TAMPA — Ronald Heard's professional wrestler character "Outlaw" Ron Bass was known as a bad guy. He wore a black hat, twirled an evil handlebar mustache and threatened opponents with a bullwhip named Miss Betsy.
But when the cameras were off, say his friends, he was among the kindest people in professional wrestling.
"He wasn't really a bad guy," said retired wrestler Lanny Poffo, 62. "He was one of the good guys. He will be missed."
Heard, a resident of Thonotosassa, died Tuesday at Tampa General Hospital due to a burst appendix. He was 68.
"Once he was your bud, he was your bud," said retired wrestler Gerald Brisco, 70. "He had a heart of gold."
Brisco recalled when his son Wes Brisco, also a wrestler, was dealing with a slew of injuries in 2011. They went to a wrestling show in St. Petersburg and bumped into Heard.
"He sat Wes in a corner and gave him a good pep talk," Brisco said. "He told him he went through hardships too and to keep working hard and he'd make it. He really cared about the young guys in the business."
Born in Harrisburg, Ark., Heard broke into professional wrestling in 1975, according to World Wrestling Entertainment's website, and performed for the National Wrestling Alliance, where he won more than 30 championships. He sometimes went by the nickname "Cowboy" Ron Bass. In the late 1980s, he joined the WWE and rose to international fame within the industry.
With a chuckle, former wrestler Brian Blair remembered his friend's last match. It was in Miami in 2012 as part of a Legends Event.
Heard hadn't wrestled in years but came out of retirement for what was an eight-man tag team match that included Blair on the opposing side.
"Ron tripped three times," said Blair, 60. "Twice entering the ring on a tag and once during a high spot. Ron yelled afterwards that was it for him."
In July 2016, Heard joined a class-action lawsuit filed against WWE over brain injuries suffered while wrestling.
He leaves behind adult son Joe Heard.
Heard's death follows that of retired star wrestlers George "the Animal" Steele, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, Ivan Koloff and Chavo Guerrero Sr., all in 2017.
"This has been a tough year," Poffo said. "We lost a lot of friends."
Contact Paul Guzzo at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.