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Jim Ross on Superstars with amateur backgrounds

In his latest column for WWE Classics, WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross hits the mat with some of the best amateur competitors who made the transition to sports-entertainment.

Long before social media and even television, enterprising wrestling promoters wisely scouted and signed new stars that would not only help them sell tickets, but also garner publicity from mainstream sports media. But how did they find these athletic specimens who had already earned name identity in their chosen fields of athletic competition?

The answer was simple — scour the amateur wrestling world for the “next big thing.”

The list of amateur wrestlers who made significant contributions in the world of sports-entertainment is too expansive to list here, but we’ll try and mention some of the more prominent names that made their mark inside the squared circle. ( PHOTOS)

Verne Gagne, a WWE Hall of Famer, was a member of the 1948 United States Olympic wrestling team at 191 pounds. Gagne went on to purchase the Minneapolis Boxing and Wrestling Club in 1960, leading to the former University of Minnesota Golden Gopher to create the American Wrestling Association and become the AWA World Champion 10 different times before his retirement in 1981.

Arguably, the most talented and skilled amateur wrestler to migrate to the professional level was my personal favorite, Danny Hodge. Hodge went to two Olympic games, never lost a single match in college at Oklahoma University, won three national titles (freshmen weren’t eligible in those days) and never allowed a single point to be scored against him his senior year, which is unfathomable to this day.

The Heisman Trophy equivalent in collegiate wrestling is named the Dan Hodge Award, which illustrates just how Dan is perceived within that culture. Hodge and Lou Thesz were at one time considered “Wrestling Gods” in Japan (no offense JBL) as Dan traveled the world defending the NWA Junior Heavyweight Title for wrestlers weighing 225 pounds or less. For my money, Dan Hodge is the greatest amateur wrestler ever produced in the USA.

Jack Brisco, an alumnus of my Sooners’ rival, the Oklahoma State Cowboys, became the first Native American to win an NCAA wrestling title. He achieved this prestigious honor in 1965, his junior year. Brisco was never taken down a single time in that season, which was and still is unheard of. “Handsome” Jack easily made the transition to the professional ranks and became a two-time NWA World Heavyweight Champion. In 2008, Jack and his younger brother, Gerald, were inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Gerald followed Jack into amateur wrestling and after winning two AAU titles, was awarded a full academic scholarship to Jack’s alma mater, OSU. Gerald went on to continue his family’s championship legacy, winning the NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship. Gerald and Jack also won the NWA World Tag Team Championships three times. The WWE Hall of Famer still works for WWE, scouting college wrestling tournaments for potential WWE Superstars.

South Korea’s Riki Choshu, Canada’s Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon and Earl McCready, who many say was the Great White North’s greatest all-around athlete, and Japan’s Jumbo Tsuruta, Yoshiaki Yatsu and Masa Saito (aka Mr. Saito) were other distinguished grapplers who earned their stripes in the amateur world and then became mainstream sports stars while seamlessly moving into the world of sports-entertainment.

Dale Lewis, also out of Oklahoma University, became a respected pro wrestler as Professor Dale Lewis after being a national champion for the Sooners. Lewis’ teammate at OU was my mentor, Cowboy Bill Watts, who was unable to unseat Lewis in practice, but earned much more fame and sold more tickets in the pros than Lewis. Watts headlined Madison Square Garden in his third year in the business, which was an amazing feat.

Other notable amateurs include another Minnesota native, the accomplished Brad Rheingans, who was favored to win the 1980 Olympics until the games were boycotted by the U.S. Rheingans is also the man that first trained Brock Lesnar after Lesnar left Minnesota with a national championship to his credit.

Longtime fans will remember Allen Coage, aka Bad News Brown, medaled in the Olympics in judo before becoming a viable, main event star for Stampede Wrestling in Calgary, Alberta, and then WWE.

Of course, Kurt Angle won the Gold Medal in the 1996 Olympic Games before signing with WWE and launching a superbly successful career. Amateur greats Kurt and Brock crossed paths in WWE, which helped elevate the athleticism on the WWE roster to new heights at that time.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention amateur weightlifting great Mark Henry, The World’s Strongest Man, who represented the USA in the Olympic Games and who has gone on to become one of the most dominating competitors in WWE.

Jim Raschke aka Baron Von Raschke from Nebraska was another amateur great in Greco-Roman Wrestling before launching an amazing and long career in the pros primarily in the AWA.

The same can be said for others like Frenchman Henri Deglane; weightlifter Harold Sakata, aka Mr. Togo, who became famous for playing the character Oddjob in the James Bond movie “Goldfinger”; American freestyle wrestling super-heavyweight Chris Taylor, who was started in the biz by Verne Gagne; and Hiroshi Hase, one of my all-time favorite wrestlers who went on to become the equivalent of a senator in Japan after a marvelous ring career.

On a very personal note, my dear friend, the late Steve “Dr. Death” Williams was a four-time amateur wrestling All-American who also lettered and started four years on the football team at Oklahoma. I’ve met no man walking the face of the earth tougher than Doc. R.I.P., my friend.

Interesting bit of trivia, every year from 1906 through 1996, with one exception (1952), there was at least one medalist who went from the Olympics into sports-entertainment. 

Coming full circle, WWE is now actively scouting the amateur ranks more thoroughly than ever before, including Olympians from around the world, in search of gifted, world class athletes who have the overall skill set to become major stars in WWE.

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