A consummate wrestling technician, he has influenced generations of wrestling greats and established himself as one of the great legends of professional wrestling.
Stats: 5′ 9″ 230 lbs.
Real Name: Carl Stevens
By Steve Slagle
Wrestling fans often like to debate over which man is the “greatest wrestler ever.” Generally speaking, it’s a fruitless arguement…but a fun pastime, nevertheless. One wrestler who could truly lay claim to this distinction would surely be the incredibly gifted, multi-talented Ray “The Crippler” Stevens. However, perhaps because he never won the World title and wrestled during an era long since passed, Stevens (a man who is cited by many of his peers as the single best professional wrestler in the world during his time in the business) is often overlooked as being one of sports entertainment’s greatest stars. Notwithstanding his lack of notoriety amongst current followers of the “sport,” the fact remains that The Crippler set a standard of believability and realism inside the ring that few were able to match, and he was unquestionably one of the most influential and important wrestlers in the history of the wrestling business…
He was born Carl Stevens in 1936 and grew up in the Columbus, OH. area. His calling in life came early on, and he began his pro wrestling career in 1951 when he was just fifteen years old. Although his natural talent was evident from the start, the young grappler took the traditional route of a pro wrestler in that day and began at the bottom of the card. Within a few years, though, the young “Blond Bomber” was on the fast track to bigger & better things in the sport. One of his first championships came on May 2, 1956 when he teamed with Don Stevens to win the Ohio Tag Team title. Although their reign was brief, Stevens quickly rebounded by winning the MWA World Junior Heavyweight title on June 14, 1956 in Columbus, OH. He also became the inaugural NWA Florida TV champ on November 21, 1956 (ironically enough, on January 16, 1982 — nearly twenty six years later — Stevens won the title again by defeating Eric Embry) and the NWA Southern Jr. Heavyweight title on November 11, 1957 in Birmingham, AL. The talented young Stevens held the belt for nearly a half year before losing it back to the man he won it from, Japanese powerhouse Tor Kamata. In all, Stevens enjoyed three reigns as the NWA Southern Jr. Heavyweight champion during the late fifties, and his title runs helped prepare him for even bigger things to come…
After moving his base of operations to the west coast, primarily San Francisco, Stevens became the first AWA United States Heavyweight champion (S.F. version) in November of 1960. In all, he won the AWA United States championship seven times between 1960-1968, and established himself as the talent-rich territory’s top star. Whether performing as a popular babyface or a hated heel, Stevens’ natural charisma and in-ring talent always kept his audience enthralled, and his record of sell-outs at The Cow Palace in San Francisco is truly impressive. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, he was a teacher, role model and locker room leader, not to mention being S.F. promoter Roy Shire’s go-to man. With the superlatively talented Stevens there to execute his characteristically complex matches and storylines, the detail-orientated Shire molded the San Francisco territory into one of the most successful & respected promotions in the country during the sixties and into the seventies. By 1969, Shire’s territory had joined the National Wrestling Alliance and the NWA began recognizing what had been the AWA United States championship. Stevens wore the NWA U.S. title twice, thus making him a nine time U.S. champ and, by far, the most dominant titleholder in the once prestigious championship’s twenty-year history.
However, in between his numerous reigns as the United States champion during the sixties, Stevens also picked up several other prominent titles. For instance, along with former enemy-turned-partner Pat Patterson, Stevens captured the AWA World Tag Team championship (later renamed the NWA World Tag Team championship) twice between 1965-1967, holding the belts for a total of twelve months. Another title that added greatly to his credibility as a top wrestler was the IWA World Heavyweight championship, which he also won twice. The IWA belt was a respected World title at the time that was recognized in Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the southern hemisphere. In 1965, Stevens travelled ‘down under’ and defeated Dominic Denucci in Sydney, Australia to win the IWA World title. After losing the title back to Denucci, Stevens then regained the World championship on December 2, 1966 when he defeated Spiros Arion, again in Sydney. Additionally, The Crippler also wore the Hawaiian version of the NWA U.S. Title (later renamed the NWA North American title) in May of 1968.
With the new decade of the seventies came new challenges for Stevens. After dominating the West Coast for an entire decade, and having established himself as one of the elite champions of the day, Stevens moved on to other regions within the territorial structure of the time. Along the way, the perenial singles champion also formed what would eventually become one of the greatest tag teams in wrestling history when he teamed with the up and coming, second-generation star Nick Bockwinkle…
A duo that combined speed, skill, teamwork and experience, Stevens & Bockwinkle immediately gelled, quickly amassing an impressive championship resume together. Their first title came in the form of the AWA World Tag Team championship, which they won on January 20, 1972 by defeating Verne Gagne & Billy Robinson. From there, the reigning AWA champions travelled to the heart of the NWA and scored the Florida Tag championship, which they won on July 20, 1972 by defeating Hiro Matsuda & Tim “Mr. Wrestling” Woods in Tampa. Their run as the Florida champions lasted just a month, however, the point had been made: Stevens & Bockwinkle were a team to be reckoned with. Back in the AWA, the duo continued their lengthy reign until they were finally defeated on December 30, 1972 by the team they had originally defeated to win the championship nearly a year earlier, the pairing of Verne Gagne & Billy Robinson. Less than two weeks later, though, Stevens & Bockwinkle — led by their controversial manager, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan — were once again in possesion of the AWA title belts, as they defeated Gagne & Robinson in a rematch on January 6, 1973. Over the course of the following year and a half, Heenan’s duo ruled over the competitive AWA tag team ranks and, by hook or crook, dominated their opposition like few other teams in the history of the multi-state territory. Eventually, though, the team met their match on July 21, 1974 when they were defeated by the duo of The Crusher & Billy Robinson. Stevens & Bockwinkle’s third and final reign as the AWA World Tag Team champions came on October 24, 1974 when they regained the title from Crusher & Robinson in Winnipeg. From there, they carried the championship belts for another ten months until they were defeated on August 16, 1975 by the legendary team of Dick the Bruiser & The Crusher in Chicago, IL.
