The Legends of Bruiser Brody: An Interview with Emerson Murray
Bruiser Brody was one of the most brutal professional wrestlers in the world, but a tragic passing made one writer explore his quieter, more humane aspects.
Bruiser BrodyPublisher: Crowbar
Length: 217 pages
Author: Emerson Murray
Format: Paperback, eBook
Publication date: 2015-02-08
Pro wrestling fans from the late '70s and '80s who had the opportunity to see Bruiser Brody often remember him as one of the wildest men in a business that was already full of them.
Violent and unpredictable, Brody didn't walk the aisle to the ring as much as storm it. To add to the effect, he often swung a chain over his head while Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" blasted over the arena PA. The song, with its roiling rhythm and lyrics that purposefully invoke a myth of invading barbarians intent on conquest and destruction, was a perfect fit. Brody wore fur-covered boots, usually with striped tube socks poking out above their brim, and had dark, curly hair that poured down his head like lava.
He emitted a strange, signature, "Huss" sound, that was something between a bark and a pant. He chewed on the ring ropes, bled abundantly in his matches and often stamped his foot before throwing people to the ground. It was a guarantee that he would tear the house down and whether it was in Dallas, St. Louis, Manhattan, San Juan, or Tokyo, people came out in large numbers to see him perform.
In his private life as Frank Goodish, he's remembered as a caring father, friend, and husband. A 1984 Time article on pro wrestling by Adam Zagorin quoted him as softly saying, "I might work ten or 15 days in a row. I try to save money, live quiet and plan for retirement." Like all great wrestling performers, though, there were germs of truth that connected the ring character with real life. Brody was a savvy, tough businessman who in his prime could earn up to $15,000 per week performing in Japan. He had a reputation for being unnecessarily rough with his opponents when he wanted to prove a point, though, and alienated a number of employers during his career. He died in 1988 after being stabbed by fellow wrestler Jose Gonzales in the locker room of Juan Loubriel Stadium in Bayamon, Puerto Rico (The Mountain Goats song, "Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan," off of their 2015 record Beat the Champ, references Brody's death).
Author Emerson Murray spent seven years re-constructing Brody's life, tracking down dozens of professional wrestlers, wrestling journalists, and people who knew him personally. His book, Bruiser Brody, was published originally in 2007 and the ebook was published earlier this year. The project began as a documentary but after quickly burning through the project's budget, it evolved into what Murray calls a "primary source biography."
"I had just re-read Nightmare of Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey, about Ed Wood," he says. "It's a first-person biography and it was comprised of quotes. But it was really cool how he told the story and then he filled in the blanks. I thought, 'Well, I could do that,' and especially with someone like Bruiser Brody where there's so many tall tales and hearsay and legends and stories. So, you're never really going to quite get to the truth. You're going to circle around it, you're going to get a lot of different angles, and everyone's going to swear what they're telling you is the truth."
Murray's project was a labor of love, pursued over email and phone on his days off from work. Fan conventions, where mostly retired professional wrestlers mingle openly with fans, are commonplace now but in 1999 were largely non-existent. "At the time," says Murray, "nobody was talking at all. Information was still sort of hard to find." Murray started tracking wrestlers down one-by-one, connecting dots and making new connections with each conversation. Some, like Ivan Putski, the wrestler responsible for breaking Brody into the wrestling business, and Harley Race, the sand-paper voiced wrestler and promoter who worked with Brody a number of times in America and Japan and is rumored to have once threatened Hulk Hogan at gunpoint when Vince McMahon's WWF began its national expansion, got phone calls every Monday for seven years before Murray finally reached them.
Several, like the wrestler Ox Baker, whose menacing ring persona and a signature move known as the heart punch landed him a role in John Carpenter's Escape from New York, were far removed from their glory days. "[He] was working as a greeter at Wal-Mart when I talked to him," says Murray. "He was so good-humored and a nice guy to me but you could still tell he sort of had a chip on his shoulder and I don't blame him. He worked his ass off and now was struggling." (Baker, coincidentally, is also referenced in a Mountain Goats song, "Ox Baker Triumphant", from their Babylon Springs EP.)
