He was the biggest cat on the block, and after a highly successful career in professional football, he made his mark in the pro wrestling ranks as one of the sport’s Black pioneers.
Real Name: Ernie Ladd
Stats: 6′ 9″ 320 lbs.
By Steve Slagle
Until the phenom known as Goldberg arrived in the late 1990’s, Ernie Ladd was perhaps the most successful pro football player-turned-pro wrestler in the history of the sport, and one of the most influential “big men” wrestling has ever known. Despite being a nationally famous NFL pro football player (for the Baltimore Colts and K.C. Chiefs, among others) “The Big Cat” — standing 6`9 and weighing 320 lbs. — was not only one of the most successful wrestlers of his time, he was also one of the most hated. Known equally for his treachery and penchant to cheat at every opportunity as he was for his talent and overwhelming size, Ladd was perceived by fans as one of the most dangerous men in the sport. He was also one of the most well-traveled, competing in the AWA, WW(W)F, WWA, NWF and virtually every regional promotion that made up the NWA. Everywhere he went, “The Cat” created chaos and excitement, hatred and admiration — and won plenty of wrestling gold along the way.
Ladd began his pro wrestling career in the early 1960’s in a way that best utilized his fairly well-known name — he wrestled during NFL football’s off-season, playing pro football in the winter, and wrestling during the summer months. However, after a few years of being a two-sport star, Ladd began to realize that to perform well in both fields, one would have to go. Having spent several very successful years on the gridiron, but now facing the end of his NFL career, Ladd chose the still-dangerous (but more controlled) setting of the squared circle. He quickly made the transformation, and Ladd established himself as one of wrestling’s elite even though he was technically a rookie. His nature speed — incredible for such a huge man — athletic build, and sheer athletic talent enabled Ladd to excel at his new profession. His quick interview delivery, and ability to draw (some very intense) heat from the fans was the final ingredient in Ladd’s recipe for success. By the time the 1970’s rolled in, having gained much in the way of experience, Ladd was nearly unstoppable.
“The Big Cat’s” size advantage over his opponents was almost always overwhelming. When he combined his strength, speed, and size with his ever-growing knowledge of wrestling, the result was championship after championship for the ungentle giant. The big man won the NWF Heavyweight title after slightly over a year and a half of full-time competition when (as a fan favorite) he defeated the hated Waldo Von Erich on June 9, 1972. Ladd soon lost the NWF Heavyweight title to Abdullah the Butcher, but it didn’t matter because “The Big Cat” simply went out and won another belt — this time traveling from the NWF to the NWA’s Los Angeles promotion, where he won the prestigious Americas Heavyweight championship. After defeating legendary California grappler John Tolos, Ladd (by now a much-hated heel) held the Americas belt for nearly 6 full months before losing to Victor Rivera on December 1, 1972. But as would be the case throughout his career, Ladd recovered from one title loss by winning a new one — and less than 3 months later, he was once again in a new promotion, wearing new gold. When Ladd teamed with Baron Von Rashcke on February 24, 1973 in Detroit, the hated duo defeated the powerhouse combo of The Bruiser & The Crusher to win the WWA World Tag Team title. Ladd & The Baron formed a very tough team, and held the WWA World Tag title for 5 months before finally being dethroned by the super-team of Dick the Bruiser & Bruno Sammartino.
Ladd’s giant boot to the face (an exciting, unique move at the time), his supreme brawling ability, and his ever-present taped thumb (a lingering “injury” from his football days, Ladd’s taped thumb was a prime weapon, and a constant source of controversy) all added up to success for “The Cat”, and even more championships were to follow. After his stint in the WWA, Ladd returned to the NWF, and scored a pair of NWF North American championships in 1974. After another successful run in the NWF, the nomadic Ladd made his way to the World Wide Wrestling Federation, where he was managed by the late, great Grand Wizard. Ladd challenged WWWF champion Bruno Sammartino for the title, and although he had Bruno near defeat several different times, “The Living Legend” always walked away from his matches with Ladd with his WWWF reign intact. Ladd also engaged in brief but intense feuds with Chief Jay Strongbow and Ivan Putski. Later, when Bob Backlund was WWF champion, Ladd once again returned to the Northeast to make life hell for the young champion. Still, just as Sammartino had, Backlund always managed to retain his title against Ladd — if only barely.
Other important regional championships won by the monstrous Ernie Ladd include the Florida Heavyweight title in 1977, the Arkansas State title in 1978, and the Louisiana Heavyweight title in 1980 & 1981. Ladd was one of the biggest stars the NWA’s Mid South territory had ever known, both as a heel, and even (occasionally) as a “good guy”. In addition to the two Mid South Tag Team titles he won with partner “Bad, bad” Leroy Brown, Ladd enjoyed 4 runs as the prestigious Mid South North American Heavyweight champion. As North American champion, Ladd feuded with the likes of Dick Murdoch, Andre the Giant, Paul Orndorff, Mr. Wrestling II, Mike George, (a very young) Jake Roberts, Magnum T.A., and “The Candy Man” Ray Candy among others.
In 1980, Ladd formed a nearly unbeatable team with fellow giant Bruiser Brody, and the rugged duo won the Central States Tag Team title. After their run as Central States tag champs, Ladd moved back to the WWA, where he won one of the most prestigious titles of his career, the WWA World Heavyweight championship. Throughout the entire year of 1980, Ladd feuded with perennial WWA champion Dick the Bruiser over the promotion’s top prize, with both men winning and losing the title from/to each other. Then in 1981, Ladd moved on to Dallas’ World Class Championship Wrestling, where his winning ways again followed. While in Texas, he won the American Heavyweight title, holding it for 6 months before losing to “The Modern Day Warrior” Kerry Von Erich. Following his loss to Von Erich, Ladd bounced back and won the Texas Brass Knuckles championship in 1981.
But as the 1980’s set in, Ladd’s body — bruised and broken from over 20 years as a professional athlete — began to deteriorate. Rather than slide down the ladder to obscurity like so many others, Ladd simply took himself out of the game. He slowly began to wrestle less, and manage more. His star protégés were the awesome Wild Samoans, whom he led to several titles, including the Mid South and Florida tag team championships. After a successful run as a manager, and a short stint as a WWF commentator, Ladd retired from the sport altogether, ending the career of one of wrestling’s best performers.
However, during his time in the ring, there were few better than Ernie Ladd. His never-ending feuds with Andre the Giant, Dusty Rhodes, Dick the Bruiser and Jay Strongbow are legendary, and drew enormous crowds for the various promotions where he performed. Ladd also set an example for future NFL players searching for an athletic career off the field, proving that there was respect, competition and most importantly, money in the world of pro wrestling. Although his character in the ring was one of a lying, ruthless back-stabber, his real personality was as far from that as could be. A true class act, Ladd was inducted in the WWF Hall of Fame, and now we at the Ring Chronicle honor this legendary athlete as well by adding his name to TRC Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame…