I originally wrote this article three or four years ago for a wrestling website. I’m reposting some of these old articles because they’ve been getting some attention. At the time I wrote under another name, so if you’ve read this before, that’s why. If not enjoy it for the first time. I should also mention, at the bottom there is an update to this story.
LEGENDS: Bearcat Brown.
First a brief introduction. Before I left the online world I had plugged a column called “Legends” this is not that column, but its probably as close to that column as will ever see the light of day. My intentions originally were to talk about some true legends of pro-wrestling, combined with excerpts from legendary fans of pro-wrestling. Sadly, the column was just too much to work on, as well as really hard to finish now that I’ve moved. However there were plenty of items in the column worth speaking about, and so I’m going to take the pieces of my one “Legends” column, and make a open-ended series of columns highlighting various legends.
Now a little background. By Legends I don’t mean Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Terry Funk or BY GOD Stone Cold. No, I mean REAL legends. Guys that don’t have books, don’t have DVD collections, guys that are legends because their names still exist in certain circles, because these people created memories.
An unverified story handed down from earlier times, especially one popularly believed to be historical.
A body or collection of such stories.
One that inspires legends or achieves legendary fame.
I want to take you to a different time, a different place. The era is the late 1960′s – early 1970′s. Midsouth. Pro-Wrestling’s hotbed, during a long forgotten time. Its the birthplace of many things in Pro-Wrestling, it contained the best tag-team wrestling, EVER, bar none. It is perhaps the seeds of a new chapter in Pro-Wrestling (NWA-TNA), and without a doubt it is the longest lasting territory despite the McMahon dynasty. But the time we are entering is before WrestleMania, before PPVs and Cable TV Shows. BEFORE WWF……
There are a number of cities that strongly supported the business of professional wrestling during the glory years of the territorial system. One such city is Chattanooga, Tennessee. Nick Gulas promoted wrestling events in the city dating back to 1950. Gulas, along with partner Roy Welch, would see Chattanooga prove to be one of the major stopovers in the territory that covered parts of Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky and in time, Indiana, as well.
While the weekly business of wrestling in the 1950s in Chattanooga was built on the stout shoulders of regulars such as the Welch brothers (Roy, Lester, Jack and Herb), Rowdy Red Roberts, Don and Al Greene, Tex Riley and Corsica Joe and Corsica Jean, it was also sprinkled by special appearances and short runs by major attractions such as Gorgeous George, Verne Gagne, Lou Thesz, Danny McShane, Ray Stevens, Buddy Rogers, Freddie Blassie, and Chattanooga native Eddie Gossett, who would later become Eddie Graham, one of the business most respected wrestling figures. The 1950s are also significant because it introduced several of the city’s favorites, Len Rossi and Jackie and Don Fargo.
The 1960s saw Rossi and the Fargos, now including Sonny, and briefly, Joe (Louie Tillet), continue to wow city fans. The decade also saw the emergence of Gentleman Saul Weingeroff and the debut of Tojo Yamamoto. Others of significance who would spend some time appearing in Chattanooga during the 1960s include Danny Hodge, Crazy Luke Graham, Kurt and Karl Von Brauner, Sputnik Monroe, Don and Luke Fields, Mephisto and Dante, Jerry Jarrett, Buddy Fuller, Kanji Inoki (Antonio Inoki) and even a young Jack Brisco.
Gulas had used television to supplement his promotion in Chattanooga. In the early part of the 1960s, he hooked up with Chattanooga broadcasting legend Harry Thornton. Thornton would become Gulas’ Chattanooga co-promoter and, by 1966, the TV show debuted on WDEF-TV, where it would remain until 1980. Often, when the weekly house show was on Saturday night, Gulas and Thornton would run a major angle on the live TV show (which aired for years at 5PM) hoping it would draw even more fans to the arena.
The 1970s saw the promotion continue to do well despite Rossi’s career being shortened by an automobile accident and the Fargos slowing down. It allowed others to make names for themselves in the business and many of those who worked for Gulas in the decade would reach great status in the business. Wrestlers such as Terry “The Hulk” Boulder (Hulk Hogan), Randy Savage, Jerry Lawler, Bill Dundee, Ricky Morton, Bobby Eaton, Robert Gibson, Dutch Mantel, Terry Gordy (who was from the area), Michael Hayes and numerous others would impact the business of professional wrestling for a number of decades to follow.
