[I was] reared in St. Louis, Missouri. My father was a Greco-Roman wrestler in Hungary. As a very small child, when I was at the age of, like, eight, he was giving me some Greco exercises. Some safe Greco moves, if there is such a thing. At the age of 14, I was wrestling as an amateur at a high school close by. I wasn't enrolled in the high school, but my father, being a shoemaker, did all the football work, so we knew the coaches. I wrestled as an amateur there for a couple of years. Met a fine old gentleman there, a wrestler, who used to work out there, and he took me downtown and introduced me to some of the people. Then at 16 I was in St. Louis, at the gymnasium where the big boys worked out, and I got my feet wet with some of the guys who really knew what they were doing. And from there I just kept going and enjoyed what I was doing.
I had great coaching: Ed "Strangler" Lewis part of the time, and Ray Steele, George Tragos, the three-time Olympic winner. Good company. And I tried to learn my craft, and spent my entire life at it. I traveled all over the world for 50 years plus. Traveled 14, 15 million miles. Wrestled more than 6,000 times. Trained that many times. Wore out several pairs of shoes doing that, and myself at times. But it's been a great life. I enjoyed it very, very much. There's only one thing I'd love to say about it: I'd like to do it all over again. I discovered at a very early age–I was about 18 or 19–that I was making a pretty darned decent living doing something that I enjoyed doing. And if you enjoy going to work in the morning, you try to do a better job. The labor of love gets into it, and you do a job that maybe someone who's just getting paid to do something–who doesn't enjoy it–is not going to do. So you reach back, and you either give it that extra effort, or try to do the best you can.
That's where it is in the professional world. It's been great, and we had some great, great wrestlers in the past and present. And we had some people, of course, at the lower end of the totem pole, that really weren't that great, but they also supported the sport. Today we have drugs. At that time we had some alcoholics, but they weed themselves out automatically. The cream rises to the top, as they say. The good ones stay in there and keep going, or try to, and the ones who have not done their homework and hit the booze or whatever, they fall by the wayside. It's just a matter of choice, that's all.
If you want to do a good job at something, you may succeed if you're lucky. Luck has a lot to do with it, because a major injury at the wrong time.... [It] happened to me, happened to many people. It just slows you up, and you've got to kind of start all over again. When you get into competitive wrestling, not just show business, there isn't any time or any day that you're not hurting somewhere. Unless you can work around that and live with it, and try to enjoy your life along with that discomfort, you're in the wrong business. So I always enjoyed it. You've gotta be a little goofy to do it, I guess, but that's part of the game. I met some wonderful people in wrestling, just unbelievable people. I got a great education, traveled the world, they paid me to do it, and I'd like to do it again.
When I was a kid–I was 20 years of age; I'm 75 now, [so] I was really a kid at 20–I won the undisputed heavyweight championship, long prior to the NWA or any of these other organizations that we have today. It was a little different at that time, a lot more competitive. But that's the way it is. It's a changing world, some to the good, some to the bad. Anyway, we're trying to correct some errors that we have made down the road now in the wrestling game. It's gonna be a tough job, a long haul, but we're gonna try to do it. Hopefully.
[I've had] broken bones, sure, that's not a fun thing. Broken kneecap. Over the years, fingers, everything. More than 200 broken bones. That kind of slows you up. Sometimes you can wrestle with them, unless it's a major break, you know, you can't do that.
I think that the highlight [of my career was] 1937, Everett Marshall. I'd had a couple hundred [matches], but I was in great, great shape. At that time we did some concentrated training–Ray Steele, Ed "Strangler" Lewis, Tragos, and myself. They had Marshall on the road, he was doing one-night stands. By the time he got to me, they didn't take me too seriously. I was just a journeyman kid. Actually, he ran out of gas. We wrestled over three hours. At about the three-hour mark, he said, "You're in pretty good shape, kid."
And I said [laughing], "Well, we've been working at it." You know, we're talking while we're all hooked up there. Anyway, he ended up out of the ring, and he left the ring and didn't come back, just exhausted. Out of gas. I was fortunate enough to be really sound, that I could go the distance. That was my thing.
I say this in jest all the time, and it's true: if you choose your ancestors very carefully, you're OK. It's either you're lucky or you're unlucky. Because we're all born with good and bad and so forth. I got into animal husbandry quite a lot with Dobermans. I had a really prestigious kennel. I enjoyed it a lot, and I discovered that the good ones are good all the way, genetically. You're talking about something that is really important, because you gotta go back for many, many generations. And you get some of the good and some of the bad, and when you're getting into animal husbandry–and I don't care what sort of animal you're breeding–you're looking for certain things. Not only anatomically right, but you're looking for something that's emotionally [right] and everything. The whole disposition, it's all involved.
I never had a distance problem. We were training in the gym, and we'd get there in the morning. My Greek friend, George Tragos, he liked to play handball. We weren't making a lot of money at that time, so we would get to the gym early and we would meet some of the bankers, some of the business people, and play handball with them. And most of the time beat them, because we played a little better than they did, and we picked up a couple of bucks. And then at noon we'd wait for them and pick up a couple of bucks, and then at dinner we'd wait for the other guys to pick up a couple of bucks, and now we had our dinner money. But in the interim now, we would play a game or two of handball, then we'd go up in the ring and we'd work out for a couple of hours, and watch the clock so we didn't miss our payroll, you know. And then after the lunch thing, we'd go back and wrestle some more. Every day! Every day, I'm talking about seven days a week. Of course, the business people didn't do that, but we did, seven days a week. One time, Ed Lewis came to town, and took a look at me–I was really down in weight, working out all the time–and asked Tragos, "How many days a week are you working the Hunky?" They all called me the Hunky, the Hungarian, you know.
And [Tragos] said, "Oh, every day."
Lewis said, "It's no good. You're killin' him. Work him five days a week, don't burn him up." If you're down, you know, and your body's trying to recover, it's difficult.
[There was] a wrestler by the name of Ali Baba, Harry Ekizian was his name. He was a Kurdish fellow. Strange personality, not a very likable guy. And kind of a smart ass. But he got lucky and made a lot of money, and he got a little louder when he did that. So he was watching Everett and Warren [Bockwinkel] go at it. And not to say anything unkind about either one, but neither of them were really sophisticated wrestlers. But they were fooling around, really getting after it. So Ali Baba came to ringside, and he told Warren, "Hey, punk, you're not doing too well."
Warren backed off, he said, "Excuse me, Mr. Marshall." He went over–Warren was a two-fisted brawler, I don't care if it was the President of the United States or who it was, he'd tell them what he thought, you know.
[Ali Baba] was really dark, not Negro, but very dark. And at that time "nigger" was not a bad word. [Warren] said, "Look, nigger, if you want to get a piece of this action, just get your black ass and get a pair of tights and get your ass in the ring, and you try me." The guy just backed off and went his way. He left. But it was a good choice that he left, because Warren, he was gonna go get him. That's the difference in people.
I think the two or three years that we spent in the gym in St. Louis–we had Ray Steele, he lived there at that time. He, and Tragos, and myself, and three or four other guys, I think they were the fondest memories I had in my entire life. You don't have dedicated [students] these days. They're tough to come by. They see this crap on TV, and that's what they think wrestling is. They're fans. They aren't athletes, they're fans. They come off the street, and they say, "I think I can do that," or, "I'd like to do that. I want to be a champion."
When I hear things like that, like, "I don't want to learn how to wrestle. What kind of a robe can I have, and what kind of a belt you got for me?"
I say [laughing and making a fist], "I've got one right here for you."