Johnny Walker was one of the lucky few who was able to have two successful different careers within a single career in the same business. After about fifteen years working as a journeyman grappler, he donned a white hood with black face trim to become one of the most recognized wrestlers in history.
His professional career began in 1956 working the occasional card in Hawaii where he was raised. Tony Morelli and Pat Oâ€™Connor were the main two wrestlers to take Johnny under their wing and train him.
In 1958, Walker left the islands for his first full time opportunity in the business. Having spent the majority of his life in Hawaii, Toronto was culture shock. â€œWhen I got off the plane there for the first time, I almost turned around and got back on because it was so cold. I got off that airplane in a Hawaiian suit. I thought I was going to freeze to death. I was not a happy camper.â€�
Despite his initial concerns, Johnny stayed in the area for a few months and soaked it all in. Oâ€™Connor was in the territory, and so were people such as Don Curtis, â€œLord Athol Layton, and Hard Boiled Haggerty (Don Stansauk).
By 1960, Johnny moved on to work for Vince McMahon alongside guys like Gene Kiniski, Don Leo Jonathan, and a very young and cocky Bruno Sammartino. One day while training at the gym, Walker taught Bruno that â€œa smaller guy can beat you if youâ€™re not careful. Strength is not everything. You have to have good balance, coordination, timing, and leverage.â€�
It was those traits that led Houston promoter Paul Boesch to dub Walker with the â€œRubbermanâ€� moniker. â€œOne day he was watching me wrestle, and I was extremely flexible at the time. He liked the contortionist moves that I made with my nimble body.â€� The nickname remained with him for many years as he wandered from territory to territory.
He spent a lot of his time in the 1960s working for Nick Gulas, who most wrestlers avoided at all costs because he was known as a bad paying promoter. â€œI had a good deal with him. He gave me good guarantees and it worked out alright. I was on top and did well there. A lot of the guys Iâ€™ve spoken to say he wasnâ€™t a man of his word, but he kept his word with me.â€�
While in Tennessee, he had successful tag team runs with Silento Rodriguez. Rodriguez â€“ who was legally deaf â€“ and Walker had good chemistry despite the lack of verbal communication. â€œHe just kind of followed suit to what I did. He watched me physically and just kept up with me.â€�
He also began working in Georgia during the 1960s and was paired often with Jim Wilson, when the former UGA football All-American was working in the business during his off-seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. â€œI took him down to the gym and kind of stretched him a little bit and showed him he didnâ€™t know as much about wrestling as he thought he did.â€�
Walker worked in many territories during that decade. He had stints in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Texas, Portland, and Calgary. But his biggest break came in 1972 when he went to wrestle for Eddie Graham in Florida. â€œEddie wanted to bring me in as the Grappler. He knew my background and thought I would fit in well there with that gimmick.â€�
However, Johnny didnâ€™t take to wearing a mask all that well initially. â€œIt was very difficult to work with. The first time I wore it, as soon as the match was over I ran back to the dressing room so I could rip it off. I was gasping for air. But I got used to it eventually, and I was very successful with it.â€� Successful, indeed.
After Ray Gunkelâ€™s unexpected death following a match in 1972, a shift in Georgia occurred. Nearly everyone working for the Atlanta office went to work for Rayâ€™s widow â€“ Ann Gunkel â€“ and her new All-South Wrestling Alliance, which set off one of the biggest promotional wars ever seen in the business.
As a result, Atlanta promoter Paul Jones needed to rebuild his company. With assistance from Eddie Graham and Jerry Jarrett among others, wrestlers came in from other areas until the promotion could get back on itâ€™s feet. One of those wrestlers happened to be Johnny, who was nearing the end of the Grappler gimmick in Florida for Graham.
Leo Garibaldi, a booker in Georgia during the 1960s, returned to Atlanta. He wanted to bring Tim Woods back as Mr. Wrestling, with whom Leo and the company had great success in 1967-68. However, Woods was working for Graham and was on top at the time, and Eddie was not ready to part with him in the midst of a strong run. He did agree to bring in Woods occasionally, but not as a Plan A project for the rebuilding process.
