When you put four pro wrestlers in a ring, you double the athleticism, mischief, and entertainment. That's the equation behind The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams, the first comprehensive and historical look at wrestling's tag team phenomenon. It contains hundreds of extensive interviews with well-known wrestlers, promoters, and managers a who's who of wrestling since the 1950s to reveal tales of pain, measly payoffs, and a trade that was practised as much for love as money. Find fascinating profiles chock full of little known info about top tag teams, as well as humorous anecdotes. With detailed insider information, the authors explain how tag team matches actually work and why, sometimes, they do not. Casual fans will be anxious to see how their favourites stack up on the list of the top teams of all time. With its impressive collection of rare, historic photos, this book will stand out as a reference source and talking point for years to come.
About the Author
Greg Oliver has been covering professional wrestling for two decades through the SLAM! Wrestling web site, the Canadian Wrestling Report newsletter, and other magazines and newspapers. He is the author of The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Canadians. He lives in Toronto, Ontario. Steven Johnson is an author whose work on politics, business, and sports has appeared in dozens of newspapers, magazines, and web sites. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame
The Tag Teams
By Greg Oliver, Steven Johnson
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2005 Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson
All rights reserved.
The Top 20
1. THE FABULOUS KANGAROOS
* * *
The Fabulous Kangaroos did not invent tag team wrestling. But they played a huge part in elevating it to international prominence. For more than 20 years, the globe-trotting team, primarily Al Costello and Roy Heffernan, and later Costello and partners such as Ray St. Clair and Don Kent, headlined cards everywhere in the world. Even outside the ring, the Kangaroos set new standards for marketing and self-promotion before such practices were commonplace. Where else but in the Kangaroos' promotional literature would you learn that they were exotic "big-game hunters" who had fashioned a razor-edged aluminum boomerang to cut the jugular of a Kodiak bear from afar?
The Kangaroos were the brainchild of Costello, born Giacomo Costa in Lingua di Salina, Italy, near Sicily, on December 14, 1919. His family moved to Australia when he was six. An amateur boxer as a teenager, Costello shifted to wrestling under the tutelage of Basher Bonas, the Australian middleweight wrestling champion. But he did so under an assumed name. "He started wrestling and he didn't want his parents to find out because they were very strict. They would have just flipped," his daughter Jo said. So Giacomo heisted the handles of underworld figures Al Capone and Frank Costello. "He wanted a real tough-sounding name, so that's where Al Costello came from," she said.
The wrestler later known as "The Man of a Thousand Holds" dabbled in almost as many walks of life. He worked as a bar bouncer, enjoyed painting and trained to sing opera. In fact, the tenor sometimes sang before his matches — he was dubbed the "Australian Caruso" during a 1950s tour of Singapore — and even performed at one point with the Sydney Symphony.
A native of Australia, Laurence Roy Heffernan was a bodybuilder and weight lifter who trained briefly with Costello, five years his senior, before turning pro at age 20. Heffernan left Australia in 1953 to tour the world, wrestling in India, Pakistan, Europe and Canada.
Both men came to success relatively late in life. Costello's first pro match was in 1938, but he encountered difficulty breaking into the top slots in Australia with overseas wrestlers packing the Stadiums Ltd. Promotion. "He had kind of a tough time in Australia because they thought you had to go to the States before you could learn to be a pro," said long-time star Abe Jacobs, who trained with Costello in the pre-Kangaroo days by running up and down Mount Victoria in Wellington, New Zealand before they exhausted themselves on the mats. Heffernan, too, was "a former preliminary wrestler" who also struggled to reach the high echelons of wrestling, the New Zealand Sports Digest said. Neither man held any widely recognized Australian title, though Costello was billed as the Australasian champion. "Both Aussies had to go abroad to obtain recognition," the Digest reported.
