No Championship Necessary For Rodz’s WWE Hall Of Fame Career
Johnny Rodz's rise to WWE hall of fame status was a couple decades in the making.
At times, sports fans have short memories. Who the hot performer or player today is, this is who fans remember. True historians of the game know who the really, really important figures are that build organizations success.
When quizzing the average WWE fan on what members fill out the company's hall of fame roster, there are obvious names that come immediately to mind. Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, and Bret Hart lead the parade of wrestling legends.
But, there are others who contributed mightily to the world's premiere wrestling company's rise to prominence, dating back to the early 1960's when Vincent J. McMahon was operating Capital Wrestling Corporation based in Washington D.C.
John Rodriguez, better known by his ring name Johnny Rodz, is a hall of famer for several reasons. But, Rodz's induction into the WWE Hall of Fame (Class of 1996) at Manhattan's Marriott Marguis was a long time coming.
Rodz's story is unique.
Living in Staten Island, Rodz,80, remains active. During an early morning call, "The Unpredictable One", as he was billed during his ring introductions during the 1960s through early 80s with the WWE, is maneuvering through traffic. Rodz is a native New Yorker. He is a survivor. Decades in the ring was a whole lot tougher to succeed in than dodging vehicles hoping to beat red lights and stop signs, as is the case during our recent phone conversation.
" When I started (with WWE which then was the World Wide Wrestling Federation), there were no beepers and no cell phones," says Rodz who was raised on Mulberry Street in the heart of Manhattan's Little Italy.
Where many of today's WWE TV stars have risen to company prominence through their gaudy muscle size or outrageous ring attire, Rodz maintained his wrestling employment through earning his keep with his ring work. Taking bumps, and making his match a contest with whoever he was booked with, Rodz' talent spoke loudly.
Not yet 18-years-old, and determined to give wrestling his best shot, Rodz's story of getting an opportunity to prove to the McMahon-owned company that he was a worthy investment is one for the movies.
" I knew where the (WWE) office was at the Holland Hotel," recalls Rodz of the West 42nd Street building. " I was trying to be a wrestler, and just wanted a shot. I walked into the office and saw Arnold Skaaland. He said to leave my phone number. But, I didn't have a phone. At the time I was living with my aunt. So, I gave Arnold her number."
Aside from his public role as part-time wrestler and manager of then WWWF Champion Bruno Sammartino, Skaaland was part of the wrestling company's ownership.
Rodz remembers anxiously awaiting a call back from Skaaland for his big break. He tells of working out regularly with weights, training in judo and jiu-jitsu, a regular practice for the future hall of famer since age 14. With little formal education, Rodz saw wrestling as his way out of "the neighborhood," and becoming a "somebody."
Persistence paid off.
In the early 1960's there weren't many Puerto Ricans working their way up wrestling's success ladder. Rodz was determined to be an exception.
" I went back to the Holland Hotel, and kept knocking on the door. I also went to (McMahon's) other office on 54th street. So, one day I walk into the office. I see four guys playing poker, and one of them is Bobo Brazil (African-American wrestling star of the 1960s and 1970s). Arnold said to leave my phone number, and I reminded him that I already had given it to him."
Close to giving up on his wrestling dreams, after a few weeks went by, finally the call came.
" My aunt was leaving her house, and as I was coming in she said I had a call from Arnold. I ran into the house, and after three rings, Skaaland picked up," said Rodz, who in 1976, performing under the name Java Ruuk won the prestigious 22-man battle royal at Los Angeles' Olympic Auditorium.
Wrestlers in the 1960's were decades away from regularly flying to bookings. For Rodz, life in the "squared circle" meant potentially driving hundreds of miles to arenas - daily.
Skaaland gives the bursting with joy Rodz his instructions for match one of what would be an illustrious career. "Be at the arena tonight at 6:15", remembers Rodz of his trip to Commack, Long Island.
" I was in (Island Garden) the parking lot by 6:00 p.m.", said Rodz who had a singles match with then WWF Champion Bob Backlund on TV in 1980. " He (Skaaland) and me are the only people in the dressing room. Arnold books me with Don McClarity. I go 15 minutes with him. Don puts a sunset flip on me. Match over."
Little did Skaaland or McClarity know that Rodz had no formal training on how to "work". He "winged it", and earned high praise from his opponent. After shaking hands when returning to the dressing room, McClarity, according to Rodz, asked how long he had been working?
Thinking back to his debut, Rodz believes he was paid $35.00.
Another first, and perhaps most important development for Rodz, came a few weeks after his Commack appearance. In Queens' Long Island City, it was at Sunnyside Gardens that Rodz had his second pro match. He would also leave that night with a new identity.
" I was on second that night," recalls Rodz of the WWWF line-up. "Skaaland says there are three Rodriguez's working for the company at the time, and he asked me for a different name to use. I told Arnold that Rodriquez is my real name. He wanted something shorter, so it was Arnold that shortened my name from Rodriguez to Rodz."
From Sunnyside Gardens, Rodz was given bookings for Trenton, New Jersey, Madison Square Garden, and the rest, as they say, is history. As it turns out, Rodz's tenure with the McMahon-family-owned wrestling company remains one of the longest continual affiliations to date for a performer.
Getting the call that he was going to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame is another moment in Rodz's life that took an extra effort for the company.
" At the time I was living in Mill Basin (southeastern Brooklyn in New York City). I was laying titles in my house, when my wife said a call came in saying Vince (McMahon, Jr.) wanted to induct you into the hall of fame. I laughed it off, and didn't respond," said Rodz. "The next day, I get a call from Howard Finkel (WWE employee), and he says, "Johnny - This is for real. You didn't call us back. Vince wants to put you into the hall of fame. Who do you want to induct you?" I told him Arnold."
Rodz keeps in touch with several of his wrestling buddies from years back. "Pistol" Pete Sanchez and Davey O'Hannon in New Jersey, Manuel Soto in Puerto Rico, and Bruce Swayze. Memories remain fresh with Rodz of his traveling to pplaces like Witchi's Sports Arena in North Attleborough in Massachusetts on Fridays, and other venues with crowd capacities far less than the mega arenas numbering in the WrestleMania era.
Retired from ring action for more than two decades, Rodz has operated a successful training gym in NYC that has produced some very successful WWE performers. Tommy Dreamer, Taz, and Buh Buh Ray Dudley are among the line-up of pros Rodz influenced at his Gleason's Gym location.
Coming from an "old-school" era when TV prelim wrestlers as Lee Wong, Juan Caruso, Tomas Marin, and Bull Pometti were regular visitors to fans watching WWWF programing on their Black-and-White TVs, it was "The Unpredictable One" Johnny Rodz that rose above the pack and earned a hall of fame ring.
Don Laible is a freelance sportswriter living in the Mohawk Valley. He has reported on professional baseball and hockey for print, radio, and on the web since the 1980's. His columns are featured weekly at WIBX950.com. Don can be contacted via email at Don@icechipsdiamonddust.com.