Dead Wrestler of the Week is an occasional feature in which we honor the sport's fallen and examine their legacies. In (belated) honor of Deadspin's Blood Week, we're looking back at the epic rivalry between Abdullah the Butcher and the late Bruiser Brody.
Look at the picture up top. The fat guy on the left is a Sudanese sadomasochist named Abdullah the Butcher. The gigantic guy with the unruly mane and big black beard is Bruiser Brody.
Abdullah's real name is Larry Shreve, though I can't imagine anybody ever calling him Larry to his face. When he started out in Canada, he went by "Pussycat Pickens" for a while, though I can't imagine anybody ever calling him Pussycat, either. He is Abdullah, the Madman from the Sudan, a guy no grasp of English and only a fleeting handle on the rules of the ring. Weirdness and viciousness were his calling cards from the start. He beat people with chairs. He inflicted nerve pinches while chewing absentmindedly on the ropes. He gnawed at opponents' ears and bleeding foreheads, and he bored into them with forks or gouged their eyes with a spike. Even in the context of pro wrestling this was galling. There's no easy way to bloody somebody with an eating utensil, and there's no fun way to lap at somebody's open wound, unless you have unique definitions of easy and fun.
Wrestling is built on a well-rehearsed unreality. The fake fighting has to look "real" in a really unreal way; a certain hamminess is required to meet an audience's expectations of what a fight should look like. It's a little like how Hollywood audiences became so accustomed to stylized movie fights that, after a while, the least-believable punches were the ones without all the editing and Foley Pit sound effects. In movie fights and in the wrestling ring, realism looks weird, a little off. In an artist's hands, it can be terrifying.
Abdullah was so scary because he almost seemed to exist outside of wrestling conventions. He was stilted and crude, and because of that, not despite it, he seemed dangerous. He seemed to stalk the edges of the script. It wasn't so much that his limited offensive arsenal was fearsome—although one would imagine that his judo jab to the throat would have hurt pretty bad—but that, especially when he brought out the gorier parts of his repertoire, he never seemed to be working with any sort of synchronicity with his opponent. (Well, except Bruiser Brody, on whom we'll have more later.) Abdullah looked like a guy trying to hurt another guy.
He didn't have much time to gain any real rapport with his foes. One would like to assume that Larry Shreve was a savvy businessman who knew the best financial decision was to move from town to town with great frequency, a bloody, brawling, one-man circus. One would like to think that, but he was such a convincing character for so many years that it's easy to imagine into Shreve's real personality elements of Abdullah's—which is to say that maybe he really was an unstable beast, available for hire to the myriad bad-guy managers arrayed across America in those days of the territory system, or else simply a wild creature afflicted with an inborn wanderlust. Abdullah would show up in a new territory every few months, seeking to defeat/hurt/maim the region's top good guy and elicit concerned screams from said good guy's more unwitting fans. Abdullah always had a manager at his side because he "didn't speak English," preferring instead to stare crazily at the camera while his manager prophesied destruction from somewhere behind Abdullah's mass. He was a monster, in every definition of the term. One look at the guy and every viewer was petrified. When he got into the ring, things only got scarier.
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Bruiser Brody—real name Frank Goodish—was a college football player at Iowa and later at West Texas State, the latter of which churned out wrestlers in those days the way that botched space adventures produced comic book superheroes: Tully Blanchard, Ted DiBiase, Manny Fernandez, Dory and Terry Funk, Stan Hansen, Dusty Rhodes, Tito Santana, and Barry Windham were all alums. (Maurice Cheeks and Georgia O'Keefe went there too, for the record.) Goodish had a cup of coffee with the Redskins and another brief tour in the CFL before he was discovered by Texas wrestling mogul Fritz Von Erich. He had successful runs though a few of the regional territories until Vince McMahon Sr. brought him in and renamed him Bruiser Brody. It was a simple and apt moniker—not too alien, since, despite his size and viciousness, Goodish wasn't a monster like Abdullah—but nonetheless epic, timeless: Bruiser Brody was a legend from the moment he came into existence. Before long he was in high demand across the country. He was huge; he was powerful. In the ring he seemed near feral, but in interviews he was shockingly coherent, his growl often bordering on eloquent. Which made him the diametric opposite of Abdullah, and in his way, even more frightening—like, wow, this guy has made a logical and empirically sound decision to dismember somebody.
In a run back in Von Erich's WCCW, Brody split with his manager Gary Hart and had his first turn as a good guy, and from there the Bruiser Brody legend only grew. He kept touring, running the road just like Abdullah did, but now he could split his time between the roles of monster villain and godlike babyface. He wasn't exactly a ring technician, but he was an imposing figure and one of the best in-ring storytellers of all time. He could get a near-epic match out of just about anybody he wrestled, and that list of opponents reads like the index in the Iliad: Sammartino, Flair, Bockwinkel, McDaniel, Dick the Bruiser. Whereas Abdullah was a mythic beast whose opponents were made legend by defeating him, Brody wrote the epics in which he featured. Both of them could turn any night at the wrestling show into a major event.
In the AWA, Brody and Abdullah were actually teammates under the guidance of the devilish manager Sheik Adnan Al-Kaissie. But their time in the same corner was short-lived. As their touring routine went on, both men were as big a draw in Canada and Japan and Puerto Rico as they were in the U.S., and they moved around enough that their act didn't get stale. As time went on, they often competed not with the local heroes, but with other transients like themselves. They toured the world, overlapping with a loose troupe of the early originators of the hardcore style—The (original) Sheik, The Funk brothers, Mick Foley—and Brody found himself repeatedly used as the monster hero, the fan favorite against a cadre of monsters like Kamala the Ugandan Giant, The One Man Gang, and, most famously, Abdullah the Butcher. Once Brody and Abdullah started feuding, they could hardly be stopped, territorial separation and ring parameters be damned; one wonders if it was a matter of chemistry or simple physics—gravity bringing and holding the two great masses together. They feuded across the country and world, their hatred seemingly unmoored from regional storylines and unstuck from traditional wrestling unreality. Wherever one of them went, the other was likely to follow, as was carnage.
