– The Phantom of the Ring
In all the years I’ve been covering professional wrestling I’ve spoken with many, many folks, both inside and outside the business. And the one thing I always came away with was the fact that no one was immune to a disparaging remark, whether about a wrestler’s professional life (“X was really the shits in the ring”) to his or her personal life (“X was a real bastard outside the ring). Only a rare few have escaped the cattiness that so punctuated these gatherings.
One of those was Red Bastien.
To say that Red was loved among his contemporaries is an understatement. I often heard stories about his generosity towards his peers and youngsters coming into the game. To any young pros that were willing to listen, Red would give them a graduate course in how to work a match, get heat, and be assured of further bookings by dint of work rate alone. From his contemporaries I’ve heard that if one was broke and Red had two nickels, he would give one to the guy that was broke – no strings attached.
He was also a person that believed in living life to its fullest and could pull pranks with the best of them while never crossing the fine line between a good laugh and cruelty.
I once heard a story of a highway cop pulling Red over on a California highway for speeding. The cop asked for Red’s license and when he looked Red over, he recognized him and said, “You’re Red Bastien.” Red lost no time moving the confrontation to his advantage, asking the cop if he was a wrestling fan. When the officer replied that he and his two sons were big fans, Red reached into his travel bag and pulled out four passes, telling the cop to be his guest. The cop looked at the free ducats and reasoned to Red that he wasn’t really doing much over the speed limit. Red replied that the reason why he was speeding was that he was running late for the next show and didn’t want to disappoint the fans. So the cop tells Red to follow him and runs the siren and lights on his motorcycle so Red could make the arena “on time.” The fact that the show was scheduled for the next day never entered into the officer’s mind – after all, he just met the Great Red Bastien.
But lest anyone get the notion that because Red was easygoing that he was soft, let me set you straight. That was as far from the case as the planet Neptune is from the sun. During the only time I got the chance to speak with him, Red told me his personal philosophy was that a match is always the prelude, as it were, to the next match, no matter where it was positioned on the card. Thus, each match required Red to give 100% of himself, which was easy for him. But by the same token it also required his opponent to do the same, and woe betide the wrestler who did not believe in working with Red. Quite a few of his contemporaries told me of Red paint brushing the mat with the uncooperative. It didn’t happen often, though, for it was relatively well-known in the business that Red was trained by boys with a solid background in the art of hooking.
For the record he was born Rolland Bastien on January 27, 1931 in Bottineau, North Dakota, a small town northeast of Minot, near the Canadian border. I’m not sure what the family did; it is generally supposed that they were farmers that moved to Minnesota when the great drought that brought on the “Dust Bowl” had taken its toll in the Midwestern states. At any rate the family moved to Minnesota where his father, Oliver, ran a sawmill. Red attended Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, taking part in swimming, football, and wrestling.
Though he was recruited to wrestle for his high school team, he was far more interested in the wrestling that was taking place at Minneapolis’ Citizen’s Club. Family friend and top middleweight Henry Kollan first introduced Red to the rough and tumble of this style of grappling at the family sawmill. Again, we don’t quite know the facts surrounding Kollan’s presence. It is thought by some historians that he was a partner of Red’s father in the sawmill. Others think he was an employee when not wrestling. But at any rate Red was hooked and the wanderlust in him drew him into the world of pro wrestling.
Red always maintained in interviews that his first bout was in Minneapolis at the Grand Café. He wasn’t scheduled to wrestle that night, but when one of the boys failed to show, a ref Red knew asked Red if he would step in and wrestle Swede Oberg.
He then began to make the rounds in carnivals, making money by lasting the required rounds with the “champ.” Later he caught on with Bodart’s Shows, a top carnival outfit in Minnesota and Wisconsin, becoming the one with whom challengers tried to last the required time. Somewhere along the line he made the acquaintance of Einar Olsen in Wisconsin. Olsen further perfected both Red’s knowledge and style in the ring.
Traveling to Chicago, he began wrestling in Chicago for booker Billy Goelz and was beginning to get a push when the Korean War intervened. Bastien did his time in the Navy, assigned to a repair squadron for the Sixth Fleet, stationed at the time in Naples, Italy. Never one to let his spare time go to waste, Bastien took advantage of the his new surroundings to visit nearby gyms and learn the intricacies of Greco-Roman wrestling.
