Greatness, Not Tragedy, Defined Colt's Career
Buddy Colt just might have been the greatest performer to have never held the world heavyweight title.
With an impressive physique, strong facial features and the ability to play the role of cocky heel to perfection, Colt could deliver in the ring and was a strong candidate to carry the prestigious NWA world heavyweight title.
But tragedy would strike during the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 20, 1975, forever altering the course of wrestling history.
A small aircraft piloted by Colt, with three other wrestlers on board, crashed into the dark, murky waters of Tampa Bay. The accident would claim the life of Bobby Shane and effectively end Colt’s in-ring career.
Colt, whose real name is Ron Read, was 39 at the time. Shane, one of the most promising talents in the business, had not yet reached his 30th birthday.
It’s been more than 36 years since the tragedy, but the 75-year-old Colt is still haunted by memories of the ill-fated flight.
Colt, who was a major star in the lucrative Georgia and Florida territories, was piloting a small Cessna 173 aircraft from Opa-Locka to Tampa, Fla., following a show at the Miami Convention Center. The plane was carrying three other heel performers including Shane (Robert Schoenberger), Mike McCord (Dennis McCord) and manager Playboy Gary Hart (Gary Williams).
“I wasn’t flying constantly at that time, but I wasn’t what you’d call a brand new pilot either,” says Colt, who was an experienced aviator who had first flown an airplane solo in 1957 in a Piper Cub J-3.
The plane was to have landed at Tampa International, but rough weather forced Colt to try nearby Peter O. Knight Airport on Davis Island. The aircraft never would reach its destination.
“They said Tampa International was socked in with a squall line overhead, and it was closed to VFR (Visual Flight Rules) traffic,” recalls Colt. “I had planned to go land at Sarasota, but when I started to turn, they called back and said that Peter O. Knight was open to VFR traffic. But it was about seven or eight miles away and in a southeasterly direction from Tampa International.”
Colt was given further instructions, but by the time he could see the rotating beacon at the Knight airport, wisps of clouds had begun to emerge. Unfamiliar with the landing area, he made one pass but was too high to make a landing.
“I started going lower and lower to stay out of the clouds, and by the time I got over Peter O. Knight where I had to make a left-hand base for a landing, I found myself right in the middle of a big cloud. I couldn’t see up or down ... I was completely socked in.”
Hindered by headwinds, the plane went into a stall, nosed over and headed for the bay. “In moments, going a hundred miles an hour, we were only about 500 feet above the water,” says Colt.
The landing lights were still on showing nothing when McCord screamed, “We’re going to hit the water!”
“The next sound I heard was a bang. In an instant we had crashed into the water,” says Colt.
Colt says he exploded right out of his safety belt and escaped from the airplane as it sank in less than 15 feet of water 300 yards from shore.
“I unhooked my seat belt and popped right up to the surface. The water was only about 10 or 12 feet deep.”
While Colt and Hart were both thrown from the plane, McCord was able to squirm out of his safety harness. But the fourth passenger was unaccounted for.
“No Bobby Shane. We hollered for him,” says Colt.
McCord, says Colt, made a couple of dives in the dark waters to look for their colleague.
“It was pitch black and raining like hell. We weren’t even sure which way to swim. We saw a light on in the back of one of the houses on Davis Island, and we started swimming toward the light. It wasn’t until we got in water shallow enough to put my feet out that I realized I was hurt. My right leg just crumbled.”
Hart, who managed to swim the 300 yards to shore, helped drag McCord to safety and was able to crawl to a nearby house to summon help.
When the rescuers arrived, the injured wrestlers were attempting to lower a small boat into the bay to begin a search for their friend.
“One of the cops put a flashlight on us,” recalls Colt. “My God, this is Buddy Colt,” declared the officer, immediately recognizing the well-known wrestler.
The three men, all with serious injuries, were rushed to a nearby hospital.
