SoCal Legend: Freddie Blassie
by Justin Crast
“My God, my eyes!”
Those were the words emitted from Freddie Blassie’s mouth on May 8th, 1971. Blassie had just been voted Wrestler of the Year by the World Wrestling Association fans in Los Angeles. Announcer Dick Lane had presented Blassie, a former heel now beloved baby face, with a trophy. Out of nowhere, hated villain John Tolos ran in with “Monsel’s Powder”, littering Blassie’s face and eyes with the blinding solution. Blassie fell to the ground clutching his eyes and was immediately escorted out to the “hospital”. The move by Tolos added insult to injury, since he had just won the WWA Americas Title from Blassie the night before by knock out. Three weeks later it was announced that Blassie would never wrestle again, permanently blinded. It was a huge blow to the SoCal wrestling fans, one that everyone from the time period will always remember. There is low quality silent footage of the event still available from traders if one is so interested.
Blassie began wrestling in 1935 but did not make it a serious profession until 1942 at the age of 24. After being discharged by the Navy in 1946 he turned full time rassler and his career began on the upswing. He used a “Sailor” gimmick in the late 40s and early 50s before dropping that in 1952 as a somewhat generic, clean baby face. He became a big star in the South and his popularity increased steadily in LA. He had several big matches versus the top stars of the era like Lou Thesz and Gorgeous George, but he was not making it on their level. In 1956 he turned heel to the Southern fans. He quickly became one of the most hated and genuinely feared villains in the world. He later became known as “The Vampire” due to his unparalleled lust for blood, and his sickening penchant to sometimes bite and perhaps drink the blood of his opponent. It seems campy to fans of the present but it was just the sort of thing that fans 40 years ago would eat up… and be terrified. Blassie did not have great workrate but he was a master of psychology so he was a good worker in one sense. He could be compared to the best workers of Memphis who were not so great at physical work but knew every trick in the book to get crowds into the match.
In 1960 he returned to LA and became an even bigger star. He won the WWA Heavyweight Title in 1961 from the acrobatic Eduard Carpentier. In 1962 he was involved in a famous three way feud with Japanese pioneer Rikidozan and The Destroyer, the greatest American masked wrestler of all time. The feud lit up LA and stretched into Japan. Blassie was given an amazing push, being one of the only foreigners to be given a win over Rikidozan on July 25th of 1962, even if it was due to the match being stopped due to Riki’s tremendous blood loss. It did not matter that Blassie could not pin Riki, he was a Vampire and he succeeded in making his opponent bleed profusely. It was in Japan that the fans gave Blassie that nick name after he left teeth marks on the foreheads of his opponents.
LA business dropped drastically in the mid 60s after Bearcat Wright double crossed Blassie for the title and left town in 1963. Blassie later dropped the WWA Title to Dick the Bruiser in addition to losing a “loser leaves town” match. Blassie went to the WWWF and became one of the biggest heels there, once again finding success in a new territory. He returned to LA in late ’64 and ’65 but didn’t have the fire he once had. He was diagnosed with hepatitis in 1965 and spent all of 1966 in retirement after being told his career was over. He had a great career as one of the top stars in every territory he worked but he still had the urge to wrestle.
“Bite ‘Em Blassie, Bite ‘Em”
In August 1967 Blassie returned to Los Angeles and immediately lit up the territory. He defeated Mark Lewin for the WWA Americas Title on August 25th. He was stripped of the title after a tour of Japan but eventually regained it in 1969 in a feud with black pioneer Bobo Brazil. It was also around this time that Blassie began getting cheered more and more. Like with Steve Austin three decades later, Blassie was such a bad ass, such a cool heel that the fans could not help but cheer him. He became a full fledged baby face by the end of 1969 and had a wild feud with wild man The Sheik. In 1970 the two had a series of cage matches that drew big crowds to the Grand Olympic. In July they took turns blinding each other. In the first cage match the Sheik’s manager, The Weasel, threw iodine in Blassie’s eyes, blinding him and allowing the Sheik to escape the cage. Blassie was infuriated and NWA President Sam Muchnick ordered a cage rematch for two weeks later. Blassie came up with the idea to suspend The Weasel above the cage within a cage himself. In the rematch Blassie gave Sheik some of his own medicine by tossing pepper in the Arab’s eyes in addition to biting open his head, naturally to the Grand Olympic chants of “Bite ’em Blassie, Bite ‘Em”. Blassie escaped the cage but was immediately attacked by the next great heel of LA, John Tolos.
