Remembering Nick Bockwinkel and Don Fargo
– Article & photos by Dr. Mike Lano
Sorry guys for being late with some personal thoughts on these two greats of the industry.
It’s been very hard to process Nick’s Alzheimer’s the past few years, let alone losing him the other day with Donny the week prior.
Both great in their own way but complete opposites.
Don Fargo had been around the biz for decades, a tatted, grizzled veteran of many tag championships. One of his earliest partnerships was uniquely with Nick’s later AWA world tag champ pardner in Ray Stevens in the mid 50′s as “the Stevens Brothers” primarily in Tennessee where Ray reportedly first broken in thanks to his future wife in great female wrestler Terese Theis and another great in Frankie “Great Mephisto” Cane (Kane and other spellings). Don would come to global attention later on as part of the Fabulous Fargo Brothers with Jackie of course, then as a Dillenger and part of a world tag Chain Gang championship duo. He literally worked all over the globe and so far I’ve found one Japan tour for him. His skill sets lent themselves to unique and diverse duos, teaming as part of the Bruiser/Chicago Fabulous Legionaire’s duo with a newly heel Rene Goulet (fresh from his WWWF tag title run with the incomparable Karl Gotch), with Roger “Rip, Nature Boy” Kirby in the midwest and a great duo in the Johnny Powers/ Pedro Martinez NWF World Tag Team Champeens with Greg Valentine as the new Fargo Brothers Donny and Johnny. I don’t think he met Roughouse or any of Jackie’s other “brothers” later on from Memphis. Don K even came and worked for us in Los Angeles for my big boss promoter Mike Lebell circa 1977 as Don “Fonzo” Fargo doing a total Happy Days Fonzi character rip off but masterfully managed by another brother we lost recently in Roddy Piper~!! L.A. capitalized on this at various times, including also having Piper manage Lars Anderson as “the bionic wrestler” after Lars allegedly had Tommy John “bionic elbow” surgery (we weren’t buying it at the time) and being portrayed as the pro wrestling version of the ABC Million Dollar bionic Man Lee Majors tv vehicle. So losing Piper and Don within months of each other is horrible.
This has been a bad year for losing folks we love, far too young. Verne, Dusty and also Nick Bockwinkel. Just did an hour+ celebrating his life on radio last Wednesday including some Don Fargo ribs and road stories. At the last great Gulf Coast reunion I went to in Mobile in ’95, Don was there and claiming he lived under a bridge with about a dozen big dogs like labs and police dogs; that they were the “only people I can trust nowadays.” Only in wrestling. Don had way more tats than the last time I’d seen him (ala wonderful Jimmy Valiant) and then at a CAC a few years after that, even more tats. That was Don Fargo (not his real last name of course).
Nick Bockwinkel. The consummate professional who often stood out like a sore thumb because he was so normal, well rounded and well read. Like his famous wrestling dad Warren Bockwinkel, Nick reportedly had most all his training from George Tragos and the best in Lou Thesz prior to his ’55 in-ring debut. In the late 50′s and early 60′s, he was most notably part of a beloved father/son duo with Warren in our L.A. territory at the Olympic Aud and L.A. Sports Arena. They often lost to more famous worldly duos like the original Assassins, Fabulous Kangaroos, Skull Murphy and Brute Bernard and held their own against various versions of the Torres Brothers in the famous “scientific matches” aka babyface bouts. Nick worked in Atlanta and all over, steadily upping his skills and repertoire but never forgot his time in Georgia and Florida (later on as AWA world tag champs, Nick and Ray would do shots in both Atlanta and parts of Florida for Eddie Graham). It doesn’t get better than that and heard they even dropped and reclaimed their tag straps in Atlanta without letting Verne know. Verne would later chew them out-reportedly. Ahhh. The magical territory days before the internet and reported, overdiagnosed match results and haps.
Nick and Ray. That’s all one has to say. Greatest AWA tag champs ever and for years first without and then adding to the stable in Bobby Heenan who made them even more legendary. Two guys who could talk and didn’t need a mouthpiece, “yet adding Bobby to our little troupe was the final piece of the puzzle. He made us even better, much more entertaining,” Nick told me in 1993 on my Canvas Cavity tv show. They often were Verne’s top drawing cards either together or split in singles. I shot many fantastic Nick v Billy Robinson matches in the AWA and I still say the greatest tag match in terms of fan velocity I ever shot was in August of 1975, as Nick and Ray dropped their straps at the fantastic Chicago Amph to Bruiser and Crusher who also blooded up Heenan in the 2/3 fall title affair. 5 star bout even with B and C so limited and no-selling which was their style. The place erupted in a riot but not the usual riot for Chicago wrestling fans. This was a riot of joy as all 5 guys were over like a billion bucks.
How influential was Nick? He learned from the best in his trademark, holier and smarter than thou promo style. He was unusual as a heel who didn’t typically yell. He spoke quietly, smartly and had taken bits of that from Baron Michelle Leone, Lord Blears, Lord Carlton and folks like Count Billy Varga and to an extent, he said, Danny McShane. Lots of faux counts and royalty there. Anyone since Nick’s 1970 AWA debut who does a more soft-spoken heel gimmick has Nick to thank for paving the way. Nick told me it took a long time to develop his smooth-working, very smart style of working in the ring. Totally credible (he has some amateur chops before Thesz and Tragos got ahold of him along with all those years working out with papa Warren) and just a great, great in-ring performer and athlete.
