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Famed Tampa wrestler Jack Brisco dies at 68

TAMPA

It was February 1971 at the Bayfront Center, and 7,000 fans had come out to watch professional wrestling. Jack Brisco, the rock-solid challenger with blazing eyes and a wavy shock of hair over his forehead, was in a bad spot.

Heavyweight champion Dory Funk Jr. was leaning over Mr. Brisco, who was flat on his stomach, bending the challenger's leg.

Jack just shook his head — it didn't hurt! — as the crowd screamed. After somehow bursting out of the hold, a hobbled Mr. Brisco got Funk in a leg lock and applied pressure.

It was Funk's turn!

"Break it, Jack! Break it!" fans yelled.

The match ended in a draw, much to fans' disappointment.

But for more than 10 years and through hundreds of matches, Mr. Brisco thrilled thousands of fans. Though the glamor he brought to the sport was a sign of things to come, he was still a traditionalist who believed wrestlers should be athletes first, entertainers second.

Mr. Brisco, who was once the heartthrob of professional wrestling, before retiring and opening a Tampa auto body shop with his brother and former tag-team partner, Jerry, died Monday at 68. Mr. Brisco suffered from emphysema and circulatory problems.

"He was the baby-faced star," longtime WFLA radio personality Tedd Webb. "This was the guy that had rugged good looks, an incredible build and a tremendous amateur background. This guy was a matinee idol."

Mr. Brisco grew up in Blackwell, Okla., one of six siblings in a single-parent home. "He kind of raised me," said Jerry Brisco, 63, Mr. Brisco's brother and championship tag-team partner.

An all-state running back and state champion high jumper, Mr. Brisco might never have entered the ring, had not his high school football coach insisted players play another sport in the off season. He took to wrestling almost immediately, winning three high-school state championships and an NCAA national championship while at Oklahoma State University.

In the late 1960s, he broke into professional wrestling in Tampa. At at time when Tuesday night matches routinely packed Fort Homer Hesterly Armory to watch grizzled, grim-faced men in black trunks, the dashing Mr. Brisco was a ready-made star.

"Jack Brisco was very much a part of the wrestling landscape in Tampa," said Mark Beiro, a veteran radio broadcaster and fight fan. "He and his brother Jerry were kind of a seamless transition into a new age of wrestlers."

In the theater of wrestling Mr. Brisco played a good guy, a real wrestler and a fair fighter. Soon he was drawing a new kind of fan to the armory: women.

"The women thought he was really handsome," said Brian Blair, a Brisco protege in the ring who later became a Hillsborough county commissioner. "They lined up just to touch him."

Dusty Rhodes, a former "heel," or bad guy, was also coming into his own in the 1970s with Mr. Brisco. "To me he was great," Rhodes said of Mr. Brisco, with whom he used to relax with a few beers and a little Willie Nelson. "He was my hero … the All-American boy."

Jack Brisco's stardom continued to surge, and soon he was wrestling in places like St. Louis and Charlotte, N.C., as well as Tampa. He won three heavyweight regional belts, including Florida's, then took the National Wrestling Alliance's world title in 1973. Mr. Brisco would not give it up until 1975, to Terry Funk.

"He never looked at it as pressure," his brother said. "He always looked for the enjoyment part of it."

The life had its aggravations. Plot lines may have been scripted, but several broken noses and a hairline fracture of his arm were not.

Then there were the occasional yahoos who wanted to take him on. After the armory, wrestlers retired to the Imperial Room Lounge on N Armenia Avenue. Confrontational fans had a way of showing up, looking for a chance to say they had held their own against a big-name wrestler — a risk no wrestler could afford to take.

"I saw Jack and Dusty launch some guy across the parking lot," Blair said. "That made my heart shiver, because there was no mercy."

But friends, including Blair, also remember Mr. Brisco as a prankster with a long laugh. One night, in Chiefland in North Florida (the same night the Super Destroyer — who would later change his name to Hulk Hogan — made his debut, Blair said), Blair was close to ending a scheduled 20-minute match.

"There was a predetermined ending," Blair said. "We were to wrestle until the time went out at 20 minutes. It was nonstop movement.

"When the end came, we were huffing and puffing at 18 minutes. We were waiting for the bell, when I noticed all the other wrestlers watching. The announcer said, 'Twenty minutes gone by; 10 to go.' Jack had had the guy change the time of the match."

At the peak of his career in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mr. Brisco was earning $25,000 a week in Japan, Blair said. But in 1984, after a stint in the World Wrestling Federation, he left wrestling for good. He didn't need the money, and the business had changed.

"Back in those days — in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s — you had some wrestlers who were true amateur wrestlers," said Webb. "All of a sudden, wrestling was in competition with action figures. It got away from wrestling into a soap opera. It's like a reality show now."

To Rhodes, it made perfect sense that Mr. Brisco retired when he did and started Brisco Bros. Body Shop.

"He would not say, 'I'm going to come back,' " Rhodes said. "When he said he was finished, he was done."

Broadcaster Beiro said he misses the days when fans still weren't sure if pro wrestling is fixed.

"Wrestling in those days had a story line, and these athletes performed along that story line," he said. "Now it's an open admission" that it's fake.

In 2008, World Wrestling Entertainment inducted Jack and Jerry Brisco into its Hall of Fame. On Monday night, it paid tribute to him at the start of its program.

This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: Jack Brisco attended Oklahoma State University. The original story named a different school.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

graphy

Freddie Joe

"Jack" Brisco

Born: Sept. 21, 1941.

Died: Feb. 1, 2010.

Survivors: Wife Jan; brothers Gerald, Bill and Gene; sisters Sharon and Shirley; daughters Debbie and Jennifer; and son Barry.

Service: to be arranged.

Famed Tampa wrestler Jack Brisco dies at 68 02/01/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 3, 2010 9:46am]
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