Friday, October 5, 2007
One of the all-time most memorable battles to ever take place in wrestling may or may not have been a work. While it definitely occurred in 1963, the memory remains as vivid to long-time wrestling fans as if it took place yesterday. For those who may not be familiar with the Dick the Bruiser - Alex Karras encounter, a little background is in order.
Dick the Bruiser, who was born William Afflis, had been a disciplinary problem all his life. This is not to suggest he was completely incorrigible, as he successfully attended the University of Nevada, Reno. While not a scholastic standout, he did well enough to stick around and establish his name on the football field. However, as was to be the case for the rest of his days, it was a lack of self-control that caused Dick’s difficulties in the “real world.” Before he was done with college, he changed his first name from William to Richard, as his football eligibility had expired under his original name.
There was little doubt that Afflis would enjoy a stellar career in the world of pro football. He became the defensive captain for the Green Bay Packers and attained a reputation as one of the toughest and meanest players in the history of the sport. So much so, that his famous gravelly voice came about thanks to a cheap shot on the field; he was the recipient of a vicious elbow-to-the-voice-box from an opposing player.
When Dick Afflis entered pro wrestling in the mid-1950s, it was an ideal fit. Because he was a powerfully built tough guy with a reputation that preceded him from his exploits in the NFL, and because he already was in possession of the aforementioned gravel voice, he was a natural. The Bruiser-to-be trained hard and learned the intricacies of wrestling, then never looked back as he brutalized his way through the business.
The man was a walking riot waiting to happen. Dick the Bruiser made a grand total of one tour of the New York area, in 1958. A tag team match was signed in November, with Dick teaming up with the equally despised Dr. Jerry Graham. Their opponents were the beloved babyface duo of Antonino Rocca (one of North America’s first wrestling high flyers to hit the big time in New York) and his partner, the talented and equally acrobatic Frenchman (via Montreal), Edouard Carpentier.
The day after the bout took place, newspaper reports circulated around the country about what had occurred. On that infamous night, Madison Square Garden erupted into a full-scale riot at the conclusion of the bout, due to the highly charged actions of a certain Mr. Afflis. Because the New York State Athletic Commission tightly controlled wrestling in the state at that time, they had a long-standing edict that nothing “too wild” would be tolerated.
Dick the Bruiser took such rules as a personal affront. Whether or not it was pre-planned or spontaneous, he went out of his way to administer as much damage on his adversaries as possible. Focusing his ceaseless attack on the beloved Rocca, he grounded the flying Argentinean and mauled him badly. The fan’s outrage built to a furious roar, but Bruiser only increased the intensity in a relentless pursuit of inflicting as much damage as he could.
Finally, the overflow angry crowd couldn’t stand it any longer and surged towards the ring. When all was said and done, more than 300 people (including several police officers) were injured in the ensuing riot. The New York State Athletic Commission acted quickly, and Richard Afflis was banned indefinitely from appearing in New York again. It was his choice never to appeal the decision or attempt a return to the northeast region.
One might think the guy would have learned something from that outcome and pull back a bit. It only made sense that by using a certain amount of restraint in the future, Dick’s own career would flourish. After all, even the greatest wrestler in the world would minimize his career opportunities if he was to continue facing suspension and/or banishment. Still, such realities failed to deter a man hell-bent on brawling. Psychiatrists would undoubtedly have had a field day with him, but the fact is that Dick the Bruiser took rules in any form as a personal offense. As a result, it became a point of honor for him to push codes of conduct as far as he could, obliterating them whenever possible.
Undoubtedly, the “highlight” of the Bruiser’s wild career was his confrontation with Alex Karras. The talented Greek was a high profile football player with the Detroit Lions, and would go on to make a name for himself as an actor (Paper Lion and Blazing Saddles are but two in a well-established film career). Karras, who was a very tough competitor on the NFL gridiron, possessed a good sense of humor and was equally well liked and respected by teammates, and even those he faced on the field. Still, everyone knew not to push Alex too far, as he was an extraordinarily powerful man that would respond in kind when challenged.
