Sputnik at Colonus

He's still a warship of a man, his armor-plating dented and battle-scarred, his voice booming like a 16-inch broadside. As he passes, heads swivel and mouths drop in his wake, and the question always arises: "Who was that?"

That, my friend, was none other than Sputnik Monroe -- 235 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal. Carnival brawler. Hall of Fame professional wrestler. World War II veteran. Bit player in the civil rights movement. Shovel fighter.

Shovel fighter?
"Ah, that was back when I was with the carnival," growls Sputnik. "Rubes from whatever town we were in would pay to get in the ring with me, and I'd knock them out. It wasn't like we used spades, sharpshooters, something you could really hurt someone with. It was those big scoop shovels like you use for corn or coal. Made a hell of a noise. Those fights never lasted very long."

It's impossible to look at this 68-year-old man, with his bushy eyebrows and cauliflower ears and flattened, scarred nose, and not respect the hayseeds who had the guts -- or stupidity -- to duck between the ropes and fight Sputnik Monroe with shovels when he was in his prime. Even now, he radiates a lethal aura.

Sixteen years ago, Monroe came to Houston hoping to get rich during the oil boom. Instead, he wound up working as a security guard at the old Holiday Inn at Silber and I-10.

Monroe has no regrets, though.
"I was married ten or 12 times, before I got it right," he explains, and he finally got it right in Houston. A convenience store clerk, after spurning repeated advances from a steady customer, realized that her frustrated suitor really was the Sputnik Monroe that years before she had jeered and booed at the Sam Houston Coliseum. When Monroe demolished her last obstacle to going to dinner -- by changing his shift to the same hours as hers -- the soon-to-be Joanne Monroe capitulated. Her husband claims to have been considerably mellowed by semi-retirement and marital bliss, but the habits and attitudes formed over decades fade slowly. With Monroe, mellow is definitely a relative term.

"I was born angry. Got stuck coming out, and they had to squeeze my head with forceps to get me out. Plus, my dad was killed in a plane crash in 1928, not long before I was born, and my mother loved him very much. I've been told her pain while she was carrying me had a lot to do with me becoming what I am."

But of the many things that Sputnik Monroe is and has been, his most lasting claim on history is his status as a minor but genuine hero of the battles against racial injustice in the South.

Most of the wrestling fans who packed Memphis' Ellis Auditorium booed when Monroe pancaked and body-slammed and flying-mared his opponents into submission, but the African-Americans who packed the third tier "crow's nest" balcony roared their approval when he raised his muscular, tattooed arms in triumph. It was Monroe they had come to see, and when more blacks showed up than would fit in the crow's nest, it was Monroe who panicked the promoters by threatening to quit unless his friends were allowed to sit in the general-admission seats. Sputnik Monroe single-handedly desegregated Ellis Auditorium, and he was simultaneously the most hated and loved man in Memphis.

"It was the greatest feeling in the world, and it happened all the time," Sputnik recalls. "I'd be somewhere and a little old black lady with tears running down her face would come up and say, 'You don't know me, but you got us out of the crow's nest. Thank you, Sputnik.' "

Like the rock and roll star he is, Monroe gives almost the exact same interview to the Press that he gave to author Robert Gordon, whose It Came From Memphis, a history of the Stax and Sun record labels and Beale Street, devotes an entire chapter to Monroe.

"I was in the finest homes in the city," he brags, as he did to Gordon. "I came in the back door, with the maids. It was the maids who raised those children. Didn't matter how much the parents hated me, the maids and gardeners were my fans and friends, and they told the kids about me."

During a match early in his career, an opponent broke a wooden chair over Monroe's head. An undetected splinter became infected, and when the piece of laminated wood was removed, the hair over the scar grew back in white. In yearbooks from the white high schools of Memphis from the late '50s and early '60s, there are dozens of portraits of cocky Caucasian lads whose pompadours and duck's-ass haircuts feature a snowy peroxide streak above the forehead. It was a teenage statement that identified far more than just a proud member of the Sputnik Monroe Fan Club. Dyeing in the Sputnik streak was a challenge to the established order, and told the world that here was another of those damn rock and roll troublemakers.  