In the months following their final title loss, the longtime teammates had a falling out and worked a very successful program against each other, with Stevens being the recipient of the fans’ support in the feud. However, despite the fact that their feud was both lengthy and intense, Stevens & Bockwinkle will be remembered not as bitter enemies, but rather, the most successful duo in AWA history. In all, the team held the AWA World Tag Team title for over three years during the decade of the seventies, making them the longest reigning tag team champions in the thirty-one year history of the promotion. Several years later, Stevens again became an AWA World Tag Team champion when he and his other longtime partner, Pat Patterson, reformed the team that had been so successful in San Francisco years earlier. Stevens & Patterson went on to hold the prestigious tag team title for nearly a full year before losing the straps to Verne Gagne & Mad Dog Vachon (pictured, wrestling Stevens) on June 6, 1979 in Winnipeg.
One of the most prolific champions of the day, Stevens’ collection of titles continues on: he won two NWA Brass Knuckles (Amarillo) titles in 1975, as well as the prestigious NWA Mid Atlantic title when he defeated the high-flying Jim Brunzell on November 25, 1979.
As the eighties rolled in, Stevens continued to enjoy a highly successful run in the NWA’s Mid Atlantic territory, and on March 29, 1980 he captured the NWA World Tag Team title with partner Greg “The Hammer” Valentine. The Crippler and The Hammer were a tough combo, indeed, and they dominated their Mid Atlantic competition. That is, until they came up against the young and incredibly popular team of Ricky Steamboat & Jay Youngblood. Stevens & Valentine were defeated in April of 1980, ending their championship run.
However, under the managerial leadership of Gene Anderson, Stevens immediately came back to challenge the team of Steamboat & Youngblood, this time with fellow Anderson stablemate Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka (pictured).
The Crippler got his revenge against his young foes on June, 22, 1980 when he and Snuka captured the prized title belts. Anderson’s men formed a highly dominent, vicious rulebreaking team that ruled over the talent-rich NWA territory’s tag division for a full half-year before finally dropping the straps to The Masked Superstar & Paul Jones in Greensboro, NC. Two months later, Stevens regained his World title from Jones & The Superstar, enlisting the aid of the mighty “Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff this time around.
Next up for The Crippler was a trip to the Northeast, wrestling for the McMahon family’s lucrative World Wrestling Federation promotion just prior to the regional group’s national expansion. Under the managerial guidance of the infamous Captain Lou Albano, Stevens was a major part of several key WWF storylines during the early eighties and he enjoyed a great deal of success during his time in the Federation.
Eventually though, following a lengthy run with the promotion, it was again time for The Crippler to find his next challenge. The nomadic Stevens once again packed up and moved on to another territory…this time landing back in Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association. The thirty-year veteran was still more than capable of handling himself in the ring, and he enjoyed a good deal of success both in the singles and tag ranks following his return to the promotion. However, he also began making the transition to color commentator during the mid eighties. By the end of the decade, Stevens had retired and become a prominent member of the announce team for the AWA’s ESPN & syndicated programs, as well as appearing on the AWA’s handful of pay-per-views. When the American Wrestling Association ceased operations in 1991, Ray “The Crippler” Stevens retired completely from professional wrestling, after some forty years in the business.
Although he is (and was) widely recognized as one of, if not the most talented performer of his era and a perenial champion, the fact remains that he never wore the premier title of the day: the NWA World Heavyweight championship. Granted, he did wear several versions of the World title, but not the big one, and the reason for that can be traced not to Stevens’ ability in the ring or his mic skills. The true reason he was passed over as a potential NWA champion probably has a lot more to do with who Ray Stevens was as a person.
A man who loved living life to its fullest, Stevens’ passion for taking long hunting trips, racing — and oftentimes, crashing — cars, snowmobiles, boats and anything else that went fast (as well as other extracurricular activities that had everything to do with having fun, but nothing to do with defending the World Heavyweight title) were well known amongst his peers and employers.
Since placing the NWA title on a wrestler was by no means an easy task, the various promoters who selected the titleholder were very cautious when it came to crowning a new champion, and even the slightest hint of unreliability (or even perceived unreliability) was enough to keep a potential champion from “winning” the title. While he no doubt had the talent and ability to become a great NWA World champion, his (at times legendary) love for having a good time was probably also the factor that would keep him from an otherwise sure run with the NWA belt.
Finally, on May 3, 1996, Ray “The Crippler” Stevens passed away following a heart attack; he was 60 years old. A wrestling superstar whose career spanned an amazing four decades, HistoryofWrestling.com is proud to induct a genuine master of the trade, the infinitely skilled & influential Ray “The Crippler” Stevens into the H.O.W. Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame……