Hawk and Hanson: The Blond Bombers
An article by Mike Mooneyham
NOTE: Rip "The Profile" Hawk and Big Swede Hanson formed what many wrestling authorities consider to be the greatest team in pro wrestling history. In the first part of a series, Hanson reflects on his life in the business and his new life outside the squared circle.
Swede Hanson chuckles when asked about wrestling's "old days."
The Big Swede, as he was affectionately known, was a main-eventer for most of his career and, with longtime partner Rip Hawk, was part of one of the business's most successful tag teams ever. But pro wrestling has changed dramatically since the days Hawk and Hanson were marquee attractions.
Hanson admits he doesn't keep up with wrestling today and doesn't even watch it on television.
"Too much Hollywood," he says. "I don't think about it anymore. Thirty years was enough."
Swede Hanson, a wrestler millions loved to hate, is now 62 years old, retired and lives in a double-wide trainer in the Lancaster County town of Indianland near Fort Mill on the South Carolina-North Carolina border. He no longer talks about beating his opponents senseless, but rather about fishing, playing bingo, following Duke football and taking in a movie like "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" with his girlfriend.
"We seldom go to movies, but we recently went to see `Snow White' and I hadn't seen it in 50 years," says Hanson. "Here I was singing `Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho' aloud along with the Dwarves, and my girlfriend's sliding down in her chair. It was pretty funny."
Hanson, who for many years earned a reputation as a fast-living, hard-drinking individual, now appears well-suited to his new, more laid-back lifestyle.
"I love it here," he says. "Nobody bothers me. I live about a half a city block from the North Carolina state line. I was walking six miles every day. I have walked 24 miles home from work. My girl takes care of me. She makes sure I get my medicine every month."
Hanson, who has been married twice, has six children and nine grandchildren. His fiancee, Patsy Hughes, teaches gymnastics and swimming at a YMCA in Winston-Salem and visits on weekends.
"She's a real sweetheart," he says. "We sit around watching TV. I'll say something and she'll laugh. She thinks I'm crazy. We don't even drink. I took her up to New Jersey to meet my sisters, my grandchildren, nieces. She was sitting on the couch, and we were all going at it. She said, `No wonder you're crazy, your whole family's crazy.' They all loved her."
Hanson began his pro mat career in October 1957 and wrestled in four different decades. A native of Orange, N.J., Hanson was a high school football star who passed up a scholarship to Wake Forest when he quit his last year of high school to become an aviation mechanic.
"I've worked since I was about 9 years old," says Hanson. "My mom was having a hard time, so I quit school."
Hanson boxed as an amateur for seven years, winning a couple of Golden Gloves titles in New Jersey, and compiled a record of 61-3 with 37 knockouts.
"The three that I lost were all to the same guy. He had my number," recalls Hanson, who counts the late Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson among his boxing friends and sparred with Rocky Marciano and Archie Moore. "I wanted to become a professional boxer, but I just grew too big. Back in those days, I was 237 pounds and the other guys were 185 and on up."
Hanson says he has no regrets about deciding to go into wrestling.
"I really enjoyed it. I loved it because I got to see the world many times and it didn't cost me a penny. The only thing I paid for was liquor and food. I saw about everything."
Hanson has kept busy since retiring from the ring in 1986. He recently worked as a trainer at a Living Well fitness center and also went into the construction business framing houses with a friend. When his friend gave up the business, Swede went into "big-time construction," doing metal framing while building new wards for hospitals in Charlotte and the new wing at Charlotte's airport. The Big Swede, however, had to quit his last job as manager of a Rock Hill nightclub due to diabetes and high blood pressure.
"I'm still in pretty good shape, except for my legs," says Hanson. "My legs are getting bad, because I was on them 18 hours a day. I did just about everything myself to save money for the company. My legs were so blown up that I had to retire in April."
Hanson cashed in a retirement fund last year to pay off old debts. "I spent my money way too fast," says Hanson, who adds that he earned $72,000 in six months in 1985-86. "I didn't save the money I made. I lived life the way people thought wrestlers are supposed to. We were living what everybody thought we were living. I'm now collecting Social Security, so I've completely retired from everything. I got my first check last week."