When the plane was brought to the surface a few hours later, Shane’s body was found in the wreckage. His seat belt was still on, and his leg was pinned under his seat.
Colt says he found out later from Shane’s stepparents that the wrestler “couldn’t swim a stroke.”
“All he would have had to do was unhook his seat belt. But if you can’t swim and the water gets over your head, I suppose the natural thing would be to panic, and you’d try to breathe, and you’d inhale water,” says Colt.
McCord broke both of his ankles. The crash knocked out all of Hart’s teeth, put a hundred stitches in his head, took away his sight in his right eye and left him with a broken back, left leg, left wrist and left arm. It fractured his sternum, his clavicle and vertebrae in his back.
Colt’s right ankle was shattered. He never wrestled again.
“The rest is history,” he says.
Colt, however, refused to allow a tragic plane crash to overshadow an illustrious career.
“I loved the business too much to do that.”
A career cut short
Buddy Colt was a top name in the wrestling business at the time of the plane crash. He had just won the NWA North American title from Cowboy Bill Watts earlier that week.
“From one night being main event in just about anyplace you’d go, and the next day not knowing if you’d ever wrestle again. And I didn’t. My life changed completely.”
Unable to wrestle, Colt came back as a manager and later a television commentator. It wasn’t long, though, before he retired for good.
“My heart just wasn’t in it,” he says.
But it wasn’t the crash that put Colt out of wrestling.
“It was the infection that got into my right ankle,” he explains. “I ended up getting gangrene in my right ankle. That almost killed me. The plane crash dislocated the ankle, but getting the gangrene from the dirty waters of Tampa Bay caused the major problem. It was never the same again, and I had to wear a brace.”
Both ankles are now fused, and Colt has had two knee replacements.
“It doesn’t affect me from getting around. I just can’t do a flying dropkick now,” he laughs.
Colt still thinks about what might have been.
Shane, who had arrived in Florida shortly before the crash, was an ambitious young star who had headlined in a number of territories and had the proverbial rocket strapped to his back. A true student of the game, Shane was being groomed to take over booking duties in the territory.
“He was a pretty smart guy who came up with some pretty outlandish things. He was a good worker and had a great mind for the business.”
One of Shane’s ideas, says Colt, was to acquire the services of a midget who would dress up like a jester and do somersaults going down to the ring in front of him before the matches started. “It would be like his valet. He was always thinking of things.”
“He was kind of a loner who stuck to himself,” adds Colt. “He didn’t take trips with the boys. He didn’t go to the parties with the boys.”
Still, says Colt, Shane was an entertaining performer who was destined for big things in the business.
“I think he would have done well. He was making himself a pretty good ring personality.”
Hart, one of the top managers in the business, would continue to be influential as a manager and a booker for more than three decades. But he agonized for years over his colleague’s death. He had switched seats with Shane to have more legroom.
“Dealing with Bobby’s death was harder than the crash and the swim to shore. It was overwhelming,” said Hart, who died of a heart attack in 2008 at the age of 66.
McCord, now 62, recovered from his injuries, adopted a new gimmick and became the bleached blond “Universal Heartthrob” Austin Idol.
Colt continued to fly following the accident. Using the GI Bill to attend flight school, he took a professional pilots course, and got his instrument and multi-engine ratings.
The end of his wrestling career coincided with Vince McMahon’s national expansion in the mid-’80s.
“That was the end of the wrestling territories as we knew them,” laments Colt, who sold stock he had in Georgia Championship Wrestling to Jerry Brisco, who wound up selling it to McMahon.
“Florida Championship Wrestling eventually went bankrupt and folded,” says Colt, who also had owned stock in that company.
Two faces of Buddy Colt
Colt’s wrestling career can be neatly divided into two distinct parts.
His first run came as a babyface billed as Cowboy Ron Reed. Although he was a fan favorite, the brown-haired grappler toiled for the most part in preliminaries, his main job making the more established performers look good.
