One of the most fascinating people I have ever had the privilege of knowing passed away on Friday.
He partied with Johnny Cash, he taught Elvis Presley a double wrist lock and he had a legendary feud with Sputnik Monroe. The world may have known him as two-time National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) Tennessee Heavyweight Champion and NWA World Tag Team Champion Billy Wicks, but to me and my family, he was “Pops.”
I have never had much interest in wrestling, which is strange because I married a wrestler. Before I met my husband Jon, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a “face” and a “heel” and I had no idea what “leg-riding” was. I thought a “hooker” was nothing more than a … well, let’s just say a woman of “ill repute” instead of a term of respect, meaning you were legitimate and dangerous competitor on the mat.
I certainly had never heard of an obscure wrestling style known as Catch as Catch Can (CACC) or about any of the old time carny wrestlers who made their living by traveling from town to town taking all comers.
That’s the kind of stuff that happens in old Little House on the Prairie episodes, not people we may know in real life.
As it turns out, I was wrong.
Pops was born in April 1932 in St. Paul, Minn., to Norwegian immigrant parents and first got into wrestling at his local YMCA. He eventually learned how to apply submission holds — or “hooks” — from Henry Kolln, who was taught by the legendary Farmer Burns.
Billy Wicks’ wrestling career has been well documented in books, magazines and the Memphis Wrestling Hall of Fame. It’s a fascinating read if you find yourself so inclined. But I don’t want to talk about wrestling, I want to talk about the man I knew long after he had left the ring.
I was introduced to Pops just shortly after my husband and I married but because Jon always referred to him as his grandfather. I didn’t realize until years later that they weren’t actually related by blood. Pops was Jon’s coach.
Sometimes, the English language fails you. “Coach” just doesn’t come close to covering it. Yes, he taught Jon the hooks and holds of CACC, but anyone could see they were so much more to each other than just teacher and student. The two of them would speak on the phone for hours and would video chat often. Because he lived in Asheville, it was close enough for frequent visits and surprise drop-ins.
By the time I met him, wrestling had long since taken a toll on his body and he wasn’t getting around so well anymore. Pops was delighted when we had our boys, always asked after them and sent me baskets of pears every Mother’s Day.
During visits, he would bounce our son on his knee and play the harmonica while mischievously trying to sneak a peek down my blouse. He would reminisce about the good old days in the spotlight and mourn as his wrestling peers began to pass, one after the other.
Now, he’s gone too.
Here at the house, we have boxes of his old trophies, plaques, photo albums and event programs. Framed promotional posters from past matches hang in our living room and candid snapshots of Pops and Jon are taped to our fridge.
I have no doubt he will be remembered throughout the wrestling world as one of the last great old timers in CACC but in my house, he’ll be remembered for so much more — as a coach, a mentor, a grandfather, a friend.
We’ll miss you, Pops.
Kasie Strickland is a staff writer for The Easley Progress and The Pickens Sentinel and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not represent the newspaper’s opinion.