At the age of 36, Costello, who had been wrestling in North America for four years, set the Kangaroos in motion. "I always had that thing in my mind. I kept thinking of kangaroos, bush hats, boomerangs ... things pertaining to Australia," he said in a 1993 interview. He shared his thoughts with wrestler Joe Blanchard, who later became a successful promoter, during a swing through Hawaii in 1956. "Al Costello came through there and he had this idea. He knew that Roy and I were friends, and so he and I talked about it a lot, about putting a team together. We got Roy to go with it. It was a natural gimmick that not everybody could do," Blanchard said.
The Kangaroos were born in Calgary, Alberta, and had their first match on May 3, 1957, for promoter Stu Hart against Maurice LaPointe and Tony Baillargeon. Within weeks, they were headlining against top duos in the sport. In 1958, Wild Red Berry, a former light heavyweight champion, completed the Kangaroos as their loquacious mouthpiece and manager. What set the Kangaroos apart in their era was their showmanship. Their entrance came to the strains of Waltzing Matilda, an early version of ring music. As they paced to the ring, they flung cardboard boomerangs into the crowd and carried a huge Australian banner emblazoned with: "The Fabulous Kangaroos."
"I remember the first time carrying the banner," Heffernan recounted in Piledriver magazine. "It was a low ceiling and the top of the banner hit it. Then our manager, Red Berry, starts to fall. Al Costello tried to catch him. And he starts to fall. So, I try to catch them both. And suddenly all three of us fall down. And this is our grand opening. All three of us are floundering around, our hats are all twisted and we look just like the Three Stooges."
Costello and Heffernan debuted in the Northeast in singles matches at Madison Square Garden in March 1958, and slowly built themselves into a threat to the invincible team of Antonino Rocca and Miguel Perez. The "Kangaroo Men," as they were billed, took Rocca and Perez to a wild and woolly no-contest amid a hail of fruit and stones in August 1958 that ended when promoters turned up the houselights and played the National Anthem to avert a potential riot. They stayed in the Washington-New York circuit through November before moving to the Southwest, where they won the local version of the World tag title from Pepper Gomez and El Medico.
In 1960, after a long run in California, they headed back east and main-evented Madison Square Garden three straight times against combinations of Johnny Valentine, Argentina Apollo and Rocca. They held the U.S. tag team title in the Capitol Sports promotion, the forerunner of the WWWF, three times from 1960–62, swapping the belts with Red and Lou Bastien, and Chief Big Heart and Valentine.
"They had a good gimmick," Bastien said. "They got incredible heat just walking to the ring. Costello was more of a technician. You knew when Al clamped down on you. He liked to show you who was boss. The guy who had the fire and the pizzazz was Heffernan. He was a good wrestler, too. He was always on time and always took the business seriously."
Yet Heffernan could show that he was in charge, too. Killer Karl Kox described an incident in Hong Kong when Heffernan went to a gym to work out and encountered a kickfighter who started belittling wrestling. "Roy and him got into it and Roy just beat the crap out of this guy and it made all the newspapers. [Promoter Jim] Barnett got so mad at him. He said, 'Roy, my boy, we're here to wrestle. We are not here to beat the shit out of the kickboxers,'" Kox said. "Roy was a fantastic, fantastic guy, full of comedy ... They were a great team."
The duo also incited more than its share of riots. In 1964, Heffernan and Costello made Stan Stasiak an honorary Kangaroo in Winnipeg — Stasiak even wore a slouch hat — for a six-man tag match against Don Leo Jonathan, Roy McClarty and Karl Gotch. A mob started to throw chairs at them and the bad guys sought relief under the ring. Even that was hardly a safe position — irate fans tried to set the ring drape ablaze and "smoke out" the Kangaroos. "I remember it was pretty wild," Jonathan said. "The Kangaroos were underneath the ring, and every folding chair in the arena must have been under there. They just stacked up the chairs that were coming in and made them a wall under there!"