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On Feb. 28, 1987, the two giants did battle in Hiram Bithorn Stadium, a baseball park in San Juan. (The two men had a Dog Collar Chain Match in the same stadium later that year.) It's one of their later bouts. I don't claim to really know what the storyline was. I don't know that Abdullah and Brody really knew what the storyline was, either, and I'm not sure it matters. They showed up and beat the shit out of each other, just like they always did.
When the video picks up, they're already brawling in the crowd, hitting each other with the folding chairs set up as infield seating. Brody looks as if he's already bleeding. Check out the crowd: The cheers are relentless, unremitting, and yet they're giving Abdullah and Brody space. Imagine that: Fans clearing away from a fake fight the way people dance around the edges of a street brawl on YouTube. It's not a fear of either man so much as it is a fear of becoming collateral damage. When they're momentarily separated, the crowd uneasily orbits a bewildered looking Abdullah, and at 1:30—this is the best moment of the video, lack of violence aside—a mob of zealous boys gathers around Brody as he clutches his bloodied eye, as if to repay him for his inspiration, to will him back into battle.
Back in the ring, the plunder appears: Abdullah's vicious taped spike and Brody's furry boot (which he removes, revealing a simple striped tube sock, Norse god become Average Joe).
By the time they venture back into the crowd—at the start of the second video—they're both near blind with blood. The camerawork—so shockingly competent through the first half of their melee—loses track of them almost instantly, and doesn't regain its bearings for three or four minutes. It's a blurry, grotesque, confusing mess, the two brawlers passing in and out of range and focus like so many legends before them: It's one part Bigfoot sighting and one part snuff film.
At 4:10 they collide in the middle of the crowd and are knocked in separate directions. One expects them to re-engage, but they don't. That's the whole fight. Or rather, that's the whole chapter. The story doesn't end because the story never ends. Theirs isn't a match; it's a mythology.
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Not surprisingly, perhaps, neither man proved a god in real life, and neither grappler's prime would last very long. Brody, ever looking to find use for his mind in a persistently physical world, went back to Texas to become the booker for WCCW. (He soon brought his nemesis Abdullah to join him.) During a brief tour back in Puerto Rico the next year, he was repeatedly stabbed by fellow wrestler Jose Gonzalez (aka the Invader 1)—a close confidante of promoter and star Carlos Colon—while having a "business discussion" in the shower. He died in the hospital the next day. Gonzalez was charged with murder, but the charges were reduced before trial, and none of the American wrestlers on hand that night was brought back to San Juan to testify. After Colon testified in his defense, Gonzalez was acquitted.
Abdullah turned up in WCW in 1991. The onetime force of nature was reduced to a half-offensive comedy prop under the bright lights of the major leagues. He teamed up with Cactus Jack to feud with Sting, and got shocked (not to death, apparently) in an electric chair in a Chamber of Horrors match. I'd say that part was better left forgotten if it weren't so funny. One has to wonder if Brody would've met such an ignominious fate had he lasted. It's easy to imagine him in the WWF, dressed up by Vince McMahon Jr. as a viking or a caveman. (Though I guess it's unclear if he'd have been welcome. His original run with Vince Sr. ended when he got into a backstage fight with WWF mainstay Gorilla Monsoon.)
Abdullah's later career went the way of most regional legends in the modern era: He went on to ECW, to the Ring of Honor promotion, and to a steady stream of independent shows. If that isn't sad enough, try this: He was sued in 2011 by an up-and-coming wrestler who claimed Abdullah infected him with Hepatitis C when he cut both of their foreheads with the same blade. Shreve denied the charges—denied both that he had hepatitis and denied that he had cut the other guy open—but the video contradicts the latter claim and a court-ordered blood test disproved the former. In interviews before the suit, Abdullah seemed detached and glassy-eyed—if not the dead-eyed monster of his early wrestling days, then a mild-mannered shadow thereof. He told one interviewer about the precautions he took against infection. This meant antibiotics, a glass of red wine, and a shower.
Abdullah's great quality was his utter artlessness, and in the end it was apparently that artlessness—the clumsiness that made his pretend-menace feel like the real stuff—that brought his career to a tragic close. Along with Brody and a few other violent, lunatic showmen, Abdullah helped mold the "hardcore" style of wrestling. But Brody and Abdullah weren't like the other guys who developed "hardcore." They weren't just ur-ECW. They were purveyors of an oddly specific sort of realism that wouldn't be suited for the modern wrestling world; they were legends tethered to a fleeting era and a fleeting concept of violence. In Abdullah's case it was a violence so real it could only be translated to the modern world through the oddball comedy that attended his WCW run. In Brody's case, it was a violence so real that it ended up reality.
But go back and watch them wrestle in their heyday, because they were doing something magical. Something legendary. Together they had a sort of brutal chemistry; with others they made you believe, if for a brief moment, that the danger was real. Partly it was their violence, their stiffness, their otherness, but mostly it was the look on the faces of their opponents, who, in their unguarded moments, so often seemed to be trying desperately to get away.
The Masked Man is a guy named David Shoemaker who works in publishing. He also writes about wrestling for Grantland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AKATheMaskedMan. You can find the rest of the Dead Wrestler series here.