The two feuded throughout 1970 and stretched into 1971. Blassie was an old man by this point and not much a worker although he knew exactly how to get the crowd into his match. In the midst of his never ending feud with Tolos, Blassie traded the Americas Title with Kinji Shibuya in early 1971 before once again focusing on Tolos. He lost the aforementioned match to Tolos by knock out on May 7th and on the next day was once again blinded, this time “permanently”. Tolos traded the title with Don Carson in July. On his July 30th victory over Carson, Blassie ran in and attempted to attack Tolos after being in hiding for two months. The Olympic security took Blassie down and handcuffed him to restore order; handcuffing the bad ass face nearly three decades before WWF and Austin did it. The crowd went nuts for it all. Promoter Mike LeBell immediately signed a rematch between the two, but not for the Grand Olympic like usual. They needed an even bigger building for this match. The Memorial Coliseum was decided for the venue and the event was set for August 27th, 1971.
BLASSIE’S BACK, WANTS REVENGE
The headline for an August 27th program. Blassie had all the reason he needed for revenge already, having been blinded by Tolos, but Tolos gave him even more reason a week before their big match. Blassie once again found himself handcuffed, this time to the ring post, while Tolos administered a beating. After Tolos got done, he destroyed Blassie. There was intense hate between the two individuals, a type of feeling that is not felt much in today’s wrestling. Do fans today think Rock and Austin really hate each other? People were just more willing to suspend their belief back then. Even today’s best matches do not really contain that type of feeling. They are sort of technical exhibitions. The SoCal crowd had a collective orgasm at Rising Son’s “Spirit of the Revolution” tournament final win over Super Dragon. It was a great match but it didn’t have the same emotional contact with the fans certain storylines did years ago when rasslin was “real”. This is not to say today’s style is inferior; Dragon, Son, and others have advanced the art with new moves and deeper in-ring storylines, but they may never be able to get the same type of heat Freddie Blassie and John Tolos got years ago. Today no one would believe Blassie was really blinded, and that’s ok, the wrestlers just have to continue improving and adapting to their fan base.
But in 1971, the fan base was amazed Blassie could once again see, let alone wrestle. As sick as it sounds, they probably would have cheered for Blassie to murder Tolos. The Coliseum event drew a crowd of 25,847 and a gate of $142,158.50, both California records. In addition to these achievements, it was the first pro-wrestling card to be shown on Closed Circuit Television. Vince McMahon Jr. succeeded in convincing the media that Wrestlemania I was the birth of wrestling on Closed Circuit and that WWF was the first organization to be profitable, but anyone with an interest in history can see just how much money was made in the business before Vince Jr. ever got control of WWF. Closed circuit began almost fifteen years before Vince did it himself and the Blassie-Tolos rematch drew one of the largest legit crowds in wrestling history up to that point.
They split the first two falls, as is to be expected in just about any 2/3 falls match up in pro-wrestling. Blassie bloodied Tolos and demolished him to the point that the ref awarded Blassie victory when Tolos could no longer continue. Blassie had won by TKO, climaxing and concluding their long feud. It was a perfectly structured, perfectly told storyline that made wrestling as great as it was. The LA Times treated the feud tongue-in-cheek like every media outlet would cover wrestling at the times, but the fact that they did give it significant play in the papers proved how huge the feud was.
“Pencil Necked Geek”
Blassie continued wrestling through 1973 before retiring due to injuries and age. He became one of the top managers in WWF along with Lou Albano and Grand Wizard, particularly managing Muhammad Ali vs Antonio Inoki in Japan and bringing Hulk Hogan to WWF for the first time against Andre the Giant. His “pencil necked geek” catch phrase became known nation wide to WWF fans and he continues as a television personality to this day, recently being brought in to give WWF a pep speech against the WCW/ECW alliance in the Invasion storyline.
Freddie Blassie is a true legend around the world, not just in Southern California, although his best moments in the ring arguably occurred in LA. With his time on earth probably winding down, its nice to remember what type of wrestler he was and the success he gained. It’s also important to realize SoCal’s wrestling heritage and understand there was wrestling before XPW or RevPro. LA was a wrestling hotbed for decades on and off. Blassie, Gorgeous George, Jim Londos, Ernie Ladd, Chavo Guerrero Sr., Roddy Piper, and others found stardom in Southern California. The territory system of old is gone with only one major promotion in the country but several independent promotions in SoCal are running currently, who knows if any will reach the fame the aforementioned legends reached. Super Dragon, Rising Son, Chris Daniels, and others may not have matches in SoCal as legendary as Blassie-Tolos or Blassie-Sheik but they can still leave their mark on the area.
Sources: The WAWLI Papers by J Michael Kenyon ; www.otherarena.com & Steve Yohe ; Title Histories 4th Edition by Gary Will and Royal Duncan Justin
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