Mr. Wrestling II Was No. 1 In The Hearts Of The Fans
Bet you can't name many professional wrestlers who have been invited to the White House.
How about masked professional wrestlers? And a Charleston native to boot.
Johnny Walker, whose alter ego as Mr. Wrestling II catapulted him to the hierarchy of the wrestling business during the '70s and early '80s, shared a close bond with former President Jimmy Carter and was personally invited to attend Carter's inauguration in 1977.
Walker, though, reluctantly declined a seat with the Carter family when the Secret Service told him he would have to remove his famous mask because of security concerns.
A wrestler's mask stood for something in those days, and Walker took the values symbolized by the white hood he wore quite seriously.
"But I understood why they did it," says Walker. "Who the heck should show up on TV like that?"
Unless, of course, you were watching professional wrestling during that era when masked wrestlers weren't exactly a rarity. And none were more heralded than the man known simply as "II"
Walker, sporting his trademark white mask trimmed in black, was the top star on the nation's first SuperStation, Channel 17 out of Atlanta, during the '70s. It wouldn't have been worth it, he says, to reveal his identity for all to see.
"I just told them that I hoped God blessed them all and that everything would go well for Mr. Carter," says Walker.
The President understood, and so did his mother, "Miss Lillian" Carter, a down-to-earth, devout wrestling fan who religiously attended the weekly matches and whose favorite just happened to be Mr. Wrestling II
"She used to come down to Columbus, Ga., to watch me wrestle," recalls Walker. "I was even invited to her home in Plains for an interview with Lillian."
The Secret Service, he says, picked him up and drove him to Miss Lillian's home.
"If you folks don't mind, I'll just leave the mask on," he recalls telling the agents.
"When I got out of the car, they had Secret Service and State Patrol guys all over the yard," he says. "I guess they wanted to make sure I was me and not somebody else."
Miss Lillian, who was perhaps the country's best-known "first mother," waved for Walker to come into her home.
"Now I don't want to be disturbed at all," she told her sister.
The two then went into a small room where Miss Lillian, displaying her utmost Southern charm, closed the door.
"She didn't want anyone coming in while we were talking," says Walker. "We probably talked more than two hours. We discussed all kinds of stuff. And the whole time I was in there she never cracked about wrestling."
Walker chuckles when he recalls Miss Lillian, who was well known for her wit, spunk and quick repartee, asking him if his wife thought he was cute.
"I looked straight at her and said, 'Well, she married me, she got me, and yes, I do think she thinks I'm very cute.'"
"Oh, that's lovely," replied the President's mother.
She told the wrestler he could remove the mask if he felt more comfortable without it. Walker, of course, politely declined.
"She let it go at that. She dropped it right there. The mask wasn't coming off," he says.
Walker, who says her friendliness and intelligence shone through in all their conversations, would visit her on a couple more occasions.
"I helped her do some directing in the Special Olympics."
A photo of the masked wrestler with President Carter and his mother can be found in the family book.
"I always admired her for many reasons," Walker says of Miss Lillian, who passed away in 1983 at the age of 85. "We really enjoyed each other's company. She was a great lady. I had the utmost respect for her. It was quite a treat spending time with her."
Walker, who made his first public appearance without the mask at last year's Fanfest event in Charlotte to accept his induction into the Hall of Heroes, was born in Charleston but moved shortly thereafter.
"My middle name is Francis. I was named after St. Francis Hospital, where I was born," he says.
Walker isn't sure how long he lived in Charleston since he was still a baby when his family moved.
"My dad was in the Marine Corps, so we bounced around quite a bit," he says.
Walker has spent most of his 76 years in Hawaii, having moved there in the late '40s before leaving in 1958 to go on the road. He returned to Honolulu in 1989 after retiring from the wrestling business and has lived there ever since.
Walker worked as a 191-pound sumo wrestler before breaking into the pro ranks in 1965. Going up against true heavyweights as big as 500 pounds, Walker found himself at a definite weight disadvantage, and quickly discovered that the more conventional art of pro wrestling was more to his liking.
"I got bounced around like a toy," he laughs. "Even with my strength it didn't matter."
The balance and coordination helped in amateur and pro wrestling, says Walker, and he used the experience to train with established stars such as Pat O'Connor, Dick Hutton and Don Curtis.
"Those guys would really work me over," says Walker. "I was a real glutton for punishment back then. But I was a young kid and I loved it."
The wrestler's fascinating story is truly a tale of two careers.