Discharged and back in the States, Bastien continued working in Chicago, appearing in prelim bouts at the famed Marigold Arena. He also branched out to work in Tony Stecher’s promotion in Minneapolis, where he made the acquaintance of hooker Joe Pazandak. Bastein proved to be a good workout partner for Pazandak and Red noted to me that he learned quite a few things during these gym shoots that he put into practice later.
As he began to travel to different circuits he built up a fan base. It was easy to root for Red because of his hard charging style which, when combined with his aerial tactics, made him a force to be reckoned with in any territory. He was usually given a title shot or two, and taking on local heels to the delight of the crowds.
His first significant title was with Andre Drapp as they won the NWA Pacific Northwest Tag Team titles from Henry Lenz and Bulldog Curtis on September 25, 1956. When Drapp left the area, Roy Heffernan, later of The Fabulous Kangaroos, stepped in as Red’s partner and they held the belts until defeated by the duo of Ed Francis and Henry Lenz on February 2, 1957. Red also found the time to defeat Kurt Von Poppenheim for the Pacific Coast Junior Heavyweight belt on January 6, 1957. After a hot, but short, feud with Von Poppenheim he dropped it back 12 days later on January 18.
Journeying down to Texas, Red began a life long love affair with the fans, one that is still remembered today by some of the older fans I’ve met down here. He engaged in hot, lucrative feuds with the likes of Mad Dog Vachon, Rito Romero, and Gory Guerrero. His crowning achievement came when he bested Romero for the Texas Junior Heavyweight title on May 27, 1957, in Ft. Worth. He didn’t get to enjoy the fruits of his victory for long, as gory Guerrero relieved him of said belt on July 4, 1957, in San Antonio.
He then traveled around, landing in the Charlotte territory in 1959, but what seemed like such a promising deal went sour rather quickly. Bastien mentioned it, but would never elaborate. My guess is that a promised push never took place, leaving him betwixt and between – and on the lookout for a new territory.
His prior experience in New York led him to approach Capitol Sports honcho Vincent J. McMahon with the suggestion of a tag team. And not just any tag team. Bastien teamed up with fellow redhead Lou Klein to form the Bastien Brothers, Red and Lou. Klein’s skills working the mat coincided rather well with Bastien’s style and made them a must see to many fans.
By 1960, the Bastiens were a top draw in McMahon’s territory, and also did quite well in Chicago, where McMahon and Chicago promoter Fred Kohler traded talent. Red and Lou won the U.S. championship, the coveted crown jewel of McMahon’s tag team honors, three times, twice defeating the Grahams (Eddie and Dr. Jerry), and later The Fabulous Kangaroos, possibly the greatest tag team of all time.
The Bastiens also held the Indiana version of the AWA World tag team title on two occasions. Note that this promotion is not affiliated with Verne Gagne’s Minnesota-based promotion, as has been reported in some articles, but rather was run by the trio of Jim Barnett, Dick Patton, and Balk Estes. The Bastiens won the AWA’s tag title from The Tolos Brothers (Chris and John) on February 9, 1961, in fort Wayne, Indiana, lost it to the team of Ray Shires (Stevens) and Art Neilson in Anderson, Indiana on May 12, 1961, regained it in Indianapolis on June 27, and hen lost it for good to the new team of Art and Stan Neilson (Stan Holek) on the next Indianapolis card (July 18, 1961).
By 1962, Bastien decided to move on. He was sick, not of wrestling, but of his partner, Lou Klein. “Klein wanted to be the star of the show,” he told me, ”and tag teams don’t work like that.” Klein wanted to do the finisher, get the hot tag, in other words, he wanted to play Batman to Bastien’s Robin. It wasn’t only Klein’s desire to be the headliner that annoyed Red. On a purely personal level, it was Lou’s penny-pinching ways that drove Red to distraction. They were anathema to a man that believed you should spend it as soon as you make it. Ironically, Klein later settled down in the Detroit area and worked mainly for The Sheik (Ed Farhat), one of the most notorious penny-pinchers wrestling had ever seen.
Bastien later made it a habit not to hook up with any one wrestler for too long, but there were exceptions. Journeying back to the Northwest, he and Jim Hady captured the NWA Canadian Tag Title from The Kangaroos on March 1, 1965, holding it for 22 days before dropping it back on March 22.
