The Bearcat Wrights: Like Father, Like Son
Senior must have been pleased that his son’s last bout — which took place on May 13, 1974, at the Charlotte Coliseum — was at least some sort of boxing match…
“My father was disgusted.”—Bearcat Wright Jr.
Born in Brazoria, Texas, on December 18, 1897, Bearcat Wright fought out of Omaha, Nebraska, from 1919 to 1936 (though out of the ring in ‘24 and ‘34), winding up with an official record of 58 wins, 42 by knockout, 18 losses, three by knockout, 19 draws, and two no contests. There were also 18 newspaper decisions (12-6), for a total of 115 bouts.
Bearcat fought the great Sam Langford five times, winning once (by knockout), losing three times, and drawing once. Two of his three kayo losses came by way of the “Boston Tar Baby,” who knocked him out in the ninth in Omaha on July 20, 1921 (the famous “‘Tis for you, son” round), and retired him in the fifth (Bearcat claiming a broken hand) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on July 17, 1922. The broken-hand claim was probably on the level, as he didn’t fight again for a year, when he kayoed Porky Dan Flynn in the fourth. He challenged George Godfrey for his “colored” heavyweight title at the Armory in Portland, Oregon, on November 23, 1926, the ref disqualifying Godfrey for not making an effort, declaring it a no contest. Then there was Chuck Wiggins (the guy Jack Dempsey wanted by his side in any bar brawl, street fight, wharf war, or alleyway kerfuffle you care to name), whom Bearcat took on in Denver, Colorado, on June 28, 1927, Chuck winning on points. Bearcat returned the favor in Omaha that October 28. (Dempsey and Bearcat fought a four-round exhibition match in Omaha on November 11, 1931.) He and Jack Johnson met in Topeka, Kansas, on April 16, 1928, Bearcat knocking him out in the fifth (“Johnson was an old man when I fought him,” said an honest Bearcat. “He was at the end of his career”). Johnny Risko outpointed him at the City Auditorium in Omaha that September 7, while Primo Carnera kayoed him in the fourth, after knocking him clear out of the ring, at League Park in Omaha on July 17, 1930 (the third and final time he was knocked out, despite being “no easy opponent for Primo”). He and Godfrey went at it at the City Auditorium in Atlanta, Georgia, that December 19, the fight resulting in a draw (the bout was for something called the “black” American heavyweight title). Bearcat knocked out Tiger Jack Fox in the eighth at Liberty Park in Sedalia, Missouri, on June 1, 1931, but had less luck against Obie Walker. They fought three times, Bearcat losing twice and drawing once. There was a third match with Godfrey, again defending his “colored” title, this time at Convention Hall in Kansas City, Missouri, on February 10, 1933, a bout that once more resulted in a no contest. Following a newspaper loss to Max Baer at the Coliseum in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 14, 1936, Bearcat retired from the ring.
Foreshadowing Mike Tyson, Bearcat lost his second bout by first-round disqualification when he bit Whirlwind Langford on New Year’s Day 1920 at Camp Little in Nogales, Arizona. It was more rough and tumble when he took on Willie Henry, aka The Texas Steer, at the City Auditorium in Galveston, Texas, on May 16, 1927, knocking him out in the third. “Me and Willie, we were good friends,” said Bearcat. “We sparred together in the gym and liked each other. But he knew I could whip him and I knew it, too. Still, they matched us for a 10-rounder. Me and Willie got together and agreed not to bang each other too hard in a sort of exhibition. But when the first bell rang, Willie rushed out and cracked me flush on the chin. What happened? I went down. Willie punched pretty good. Fact is, I was down three times in the first round. I was surprised and hurt. But I was also mad. So in the second round I slammed my best punch, a good left hook, off Willie’s chin. I broke his jaw wide open. Willie had guts, though. He kept coming at me with that jaw flipping and flopping, and the referee trying to stop it. And I kept going after Willie, too. Finally, the referee hollered at me to stop. ‘What are you trying to do to him? He’s got a broken jaw,’ the ref yelled at me. ‘I’m gonna try and break his neck if you’ll get out of the way,’ I yelled back.”
