The wrestling industry is one that is never short of shocking anecdotes and stories. Even now, in a climate where the capacity to shock seems to have been greatly diminished by global events, scandals involving wrestlers still make headlines. The industry is closely scrutinised, more so in the wake of recent tragic incidents involving some of the biggest names in the business. Curiously though, one example seems to have been largely forgotten about in Wrestling’s checkered history despite involving the murder of one of the industry’s true pioneering stars. I refer, of course, to the strange circumstances surrounding the death of Frank Goodish AKA Bruiser Brody in 1988.
The 1970s were a time before Wrestling had moved into clearly defined characters with their own idiosyncrasies and instead archetypes were sufficient to generate a reaction from the fans. Performers could be easily pigeonholed into their appropriate category, which was more often than not dictated by their physicality more than anything. Always popular with fans would be the “big man brawler”, their sheer size and brutal, street-fighting style – usually a product of their physique being inappropriate for pure technical wrestling – were an easy sell with the blue collar. Promotions quickly looked to trump each other as to who could attract the biggest, strongest and most menacing to their rosters. It is in many ways a trend that still exists today.
This was advantageous for the young Frank Goodish whose large build had enabled him to satnd out at College football, turning professional in 1968, and making the taxi-squad of the Washington Redskins. It was clear though that he wasn’t going to progress and he left the squad to ponder on his future. As it happened there were several modest wrestling promotions springing up that offered a quick buck for those that could come in and do the job. He made his debut in 1973 under the pseudonym “Bruiser Frank Brody” and was quickly warmed to by the crowds who always liked to see a big man in the ring. Although it was before he had a clear defined persona, Goodish immediately grasped the theatricality required and would play the part of a pantomime monster to good effect, gurning and growling his way through matches much to the delight of his audience. Although quickly in demand he remained a freelancer, but did most of his work for the National Wrestling Alliance. It was here, after forming a tag-team partnership with Stan Hansen, another footballing hopeful, that he would win his first belt, claiming the NWA Western States Tag Team title.
By now he was called simply Bruiser Brody and had started to build something of a cult following. His repertoire of high-impact, low-finesse moves were not an entirely original concept, but his levels of physical fitness and the pace with which he could deliver them gave them a new element that hadn’t been seen before. All his moves that built towards his coup-de-grace, a running knee drop, were all in themselves miniature feats of strength, not least of all his penchant for the one armed body-slam. However, despite rival promotions all wanting to offer him exclusive deals, he remained a freelancer and continued to wrestle across several promotions, winning several belts and building up a significant fanbase as a result of this diversity.
In 1975 one of his matches had caught the eye of the respected Walter “Killer” Kowalski who was establishing himself as one of the main heels in the WWWF. Something of a bruiser himself he saw the potential and spent some time trying to persuade Vince McMahon Sr. to bring him into the federation. Eventually, he relented and Goodish accepted and it didn’t take long for him to go over with the fans. The long-standing champion Bruno Sammartino needed somebody new to feud with after his ongoing spat with Kowalski and Bruiser Brody was in the right place at the right time. After a string of matches building up the newcomer, it wasn’t long before he was in headlining matches against one of wrestlings all-time greats and he performed some of the best work of his career in these matches. Of course, Sammartino being the face of the promotion wasn’t going to lose, but many rooted for the big man anyway, even if they weren’t supposed to. After losing the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship match there seemed to be a shift in Brody’s attitude. He had always refused to sign long contracts with anyone he wrestled for, in a bid to avoid being tied down and not cut his own chances profit. Now he was flat out refusing to lose to other wrestlers and was deviating from pre-scripted outcomes in the ring. It was the cardinal sin of the industry and made him immensely unpopular with his colleagues and indeed the management at the WWWF. Although still a big draw with fans, it wasn’t to last and he left the company in 1977 amid various rumours and accusations.
Some said that his refusal to sign a long-term deal was the issue as it was becoming standard practice for the star talent to do so as the WWWF attempted to protect its investment. Others speculated that it was the fact that he simply could not be placed into any scripted or viable storyline – after all, how do you create a realistic feud with anyone who refuses to either lose, or appear vulnerable, at any time? There were also accusations of professional jealousy, with Jim “Kamala” Harris saying in 2002 that Brody and Gorilla Monsoon could not work together because “Monsoon did not like other big men who were over with the fans.” The reality is that wrestlers who were known for being difficult would often find themselves out in the cold and ones that were difficult and popular with the fans would be the most disliked of all workers, their status affording them a degree of protection they probably didn’t deserve.
