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During the late sixties and seventies, my parents operated Droke Furniture Company, located at 3526 Jackson Avenue in Memphis.  The store was a popular, mid-level retail establishment that brought a lot of unique experiences and interesting people into my childhood.  There would be two individuals that were semi-regulars to the store who would help nurture my growing interest in the sport of professional wrestling.  One was on the road to fame while the other’s fame had somewhat sadly diminished with time.

As a child, I watched WHBQ-Channel 13’s Studio Wrestling on a semi-regular basis.  It wasn’t until a young wrestler named Jerry Lawler appeared on the show that I became a devout follower of the Memphis-based production.  I first met Lawler while he worked for West Memphis radio station KWAM and performed promotional work for the furniture store.  When my uncle was tragically killed in an automobile crash on my birthday in 1969, my parents had to leave town to make arraignments for the funeral.  That day, Lawler was at the furniture store doing a remote broadcast in the station’s mobile studio, a red, white & blue Volkswagen bus.  I spent the day with him in the bus, learning about life, music and the art of broadcasting.  Lawler aided me tremendously in dealing with the shock of losing my uncle.  I will always be grateful to him for that.

When I first saw Lawler wrestling on television, I was quite surprised.  I had lost track of him and had no idea that the young artist turned broadcaster had been training to become a wrestler.  I was instantly mesmerized by his on-camera remarks that were part-hyperbola / part-sarcasm.  His quick, acerbic wit took the art of the wrestling interview to a whole new level. I don’t recall missing a Studio Wrestling show for the next ten years.  When Saturday morning wrestling came on, everything else in the world was put on hold.

The furniture store would also serve as an introduction point for another professional wrestler.  However, this wrestler would be from the sport’s glorious and rambunctious past.  Next door to the furniture store was a small used car lot and when not busy, one of the salesmen would come over and chat with my father.  I had heard the car salesman’s name mentioned a few time on wrestling but I didn’t really know a whole lot about him.  He was a chain-smoking, tough-talking, bull of a man with some great stories about Memphis during the fifties and sixties.  He also had mannerisms and sayings that I would liberally borrow from for use at school.  I would start off many a classmate conversation with his phrase “Let me tell you idiots something….”  My father’s car salesman friend would on occasion charismatically state, “often imitated but never duplicated.”

That salesman’s name was Sputnik Monroe


The History of the Sport and Its Memphis Connection:

Professional wrestling came into existence during the late 1800's as a boisterous mixture of carnival and Vaudeville.  America's Industrial Revolution and subsequent urbanization had created an atmosphere that was ripe for amusement.  The turmoil and chaos of the Civil War had subsided and the American public was now ready for entertainment.  The first professional wrestlers were carnival strongmen that would wrestle anyone in the crowd willing to pay a small fee.  Soon, enterprising promoters began incorporating some of the physical antics of Vaudeville into the strongmen's acts and the sport of Professional Wrestling was born.  Watch any early Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd film and you can see these Vaudeville-trained actors perform many of the same stunts that are the mainstay of today's World Wrestling Entertainment superstars.

In the fifties, Memphis became a hotbed for professional wrestling action.  There are many theories as to why Memphians so fervently embraced the sport, ranging from the violent past of the rough and tumble riverboat city to the basically rural and uncultured roots of most of its citizens.  Memphians loved wrestling and they flocked in droves to the old Ellis Auditorium on Main Street to watch Billy Wicks, Spider Galento and Len Rossi do battle in the squared circle.

Professional Wrestling matches had been contested in Memphis since the twenties but in 1959, the “Diamond Ring & Cadillac Man” Sputnik Monroe put the sport over the top in the Bluff City.




Sputnik Monroe:

Sputnik Monroe was born Roscoe Monroe Merrick, on December 18, 1928 in the wild, west town of Dodge City, Kansas to Ruie Merrick.  Roscoe was named after his father, who had unfortunately been killed the previous November in an airplane crash.  After his father’s death, Ruie and young Sputnik moved in with her grandfather at 909 West Trail Street, just across the street from the mainline of the cross-country Santa Fe Railroad.

When Sputnik was four, his mother married wholesale baker Virgil Brumbaugh and moved to 1105 Fifth Street, in the heart of historic downtown Dodge City. As a teenager, Sputnik showed an interest in both boxing and wrestling.  This would lead him to join the wrestling team at his school during the ninth grade.  He soon took his step-father’s name and also began helping in the bakery as much as possible.  It was during his time at the bakery that young Sputnik began associating with the black workers.  In an era ripe with Jim Crow and segregation, he openly questioned the process.  He didn’t understand why skin color played a part in any social process. The young man was a rebel at heart and would always stand up for the rights of the underdog.



