InterMat Rewind: Amateurs Go Pro

Mark Palmer

3/23/2010
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

Consider all the MMA (mixed martial arts) stars who once were college wrestlers. For example, among the former NCAA Division I All-Americans featured at the UFC 109 Relentless event: Randy Couture, Mark Coleman, Chael Sonnen, and Phil Davis.

Long before the UFC and other MMA promotions, there was a similar pipeline of college wrestling champs who found fame and fortune in the professional wrestling ring.

With the recent deaths of former pro wrestlers Jack Brisco and Steve "Dr. Death" Williams -- both NCAA All-Americans -- it seems appropriate to honor some of the collegiate mat greats from 30-90 years ago who made a name for themselves in pro wrestling in the past. (Note: The photos accompanying this article are of the wrestlers as college wrestlers. Until the mid-1960s, many college wrestling programs competed shirtless; this was before today's singlets.)

George Bollas, Ohio State

Before supersized NCAA heavyweight champs such as Chris Taylor of Iowa State in the early 1970s, and North Carolina State's Tab Thacker in the mid 1980s, there was George Bollas, who won the 1946 NCAA heavyweight title tipping the scales at 325 lbs.

College credentials: Bollas won two Big Ten heavyweight titles (1945 and 1946), then earned the 1946 NCAA heavyweight title by pinning Morris Chitwood of Indiana University at 14:11 in the title match, becoming the Buckeyes' second heavyweight champ (along with George Downes in 1940, and Tommy Rowlands in this decade).

Pro wrestling resume: Bollas' two-decade career reportedly started while still at Ohio State (Bollas left the school in 1946 before graduating). Sometimes competed as the Zebra Kid, complete with zebra-striped costume.

Off the mat: Bollas played football for the Buckeyes, and is in the Ohio State Athletic Hall of Fame.

Jack Brisco, Oklahoma State

Jack Brisco (Photo/1964 Redskin)
Born Freddie Joe Brisco in Blackwell, Oklahoma -- a true hotbed for wrestling in the Sooner State -- this Cowboy was an all-state football star who took up wrestling as a high school sophomore ... and became a three-time Oklahoma high school state champ at heavyweight (1958-1960). Brisco reportedly chose to wrestle at Oklahoma State rather than play football for the Oklahoma Sooners.

College credentials: Brisco was a two-time Big 8 conference champ at 191 lbs (1964-1965); two-time NCAA Division I All-American at 191 -- runner-up in 1964 (losing to Ohio University's Harry Houska in the finals), NCAA champ in 1965 (pinning Wisconsin's Dan Pernat). Compiled a 27-1-1 record as a Cowboy.

Pro wrestling resume: Launched his pro career right out of college (June 1965) and retired suddenly in 1984.

Mike DiBiase, University of Nebraska

Pro wrestling fans may recognize the name DiBiase from Ted "Million Dollar Man" DiBiase and Michael DiBiase II -- the stepson and step-grandson (respectively) of "Iron Mike" DiBiase, who was a two-time Nebraska high school state champ for Omaha Tech.

College credentials: The Omaha native was a 1946 AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) national champ while still in high school, and, as a Cornhusker, a two-time NCAA qualifier.

Pro wrestling resume: DiBiase jumped into the pro ring in 1950; died of a heart attack after a match in Amarillo at age 45.

Verne Gagne, University of Minnesota

Verne Gagne
Laverne Clarence Gagne was a two-time Minnesota high school state champ at heavyweight (1942, 1943). He recruited to play football at the University of Minnesota, but made more of a name for himself as a wrestler for the Golden Gophers.

College credentials: Gagne was the four-time Big Ten wrestling champ at any weight (175 pounds in 1943; 191 pounds in 1948, heavyweight in 1947 and 1949). The Corcoran, Minnesota native was a two-time NCAA champ, winning the 191-pound title at the 1948 NCAAs ... then the heavyweight title at the 1949 NCAAs on a controversial referee's decision over Dick Hutton of Oklahoma State. Wrestled at the 1948 London Olympics while a Golden Gopher.