The bout for which he is best remembered, however, took place at the Auditorium in Omaha on April 10, 1931. Only 5’7”, Mickey Walker proved himself to be more “Bulldog” than “Toy” when he took on the “monstrous” 6’1” Bearcat, “bone hard, with massive arms and shoulders,” who weighed 210 to his 168 on the night they met. As boxing writer Springs Toledo puts it, “Bearcat looked like he could pick him up like a favorite nephew and give him a kiss.” But, though knocked down in the first, Mickey returned the favor in the second and had Bearcat helpless against the ropes in the 10th and final round, winning on points.
All told, “The bear who walked like a man and crouched like a cat” fought five world champs — Dempsey, Johnson, Carnera, Baer, and Walker — none of whom knew that he was blind in one eye, the result of a childhood accident with a firecracker. An even more blind Sam Langford didn’t know it either. “The toughest of them all was never a world champion,” said Bearcat. “I fought Sam Langford five times and he just had to be the greatest.”
According to Nat Fleischer, there were only two Langford-Wright bouts, perhaps confusing Sam with Whirlwind. “Well,” said Bearcat, “all I can say is that I sure wish that Fleischer fellow had caught all the punches I caught in those three fights he says I didn’t have.”
“The boxing career of Bearcat Wright was fantastic, exciting, and tragic,” noted the San Antonio Express-News of July 18, 1965. Sure, the World War I vet had tales to tell most men don’t, tales of a “rough but golden past.” And he got paid, too. Sort of. He made, on average, $150 a bout, which is maybe two grand today. “He got everything there is to get from boxing. Everything but a fair shake and a title.”
As D.W. Van Vleet wrote in the September 1969 edition of Boxing & Wrestling, “Ed ‘Bearcat’ Wright never became a champion because he had the misfortune to come along at a time when Negro fighters were not given a real opportunity to win a title.”
On January 13, 1932, Bearcat Wright Jr. was born. Following in the footsteps of his father, Junior boxed in 1951 and ‘52 (8-0, 5 KOs). “He is too big to step across the ring very fast,” wrote sportswriter Jim Rose, “and would have to rely on a knockout because a faster opponent would wear him out before 15 rounds were over.”
To Senior’s dismay, his son abandoned the King of Sports for — gasp! — wrestling (though he himself engaged Pat McGill in a mixed, boxing-wrestling, match at Lakeview Athletic Park in Omaha on June 30, 1933 — “The Bearcat failed to get in one good lick at McGill,” reported Iowa’s Daily Nonpareil that July 2. “The rassler forced the fight throughout”). But, as Junior pointed out, “The first wrestling match I had I got $275 [around $2,500 today] for myself. Nobody to cut in. No one to pay. No training expenses. Do you blame me for ditching boxing for full-time wrestling?” His father did, of course, but hard to argue with the $60,000 Junior made in 1960 (which is close to $500,000 in today’s money). Impressive, but not surprising, given that the Bearcat Wright-Buddy Rogers match at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois, on July 29, 1960, resulted in a $90,000 gate (about $750,000 today). “One thing that no Negro in wrestling can overlook,” wrote Jessyca Russell Gaver in “Wrestling Rings Down the Color Curtain” in the February 1962 edition of Negro Digest, “when people forget the color of their skins, the only other color they can see is the greenbacks that come in the gates of the arenas where they appear.”
(Did Junior help support his father? Apparently not — in 1965, at least, Senior and his wife were relying on Social Security and a monthly VA pension check in the amount of $78, the equivalent of $600 today.)
“To some, Bearcat Wright was a civil rights crusader,” write Steven Johnson and Greg Oliver in The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: Heroes and Icons. “To some, he was an opinionated blowhard. To still others, he was the wrestler who rose from the grave,” as the October 1973 edition of Inside Wrestling incorrectly reported that Junior “was cut down by sickle cell anemia, a disease that slowly kills black people.”
