Saturday, June 20, 2009

Wrestling's Unsolved Mysteries: The Finisher that Killed Two Wrestlers-Or Did It?

In an industry purposely mired in mystery, it's no surprise that professional wrestling has its share of mysteries that continue to puzzle its fans. Even with the explosion of shoot videos and tell-all books, fans still talk about some of wrestling's unexplained happenings, wondering what really happened. Join me now as I explore wrestling's unsolved mysteries, legends, and conventional wisdom to uncover the truth. Today, we'll look at a death that some attribute to a savage beating that supposedly took place in the ring and try to solve the question-did Ox Baker kill two men in the ring with his finisher, the heart punch?

The human heart is an amazing creation. Comprised of a special muscle known as cardiac muscle, the heart is said to beat 100,000 times a day, pumping oxygen and nutrients throughout the body along a sophisticated pathway of arteries, veins, and capillaries. Surprisingly, this magnificent organ is just the size of a fist.

Ironically, a blow from the fist of a trained man can destroy all the work of a heart. Legends abound of special individuals capable of delivering blows to the heart capable of stopping it or even ripping it out. Most of these stories are discounted as exaggerations or outright falsehoods but in the case of wrestler Ox Baker, some believe that there is more to these tales than just hype. According to some people, Baker's finishing move the heart punch, ended lives of two of his opponents.

The heart punch is a wrestling hold rarely seen today. However during the 1970's, Stan "The Man" Stasiak used it to great effect, winning many matches and distinguishing himself by its use (Stasiak would go on to win the World Wide Wrestling Federation Championship from Pedro Morales albeit not with the heart punch but with a suplex). The heart punch was based on the theory that the user knew where to strike an opponent so that his heart stopped momentarily, typically resulting in a knockout to the user's opponent. Looking back at this move, it seems like a great move to deliver a hold without actually doing any harm to an opponent.

As Stasiak's fame grew with his use of the heart punch, it was only a matter of time before other wrestlers began using it. One such wrestler was Ox Baker, a scary looking monster of a man (billed as 6'5" and 350 lbs.) who resembled a cross between Godzilla and Satan. This imposing figure enhanced his fearsome aura by adding the heart punch to his repertoire. The inclusion of the heart punch in his arsenal not only added to his reputation as a monster heel but it labeled him as a killer after not one, but two opponents died shortly after receiving the heart punch.

Despite wrestling's worked nature, injuries still occur. Between potatoes, missteps, and the wear and tear of working night after night, wrestlers suffer injuries, oftentimes working through them but sometimes having to take time off to recuperate. However with very few exceptions, deaths in the ring are unheard of. That is why the story of Ox Baker and his heart punch has captured the imagination of wrestling fans for decades.

Born Douglas Baker, the man who would become known in the ring as Ox Baker began his grappling career during the early 1960's. Trained by Buddy "Killer" Austin, Pat O'Connor, and Bob Geigel, Baker was ready to hit the big-time and hit it he did, quickly establishing a name as a fierce brawler who terrorized the territories in singles and tag team action. Typically a heel, the Ox worked in the American Wrestling Association (AWA), various territories of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), and even the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF). However nothing would prepare the fans for what reportedly happened in June of 1971.

The scene was Omaha, Nebraska. Baker, alongside his tag partner the Claw was in a match against Alberto Torres and "Cowboy" Bob Ellis. Torres was well-known as one of the Torres Brothers, a much-adored babyface team made up of (real-life) brothers Enrique, Ramon, and Alberto. At stake were the AWA Mid-West Tag Team Titles. Little did anyone know that Torres life was also at stake. During the match, Baker was said to have delivered his heart punch to Torres, knocking him out. Torres was rushed to the hospital where he died three days later.

Baker's reputation as a killer in the ring only grew stronger when he downed another opponent for good in 1972. The Ox was feuding in Georgia with Ray Gunkel, a rugged competitor as well as the co-owner of Georgia Championship Wrestling. During the match, Baker delivered his much-hyped finisher but this time, Gunkel persevered, winning the match. However the heart punch took its toll as Gunkel collapsed later that night. Once again, the heart punch had claimed another life.

