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History 12 - Brisco Follows Hodge to the Top

In his autobiography, Jack Brisco says his biggest heroes when he was growing up in Blackwell, Oklahoma, in the 1950s and early ‘60s were Lou Thesz and Dan Hodge. He would go to the local drugstore to pick up a professional wrestling magazines and dream of the day when he was able to be a pro wrestler. But first he had to go through the amateur ranks.

Brisco was a sensational high school athlete. He won three state championships in Oklahoma, and was also an all-state fullback on the football team. He could have played football at the University of Oklahoma or at many other colleges, but he finally decided to attend Oklahoma State University and concentrate solely on wrestling. The Cowboys of OSU had the best record of any college in history when it came to wrestling (this was before the University of Iowa program soared to the top under Coach Dan Gable).

In 1964, Brisco was NCAA runnerup at 190 pounds as a junior, losing his finals match to Harry Houska of Ohio University, 5-3. However, he breezed through his senior year without a close match, winning 23 in a row and winning the NCAA title at 190 pounds in 1965. Within a week, he was wrestling pro. And in his first match, he faced a brawling-style wrestler named Ronnie Garvin.

“When the bell rang, I shot in behind Ronnie and took him down,” wrote Brisco in his autobiography. “He immediately sat out and I caught his elbow over my eye and it split my eyelid wide open. I got the win, a cut over my eye and fifteen dollars for my trouble.

“The next Monday, when I got back to campus in Stillwater for class, a lot of my friends cam running up to me to check out my eye to see if the cut was real. I think they were surprised that it was.”

Even though matches were prearranged by then, cuts and injuries were a big part of pro wrestling for decades. As his career wore on, Brisco found out that his amateur background wasn’t very important in the pro world and he learned to “work” matches to excite the crowd. Still, he had a fierce pride in what he could accomplish on the mat and from time to time would let his foes know they were in the ring with a real, true wrestler. Brisco was always in top shape and could wrestle for as long as it took, and throw in some real wrestling moves that left his foes bewildered and nervous.

After working his way up the ranks, mostly in the South and Southwest, Brisco won the NWA world heavyweight title in Houston, Texas, on July 20, 1973. It was the same title that had been owned by Gotch, Caddock, Stecher and Thesz. He was champion for nearly three years, and Brisco hit the road with the NWA belt, wrestling hundreds of matches all over the country.

However, one of the most memorable matches of his life came outside the ring. To the brotherhood of true wrestlers, where Thesz presided, there was always an interest in who could beat who in the backroom. They really cared about what the other top shooters could do. In his book, Brisco described what it was like when he and Billy Robinson, a very dangerous wrestler with a top pedigree, decided to test one another’s wrestling skills late one night: Robinson had learned the submission style of wrestling during seven tough years in the legendary Wigan, England, “snake pit,” where matches were held on concrete floors and the goal was to make the foe surrender.

“With Billy being a ‘shooter’ and with me being a proponent of the American amateur style we became friends right away,” wrote Brisco. “As we traveled around Australia together, we would engage in lively discussions of which style was better  ― the strength of the moves taught in Wigan or the finesse I learned on the mats back in Oklahoma. Hooking took a lot of skill in being able to maneuver an opponent to get him into position to apply one of the submission holds. I had yet to meet anyone who could set me up to get me in position to apply their hold and have me submit.

“Of course, neither of us was going to convince the other that his style was second best. Billy saw this as a challenge to his ability as a ‘hooker.’ There was only one way to find out, or so we both agreed.”

The two champions were having some beers one night in Melbourne when the discussion turned more intense. About two a.m., they returned to Brisco’s room and set the furniture in the hallway…. and the talk turned into a contest.

“Billy said, ‘Let me show this move.’ I said, ‘Okay,’ and after his demonstration it was my turn to say, ‘Let me show you this.’ We traded moves back and forth and as we went along the moves got a little quicker and a little more forceful. Then a counter, then a counter to the counter and we were…off and wrestling.

“Man, was he tough! A lot of wrestlers I met throughout the years fancied themselves as shooters. They were adept at demonstrating holds but the real test was if they could get those devastating moves of submission holds in an actual match. Most of them suffer from delusions of grandeur. They couldn’t hit those moves if their lives depended on it. But Billy was the exception by far. He could not only demonstrate the moves, he could hit them from anywhere.

“We wrestled for ten or fifteen minutes, then we stopped, had a couple more beers and went at it again. Another ten minutes of wrestling, another beer or two, and more wrestling. I broke a couple of fingers on his right hand and he almost broke my foot. My ankle was sprained so severely that I could barely put any weight on it and couldn’t get my wrestling boot on over it. I can only imagine what the other guests on the floor thought was happening.

“The next morning… our faces were swollen, hands and ankles working far less easily than they had a few hours earlier and we had a plane to catch.”

Like Lou Thesz wrote in 1993, there was a day when pro wrestlers really cared about who could do what in a ring. It was an attitude that was exemplified even into the 1970s, when warriors like Billy Robinson and Jack Brisco got together in a hotel room in Australia to see who had what.

‘Brisco explained the professional world of the 1970s thusly:

“Although professional wrestling is more of an exhibition than a competition, it still remains a very competitive sport. Some guys will do anything to ensure getting ahead. They may try to hurt you in the ring or embarrass you by trying to make you look clumsy, inept or just plain stupid.”

Hodge and Brisco were two of the best amateur wrestlers to ever step foot in a ring and brought great credibility to the sport. Brisco spent nearly two decades in the business and then retired to his Florida home. He stayed out of the public eye but after the publishing of his biography in 2004, he agreed to make an appearance at the WIN Memorabilia Show at the NCAA Division I Championships in St. Louis.

“I was looking forward to spending some time with Dan Hodge and meeting Dan Gable,” said Brisco with a big smile. “I was really impressed with the size of the arena and the crowd at the event and the high level of amateur wrestling. It was a real hoot for me to be there. I love amateur wrestling and all it did for me.”

For a wide range of gift shops items — including books, posters, videos and trading cards for wrestling — be sure and check the web site of the International Wrestling Institute and Museum (641-791-1517) in Newton, Iowa. The web site is: www.wrestlingmuseum.org

Story By Mik Chapman, Newton Iowa

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