Walker, whose incredible flexibility and double-jointed contortionist moves prompted longtime Houston promoter Paul Boesch to dub him "Rubberman," toiled nearly 15 years as a journeyman before reinventing himself as one of the most successful masked babyfaces in mat history.
Before his emergence as Mr. Wrestling II, however, Walker enjoyed a brief stint in Florida during the early '70s as The Masked Grappler. It was the first time in his career that he had ever worked behind a mask, and during the early stages he hated it.
So much, in fact, that he ran to the dressing room after his first bout behind the mask and immediately ripped the hood off his head.
"I couldn't get my breath. How was I ever going to get used to wearing this thing?"
Fortunately he did get used to wearing the hood, and eventually began to even enjoy it.
It didn't hurt that the mask seemed to bring him a renewed feeling of confidence that would translate into bigger payoffs and greater success for Walker.
His big break in the business would come less than two years later.
With the popular original Mr. Wrestling (Tim Woods) leaving Georgia to work for promoter Eddie Graham in Florida, the erstwhile veteran Walker was chosen to fill the void left by Woods' departure, although initially the two would make appearances together on the major Atlanta shows and TV tapings.
Since Woods had long been established as the masked "Mr. Wrestling," Walker was given the moniker "Mr. Wrestling II." The gimmick became an instant moneymaker for Walker, and was so successful that he never appeared again without the hood.
It was somewhat ironic that Walker had actually considered retiring when the idea for the mask came along.
He had purchased a gas station in Tennessee when he got a call from Atlanta booker Leo Garibaldi about coming back to Georgia -- but this time with a mask and new identity.
The gimmick not only prolonged his run in wrestling for another decade, but it reenergized his career and made him more money than he had ever dreamed about making in the wrestling business.
Walker was quick and explosive in the ring, with his signature running kneelift one of the most popular finishers in the sport in at the time.
He formed one of the top teams in the business during the '70s with Woods, drawing sellout crowds to Atlanta's Omni and throughout the Southeast for matches with such formidable teams as The Assassins.
Walker and Woods became best friends as well as solid wrestling partners.
"It's strange how things work out," says Walker. "We made a good team and we got along fantastically. Timmy and I were closer than brothers."
Walker retired from the business not long after Vince McMahon's national expansion in the mid-'80s and returned to Hawaii where he has lived ever since. His wife, Olivia, a talented seamstress who designed exquisite costumes and ring robes for such wrestling stars as Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes and Paul Orndorff, as well as for celebrities such as Dolly Parton, Porter Wagner and Liberace, passed away 10 years ago.
"She was not only a tremendous seamstress, she was a tremendous woman," says Walker. "She was the best woman you would ever want to meet. She was the love of my life and I think about her every day."
Walker escaped a health scare of his own at last year's Fanfest in Charlotte. He suffered a heart attack during the final day of the event and was hospitalized for several weeks.
"It was the first heart attack I had ever had, and I didn't even know I had it then. I had a hard time breathing, but I didn't have any pain."
Walker says he was sitting on the edge of his bed when a friend from Atlanta called to say hello and ask how he was doing.
"I'm doing fine except for the fact that I can't breathe," Walker told his friend.
His friend immediately hung up the phone, called the emergency room of a nearby Charlotte hospital, and before Walker knew it, he was being carted off to the hospital across the street.
"You've had a heart attack young man," emergency technicians told Walker.
"I had never been ill in my life ... at least not that kind of ill," says Walker, who thought the EMTs had to be kidding.
They were deadly serious, though, and Walker spent the next few weeks hospitalized, waiting for a kidney problem to clear up before he could undergo heart surgery.
"I had a triple bypass, and the doctor did a fantastic job on me. I'm on a regimen of pills now, and they're keeping me going. I feel fine."
The scenery, he adds, doesn't hurt either.
"I'm up in the mountains of Mililani. I don't have air conditioning and I don't need it. It's very cool, very nice. It can be 89, 90 degrees outside, and it's just lovely inside. I've got the mountains and the ocean."
Walker, along with his famous mask and a special robe made by his late wife, will be one of the featured attractions at the NWA Wrestling Legends Fanfest on Aug. 4-7 in Atlanta. To help raise money for a real-life, brick and mortar Hall of Heroes, Walker will donate the robe to be auctioned off in a silent auction at the event.
Walker, who turns 77 in September, says he can't wait to return to his old stomping ground and the heart of the old Georgia Championship Wrestling territory.
"I feel like a million dollars ... it's going to be great."
For more information, visit www.nwalegends.com.