Swede's new relaxed lifestyle is in stark contrast to the non-stop grind he kept as a wrestler. Hanson suffered a heart attack in 1971, and doctors told him he'd never be able to wrestle again.
"The doctor finally told me to go back to wrestling before I had another heart attack," he jokes. "When I quit wrestling, I quit drinking, except for one time, and I got caught and lost my license," says Hanson.
"In 1991 I was working my construction job plus bouncing for this guy I've known for years. We had worked seven days a week for four weeks 10 hours a day, plus I was doing the bouncing, which on Friday nights I had to work until 5 in the morning, then I had to get dressed and go to work at the other place. I was just so tired.
"I went in one night and he told me, `Swede, if you don't want to work tonight, Big Dave can handle it.' I said great, I'll sit down for a couple of hours, talk to my friends and listen to that country and western music. Then I realized I just can't sit at the bar. I had about 12 beers and hit the Crown Royal, and that did it. I went home early, but I found out I couldn't drink like I used to. Most people wouldn't believe what I used to drink back then."
Swede nowadays sits around the trailer and takes life easy. He once owned Lucille Ball's old Chrysler Imperial convertible, but a 1976 Cadillac now sits rusting in the driveway. He owns two pairs of basketball shoes that he acquired from former professional basketball star Julius Erving.
"My foot's a 17 now," notes Hanson. "Dr. J came to see me one time in Philly. I wore out a pair of shoes he had given me, and he got me some more."
The walls of Swede's trailer are adorned with sports memorabilia. The fact that's he a big Duke fan is displayed throughout his home.
"You wouldn't believe the collection I have. I have Duke T-shirts and pullover hooded jackets. I have Duke Coke cans for the championship and for the double championship."
But his life now is far removed from an era in which he and Rip Hawk ruled the tag-team roost and were known as one of the rowdiest pairs in the business.
"I live by myself now. I've got five acres and I've got a lot of work on it to do. But I've got time to do it. If it's not raining, I'll go out and do some work. When I sit down or go to bed, my legs have to be elevated. My legs still swell up, but I keep a watch on them now. I don't drive, so if my girl doesn't come down, I don't go anywhere."
"But I don't have anything to do with wrestling anymore," he adds. "It's nice for some guys. But my time is over."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Rip "The Profile" Hawk and Big Swede Hanson formed one of pro wrestling's top tag-teams for nearly two decades. In the second of a three-part series, "The Blond Bombers" discuss their long relationship.
Pro wrestling history was made the day Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson first joined forces as a team.
They were physical opposites and seemed to share little in common - except for a love of wrestling. Hanson was the silent partner who, at 6-3 and nearly 300 pounds, dwarfed his 5-9, 240 teammate. Hawk did the talking, though, and he was good at it.
"We were quite a combination," says Hawk. "We made Swede the dummy. But he was a very nice guy. And he was so strong. He had no idea of how strong he really was."
Known as "The Blond Bombers" for their platinum hair and rugged ring style, the duo became one of the most feared and hated teams during the '60s and '70s. They were headliners throughout the world, but one of their favorite stomping grounds was the Carolinas-Virginia territory, where they engaged in bloodbaths with such popular tandems as The Scott Brothers, George Becker and Johnny Weaver, The Kentuckians, and Nelson Royal and Paul Jones, as well as brawls with fellow "bad-guy" teams such as The Assassins, Skull Murphy and Brute Bernard, Aldo Bogni and Bronco Lubich, and The Anderson Brothers. Hawk and Hanson won the NWA world tag-team belts while in Florida and held several regional tag-team titles, but they also were in demand in Japan and Australia.
Hanson, now retired and living near Fort Mill on the South Carolina-North Carolina border, credits the late Charlotte promoter Jim Crockett Sr. with pairing the two.
"Jim Crockett put Rip and me together," says Hanson. "We had the same kind of haircuts. I learned a lot wrestling with Rip Hawk as a partner. A lot of times it was shaky, but we stayed together because the team was one of the best in the world. I left Rip in Amarillo back in 1976 or 1977, and he's been there ever since."
Hawk recalls the first time he met the soft-spoken Hanson.
