Ernie Ladd wrestled for a number of different wrestling associations, including the World Wide Wrestling Federation where he was managed by The Grand Wizard of Wrestling and was also known for his immense size and power.
Few pro wrestlers were as universally despised as the Louisiana-born WWE Hall-of-Famer “Big Cat” Ernie Ladd, considered one of the first (and all-time best) African-American wrestling villains. His look, his athleticism and most of all his charisma made him a star everywhere he wrestled, from the Superdome to Madison Square Garden, from Toronto to Tokyo.
But before his run in wrestling, Ladd was a pro football player, and it was here in New Orleans that he made civil rights history by organizing the 1965 AFL All-Star boycott, an unprecedented and history-making collective response to a long weekend of racist abuse.
Beyond its effect on our city’s efforts to land a franchise football team, the boycott was a watershed event in our linked local legacy of racism and our rising tourist and event economies. When restaurants and bars close during Essence Fest, when gangs of plainclothes police target and attack black teenagers during Mardi Gras or when NOPD selectively enforces “curfews” in the French Quarter, they’re just maintaining a long tradition of segregation, working to keep our city’s hospitality‐and Bourbon Street in particular‐a white folks’ playground. 50 years ago, Ladd was one of those who wouldn’t stand for it.
The Biggest Man
Born in the tiny town of Rayville, Louisiana, Ladd earned the nickname Big Cat back in his football days for his uncanny speed, a particularly impressive trait given Ladd stood a legit 6 feet 9 inches and weighed over 300 pounds. He was part of the first Grambling State University football team to win a conference championship and was a loyal, lifelong supporter of the school.
His pro football career included stints with the Chargers, Chiefs, and Oilers. Profiled by Ebony in December ’62 as “The Biggest Man in Pro Football,” he was at one point the game’s highest-paid lineman. He won a 1963 AFL Championship with the Chargers, was a three-time All-Pro selection and a four-time American Football League All-Star.
After his involvement in the 1965 All-Star boycott, Ladd remained outspoken. A September ’66 piece in Jet Magazine addressed the “howling buzz” over Ladd’s refusal to cut his beard despite the league commissioner’s order to do so, as well as Ladd’s criticisms of the then-recent AFL-NFL merger, which Ladd said would diminish players’ salaries and give too much power to team owners.
Jim Ross, pro wrestling’s greatest announcer, was a friend of Ladd’s and says Ladd was “one of the most vocal leaders of that movement” that organized all-pro players, both black and white, to boycott New Orleans. Ross, writing for Fox Sports’ website in February of this year, also describes Ladd as a teacher, working interpersonally to improve his white colleagues’ understanding of racism. “I had the greatest African American Studies teacher that one could ever imagine,” Ross writes of his time with Ladd. “Every time that I see the esteemed and wise Dr. Cornel West on Real Time with Bill Maher, I think of ‘The Big Cat.’”
After a career as a wrestler that included headlining the Superdome against André the Giant, Ladd also broke new ground working behind the scenes as a booker in our local Mid-South territory run by “Cowboy” Bill Watts, the same territory that set precedent by booking a black wrestler, The Junkyard Dog, to be its major star. Pro wrestling in the United States was (and largely remains) owned and controlled by whites; it was unheard of for a territory to have a person of color booking matches or a black champ atop the talent roster, but Mid-South had both.
Bill Watts and Ladd bonded in part because of their strong born-again Christian religious faith. Watts, whose writing style is heavy on ellipse, says in a devotional essay on his personal website, “[Ladd] taught me so much about ‘being black’… as he explained, no white man can understand, because we cannot walk in a black man’s shoes… we shared so much together… he blessed my life… he touched my heart!”
Hated in the Nation
All that was behind the scenes. In front of the camera, Ladd was a divider, not a uniter. Especially during the civil rights era, it wasn’t hard for Ladd to rile up most white audiences just by being a black man who spoke loud and acted proud. But as a villain, Ladd’s job was to turn everyone in the audience against him, not just racist whites. He accomplished this by getting on the microphone and speaking contemptuously of other minorities, including other black people, often using outrageous and racially derogatory language to make sure every last ticket-holder in the arena was dying to see somebody, anybody, come shut the Big Cat up.
On the rare occasions Ladd was a good guy, usually upon entering a new wrestling territory, it was almost always so he could team up with a popular, more established local wrestler whom he would then betray, setting up a feud. It was an angle he worked multiple times across the country with Bobo Brazil, Chief Jay Strongbow, Tony Atlas, Cowboy Bob Ellis, and Dusty Rhodes, a schlubby, Bill Clinton-type white soul brother.
In a sold-out July ’77 championship match against Rhodes at the Tallahassee Sports Stadium, with thousands turned away at the gate for lack of seating, Ladd cheated his way to victory. In video of this match, as the angry shrieks of the crowd escalate into pandemonium, Gordon Solie, another all-time great wrestling announcer, says with wry calm, “You can hear the fans now indicating their complete and total disapproval of this man Ernie Ladd.”
Even beyond his athletic accolades, including inductions into the WWE, WCW, AFL and Louisiana Sports Halls of Fame, Ladd had a rich life. His resumé included managing other wrestlers, a stint as an announcer for the WWE, religious ministry, community education efforts, political campaigning for the Bush family, and finally the ownership of “Big Cat Ernie Ladd’s Throw-Down BBQ” near Tulane and Broad, which earned an Honorable Mention in the Gambit’s June 2004 survey of New Orleans barbecue. He died in 2007 at age 68 in Franklin, Louisiana.
November 28, 1938
March 10, 2007
- He grew up in Orange, Texas and attended Grambling State University on a basketball scholarship. He was drafted by both the Chargers and the NFL's Chicago Bears in 1961.
- He was among the many AFL players to participate in a walkout at the 1965 AFL All-Star Game as a result of racial discrimination faced by black players while staying in New Orleans.
- He famously feuded with André the Giant during his years in the World Wrestling Federation.
BIO: Antigravitymagazine.com + Wikipedia.com
PHOTO: Pinterest + NotInHallOfFame + 1970sMusicIndustryMemories + AminoApps + MikeMooneyham
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