Legendary Mr. Wrestling II at Mid-South Legends Fanfest on April 4 (Part I)

 

jvarsallone@miamiherald.com

What would you think if a masked man walked into a bank, hurried into a convenience store or even approached the President?

Well, if the masked man is Mr. Wrestling II, he is greeted with a smile and welcomed with open arms. Maybe not so much by the Secret Service, but definitely by President Jimmy Carter and his mom and big-time pro wrestling fan, the late Miss Lillian.

Mostly a fan favorite -- though II had his moments -- you can see this legend on WWE Network.

The shimmy, a patented running high knee lift and his fiery, sincere gift for gab, Mr. Wrestling II shined bright as one of the most popular wrestlers in the 1970s and 80s. He actually debuted in 1956, long before becoming Mr. Wrestling II.

Trained by Tony Morelli and the legendary Pat O'Connor, Johnny Rubberman Walker served as a journeyman wrestler. A mainstay for iconic Houston promoter Paul Boesch, Walker was dubbed Rubberman by Boesch because of his flexibility.

“I used to go to the park when I was young and did gymnastics,” he said. “They had the parallel bars, the rings, all that stuff. Not just gymnastics, I loved all athletics period.”

In 1972, Walker, semi-retired from the ring, ran a gas station in Tennessee. The Georgia promoter, Paul Jones, and his booker, Leo Garibaldi, asked him to return as the masked Mr. Wrestling II. He teamed with the original Mr. Wrestling I (Tim Woods). History was made.

Sporting a white mask and white trunks, Mr. Wrestling II quickly became a top star in Georgia, winning the Georgia title 10 times. During the 1970s, Jimmy Carter, the Governor of Georgia, won the election over Gerald Ford for President of the United States. Carter’s mother, Lillian, often attended the pro wrestling matches, cheering and meeting Mr. Wrestling II on several occasions.

The likeable Mr. Wrestling II starred throughout the Southeast, including Florida, and he spent quality time in Mid-South Wrestling, mentoring and then turning on Magnum T.A. to ignite a bitter feud.

Mr. Wrestling II, who also mentored or trained Mr. USA Tony Atlas and Ravishing Rick Rude, even feuded with Mr. Wrestling I. Those were the moments.

“Two is always better than one,” he noted.

Born in Charleston, S.C. and currently living in Hawaii, Mr. Wrestling II is 79.

“I’m talking about 33 years of professional wrestling, and I wore a mask for a long time,” he said. “Fans accepted me for who I was.”

Prior to the pro version, he wrestled amateur successfully for a YMCA in Hawaii. In the 1940s and 50s, many schools did not have amateur wrestling, but the YMCA did. Working out, playing various sports, he tried everything offered at the Y. There, he learned weight lifting techniques from one of the best, his friend, Tommy Kono, who too lives in Hawaii.

The only Olympic weightlifter in history to set world records in four different weight classes, Kono won gold at the 1952 Summer Olympics and 1956 Summer Olympics and a silver medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics. He won the World Weightlifting Championships six consecutive times (1953 to 1959) and set 21 world records. He is also a three-time Pan American Games champion (1955, 1959, 1963).

In 1976, Kono was head coach of the U.S. Olympic weightlifting team in the Summer Olympics in Montreal. He was also a successful bodybuilder, winning the Iron Man Mr. World title in 1954.

“He taught me a lot about weights and strength,” Mr. Wrestling II said. “I was never a bodybuilder. I never did look like King Kong, but I loved the workout of just getting stronger, strength. I improved my tendon strength. That’s sometimes even better than muscle strength.”

If amateur wrestling, gymnastics and weight lifting weren’t enough, how about this.

“When I was younger, I also did about three years of sumo wrestling,” he laughed.

Sumo wrestling? Japanese behemoths barreling into each other.

Living in Hawaii, he stood about 5-10 and weighed 190, considerably lighter than his opponents.

“A friend invited me down one day, and I said, ‘Well, heck, I’ll give it a try.’ Those guys were heavier than me, but I was extremely strong, and I had very good balance and coordination.”

He did something right, and they accepted him which was not easy for an American to do, especially those days.

“I had the great honor to workout with Azumafuji. He was the sumo grand champion of Japan [1949-53],” he said. “Here’s a guy as gentle as a lamb, nice as the day is long, and yet he was absolutely remarkable for someone so big. He was about 528 pounds.

“I thought, ‘I’ll give it a shot,’ and I hit him with everything I got, and he didn’t budge an inch. He was a sound young man and really knew his business.”

Sumo wrestling helped both transition to pro wrestling.

“I had a good outlook on balance and coordination, and that’s why I got interested in sumo,” he said. “Everything they do is strictly on their feet, and nothing can touch the ground but the bottom of their feet. Therefore, you have to create a tremendous amount of balance. You leanr how to shift your weight.”

Mr. Wrestling II battled the biggest and the best in the business including The Assassin, The Spoiler, The Masked Superstar, Cowboy Bill Watts, Jack Brisco, Buddy Colt, Magnum T.A., Jimmy Garvin, Tim Woods, The Minnesota Wrecking Crew (Ole and Gene Anderson), Larry Zbyszko and The Road Warriors.

• The Mid-South Legends Fanfest is Friday, April 4 at the Sigur Center, 8245 W. Judge Perez Dr. in Chalmette, near New Orleans.

Meet legends Cowboy Bill Watts, The Midnight Express (Beautiful Bobby Eaton and Loverboy Dennis Condrey) with Jim Cornette, Mr. Wrestling II, The Rock-n-Roll Express (Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson), Dark Journey, Mr. Olympia, Bill Dundee, Kamala and more for autographs, Q&A sessions, photo ops and a VIP Cajun dinner.

“It means a lot to me to meet the fans because fans still remember me, and that’s a treat within itself,” Mr. Wrestling II said. “I get the biggest thrill going to these fanfests, and as soon as I reveal myself, the people respond happily.”

The Internet can keep the legend going, growing for old school wrestlers. Younger fans can watch these warriors from a different era of the sport via YouTube and WWE Network. A different time, place and discipline for sure.

“I’m thrilled to know that fans can see me wrestle on the Internet. Some young fellas at fanfests have even made the remark that they’ve seen me wrestle by going on the Internet, and I say, ‘Well, how was it?,’” he chuckled.

Good then and still good now.

“I don’t watch wrestling anymore,” he said, “because it’s just not what it used to be.”

The Battle Lines live wrestling event starts at 7:30 p.m. and will feature the JYD Memorial Cup Battle Royal, Mickie James vs. Angelina Love, Tommy Dreamer, The Pope Elijah Burke, Chris Adonis, the Rock-n-Roll Express and Bill Dundee.

Log on to www.midsouthlegends.com for a VIP package and more.

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