Monday, November 06, 2006
Wrestler Who Made A
Difference for Civil Rights
Afro-Americans in Memphis often have three portraits hanging in their homes, Jesus, Martin Luther King and wrestler Sputnik Monroe.
The wrestling legend who was born with the name Rocco Monroe DiGrazio, died on Friday in a Florida nursing home at 78 years old. He had been ill several years, including having half of his lungs removed. His father by blood died in an airplane crash before he was born. His mother remarried, and at 17 years old, he became Rock Monroe Brumbaugh.
His first wrestling name was Pretty Boy Roque, when he started grappling in 1945. His first gimmick was using the name Elvis Rock Monroe. If you say it fast it is Elvis Rock-N-Roll.
Once on the way to a booking, he picked up an Afro-American hitchhiker, and brought him to the arena, where he was wrestling. He was walking arm and arm with him. A racist fan saw that, and called him names. The wrestler kissed the Afro-American hitchiker on the lips. The worse thing she could call him was Sputnik. It was the time the Russians sent Sputnik into space. The promoter kept the Sputnik name, for cold war heat reasons.
It was wrestling in 1957 Memphis, Tennessee where he made history. Until the late 1960s, professional wrestling in the southern USA, was segregated. Afro-Americans only wrestled others. The Afro-American fans sat in the bleachers.
According to National Public Radio "Sputnik wasn't about to change anything about himself but his name. He continued to build friendships within the black community, and soon had a huge following. He was a heel, or a bad guy in wrestling parlance, but to his fans, he was a hero. Walking into the ring at Ellis Auditorium in downtown Memphis, he would be booed by many whites, but as soon as they were finished, Sputnik would turn to the top seats, the segregated top balcony, raise his arms, and bring down a groundswell of cheers. Sputnik wanted more of his fans to get into the auditorum, so he bribed a door attendant to miscount the number of African Americans admitted. Soon, there was no place else to sit but in the white section. Whether fans were black or white, promoters could see nothing but green, and with little fanfare, seating at Ellis Auditorium was integrated. Later, he tag-teamed with an African American, Norvell Austin. Many fans said it was the first time they ever saw a black wrestler in the ring."
His 1959 feud with Billy Wicks, set attendance records in Memphis that were never broken until recently.
His work against segregation was honored by the Memphis Rock and Soul Museum. They have one of his ring outfits on display.
Sputnik was an authentic tough guy who boxed, wrestled in carnivals and in arenas. He had his last match at near 70 years old. He never left an opponent feeling better after a match with him. He made Memphis better.
Addendum: In the 1960s on television was a western called "Bat Masterson", starring Gene Barry. He was a gambler, and outlaw fighter who wore a derby and carried a cane and a Derringer pistol. Sputnik was in attendance, when the actor was doing a personal appearance. The wrestler took the cane, and broke it.
See: Sputnik Monroe on NPR
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