"I'd been wrestling in St. Louis for Sam Muchnick back around 1958, and they would occasionally send me to Charlotte. That's where I met Swede. He was working the prelims. I was very fortunate that after I got out of the Marine Corps, it didn't take long to get on top. One night I walked into the locker room, looked at Swede and went around shaking all the guys' hands. I purposely ignored Swede completely, just for a rib. He just looked at me with those big raccoon eyes. I said, `Oh my God, you're still here, you haven't left this place yet?' He said, `Oh, I've been working here.' I said, `Well, it's about time you got off your butt, I'm going to take you with me.' And that kindled our friendship."
That partnership lasted nearly two decades, and and they took their ups and downs in stride.
"We were fortunate," says Hawk. "I think we got along better than most men and their wives. We were together everyday, traveling nights, days in cars, planes. We went around the world. We tried to make the best of everything."
The only problem was that Hawk and Hanson took the act outside the ring. They lived in the fast lane, and the grind took a toll. Hanson, 62, now suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure. Hawk, 65, underwent a quadruple heart bypass 10 years ago.
"It was the hard life we lived," says Hawk. "We lived a very hard life. Our schedule was grueling. To overcome that because you're always on the go, you sit down and have a few drinks, you eat but you don't eat properly, and even though you go to the gym and train, you're just going to destroy it the next night with the food you eat."
"But we had some outstanding times," says Hawk, who now lives in Hereford, Texas, where he teaches at a junior high school and coaches wrestling at the YMCA. Hawk admits he enjoyed pulling ribs on his bigger partner, such as the time he hid Hanson's false teeth.
"We were in the Australian Outback, and we started drinking on the train since there was nothing else to do," recalls Hawk. "It took about five hours to go 70 miles out there. Swede had been drinking quite a bit. He always used to take his teeth out and put them on the counter when he went to bed. So I took his teeth and hid them. When he got up the next morning to get ready to go do TV, he couldn't find them and got very upset. He asked me and I told him he had been drinking a lot the night before. He went around to every wrestler's door accusing them of stealing his teeth, and he even knocked one door off its hinges. Finally after a rampage of about 15 minutes, he came back and I had his teeth on the counter again. Boy was he hot. But I pulled ribs all the time. I had a constant rib with him."
As the silent partner, Hanson just nodded in agreement during interviews as the arrogant Hawk enraged fans with his rhetoric.
"Rip never wanted me to talk, but I cracked up (announcer) Charlie Harville one night," Hanson says. "We were having an interview on High Point TV, and Rip would ask me a question, and he'd tell me to shut up. When the interview was over, we started walking away, and I said `Charlie, it was nice talking to you,' and he nearly fell on the floor."
"I stole that line from Swede and now I use it," jokes Hawk.
Hawk's patented coup de grace was the piledriver, while he taught the reverse neckbreaker to Hanson.
Hawk and Hanson competed in an era in which wrestlers sported scars as badges of honor.
"We used to get hurt," says Hawk. "We used to get our heads busted. I had my nose broken eight times, got a cauliflower ear, ribs broken, both elbows broken, kneecap broken, I don't know how many times my ankles have been traumatized, and I had my sternum split. Other than that, it was pretty good."
Hanson fared little better in the injury department. Both, however, were as much on the defense against crazed fans as they were ring foes. Hanson recalls a fan slicing his leg with a knife during a match with Billy Two Rivers in Lynchburg, Va.
All good things must come to an end, however, and so it was for the team of Hawk and Hanson. The two parted ways in 1977. Hawk hung up the tights for good in 1982, Hanson four years later.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Rip "The Profile" Hawk and Big Swede Hanson formed one of pro wrestling's top tag-teams for nearly two decades. In the final of a three-part series, Hawk relates how he broke into the business, and Hanson remembers the late Andre The Giant.
When Rip Hawk wrestled for the final time in 1982, he left the business with no regrets.
"I just got tired of it, plain and simple," Hawk says. "I always loved wrestling, but it was time to call it quits."
Hawk, who holds the distinction of having wrestled in five different decades, broke into the profession when bets were made on the outcome of matches.
"I remember walking to the ring and fans telling me they had a hundred on me," says Hawk. "Can you imagine that?"
Hawk, 65, has lived in the Texas Panhandle area for the past 19 years and has been involved with a number of successful business ventures.