So instead Garibaldi and Graham came up with a Plan B: to create second Mr. Wrestling. Enter Johnny Walker. â€œLeo asked me to come here and take the mask to become Mr. Wrestling #2. He felt I could be the man to fulfill the situation.â€�
The next fifteen years gave Johnny the level of success that eluded him during the previous sixteen. With the new opportunity, he and Tim Woods became one of the most fondly remembered tag teams in Georgia history. â€œTimmy was one man I thoroughly enjoyed working with. We never had any arguments or disagreements, and that kind of partner you donâ€™t find very often.â€�
Regardless whether he worked with a partner or went solo, Johnny â€“ along with Bob Armstrong, one of the few holdovers who refused to go to All-South â€“ was the major focal point of the rebuilding process. He had many great matches during the war feuding with Buddy Colt, Bill Watts, and even Mr. Wrestling #1. â€œAnytime the NWA champion came through Georgia the top man was supposed to meet him for the title and they always booked Tim instead of me. So I basically put it out there that I felt I had just as good a chance of winning the belt if theyâ€™d just give me the match.â€�
The feud lasted nearly a year, and fans were torn on who to side with, but in the end the hatchet was buried â€“ literally. â€œAfter it was all over we went on TV and I congratulated Tim for agreeing to face me to give me the opportunity to wrestle the champion, and then suggested we bury the hatchet. Thatâ€™s of course when I put the hatchet down and we became partners again.â€�
Aside from pitting the two partners in a feud, it led to a series of bouts with Jack Brisco for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. â €œWe had a lot of one hour broadways together. It was quite a thrill working with that guy. He was a hell of a wrestler.â€�
The remainder of the 1970s saw Johnny become one of the most popular wrestlers with the fans. It didnâ€™t hurt his exposure that Georgia Championship Wrestling was on satellite and cable television systems due to the visionary efforts of Ted Turner and WTCG (which later came to be known as WTBS or TBS). It also made him a much sought after commodity by many promoters, and occasionally he would take a break from Georgia in order to come back with a fresh start.
One of those promoters was Bill Watts, who ran one of the hardest traveling territories. â€œI enjoyed working for Bill. He was not hard to work for, so I went out there and got over like gangbusters. It was the longest trips in the world, but I did well and went over well there.â€�
Among the other programs Walker worked in 1970s Georgia included feuds with Pak Song, Harley Race, the Andersons, and the Spoiler. Still, perhaps the best two were against Jody Hamilton â€“ the original Assassin â€“ and Bill Eadie â€“ known as the Masked Superstar.
â€œBill was a good wrestler and he knew his way around the ring. He was one of the best opponents I ever went up against. I canâ€™t say enough about the man. You had to be on your toes at all times with Jody. I found myself actually eating dirt sometimes, but that goes with the territory. He was a tough guy.â€�
In the 1980s, as the business started to change, Mr. Wrestling #2 still kept going strong in Georgia, and made a return trip to Mid-South to work for Watts. There, he got into a program with Magnum T. A., where Walker mentored the young Terry Allen. The angle was that Magnum was starting to get shots that Johnnyâ€™s character thought he should be getting, and #2 turned heel for the second time. It was one of the best executed angles in that time frame, and Walker played a heel perfectly.
As the territories began to dissolve, with the World Wrestling Federation taking over most of the landscape, Johnnyâ€™s career began to draw to an end. In 1993, he was inducted into the World Championship Wrestling Hall of Fame, and rightfully so â€“ he wrestled for more than thirty years and had become an icon to fans of at least two generations.
One of those fans was President Jimmy Carterâ€™s mother Lillian. â€œLillian was probably my biggest fan. She thought the world of me. She asked Fred Ward if she could have an interview with me. He agreed to it and called me if I would be so gracious and ride with the Sheriff down to Plains. President Carter was there and we had a pleasant visit. I spent a few hours there and did the interview. She was a beautiful person.â€�
She even went so far as to invite Johnny to the White House back in the 1970s during her sonâ€™s term in office. Of course, Johnny being so secretive with identity in order to protect his character was not allowed entry. â€œShe invited me to the inauguration, and they refused to let me in because I refused to take my mask off. After all, it was my livelihood. It was an image that I had created and I didnâ €™t want it to be destroyed.â€�
Not only was Johnny protective of his own characterâ€™s true identity, but he didnâ€™t like when others took advantage and used the name of Mr. Wrestling. In 1979, he made Joe Powell well aware of his dislike for the use of the name. â€œI didnâ€™t like the guy doing my thing. I taught him a lesson in the ring, and I think I convinced him I didnâ€™t appreciate it. I think he did wind up doing it again after I quit the business, but what can you do?â€�
In Georgia during 1983, a similar situation arose when Jesse Barr began using the name Mr. Wrestling, at the same time Johnny and Woods were having their final run before Tim retired. â€œWe took great pride in our image that we had built. We looked down and frowned upon anyone who tried to capitalize on it.â€�
A little known fact at the time was that most of the robes fans saw people wearing to the ring â€“ including Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, Paul Orndorff, and the Masked Superstar among others â€“ were handmade by Walkerâ€™s late wife Olivia. â€œShe was a designer â€“ a dress designer, but she could make anything. She was a wonder woman.â€�
Johnny had a tremendous career, and these days he mostly spends his retirement in Hawaii, although he does occasionally make special appearances around the country because of his love for his fans. Despite his love of the quiet life and a passion for golfing, Johnny recently began working with Hawaii Championship Wrestling, training youg wrestlers.