The Old Pro From St. Joe
For many wrestlers, a chance to go into the Central States area and work for Heart of America Sports or Gust Karras was a dream that a lot of people had. From full-fledged heavyweights to the light heavyweights to women to midgets, they all came with visions of their spotlight in glory. Personal ego had nothing to do with it in those days.
Men the caliber of the former World's Heavyweight Champions like Bill Longson, Pat O'Connor, Orville Brown, Dory Funk Jr. and Harley Race have graced the ring at Des Moines Veterans' Coliseum. Light heavyweights like Leroy McGuirk, Ralph "Wild Red" Berry, Danny Hodge, Omar Atlas, Bobby Whitlock and a lot more were regulars at cards on Wednesday nights.
Women like Betty Niccoli, Mildred Burke, Jean Antoine, June Byers, Rhonda Jean, Kay Noble, and The Fabulous Moolah are just a few of the multi-talented female superstars to grace the ring at Des Moines.
Midget stars like Sky Lo Lo, Little Beaver, Lord Littlebrook, Little Bruiser, Little Tokyo, and Bobo Johnson are just a few names that come to mind in the midget category. These small people fought their hearts out for their moments of glory amongst the bigger stars, often stealing the show with their antics in and out of the ring.
It would be impossible to speak of some of the big stars who came to the area and not speak of Bob Orton Sr., the original Kansas Tornado from North Kansas City, Kansas. Bob began his career in the early 50's under the guidance of the big names in the Central States area. His training regimen included a 14-month training session with some pretty tough guys. One of the guys was Frank Aultman of Kansas City, Missouri. Frank was one mean hombre who neither gave anyone advice nor took any, either. He made his own set of rules, and if it hadn't have been for an impartial referee in his match with Orville Brown, Frank's name would have been added to the list of NWA Champions.
In 1951, Bob beat the current Central States Champ, Alo Leilani, and held the title for almost a year before losing it to a much bigger Ramon Torres. He campaigned for nearly another year-and-a-half, regained the title from Dave Sims, and held it from 1954 to 1955, when he went to Florida to wrestle for Cowboy Luttrell.
Bob won many regional titles in his many years on the mat, but the one he is so proud to have been a part of is the Southern Heavyweight belt he first won in 1963, beating Cowboy Bob Ellis in Jacksonville, Florida. He was a vicious wrestler in the ring and caused more riots in the business than any other man besides Dick The Bruiser. Bob was not the fastest man on the mat, nor was he the strongest. He used his brain to outsmart his opponents. He led them down a one-way lane till they were close enough and then unleashed a bevy of punches to his opponents' hearts and pinned the poor battered hulks in the middle of the ring.
It wasn't very often that his hand was raised in victory from a standing position. His matches were as exhausting to his foes as they were to him. Anyone who ever faced the Big "O" in the ring was in for the fight of their lives, whether they wanted it or not.
I had the auspicious pleasure of managing the Big "O" for about six months in the Central States in the early 70's, along with Black Angus, Roger Kirby, Harley Race, and a few others. Bob and I went to the Veterans' Auditorium one evening, and he was facing one of the men that had given him a lot of fierce matches in the area---Ronnie Etchison, the old pro from St. Joe.
Etchison had been trained along with Sonny Myers by promoter Gust Karras before Karras lost his leg due to Sugar. Ron always said that he had the ability, the know-how, and the want to win at all costs without breaking any rules. Ronnie Etchison was an adamant liar along with his other accolades. Ronnie was a great athlete and an iron man in the ring. He was able to go the 60 and 90 minute time limits with the best. I knew that Bob had a real fight on his hands.
The match was scheduled for 30 minutes or one fall. I began the match by telling Etchison to his face that we were a better combination of brains than he had ever faced, and that he was nothing more then a red mud dirt farmer from St. Joe with cheating and rule breaking on his mind.
He took a lot of insults from me before finally reaching out and grabbing me by the tie and pulling me into his face. He proceeded to tell me what an ingrate I was, and that if I continued to interfere in the match, he would squash me like a grape, put me in his mouth, and spit me out like yesterday's gum.
Orton took about as much of this abuse to his manager as he could, pulled Etchison off, and proceeded to beat the living bageebers out of him. We had two big guys jump into the ring from the audience that night, and it was all the riot squad could do to hold off any more. They battled back and forth, using every basic wrestling hold that was taught to them. The match went the entire 30 minutes to a draw, and when we were leaving the ringside area, Ronnie had the microphone and was pleading with Promoter Gust Karras for a rematch.
Of course, Ronnie got his way, and they met again two weeks later in the same ring, with me handcuffed to Bob Geigel. I really didn't appreciate the humor that Geigel had on his face when he was connected to me, but I didn't have much choice. They wrestled to a 45-minute draw return match that had fans standing and applauding them both at the end. I was just happy to get rid of that big ape, Geigel, from my arm.
In his retirement years, Bob paid a visit, while attending a class reunion in Kansas City, Kansas, to Ronnie Etchison, who was in a rest home and suffering very badly from the effects of the years on the road. Bob said to me that Ronnie just sat there and stared out the window near his bed and didn't respond. Ron died a few months after Bob's visit and is buried in his home town of St. Joseph, Missouri. Rest in Peace, Ron.
In the many matches they had, nobody really grabbed the spotlight entirely---they shared it together as professionals. They fought long and bitter matches that left them sometimes confined to a hospital bed for extended periods at a time. Both men had respect for each other.
Bob Orton Sr. has passed away a few years ago from a massive heart attack , but his legacy continued thru his son Bob Jr. and his grandson Randy ... the current WWE Heavyweight Champion.
Percival A. Friend,
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