In June 1965, the team wrestled its final match in North America, losing to Jonathan and Jim Hady in Winnipeg. Heffernan, who had left Australia in 1953, yearned to return to his homeland. There, he hooked up regularly with Barnett, who became one of the most important executives in wrestling history. Costello was supposed to return triumphantly, but ended up being left out in the cold, as Heffernan worked singles and had a hand in promoting for the balance of his career.
In August 1967, Costello reformed the Kangaroos with Tinker Todd as Ray St. Clair. "Al called me and I had just come back from Europe. And I thought, 'Well, I'll get on up there and do him a favor,'" Todd said. A native of England, Todd started as an amateur wrestler at Regent Polytechnic in London and came to the United States as a young seaman in 1952. He knew Costello for years from stints in the United States, Australia, Singapore and India, and their styles meshed well. "Oh, in that ring, he was a dream," Todd said. "We worked well together and coincidentally, we had the same style — in and out and so forth, matching holds, telling a story. We hit it off good."
At the time, Costello was 47, but he was still spry from years of taking his conditioning and diet — he generally shied away from meat — much more seriously than his contemporaries. "He was the type of guy that would go out in the morning and cut the grass, and put the grass in the blender and drink it," Todd laughed. "He would not eat meat ... he would not stoop to eat meat. He was a vegetarian all the way."
The Costello-St. Clair version of the Kangaroos quickly made itself known in The Sheik's Detroit-based promotion, where they captured the territory's version of the World tag team championship at legendary Cobo Hall. They also toured the WWWF and wrestled at the old Madison Square Garden before it closed its doors in early 1968. They had no trouble recapturing the heat of the first Kangaroos, which led to a night, not in a cozy hotel, but a dumpster. In a tag match in Cincinnati, the Kangaroos bloodied black star Bobo Brazil in front of a crowd that included a large contingent of minorities.
"We got into a riot there," Todd recounted. "We split the eye of Bobo Brazil and, lord, we could not get out of that ring. And luckily for us, and unluckily for somebody else, someone was either pushed or thrown or fell from the balcony, and he came down with quite a wallop. We took advantage of that second or two and we were through that crowd to the dressing room."
An incensed mob followed them to the backstage area and started pounding and trying to break down the door. So Costello and St. Clair grabbed their clothes, ducked into a nearby alley and jumped into a trash bin for refuge — or was it refuse? "We jumped in there and spent the night in there amongst the potato peelings and the banana peels. It was cold, and we must have dozed off. Oh, we were scared to death," Todd said. Adding insult to injury, when they returned to Costello's Oldsmobile Delta 88 at daybreak, they found four slashed tires.
Despite the success of the team, a degenerative knee hobbled Todd, and the partnership was dissolved after about six whirlwind months. "I'd gotten homesick and this knee was just killing me. My leg locked on me and there wasn't much I could do with it for quite a while," Todd said.
A few months later, in 1968, Costello hooked up with Leo Joseph "Joe" Smith, Jr., who was working in Detroit. A native of Indiana, Smith was a tremendous natural athlete who graduated from St. Philip Catholic High School in Battle Creek, Michigan, and was recruited by the Boston Red Sox as a catcher. But his dad thought he was too young to sign to play pro baseball, and Smith instead played football at St. Benedict's College in Kansas. While working at a Veterans Administration Medical Center in Battle Creek, he trained under Larry Chene and started wrestling full-time in 1956.
A natural entertainer, Smith was "Mr. Bullethead" on the Wallace & Ladmo television show, an Arizona institution, while he worked in the Southwest. Wrestling under the alias of Don Kent, he held the Central States crown before returning to Michigan and "becoming" an Aussie. "It used to crack us up to watch him on TV, but we could tell the difference just by watching his face," said Valerie Reilly, Kent's daughter. "He had this silly smirk on his face and we saw it. I knew that wasn't my dad."