So we’re here in Nick Gulas wrestling. Who are we here to talk about? The one man who gets mentioned every time I talk Pro-Wrestling with my dad. Bearcat Brown. Who was Bearcat Brown, well here is a quote from my father on this particular legend.
“Bearcat Brown was one of the first real big guys to come into town, he wasn’t built like Hulk Hogan or those guys with He-Man doll bodies, but he was big. He had bleach blonde hair, and he was black. He was a smooth talker, he liked to style and profile, and at the time, no one had seen much of anything like him in the territory. But the best part was, he had a steel plate in his head! So when the time was right, he could knock the other guys out with a headbutt. Don & Al Greene used to fall to the mat in fear when Bearcat would threaten one of his patented headbutts.”
Yes folks, there was a time when a man’s gimmick was that he had a steel plate in his forehead. You just can’t make this stuff up. Sadly a gimmick that cool, would just be considered too “Old-school” and “corny” by today’s standards, but hell I’d pay $10 to see a guy with a metal plate in his bleach blonde head, throwing headbutts like its nobodies business. I’d love to give you a ton of statistics on Bearcat, but sadly they just don’t exist. I’m sure they do somewhere, but after many hours of research I can’t even find a definitive on what his REAL name was. He may or may not have been named Matt Jewell.
But one thing is for sure about Bearcat, this smooth talker-slick walker, was a pioneer. You see in the late 1960′s there were no black stars in the Mid-South. In fact there were only a handful of black stars in Pro-Wrestling, ANYWHERE in the world. Much less top drawing black stars. Yes, you often hear about “such & such” pioneered the way for guys like the Rock, and Booker T, but the reality is….Bearcat Brown REALLY did. Many guys would imitate Bearcat’s unique style over the years, including guys like Butch Reed. Bearcat entered the promotion in the late 1960′s, he was at first a heel. He was similar to Jackie Fargo, or as you modern day wrestling fans might say, Ric Flair. He strutted, had the bleach blonde hair, and talked a good game. Bearcat was different then those others though, cause A. He was Black, B. He was pretty big, and C. He had a fucking steel plate in his head!
However just like in today’s wrestling, when a heel is so good, and so popular its only a matter of time before they turn into a face. (See also, Austin, Steve. Cena, John.) So it happened, Bearcat Brown was now a face. But not just any face but by 1969 he was a top drawing face, fighting Dory Funk Jr. for the NWA title 2 out of 3 falls in one of the most highly anticipated title matches of its time. Afterall, Bearcat was one of the first major black challengers for the NWA title, and many thought he would be the first black World Heavyweight Champion.
From The Destroyer’s Official website:
“There are two matches that always stand out in my memory for emotion, crowd noise and response it pulled out of me and others attending (1969) Dory Funk Jr. vs Bearcat Brown for the NWA title 2 out of 3 falls. The noise the emotion that flowed down from the upper reaches of the auditorium was something – even as I type this – It still gives me a chill remembering that match.”
If Bearcat would have won, it’s likely we’d hear about him all the time. However, Bearcat didn’t, and as a result he’s lost in the annals of time. But not to fans of the Mid-South days. No in fact you’ll hear his name referenced a lot by the old timers. My dad still brings up Bearcat. Some still dislike him, simply because he was that first black heel.
So what about the race card? How did Bearcat handle that? Well Bearcat Brown was a face, so he didn’t play the race card. Of course heels ate it up. So what did they do to Bearcat? Check out this memorable angle for the early 70′s, that Bearcat participated in. Bearcat was attacked by Don & Al Greene and knocked out, then painted WHITE. Its unlikely a angle like that would pass today, but for the time it was great, great heel stuff that certainly got some activity at the gate.
The EVIL Don Greene.
Big Bad Bearcat Brown was mostly a tag team wrestler. He most often tagged with longtime fellow face and friend Len Rossi. Rossi of course, was one of the first wrestlers to have a “feared” dropkick. Bearcat Brown became the first regular African-American performer on the circuit and formed a memorable and major-drawing tag team with area favorite Len Rossi in 1969, the same year Jerry Jarrett debuted in the area.
