Before cable, I spent my weekend mornings going through the family album collection, playing (against my brother’s wishes) the records with the most interesting cover art and scariest names. This is when and where I discovered my love for bands like AC/DC and Quiet Riot. This is when and where I once thought I’d done something really and truly wrong by playing Dio’s Holy Diver—the introductory keyboard parts giving me the sneaking suspicion that I might have opened a portal to Hell itself and that the demon on the cover, menacing and evil, chain held high threatening to hit a priest in troubled waters, would materialize in the living room.
“Who has summoned me?”
I was eight. Some things I wouldn’t learn until later.
Unlike most of my friends, the first thing I fell in love with on cable television wasn’t MTV. It was professional wrestling. It was late 1983/early 1984 and there were two options in my neck of the woods—the WWF (now WWE) on the USA Network and Championship Wrestling from Georgia on Superstation WTBS. The production values and characters of the WWF felt more polished and removed from my life. By contrast the WTBS wrestling, which started five minutes past the hour, felt like local bars had been emptied out into a small TV studio and the men who were interested in fighting were given $20 and a pair of trunks.
I don’t know why professional wrestling caught me the way it did. I didn’t know then what I know now—that a certain amount of planning went into what I was watching (I’m not getting into the Wrestling is Fake, OMG! discussion). It felt wild and wholly unpredictable. I didn’t always know what was going on and why one guy hated another, but I was emotionally invested and scared of what bad may arise.
The host of Championship Wrestling from Georgia was Gordon Solie—a grandfatherly looking guy with big glasses, a delicate frame, a penchant for loud suits and skinny microphones. Solie was not a yeller or a screamer. He explained what was going on, interviewed the good guys and bad guys, kept order where it was a threatened thing. Every week he’d throw out catchphrases that were like raw meat to me in my quest to add as many things to my vocabulary as I could. They didn’t always make sense in words, but certainly as emotional reactions. Katie bar the door! Pier Six Brawl!
One Saturday morning a new face showed up. His name was Ox Baker. He had thick eyebrows that curled up, a handlebar moustache that flowed into an unruly beard, and tape wrapped around his left fist.
What Solie said next was intriguing.
“Ox Baker is barred from competing on television.”
My eight year old brain took notice. Why would somebody be barred from competing on television?
“Now I’ve got this heart punch,” he said, holding up his fist. “Two men in wrestling have died from this heart punch.”
If what he was saying was true, Ox Baker had killed two men. To make matters worse, not only was he not in jail, but he was on TV looking for a third victim.
If you listen to the lyrics of Dio’s debut album, Holy Diver, it succeeds in the way that the best vaguely evil heavy music succeeds. It conjures up beastly imagery against a backdrop of minor chords and haunting screams. As a grown adult I read the lyrics and think it to be some non-rhyming Dr. Seussian poetry coupled with Tolkien aspirations. But as an eight year old, the threat of anything coming after you (the cat in the blue?) was enough to scare the shit out of me.
I didn’t know it then, but by the time Holy Diver was released in 1983, Ronnie James Dio had already done duty as the lead singer of Black Sabbath, replacing Ozzy Osbourne. The same Ozzy who the older, wiser, and juvenile delinquent kids in my babysitter’s neighborhood whispered about. Ozzy bites heads off live snakes and bats then spits the blood on the audience. Ozzy sold his soul to the Devil. As an eight year old, these legends loomed large, their implications wide ranging and panic inducing.
What then had Dio done to prove his mettle? Sacrificed school children like me on stage?
In June of 1971, Ox Baker and his tag team partner, The Claw, were wrestling in Nebraska against Alberto Torres and Cowboy Bob Ellis. As legend has it, Baker executed his infamous Heart Punch on Torres. Three days later the popular Alberto Torres, one of three wrestling brothers, was dead.
Barely a year later in August of 1972, Baker faced off against Ray Gunkel in Savannah, Georgia. During the match Ox slugged Gunkel in the heart, and he, like Torres before him, died in the ring.
Wrestling being an inherently sleazy business—a traveling carnival run by the Mafia—those people with a vested interest in turning tragedy into ticket sales, began spreading the story of how Ox Baker and his vicious heart punch were responsible for the deaths of two men. No doubt, if things continued, there would likely be a third.
The truth of the matter is, of course, far different.
Torres died of a ruptured appendix, a pre-existing condition that had nothing to do with Baker’s punch. Gunkel’s death is a little bit more mysterious, but it’s widely assumed that he had an unrelated heart attack.
The legend of Ox Baker, independent of truth, blossomed and grew like a strangling vine. Two years after Gunkel’s death, in one of the more infamous wrestling related riots of all time, Baker whipped a Cleveland crowd into such a frenzy by heart punching Ernie Ladd repeatedly that Baker’s own life was on the line.
I guess, ostensibly so as not to run the risk of scarring the at home audience lest there be a third murder, Ox Baker wasn’t allowed to compete on television. Gordon Solie’s earnest reporting of the fact, and Baker’s reinforcement of it, all made good sense to an eight year old.
