Wrestler Sputnik Monroe

  • Listen to Part I of the Morning Edition interview.
  • Listen to Part II of the interview.

    Sputnik Monroe
    A Sputnik Monroe display at the Memphis Rock and Soul Museum

    February 22, 2001 -- In the late 1950s, Sputnik Monroe was Memphis wrestling: "220 pounds of twisted steele and sex appeal" as he liked to put it. Monroe, whose realname is Rock Brumbaugh, rolled into town and began what many credit as the beginning of change, and not just for wrestling.

    He was first known as Pretty Boy Roque. He was bullishly strong then, with movie-star good looks and a trademark white streak in his hair.

    Hear Sputnik Monroe recount how he looked during his carnival days as Pretty Boy Rocque.

    He'd come from the carnival circuit, where he would pick fights with local tough guys to sell more tickets. Practically anything went in the ring: He fought with pick axes, shovels — you name it. But he was cunning and always focused on making the other guy lose control. It was during these days that he developed his life-long philosophy: Win if you can, lose if you must, always cheat, and if you have to leave the ring, leave tearing it down. His style, outrageous and rough, influenced later Memphis wrestlers, particularly Jerry "the King" Lawler.

    By the time he came to Memphis, Monroe had already earned his Cold-War era moniker. One woman, enraged that the wrestler walked into a match with his arm around an African-American teen-ager, called him every name in the book, and then, after deciding he was no better than a communist, called him the worst thing she could think of: Sputnik.

    Sputnik wasn't about to change anything about himself but his name. He continued to build friendships within the black community, and soon had a huge following. He was a heel, or a bad guy in wrestling parlance, but to his fans, he was a hero. Walking into the ring at Ellis Auditorium in downtown Memphis, he would be booed by many whites, but as soon as they were finished, Sputnik would turn to the top seats, the segregated top balcony, raise his arms, and bring down a groundswell of cheers.

    Listen to Sputnik Monroe talk about one of his most memorable carnival fights.

    Sputnik Monroe
    NPR's Tom Goldman and Sputnik Monroe

    Sputnik wanted more of his fans to get into the auditorum, so he bribed a door attendant to miscount the number of African Americans admitted. Soon, there was no place else to sit but in the white section. Whether fans were black or white, promoters could see nothing but green, and with little fanfare, seating at Ellis Auditorium was integrated. Later, he tag-teamed with an African American, Norvell Austin. Many fans said it was the first time they ever saw a black wrestler in the ring.

    Listen to music producer and wrestling fan Jim Dickenson as he remembers one of Sputnik's Memphis matches.

    Sputnik continued to wrestle throughout the South for two more decades, but he never became nationally known. Two years ago, after he turned 70, he had to give up wrestling for good when his knee gave out. He's been happily married for a number of years, and lives with his wife and two cats in Houston, Texas. Joanne Monroe says whenever they travel to Memphis, whether they're stopped at a gas station or standing in a supermarket, someone always remembers Sputnik Monroe.

    You can read about Sputnik in Robert Gordon's Book It Came From Memphis, and you can see one of his wrestling outfits at the Memphis' Rock 'N' Soul Museum Web site. Additional information can be found at www.1wrestlinglegends.com.