There’s an interesting play of imagination that has to happen when one is a child when all narrative details and ways of the world are not entirely at hand, to fill in the gaps.
For instance, how was it that a main stage player, it seemed to a young me, from WCW in 1995 and into 1996, was wrestling another wrestling legend in my hometown’s high school gym in the Fall of 1997? As Jake the Snake Roberts, raised about 12 miles down the highway from my home, was the face opponent, the young me assumed that the One Man Gang, aka Akeem the African Dream, was doing a favour to ‘ol Jake, wrestling Jake’s home area.
It was a while probably before I realized the naiveté of that assumption. In reality, Jake had relapsed after his “born again” gimmick in the WWF in 1996 that put over Stone Cold at King of the Ring and was back in the frontier leagues wrestling high school gymnasiums in a few towns, not just ours. What had George Gray, One Man Gang’s real name, done to get the demotion? Considering it would be only four years before OMG was in the Gimmick Battle Royale at Wrestlemania X-7 with the likes of Iron Sheik and Michael Hayes and Kamala, the answer is quite simple: the business had passed George Gray’s gimmicks by.
If you first came to Gray as a wrestler from the gimmick switch in the WWF from One Man Gang to the racially insensitive Akeem “the African Dream” Dusty Rhodes parody gimmick, you might question why a young me ever thought the One Man Gang was a mainstream player. McMahon saddled Gray with the controversial dancing white guy from Africa gimmick, it is usually one of the first things recalled about Gray’s long career (I guess I did it too).
But I was born in 1983, and ten or eleven before I was aware enough to seek out wrestling on television on my own. My enjoyment of the Hulkamania early PPV period in the WWF then came by way of renting tapes of the previous years from my local video store. The wrestling I tuned into weekly, that I couldn’t get enough of, was early to mid-1990s WCW.
Imagine then a twelve-year-old seeing the WCW bring in One Man Gang, a guy I recognized from those early PPV tapes of the late 80s, who had thrown my favourite Jake the Snake out of the first Royal Rumble, and within a short window seeing the WCW put the United States Heavyweight Title on Gang, OMG booting Yetti/Super Giant Ninja from the Dungeon of Doom, seeing OMG booked into a non-title match with Hulk Hogan on Monday Nitro, and watching Gang survive to the last with Macho Man Randy Savage at the first-ever World War 3 60-man battle royal for the vacant WCW World Title. Get what I’m saying? One Man Gang was a central heel in 1995 and 1996. Knowing that he also had his WWF run and had eliminated Jake from a Rumble made Gang seem like an awesome force in pro wrestling to me.
In reality, that Dungeon of Doom angle was mercilessly mocked by wrestling media and more mature wrestling fans. That US Title reign was really just a screw job to get the title off a non-contracted Japanese wrestler that didn’t want to give up the belt only to give it over to another international star, this time from Mexico, a short time later. When he did get a successful title defence on Clash of Champions, it was against the joke gimmicked Disco Inferno. That match against Hogan on Nitro was one more attempt from the dying babyface Hogan to recapture the old WWF formula of beating up bigger, uglier comic book characters that were no longer working with the WCW fans.
I still hadn’t really wisened to that perspective or purview of wrestling history by the fall of 1997. So Jake the Snake versus One Man Gang in my hometown high school gym was a big damned deal. It remains a fond memory, and why now, twenty-three years later, I think about and wish to celebrate George Gray on his sixtieth birthday.
And he should be remembered beyond that Akeem parody business. First, we don’t actually have many survivors who wrestled for all the major brands in the transition from the late territory days to the rise of the WWE monolith in the ashes of the Monday Night Wars—in fact, I’m not sure if there are any. But Gray certainly made a tour through most of them. He started as independent as independent gets, wrestling simply as 6’9”, 400-pound “Crusher” Bloomfield. Trained by the likes of Chief Jay Eagle and “Rattlesnake” Westbrooks in the Carolinas. From that start in the late 70s through the late 80s, he wrestled for the major promotions Mid-South, World Class Championship Wrestling out of Dallas, Bill Watts’ UWF, and the Memphis mainstay USWA.