Pro wrestling resume: Gagne entered the pro wrestling ring in 1949. His career spanned more than three decades, including numerous stints as world champion in the American Wrestling Association.

Off the mat: After his freshman year at Minnesota, Gagne served two years in the U.S. Marine Corps at El Toro, California during World War II. After college, Gagne briefly played for the Green Bay Packers.

Bob Geigel, University of Iowa

A native of Algona, Iowa, Geigel earned letters in football and wrestling in high school and at Iowa.

College credentials: The hirsute Hawkeye was a two-time NCAA qualifier and 1949 NCAA All-American, placing third at 191 pounds.

Pro wrestling resume: Geigel made his pro debut right out of college (in 1950) and had a career as a wrestler, manager and promoter that spanned decades.

Off the mat: Geigel served in the U.S. Navy for four years during World War II.

Ed George, University of Michigan

Born outside Buffalo, Edward N. George played football and wrestled for the Michigan Wolverines. He wrestled for the U.S. at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, where he defeated Earl McCready (who was competing for his native Canada) but did not earn a medal.

College credentials: As a Wolverine matman wrestling for coach Cliff Keen, George was a 1929 Big Ten champ, and undefeated two seasons ... but was unable to compete in the 1929 NCAAs because of an injury. George also won two national AAU wrestling titles while at Michigan.

Pro wrestling resume: Discovered at a carnival, the Michigan grad stepped into the squared circle in 1929 as Ed Don George, and had a successful career up to World War II, where he taught hand-to-hand combat for the U.S. Navy. After the war, George became a pro wrestling promoter.

Ray Gunkel, Purdue University

A multi-sport athlete, Ray Gunkel earned letters in football and wrestling at the Big Ten school in West Lafayette, Indiana.

College credentials: The Chicago native was a two-time NCAA All-American, making it to the heavyweight finals at the 1947 NCAAs, losing to Oklahoma State's Dick Hutton in overtime. Gunkel was also a two-time AAU national champ in 1947 and 1948.

Pro wrestling resume: Gunkel's pro career lasted from 1948 to his death in 1972.

Dan Hodge, University of Oklahoma

One of only fifteen men to be voted onto the NCAA 75th Anniversary team of all-time great college wrestlers, Dan Allen Hodge is the only amateur wrestler to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated as an amateur wrestler. In 1951, Hodge won the Oklahoma high school state championship at 165 pounds. He served in the US Navy right out of school, then chose Oklahoma (despite an offer from Northwestern University). Hodge also was a two-time U.S. Olympic freestyle team member; in 1952 at Helsinki, he placed fifth ... while in Melbourne in 1956, he lost out on a gold medal on a controversial call, settling for silver.

College credentials: The Perry, Oklahoma native was a three-time Big Seven conference champ at 177 pounds (1955-1957) and a three-time NCAA champ (1955-1957). Hodge was only the second wrestler to win all three national finals by pin (the other was Earl McCready), and won the NCAA Outstanding Wrestler two years in a row (1956, 1957).

Pro wrestling resume: Hodge, who had been a Golden Gloves amateur boxing champ, became a pro wrestler after being disgusted by professional boxing, and held numerous junior heavyweight titles in his career that spanned 1959-1976.

Off the mat: Hodge was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as a Distinguished Member in the inaugural class in 1976. Since 1995, the prestigious Hodge Trophy has been awarded each year to the best college wrestler in the nation.

Dick Hutton, Oklahoma State

After being cut from his junior high basketball season, Richard Heron Avis Hutton embarked on a winning wrestling career. A big bear of a man at 5'10" and 245 pounds, Hutton just missed out on becoming the first four-time NCAA wrestling champ … decades before Pat Smith and Cael Sanderson.

College credentials: The Amarillo native was a three-time NCAA heavyweight champ (1947-1948, 1950) who lost the 1949 NCAA title on a questionable referee's decision in the championship match with Minnesota's Verne Gagne -- Hutton's only loss in college. Placed fifth at the 1948 London Olympics.

Pro wrestling resume: After graduation and a two-year stint in the Army, Hutton jumped into the pro ring, becoming a world champ in 1957 by defeating the legendary Lou Thesz.