"We were the originators of microwave popcorn on the cob," says Hawk. "It was a pretty good fad. I had business with Holiday Inns at Disney World in Florida, and sent it all over the world." Hawk, who teaches at a junior high school and coaches wrestling at a YMCA in Hereford, Texas, has also worked in the ice cream business and was instrumental in bringing a wrestling program to the local high school. But he says he watches very little pro wrestling these days.
"They think they're doing great with all that show biz. Clowns, midget clowns, guys with painted faces. It's a joke, a sideshow. They respected you back then. They just rattle today. Anybody could do it.
"They take these guys out of the gym and make them wrestlers. I can show you a jillion guys from the old days who didn't have much muscle, but they were hell in the ring. Guys were just natural characters back then. We didn't have to go out and act. We were ourselves. If you had the charisma, it showed. Just look at wrestlers like Johnny Valentine and Pat O'Connor. They had it.
"Wrestlers today don't have that desire. Years ago to get a position on a wrestling card, you had to earn it. Hawk gave Ric Flair one of his early career breaks in the early '70s when Flair was still a rookie. The "Nature Boy" was originally billed as Rip's nephew and teamed with him on occasion.
"I think that Flair's great," says Hawk. "The guy always had talent. And he still uses some moves. He hasn't forgotten what he learned."
Hawk's path to the wrestling game nearly took a detour since he was raised in a baseball family. Hawk, born Harvey Evers, was the son of a baseball star who played in the old Texas League. Related to Johnny Evers of the immortal Evers-to-Tinker-to-Chance trio, his father became a scout and trainer for the New York Yankees when his elbow gave out and cut short his pitching career.
"They pulled me into baseball all the time, but I couldn't take it," says Hawk. "It wasn't my thing. I loved wrestling. Hawk began wrestling in the late '40s. A stint in the Marine Corps and the Korean War interrupted his ring career until he returned in 1954.
Hawk speaks fondly, almost reverently, about the "old days" of the business.
"I was very fortunate to have wrestled in an era with old-timers who had been wrestling in the '30s and '40s," says Hawk. "They were outstanding wrestlers - guys like Ed "Strangler" Lewis and Jim Londos. Lewis was a classy guy. The old-timers would dress up, conduct themselves as athletes and gentlemen, and everyone respected them greatly back then.
"I wrestled guys like John Pesek, who used to take his mat under his arm and go to towns and challenge people. I was a young kid and scared to death, but to wrestle him was an honor."
Hawk was one of those who persevered. He had the ability and the desire, but his mat persona was not complete until a promoter came up with a catchy ring name.
"My sister started calling me Rip when I was about 10 years old," he says. "It was a good wrestling name. The Chicago promoter asked me my name, and I told him it was Rip Evers. He said that I had a sharp nose and I moved like a hawk. `We're going to call you Rip Hawk,' he said." The name stuck.
Rip "The Profile" Hawk met Swede "The Mule" Hanson in the late '50s and teamed with him for nearly 20 years. They parted ways in 1978 but never again found the success they had enjoyed as one of the greatest teams the sport had ever known.
Like his longtime partner, Hanson also has little interest in today's brand of pro wrestling. He did, however, make a rare appearance on a recent Smoky Mountain Wrestling show at the Grady Cole Center (formerly Park Center) in Charlotte. The program, billed as "Carolina Memories," featured many of the greats from the old NWA Mid-Atlantic area. The lineup of stars who were on hand to greet the fans included Johnny Weaver, "Mr. Wrestling" Tim Woods, Nelson Royal, Sandy Scott, Abe Jacobs and referee Tommy Young.
"It was weird for me to walk back through Park Center," says Hanson, 62. "It was $3 ringside back then. The last time I had been there was in 1981. But it was sure nice to see a lot of my old friends there." One of Hanson's closest friends in the business was the late Andre The Giant.
"I cried when I heard he died," says Hanson. "I cried a lot because I loved they guy. He was a fantastic person, and we got along great. He was such a gentleman, and I learned a lot from him as far as being outside the ring. He always found time to sign autographs for his fans."
Hanson and Andre were travel partners whenever the two were booked in the same area.