Brody began his wrestling career in 1974 and became a major attraction across the United States. He developed a ring persona that was wild and unpredictable and combined it with his physically intimidating stature (his height is variously listed as being anywhere from 6'5" to 6'8") and a natural athleticism (he played college football at West Texas State University and professionally in the Canadian Football League and for the Washington Redskins practice squad). In the wrestling ring, he could do it all. He wrestled innumerable gore-filled matches with Abdullah the Butcher and others, but also wrestled an hour-long match in St. Louis with Ric Flair that is considered legendary.
Brody's appeal was focused around a wrestling style that fans found to be completely believable. In his interview with Murray, wrestler Dory Funk, Jr said, "[Brody] was very much what the wrestling business needed ... a big, strong, athlete that could let people know that they better think twice before they step into the ring against him. That's part of the appeal of professional wresting. Even as we step into the ring, we're standing four feet above everyone else, and they're all looking up, so there's awesomeness about being in the ring to the wrestling fans. And if you're six-feet-six inches tall, and 300 pounds, and in shape, that even adds to the awesomeness." "Abdullah the Butcher always said a funny thing," says Murray, "and that was, 'The more we beat the shit out of each other, the more people showed up to see the matches. The more people that came to see the matches, the more money we made. The more money we made, the better friends we became.'"
Until the mid-'80s, professional wrestlers had traditionally worked as independent contractors without a union, health benefits, retirement plan or guaranteed contracts. Their pay was solely based on their ability to bring out fans to see them perform, with the business controlled by regional promoters who monopolized defined areas of the country. While many wrestlers became stars in specific areas of the country, like the Von Erich family in Dallas or Jerry Lawler in Memphis, only a handful were considered attractions in multiple areas, let alone internationally. "If you put [Brody's] name on the card," says Murray, "you were going to get a huge house. So he was one of the very few outlaws. You could bring him into a territory and you could save your whole business."
Brody bucked against the system, though, sometimes changing the intended ending of a match if he felt he was being short-changed or manipulated. "He'd show up at the arena and you'd never know what kind of shape he'd be in, in terms of his mood," says Murray. "He would go up there and look at the crowd and say, 'Well, my percentage is this and you guys aren't paying me what I was supposed to be making.'" And as Brody's popularity grew in Japan, he would frequently refuse to lose a match in the United States if he felt it would damage his reputation abroad. "When he went down on the mat," says Murray, "he was doing it deliberately. Nothing happened in a Brody match by accident. He was under constant scrutiny from Japanese press in America because they followed him around and reported on his matches in America."
Throughout the book, many of Brody's acquaintances remember him as a sweet and gentle man while others remember his as a racist and sometimes brutal bully in the ring. Gary Hart, the Texas-based promoter who handled much of Brody's booking in the United States, remembered him to Murray as someone who, "would never lie, never deceive you. If he said he would be there, he would be there. His word was his bond." Marc Allen remembered him to Murray as having, "pissed off every promoter in the country," while Bill Watts, the wrestling promoter for the Mid-South territory in Louisiana and Oklahoma, referred to Brody as a "whore" who refused to show loyalty to his employers.
The jarring opposites that made-up Brody's life are brought together in the Scott Romer photograph that serves as the book's cover. It has Brody, shirtless after a match, with blood running down his face and chest, staring softly, or maybe blankly, into the camera with his right hand hovering near his chin. Look quickly and he appears to be scratching his beard. Look again and he could be taking his pulse. Stare, and he could almost be slinging a suit coat over his shoulder, on his way home after a day of office work.
