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Awesome Men Throughout History: Sputnik Monroe

Anyone in my readership who likes the band Sputnik Monroe (all, what, ten of you?) might be surprised to know that they named their band after a professional wrestler. So logically, it follows that you’d be even more surprised to find out that the wrestler Sputnik Monroe is one of TSB’s Awesome Men Throughout History.

sputnik1Born in Dodge City, Kansas, Sputnik was born Roscoe Monroe, and fought in WWII before starting his wrestling career in 1945 as Rock Monroe. While he wasn’t an unbeatable wrestling machine like Danny Hodge was, Sputnik was still a big roughneck who wrestled in traveling carnivals and took on anyone willing to fight him, which is already a scary proposition before you consider the sort of person who would volunteer to fight a total stranger in a carnival. It’s basically fighting people in bars for money.

Sputnik chose his official wrestling nickname after an angry old lady told him “you’re nothing but a damned Sputnik!” after a match. He had that effect on people; Sputnik was a short, stocky fireplug with a loud, gravelly voice that carried for miles, and introduced himself to people as “Sputnik Monroe, world’s greatest wrestler, it’s your pleasure.” In short, he was a character.

As a wrestler, he became a huge box office attraction in the South throughout the 1950s and 1960s, especially in Memphis where he set attendance records that stood until the WWE’s record-setting hot streak in the late 1990s. Sputnik had a knack for generating publicity, the best example being an incident where he tried to pick a fight with actor Gene Barry (famous for playing Bat Masterson on TV) at the Mid-South fair and ended up getting a black eye from some random cowboy instead. The whole thing made the papers, and Sputnik drew a sellout house in Memphis by challenging the cowboy to a fight; the cowboy wisely didn’t show up.

But Sputnik’s biggest claim to fame, oddly enough, was helping end public segregation in the city of Memphis. Sputnik’s outlandish personality, clothes, and hair (he had jet black hair with one bleached-white skunk stripe down the middle) won him a lot of fans in the city’s black community, even if the city’s white fans hated his guts. Once he realized this, he embraced it, and could often be found drinking in black nightclubs on Beale Street, which got him arrested for “mopery and gawking” (aka vagrancy) and scandalized the city when his behavior inevitably made the papers.

Sputnik upped the ante by being the first white man in the history of Memphis to be defended by a black attorney when his vagrancy charges went to court, and he didn’t stop there. Sputnik was main eventing the Ellis Auditorium practically every week, and insisted that black patrons be allowed to sit downstairs—an area reserved for whites—instead of being squashed into the balcony (also known as the “crow’s nest”). Promoter Roy Welch agreed to this, probably because he didn’t want to turn potential ticket buyers away, and thus wrestling matches were integrated in Memphis, which led to a desegregation of all sporting events in the city.

Sputnik Monroe died in 2006, and although he’s not as famous as he should be, he hasn’t been totally forgotten; his boots and robe are on display in Memphis’ Rock and Soul Museum.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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