Bearcat Brown & Len Rossi would actually become World Tag Team Champions. Battling such legendary teams of the time such as the aforementioned Don & Al Green as well as The Masked Interns managed by Dr. Ken Ramey. The last record of World tag title holders comes from the fall of 1969 when Len Rossi & Bearcat Brown were recognized as champions. While it is possible and very likely the tag titles were active in this area at this time, research has yet to uncover the exact lineage.
Len Rossi, who was also one of Gulas’ top stars, was injured in an automobile accident in late 1972. His injuries were severe enough to force him to retire from active competition. In the summer of 1973, a recovering Len came to watch his son, Joey, wrestle Sam Bass on Memphis TV. Joey defeated Bass with a sleeper hold. Bass’ partners in crime, Jerry Lawler and Jim White, then argue that Joey had illegally choked Bass. Tempers flare leading to Bass, Lawler and White attacking the injured Len and leaving him a beaten man. This lead to a series of matches pitting Lawler and White against Joey Rossi and Len’s longtime tag partner, Bearcat Brown.
Len Rossi‘s son, the late Joey Rossi. Tag Partner and Tag Champion with Bearcat Brown.
This would lead to another popular Rossi/Brown team as Bearcat Brown and Joey Rossi held the NWA Mid-America Tag Team Titles on two occasions in 1973. Bearcat Brown would go on in his career to team with WWF Hall of Famer Ernie Ladd, as well as NWA legend Bob Armstrong. Brown would remain primarily a tag team wrestler and teamed with others like Johnny Walker throughout his career.
Bearcat wrestled into the mid to late 1970′s, but what happened to Bearcat Brown since then is anyone’s guess. I’ve searched high and low on the internet and through various news clippings, but somewhere around the time of Gulas split with Jarrett and the formation of the USWA, Bearcat Brown is lost. Perhaps he was injured? Perhaps he died? Perhaps he still wrestles today somewhere. Its hard to say, there is only a handful of information about the legendary Bearcat Brown’s career on the internet. In fact, I can’t find a single picture of the fabulous Bearcat Brown. Some of which is likely because Wrestlers weren’t photographed a lot back then, add to that he was a black wrestler and you’ll see why it’d hard to find photos of Brown. I was able to locate a thumbnail of a photo of Bearcat Brown, but the details remain sketchy if this is indeed the legend. At the time there were several black wrestlers using the “Bearcat” moniker, most notably a Bearcat Wright. Hopefully someday Bearcat Brown will get his due in the Wrestling History books, complete with picture. Until then we’ll have to do with my “Butch Reed as Bearcat Brown”. If I do come across a better photo of him, of course I’ll pass it along.
The only known photo of Bearcat Brown. The search continues for more on this pioneer though, and maybe one day he‘ll be recognized as a true LEGEND of Pro-Wrestling.
But for today lets close our history books, and remember a true Pro-Wrestling Legend…..BEARCAT BROWN!
Bearcat Brown’s headbutt, a Len Rossi dropkick, a George Gulas karate chop, Saul Weingeroff’s whining, Tojo Yamamoto’s wooden shoe being used as a weapon, Jerry Lawler’s preening, the Fargo strut … those things can’t be duplicated again.
UPDATE: June, 4, 2009
A nice person named Marvin Knight contacted me on my old email account and passed along this photo of Bearcat Brown and Len Rossi. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to definitively see the man in the flesh. As I said in the column, this guy has sort of become a thing of legend around my family because it seems like my Dad always used to name drop Bearcat when talking about old school wrestling. It sort of became a running gag in my household.
It’s also come to my attention that Bearcat may have never dyed his hair. Although I can’t confirm either way on that one. Perhaps more research is needed. But it’s not easy to find information about stuff like this. But rest assured, I’m on it.
So behold! The face of Bearcat Brown!
Someone else contacted me that may be a relative of Bearcat Brown. So perhaps I’ll have more info on the infamous Bearcat to share with you in the near future. If anyone has Bearcat Brown info out there, please send it along to me.