I loved Nick talking about Ray Stevens. “Whereas I had to get in the gym, lift weights and do all of that to try to stay in presentable shape, go over holds and moves. Ray did none of that and it’s been well documented. He smoked, he drank, he chased skirts (girls) and did all the wrong things and seldom trained or worked out. But like Dick Murdoch later on, he was just a total natural. You could simply give Ray a finish and he’d construct and lay out this beautiful match for the fans. The man was incredible and although he was the diametic opposite of me, we jelled together perfectly. And when we added Bobby (Heenan), the stew came out even better,” Nick told me.
Just tossing anecdotes and thoughts out here because like with Verne, Dusty and Roddy; there’s no replacing Nick. No way to properly pay him tribute for just being Nick Bockwinkel and everything he did like guest-starring on the Monkees tv show in ’67 or winning some major coin on the original NBC syndicated Hollywood Squares daytime game show the following year. Nick could never recall coming back to L.A. just once in 1972 for a huge megacard that Lebell falsely advertised as “being beamed back live to Japan.” Nope-it was of course taped and later shown in Japan, but was still huge. Funk Brothers did their only teaming in L.A. dropping the “All Asian tag titles” to Baba and Sakaguchi (before the latter left Baba for Inoki), Great Goliath beat his tag partner in the famous caged “Who’s The Boss” match where Goliath forced Black Gordman to turn back heel. Shibuya beat his own tag partner in Massa, yep Mr Saito. Killer Kowalski beat the great Dory Dixon (Yes, that Dory). Ernie Ladd returned to L.A. after some 8+ years and debuted in the opener squashing the departing L.A. legend in Don “Arson” Carson. And Nick on his way to Japan’s AWA-affiliated IWE group (there were three men’s groups in Japan then including NJPW and AJPW) came in to do a 15 minute broadway with one of our top heels in the great Killer Kowalski. John Tolos reffed and helped his brother Chris defeat Superstar Billy Graham who was just coming into his own with all the tie-dye and colors well before he left to debut himself in the AWA vs Wahoo McDaniel. Nick said he never recalled ever working on this April 1972 megacard until I pulled out the photos I took. I think only Theo Ehret and I shot this show and it was terrific seeing all this outside talent. All in their prime.
And when Gene Lebell was doing the English portion of the “locker room interviews” he continually called Nick “Tricky Nicky” Bockwinkel in promo’ing his one time appearance, returning to take on the dreaded Killer Kowalski. Gotta love that. On the other end, for our 2nd weekly tv show in the syndicated SIN Lucha Libre 90 minuter from the Olympic Aud, the interviewers were Miguel Alonso and Luis Magana. Tremendous stuff and Nick shown on that card, but never, ever worked for the Los Angeles territory again. Our great loss.
I’ll direct you to George Shire and Bockwinkel Brigade (70′s fan club prez) Mick Karch re: Nick’s singles career as perhaps Verne’s greatest AWA singles world champ. They lived in Minneapolis and are the total, total experts on him as was the late Jim Melby. We all know how magnificent Nick was on thru an older part of his career in that hour match with Curt (Hennig). Just brilliant. Then doing commentary and some road agent work with The Whiff. CAC beloved President until Alzheimer’s felled him as it did one of his best friends in Red Bastien who he succeeded as Cauliflower Alley Club prez. Last April when we were told Nick would stand and face our CAC reunion crowd on the 2nd to the last night (and then not be back because of health reasons), current president Brian Blair asked Nick to stand and of course everyone gave him a standing O. I stood inches from Nick and put my camera down when I saw tears came to Nick’s eyes. He couldn’t understand why everyone was clapping for and staring at him. He had a look of terror on his face, not being able to comprehend the moment as he once could (and would’ve played it up and probably bowed to everyone). I’ll never forget that as it still haunts me. No one’s fault, it just paints the picture of how devastating Alzeheimer’s and similar diseases rob one of their memories. All the years of nagging Nick and Red to write their life stories as autobios before they forgot the jillion things they accomplished and gave back to everyone in pro wrestling, sports and beyond. But they unfortunately never did get to doing those books. Before I forget, Nick always talked about how he hated working with Brody and Hansen “because they didn’t like to sell at all, especially here in the States. For fear of footage or reports getting back to Japan. They wouldn’t do jobs, nothing and really potatoed the S out of me and others. And when Harley and I (both AWA and NWA champs at the time in a historic All Japan tag Carnival tour match) had to work with Frank and Stan, they were again difficult to work with. It was just no fun because they were still into protecting their image and not making the matches more entertaining for the fans and even for those of us who had the misfortune to work with them. Stan and I got along fine later on, after our careers were over. I told him several times since how much we hated working with them.” Then I asked Nick what he thought about working with Sheik and Abby in the same tournament! His eyes rolled. That was Nick. Outspoken but with every reason to be outspoken. Professional beyond belief. Beloved beyond reproach. And did we mention what a terrific, caring person Nick always was? He cared about his family, his dogs, his business and his friends in the biz. Sounds trite but we won’t see his like again. There was only one Nick.
Again, our great loss. Debbie Combs called last night and upon hearing Nick had died, said “he’s up there with mama (Cora), Ray and so many of the other greats. Up there in Heaven.”
— Article & photos by Dr. Mike Lano