Two of the greatest wrestling stars of the 1980s battled in a Fresno ring at the start of the decade — one already a bona fide legend; the other a regional star on his way to becoming an icon.
Off the Bottom Rope
And, a week later, the NWA World Heavyweight champion came to town. It happened Jan. 12 and Jan. 19 in 1980 for local wrestling mogul Pat DiFuria.
Starting in 1979, the longtime boxing promoter held weekly cards at the Wilson Theater in downtown Fresno, dubbed the Wilson Arena for ring events. He imported talent from the Hollywood Wrestling Office, the NWA affiliate that promoted out the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles.
DiFuria jump started wrestling in Fresno after a dark period for a few years when San Francisco-based promoter Roy Shire stopped sending wrestlers outside the Bay Area. He stopped some time around 1981.
Andre vs. Piper
Andre headlined DiFuria’s first card in 1979 and would make occasional appearances. He already had the unofficial title of wrestling’s top touring attraction.
For his bout versus Piper 41 years ago, the Fresno Bee reported an attendance of 1,250 fans, up from the normal 700 weekly enthusiasts.
Piper was a known commodity on the West Coast, main eventing cards for promotions based in Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
He didn’t achieve fame on the East Coast and around the nation until later in 1980. He left for Jim Crockett Promotions based in the Mid-Atlantic region. A year later, Piper began appearing weekly on wrestling on WTBS (as the Atlanta-based Superstation was known at the time).
Back in Fresno, the Bee described aspects of the bout — Piper played his bagpipes before the match; Andre stole the bagpipes to the relief of the crowd; Piper responded by walloping Andre with his belt.
Andre recovers and gets the best of Piper.
“Andre gets the better of Roddy, finally sitting on his back in the ring, striking a Thinker-like pose. And — humiliation of humiliation— Roddy jumps from the ring and runs down the aisle from sheer fear. He doesn’t return,” wrote Dennis Pollock.
Andre and Piper met again when both were in the WWF. A televised bout from the Philadelphia Spectrum in 1984 had a similar result, Andre winning by countout when Piper ran away.
And a Week Later, the World Champ
As if Piper vs. Andre wasn’t big enough, that evening also featured a battle royal where the winner would receive a world title shot the next week.
Surprisingly, Andre did not emerge the victor — he was also known as King of the Battle Royals and won a similar match the night before at the Olympic.
Chavo Guerrero won the 12-man match and faced Harley Race on Jan. 19, 1980 for the NWA World Heavyweight championship.
It was a rare appearance for an NWA titleholder in Fresno. Although the result of that match is currently lost in history, Race remained champion.
Guerrero was the top star in Los Angeles at the time, and part of a large wrestling family that later included brother and former WWE champion Eddie Guerrero, and son Chavo Guerrero Jr., still an active wrestler.
Because of Andre’s Los Angeles battle royal win, he received a title shot against Race the following week, battling to a draw.
Gorgeous George Winds Up 60 Years Ago
Gorgeous George is perhaps one of the most famous names in the history of wrestling, a pioneering star from the first days of television.
Known for his blonde hair and flashy robes, George brought the showmanship to wrestling.
Sixty years ago, George wrestled his penultimate match in Fresno, facing off with former pro football player Shag Thomas at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium on Jan. 14, 1961.
Thomas won the two-of-three fall affair, taking the decider after George quit following a series of headbutts.
Gorgeous George, real name George Wagner, made his final appearance in Fresno later that summer. He died in 1963 at the age of 48.