The ring introduction from National Wrestling Federation announcer Ron Martinez was simple, to the point … and said it all:
“Six-foot-nine. Three hundred pounds. From Houston, Texas, ‘The Big Cat,' ‘The King of Wrestling' — Ernie Ladd!”
From 1970-74, Ladd was the most dominating wrestler in the Cleveland-Buffalo-based NWF, an imposing figure adored and abhorred for his strut, snarl, and sarcasm. A huge box office attraction in the NWF — not to mention every promotion he entered — Ladd became the first major, national black heel in pro wrestling and made it all the way to the WWE Hall of Fame in 1995.
“Wrestling was one of the big things in my life,” Ladd said. “Financially, it took care of me and my family and I enjoyed it.”
Born in November 1938, Ladd graduated from Wallace High School in Orange, Tex. before going to Grambling, where he played football and basketball. Known as “Little Samson,” he joined the San Diego Chargers of the American Football League as a 15th round draft pick in 1961.
With San Diego, Ladd played in four AFL title games and was a four-time AFL Pro Bowler. His remarkable size and agility allowed him to play on the interior as a run-stuffer, and also chase down opposing quarterbacks with his long strides.
Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson: Ernie likes to talk. He'd talk all the time. He'd talk during the game. He was one of the few defensive linemen who would talk. Ernie was playing defensive tackle and Ernie was right there in front of me. And I'm under the center — it's third and long — and he says, “Lenny, I know you've got to throw the rock.” He said, “I'm gonna be back there with you. I'll be there.” He said, “This sucker can't block me, he knows it, and I know it.” And I knew it, too! That's why we developed the moving pocket. [Kansas City Chiefs coach] Hank Stram came up with the moving pocket. It was the greatest thing for me because it saved my life. He said, “Let's move away from that damn guy. Maybe by the time he gets to it, you'll be able to get the football off and throw the thing down the field.”
Ladd got his feet wet in wrestling in 1961 when he was with the Chargers, following the path of many footballers who dabbled in the mat game during the off-season. Dick "The Destroyer" Beyer, a West Coast star at the time, recalled telling him: "Why don't you come down and join a man's sport?"
Ernie Ladd: The wrestling business was not doing so well in San Diego at that time, so I was getting a little publicity going. Some wrestlers challenged me to come down [to the arena] and fight them. I was pretty cocky and I told them “I can't be bothered by these people.” But when I did go down there, they stretched me. So I thought it would be best for me if I learned how to wrestle a little bit.
Slowly, Ladd broke into the sport during the off-season, which infuriated Chargers coach Sid Gillman. Ladd recalled that Gillman threatened to cut him if he didn't curtail his wrestling activities, which overlapped with summer training camp.
Still, Ladd picked up the pace of his in-ring action. His monstrous size and commanding presence made him a natural headliner. In 1963, he wrestled primarily in the Los Angeles-San Diego area, siding and feuding with Fred Blassie and Don Leo Jonathan. He headed east the following spring, making his first appearance in Madison Square Garden in May 1964, and regularly teaming (and winning) with Bobo Brazil against the likes of Jerry and Luke Graham, and Hans and Max Mortier. He worked Lafayette, La. for Cowboy Bob Kelly in the first integrated tag match in that city, and recalled crowds were so big that it took him 90 minutes to get to the arena and the ring. Ladd played out his option with San Diego and signed with the Houston Oilers in 1966 for a reported $57,000. Still a babyface, he began a program in the southwest against Killer Karl Kox.
Killer Karl Kox: We were the first two to put the black and white issue in Louisiana. The place was full of black fans and it got pretty wild. I screwed him a little bit, hit him in the back. He was with the Houston Oilers then. We made a lot of money.
As impressive as Ladd's dual career was his appetite. Legends abound of his voracious consumption of food, and most of it seems to be true. Asked if he really had eaten 124 pancakes in a munch-off, an often-told tale, Ladd shook his head and simply said, “A hundred and thirty … I was fortunate. I had a good metabolism.”
Longtime Los Angeles publicist Jeff Walton recalled that Ladd demanded the two pull over to down massive quantities of prime rib one Friday night when "The Big Cat" was supposed to be in the main event at the Olympic Auditorium. "I couldn't call [promoter] Mike LeBell and tell him that his star was going to be late because he wanted some prime rib. But I wasn't about to stop Ernie from getting his prime rib, either. We finally made it about 10 pm, just in time for the main event, and Ernie went out and wrestled with a full stomach. And he got a huge reaction, of course," said Walton, author of RICHMOND 9-5171.
Len Dawson: He didn't quit eating because he wasn't hungry any more. He quit because his jaw got tired.
Ladd left Houston after a year to join the Chiefs, who were one of the powerhouses of the AFL. In 1967, he wrestled much of the year in the Midwest, again as a fan favorite, and again high on the card. He wrestled several times against NWF champ-to-be Johnny Powers, and teamed with AWA titleholder Verne Gagne to beat Powers and Johnny Valentine in a match in Denver.