Colt appeared briefly in the Carolinas as a mid-card act during the mid-’60s, but didn’t stay long.
“I left the Carolinas and went to Australia to work for Jim Barnett. Australia at the time paid very well, and in the Carolinas I could tell they weren’t going to use me the way I thought they should. So I took the chance to go to Australia.”
Colt never returned to the Carolinas except for rare appearances after he had become a major star in Florida and Georgia.
“The TV from both places went into the Carolinas at the time. They flew me in just for certain matches. I never really worked the territory, but I was in and out quite a few times.”
The second half of his career, the far more lucrative one, saw Ronald Read (the correct spelling of his real name) transform into a bleached blond, braggadocios, heat-drawing heel known as Buddy Colt.
“Ron Reed sounded too much like a babyface name. I went into Oklahoma with Dandy Jack Donovan. He referred to me as Handsome Ronnie.”
In his autobiography, the late Jack Brisco called Donovan and Reed perfect heels.
“They had slicked-back, bleached-blond hair and a lady manager, LaVerne Bottoms, Jack’s wife at the time. Jerry (Brisco) and I thought we hit the big time. Jack and Ronnie had defeated Chati Yokouchi and Chuck Karbo for the U.S. tag-team championship so they were definitely at the top, and by working with them so were we.”
“Jack Donovan was already main-event material in the Oklahoma territory,” recalls Colt. “At the time they were doing a lot of tag teams in Oklahoma. The Assassins had been the top team there and they left to go to Georgia. Jack was looking for a partner to work the Oklahoma territory with, and at the time I was working babyface out of Kansas City with Bob Geigel and Pat O’Connor. He asked me if I’d be willing to turn my hair blond, and I had been wanting for years to eventually turn heel and bleach my hair. We were main event right from the very beginning.”
Colt stayed in the territory for a year. After a split with partner Donovan and territory owner Leroy McGuirk, Colt changed his name. “I really wanted to be a single and not part of a tag team. I was successful in Amarillo, went to Japan as Buddy Colt and came back to Georgia and Florida.”
Why the name Buddy Colt?
“Buddy Colt was easy to say and easy to remember,” he says.
Colt went on to win a slew of championships in Georgia and Florida. The one title that did elude him, however, was the NWA world heavyweight championship.
“People who I talked to in later years said I had pretty much already passed the committee meeting (stage) to be the next world champion. The night that Terry (Funk) got it from Jack Brisco, I would have been that one.”
While he admits he can’t say that “definitively,” Colt says his fate had been decided by wrestling’s power-brokers.
“Jim Barnett, Eddie Graham, people who were on the inside told me that I was destined to be the world’s champion.”
Colt had the look, the skill, the resume to carry the gold. He had the total package.
“I was told by the insiders that I would have been,” he says.
A competitive bodybuilder with a background in martial arts, Colt says he was hooked on the wrestling business from the very beginning.
“From the very first time I put on a pair of wrestling trunks and got into the ring, I loved the business. I still do,’’ says Colt, who joined the Marines after leaving high school.
Back then, the heels prided themselves on drawing the ire of the crowd. Colt did this very well.
“I relished being the bad guy, and I was very good at it,’’ he says. “It was also a role you could have more fun with, but you had to be careful. It could get scary at times.”
Unlike other heels, Colt didn’t have to resort to ranting or shouting, preferring to display a swaggering confidence that accomplished that much more in riling up the fans.
“We had real heat back then. People always wanted to climb into the ring. We needed the cops around the ring — not to protect the fans from us, but for the cops to protect us from the fans.”
One unruly fan in Orlando even tried to shoot Colt, but the wrestler didn’t realize it until after his match.
“He was trying to get closer to the ring to take a shot at me when the cops tackled him, took him down and got the run away from him. The bullet that missed me hit a fan on the other side of the ring and hit him in the neck. Fortunately he wasn’t seriously injured.”