At seventeen, Sputnik joined the Navy and was assigned to the submarine tender USS Nereus (AS 17).  During 1945-46, the Nereus was tasked with stripping 39 Japanese Navy submarines of their armaments and then towing them to sea for scuttling.  Sputnik and his shipmates then were charged with returning the Navy’s store of torpedoes across the Pacific to the base at Mare Island, California.  The Nereus was decommissioned in 1971 but at writing, still remains in storage with the Navy’s Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet in San Francisco.

After leaving the Navy in 1947, Sputnik began wrestling at local carnivals against seasoned, professional opponents for five dollars a match.  His first match was in Wichita, Kansas against a formidable opponent named Bill Ely.  Young Sputnik would win by submission over Ely and then be hired on the spot to wrestle for the carnival.  It was during this time period that Sputnik learned the psychology of crowds. He would hurl taunts at frazzled opponents, insult their nervous girlfriends and verbally manipulate the riotous crowds.  The lessons learned by Sputnik during this time period would set the standards that are still being used by wrestlers today.  

In 1951, Sputnik adopted the Pretty Boy Rocque persona and began wrestling throughout the Midwest.  Legend has it that he received the nickname “Sputnik” during 1958 in Mobile, Alabama after embracing a black man that he had brought into the television studios of WKRG.  A visually shaken white woman stated to him, “you’re nothing but a damned Sputnik” as a verbal barb.  The term “Sputnik” was used in reference to the satellite launched into space by the USSR in October 1957. At that point in the Cold War, any reference to Communism was to be taken as an insult. 


Stardom in Memphis:

Sputnik Monroe landed in the Memphis wrestling scene during January 1959, working for the struggling National Wrestling Alliance promotion ran by Nick Gulas and Roy Welch. Attendance at the Monday night shows at Ellis Auditorium was in the doldrums. However, big changes were on the horizon as the long-running Saturday television show was just about to make its debut.  Television was the perfect conduit for Sputnik’s trademark insult spouting, crowd baiting persona.  Conditions were right for Sputnik’s launch into the wrestling stratosphere.

Unlike many of the wrestlers that were trained in the fifties, Monroe understood the all-important psychological aspect of the sport.  His trademark white-streak (the result of an earlier head wound) in the middle of his jet-black hair only served to generate attention from the fans.  His over the top interviews and overwhelming self-confidence would soon bring hatred from the fans.  That’s exactly what Monroe wanted. 

Monroe arrogantly stated to the viewing public that he was “235 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal with a body that women loved and men feared.”  He was truly a promoter’s dream in that he possessed the good looks, physique and flamboyant charisma needed to bring professional wrestling into the spotlight.  He called his style of wrestling “scientifically rough.”  In turn, the fans called Sputnik “the most hated man in Memphis.”

During the late fifties, most wrestlers generally traveled from town to town and seldom settled into regularly working a territory.  Sputnik Monroe would change that scenario with his feud involving Memphian Billy Wicks.  While Monroe was the loud-mouthed, braggadocios villain, Wicks, a Shelby County Sheriff’s Deputy, represented the all-American type.  Their feud reached its climax on a hot summer night at Russwood Park, a baseball stadium located on Madison Avenue in downtown Memphis.  On August 17, 1959, a stadium-record 13,749 fans turned out to watch Monroe wrestle Billy Wicks with boxing champion Rocky Marciano as guest referee.  This would stand as a wrestling event attendance record in Memphis for almost forty years until the World Wrestling Entertainment production began running shows at the Pyramid Arena during the nineties.  Sputnik often proudly stated “Win if you can, lose if you must, always cheat, and if they take you out, leave tearing down the ring.”



Pioneer of Integration:


Memphis in 1959 was not exactly a hotbed of racial harmony.  Most white Memphians in the late fifties just didn’t hang out with black folks.   Sputnik Monroe did and fit in perfectly.  The tattooed and pompadoured wrestler would frequent the black-only clubs on Beale Street, sporting a colorful suit and soaking up the attention of his adoring fans.  While the white fans hated the “loud mouth” Sputnik, blacks fans loved him along with his anti-establishment attitude.  It wouldn’t be long before white teenagers became fans as well due to his cool, rebellious nature.  To white teenagers, Sputnik was truly the epitome of rock n’ roll.  He was everything that your parents warned you about and then some.  In 1959, Memphis was fortunate to have two rule breakers call the city home, Elvis Presley and Sputnik Monroe.