It was in 1963 that a confrontation between the Motor City hero and the man with no use for rules came to pass. In retrospect, since Karras was the reigning football star in town and the Bruiser had recently invaded Detroit, it was probably inevitable that their paths would cross. That’s exactly what happened, although as in most things having to do with Richard Afflis, it didn’t take place in the usual manner.
As the story goes, Bruiser decided to come a-calling in person. He went to a local bar that was partially owned by Karras, knowing he would find him there. At first, the two sat and talked about sports and their respective careers. Then, Alex made a comment that riled Dick. Although eyewitness accounts varied, it was virtually unanimous that the remark was mild and not intended to provoke.
Still, that was the opening Dick the Bruiser sought, and he challenged the footballer on the spot. Karras instead offered to meet Afflis in a wrestling ring, and Dick responded with something like, “How’s about right here, right now?” Within seconds, they were throwing punches. Alex’s buddies tried to intercede, but even with all that manpower the police had to be summoned. Before Karras AND his friends AND the police could finally subdue the crazed wrestler, the bar had been virtually destroyed. The brawl spilled out into the street and, according to official reports, several innocent passersby became involved. The only thing missing was a large group of enthusiastic people chanting, “EC-DUB! EC-DUB!” three decades before Extreme Championship Wrestling came into existence.
When it was all over, many of the participants, including several policemen, had received their fair share of injuries while attempting to calm the fighting mob down. Local promoter Johnny Doyle knew a dream grudge match when he saw one. He called each of the protagonists into his office (separately) and made an offer for a one-time-only bout. The deal was signed, and on the night of April 27, 1963, Detroit’s Olympia Auditorium was packed to the rafters. So great was the interest that reports were filed in newspapers all around the country.
The match was as one might expect. It offered violence of the type that was atypical of its day. With no hold being too vicious and no act too sadistic, it was brutality in its purest, most basic form. At one point, Bruiser received a nasty gash above his eye that continued to bleed heavily for the remainder of the match. Even as a one-eyed madman, Dick the Bruiser managed to defeat the valiant but overmatched Alex Karras in just under 15 minutes of wild action. They never met again, either in or out of the ring.
There are but a handful of grueling, memorable matches that remain etched forever in the minds of those that saw them. Bret Hart facing off against Shawn Michaels in a 60-minute Iron Man Match at Wrestlemania XII in 1996 is one of them. Of course, Mick Foley’s attempt at suicide in 1998’s Hell in the Cell Match, seen at WWE’s King of the Ring PPV, is yet another. But it would be wrong to neglect the Dick the Bruiser vs. Alex Karras match, which should be included in this same rarified category and considered as a forerunner to hardcore wrestling.
To this day, the question remains: was the bar room brawl worked, as some claim? Was promoter Johnny Doyle really smart enough to dream up the bar room confrontation and then convince both Afflis and Karras to comply with the concept? Or was it actually a case of a brawling hothead instigating violence on his own?
Personally, I’ve talked to many wrestling veterans and none claim to know for sure, although most of them have opinions one way or the other. And frankly, after so much time, it would now be almost disappointing to get the definitive answer. The story has been a part of wrestling lore for so long that it has taken on mythical proportions. Perhaps it’s best to simply leave well enough alone and be satisfied with the story itself. Suffice it to say that in this case, we don’t really need to know for sure.
Richard Berger is a freelance writer and editor with an extensive background in professional wrestling. His career includes media production for Stampede Wrestling, ring announcing, regular columns for WOW Magazine and IGN.com, and special feature work for other publications. Between June, 2007 and June, 2008, he wrote a weekly column for The Fight Network and Live Audio Wrestling. To discuss Richard’s articles or just about anything else, contact him at: WriterGuy1A@hotmail.com.
The small sampling of his work found here was originally published at The Fight Network and Live Audio Wrestling. The majority will appear in a soon-to-be-released book along with new material. Stay tuned for information as it becomes available!