If Monroe is any example, the secret to changing the world is to have a sense of humor and an enthusiasm for really pissing people off. He managed to acquire both his nickname and his historic publicity gimmick on the same evening in 1956, a few days after the Soviet Union had stunned the United States by launching Sputnik, the first orbiting satellite. Over a recent dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Montrose, Monroe -- the legendary white streak in his hair now yellowed by blood pressure medicine -- recalled the night that he found a new name and really pissed somebody off.

"I was driving down to Mobile from Memphis to wrestle, and I was worn out, tired as hell. Outside this town in the Delta, I picked up this black kid that was hitchhiking home to Mobile. I told him, just drive me to Channel 5 while I take a nap, and after I get through wrestling, I'll drive you over to the Flats and we'll party down. We go walking into the station, he was carrying my bag for me and I had my arm around his shoulder, didn't think anything about it. Some woman waiting in line for tickets just went nuts when she saw us. I mean screaming, cussing, 'That skunk-looking, nigger-lovin' ... somebody ought to arrest him,' until the security guards told her they would throw her out of the station if she didn't stop swearing.

"There was this curtain that separated the dressing room from the studio; when I peeked through it, the first person I saw was that woman. So I grabbed my little buddy, and we both stuck our heads through the curtain and smiled at her. When she started screaming again, I turned and gave this black kid a big ol' kiss on the cheek. And she just blew up, couldn't think of anything bad enough to say except, 'He must be one of those, those ... damn Sputniks.' "That was just a few days after the Russians launched Sputnik, and a lot of people were really scared. She couldn't think of anything worse to call me, and I kept it. Plus, I'd had black friends growing up in Kansas, and I'd been arrested in Memphis for mopery and aggravated gawk while I was hanging out on Beale Street, which white people didn't do in those days. And I realized that playing to the blacks was a good way to get a lot of people to hate me."

It was a time before satellite transmissions shrank the global village, when local celebrities and newsmakers dominated the news, and the only televised sport more popular than professional wrestling was baseball. As an instantly recognized athlete with both unusual hair and a deft sense of the outrageous, Sputnik Monroe was the Dennis Rodman of his day -- or maybe Rodman is a Sputnik Lite for the '90s.

In a black-and-white (in more ways than one) world, Sputnik was an enigma -- a prototypical antihero, ready to fight dirty in the battle for truth and justice, a large and colorful character of the small monochrome screen.

Today, he is still an enigma. Even in his heyday, his celebrity was limited to the mid-South -- but 16 years after he came to Houston and slipped into obscurity, Monroe is an important figure in Gordon's book, which has attracted worldwide notice, and he's been the subject of a lengthy profile on National Public Radio. His plans for wealth were frustrated by Houston of the mid-'80s, but through the subsequent years of scraping along and getting by, Sputnik has maintained an enviable wealth of friends, from fellow veterans of the 18-foot ring to locally renowned Memphis music-industry figures who once proudly flaunted the Sputnik streak in their hair.

Despite his years, there's a surprising litheness to Sputnik's movements as he helps a young would-be wrestler learn the body slam at Tugboat Taylor's School of Professional Wrestling. After Monroe's feet fly out from under him and his shoulders slam to the mat, his feet drum the canvas in a practiced, panic-stricken tattoo that convinces a lifelong wrestling viewer that the old man's neck is probably broken. When he crawls to his feet, staggers to the edge of the mat and groans, "68 is too old to be doing this shit," the sole spectator has absolutely no idea whether it's a statement of utter sincerity or just a polished shtick for the audience of one.  

There's just no end to the man's contradictions, and never a hint of anything insincere among his complexities. Monroe's a friendly, outgoing, even affectionate sort -- a big believer in the handshake, the abrazo embrace and direct eye contract. Yet there's an open menace in his eyes and the touch of his hand that warns the recipient of his attention that Sputnik's bad side is still a very bad place to be. And after discussing his views on the decline of leadership in American society and the loss of a sense of personal responsibility in modern society, Sputnik Monroe is sensitive enough to ponder the Really Big Question.

"What the hell ever happened to Roller Derby, anyway? I can't figure out why that sport never took off the way it should have." -- Jim Sherman

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