It wouldn’t have occurred to me at the time that there were more pedestrian reasons for keeping Ox Baker off TV. Namely, he wasn’t a good worker. Ox Baker had the right look for a professional wrestling villain and could deliver an engaging interview that conveyed the sense of dread and menace that would naturally follow from a guy who murked two dudes in the ring. But when it time came for Ox to step through the ropes and wrestle, he was slow on his feet. Plodding. I can only guess what sort of spectacle massacre fans were looking for, but they were likely left wanting more when they saw him in the ring.
As carny and sleazy as wrestling promoters may be, they are equally in touch with how to make a buck. If the real money was made putting asses in the seats of municipal centers and high school gymnasiums across the South, then Saturday morning wrestling was simply a commercial. To that end, Ox Baker’s promises of violence were like any other advertisement—good enough to get cash, not quite disappointing enough to demand a refund.
As an eight year old in the North, I was not the target market. It’s possible that if they would have put Ox Baker matches on TV, I would have watched only enough to be disappointed, like I’m sure I’ve been with hundreds of other wrestling personalities that didn’t stand out. This reckless killer of men would have been exposed as slightly clumsy sideshow. But they did not run his matches. Ox Baker intrigued and frightened me. There was nobody around to tell me it would be okay. I could only pray for the lives of whoever he ended up fighting in smoky venues and hope that Gordon Solie didn’t have to report another death next week.
I fell deeper in love with professional wrestling because of Ox Baker.
Years passed before I got a better understanding of Ronnie James Dio. I’d moved beyond Holy Diver, onto Glenn Danzig projects and heavier metal in my teens and early twenties. It wasn’t until years after that when I was listening to the local hard rock station that I heard that opening keyboard riff of Holy Diver and found myself transported to the living room floor of a house I hadn’t lived in for decades. By then I’d probably grown disillusioned with Danzig. As I drove down the road with friends who hadn’t grown up with my brother’s music collection I could only say, You want evil? Check out Dio. That guy’s the real deal.
Except he wasn’t.
When I went down the Youtube rabbit hole of live concert footage, interviews, and even the ridiculously cheesy video for Holy Diver, I saw that Ronnie James Dio was not the monster on the album cover.
The first thing you invariably notice about Dio is that, in stature, he was a small man. Incredibly small. Put in your pocket and sneak through customs small.
Listening to him talk, he was thoughtful, well-educated, and only the slightest bit provocative. He’d clearly walked a tightrope between the real world and theater, tapping into the fantasies of an underdog. A task made easier by the lyrics and the band behind him.
Even if the collection of videos didn’t support my earlier assumptions, even if the costumes and B-movie music videos didn’t hold up to an older, more cynical, more jaded me who could rewind videos and track down lyrics, cross reference his material, Dio’s mark had already been made. He had worked his sorcery on me. The eight year old who had worried about what catastrophic bad I’d done, had already flirted with and loved the excitement he’d found on the living room floor. Had gone through fascinations with good and evil, the occult, the outsider world, and it had shaped my life. What changes Ronnie James Dio could have helped create in my DNA had already been done. Were irreversible.
Back in 2009, I was working on a novel when the idea hit me that I’d like to put Ox Baker in the book as a character. I Googled around a bit and found a gentleman who seemed to know Ox and to handle some of his online publicity. I reached out to him and the guy told me that Ox didn’t always talk to people, but if I gave him my phone number, he’d pass it on to Ox without any promises.
A few weeks later I was at my desk when the phone rang.
“Is this Ben LeRoy?” The voice on the other end like sandpaper.
“Well, I’ve heard you’ve been booing me. And when I get done with this match, I’m going to come out there into the stands and I’m going to punch you right in your heart.”
Sometimes the world is a surreal place.
“Is this Ox Baker?”
“Yes,” the tone changed. Affable. Laughing. “How are you sir? Heard you wanted to talk to me.”
Who has summoned me?
I won’t tell you that Ox Baker and I became best friends or that I’m now working on some Mitch Albom-like book about my time with the guy, but I did end up talking to him a dozen times, and on a business trip to his neck of the woods I had the pleasure of going to lunch with Ox and his wife Peggy.
We talked about wrestling and life and the mindless chit chat of genuine people still feeling each other out. He was charming and self-aggrandizing in the way a professional wrestler must always be. Most of the time he was Douglas, a 78 year old man at lunch in Connecticut, but every now and again he dropped into his gimmick.
When our conversation was interrupted by a toddler throwing a tantrum, the bushy eyebrows furrowed and Ox, loud enough to garner an audience past our table in that gravelly voice said, “Do I have to go over there and shut that brat up?” You could see the twinkle in his eye.
I didn’t look behind me at the parents or the kid. I felt self-conscious and awkward, braced for the potential of greater conflict.
But then I thought about what good might come from that kid being scared a little bit by Ox. Maybe it’d change the trajectory of his little life or would scare his parents into taking risks and getting more out of their days. Besides, Ox wasn’t going to do anything for free in the restaurant anyway. Barred from competing, if you will. So I embraced the moment. I leaned back in my chair and wished that Gordon Solie and Ronnie James Dio were with us eating Greek food in Connecticut.