- Associated Press - Monday, October 31, 2016

WICHITA FALLS, Texas (AP) - Wrestling has been used in combat since hand-to-hand fighting was a means to defeat a foe in a battle, a way to gain some sort of physical advantage and stay alive.

Wrestling was introduced in ancient Greece as a competitive combat sport during the 18th Olympiad, but it didn’t arrive in America until the late 1800s and early 1900s and wrestling began to be a popular sporting event at carnivals. Events often gave spectators an opportunity to win a monetary prize if they were able to spend a specified amount of time in a ring with a skilled grappler, which often resulted in the novice ringside onlooker winning to make sure the professionals, too, collected their earnings.

The sport grew in popularity as regional promotions began to pop up across the United States and more young men eyed the opportunity to showcase physical prowess and make a decent living along the way.

Wichita Falls has a rich history of “hookers” - an old-school term for a wrestler back in the day - dating back to matches at the old 4-H barn, a downtown pharmacy, Memorial Auditorium, Spudder Park and many more.

Johnny Mantell, a California native who wrestled under the name of Cowboy Johnny Mantell, and his better half, Kay “K” Downs, even appeared in Wichita Falls for a mixed tag team bout some years ago. The pair settled in Montague County in the early 1980s, and Johnny continued the family tradition of running horses while both continued to pick up matches, Downs as Lady “K” or Tygress Lourdes, until the mid-2000s.

Although the tag team couple no longer locks arms with opponents in the ring, they continue their work in the industry at the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in downtown Wichita Falls.

“We’re showing the good, the bad and the ugly about wrestling,” PWHF board President Mantell told the Wichita Falls Times Record News (https://bit.ly/2e8C0qj). “We’re going to share those stories, and then people who come through the doors can make their own assumptions and ideas.”

The PWHF obtained its nonprofit status in 1999 in Schenectady, New York, and the organizers soon opened the museum with a small amount of wrestling memorabilia. It later moved to nearby Amsterdam, New York, which was better known for textiles, carpet making and Cabbage Patch Dolls.

The location of the PWHF became an issue when the economy in Amsterdam dwindled, posing a problem for the museum’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony with hotels closing and an appropriate forum for the event no longer available. Mantell said the ceremony would take place in Johnstown, New York, several miles away from the museum.

“The (museum) board (of directors) had asked Kay and I to maybe try to find some place in the middle of the country that it could relocate to and make it more accessible for everybody to come see it,” Mantell said, adding that others were also asked to look for a new location, too. “We went back about two years ago and said Wichita Falls is very interested and took him some of the specs about Wichita Falls’ population and size.”

The couple met Will Kelty and Carlo Villanueva, investors in the First Wichita Building more affectionately known as “Big Blue,” and ultimately agreed to occupy the first floor of the three-story annex next to the 12-story highrise.

After careful planning and packing of 30,000 pounds of wrestling memorabilia, about 880 boxes of posters, outfits, photos and more arrived in Wichita Falls on Jan. 13, including a late 1800s wrestling ring used in New York City.

“When Kay and I signed on for this project, our goal was to make this the Cooperstown or Canton for professional wrestling,” Mantell said, citing the location of the baseball and pro football halls of fame. “We’re not going to stop until that’s done, and I think it’s on the road to getting there.”

Wichita Falls made sense as the new headquarters for the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. The North Texas weather is much more cooperative than the cold, bitter wintry mix that could shut down travel for days in Central New York. That means more visitors to the PWHF during a calendar year.

Wrestling matches in Wichita Falls date back to the early 1900s, and even Wichita County Sheriff Ham Vance was a promoter in the area, Mantell said.

In a story written by Times Record News sports reporter Jonathan Hull, Mantell said several big-name promoters like Fritz Von Erich, Dory Funk and Leroy McGuirk often scheduled events in Wichita Falls.

“Fritz ran (Wichita Falls wrestling) for a while in the mid-to-late ‘80s,” said Mantell, who wrestled for Von Erich’s World Class Championship Wrestling. “McGuirk had it for several years and it was one of his great towns. Bill Watts, Bruiser Brody, Dusty Rhodes, Stan Hansen, the Funks, if they were in this business they made it through this town.”

Then there was industry bad man Jimmy Wehba, better known as Skandor Akbar, who was born in Vernon and made his name as the leader of Devastation, Inc., his stable of villains that included Steve Austin, Greg Valentine, Ted DiBiase, Dusty Rhodes and Cactus Jack Manson, among others.

“He was very instrumental in my career and (Kay’s) wrestling career,” Mantell said. “He was very much a mentor. Traveled many miles with him on the road. You could learn so much more in a 400-mile car trip from some of those old legends like that about the business and how to act and what to do and when.”

“To come here and see some of the outfits from some of the guys who have sent their stuff in - actual ring-worn stuff - to say any one piece (stands out) is hard to tell you,” Mantell said.

Thousands of pieces of wrestling artifacts including clothing, photos, action figures, games, calendars, promotion posters and newspaper clippings are featured in the Hall. A wall display shows the inductees of the PWHF since the first class in the early 2000s.

Mantell said the memorabilia stirs memories of just about every visitor to the PWHF, an industry that somehow connected everyone.

“It’s part of our history,” he said. “It’s part of Americana. Good versus evil.”

Robes worn by Mr. Wrestling, Gloria Barattini, Paul Orndorff and “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair are among others on display. Gear from the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Rey Mysterio, the Fabulous Fargos, Doink the Clown and Brutus Beefcake have been donated for guests to view. Johnny Mantell’s cowboy gear is on display, too.

Larger displays memorializing some of the greats include one for George “The Animal” Steele, The Fabulous Moolah (Mary Ellison) and the Dallas-Fort Worth based Von Erich clan that includes David’s Yellow Rose of Texas coat, a board game and “The Tragic Empire,” a book about the rise and fall of the Von Erichs. Joan Marie Laurer, better known as Chyna, is remembered for her wrestling career in her own display.

Notables like Sting, Jimmy “Super Fly” Snuka, Sgt. Slaughter, Jesse Ventura, Stan Hanson, Rowdy Roddy Piper and more are also honored. The list goes on.

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Information from: Wichita Falls Times Record News, https://www.timesrecordnews.com


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