Off the mat: Served in the U.S. Army twice -- first, immediately after high school during World War II, then a second time immediately after college in the early 1950s. Inducted as Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1995.

Adnan Kaisy, Oklahoma State

Adnan Kaisy (Photo/AWN)
A native of Baghdad, Adnan Kaisy wrestled as a teenager for the Iraq Olympic team in 1956 before coming to the U.S. for college at Oklahoma State, where he was a roommate of 1960 US Olympic gold medalist, Shelby Wilson.

College credentials: Kaisy wrestled two seasons for the Cowboys, compiling a 11-6-3 record. He placed third at 1958 Big 8 conference championships, and was a two-time NCAA All-American, placing fourth in 1958 and 1959.

Pro wrestling resume: The former Cowboy made his pro debut in 1959; over the years, he wrestled as Billy White Wolf, Sheik Adnan Al-Kaisey, and General Adnan.

Bob Konovsky, University of Wisconsin

Robert Erwin Konovsky was a big, burly sports star for Badgers, both on the gridiron (where he was an NCAA football All-American tackle) and on the mat (as two-time NCAA heavyweight finalist).

College credentials: A native of Chicago, Konovsky was a three-time Big Ten heavyweight champ (1954-1956) and a three-time NCAA All-American (1954-1956). He was a two-time NCAA runner-up; in 1954, he lost to Oklahoma State's Gene Nicks ... and, in 1956, came up short against Oklahoma's Gordon Roesler.

Pro wrestling resume: The former Badger launched his pro ring career in the late 1950s.

Off the mat: Konovsky played in the NFL for four seasons.

Leonard "Butch" Levy, University of Minnesota

Sixty years before Brock Lesnar won his NCAA title as a University of Minnesota wrestler, Leonard Levy became the school's first national collegiate heavyweight champ. (He also played football for the Golden Gophers.) Levy was a two-time Minnesota high school state heavyweight champ (1937-1938).

College credentials: The Minneapolis native won the heavyweight title at the 1941 NCAAs with a 5-2 win over Yale's Larry Pickett in the finals.

Pro wrestling resume: After a brief pro football career, Levy launched his ring career in 1948; was a NWA Tag Team titleholder on two occasions with two Minnesota gridiron/grappling alums: first, with Verne Gagne, then later, with Leo Nomellini.

Off the mat: Between his college and pro wrestling careers, Levy served in the U.S. Navy for three years during World War II.

Dale Lewis, University of Oklahoma

Dale Lewis (Photo/AWN)
For all his accomplishments as an amateur wrestler, it's somewhat surprising that Dale Lewis did not wrestle in high school. After a couple years at Marquette University in Milwaukee (where he attended on a football and basketball scholarship), Lewis left school for the U.S. Marine Corps where he was introduced to the sport ... then wrestled in both collegiate and international competition. The Rib Lake, Wisconsin native wrestled Greco-Roman for the U.S. at the 1956 Melbourne and 1960 Rome Olympics (did not place); earned a gold medal at the 1959 Pan Am Games in freestyle.

College credentials: While at Oklahoma, Lewis was a two-time Big 8 heavyweight champ (1960, 1961) after placing fourth in 1959, then was a two-time NCAA heavyweight champ (1960, 1961) after not placing in 1959. He also won a national AAU freestyle title in 1961.

Pro wrestling resume: Lewis entered the pro ring in 1961. Competed for two decades, often as "The Professor."

Bob Marella, Ithaca College

Even fans of old-school amateur wrestling may not recognize the name Robert James Marella as an NCAA finalist ... but just about everyone recognizes the name Gorilla Monsoon as a pro wrestler and WWF commentator up to his death in 1999. In addition to wrestling, the 6'5", 350-pound Marella participated in football and track and field.

College credentials: The Rochester, New York native was the 1959 NCAA runner-up at heavyweight, losing to Oklahoma State's Ted Ellis in the finals.

Pro wrestling resume: Marella debuted in 1959, making a name for himself as Gorilla Monsoon. Long-time commentator for the WWF (now WWE).

