Seattle Post-Intelligencer – August 13, 1985
By Ken Turetzky
FORT WORTH, Texas — For Johnny Valentine, the wrestling arena remains the one place where life makes sense.
He loves the arena not necessarily because that was where he crushed opponents with his trademark “elbow,” but because it was where he came alive.
Valentine, 56 and a Seattle native, doesn’t often visit the arenas anymore, and he rarely watches professional wrestling on television. Shut out of the ring by injury, he is not a patient spectator.
He once was one of the meanest, most athletic, and most successful wrestlers, earning an annual income in the six figures as a main-event attraction around the world.
But the show stopped for Valentine in 1975 when the chartered plane taking him and fellow wrestler Ric Flair from Charlotte, N.C., to Wilmington, N.C., ran out of gas and crashed five miles short of its destination.
The pilot eventually died. Flair was badly shaken up, but later returned to the ring and is reigning National Wrestling Alliance champion. Valentine, then 47, suffered a broken back, foot, and hand.
It has taken a decade of therapy for Valentine to reach the point where he can drop his metal crutches and take 22 steps supported only by leg braces.
But while he displays no real bitterness about his condition and has developed other interests over the years, he’s not prepared to put aside the one-time passion of his life.
“I never gave up the fact that I’d wrestle again. I’m still not sure I’ve given up,” Valentine said from the sunlit front room of the two-story, 19th-century house on the north side of Fort Worth that he shares with his wife of 13 months, Sharon.
Through regular workouts at the health club, he has maintained his muscular upper body. Valentine’s blond hair — which provided his nickname, “The Blond Bomber” — remains moderately long and his face, though creased at the brow, is unlined.
If he could walk he could wrestle, and would. “The only time I ever really enjoyed life was my hour in the ring. There I was king, you might say,” Valentine said.
“It was the only time I felt really complete. It didn’t matter about the (world) championship (which Valentine never won) or what the people thought. I knew in the time I was in the ring that I was better than anybody else. It’s a good feeling knowing that you’re doing something nobody else can do as well.”
He was born John Wisniski, the son of Polish parents. While in high school at Hobart, 30 miles east of Seattle, Valentine boxed as a semipro with the idea that he would turn professional.
But that was before Stanislaus Zbyszko, a world champion wrestler in the 1920s who came to prominence by beating such opponents as Ed (Strangler) Lewis and Jim Londos, found Valentine, then 15, in a Seattle gym.
“Zbyszko sold me on wrestling,” Valentine said. “By the time I looked in all his old scrapbooks, I was very interested.” Valentine told his parents he was leaving (“They weren’t too pleased”) and moved to Zbyszko’s Missouri farm, where he trained for three years to become a wrestler.
Valentine was 19 and weighed 190 pounds when Zbyszko sent him to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1947, for his first bout against Karl Nowena.
The bout did not go well for Valentine. “I just remember he (Nowena) was an old guy. He looked like nothing, but he gave me a hard time,” Valentine said. “He started my education — my real education that appearances are deceiving as far as how tough a person is.”
Although Valentine won many titles, beginning with the Cuban championship in 1949 and winding up with the Japanese championship in 1972, he drew or lost more than 100 matches for the world championship.
He did, however, beat 10 world champions from 1953 to 1975.
He succeeded without a true “gimmick,” other than the elbow or the double leg-lock for which fans came to know him. Never a hero (“babyface,” in wrestling vernacular) or villain, Valentine won’t deny that he was nasty.
“I never took it easy on an opponent. I punished everybody I wrestled,” he said. “Nobody ever had a night off with me.” His “coup de grace” was the elbow, which the discerning observer might say never really nailed its victim as appearances would indicate.
“Once I had (the opponent) on his back,” Valentine said, “I’d leap up in the air and drop my full weight on his throat or face. He got the full force.”
However, “I didn’t worry whether people liked me or not. I drew money, attention, and crowds. I was a winner and (fans) never came to my matches without seeing a good fight.”
In that way, Valentine was secure in his profession. He views himself as an honest wrestler. “I would have felt real uncomfortable as a hero or a villain, playing a part somebody gave me.”
He doesn’t care for “good guys,” particularly the currently popular Von Erich brothers, or their father and one-time Valentine nemesis, Fritz Von Erich.
“I don’t think there’s a good guy I know of who is legitimate,” he said. “I think you’ll find more good guys in the bad guys’ dressing room. You get a bunch of good guys in the dressing room, all they’re doing is walking in front of the mirror and posing. Sometimes the bad guys show their muscles to aggravate the audience, but the good guys are in the dressing room sneaking looks at themselves.”
He had planned to wrestle until age 60, but said he probably would have kept going until 70. That wouldn’t be so unusual, however. Lou Thesz, now 72, still wrestles occasionally.
In wrestling, Valentine said, “you don’t get tore up like a football player. You don’t get punch-drunk like a fighter.
“A wrestler is usually at his best after 40. There’s so much to know. I don’t think I was real tough until I was 40.”
Valentine also sells his book, “Power Play — 25 Wrestling Holds for Fun and Profit,” ($5), and runs the “Johnny Valentine School of Wrestling,” ($50 by correspondence), which he said has about 500 students.
And Valentine retains the dream he will wrestle again. “I miss it,” he said. “I was good at it.”