By Larry Matysik
Rip Hawk passed away last week. He was 82 well-lived years old. And anyone who calls himself a true fan of St. Louis wrestling and still has to ask “who is Rip Hawk?” should be ashamed.
There’s no excuse for not at least acknowledging that somewhere, sometime, somehow, you’ve heard about the exploits of Rip Hawk when it comes to St. Louis wrestling. Certainly not every big feud, maybe not all of the great matches, probably not all of his imaginative interviews — but you ought to at least know that Rip Hawk mattered when “Wrestling at the Chase” became both a local and national treasure in the mat world.
It started here, in St. Louis, with an exceptional program based on location, production and – just as important – talent. There was a solid champion in Pat O’Connor, with an arrogant contender like Buddy Rogers. An all-time great like Lou Thesz. An up-and-coming star like John Paul Henning. Other solid main event performers.
And three of the most special talents ever – Cowboy Bob Ellis, Gene Kiniski and – Rip Hawk.
Maybe Hawk was the smallest physically of that trio, but he certainly was just as notable as anyone. Blond, barrel-chested, pointing to his “Profile,” and leaping off the top rope onto hapless foes, Hawk became the guy fans loved to hate.
What really put Hawk over was his interaction with Garagiola, like two bench jockeys sniping at each other all night long. Rip called Joe a bald, broken-down old baseball catcher. Joe pointed out that Rip’s head looked like a soccer ball that popped out of sewer hole. Back and forth, with fans laughing and being hooked.
One time, Hawk and Kiniski were so infuriated by Garagiola’s needling (he was the best) that they jumped out of the ring and chased Joe around the Khorassan Room until the referees restored order.
Actually, that little display made Muchnick furious. He jumped Hawk and Kiniski in the dressing room and let them know in no uncertain terms to leave Joe alone. The wrestlers hung their heads.
Two hours later, at the old Redbird Lanes (Hampton and Gravois) owned by among others Musial and Schoendienst, Sam stopped for a burger on his way home. He heard loud laughter coming from the bowling lanes. Investigating, he found Hawk and Kiniski bowling with – who else? Joe Garagiola.
“Ah, Sam, they’re good guys. I love ‘em,” Garagiola said. But they all kept picking at each other on TV to the enjoyment of fans of all ages and either sex.
It helped build a remarkable audience and left an imprint still felt today on the community.
Since I was only a senior in high school when I interviewed Hawk for The Ring Magazine in the 1960s, I didn’t really get to know Hawk until he came back for a 20th anniversary show of “Wrestling at the Chase” in 1979. I was doing play-by-play on “Wrestling at the Chase” by then. That morning, in a one-hour breakfast with Rip, I learned as much about pro wrestling psychology as anyone possibly could. He was a class act – and a fine human being – all the way, willing to share.
Nobody understood how to draw heat and, more importantly, keep heat than Hawk. So smart, using every tool in his repertoire. Back in the day, he drew big crowd after big crowd – often selling out shows at 11,000 plus in Kiel Auditorium – and really seldom won! But Hawk was so colorful and exciting, that didn’t matter. Johnny Valentine, Thesz, Ellis, Rogers, O’Connor, Edouard Carpentier, Dick the Bruiser, Lorenzo Parente – that’s just a small sampling of legendary figures with whom he had fabulous battles.
After St. Louis, he had moved to the Carolinas and formed a famous tag team duo with Swede Hanson. Rip also served as a mentor to none other than a young Ric Flair, who borrowed many of Hawk’s tactics. When retirement came, he moved to West Texas. For a masterful look at Rip, try “Googling” Mike Mooneyham’s excellent feature article on Rip. It was written just before Hawk died.
The greats sometimes get forgotten. It’s natural. But, for now, let’s try to keep in mind one of those special performers who helped make the sport we all enjoy so much special and strong.
Rip Hawk. If anyone asks who he is, be sure you can tell them.