Earl McCready, Oklahoma State

Earl Gray McCready can claim a number of firsts: First NCAA heavyweight champ, first foreign-born (Canada) NCAA titlewinner, and first three-time NCAA champ at any weight. He wrestled for his homeland at the 1928 Olympics, losing to U.S. team member Ed George of the University of Michigan.

College credentials: The Canadian native was undefeated in college, with a 25-0 record. McCready won three NCAA heavyweight titles (1928-1930); all his finals matches ended in a fall. (Only one other three-time NCAA champ can make that claim: Dan Hodge.) McCready also holds the record for the fastest fall in NCAA finals history, pinning University of Kansas' Ralph Freese in just 19 seconds.

Pro wrestling resume: After graduating from Oklahoma State in 1930, McCready launched a pro wrestling career that spanned three decades.

Off the mat: McCready is enshrined in numerous halls of fame, including the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1977.

LeRoy McGuirk, Oklahoma State

LeRoy McGuirk (Photo/1930 Redskin)
As a Cowboy wrestler in the early 1930s for the legendary coach Ed Gallagher, McGuirk wrestled anywhere from 155 pounds up to heavyweight.

College credentials: Born in Oklahoma, McGuirk was a two-time NCAA All-American, winning the 155-pound title at the 1931 NCAAs, and was a runner-up at 174 the following year.

Pro wrestling resume: After college, McGuirk had a ring career that spanned the 1930s and 40s. After a car accident that left him blind, he became a wrestling promoter who is credited with launching the pro careers of Dan Hodge, Bill Watts and Jack Brisco.

Bill Miller, Ohio State

William M. Miller was an imposing figure, towering 6' 6" and tipping the scales at 290 pounds. As a Buckeye, Miller lettered in wrestling, track and football; he was on the 1950 Rose Bowl team. Just as impressive: While at Ohio State University, Miller earned a degree in veterinary science.

College credentials: A native of Fremont, Ohio, "Big" Bill Miller was a two-time Big Ten heavyweight champ (1950, 1951) and three-time conference finalist (losing to Verne Gagne in the 1949 finals). Miller was also a 1951 NCAA All-American at heavyweight, placing third.

Pro wrestling resume: Miller entered pro ring in 1951, where he competed as "Dr." Bill Miller, which was appropriate, since he was a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine.

Off the mat: Miller was inducted into the Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame in 1997. He opened a veterinary practice after retiring from the squared circle.

Leo Nomellini, University of Minnesota

Leo Joseph Nomellini was a multi-sport star at the University of Minnesota, earning letters at Minnesota for wrestling, football, and track, despite never having played sports in high school in Chicago. Held in awe for his powerful physique and incredible strength, there are stories of how "Leo the Lion" broke an NFL strength-testing machine.

College credentials: Nomellini was runner-up at heavyweight at the 1950 Big Tens, losing to Ohio State's Bill Miller in the finals.

Pro wrestling resume: The native of Italy took up pro wrestling during the off-season in the NFL playing for the San Francisco 49ers; wrestled tag teams with fellow Minnesota alum Verne Gagne.

Off the mat: Nomellini served as a U.S. Marine in World War II. After 14 seasons in the NFL, "Leo the Lion" was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1969.

Nat Pendleton, Columbia University

A product of Davenport, Iowa, Nathaniel Greene Pendleton won a silver medal in wrestling at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.

College credentials: Pendleton wrestled at Columbia University, where he was a two-time EIWA (Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association) champ in 1914-1915.

Pro wrestling resume: The Iowa native enjoyed some success as a professional wrestler in the 1920s, then, long before Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson, Pendleton parlayed that fame -- and his good looks and muscular body -- into a movie career playing tough guys and strongmen, most notably late 1800s bodybuilder Eugen Sandow in the 1936 Oscar-winning blockbuster The Great Ziegfeld.

