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Wednesday, Mar 29, 2017

Remembering the world’s most dangerous wrestler

If you love old-school professional wrestling — when cauliflower ears were considered a badge of honor and “Georgie Pins” were coveted souvenirs — the days of watching matches on black-and-white television sets or going to grimy arenas are precious memories.

No hype. No music. No glitz. No internet sites, bloggers or chat rooms to keep up with the latest news or spoil story lines. The name on the marquee back then still said wrestling, to borrow a phrase.

That old-time feeling is preserved in the wrestling books put out by Scott Teal and his publishing company, Crowbar Press. Crowbar has produced books on wrestlers like Jack Brisco, Tony Atlas, Stan Hansen, Don Fargo and Lou Thesz. The latest is about a pro wrestler whose mean looks and voice “like a ruptured foghorn” made him a top draw for three decades.

William Afflis, who was better known as Dick the Bruiser.

Author Richard Vicek, with an editing assist from Teal, presents a fun and clear-eyed look at an iconic wrestler. In “Bruiser: The World’s Most Dangerous Wrestler” (Crowbar Press; paperback; $22.95; 238 pages), Vicek digs deep into the Bruiser’s past, interviewing colleagues, friends from school and teammates from his days in the National Football League with the Green Bay Packers.

The cover alone is worth it. A scowling Bruiser (I can’t bring myself to use just his real last name; I mean, who knew, back in his prime?), cigar stuck in his mouth and a championship belt around his waist, was the epitome of intimidation. He was a brawler, and fans and opponents alike knew it.

It’s becoming more apparent now how many famous wrestlers also doubled as promoters or bookers, a silent secret back in the days of kayfabe. Verne Gagne was running promotions in Chicago and Minneapolis, Fritz von Erich worked Texas, Stu Hart was based in Calgary, Eddie Graham ran the Florida promotion, and Buddy Fuller had his hands in promotions of matches in Florida, Alabama and western Tennessee.

And Dick the Bruiser was running a promotion in Indianapolis, where he also starred in main events. Meanwhile, he’d travel to Chicago to wrestle in that circuit on nights when his promotion was idle.

In his first foray as a biographer, Vicek makes good use of public records and newspaper clippings to fill in the details of the Bruiser’s early life, and the book is liberally sprinkled with photos from his youth until the end of his career. Bruiser’s mother, Margaret Atkinson Afflis, worked many years as the state’s director of probation and the women’s prison board. His father, Walter William Afflis, died when Bruiser was a junior in high school. Margaret’s archives proved to be a valuable resource.

Vicek does a good job tracing the Bruiser’s life, although some areas remain murky. As a rule, many wrestlers keep the details of their personal lives fuzzy, which, during their careers, is a cautious and smart move. For example, little has been reported of his daughter Judith, born in 1949, or his second wife Elizabeth and another daughter, Karen, born in 1952. Vicek concedes he was unable to find any information on Elizabeth or Karen.

I decided to research some records. I did find a December 6, 1954, listing for a 2-year-old girl named Karen L. Afflis, who was a passenger on a Navy ship, the USNS General W.O. Darby, bound from New York to Bremerhaven, Germany. The person listed above her on the manifest was her mother, Elizabeth A. Duckworth, and both were living in Columbus, Indiana. Their expected stay in Germany was listed as three years.

The Carson City, Nevada, marriage index shows that Elizabeth Afflis married Harry R. Duckworth, who was serving in the Army, in August 1954. They were separated in 1963 and divorced in January 1967, according to Virginia divorce records. Elizabeth worked as a secretary at the Pentagon at the time of the divorce. Elizabeth would marry Thomas Jefferson Jimmerson in 1970 in Woodbridge, Virginia. She died in Lee County, Florida, in 1991. Public records show Karen lived in Fort Myers around the same time.

Karl Afflis, the Bruiser’s son by his third marriage, died in 2009 at the Florida State Prison in Raiford, three years into a 15-year sentence for robbery. It was his second term in prison, also for robbery. Louise Afflis, Karl’s mother, at last report lived in Pinellas County, Florida. There remain two condominium properties in her name in that county, according to property records.

Louise is still alive and living in Indian Rocks Beach; an interview with her would have been valuable, especially since she was part of the Bruiser’s promotion operation and was married to him during his greatest years as a wrestler. But while he reached out to her for an interview in 2010, Vicek said Louise refused to talk. The wide-ranging research and interviews with fellow wrestlers, bookers and competitors more than compensates. Plus, Vicek did multiple interviews with Bruiser’s former son-in-law, Tim Replogle, and was granted access to his archives. Replogle has wrestled as Dick the Bruiser Jr. since 2000. Other researchers also contributed with interview material, some of them archival from wrestlers who have been long dead. Vicek also interviewed Bruiser’s classmates from grammar school, high school and college.

He also sorts out the confusing timeline Bruiser put out about his college football career.

The book’s photos of former wrestlers and match cards are priceless. If you are fan of wrestling in the pre-WWE days, these photos will jog your memory in a nostalgic way.

Despite the tough guy image he cultivated and reveled in, Bruiser still had a soft side. He gladly worked in charitable events, like the March of Dimes telethon, and would go out of character to sign autographs for children.

Vicek, who lives in Palos Hills, Illinois, and works for an independent government agency, does a nice job reviewing the life and times of Dick the Bruiser. I’ve always written that pro wrestlers tell the best stories, and the interviews from “Bruiser: The World’s Most Dangerous Wrestler” confirm that. The book is aptly titled, and a nice addition to the shelves of pro wrestling fans and historians.

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