It was under the guidance of legendary manager Gary Hart (if we are to believe Hart’s autobiography) that Gray developed the One Man Gang persona. Hart, a guy from a tough Chicago neighbourhood himself, remade Gray in a kind of Road Warriors without the Mad Max gimmick Chicago street tough guy, complete with mohawk, head tattoo, and biker garb. He was billed from “Halsted Street” in Chicago and carried a big chain. It popped well for the late 80s and early 90s wrestling.
Eventually, looking for one of a bevvy of aforementioned big ugly goons for Hogan to beat, Vince McMahon snatched up the One Man Gang for the WWF. There, as mentioned, McMahon couldn’t restrain himself from mocking Dusty Rhodes, the legendary NWA draw that McMahon simply viewed as a white guy trying to move and dance and talk “jive” like a black man. So, the One Man Gang was turned into Akeem, the African Dream. Skits “from Africa” that just involved busted down streets and trash fires were run to reveal the new heel. It was simply mean spirited and racially insensitive crap.
However, Gray still found himself as a main stage player. He was paired with the Big Boss Man as the Twin Towers, and, as any WWF Hulkamania fan worth their salt knows, was central to the dissolution of the friendship between Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage that played out in the run-up to the epic battle between Hogan and Savage at Wrestlemania V. It was in a match against the Twin Towers that Hogan and Macho finally “exploded.”
He was enough of a player that after his 80s run in the WWF Gray was one of the wrestlers picked for 1992’s Stay Tuned, a wide-release movie about a family trapped in a Hell-version of their own television where “Murder, She Wrote” becomes “Murder, She Likes,” “Wayne’s World” becomes “Duane’s Underworld,” “Diff’rent Strokes” becomes “Different Strokes” (literally just different people having strokes), “My Three Sons” becomes “My Three Sons of Bitches,” and so on. The World Wrestling Federation was of course parodied as The Underworld Wrestling Foundation. George Gray, perhaps perfectly capturing that cartoony image of bad guys in mainstream 80s wrestling, worked well for the scene.
That though, as the mid-90s would play out, was a bygone era in pro wrestling. Soon to come would be wrestlers with less gimmick dominating the scene (Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels), and, as mentioned, by the time he was redressed for the WCW, fans weren’t interested in the comic book style baddies featured by the Dungeon of Doom.
Again, the most memorable aspect of Gray’s run when I was watching WCW as a kid, was his defeat of Kensuke Sasaki for the US Heavyweight Title. To me, it was the WCW putting over a dominant heel. After all, Sasaki had beaten my main guy, Sting, to get that title.
In reality, Sasaki was difficult for the WCW to handle, as he was really just on borrowed time from Japan in a cross-promotion. Sasaki was unwilling to drop the belt back to WCW. To screw him, WCW booked a 2 out of 3 falls match on Saturday Night against OMG. Gang got the first fall, then Sasaki got the next two, assuming he won the match. Thing is, WCW only aired the first fall and never mentioned it as a 2 out of 3 falls match on the broadcast. For the viewer, Sasaki had lost clean and quick to OMG.
When WCW partnered with Konnan’s AAA promotion from Mexico, OMG was booked to lose the title to the incoming Konnan. Losing to Konnan was to boost Konnan’s credibility in the American promotion. From then on, he was just another Dungeon of Doom goon until he left the promotion in late 1996. Right around the time when the nWo and “reality” based storylines were pushing “gimmicks” to the side. To complete the tour of major promotions, One Man Gang did pop up in 1998 and 1999 in ECW to feud with Shane Douglass, Sabu, and Rob Van Dam.
His mainstream send-off was the Gimmick Battle Royal in 2001, though Gray continued to pop up for occasional independent and “heroes of wrestling” style shows through the early 2010s.
These days you can find a slew of shoot interviews on YouTube with George Gray on the business, on the wrestlers themselves. And I think, as we honour the man on his sixtieth birthday, that’s exactly the way it should be. He is a survivor that toured both the territories and the major promotions, who was booked into storylines and wrestled matches with the absolutely most legendary in this business. Thank Gawd we are documenting his stories about it now.
Happy birthday Gang, from a fan.
You can find me on Twitter @gritvanwinkle.