411 Wrestling Hall of Fame Class of 2012: Gorgeous George
The impact that Gorgeous George has had on Western culture as a whole, let alone its professional wrestling sub-genre, is truly remarkable. In a time when television was in its infancy and the internet didn’t even refer to the inter-netting on the inside of your shorts, George was able to transcend the carnival sideshow of pro wrestling and extend his uniquely glamorous tentacles across America. He provided inspiration to Muhammad Ali, James Brown and Bob Dylan, had an entire movie based on his career, and his legacy remains strong nearly fifty years after his death. His induction into the 411 Hall of Fame is long overdue, and I’m absolutely delighted to be tasked with writing his induction.
His rise to fame is deeply entrenched in the American Dream. Born in Nebraska in 1915, George Wagner’s childhood was rough and difficult, and his journey into adulthood coincided horribly with America’s fall into the Great Depression. His life could so easily have become the plot of a John Steinbeck novel. Instead, it became so noteworthy that the truth became more compelling than fiction. With career prospects sparse, George opted to channel the fighting spirit of his childhood into the wrestling ring, and, having dropped out of high school, started to compete at carnivals in an attempt to support his family. He soon earned a reputation as a tough competitor, and had captured his first championship by the age of 23, but he lacked the spark needed to ignite his career. Then, he met Elizabeth Hanson, better known as Betty.
Were they the most important couple in pro wrestling history? Certainly, all but the most experienced wrestling fans will have fonder memories of Randy Savage and Elizabeth or even Triple H and Stephanie McMahon’s relationships, but without George and Betty those romances may never have made their way into the wrestling ring. They participated in what was, to the best of my knowledge, the first ever in-ring marriage in pro wrestling history, and the spectacle of the affair wooed so many fans that they took to reproducing the ceremony up and down the country. Before such rugged legends of the mat as Stu Hart, Verne Gagne and Billy Robinson had even contemplated stepping in the ring, George was dabbling in fully fledged sports entertainment. But he wouldn’t stop there.
In ring weddings were all well and good, but they couldn’t sustain George’s career, and he still had the drawback of being little more than average in terms of pure wrestling ability. Realising that his flair for the theatrical would carry him further than aiming for mat classics, George threw himself into becoming the most incendiary character of the 20th century. He combined dashing blonde hair pinned back with his infamous “Georgie pins” with a flamboyant robe and the novel concept of entrance music, the regal tones of Pomp and Circumstance accompanying his lengthy travel to the ring. Forty years later, it would do the same for ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage, another wonderful wrestler who borrowed heavily from the Gorgeous One. George relished in dousing the ring, the referee and his opponent in perfume or disinfectant, claiming he would otherwise be dirtied by coming into contact with them. And, when the bell rung, he eschewed good, clean ‘wrasslin in favour of relentless, gleeful cheating. “Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat!” It isn’t the best mantra to live your life by, but it fit the new George Wagner like a glove.
Audiences up and down the country loved to loathe the effeminate bad boy of professional wrestling, and flocked to see him receive his in ring comeuppance. His popularity, or lack of it, sold out Madison Square Garden, garnered George a bout with the treble tough shooter Lou Thesz, and gave him such bargaining power that he was frequently able to negotiate a 50% chunk of the gate for any show he headlined. Technically, his greatest in ring achievement saw him win the AWA Heavyweight Championship in 1950, but for a showman like George championships come second to making history, and it would be a further nine years before he would reach his peak in that regard. On March 12th 1959, he cemented his legacy by participating in arguably the most anticipated match in the history of wrestling up to that point, as he collided with nemesis ‘Whipper’ Billy Watson in front of 20,000 people at Maple Leaf Garden, with hordes more glued to their television set. To the delight of all those watching, George would see his beautiful blonde hair brutally butchered. When it came down to it, the Gorgeous One was more than willing to humiliate himself for the cause. He even crossed over into other aspects of popular culture, starring in 1949 movie ‘Alias the Champ’ and as the mystery guest on popular TV show ‘I’ve Got a Secret.’ OK, he didn’t quite become a superstar of the silver screen as well as the ring in the way that the Rock did, but it’s a darn sight more respectable that Mr. Nanny or Santa with Muscles.
In fact, George was such a wildly popular attraction that many have credited him with spear-heading the rise of the television medium. In the aftermath of World War Two, America’s heroes were the soldiers that won them the conflict. They were the very definition of masculinity, confident, courageous and strong. When these alpha-men returned to America, they wanted a form of entertainment that reflected their personality, and professional wrestling ticked all the boxes, filled as it was by tough, battling, manly men. But George was none of these things. He was cowardly, he was conceited, yet more often than not he came out on top. Fans hated it, but his charisma and magnetism had drawn them in, and they had to witness him take a beating or a defeat. To do that, you could wait for him to come to your local area, or you could purchase a television set and watch him on a regular basis, which fans did in vast numbers. TV sales surged.
Sadly, beneath his fabulous façade George was a troubled character. In reality a shy, mild individual, he consumed copious amounts of alcohol throughout his career in order to pluck up the courage to perform his outrageous actions. As the fifties faded into the sixties his health began to decline, but he was still able to participate in a handful of notable moments. He fell to Bruno Sammartino in one of his final matches, who didn’t do too badly for himself, and his retirement match was suitably spectacular. Coming out on the wrong end of a Hair vs. Mask match with the legendary Destroyer, George found his platinum blond locks shorn once more. Ostensibly, it’s a miserable way to go, but for such a consummate heel pioneer of sports entertainment it seems appropriate that George would leave in such a fashion.
That final match took place in November 1962. Less than a year later, he was dead. A combination of advancing age and a serious liver condition ravaged his body, and when he suffered a heart attack on Christmas Eve 1963 the writing was, tragically, on the wall. George died two days later. He hadn’t even reached his fiftieth birthday.
Why he was selected…
George may have left prematurely, but his legacy endured. The likes of Muhammad Ali and Liberace used his influence to propel their careers to new heights, and the wrestling world didn’t forget ‘the Toast of the Coast’ either. In 1996 he became an inaugural member of the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame, and the same happened six years later with the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. In 2010, George was finally accepted into the WWE Hall of Fame, the most prominent of them all. Despite their divorce and her 97 years, Betty Wagner performed the induction with commendable enthusiasm, reminiscing fondly on the genesis of the Gorgeous George character. Even now, the list of wrestlers whose characters have George in their blood is impressive; CM Punk, Austin Aries, Dolph Ziggler, Damian Sandow, Alberto Del Rio… and that’s just wrestlers in 2012, that I’ve named off the top of my head.
Most if not every professional wrestler to have stepped into the ring in the last forty years owes a debt to the trailblazing Gorgeous George. Never the most physically imposing of wrestlers, nor the most athletically able, George carved his name into pro wrestling folklore with outrageous creativity and a natural charisma unfathomable in the time period. Having inspired the biggest names in professional wrestling and influenced pop culture in a way that no other wrestler of the time period could have dreamed of, Gorgeous George is, in my eyes, the most deserving member of the 411 Hall of Fame, Class of 2012.