But he had continuous problems with his knees and sat out the 1969 season, when his Chiefs beat Minnesota in Super Bowl IV. He was on the sidelines for the big game, but at that point, had switching full-time to wrestling.
He said there were two reasons for his decision — his knees would hold up better if opposing offensive guards weren't blocking into them six months a year. And, of course, wrestling was more lucrative, as he noted in discussing the costs involved in those days. He made $98,000 in his first full year of wrestling.
Ernie Ladd: In what other sport can you pick up a $14 pair of boots, 59-cent socks — spend maybe a total of $50 — and convert it into $100,000 a year if you are sharp and train. In football, if a coach called me at 4 a.m., I had to jump. In wrestling, I could say the hell with it if I didn't want to do something.
My intention was to go back to football, but pro wrestling was so good to me.
For Ladd, the key came when he hooked up with Buffalo promoter Pedro Martinez, with whom he would forge a remarkable love-hate relationship. Remember, wrestling was a business to Ladd, and he was very aware of where the big bucks rested. He saw himself as a natural heel, and was able to wrestle on and off as a bad guy from 1968-1970, losing to Bruno Sammartino in a WWF title match in Madison Square Garden and partnering with Prussian intimidator Waldo von Erich.
“How could a guy this big be a babyface? You had to be a heel at this size to make money,” Ladd asked. It was easy for Ladd to assume heel status in Buffalo because his Chargers battled the Buffalo Bills in AFL championship games in 1964 and 1965. Still, the idea of a black heel made many promoters uneasy about the prospects of a backlash among white fans.
Ernie Ladd: Pedro is the smartest wrestling promoter I've ever known. He was absolutely the smartest, smarter than anyone I've ever known in the wrestling business. And he was more fair to me than anyone in the wrestling business, financially. I wanted to be a heel and nobody else really wanted to let me to be a heel; I was the first black heel. Pedro let me be a heel. He knew I was a good athlete and he thought I had a pretty good mind. He did more for me than any other promoter.
Ladd first appeared in the NWF in July 1970, and immediately was given main event status. His signature move was a thumb taped “on doctor's orders” that he jabbed into the throat of opponents behind the referee's back. “The taped thumb idea was not mine,” Ladd admitted. “I got that from Crazy Luke Graham. I saw that and I said, ‘Oh, I like that.' ” Putting his size 18D boots in opponents' faces as he whipped them into the ropes was another impressive move. Ladd became so reviled that the 1970 Christmas wish list of the Buffalo Courier-Express sports staff included a set of brass knuckles for Powers to use on Ladd. But that was proof that “The Big Cat” had hit the jackpot.
Pedro Martinez: Ernie Ladd will telephone me and talk for two hours. Most of the time I don't understand what he's talking about, but I listen. Football players who become wrestlers are the toughest to deal with because they are geared to good money. Football players mean nothing to wrestling fans until they become know for their wrestling, as Ladd has done.
Yet a twist of fate intervened. While Ladd had wanted to be a heel, he saw an opportunity to set up an even hotter program as a babyface with a turn against von Erich, the other resident main event heavy in the NWF. The two had a brutal falling-out during a televised tag team match in January 1972.
Ron Martinez: This one was completely Ernie's idea. His thinking was because our crowds were at least 50% African-American, it made more sense for him to turn face and who better to do it against than Waldo? The program drew incredibly well, four shots in each of our core towns. Waldo went on to win the final match but in a way that kept Ernie hot.
von Erich was not regarded as a great worker, but his authoritarian Nazi gimmick, accompanied by a face-wide sneer, angered fans of every stripe. In that way, he was the perfect foil for a babyface Ladd.
Ernie Ladd: We made money. He got real hot working with me, working against me. I was getting over as a babyface and he came at the right time. To me, to be a babyface, in order to draw money, you've got to have a good opponent to draw money with.
In early 1972, Ladd continued to wrestle as a hero in Buffalo and Cleveland, but as a villain in Pittsburgh. In one of his most ostentatious performances, he appeared in street clothes for a televised match against Jim Padarewski, refusing with disdain to wrestle a lesser jobber. Suddenly, Ladd spring up and demolished his unsuspecting, would-be opponent. That set up a match against Bruno Sammartino in March 1972. Ladd battered Sammartino, but was disqualified because of outside interference by Angelo Mosca.
There is no doubt that Ladd's most memorable moment in the NWF came as part of the Ox Baker riot in Cleveland on Jan. 31, 1974. Baker was scheduled to run into the ring just as Ladd was gaining the edge on a freshly-turned-heel Johnny Powers in a big grudge match. Clearly, there was some miscommunication, as fans rioted, ransacked hundreds of chairs, and set the ancient Cleveland Arena on its ear.