"When I started the book I was a single dude running around," says Murray. "Through the course of the book I got married and started a brand new job and had my second daughter. So what hit me, maybe because it was happening to me, was [Brody's] devotion to his family. And that's kind of boring and a lot of people don't want to hear that. They want something else. He's just a really independent person and wasn't somebody that went for what was expected of him and what the group thought he should do or what even his friends thought he should do, or what was even in his best interest in he short-run. He went for what he wanted to do and what he needed to do for his family."
In his writing, Murray avoids over-indulging in the vocabulary of the wrestling world and wisely leaves any in-depth description of matches to sidebars. It keeps the narrative from grinding down as it traces through the defunct world of the regional wrestling promotions where Brody worked his trade for men like Sam Muchnick in St. Louis, the gun-toting Dick the Bruiser in Indianapolis, and Joe Blanchard in San Antonio who in 1982 made Southwest Championship Wrestling one of the first nationally-televised wrestling programs via the USA cable network before it was canceled due to a televised event where a wrestler had horse feces dumped on him. "Most of the wrestler's outside lives aren't that interesting," says Murray. "Brody was traveling over here, double crossing that guy, refusing to lay down over here, going over here, got in a fight with Dick The Bruiser over here. He had a lot of things going on."
Brody's death in 1988 is a relatively small portion of Murray's book, though it has taken on outsized significance in discussions of Brody's life. Brody had originally met Jose Gonzalez in 1976, wrestling him in a terribly physical match in New York's Nassau Coliseum where Brody savaged him. "Gonzalez," said wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer to Murray, "held the grudge for over a decade." Gonzalez progressed to working as a wrestler and booker for the World Wrestling Council in Puerto Rico, determining the outcomes of individual matches and the long-term storylines for the promotion. "There were rumors," says Murray, "and I never confirmed these rumors, that Brody had bought into the company and Jose Gonzalez was going to be muscled out. He most certainly was being muscled-out as the number two [attraction]. When Brody showed up, it was like Gonzalez didn't have a chance, in terms of popularity."
By the accounts of those present during the stabbing, Gonzalez called Brody into the shower stall for a personal conversation, where he stabbed him at least twice. In an interview with The Wrestler magazine, given shortly after the incident occurred, wrestler Tony Atlas, who was in the dressing room at the time, is quoted as saying, "Brody grabbed his belly. You know how when you give a guy an uppercut? That's how Jose hit him, between the [pectorals] and the stomach. Brody tried to back out the door, and all of us jumped up when he hollered. Then we saw Jose with the blade. I was sitting outside the shower, about eight feet away, and the shower door is glass. When I saw Jose's hand, I thought it was a punch at first, but by the time we got right at the door, that's when we saw the second stab ... the knife was a big sucker and it was moving the whole time."
Rumors of a cover-up have circulated around Brody's death for over two decades. Gonzalez left the building without being detained and returned later that evening and wrestled in his scheduled match. The knife used in the attack was never recovered. There were major delays in administering care to Brody immediately after the attack as well as at the hospital, and none of the American wrestlers who were in the locker room when the attack occurred were included as witnesses at Gonzalez's trial. Several have spoken since that had they not left Puerto Rico immediately after the attack, they felt they would have been murdered as well.
"That's real," says Murray. "Everybody kept saying, '[The mob] has stooges all over the island, and they know when you land, where you are at any time, where you're going ... they know.' A lot of wrestlers didn't get paid and they couldn't say anything or they'd get their asses kicked. To me, it just sounded scary as hell. But people were desperate to make a dollar so they had to work under those conditions."
Scott Ostler, writing in The Los Angeles Times, was one of the few mainstream sports journalist at the time to cover the incident in-depth. In a piece called "The Night The Fun Was Drained Out of Pro Wresting," he wrote, "The Saturday night show went on, after the promoter informed the wrestlers in the bad guys' dressing room that Brody had been stabbed by a fan but was in good condition. This is in keeping with the spirit of wrestling, a sport based on deception and illusion. Thus ended the life of the most famous athlete you've never heard of."