He next accepted an invitation to Australia from Jim Barnett, who remembered his good work in Indiana. While there he wowed the fans by teaming with local favorite Mario Milano. The duo was a highly popular and quite formidable team, holding the IWA Tag Team championship three times. They first won it from Kurt and Karl Von Stroheim on July 28, 1967, in Sydney. Killer Kowalski and Skull Murphy relieved them of the titles on August 25, 1967, in Sydney, but then recaptured them in September, 1967, in Melbourne. They lost the titles for good when Bastien left the area. A fictitious title change was announced that had Bastien and Milano dropping the straps to Pat Patterson and Art Nelson in San Francisco, supposedly on Christmas, 1967.
Acclimated to Australia’s warm weather during this time, Red returned to the States and, not surprisingly, landed in Florida. Again, his style and personality proved very popular with fans, and Red won the Florida Heavyweight belt from Johnny Valentine on April 30, 1968, in Tampa. He dropped it back to Valentine in Jacksonville on June 27 of that year. From there, it was on to the NWA Southern title, which he supposedly won from the Missouri Mauler (Larry Hamilton) in July, 1968. It is generally supposed that when the Mauler left Florida for Charlotte in 1966, he took the belt with him and it became inactive. At any rate, the Mauler won it back around January of 1969.
Next stop, Verne Gagne’s AWA, where he formed two popular tag teams. First he teamed with Hercules Cortez (Alfonso Carlos Chicharro). Fans loved the combination of the high-flying Bastien with the powerful Cortez. They won the AWA tag belts from the Vachons (Mad Dog and Butcher) on May 15, 1971, in Milwaukee. Unfortunately, their triumph was short lived: Cortez was killed, and Bastien seriously injured, in an auto accident near St. Cloud, MN, on July 23, 1971. Cortez was only 39 at the time. What saved Bastien’s life was the fact that Moose Morowski, traveling behind with Bull Bullinski (Frank Shields), happened upon the wreck and pulled Bastien from the car. Cortez was found about 75 feet from the car. Though he didn’t have a scratch on him, the reasoning was that he was thrown from the car upon impact, breaking his neck.
Despite the close call, Bastien returned to the ring shortly afterward, and still feeling the effects of the accident, asked for some time off, traveling to Mexico to heal. Upon his return, he “chose” Crusher Liskowski as his new partner and the team proceeded to drop the belts to Nick Bockwinkel and Ray Stevens on January 20, 1972, in Denver, CO.
After they lost, the team broke up and Bastien began teaming for a while with Billy Robinson. Red was also booked by Gagne in Japan for the IWE, where he and partner Bill Howard won the IWA Tag belts from Rusher Kimura and Thunder Sugiyama on September 7, 1971, before giving them back on September 21, after which Red returned to the AWA. When he returned he met the man with whom he formed one of the most famous tag teams in wrestling history.
Billy “Red” Lyons was born William Snip in Dundas, Ontario, on May 17, 1932. Trained by Jimmy Simms he began his wrestling career in 1956 as Billy Lyons, but his bright red hair caused him to be billed as Red Lyons. He quickly established himself as a competent matman, but his lighter weight tended to hold him back and relegate him to the mid-card. To escape these doldrums he became an excellent tag wrestler, and it was this talent that eventually led him to cross paths with Red Bastien.
They first teamed together in the AWA, and did quite well for themselves, engaging in hot feuds with the likes of the Vachon Brothers and The Chain Gang. But the powers-that-were believed that a high-flyer such as Bastien was best paired with a strongman type such as Cortez, and because of their relative small size they were not considered to be contenders and never received that major push, even though they showed more than just moments of brilliance during the times they teamed. At any rate, by 1970 the push was over and so were the victories, except in six-man tags, especially with the visiting Pepper Gomez. Lyons left the area and Bastien, relegated to the mid-card, soon followed suit.
But when Bastien came to Texas in 1971, promoters like Paul Boesch saw the advantages and potential from a teaming of the two and wasted little time in pairing them. Red worked singles when he first arrived and was good enough to life the Texas Heavyweight belt from around the waist of Jose Lothario on March 8, 1972, in Houston, TX. After he dropped the belt to Stan Stasiak in Irving, TX, on June 24, 1972, he and Lyons spent their time perfecting one of the best tag teams to ever pound the mat. Though they were christened “The Flying Redheads,” they were, according to Boesch, a team whose gimmick lay completely in their ability on the mat. They both shared a unique quality that made them especially qualified to be a team: the ability to know what the other was going to do next. Dick Steinborn had noted this quality of Bastien in Greg Oliver’s wonderful book, The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams, but now Bastien had met and was working with someone that had the same quality.