Unfortunately for Colt, however, the fan who took the shot was released on his own recognizance after being charged with attempted murder. A couple of weeks later charges were dismissed because, according to Colt, “they said it was my fault and that I had incited a riot because of my actions in the ring.”
“The guy got arrested, and they turned him loose. They did everything but give him his gun back,” says Colt.
The unusual case, however, didn’t end there.
“About a year later, one of our security guys brought a letter to me in the dressing room in Orlando. It was from the guy who took the bullet. He said that I owed him big time since the bullet had been meant for me.”
Colt scoffs at the notion.
“He was on the other side of the ring when he got hit. Had he been sitting down where he belonged, he wouldn’t have gotten shot.”
Colt was great at starting riots. On one occasion in Oklahoma City, Colt was handcuffed with a chain to the ringpost to keep him from interfering in a match between his partner, Donovan, and Danny Hodge. When a local sheriff took the handcuffs off Colt after the match, Colt used the chain to bust open Hodge.
“Blood was spurting all over the place,” recalls Colt. The move prompted a number of fans to hit the ring where one angry customer sliced Donovan with a knife. Another spectator who came in to protect Hodge accidentally sliced the local hero with a knife.
Colt took Donovan’s wife and son to the hospital, while Donovan and Hodge, who ended up taking 140 stitches in his leg, were transported in the same ambulance.
“I went through the emergency room exit, and some guy with blood all over his face says, ‘There’s that SOB that hit me with the chain.’”
Fortunately police officers intervened before the action had a chance to spill over to the emergency room.
It was in Georgia where Colt made one of his biggest impacts.
Colt arrived in Georgia in 1969 and worked there as a main-event attraction for several years. He won his first Georgia state heavyweight championship from Nick Bockwinkel in 1970 and dominated the title picture, going up against such stars as Ray Gunkel, Buddy Fuller, Fred Blassie, Bobby Shane, Bill Armstrong, George Scott and Alberto Torres. A title defense against Mr. Wrestling No. 2 (Johnny Walker) set an attendance record at the Omni in Atlanta.
One of his favorite performers to team with, and wrestle against, was Paul DeMarco.
“Paul was a great worker. I had great matches with Paul. But he retired too early. He might have ended up being world champion had he stayed in the business. His father was in some kind of lumber business in one of the northern states, and he went back to take over his father’s business. Had he stayed in the business, he would have gone places because he was one heck of a worker. He was a great ring general.
Colt also was managed for a brief period in Georgia by the notorious Gen. Homer O’Dell. The two, however, often clashed over their views of the business.
“Homer was a natural heel and was naturally arrogant,” says Colt. “We had a problem with him once in the ring in Atlanta. It was Homer and myself and Billy Spears against The Assassins and Ray Gunkel. The Assassin (Tom Renesto) was the booker, and Ray was the owner of the territory. Ray grabbed the back of Homer’s pants and ripped them. Homer got all indignant and said: ‘You’re not going to do that to me.’ Homer stormed out of the ring, went back to the dressing room and left with his suitcase in his hand. I later met him at the bar. He said, ‘You might as well come with me, because I’m not going to work for that (expletive) anymore.’”
“Homer, you do what you want to do. This is just the business,” Colt told the manager. “The guy tore your pants. So what?”
“He got all upset and left the next day,” says Colt. “He told me to come with him since ‘I wouldn’t be anything without him.’ We actually made more money without him because there was one less person to split the money with. He didn’t hurt anyone but himself. I saw him a few months later and he was still talking about how they owed him big time because of everything he had done for them all those years. I said, ‘Homer, they don’t owe anybody anything. You were able to make a good living for all those years.’ He was very bitter. He thought all those promoters owed him. But that’s not how it works.”
Colt left Georgia for Florida in 1972. A few months later, however, Gunkel died in the ring of a ruptured spleen in a match in Savannah with Ox Baker. A promotional war soon erupted in Georgia, and Colt was summoned back to the Peach State.