It was to prove no different when he was given the opportunity to wrestle out in Japan, where the sport enjoyed a huge following and world stars would be handsomely rewarded for their participation. His ring entrances by this point were as spectacular as anyone’s in the business, without the need for pyrotechnics. He would typically enter through the ringside crowd, swinging a chain round his head and bellowing unintelligible noises while Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” would blast out at high volume. It would whip the fans into a frenzy before he had even got into the ring.
In a time when the term “hardcore wrestling” is often synonymous with the likes of Mick Foley and Terry Funk, it is worth noting that Brody could easily be considered the performer that popularised this style. Often he would take part in matches that had props to be used on him as weapons, or in environments that were more dangerous than a standard ring. He revelled in being seen to soak up the punishment and still defeat his opponent with blood streaming for strategic head wounds. It added to his myth, created a believable dimension to the notion that he was an unstoppable monster. Certainly he had no issue with this new extreme presentation so long as he remained victorious and some of his matches in Japan featured some previously unseen levels of gore.
After a biding war broke out between New Japan and All Japan Pro Wrestling to secure his services, he had somehow become the highest paid wrestler in the world, earning $14,000 per week in a time before the “superstar” era. His signing to New Japan even made front page news in the country. His spell in the promotion was cut short though when once again he refused to put a rival wrestler over with the fans. Antonio Inoki was the person who founded the federation and also had a huge following, but Brody wouldn’t play ball. As such their feud was somewhat farcical in nature, their matches ending in no contests or disqualifications to avoid either one having to concede to being the lesser man than the other.
Of course he would always find a way back into the promotion. He was simply too big in terms of box-office in Japan not to be a serious consideration. Even if he only did one or two shows, those would be the ones you could guarantee would sell out. When it seemed he had pushed his luck too far in 1987, when he was blacklisted from Japanese promotions for failing to turn up to a tag team title tournament, he was still back in the country within the year. Not that it mattered too much to Brody. There were other places he was as equally revered and could make as much money. Whenever he pushed his luck too far in Japan, he would go elsewhere while it cooled down. But by 1987 he was almost exclusively working for the Word Wrestling Council in Puerto Rico, enjoying high profile feuds with Abdullah the Butcher and the Puerto Rican legend Carlos Colon. Still, even here in what could have been a haven from the politics, it was the same story. He had made a lot of enemies in the dressing room and there were some who not only refused to work with him, but there were those who wanted him out of the promotion altogether.
This duality of being revered by fans but disliked by his fellow professionals was one that would ultimately define his career and one that would play a part in the events surrounding his death. On Jul 16th 1988 the man known as Bruiser was set to wrestle Dan Spivey at the Juan Lobriel Stadium at Bayamon, Puerto Rico. He went in the shower before his match and was joined by José Huertas González, a wrestler known as Invader #1. Whilst both were in there Brody was stabbed several times, with enough force to piece his lungs and liver, and the big man was left bleeding in there for some time.
The relationship between the two seems to be equally shrouded in mystery and no coherent explanation of a motive for his stabbing has ever emerged. The only credible reason seems to have been revealed by a brief exchange between Tony Atlas and Brody. Atlas seemed to be under the belief that Brody had bought a controlling interest in the promotion. Whether or not this was the catalyst behind the situation that occurred was never established, not in court or out of it. Yet the fact is that conversation took place only two days before the stabbing. As Atlas was quoted as saying to Tapout Zine:
“The only thing I remember about Brody was that two days earlier Brody had said to me ‘Tony, I finally got in’. Whatever that meant, he didn’t say but I think he meant he got shares in the WWC, I know he wasn’t talking about wrestling there. The only people who really know what happened are Brody, Jose, and Carlos.”
