As a kid growing up in the Twin Cities, Verne Gagne's American Wrestling Association (AWA) was king, and his combatants were larger than life. Of all the grapplers who participated in what one Minneapolis newspaper columnist once coined as the "grunt and groan" show, there was no one more colorful than Milwaukee's own Reggie "Da Crusher" Lisowski, who died over the weekend at age 79. During my formative years, Da Crusher personified the rough and tumble sport with a quick one-liner and a wink of his eye. He was the consummate entertainer, and he always let us in on the joke.
I was 13 years old in 1972 when I paid my first visit to the Calhoun Beach Manor in Minneapolis, home of WTCN-TV studios and "All Star Wrestling." The Twin Cities was the hub of wrestling and from there the AWA spread out to include such cities as Milwaukee, Chicago, Rockford, Winnipeg and Denver.
The small studio audience worked itself up into a frenzy as announcer Roger Kent stood in the center of the ring and introduced "the one, the, only, the Man Who Made Milwaukee Famous, The Crusher!" Da Crusher worked the studio like a politician. Clad in purple trunks and black boots and smoking his trademark stogie, he shook hands with the fans and kissed a few old ladies as he worked his way ringside and flexed those "20 megaton" biceps in front of the camera.
He then quickly dispatched some scrub opponent such as Kenny "Sodbuster" Jay or Torpedo Guzman with his patented finishing hold, first the stomach claw and in later years, the dreaded haymaker he called the bolo punch. In actuality, the punch looked more like a love tap, but it still sent his foe falling to the canvas, or as ringside announcer Kent would say, "he went down like a wet noodle."
Then came the best part -- the interview with Marty O'Neill and then his successor "Mean" Gene Okerlund. Da Crusher, the king of ad lib, would talk about how he would "murder da bum," and celebrate after the match with some beer and "dollies" at some local Twin Cities watering hole. He would brag about carrying two kegs of beer from Milwaukee to the Twin Cities only to run out by the time he reached Eau Claire. On a rare occasion, he would flex his vocal muscles with a rendition of "Good Night Irene." That was Da Crusher, always true to his blue collar Milwaukee roots.
I think you get the idea. Wrestling back then was family entertainment, fun and harmless, and for me, Da Crusher, was the personification of Milwaukee.
It's been said that old wrestlers never die, they just use more rest holds. Such was the case with Da Crusher and his contemporaries Mad Dog Vachon, Baron Von Raschke, Larry "The Axe" Hennig, Blackjack Lanza, Bobby Heenan, Nick Bockwinkel and the kingpin of upper Midwest wrestling for more than three decades, Verne Gagne -- all warriors of professional wrestling who plied their trade in the squared circle in smoke-filled arenas throughout the upper Midwest. These grapplers wrestled, in some cases, into their 60s and had the battle scars to prove it: cauliflower ears (from innumerable headlocks) and scar tissue on their foreheads (yes, they actually took "the cut" to create the requisite blood bath, a staple of virtually every main event).
Wrestling has always been sports entertainment, a battle between good and evil where both the plot and the outcome were predetermined in advance. Yet there was a simplicity and innocence about the brand of wrestling Da Crusher and his cronies practiced. Unlike today's racy WWE and overly juiced grapplers and its army of writers, Da Crusher didn't need writers to script his interviews or etch his persona. He was a man of the people, comfortable in his own barrel-chested physique and wrestling boots.
In 1997, Da Crusher made a rare appearance at a local sports memorabilia store, and the line to get his autograph wrapped around the block. I took my five-year-old son to meet my childhood idol. Da Crush didn't disappoint. At 71, he still possessed formidable guns and he playfully checked out my son's biceps, or as fellow wrestler Jesse Ventura would call them, "garter snakes." My son probably didn't appreciate the moment, or waiting in line, but he indulged his old man and gave him a brief moment to revisit a part of his youth. It's a part me and countless other baby boomers gladly relived that day.
While the City of Milwaukee has flourished beyond its blue collar roots to include a rich and vibrant arts and cultural scene, Reggie Lisowski, aka Da Crusher, holds a significant place in the city's history. It's now time to give the "Man who made Milwaukee famous" a well-deserved three-bell salute.
Visitation is today, 4-8 p.m. and Friday, 9:30-10:30 a.m. at Molthen-Bell & Sons Funeral Home, 700 Milwaukee Ave., in South Milwaukee. Funeral Mass is Friday at 11 a.m. at Divine Mercy Catholic Church, 1304 Manitoba Ave., also in South Milwaukee.