Jim Raschke, University of Nebraska

Jim Raschke
Pro wrestling bad guy Baron von Raschke was presented as a German ... but in real life James Donald Raschke was a corn-fed Nebraskan with deep roots in real wrestling, with a 1958 Nebraska high school state title, a 1963 World bronze medal, and 1964 AAU freestyle and Greco-Roman titles.

College credentials: Born in Omaha, Raschke was a two-time Big 8 heavyweight finalist, winning the title in 1962 ... and a three-time NCAA qualifier (1960-1962).

Pro wrestling resume: First climbed into the squared circle in 1966; had a long career as Baron von Raschke, purveyor of The Claw.

Robin Reed, Oregon State

Considered by some to be the best U.S. wrestler prior to World War II at any weight, Robin Lawrence Reed was born in Arkansas in 1899, but wrestled in high school in Portland, Oregon. He was a two-time Olympian, winning the gold medal in freestyle at 135 pounds at the 1924 Paris Olympics.

College credentials: Reed wrestled at Oregon State in the early 1920s, where he was undefeated. Won the 125-pound AAU national title in 1921, then won AAU crowns at 135 in 1922 and 1924. Known for his pinning ability and rugged, take-no-prisoners wrestling style even as an amateur.

Pro wrestling resume: Despite being light in weight, Reed had a ten-year career as a pro wrestler, taking on heftier opponents.

Off the mat: Reed was welcomed into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1978.

Brad Rheingans, North Dakota State

This product of Appleton, Minnesota was a multi-sport star in high school, co-captain of the football team, discus and shot putter, and wrestler, where he was a two-time state champ. But that was just the beginning. Rheingans won eight national Greco-Roman titles, two gold medals at the Pan Am Games, a bronze medal at the 1979 World Championships, and was a two-time U.S. Olympic team member, placing fourth at he 1976 Montreal Games. He even was an assistant Greco coach for the U.S. team at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

College credentials: As a NDSU wrestler, Rheingans was a three-time North Central Conference Champ at 177 and 190 pounds, and a 1975 NCAA Division II champ at 190. He advanced to the NCAA Division I Championships, where he placed fourth, earning All-American honors. He later served as an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota.

Pro wrestling resume: Rheingans had a 14-year pro career, working mostly in Verne Gagne's AWA organization, then as a trainer, setting up a school to teach future professional wrestlers the ropes.

Jack Riley, Northwestern University

Jack Riley
Jake Herbert, two-time NCAA champ from Northwestern (2007, 2009), is the second Wildcat to win two national titles. The first was John "Jack" Horn Riley. The 6'2", 218 pounder from the north shore suburbs of Chicago was a football All-American at Northwestern, and won a silver medal in freestyle at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.

College credentials: Riley, who first took up wrestling in college, was a two-time Big Ten heavyweight finalist, winning the conference title in 1931. The Wildcat won the NCAA heavyweight champ twice -- in 1931 and 1932 -- becoming Northwestern's first two-time national champ. Riley was known for his painful double wrist lock that forced opponents onto their backs (a hold since banned by the NCAA).

Pro wrestling resume: Riley had a brief but successful pro wrestling career. In just two years, he won 132 bouts.

Off the mat: After leaving the wrestling ring, Riley played professional football ... then served in the Marines during World War II ... then came back to Northwestern to serve as head wrestling coach in the 1950s (nearly nabbing Dan Hodge before he committed to Oklahoma). Later he was a successful businessman in the Chicago area.

Bob Roop, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale

Robert Roop was introduced to the sport in eighth grade. At East Lansing High School, Roop won a Michigan state title his senior year. After some time in the Army as a paratrooper, he entered college, and his wrestling career soared to new heights.

College credentials: Roop wrestled at SIU-Carbondale, where he compiled an impressive 66-18 record. While in college, he qualified for the U.S. Olympic team, where he placed seventh in Greco-Roman competition at superheavyweight. He won the national AAU title the following year.

Pro wrestling resume: The Blacksburg, Virginia native enjoyed an 18-year career inside the ropes.

Joe Scarpello, University of Iowa

The most decorated wrestler to come out of the University of Iowa in the 1940s, Joseph J. Scarpello was a three-time Nebraska state champ for Omaha Central High (1940-1942). He was an alternate for U.S. team at the 1948 London Olympics.

