TAMPA — Asked to describe his “Buddy Colt” wrestling character, Ronald Read once told the Tampa Bay Times, “Mean and vicious. Do anything to win. That was the persona of the villain.”
During an era when professional wrestling operated under the guise of legitimate competition, the Tampa resident was so good at playing that role that fans cheered the news of the 1975 plane crash off Davis Islands that ended Mr. Read’s career.
In recent years, fans met the real Mr. Read.
A regular at professional wrestling events honoring legends of the industry, he took time to talk with his admirers rather than just giving a moment for a photograph. If approached in public, he’d tell old stories.
Mr. Read died on March 3. He was 85.
“He was a cult like figure,” said Barry Rose, who booked Mr. Read at conventions. “People saw him and just gravitated to him. He is beloved and grew this incredible popularity.”
Fans paid their respects to Mr. Read on Rose’s Championship Wrestling From Florida Archives group on Facebook.
“Buddy was the reason I was a huge fan of wrestling. Greatest heel ever,” Michael Cook wrote.
A Marine with a background in power lifting, amateur wrestling and martial arts, Mr. Read headlined professional wrestling shows at Madison Square Garden and grappled the greats of his era — Killer Kowalski, Lou Thesz and “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers — as bleach blond baddy Buddy Colt, infamous for jabbing his thumb into the necks of opponents to cut off their breathing.
Brian Blair, another retired Tampa wrestler, said Mr. Read helped him break into the industry in the 1970s and hired him to babysit daughters Vicky and Cindy.
“He used to call me his stepson,” said Blair, 64. “I’d always say, ‘You’re my big brother.’”
Still, Mr. Read portrayed the evil Buddy Colt so well, Blair said, that he cheered for Tampa good guy Jack Brisco “to kick his ass.”
One time, after he bloodied beloved Danny Hodge, Mr. Read recalled, more than two dozen fans rushed the ring to get at him.
“I started slinging a chain around to protect myself,” Mr. Read once told the Times. “It was intense.”
He also claimed a fan once fired a gun at him. The bullet missed, Mr. Read said, but skimmed the neck of another fan. Rose thinks that occurred on Nov. 13, 1972, in Orlando.
Professional wrestling was different then. The big name today, WWE, did not dominate the landscape.
Instead, areas of the country had local promotions and champions that came under the umbrella of networks such as the National Wrestling Alliance, the American Wrestling Alliance or the World Wide Wrestling Federation, which later became the WWE.
Stars traveled the country in hopes of garnering enough fame to earn one of the major promotions’ world titles.
In 1972, Mr. Read began competing in Championship Wrestling from Florida, headquartered at Tampa’s Fort Homer Hesterly Armory and part of the NWA. A year later, he won the Florida heavyweight title and held it through 1974.
“Buddy Colt would’ve been a great NWA World Champion,” WWE hall of famer Sean Waltman tweeted. “He was that great. He had everything. Great look, great talk, & great in the ring!”
Mr. Read once told the Times that he was “promised a world title run with the NWA.”
The plane crash changed that plan.
Mr. Read was piloting a Cessna 182 from a Miami wrestling event to Tampa on Feb. 20, 1975. Passengers were fellow bad guy wrestlers Bobby Shane, Austin Idol and Gary Hart — real names Robert Schoenberger, Dennis McCord and Gary Williams.
The weather reports called for clear skies when they left Miami. But, as they neared Sarasota, they learned Tampa International Airport was closed to traffic due to a sudden storm. They were rerouted to the Peter O. Knight airport near the tip of Davis Islands.
“It was raining like hell,” Mr. Read once told the Times. “I banked into a cloud and couldn’t see. When that happens, you get vertigo. You can’t tell up from down or left from right. I was trying to find the landing mark and then bang.”
They crashed in Hillsborough Bay, around 300 yards from Davis Islands. Schoenberger died. The others swam to shore, Mr. Read’s snapped ankles dangling to the sides.
“The next night, I think in Jacksonville, fans cheered the news,” Rose said. “There are two ways to look at it. One, it was embarrassing. On the other hand, they were that good at their job.”
Mr. Read never wrestled again.
He remained in the industry for a few years, as a wrestling manager and commentator in Florida, and then forged a career in the building supply business.
Fans never forgot him.
“After wrestling he tried to go back to Ronald Read. Everyone said, ‘You’re not Ronald Read, you’re Buddy Colt.’ So he used the name Buddy Colt for the rest of his life,” wife Lorraine Read said.
She wrote to fans on Mr. Read’s Facebook page, “I know how much many of you loved and respected him. I know how much he loved all of you. He was always amazed at how many of you remembered him after all these years ... I can’t even imagine a world without Buddy in it. I can’t imagine my life without him in it.”
Born: January 13, 1936
Died: March 3, 2021
Service: Lorraine Read said there is not a planned service, but his ashes will be thrown off Howard Frankland Bridge. “He wanted that,” she said, “because years ago Paul Jones threw the championship belt he wanted to win from him off Howard Frankland bridge so Buddy couldn’t get it.”