#5. Tim Woods Breaks His Back in a Plane Crash, Stays in Character
In October 1975, a Cessna 310 plane crashed while transporting a promoter and four wrestlers to a match in North Carolina. One of the wrestlers on board was Tim Woods, also known as Mr. Wrestling (presumably because he spent all his imagination on "Mr.").
Woods suffered a concussion, bruised ribs and a compression fracture in his back. But all he could think about as he lay in the wreckage was "This could lead someone to find out that wrestling is fake!"
You see, another wrestler, his archnemesis and scheduled opponent for the evening, Johnny Valentine, was also on the plane. He suffered a back injury so severe that he was paralyzed for life. But what really matters here is that the crash could mean that people might find out they had been traveling together.
Tim Woods was one of the industry's most popular good guys at the time, while Johnny Valentine was a reviled villain. Good guys can't chum around with bad guys -- that would be like Skeletor pedaling a tandem bike with Prince Adam. So while Woods was being rushed to the hospital after surviving a plane crash that killed one man and paralyzed another, the first thing he did was give a different name and lie about who he was (he pretended he was a promoter instead of a wrestler) so as not to ruin the illusion. And that wasn't all.
You see, despite this, rumors still began to circulate that Mr. Wrestling had in fact been in a plane crash with Johnny Valentine, so Woods did the only logical thing: He wrestled two weeks after the crash and acted like his back wasn't broken. You know, to prove he hadn't been on that plane.
#4. Nelson Scott Simpson Legally Pretends to Be Russian ... for Eight Years
When Nelson Scott Simpson first broke into the wrestling business in 1984, he was told that his new character was going to be named "The Russian Nightmare" Nikita Koloff, because by the mid-'80s hating Russians was at a career-making high. Since Simpson had very little wrestling training to speak of, he decided to overcompensate by completely immersing himself in his character, including legally changing his name. Sort of like if Dolph Lundgren actually changed his name to Ivan Drago and actively tried to kill Carl Weathers whenever he spotted him at social events.
So, Simpson legally changed his name to Nikita Koloff, actually learned to speak Russian and pretty much refused to say more than 11 words of Boris Badenov-strangled English in any situation. That's right -- for an entire year he didn't speak anything but Russian, because he wanted wrestling fans to believe that he was a newly arrived Russian immigrant still getting a handle on how to sputter out enough English to earn a chorus of boos.
So, to be clear, he was pretending to be fluent in a language he was still learning, while pretending to be learning a language in which he was fluent:
He didn't drop the act once the cameras were off, either -- Simpson refused to speak English in public under any circumstance, not even in his normal day-to-day life. Instead, he had someone pretend to act as his interpreter for anything that required him to interact with other people, including renting his goddamned apartment.
As American-Soviet relations improved, Nikita Koloff actually became a beloved good guy by the end of the 1980s. But Simpson still never broke character, right up until his retirement in 1992. By that time, Simpson was so immersed in Nikita Koloff that he didn't stop speaking with a Russian accent for two more years, and even had his own birthplace listed as Lithuania on his child's birth certificate.
#3. George "The Animal" Steele Lives With Separate Wrestler and Schoolteacher Alter Egos
Intelligent, well-spoken James Myers worked as a physical education teacher at a high school in Madison Heights, Michigan. During the summers, however, he worked another job to supplement his income: He would travel to New York and wrestle as George "The Animal" Steele.
And as far as anyone else was concerned, James Myers and George "The Animal" Steele were two completely separate individuals. That's right -- for 20 years, Myers never once acknowledged that he was "The Animal," and nobody around him knew he was a famous wrestler in his off hours.
This wouldn't be possible today, obviously -- the Internet would track him down within 30 seconds. However, back in the 1970s, the Internet didn't exist, and the wrestling business was divided into separate territories. Detroit had its own territory, and so did New York, which is where Myers would make all his appearances as "The Animal." The only way anyone in his home state could ever see him as George "The Animal" Steele would be in a wrestling magazine. Or, you know, if they drove to New York.
Occasionally, one of his students would mention the suspicious resemblance between "The Animal" and their PE teacher. To shut them up, Myers would retort, "Do you really think I'm that ugly?"
#2. Wrestlers Get Arrested for Refusing to Break Character
The brothers Afa and Sika Anoa'i were born in American Samoa, which may be the world's number one breeding ground for professional wrestlers. They spent most of their careers working as a successful tag team called the Wild Samoans, who on TV were presented as savage, feral lunatics who ate raw fish and tore apart chickens with their bare hands. They would only grunt in a primitive dialect, and their manager, Captain Lou Albano, did all the talking for them.
One night, the Samoans wound up hitching a ride with Hulk Hogan, who, at the time, had a lot less star power and a lot more body hair. According to Hogan's autobiography, he and the Samoans were pulled over by a state trooper in New Jersey. When Hogan reached into the glove box for his registration, the gun he had just purchased on his way up from Florida tumbled out. In New Jersey, an unregistered handgun carried a mandatory one-year prison sentence at the time, so Hogan and the Samoans were ordered out of the car and handcuffed (by the sturdiest policeman in history).
Hogan begged the Samoans to explain that he didn't know about the firearms law and that this was all a big misunderstanding (because who could resist a pair of adorable Samoans?). Afa and Sika, however, refused to say one word.
If you listen to this interview, you'll know that Afa and Sika both speak perfect English, but since they had never done so on TV, they remained absolutely mute while being taken into custody. Even though the gun didn't even belong to them and they hadn't actually done anything wrong, they never said one word in their defense or Hogan's. The Wild Samoans figured it was better for the three of them to go to jail than break character.
#1. The World's Most Famous Masked Wrestler Refuses to Take Off His Mask ... for 40 Years
Back in 1942, Rodolfo Guzman Huerta donned a silver mask and cape and became his alter ego, El Santo, the most famous wrestler in the history of Mexico and the country's biggest pop culture icon. Santo was a folk hero and a symbol of justice for the common man, and his popularity extended to comic books and a cornucopia of terrible movies. Once Santo's appeal started to transcend wrestling, Huerta knew that his silver mask was the key to the character's success. So he made sure to never, ever take it off ... for 42 goddamned years.
Santo made sure he was never seen in public without the mask on -- not during appearances, not in movies or on television, not even when he went outside to get his newspaper. This made for a bitterly inconvenient half-century.
Santo carried around a separate set of masks for certain occasions. For example, it was impossible for him to eat anything while wearing his traditional mask without it looking like his mouth was having a miscarriage, so he had a special "mealtime" version he could change into with the chin cut away. Whenever he traveled to a film shoot, he'd make sure to take a different flight than the crew, so that none of them could see his face when he was inevitably required to remove his mask to get through customs. Once, Santo was driving from Mexico into Texas with a producer, and he demanded that the man turn his head and look away so he could take his mask off for the border agents.
Even after retiring from wrestling, Santo still kept his identity a secret for over a year before finally revealing his face for the first and only time in his long career. He must have sensed that his time was growing short, because Santo died of a heart attack just over a week later, and was buried in his trademark mask.