By Shiai Mata
This has been a bad week for pro wrestling. First, there was the passing of historian James C. Melby. And now comes word of the death of promoter Bob Luce.
I don't imagine that the name of Bob Luce means much of anything to any Midwestern wrestling fans under the age of 35 or so, but back when I was a kid and I first got into watching pro wrestling, Luce was THE man.
Bob Luce promoted in Chicago , working with both the Minneapolis-based AWA and the smaller WWA (owned by Dick the Bruiser), which controlled the markets in Detroit and Indianapolis. Bob Luce was a showman that would have done P.T. Barnum proud, one who not only brought in national-level talent, but who discovered and nurtured fresh talent as well. These days, an indy promotion can claim a victory if it puts 100 paying customers in the seat at any given show. During Luce's heyday in the 60s and 70s, you could measure his house show crowds in the thousands. He would fill the Chicago International Amphitheatre (site of the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention) month after month, and for his big shows, he would pack old Comiskey Park , home of the White Sox.
In the early 1970s, Luce landed a weekly TV show on Channel 44. Sunday mornings, I used to tune in to his "All Star Championship Wrestling". Now, these days, when a promoter uses the term "All Star," you can almost always translate that into "No Stars." But Luce came through, week after week. Here are just some of the wrestlers who worked for him that I saw on TV: Verne Gagne, Nick Bockwinkle, Billy Robinson, Baron Von Raschke, Dick the Bruiser, the Crusher, Mad Dog Vachon, the Valiant Brothers, Pepper Gomez, Ox Baker, the Blackjacks, Ken Patera, Ray Stevens, Bruiser Brody, Larry Hennig, Ric Flair, Sgt. Slaughter, Hulk Hogan, Jesse Ventura, the Road Warriors, and Andre the Giant.
Luce pioneered the "talk show" format for a wrestling show, interspersing matches with interviews (a format which would be very successfully adopted in the early 80s by Vince McMahon and the WWF). He realized that giving the workers a televised format to address their rivals would build tremendous heat for their matches. The undisputed kings of working the mike were Nick Bockwinkle (who was, in TV parlance, perfectly "cool" on camera) and his manager, Bobby "the Brain" Heenan, who would fly off into angry hysterics.
He'd do crazy stunts on his show, like running a "Have a Dream Date with the Valiant Brothers" contest, or testing the fabled "Cast Iron Stomach" of Pepper Gomez, first by having Ox Baker jump on his abdomen from atop a ladder, and then by driving a VW Bug over his stomach in the studio!
Almost as good as the matches and the interviews were the commercials. Luce himself would do the voiceovers for Ben's Auto Sales, while Dick the Bruiser and Bobo Brazil would do them for One-Stop Market (where Bobo claimed he got his chitlin's by the case full!). Those ads were wonderfully low budget, but you know what? I still remember them clearly to this day, thirty years later. How many other commercials have that kind of staying power?
If the Luce promotion had a drawback, it was that he almost never used women wrestlers... which is curious, because he married a one-time lady wrestler himself, a girl named Sharon Lass. Sometimes he would run a women's match from a WWA card (the first time I ever saw Candi Divine in action was early in her career, when she wrestled Princess Jasmine in the WWA), and he did discover a newcomer named Sexy Sindy Paradise, who went on to some fame in the LPWA in the early 90s. But considering the wealth of female talent out there during his run, it's almost criminal that he bypassed virtually all of it. But, I have to say, that my interest in pro wrestling was developed and honed by Bob Luce, and that led me to check out the various wrestling magazines, where the photography of Gene Gordon first introduced me to the world of women's wrestling. So, I certainly owe a debt to Luce for that. Like a lot of the old-timers, Luce was steamrolled in the 80s by the WWF juggernaut. A product of the Old School, which held to traditional concepts like territories, he never comprehended the changes that McMahon would impose upon the business. When he got out of the business after decades of promoting, I had heard there was some bitterness on his part.
I only met Bob Luce once, around ten years ago. He was a special guest at an NWA-Midwest show, and I made the trip out there just to see him. The kids didn't know who he was, of course, but every adult fan there of a certain age knew him very well, and we flocked around him, plying him with questions, hanging on his words. I didn't sense any bitterness in him that night, but if there was any still within him, I hope that this outpouring of affection from his fans dispelled them forever.
Bob Luce was 79 years old upon his death a few days ago. But the man, like his legacy, remains timeless with me.
Thanks for everything, Bob.