Blowhard or not, he was indeed a civil rights crusader, universally credited with being instrumental in dismantling pro wrestling’s segregationist policies. As “very proud” daughter Sharon says, “My father was the first African American wrestler that paved the way for blacks to wrestle.” (Senior’s second wife, Martha, was just as supportive of her husband — “Tell him about the time you knocked out Jack Johnson” or “Tell him about the time Max Baer beat you. You were at the end of your career then.”)
Refusing to fight at any venue where either the card or the arena was segregated, he was once banned by the Indiana State Athletic Commission for publicly protesting the Hoosier State’s quasi-official prohibition of mixed-race matches. “Surprisingly enough, there was no real problem,” said Junior. “My suspension was lifted, and slowly mixed wrestling has been opening up everywhere. And Negro audiences have been increasing, too.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, such controversies, “pro wrestling’s Brown Bomber” was highly regarded and much in demand. As the first black to win a world championship (anyway, the “most accurate claimant”), famed wrestling promoter Willie Gilzenberg was eager to get his hands on him. “If it is true that you put your hooks into Bearcat Wright,” he told the equally legendary Jack Pfefer, “you have made the best snatch of your entire career in wrestling. Again, if it is true, I must congratulate you on grabbing the best drawing card wrestling has ever had, and that includes Jim Londos, Strangler Lewis, Antonino Rocca, or any wrestler in the history of the game.”
But “the world’s most spectacular wrestler” incurred the wrath of the WWA for refusing to allow “Classy” Freddie Blassie to rewin the world title he’d scored in Los Angeles, California, on August 23, 1963. “Bearcat was a big drawing card, but he was no Jackie Robinson,” Blassie writes in his memoir, Listen, You Pencil Neck Geeks. “Very quickly, he let the win get to his head, and he became very delusional. To hear him speak, he was America’s number one role model for the black race, and now that he had the title, he wasn’t going to give it up.”
(Blassie had also been a boxer, though he had only one fight, knocked out in the second by Tony Galento in his penultimate bout, on June 21, 1943, at Caswell Park in Knoxville, Tennessee.)
The rematch took place on December 13, 1963, at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, Junior “double crossing” Blassie by winning “the first and third falls with head butts,” reported the Los Angeles Times the next day, which caused “a commotion in the front office.” Promoter Mike LeBell then arranged for his brother, “Judo” Gene (“the toughest man alive”), to take the title from Junior three days later at the Valley Garden Arena in North Hollywood, California. Although standing 6’6½” to LeBell’s 5’10”, “and with the reach of a tree limb,” Junior refused to enter the ring and was stripped of his title, which was then awarded to Edouard Carpentier (who claimed Georges as some sort of relative). The stars were set right in their courses when Blassie regained the championship from Carpentier on January 30, 1964, in Los Angeles.
A fan favorite (“the hottest babyface in the country”), Junior continued wrestling into the 1970s, as well as managed Buddy Colt, who said that Junior “thought everybody was against him.”
Inside Wrestling proved prophetic — “the Houdini of the mat” did indeed die of sickle cell anemia, age 50, on August 28, 1982. He didn’t outlive his father by very much, who died age 77 on July 6, 1975, and is buried at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas. But Senior must have been pleased that his son’s last bout — which took place on May 13, 1974, at the Charlotte Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina — was at least some sort of boxing match, Junior stopping fellow wrestler Johnny Valentine in the seventh, Valentine suffering a cut over his right eye.
Several of Junior’s contemporaries — including Blassie, Killer Kowalski, and Bobo Brazil (he’s the one referred to as “the Jackie Robinson of professional wrestling,” despite Gaver’s opinion that “What Jackie Robinson did for racial integration in baseball, a big 29-year-old Negro wrestler named Bearcat Wright has done for wrestling”) — were long ago inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, but not yet Junior himself. Well, Gorgeous George didn’t get in until 2010 and Bruno Sammartino, “The Living Legend,” wasn’t inducted until 2013, due to a long-standing feud with Vince McMahon, so there’s still hope for Junior. But if Snoop Dogg got in…I mean, come on. As for Senior, he isn’t likely to be inducted anywhere except in the hearts of fans who know a toughie when they see one.