Gonzalez was acquitted of voluntary homicide in 1989. Murray tried unsuccessfully to contact him for the book, but was able to contact Carlos Colon, an owner of the World Wrestling Council and Gonzalez's employer at the time of the incident. When trying to contact Colon, Murray dialed a phone number that was one-digit off for four years before finally having it corrected. Many people interviewed warned Murray that there were risks involved in digging too deeply into Brody's death.
"[Tony Atlas] told me, 'You're not go to live to see 30, man, if you write this book," says Murray. "[The mob] are going to give some kid a little rock of crack, and you'll be checking your mail, and you're not going to see it coming. He'll pop you from behind.' So, here I was as a 28-year old with the thought that somebody out there was trying to kill me. Dory Funk's wife said the same thing; 'You all seem like nice boys, but I don't know how long you're going be around.' I can laugh about it now but at the time it wasn't that funny."
Murray tracked down the Coroner's Report on Brody's death, which is included in the book, and attempted to obtain the transcripts of Gonzalez's trial. "My wife and I spent a whole day one day just calling around, trying to get copies of the court records," says Murray. "Finally, we got somebody that was literally in the basement and had all the court records there with her and she said, 'Call me back in four hours, I'll go look for them.' We call her back and she gets on the phone with my wife and is whispering, and says, 'The court records aren't here. They're supposed to be here. I don't know where they are. Don't call here again,' and hangs up. It's just the court transcripts of what was said. Why would you destroy that? But I was never able to find them. So, just to put an extra little conspiracy thing in there. I don't know if they were destroyed or what, but the people down in the basement told me they're not where they're supposed to be."
Murray's book serves to memorialize a performer who reached the height of his fame before the pro wrestling boom brought on by pay-per-view technology, and one who is dangerously close to being forgotten by a new generation of fans. "[Brody] wasn't in a Wrestlemania," says Murray. "He wasn't in Crockett Promotions when it was super hot. He was the last outlaw, so he was in a lot of smaller places and the fandom is slowly getting older and older and I think that eventually they'll fade, and it will just be a footnote; 'Oh, that wrestler that was killed.'
On the touring life of a musician, Elvis Costello once wrote, "The armed forces are the only other line of work that encourages such unsuitable people to travel the world." Though it's hard to imagine him as a fan, Costello could have easily included professional wrestling in his remark and still been on target. Murray's book, built on his extensive research, immerses you in the chaotic, cutthroat universe that Bruiser Brody prospered in.
From performing in the main event at Madison Square Garden against Bruno Sammartino to fighting off would-be killers in the parking lot of a Waffle House in Odessa, Texas, to wrapping barbed wire around the head of Abdullah the Butcher in Tel Aviv, Israel in order to sell their match to skeptical onlookers, to a meeting at a Hawaiian airport where Japanese promoters handed over $50,000 in cash to Brody's wife as part of an elaborate deal to convince Brody to return to Japan, Murray follows the path of Brody's life to the far-flung areas that he inhabited. "When you watch his matches," says Murray, "and you look at his face, you can see him thinking. A lot of the other guys you can't see them thinking. And I just love that. I love what's going on in his crazy mind, and what is his perspective. Because he was so smart."
In a candid interview that surfaced after his death, Brody described his drive as follows; "I wrassled in Madison Square Garden. I know that feeling. I wrassled in the Forum in Los Angeles. I know that feeling ... But to really know professional wrestling, to really say that you're at the top of the sport, you've got to touch people outside of New York City. You've got to touch people outside of Los Angeles.
"When people look at Bruiser Brody on TV, they don't get near as emotional as they do when they're sitting there at ringside. So all these people in all these rural communities, if they don't have a chance to go out there and actually touch Bruiser Brody and see him in person, he's really not at the top of his business. He can only be at the top of his business when he reaches those in New York City, those in Waxahachie, Texas, those in Bluefield, West Virginia, those in Union Town, Pennsylvania. You can only be the top when all wrestling fans get to be in touch with you and that can't be done just on TV."