Wrestling With Family
Yes, it’s true. I was raised as an Orthodox Jew — in Bakersfield no less. My parents were very strict about going to temple and observing the holidays and religion. But Dad also used to take me to the local wrestling matches when I was around 10. He got a kick out of watching the wrestlers and their antics, and I did, too.
I’d watch wrestling on television in black and white, with Dick Lane doing the commentary. One day — I was still 10 years old — I got really into it and grabbed my mom and put a hammerlock on her, not realizing the pressure I applied. It dislocated her shoulder and put her in the hospital.
After school, I joined the YMCA because it had a good weight room. I wanted to get in shape and develop my body a little better. I was pretty thin and just wanted to become more athletic looking.
Things began to change — I started developing muscles where I never had them. Dad at that time was going in for open-heart surgery and was inspired by my progress. He wanted me to take him to the gym after his surgery and help him get in shape. But he never recovered, and died that year.
I kept up my training with Dad in mind and started competing in bodybuilding contests, winning Mr. California and then Mr. America. I started to make a name for myself. At that point I felt that I needed to cash in on this, so I began training as a pro wrestler at the Olympic Auditorium.
Enter Bubbe, a terrific, wonderful grandma. I could do no wrong in her eyes. She was extremely old fashioned and very Jewish. She didn’t want me to get my hands dirty. I’m sure you know the type. But, I loved her very much.
It was bad enough that I took up bodybuilding and weightlifting. She would ask me over and over why I was killing myself in the gym lifting all those weights. She would shake her head at me and say, "You poor thing, killing yourself. Poor little Richard!"
She couldn’t figure out that I really enjoyed this stuff. I was building my tolerance for stress and pain to the point that one day they’d disappear.
Most of my Jewish friends weren’t into wrestling, bodybuilding or anything like it, but I guess I just liked taking chances, or maybe wanted attention. Whatever it was, I stuck with it.
But how do I break this to Bubbe? I told her and Mom that Dad would be proud of me doing this, and why can’t they be too? There was no argument with that, and he wasn’t here to dispute it. But, I know that he would have enjoyed it. If his health had been better, he would have joined me in the gym for sure, and maybe even a few holds in the ring.
So, I began the wrestling training and would come home and tell Mom and Bubbe about it. Mom would hum when she would get embarrassed about a subject, so as I’d tell Bubbe the gory details, Mom would stand there and do a lot of humming.
I heard through the grapevine that Bubbe was bragging about me being a well-built wrestler to her neighbors and friends. She was proud in her own way.
I was winning wrestling titles such as NWA Jr. Heavyweight Champion. Later on, I became "Rookie of the Year" at the Olympic Auditorium and then AWA, CCW, NWA, WWF and AWF wrestling champion.
My family was proud. I really didn’t have to be a lawyer or doctor. I was now in sports entertainment. I was developing my mind along with my body, just so no one would ever call me a "dumb wrestler."
I was one of the few Jewish wrestlers around. There were a couple here and there who during the day were chiropractors. I went to the South to wrestle and it was bad enough being from Los Angeles or Hollywood, but being a Jew was even more difficult out there. I told a few guys, and they always told me that they didn’t believe me.
"It’s impossible," they said, "You don’t look it, and you have blue eyes and blond hair."
Maybe that’s why I never had any prejudice against me. It just never happened.
I later moved from Bakersfield to Santa Monica where I began training at Gold’s Gym. One day, in 1971, Arnold Schwarzenegger came into the gym fresh from Austria and we became friends. Arnold and I trained together for the next four years. He used to joke about us training together being a Austrian and a Jew but in a fun way, and even at that time he had a lot of respect for the Jewish religion. We’d talk about it a lot. Arnold was a good friend and a great training partner. To this day, we’re still friends.
Bubbe died at the age of 96, and I know she was proud of me. I always keep her and Dad in mind, as I want them to know that they are a part of it. Mom is still alive and doing well. She’s approaching 90 and I’m approaching 60, but we both have a lot of the "kid" in us and that’s what keeps us motivated. Who knows? With the way things are going now, I may run for a political office.