College credentials: Scarpello was the Hawkeyes' first four-time Big Ten champ at 175 pounds (1947-1950) and the school's first four-time NCAA All-American (1947-1950). The Omaha native was a two-time NCAA champ at 175 (1947 and 1950), and a runner-up at the 1949 NCAAs.

Pro wrestling resume: Scarpello climbed into the ring in 1950, launching a 25-year career that included some time as a tag-team partner with Verne Gagne.

Off the mat: Before wrestling for Iowa, Scarpello served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II.

Ralph Silverstein, University of Illinois

Like Jack Riley, Ralph Silverstein was a native of Chicago. For college, Silverstein stayed in state but headed south, where he wrestled for the Fighting Illini in the Big Ten.

College credentials: In 1935, Silverstein won the 175-pound crown at the Big Tens, then a couple weeks later, claimed the NCAA title at 175, defeating Lloyd Ricks of Oklahoma State (who later became NCAA heavyweight champ in 1937). The following year, Silverstein won his second Big Ten title, this time at heavyweight.

Pro wrestling resume: After graduation, the compact (5'8", 225-pound) champ had a successful pro career as "Ruffy" Silverstein.

"Cowboy" Bill Watts, University of Oklahoma

Wrestled and played football at Putnam County High in Oklahoma, then continued in the same sports as an Oklahoma Sooner.

College credentials: Watts was on the Oklahoma wrestling team at the same time as Dale Lewis, and basically served as the two-time NCAA heavyweight champ's workout partner.

Pro wrestling resume: After playing for the Houston Oilers and Minnesota Vikings, Watts stepped off the gridiron and into the ring, where he was a wrestler and promoter for over two decades.

Steve "Dr Death" Williams, University of Oklahoma

Born in the Denver area, Williams was known for playing football for the Sooners ... but he also wrestled at Oklahoma for head coach Stan Abel. He reportedly earned the nickname "Dr Death" not as a pro wrestler, but early in his amateur wrestling career, when he wore a hockey mask after suffering a facial injury.

College credentials: Williams was a three-time Big Eight (now Big 12) conference heavyweight champ (1980-1982), and a four-time NCAA Division I All-American, making it to the heavyweight finals of the 1982 NCAAs (after beating 1981 NCAA champ Lou Banach of Iowa in the semifinals), where he lost to Bruce Baumgartner of Indiana State, 4-2.

Pro wrestling resume: Williams' ring career spanned more than two decades. He sometimes wrestled in what looked like an Oklahoma Sooners singlet.

Tim Woodin, Michigan State

Tim Woodin
George Burrell "Tim" Woodin was a four-time New York Section IV champ for Ithaca High and was a two-time AAU national champ (1955, 1957), winning his first title while still in high school. He was a multi-sport athlete, as a shot putter and track star.

College credentials: The strapping Spartan (standing 6'1", with a chiseled musculature) was a two-time Big Ten champ (1958, 1959), and a two-time NCAA All-American and finalist. At the 1958 NCAAs, he lost the 177-pound crown to Iowa's Gary Kurdelmeier (future Hawkeye head coach); the following year, he missed out on the 191 title to Syracuse's Art Baker (future Buffalo Bills star).

Pro wrestling resume: The New York native launched a 22-year career in 1962, usually wrestling as masked "good-guy" Mr. Wrestling or unmasked as Tim Woods.

Despite more and more wrestlers opting for MMA careers after college, the pipeline from the collegiate mat to the pro wrestling ring hasn't dried up completely. In the past decade or so, a number of former college All-Americans have fashioned successful careers in professional wrestling, including Kurt Angle (Clarion University), Shelton Benjamin and Brock Lesnar (University of Minnesota), and Jake Hager (University of Oklahoma), wrestling as Jack Swagger in the WWE.

For more photos of each of these athletes -- as college All-Americans, and as professional wrestlers -- visit the "Amateur Wrestlers Go Pro" photo album at Vintage Amateur Wrestling Photo Annex 2 Yahoo group.

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