Although details of what happened in the shower have never fully been confirmed, not even remotely through the subsequent botched police investigation, the one fact that we can all agree on is that Gonzalez definitely stabbed Brody. He admitted to such under the mitigating circumstance of self-defence. But the fact is that the investigating police were met with a wall of silence from the fellow performers who were in the dressing room that night. They refused comment on such small and trivial details as who had been in the shower, who went in first or second… None had heard or seen anything. It is also stated by Atlas that Brody lay there injured for some time, his fellow professionals ignoring his pleas for help. Whether the second part is to be believed or not it is clear that Bruiser’s lack of popularity played a part in his death.
Atlas, who would offer his services as a witness, was one of the few forthcoming with any information:
“Jose came over to Brody. Carlos, Jose, and Victor Rica were sitting in a huddle, but only Jose came over to Brody. Brody had his bag in one hand and Jose tapped him on the shoulder and they went into shower. Everyone else was watching me draw. Then Brody hollered. I ran into shower, grabbed Brody and laid him on floor. Brody said ‘I’m hurt brother don’t let him hurt me no more’. The cops came in, asked what happened. I told cops ‘that guy over there stabbed that man’. The cops said they have different story and said a fan did it . They asked everyone in that locker room what happened, and they all denied seeing it.”
In the end, the combination not only of the time it took to get an ambulance on the scene, but also a lack of decent medical care lead to Brody’s death. He died of blood loss while doctors tried to operate on him. It is said that the amount of aspirin based painkillers he would take between performances thinned his blood and prevented clotting. He was declared dead before his proposed match and the rest of the workers refused to perform. The 25,000 stadium was packed to capacity and the audience were all told their tickets would be honoured next week. It wasn’t announced why and the fans went home without knowing what had happened until it hit the front pages the next day.
The police investigation was a farce and was documented as such. Tony Atlas, who had given a statement and said he witnessed what had happened was never called to give his version in court. Wayne Keown, known as Dutch Mantel, was also expecting to give his version of events in court but that never transpired either. As he said in his account:
“I was told by the detectives that Jose Huertas Gonzalez would be charged with first degree murder and advised me that when the time for the trial came, I would be subpoenaed and transported back to PR to testify. They told me that airfare and hotel would be arranged for me and that security would be provided. That’s what they said. However, that’s not what they did. I was depressed when I left PR and even more so when I got back to Birmingham. If you’ve ever been to Birmingham, you’d know what I mean. I told my wife in detail everything that had happened. She told me that nothing would be done to Jose Huertas Gonzalez. I got mad at her. How could something not be done? I told her to wait and see. I waited, and I saw that she was right. I got two separate subpoenas for the trial. The first trial date was postponed. The second trial was scheduled for January 23-26, 1989. I still have my subpoena. It was issued 1\3\89 but according to the post date was not mailed until 1\13\89. That meant that it laid on somebody’s desk for a full 10 days. Remember the trial was to start on January 23rd? I received the subpoena on January 24th. I had already heard the verdict by the time I opened the subpoena. I never heard from the detectives again, not even to this day.”
After just one year Gonzalez was acquitted on the grounds of self-defence. The Puerto Rican judicial system differs from others in that a jury does not have to be unanimous, but a verdict can be given by a simple majority vote. In the absence of any witness testimony against him, and amid accusations of corruption, Gonzalez walked without any further punishment. He maintained the story that he tried to fight off a physically superior opponent who wanted to kill him by any means necessary, yet that story does stand up to any scrutiny, or tie in with anything that anyone else said surrounding the killing.
The verdict did cause a small backlash with many high profile wrestlers refusing to work in Puerto Rico as a result of it, but in time things got back to normal and the tragedy was largely forgotten about. Jose Huertas Gonzalez continued to wrestle, even holding belts, and amazingly he still enjoyed a strong following in Puerto Rico up until his retirement in 2006. He has since expressed an interest in moving into politics.
Bruiser Brody was a larger than life creation, an entertainer that wouldn’t conform to anyone else’s set of standards but his own. He was meant to be a villain, yet his natural charisma and exuberant performances would draw fans to him and his popularity never waned with the fans he had given so much to. He wasn’t liked by his fellow professionals and in many cases this was with good reason, but the man behind the persona felt this was a necessary sacrifice to preserve the purity of his character and to give the fans what he felt they wanted. Because make no mistake, as much as what he did was for Frank Goodish, it was as much for the fans as anything. A whole generation of those fans were robbed of seeing a performer who at 42 still had something to offer the world of wrestling and we will never know why.