Ernie Ladd: He got hit in the back of the head. They'd liked to have killed him. I couldn't take it upon me to save Ox's life. They were going to kill him that night. See, I told Ox, “Back off, the natives are getting restless.” He said, “Shut up, shut up your scared ass!” The next thing I know he's running for his life. That's the worst riot I ever saw in my life.
I was wrestling as a babyface; I'd been heel and I was over real, real strong. And Ox Baker came in with the heart punch. And Johnny Powers wanted to be a heel, Ox Baker and Johnny Powers. Johnny Powers ran for his life. He got out of there. He hurdled the [hockey] glass. Ox wasn't swift of feet. That was the worst riot I ever. I was lying in the ring. I got sprayed with mace. Oh, that was the worst riot I've ever been in.
Ladd headlined everywhere in the world, and even held the America's title in the Los Angeles promotion in 1972 in between his NWF feuds with von Erich and Abdullah the Butcher. He was drawing big money — by his own estimate, Ladd earned $115,000 in 1971. Of course, as was the case with many wrestlers, he quit more than once over his payoffs.
Ron Martinez: Ernie was in and out of the Buffalo territory a lot in those days. He and my Dad were always arguing about something … payoffs/programs … some thing or another. Ernie averaged between $1,500 and $2,000 a week. That was in the early 70s, don't forget, a fortune back then.
Dad knew how to push Ernie's buttons. Dad would pay Ernie the money he owed him and made arrangements for Ernie to come back into the territory and business always improved. I can remember one time when Ernie was in a long program with Waldo von Erich … Ernie hadn't seen his family in something like two months. He was quitting again and going home. Dad stopped him by flying Ernie's wife and children into the Buffalo area and putting them up on company expense. That's what kind of weird relationship they had.
Ladd followed Pedro and Ron Martinez into the IWA in 1975, and then caused a stir in Florida before finishing his career closer to his Louisiana home in the Mid-South territory. Wherever he went, he brought his keen business acumen with him. Ladd had an unfailing knack for convincing fans that even pint-sized wrestlers could knock him off. Bobby Fulton of The Fantastics grew up in Ohio admiring Ladd, and confronted him early in his career.
Ernie Ladd: Those are moments that are really indescribable. When you see a talent to me as great as Paul Orndorff, so athletically inclined, you can just take and make money with him because he was so physical. Junkyard Dog [Sylvester Ritter] first came to Mid-South, and the promoter fired him. That's how bad he was. But he also told him, he said, “When you learn your skill, your craft, your trade, you come back and we'll use you” and the rest of it is history. He came back and he looked like a big black guardian or something. Black people wanted to have something to hope, so they hoped for Junkyard Dog — whether he could wrestle or not. They believed in him. These are moments that are really highlights in my life because I was a part of promoting it.
A tremendously spiritual man, Ladd has been involved in prison ministry work and community service projects. He has been active in the Athletes International Ministry and has been an campaigner for the Bush family in presidential campaigns, though he regretted that Jack Kemp, his one-time Charger teammate and later treasury secretary, never made it to the White House.
But those serious causes should not obscure the fact that Ladd is an inveterate storyteller with an uproarious sense of humor, as football teammates and wrestling buddies found out. Dawson recalled one such incident during a poker game at training camp after Ladd had joined him on the Chiefs.
Len Dawson: The story is that Ernie comes into the doorway naked as a jaybird. And he filled the whole doorway. And he said, “All right, I can't believe that you guys are some sorry ass guys that would do the nasty, dirty thing that you did to me. Somebody stole my toothbrush. I am gonna find out who it is and when I do, you're going to answer to me.” He said, “You're going to have to take care of me after that.” And so he turns around and he walks out and between his cheeks was a toothbrush. We found out the humor of the Big Cat.
Ernie Ladd: Killer Brooks' first brand new car, he got it in Detroit. And we're out all night, he got a little sauce in him, and they said he was too tired to drive to the next town. So he wanted me to drive to the next town. He said, “Can you drive?” I said, “Oh man, yes, I'm the greatest driver in the world.” “What makes you think you're such a good driver if you're the greatest driver in the world?” I said, “I've only had 13 wrecks and I got some experience out of all of them.” He said, “You're not going to drive my car!”
In the winter of 2003-04, Ladd contracted colon cancer that spread to his abdominal area. He had surgery and was treated with chemotherapy.
Ernie Ladd: I had lost a lot of blood. I had an operation, a chemo operation for cancer. The doctor told me I had three to six months to live. I told the doctor that he's a liar and that Dr. Jesus has got the verdict on me! I also told him, “You're working with a miracle when you work with me.” I went back, I said, “When will you know, Doc?” I went back two months later, I had a bone scan, a checkup on my progress, and I had improved 80 percent.
Thanks to Ernie Ladd, Ron Martinez, Karl Kox, Len Dawson, Jeff Walton, Bobby Fulton and others. Pedro Martinez materials from Buffalo Courier-Express, REMATCH collection.