics, whether it be causing trouble in bars, brawls with people who challenged him at the beach, his non-wrestling antics racing and steer wrestling or his troubles with the IRS. His ability to carry an opponent made, while the match was going on, fans believe that even the most lowly of jobbers, at least for one moment, was on the verge of scoring the upset of the century and beating him. It was a ring style that was the missing link between Buddy Rogers and Ric Flair. In fact, Flair's debut in Minneapolis in 1972 came during the period where Stevens & Bockwinkel were the top heels in the area. It included being the first wrestler to consistently come off the top rope, and the innovator of taking the flip into the turnbuckles ala Flair, hit his head on the post, and flip back in ala Shawn Michaels.
"When you talk pro wrestling in Northern California and I run into people at schools putting on shows a lot, Ray Stevens is the name that always comes up first," said Roland Alexander, who also grew up watching Stevens at the Cow Palace and runs an area wrestling school and independent promotion. "Second is Pepper Gomez, but Stevens is always first. Even after Hogan came along, the first name people say is still Ray Stevens."
Stevens left San Francisco as a regular in 1971 to join the more-lucrative AWA, run by Verne Gagne. While Shire's circuit had several more strong years, mainly built around Patterson, it never came close to the levels it had achieved with Stevens. After Patterson also left for greener pastures in 1977, business fell off and Shire was forced to close it down as a territory in 1979 but continued to run the Cow Palace until early 1981 when Shire gave up the ghost in the wake of competition from Gagne and local football hero Leo Nomellini, who had both Patterson and Stevens in their camp.
"He was always a little boy who never grew up," recalled Harris. "He never paid taxes for years. For years Verne Gagne had wanted him but he didn't want to go. Gagne offered him a big amount of money if he'd come work there and he'd take care of all his income tax problems and the offer was too good to turn down."
"The guy made a lot of money in wrestling and threw away a lot of money and ended up with shit," Gomez said.
Some 20 years after his match with Gomez, after the San Francisco territory he had put on the map as the country's hottest had ceased to exist, Stevens, was still for a time the hottest heel in the hottest feud in pro wrestling, after dropping Jimmy Snuka on his head at a WWF television taping in Allentown, PA leading to a series of matches up and down the East Coast that included several major sellouts which turned Snuka into one of the biggest drawing cards in the world at the time. All in all, Stevens wrestled for 42 years, most of it as a headliner, with his final match just a few years ago. He was probably the only headliner whose career started when wrestling was on network television in the early 50s, and continued through it getting back on 33 years later. His career on top started with Gorgeous George, through numerous eras and icons world wide, through Archie Moore in Atlanta, the Bruiser in Indianapolis, Gene Kiniski in Ohio, Curtis Iaukea in Hawaii, Lewin in Australia, everyone from Bruno on down in California, to Gagne and Billy Robinson in the Midwest, all the way to challenging Ric Flair at the Charlotte Coliseum for the NWA title, feuding with Snuka and Bob Backlund in Madison Square Garden, appearing as a dual headliner with Hulk Hogan in the AWA, and perhaps his last main events in a major territory were in the AWA with Bockwinkel challenging the Road Warriors in 1985 for the AWA tag team titles. He had ceased to be a full-time main event performer in the big money territories shortly after the Snuka run ended. A combination of age, injuries and conditioning had taken its toll by then, not to mention the oncoming era where steroids and monstrous size ruled the roost and the older and smaller performers and those without physiques, even with legendary names and resumes, appeared out of place.
He was a main eventer by the age of 17, when he first made his name in a 1952 feud with George. The matches were promoted by posters with publicity pictures of Stevens wearing a diaper, nicknamed, "The Diaper Kid" because he was a heel and so young to be working the main events against the biggest drawing card of the era.
In between there were main events throughout the world, with Stevens spending most of the 70s based out of the AWA in Minneapolis. It was in the AWA that he was given the nickname of "The Crippler," (the person Paul Heyman patterned his idea for Chris Benoit around) largely based on an angle where he used his bombs away on Dr. X (Dick Beyer) to supposedly broke his leg (allowing him to leave on an extended Japan tour). Although maintaining his reputation as a top worker in the AWA, most remember Stevens, who would be about the opposite of a conditioning freak, wasn't the same performer after returning from the 1969 broken leg. Although he maintained a reputation for being able to carry a punching bag to a quality match and being among the premier performers in the business, the Ray Stevens that fans in Northern California raved about had lost a step by the time he went to the larger AWA and WWWF territories in the 70s.
The AWA was largely a tag team territory in the early part of the decade since Gagne, who held its world title, was in his late 40s and only wrestled a few shots per month. So the territory was carried by its tag team champions, Stevens, the hard-ass street tough who would use his Bombs Away, an illegal maneuver under AWA rules, behind the refs back to draw heat and score illegal wins; and Bockwinkel, the college educated thinking pretty boy type. The two were a contrast both in the ring and on interviews, with Bockwinkel using his erudite million dollar words, and Stevens immediately contrasting it with phrases like, when talking about frequent rival Robinson, "There are only two good things that ever came out of England and Elizabeth Taylor's got both of them." While still holding the AWA tag team title, Stevens ventured into the WWWF, at the time considered a big man's only territory when it came to heels, for title shots against then-champion Pedro Morales including a couple of Madison Square Garden sellouts. By he and Bockwinkel's third title reign, the two had added manager Bobby Heenan to the team, which was generally considered the greatest tag team in the world during the decade of the 70s. After Bockwinkel captured the world title, Stevens made his babyface turn and was a frequent challenger.
"God love him. He was still smoking and drinking until the day he went," said Bockwinkel, after learning of his death. "He loved toys. He always had to have the fastest snowmobile, fastest boat, fastest car. He was always upbeat. He was never jealous. If Ray Stevens said a bad word about someone, they obviously deserved it. He was as charitable in the ring as you can get and I learned so much from him."
All his excesses began to catch up with him as he underwent quadruple-bypass surgery at Stanford University after suffering a heart attack while living in Minnesota in early 1995. Having spent money as fast as he earned it for most of his wrestling career, he returned to California, and moved back in with first wife. He went right back to his old lifestyle without missing a beat. To the end he was the source of amazement among his contemporaries who joked when seeing him about how he steadfastly ignored his doctor's advice about toning down his drinking and smoking and if anything, stepped it up a notch. But one thing had changed. Stevens didn't like to attend thing like reunions of old wrestlers, because it cut into his valuable drinking time, and he'd already missed enough of that in his years working last on the card. But over the past year he changed and attended as many of them as he could, not just the Cauliflower Alley Club and a Northern California wrestlers reunion, but also ones in Washington and Las Vegas and even in Pensacola, in a territory he may have never even worked, apparently to get together with Don Kalt (Don Fargo), who was one of his earliest tag team partners in the early 50s. Apparently even God can't look after those who don't look out for themselves forever. And after the heart attack, maybe even Ray Stevens himself began to recognize it. But he was still determined to be Ray Stevens to the end.
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