Article taken from: The Enterprise Mountaineer by J. Marie Lloyd 8-23-2002
“Well, there were people there playing games and winning cupie dolls. We had the freak shows, the rides, the whole deal. We were just one part of it “the carnival“, said Billy Wicks, as he recalled his carnival wrestling days. “We had a tent and you would have to go out from time to time to get people interested enough to pay their quarter to come in. We could only get about 40 to 50 people in the tent at once. Then, we had to work the crowd to get someone to challenge us.
It remains that way today. Men like Johnny Huskey of Asheville, who wish to thoroughly grasp the sport, call it a “dying art“. Huskey also said he has often heard it called “the lost art of Hooking”. Huskey developed a love of wrestling early in life. His passion would later turn to Catch Wrestling. In 1992, he began his own training group at the Asheville Fitness Center. Huskey had done his homework and could give any amount of technical knowledge on the sport, but there were certain moves and nuances to others that he knew he could only learn from an “old timer.”
“I was 16 and I got kicked out of school,” Wicks said about himself in 1947. “I was smelling of gasoline and perfume. You know what I mean? I was riding my bike, just a punk kid, hanging out in the ghetto with my friends. This guy came along and asked if we knew how to wrestle”.
Quentin Dale Clark, an amateur wrestler, began to teach Wicks at the YMCA in St. Paul, MN. Catch wrestling uses no points system and there is no pinning. A player grapples full force until he opts out or taps out. In 1951,Wicks met “a lady wrestler” in a local department store. She opened the door for him by asking, ”Did you ever think of going pro?” It only took Wicks a moment to ponder that question. He began working out with carnival wrestlers upstairs in a bar called The Dutchman’s Place. He made his first two nights wrestling in the carnival in a small Minnesota town name Malica. He was driving a 1936 Studebaker President. “I felt like I was on top of the world” Wicks said.
The inside man, who worked the platform, offered up taunts and a dollar a minute to any man bold enough to step up on the platform. Wicks worked the carnivals in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa. ”Iowa, that’s were the tough wrestlers came from”, remarks Wicks. They had some guys who knew how to wrestle, but not the way we did. They didn’t know the submission holds he knew. The word professional and amateur; it has nothing to do with who is the toughest, just who gets paid for their wrestling. Wicks, however, earned a reputation as one of the toughest, and he got paid. After the carnival days from 1951 to 1956,Wicks went on to the NWA. In 1959 ,Wicks scored an annual income of 22,000.$
The NWA was arranged by territories. Wicks began on the west coast. He did his time in Portland, OR and then on to Houston, TX and Tulsa, OK at the age of 26 with a wife and three young children. A dispute over money brought about an ugly fight in Ft. Smith, AR and Wicks had to leave town. I was charged with assault to murder. The promoter came after me with a blackjack and I took it away from him and beat him up pretty bad. I had to leave the territory after two weeks. It was on to Nashville, TN and a new promoter, so Wicks could get back to doing what he loves. The Nashville crowds were down, so on to Mobile, AL which was drawing significant money. Wicks took his family there and earned the Gulf Coast Championship in 1958.Wicks also earned the NWA Tag Team Championship with Yvonne Robberi. In 1959 Wicks earned the State Championship Title in Memphis, TN. Shortly thereafter, Wicks was also approached by “a buddy of Elvis,” George Kline. He wanted to run a contest to see who was more popular in Memphis, but I wouldn’t do it. I’d lose cause He was Elvis.
In the 1950s, showman in the arena was beginning to take rise. He told tales of “Gorgeous George” the way he paraded around in robes and gold hair pins that he referred to as “Georgie Pins” . He dished the pins out to admiring fans. George had his hair blonde and was quite a sight at the given time. “I painted my toe nails. You know what color? Red. But that was just to be different. I guess I was trying to market myself and did not know how. I just liked to wrestle and that’s what I was there for. I was a wrestler, not a showman.”
With each town there were new faces. Wicks said that every territory had “old timers,” and he was often asked, ”Hey kid ,you got a job? Well, that was an insult to me. Of course, I had a job. I am a wrestler, I told them. “But they were smart and they told me if I was smart ,I would get a job on the side.”
As Wicks began a new decade, he began a new career with the Shelby County Sheriff Department in Memphis, Tenn. “No more big Cadillac or custom-made suits [on the new salary], but I still had a wife and three kids”. The schedule was a bit less rigorous, too. Prior to taking a “job” Wicks was in Tennessee on Monday, Florida on Tuesday, Alabama on Wednesday, Florida again on Thursday, Mississippi on Friday, and on Saturday, he did television from Memphis, then moved on to Arkansas for an evening.
The week topped out in Alabama, doing another television appearance. The down side to the new job was that the Sheriff said Wicks could not wrestle. A year and half later ,though a new Sheriff came into office. Luck had turned in Wicks favor. This man was a wrestling fan . He gave Wicks the thumbs up to return to the sport. At 30 he went back.
He wrestled until 1975, when, at 45, a list of injuries and aches had Wicks considering other options. He finished out his law enforcement career and retired in 1989. He then spent two years as a Special U.S. Deputy Marshal. Wicks has six screws and a plate in his neck, along with the addition of cadaver bone, to remedy an injury. He also has an artificial knee. Wicks had two and a half cervical vertebrae removed. In 1957, “ a squashed neck” caused serious muscle and nerve damage. Wicks overcame the injury with weight training. However, he now has use of only half a bicep muscle and no strength in the deltoid muscle on the side of the injury.
Wicks has a passion for wrestling, whether he is wrestling or coaching. Prior to his current endeavor, Wicks coached at two high schools and two colleges, as well as doing police academy training. Now he enjoys preparing his Asheville Fitness Center crew to compete and attends as many competitions, with the men, as he can. They go to about four or five per year, most which are Brazilian Ju Jitsu competitions because their sport is small. They have gone to Knoxville and Nashville, TN, Chester, SC. and Las Vegas, NV. “His heart and soul is in this,” said Charlie Kidd, who has been wrestling with Wicks for 18 months. “I was hooked after the first night. It’s like a chess game with your body.” “He is very direct,” said Huskey as he told how Wicks trains the men in a “tough” manner in which they respect. “It has to be that way because you can hurt yourself or someone else.”
Wicks helps the men use all of their senses and their instincts. He guides them in tapping that inner energy and anger that will give them the edge on the mat. He sees the sport as excellent exercise and a positive outlet for male testosterone. Her wants his students to learn the moves, but also gain an understanding and fluid application of them. He says it is about leverage and balance.
Wicks and Huskey are committed to keeping the sport pure and the training group small, yet serious. However, Huskey said the sport is huge in Japan, where it draws in crowds of 70,000 to 80,000 spectators. Huskey said that Wicks is a legend and popular there. Wicks shares the adoration with his contemporaries, Lou Thesz and Billy Robinson, who were paid to train groups in Japan.
“When they learned, they learned hard. None of us could have kept up with that. Just 10 years ago, he could have whooped me,” Huskey said. “It’s an honor to have him here. He has such a history.”
However, today his days are full. He has his partner Betty Davis, his job at the Old Armory and his “boys” who affectionately call him “Pops” and attend to his words and guidance.