Colt had only been gone a few months, but he was soon back in main events, flying back and forth from Florida to Georgia.
Colt also captured all of Florida’s major titles, including the Southern heavyweight championship, the North American title and the Florida state belt, and engaged in bloody feuds with the likes of Paul Jones, Bill Watts, Tim “Mr. Wrestling” Woods, Johnny Walker, Jack Brisco, Dory Funk, Jr., Eddie Graham, Big Bad John and Mark Lewin.
He also teamed and worked with the great Johnny Valentine in Florida. Colt had been a big fan of Valentine dating back to his pre-wrestling days.
“I first met him at Vic Tanny’s Gym in Washington, D.C., about two years before I got into the business,” says Colt. “It was the year I tool second in the Mr. Washington, D.C., physique contest. I was selling cars at a Ford dealership then, so I got to talk to Johnny a lot.”
Next time the two crossed paths was three years later in a Houston dressing room.
“He was looking at me and said, ‘I know I know you, but I can’t place where.’ I told him it was Vic Tanny’s Gym in Washington, D.C., about three years earlier. He was such a great worker who really knew how to build that heat. He was terrific in the ring. He did nothing fancy. You didn’t need flying head scissors and flips off the ring. You need something the people can believe in.”
Colt also was a big fan of “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers.
“I had admired Buddy Rogers long before I even got into the business. After working with him in Washington, D.C., Connecticut and Montreal, his work style and his arrogance kind of rubbed off on me. When I was a babyface, I knew I wanted to turn heel at the right time. When the right time presented itself and I could start working main events, that’s when I turned heel. Buddy Rogers had the right attitude. I took a lot of things that he did and put it in my own style.”
One of his most memorable moments in his career, says Colt, was his first match with Rogers.
“Even weeks later, I’d be in New York City and someone would say, ‘You were almost world champion. You had him beat.’”
“To me, probably the greatest world champion ever was Lou Thesz,” says Colt. “He was a class act in and out of the ring. The first time I worked with him was in St. Joe, Mo., and I was the Central States champion. We went an hour broadway with a fall apiece. It was the biggest crowd they had in St. Joe in more than 20 years. He was like a legend at the time. He always will be.”
Colt also had some great matches with former NWA world champ Dory Funk, Jr.
“Dory was a great worker, as well as his brother, but their styles were totally different. I worked with Dory several times when he was world champion. I never worked with Terry when he was world champion, since he became world champion after I had gotten out of the business after the plane wreck. But we’re still good friends.”
‘A storybook life’
Even Colt has to chuckle when he thinks about his age.
Buddy Colt at 75? Can that be right?
“I hear that all the time,” he says. “But I am.”
Colt is well-preserved and still sounds like the cocky heel who talked the talk and walked the walk those many years ago.
“The voice has stayed the same,” says Colt, who no longer sports the bleached blond mane.
“But I still look at all those young girls,” he laughs. “I still think like I did.”
The Tampa resident now works about three days a week, four hours a day, in the maintenance hardware business, selling to factories and end-users. He’s been doing it for 33 years.
“It’s been a real good living for me.”
Despite the heartaches and hardships, the injuries and close calls, Colt says he has no regrets.
“I loved it. Wrestling is still my passion. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. I loved being there. It made my whole life. Without wrestling, I have no idea what I would have done. I was a car salesman before I started wrestling. I have no idea what the future might have held for me without wrestling.”
Colt says he never gave less than a hundred percent each time he entered a ring.
“You get out of it what you put into it. And I worked my (behind) off in wrestling. If I worked in a town that only had a hundred people, I’d give them a hell of a match just like I would have done in a big building in a big city.”
“It was a storybook life,” says Colt. “Even a guy like Donald Trump couldn’t have lived the life we lived in the ring where you can just make the slightest move and make the people scream. It’s such a powerful feeling when you’re in the ring in the main event. It’s a feeling a Donald Trump couldn’t feel.”