Another advantage the team had lay in the fact that they were close friends off the mat, rather than just co-workers. And the fans could sense that, which made them even more believable. They wrestled some of the best during this time: Professor Toru Tanaka and Mr. Fuji, the Blackjacks, Terry Funk and the Spoiler (Don Jardine), and Johnny Valentine and Dusty Rhodes. Their hard work in the ring paid off when they defeated the Alaskans (Frank Monte and Mike York) for the Texas Tag Team belts at Houston on July 14, 1972. They held the belts for a couple of months until the team of Chris Colt and Bobby Duncam dethroned them in Houston on October 6, 1972. Another highlight is when the duo unmasked the Spoiler in 1972. Behind the scenes, Bastien also functioned as a booker.
After Lyons left the area, Bastien continued as a single. He became a two-time holder of the Texas Heavyweight title when he defeated The Great Mephisto (James Ault) in Dallas on May 18, 1974. He then held the belt for a couple of months until dropping it to El Gran Markus (Juan Chavarria Galica) in September, 1974. Bastien also held the Texas Tag tiles with Tex McKensie sometime in 1974, but from whom they won it and to whom they lost it is unknown. This is yet another illustration with the problem of wrestling history. Even a promotion as well organized as that of Paul Boesch was guilty of the most slovenly record keeping. It is gaffes such as this that make wrestling historians pull out their hair.
Nearing the end of the road as far as active wrestling was concerned, Bastien managed one last hurrah when he worked the Los Angeles territory. Working under the hood as Texas Red, Bastien captured the Americas belt from Mando Guerrero on July 1, 1977, in L.A., losing it the next month (August 5) to Mando’s brother, Chavo. He grabbed it back from Chavo on September 7 before losing it for good to Choi Sun on September 16. His last title came in a partnership with Victor Rivera. They captured the America’s Tag Team belts from the duo of Black Gordman (Victor Manuel Barajas) and The Great Goliath (Pablo Ordaz Crispin) on October 21, 1977, before being kind enough to return them to the ex-champs the next week (October 28). The funny thing about Bastien’s career as Texas Red was that, although he started as a heel, fans caught on very quickly as to who was under the hood and cheered him to such an extent that he reverted to being a babyface.
Red retired as an active wrestler in 1979, but that didn’t mean that he stopped being a wrestler. He began promoting in Modesto, CA, trying to fill the vacuum created when Roy Shire closed down his promotion. He had moderate success, bringing many lucha regulars such as Konnan and Rey Mysterio, Jr. to Northern California. He also began training new wrestlers in partnership with Bill Anderson (father of Cheerleader Melissa). Among the names they brought into the business were Sting (Steve Borden), The Ultimate Warrior (Jim Hellwig), the Angel of Death (Dave Sheldon), and Steve Di Salvo. They also trained Mark Miller and Garland Donoho. Miller and Donoho were packaged with Borden and Hellwig as Powerteam U.S.A., but left the business after only a short while.
Being retired, he was now able to throw himself full-time into what became his new passion as a good will ambassador for professional wrestling. He served as president of the Cauliflower Alley Club from 2000-07, keeping visible, staying in touch with old friends, and arranging for help for those not as lucky as Red in retirement. He attended as many induction ceremonies as possible, trying not to let anyone down. He also kept up an old habit from his wrestling days: traveling extensively, this time with his companion, Carol McCutchin, whom he met while working Texas. In 1992, with the help of Larry Dwyer, he started the annual Red Bastien’s Texas Shoot Out in Dallas. The event brought together many veterans from the Lone Star State and matched them with the current independent wrestlers. It always made for a fun evening and enabled the independent wrestlers to get some needed publicity.
2007 saw his induction into the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, located at the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Waterloo, Iowa. Also in that same year, the Cauliflower Alley Club inaugurated the “Red Bastien Friendship Award” which was given to someone designated as a “super fan” for his or her contributions to professional wrestling.
But as the clock ran on, Red encountered an opponent he could not defeat: Alzheimer’s disease. While he was still able to recount stories of his exploits from the past, he became increasingly unable to recognize people, remember their names, or even remember what happened moments ago. In 2010, his daughter, a nurse, had him admitted to a nursing home in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she could oversee his care. Red finally lost this last battle on August 11, 2012, at the age of 81. To say he’ll be missed is an obvious understatement. There were few who graced the ring that were as ebullient or as ready to speak with a fan as Red Bastein. Some say that it was after his death that he became a good will ambassador for pro wrestling. I beg to differ – he had been one his entire career.
– The Phantom of the Ring