Along with Bobo Brazil, “Bearcat” Ed Wright was one of the integral pioneers of black liberation in pro wrestling. Like Brazil, he refused to face only “other colored grapplers”, taking on a multitude of opponents from every race under the sun.
Surprisingly, promoters found the fans accepted this and no riots out of protest ever took place. In many respects he helped pave the way for the numerous black stars who would come later on, having prosperous careers handed to them on silver platters without ever realizing the tremendous bigotry those before them had faced.
In fact, contrary to what it might be worth, Ron Simmons was not the first black man to ever win a world title, though this might depend on what version of this title you would consider valid. Wright in fact, held a world heavyweight championship on the west coast in the early 1960s and defended against many top names.
He was seen in Australia, in Canada, throughout the south, in the midwest, in Texas, always winning the support of the fans as he battled the likes of The Sheik, Johnny valentine and Kenji Shibuya. A tall and lanky man, he was usually noted for flying dropkicks, spin kicks and leaps off the rope, but in Arizona all this changed.
When he came to Phoenix, he was regarded as an instant heel, pitted against the likes of Cowboy Bob Ellis, Tito Montez, and Pepe Romero. Rather than the sensational flying moves, he punched, cheated and choked his way to victory after victory. His normally soft-spoken and intelligent interviews became rambling monologues, with rolling eyes, curling lips and a face that reflected pure insanity. Gone was his airplane spin or his dropkick finish. Instead he stuck to the claw, often having to be pried off his opponent when the match was over. He glowered and laughed with sadistic glee as he clamped his massive hands around an opponent and squeezed him into submission. The claw and the Bearcat were over big time as far as the promoter was concerned. He was given a long-lasting run in the late 1960s and held various belts, including the Arizona Heavyweight Championship.
To further exploit the impact of his deadly claw, Wright would crush apples and rip telephone books in half. These were not “gimmicked” or staged either, for he really did have massive hands and a powerful, smashing grip in real life. Fact and fiction intermingled here with no dividing line.
Wright likewise turned on fellow team-mate and black grappler, Sweet Daddy Watts in the summer of 1969. They had been in a partnership, when on a TV interview, Sweet Daddy asked Bearcat to show him how the claw worked so he could use it himself in an upcoming singles bout. Wright, suddenly “deranged”, was all too happy to show Sweet Daddy, clamping it on while horrified announcer Cliff Haynes begged other wrestlers to put a stop to the action. Finally, the insane Bearcat was pulled off and Watts, livid at what had happened, was suddenly a fan favorite vowing revenge.
The interviews between the two were sometimes better than their matches. Most noteworthy was Watts when he claimed to have followed Bearcat to some slums in south Phoenix, where he saw the wrestler jumping up and down to bongo drums and taking part in some strange voodoo ritual around a campfire, to give him magic powers. I don’t know if you’ll find this campsite listed among any of the churches in the phone book, but presumedly it was by the old Southern Pacific Railroad tracks outside downtown. At least that’s what people watching the TV believed. There were even religious types coming down to the shows after that, urging Bearcat to repent of his sins and for Sweet Daddy to pray for his opponent rather than try to mangle him. The two participants laughed all the way to the bank.
Bearcat had a better run with Tito Montez, the ultimate babyface, in a long-running set of matches which h concluded with the popular Mexican star pinning his much taller opponent in a cage.
Eventually, Wright left Arizona, wishing to go back to being a fan favorite. Though he was monstrous as a rulebreaker, he did not consider it his strongpoint. He headed back to Michigan for The Sheik and there another uncanny incident took place.
Remember when The Undertaker “died” and was reborn in the WWF? Remember when Mad Dog Marcial Bovee “died” and was buried in Cherry, Arizona (an inside joke as Cherry is a ghost town) only to re-emerge two months later with a split personality as The Time Traveler? Remember when Billy Graham supposedly died of cancer of the spine and even Gorilla Monsoon was left redfaced after writing his obituary in a syndicated news column? Well Wright “died” and rose again before any of them. In 1972 he supposedly died from sickle cell anemia, with lengthy obituaries hitting the stand sin major magazines the same week he was facing The Sheik in Cleveland. Whether someone truly screwed up or Wright started the press himself as a publicity stunt will never be known for sure, but a second feature followed retracting what had been printed in The Wrestler and other newsstand magazines from the time.
Wright never did return to Arizona to wrestle after his lengthy heel stint, but he remained active until the late 1970s. He retired from the profession and took up residence in Florida. There he died from a heart attack on August 28, 1982.