His rebellious legend was boosted on January 14, 1960, when he was arrested on Beale Street by Memphis Police Officers for “drinking in a negro cafe with negroes”.  Keeping true to his anti-authoritarian stance, Monroe chose black attorney Russell B. Sugarmon, Jr. to represent him in Memphis criminal court.  According to court personnel, that was the first case in which a white defendant was represented by a black attorney.  During the trial, Sugarmon stated to Judge Beverly Boushe that Monroe had the constitutional right to be wherever he wanted to be in Memphis.  Judge Boushe disagreed with the Constitution and found Monroe guilty.  His fine was $25.00

As Sputnik’s star began to defiantly shine in Memphis, he openly questioned the promoter’s decision to seat blacks only in the upper reaches of Ellis Auditorium.  There were few seats in the upper-balconies at Ellis; so many black fans were turned away at the door rather than being allowed to sit next to white patrons in the lower section.  This procedure did not sit well with the societal logic of Sputnik.  One night he told the Memphis promoters that if blacks weren’t allowed to sit in the lower section of the auditorium, he was done wrestling in Memphis.  The promoter gave in and the first recorded act of public integration in Memphis took place.  A professional wrestler had single-handily taken on Jim Crow in the heart of the South and claimed victory.  As Sputnik has so eloquently stated “I'm not a do-gooder. I'm a doer, just a doer.”





The Post-Memphis Years:

Sputnik Monroe would wrestle in Memphis throughout 1960 before moving on to wrestle in other territories in an attempt to achieve national fame.  The “Diamond Ring and Cadillac Man” would pass through many arenas and studios during the remainder of this career but he would never surpass the popularity he had garnered during his stay in Memphis.  Sputnik would hold many titles during the rest of his career but the rebel of the ring would not mellow with age. He was always incredibly rough on both himself and opponents during a match.  In the ring, Sputnik didn’t give or ask quarter.

Sputnik returned to Memphis in the seventies with tag-team partner Norvell Austin. One of their first major feuds was with the new anti-establishment heroes, a duo called “The Hippies”. To fans, Monroe had become the establishment. He was no longer the rebel.  

His battle wounds would be sewn together with thousands of surgical stitches in emergency rooms and clinics throughout the South. Sputnik Monroe was the ultimate bad guy and innovator of the anti-establishment hero.  He possessed a complete understanding of the sport of professional wrestling and in the ring, performed like no other.  The man who started his career as a carnival wrestler would leave his mark on the wrestling world for both his toughness and his stand for integration in Memphis.  Sputnik Monroe served as a champion for a segment of the Memphis population that badly needed one.  There will never be another one like him.

Sputnik Monroe died on November 3, 2006 in Edgewater, Florida after a long battle with lung cancer.  He was 77 years old.







In 1971, Memphis wrestling would move from the Ellis Auditorium to the Mid-South Coliseum, thus beginning a relationship that would last for the next twenty years. The biggest star of that time period would be my friend from the furniture store, Jerry "The King" Lawler.  He is still active in the sport today, serving as the announcer for the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) television broadcasts.

In the nineties, I was fortunate enough to enter the world of professional wrestling. Unfortunately, Memphis wrestling was starting to follow the way of many other independent organizations across the country and was somewhat in a state of decline.  Wrestling shows moved from the Mid South Coliseum to The New Daisy on Beale Street as attendance dwindled.  By the late nineties, the WWE had purchased all of its major competitors and began broadcasting into American living rooms on an almost nightly basis.  One by one, each independent promotion fell by the wayside and by 2001, Memphis wrestling was all but a memory. 

Patrick Cox of CBS Television’s “2 Broke Girls” and a former Memphis professional wrestler stated this about Sputnik, “He was possibly the most important wrestler in Memphis history for a number of reasons but especially for refusing to perform unless blacks were allowed to sit in any seat the wanted. At the time that was a huge and very risky stance.” Cox went on to state “Have always admired him, I would give my right arm to play him in the movie if it ever gets made.” 

I remember the first time I got to speak during a televised wrestling show.  It was during a time period while I was still in the training stage and was not expecting to come up with any on the air comments.  I was handed the microphone by my teammate and trainer, wrestling legend Sid Vicious.  I surprised myself with what happened next.  The words that I were shouting into the microphone just seems to flow effortlessly.  My mind had immediately harkened back to Sputnik Monroe seated at Droke Furniture, as I begin my televised rant with the his familiar “Let me tell you idiots something….” 

Thank you Sputnik. 

August 2014