The Costello-Kent version of the Kangaroos was together as long as the Costello-Heffernan pairing. The new team's first titles came in late 1968 during a swing through Japan, and they quickly followed that up by winning the top tag honors in the Indianapolis-based WWA promotion and the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) promotions in Michigan and Tennessee. Usually managed by George "Crybaby" Cannon, Kent and Costello spent most of their time in the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest, though they also went on international junkets. They made a brief swing through New York City in 1971 and fought to a 45-minute draw with Terry Funk and Dory Funk Sr. in Madison Square Garden.
"Costello just had this appeal," said former wrestler Jim Lancaster. "It was really strange. If there was a bump to be taken, Don Kent did that, and did it very well. Al never took bumps. He never gave them. You never saw him body-slammed. You never saw him take an arm drag. He sold well, but he just knew how to work the crowd. His philosophy was you could lose on TV in the afternoon and, if you did it right, still work the main event and draw a sellout that night."
By 1974, the Kangaroos were starting to wind down. Costello wrestled as a singles performer early in 1975, then joined the fledgling International Wrestling Association promotion as a manager. Nearly four decades of wrestling had taken their toll, and he had hip replacement surgery that year. "Bulldog" Don Kent, complete with choke collar, became a four-time Mid-America heavyweight champion, and wrestled in singles in Ohio and Michigan.
But the hip surgery barely slowed down Costello. He formed a New Kangaroos team with Tony Charles and, after recuperation, reentered the ring with Kent during a tour of Puerto Rico in 1977. They were billed as WWC World tag champions on their arrival, feuding with Jose Rivera and Invader 1. In 1977, Costello also teamed up with Bruce Swayze to form yet another incarnation of the Kangaroos, working in Indianapolis against Moose Cholak and Paul Christy.
"He was 'The Man of a Thousand Holds' and he knew at least that many," Swayze said. "That was his style. But it got more heat than the other stuff. He didn't use chairs, just good stuff. And Al was an old guy then  when I was his partner. We came in with the hats and the boomerangs and the flag, and Crybaby Cannon was there. We tore the place apart. We had more heat getting into the ring than we did getting out."
Kent returned to Puerto Rico with Johnny Heffernan (unrelated to Roy) in 1982 to again win the WWC tag championship, and also worked with Bruno Bekkar as the Kangaroos. He wrestled until 1986, though he still made appearances on spot shows until 1992. He also worked as a bus driver and was active in the Knights of Columbus at St. Philip Church, a far cry from his villainous wrestling alter ego as a Kangaroo. "He was gone a lot, but he would fly back for anything that was important to us," Reilly said. "If he had to drive to Tennessee one night, or Kentucky, he would drive there and be back the next morning before we went to school. People used to ask me 'Did your dad win or lose?' and I'd say, 'I don't know; he's my dad.'"
Costello would not quit, continuing to bring in partner after partner; he was still active in the ring at 67. He later served as head of security at College Harbor in Florida, but returned to teaching wrestling after his retirement in 1992. As manager of the New Fabulous Kangaroos, he passed down the tradition to Mickey Doyle, Denny Kass and a young wrestler named Al Snow. "Al was a very unique individual," Snow said. "He would try to show you things because he had such a unique wrestling style, the hooking style, which I loved to learn. He was really an enjoyable person to be around."
Ironically, Heffernan and Kent died within a few months of each other; Heffernan, 67, of a heart attack in September 1992, and Kent, of leukemia in June 1993, weeks shy of his 60th birthday. Costello, suffering from pneumonia and related ailments, died in January 2000 at 80.
"He had his funny little ways, but I thought the world of him," Todd said of Costello. "He was a funny man. He did a lot of funny things that brought a lot of laughter." When Todd came late to their room one night, he was concerned when he heard his partner gasping for air in the darkness. "He'd been complaining about his chest. Well, when I came into the darkness, I heard him gasping. I thought he was having a heart attack. I turned the light on, and he was sitting on the bed, sucking on plums."
Todd lives in Mooresville, North Carolina, where he suffers the aches and pains of a veteran wrestler, but lives, in his own wry words, "a life of leisure."
Excerpted from The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame by Greg Oliver, Steven Johnson. Copyright © 2005 Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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