Or had it? While promoters hyped Baker's heart punch as the catalyst for Torres and Gunkel's deaths, what really happened is different than what was said to have happened. Professional wrestling has always been known for its tasteless angles so it's no surprise that some promoters capitalized on two deaths in order to build up a wrestler's reputation as a true killer. It's hard to think of a better way to build up a finisher than to point to two guys dying from it. Baker's official website even acknowledges his history:

Ox Baker's Heart Punch made Head-Lines in 1970, when he wrestled a man by the name of Alberto Torres. Baker hit Torres with the Heart Punch and Torres dropped and did not get back to his feet again. He was rushed to the hospital where he later died. It turned out that he had a ruptured pancreas, but didn't disclose it to the wrestling promoters before the match. Baker's Heart Punch was not the 100% cause of death. Then in 1975, Baker's Special Move made Head-Lines again. This time Ox was battling Ray Gunkel in a Texas Death Match. Baker hit Gunkel with the Heart Punch and Gunkel was dead before he hit the floor. Incidents like these made Ox Baker a feared man in the ring.

With all due respect to Mr. Baker, the facts surrounding Torres' death are much different. First off, Baker was not originally "credited" with killing Torres in the ring. That dubious honor went to his partner The Claw. Steven Johnson and Greg Oliver's book The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams discusses how promoter Joe Dusek tastelessly credited the Claw with Torres' death, earning the scorn of a local sportswriter. The reality is that Torres died from a pre-existing condition-a ruptured pancreas. This ticking time bomb exploded that night during the match, ending Torres' life and career. As time passed, Baker was credited with causing Mr. Torres' death. Exactly when this happened is unknown but it wouldn't be a surprise if it happened after the death of Ray Gunkel.

In the case of Ray Gunkel (who died in 1972), the legend actually fits the facts. Baker did hit the heart punch on Gunkel during the match that took place on the night of Gunkel's death. After Mr. Gunkel's death, doctors discovered that the fallen wrestler suffered from a life-threatening case of arteriosclerosis. This arteriosclerosis made it possible for a worked heart punch to actually kill Ray Gunkel. Piecing the evidence together, doctors believe that Ox Baker's (worked) heart punch formed a blood clot in Mr. Gunkel's body, leading to his death later that evening.

So while there's no evidence to support the idea that Ox Baker's heart punch really killed Alberto Torres, there's little doubt that the heart punch did in fact kill Ray Gunkel. Where fact becomes legend is the idea that Baker's heart punch was routinely capable of killing opponents. Promoters took two deaths and spun them into a tale of a finishing move so deadly that it ended not only two matches but two lives.

Given the public's tendency to find conspiracies in everything, it's quite surprising that more has not been said about Ray Gunkel's death and whether or not he was actually murdered in the ring. After Mr. Gunkel's death, the Georgia promotion was thrown into turmoil with what is known as the "Battle of Atlanta". The Battle of Atlanta was a promotional war between Gunkel's ownership partner in the Georgia territory and Gunkel's wife Ann (who inherited Gunkel's share of the promotion). Ann Gunkel was forced out of the Georgia territory but retaliated by launching a rival promotion. Eventually the NWA teamed up with the owners of Georgia wrestling to put Mrs. Gunkel's promotion out of business (a fascinating story that you can read about in Jim Wilson's book Chokehold). It really surprises me that no one has tried to make the case that Ox Baker was hired to put Ray Gunkel out of action so people could move in on the Georgia territory (I don't think this actually happened but given the crazy rumors that go around in wrestling, you'd think someone would have suggested it).


Larry Stoy said...

The article claims the match took place in Omaha, but in fact it wasn't. I was at the card in Omaha on June 12th when Alberto & Ellis defended their Midwest Tag Team titles against Ox Baker and Ali Ben Khan. The next day, Alberto & Ellis wrestled in the small Nebraska town of Vertigree against Baker & The Claw.

It is often misstated that Baker's Heart Punch was what caused the death of Torres, but from I've been told it was another move that lead to Alberto's injury that would later take his live. The move came when Baker was holding Alberto in a full nelson and The Claw came of the turnbuckle (either the 2nd or top. Claw landed on Alberto's chest, which caused internal injuries that lead to Alberto's death.

Torres spent several days in the hospital before passing away.

Anonymous said...

I was at the match in Verdigre Nebraska on June 13 1971. I was a 9 year old kid who got autographed pictures of both Alberto Torres and Cowboy Bob Ellis before the card started It was during our towns annual celebration.

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