Abdullah becomes a champion
You associate Abdullah the Butcher with blood and gore. You associate Abdullah with scars and forehead divots that could engulf small change. You associate Abdullah with wild, out-of-control tactics that bring a look of incredulity from even the likes of Cactus Jack.
In short, you don’t associate Abdullah with the dignified look and classic style of professional wrestling champions of the 1970s. But, for a brief time, that’s exactly what he was.
The main event at the aging Akron Armory on June 24, 1972 shaped up as just the kind of rabble rouser that fans in northeastern Ohio loved — National Wrestling Federation world champion Ernie Ladd against Abdullah. Ladd had captured the belt from Waldo von Erich in Cleveland just 15 days before, and the factory workers who populated Akron’s tire and rubber factories saw him as a true hero, and an African-American one at that.
The Ladd-Butcher match went on second at the aging armory, which had served as a civic center for nearly 65 years. The fact that it followed an opener between Victor Rivera and Yoshino Sato should have been a tip-off for wizened wrestling fans — given the propensity for rowdiness among Akron fans, slating defeat for the favorite at the end of a card probably was unwise.
The Butcher entered first, accompanied by his manager, The Black Baron. Abdullah, then 36, was well known around the world for his lack of a wrestling style. He had maiming foes in Los Angeles and Japan (in the World League Series) in 1971 before entering the NWF late in the year. His first manager was Beautiful Bruce Swayze, whose penchant for frequent interference had gotten him handcuffed to Chief White Owl and suspended in a cage above the ring the Cleveland.
In the late winter of 1972, though, the mysterious Baron, became the chargé de Butcher. The Baron dressed totally in black, except for a white, bandage-like mask. He carried a cane and rarely spoke; when he did it was in a guttoral, surrealistic fashion —as though he was talking through a mechanical larynx.
Asked by NWF TV commentator Jack Reynolds if he held Abdullah in a hypnotic spell, the Baron remained silent. He regularly incited Abdullah by banging the cane on the ring apron, as a call to action. Because of Swayze’s previous record of service, most fans speculated he was under the mask, but no one knew for sure.
Ladd entered from across the armory, wearing his trademark “Promises, Promises” vest. The silver sequined vest, with the words stitched on the back in red, was a play on the popular Dionne Warwick song from 1968. In his time as a treacherous villain, Ladd used the phrase to mock his fair-headed opponents’ promises to knock him down a notch or two. “Promises, empty promises,” Ladd regularly bellowed on “Championship Wrestling with John Powers,” the weekly NWF program.
Even after his spectacular falling-out with Waldo von Erich, and subsequent transformation to idol, Ladd, 34 at the time, wore the vest during his entrance. He had a more important bauble with him, though — the NWF world belt that he had taken from von Erich.
The match was billed as a 60-minute time limit, but Ladd wasted no time in going after his rival. Never the most scientific of grapplers, Ladd punched and kicked his 300-pound adversary from the opening bell. He sent Abdullah reeling, but the Wildman from the Sudan raked Ladd with the tape around his right fingers and started to bite him. Abdullah headbutted Ladd in the face; as Ladd writhed in pain, the Butcher headbutted him in the back, and then again in the face. A quick whip into the far turnbuckle, and the Butcher started to move in for the kill.
But Ladd was ready. As Abdullah threw Ladd into the turnbuckle a second time, he put up his size 16 boot and blocked the collision. Then he turned, caught the big man coming, and sent him backward with a pair of chest chops (a move well in vogue before Ric Flair). As the Baron tried to enter the ring to aid his wrestler, Ladd kicked him and sent him outside the ring, and then kicked Abdullah to the armory floor. By now, five furious minutes had elapsed.
While he was outside the ring, Abdullah loaded up his arsenal. He pulled a foreign object — a pencil, perhaps — from his baggy tights and started to punch Ladd in the face. The Butcher followed with a series of headbutts, chokes, and more headbutts. But the last headbutt was the final straw for Ladd, who started a superhuman comeback. He shook off the headbutt and started to go wild inside the ring, and the crowd was with him. Ladd kicked Abdullah, threw a solid right hand, and delivered a standing elbow smash. Then, whipping Abdullah into the ropes, he caught him coming off with a boot to the face. That caused something to shoot out of Abdullah’s mouth — whether it was a tooth or simply a wad of spit was immaterial.
Ladd picked up Abdullah and started to use him as a human punching bag. But this time, he caught him too flush, as the beaten and battered Butcher fell backward into referee. Seeing the ref down, the Baron sprung into action. He whacked Ladd across the upper back with his cane, sending him to the mat. The referee, regaining consciousness, reached across for the 1-2-3 count. No sooner had the bell rung than Rivera and TV announcer Ron Martinez raced to the ring to try to explain the Baron’s interference. Rivera attacked Abdullah, who grabbed the title belt and departed to debris and boos. But Rivera’s quick actions did earn him a shot at Abdullah for the next card in Akron.
The odd thing is that the match was hardly the blowoff to a long feud. NWF records show no previous bouts between the two; that’s not to say they were squaring off for the first time. But the first six months of 1972 had been preoccupied with the von Erich-Ladd war, while Abdullah had been paired with the relatively soft touches of Manuel Soto and Mike Loren in the days preceding the match.
Ladd and Abdullah did not engage in an immediate series of rematches. On June 30, Ladd was disqualified in a return engagement in Cleveland for beating up Abdullah until he was a bloody pulp. The Big Cat would take a break from the NWF for a while, running a successful stint in Los Angeles as America’s champion.
The two would not face off again until the late summer when they had two brass knuckles matches, one at the “Super Bowl of Wrestling” at Cleveland Municipal Stadium on August 12. Abdullah would hold the world title until October, when Johnny Valentine wrestled it from him.
The mystery of the Baron would not be solved for years. Swayze did eventually return as Abdullah’s manager, but the role of the Baron in 1972 was played by Don Fargo (Kalt), who wrestled with “brother” Johnny later that night in Akron.
Ladd and Abdullah appeared on Ohio mats on and off for several years. Abdullah engaged in a feud with Johnny Powers in early 1975 after the NWF promotion had fallen by the wayside, and has toured the world many times over.
With his vicious, bloodletting style, he’s never been one to throw title belts across his shoulder as a sign of his wrestling immortality. But, on one night in 1972, he captured the top prize in the Steel Belt area.
— Steven Johnson