Ernie Ladd was one cool cat on gridiron, in wrestling ring
"I’m six feet nine, weigh 320 pounds and my feet cover the ground that I walk upon."
The first time that I met Ernie Ladd was in the New Orleans airport in the mid-’70s, where I was sent by promoter Cowboy Bill Watts in a rented car to pick up "The Big Cat," who was booked in a special attraction wrestling match that night in the Municipal Auditorium.
In those pre-TSA days, one could walk right to the gate and meet your party. "E" was not hard to spot. Notwithstanding his immense size, he stepped off the plane and into the terminal wearing a lime green leisure suit with a matching hat and green, snakeskin shoes … size 18 for the record.
Ernie kidded me that Cowboy was a smart man … because he sent a young, white boy to pick up "The Big Cat" in a Lincoln Town Car. "Always keep the talent happy," the biggest man I’d chauffeured said.
Ernie talked in the third person long before Deion Sanders or Dwayne Johnson.
It is said that some personalities have the ability to suck the life out of a room, but "The Big Cat," merely by using his best "cool walk" through the NOLA airport, sucked the life out of the entire facility with his presence and Pied Piper-like charisma.
Everyone wanted to get close to Ernie Ladd.
"It is a fool who looks upon the skills of a wise man and calls it luck."
Ernie Ladd went to Grambling University on a hoops scholarship. He quickly befriended the great Buck Buchanan, and the giant athletes discovered that they had one, specific thing in common: They were always hungry.
Athletic director and head football coach Eddie Robinson made the two a deal — if Ernie would come out for the football team and join Buck on the defensive line, then the athletes would receive a solitary key to the cafeteria’s kitchen at Grambling that they could use whenever they chose.
As Ernie would often say to me when he addressed an issue, "Case closed."
Ernie Ladd became a college football player, and that would lead to an all-star career in the American Football League and then to fame inside the pro wrestling ring.
What makes Ernie Ladd so unique and such a ground-breaking presence within the black community of pro wrestlers is that before Ernie’s debut inside the squared circle in 1961, few if any black performers played the villain. "E" was more than happy to be portrayed as the villain, or the heel, in the reality-based, theatrical presentations. Why? More antagonist angst equated to more money.
Until that time, black athletes were largely content to be mid-card and, occasionally, semi-main event level heroes so as to cause no controversy and to "know their role" as designed by the Caucasian, alpha male promoters and bookers. The promoters considered it too much of a risk to cast a black man as a real life pro wrestling villain, considering the state of race relations during the ‘60s.
Just as Muhammad Ali once told me about his boxing career, Ernie Ladd also knew that he could earn more money getting fans to buy tickets to see his brash, loud-mouth, dangerous self lose than he could attempting to motivate them to perceive him as a fan favorite.
In that era, who’s going to have sympathy for a huge, black man who’s being assaulted by a white heel?
Ernie had no fear of the largely white audiences who took their wrestling much more seriously than the majority of fans today. In other words, back in the day, the moon walk was fake and pro wrestling was real. That was my grandma’s story, and she stuck with it until the day she passed. I never had the heart to tell her any differently.
So, pro wrestling now had a new entity: An African-American heel who demonstrated no intimidation to his jeering audience and for good reason. Ernie Ladd was afraid of no one. Not even death from colon cancer that finally took his life in 2007.
"There are two things that I despise, dogs chasing cars and broken-down wrestlers chasing me."
Cowboy Bill Watts was a former Oklahoma University wrestler and football player in the late 1950s and became a pro wrestling star and then a highly successful owner of a wrestling territory. As a matter of fact, Watts owned interests in multiple promotions, but his Mid-South Wrestling organization was the best-known. Cowboy built a hugely successful territory and then along the way he did the unthinkable.
Watts not only made Ernie Ladd his booker — basically his offensive coordinator/assistant head coach — but Watts also challenged Ladd to make another African-American athlete and former football player, Sylvester Ritter, the company’s biggest star under the name The Junkyard Dog.
Along the way, Watts saw green and plenty of it. However, Watts’ peers within the wrestling world saw another color, that of two black men put into positions of power in a successful wrestling territory.
Watts endured a plethora of negative telephone calls from fellow promoters who questioned Cowboy’s wisdom and complained that now they would have to treat their handful — there was an unwritten quota — of black performers differently or the skilled black wrestlers might want to come to work for Watts.
At the end of the day, Ernie Ladd, as the territory’s booker, proved to be brilliant. Ernie overcame several racially charged, alpha male, white wrestling stars who had issues with taking orders from a black man. Ernie used his common sense and street smarts to craft believable story lines that the ticket-buying public could understand and with which it could relate.
Soon, Ladd’s detractors were earning more money than many had done previously, and the racial conflict wasn’t the issue that it had been. This included a top star or two that were card-carrying members of the KKK.
"E" molded, under Watts’ leadership, JYD from being an average in-ring talent to becoming a major star within the world of pro wrestling and, arguably, the biggest box office attraction of any man of color until the Rock came along in the late 1990s.
Every other Wednesday night in the small, Irish McNeil Boys Club in Shreveport, La., before approximately 100-150 fans, Mid-South would produce two, one-hour, syndicated TV shows. That meant that Watts, Ladd and I would convene in Watts’ hotel room on Tuesday nights to write the broadcasts.
Then pro wrestling essentially had one priority, selling tickets to live events. I would listen to these genius minds create magic and by about 10 p.m., after five or so hours of a most unique creative session, we would adjourn.
That’s when the territory’s most famous domino game would commence.
In my room … often until daylight.
Two men … a younger, Caucasian Oklahoman who had never grown up around black people and whose rural, eastern Oklahoma county even had a law on the books as late as the latter part of the ‘60s that "a black man could not see the sun set in the county" and an older, black man who had seen it all as it related to race relations and segregation.
An odd couple indeed.
Those nights in Shreveport, where my room would fill with smoke and the smacking of dominoes on a table, were some of the best days of my life. Not only did I learn invaluable life lessons that I still use, but I also was educated on the fine art of pro wrestling psychology by a master strategist.
I had the greatest African American Studies teacher that one could ever imagine. Every time that I see the esteemed and wise Dr. Cornel West on "Real Time with Bill Maher," I think of "The Big Cat."
Ernie fought for the rights of AFL All-Stars when black players were treated unfairly in New Orleans by hotels and restaurants in the early ‘60s, which prompted the AFL All-Star Game to be moved at the last minute from NOLA to Houston. Ernie Ladd was one of the most vocal leaders of that movement.
Our domino rivalry was one that grew in stature within the territory. That was likely the only "field" that I could sufficiently compete with the 1995 inductee to the WWE Hall of Fame. Like any great heel, when I would occasionally win one of our marathon domino sessions, it was because I cheated, which naturally built to the rematch two weeks later.
I received a nickname for my domino prowess from the former Charger, Chief and Oiler. I became "The Junkfood Dog." At that point, I knew that I had earned Ernie Ladd’s respect, which is one of the biggest accomplishments of my life.
From presidents like George H.W. Bush, who sought Ernie’s counsel, to the AFL becoming more aware of their black athletes thanks to Ladd’s efforts, to swimming in great-white-infested wrestling waters, he also taught a rural Oklahoma country boy the true meaning of respect among all people no matter the color of their skin.
"Put another piece of steak on that plate because you’re feeding ‘The Big Cat’ Ernie Ladd and not that scrawny, little husband of yours at home."
Yep … The Big Cat was bigger than life.
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