published Friday, August 9th, 2013

Wrestling legend Gypsy Joe now battling for life: Medical bills benefit show Saturday in Rossville

  • photo
    Pro wrestler Gilberto Melendez, otherwise known as "Gypsy Joe," was a Chattanooga fan favorite in the 1970s, and is considered an icon in the business. His last official match came in 2011 at age 77, and health complications are wearing on him. Local wrestlers have organized a benefit show for his family Saturday night in Rossville.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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IF YOU GO

What: Gypsy Joe Benefit Show (wrestling)

When: Saturday

Where: 22 Austin Ave., Rossville

When: Bell time: 8 p.m.

Admission: $5

Urban legends say Gypsy Joe is the first pro wrestler to jump off a steel cage. Some say he perfected the chair shot. After decades of “hardcore” wrestling in Japan, the famed Chattanooga grappler became a living icon of endurance and performance.

But now the 79-year-old resident of La Vergne, Tenn., is against the ropes. The former champ has rickets and has traded his signature floral singlet for a hospital gown. A losing five-year battle with gout forced doctors to amputate his right foot last month. His entire leg could be next, and his daughter is struggling to pay for his expenses.

This is the unscripted life of a pro wrestler that TV cameras and loyal fans rarely see.

“I always said that he’d die in the ring,” his daughter, Jenee Beal, said. “Being a wrestler, there is no benefit. There’s just no safety net for those people who do this for a living.”

This Saturday, Empire Pro Wrestling and Pro Wrestling Chattanooga are tag-teaming to help the man who put their region on the map, with a benefit show in Rossville. The organizations hope to help Joe’s family pay his medical expenses, one $5 ticket at a time.

Gypsy Joe, born Gilberto Melendez, gave almost six decades to the “squared circle.” The Puerto Rican grappler wrestled his first match at 18 and developed a reputation for the extreme. His U.S. debut came in wrestling capital New York City, and he frequently beckoned opponents to attack him with wooden crates.

“When you wrestled Gypsy Joe, you knew you had been in a match,” said Pat Rose, a regional wrestling historian who squared off with Joe in 1979. “The crowds were so loud — brother!”

Gypsy Joe was known for his wild-man curly hair and painful “chops,” or backhanded slaps. His dedication to placing pain on the back burner made him a Chattanooga fan favorite in the late 1970s. He frequently appeared in TV spots and main-event card appearances as one-half of the regionally adored “No Pain Train,” selling out Memorial Auditorium on Saturday after Saturday.

Scenic City residents came in bunches with painted signs to see him and Tojo Yamamoto. The venue’s regal seating was a bizarre juxtaposition to the slams and rattles of pro wrestling.

Local wrestling was good to Joe and Chattanooga in the 1970s. Channel 12 would air promos early on Saturday afternoons, with costumed wrestlers boasting to TV journalists about the marquee nights to come.

But his daughter wasn’t always a fan.

“It was exciting, and sometimes devastating, because I didn’t want him to get hurt,” Beal said. “He kept me away from the smaller circuits.”

Joe saw fame across the Southeast, touring through warehouses in backwoods Georgia and glitz-and-glamor venues around Memphis. Occasionally, Beal and Joe would hit the road together, but the bulk of Joe’s career brought separation and hard times on the road.

“He traveled in and out of my life,” Beal said. “But wrestling is what he loved. That’s what he talked about all the time.”

As the draw of local wrestling fell victim to cable TV wrestling powerhouses like WWE and WCW in the 1980s, so did the recognition for many regional wrestling heroes who weren’t fortunate enough to find their way in front of a Hollywood camera.

“I didn’t really feel like he was getting the respect he deserved,” said Dan Wilson, Joe’s nephew and manager. “It’s awesome that we live in the Internet age with technology, but those days of regional wrestling are lost in modern culture. Every city had their own wrestlers and their old stars. But it was something so special and unique. People still believed then, but now it’s all showbiz.”

Joe retreated to Japan to work as a referee and trainer for younger stars, including fellow hardcore legends Terry Funk and Mick Foley. He earned the nickname “King of the Death Matches,” and earned a cult following where “puroreso,” or Japanese pro wrestling, is king. Joe may have needed a break from active wrestling, but he couldn’t escape the ring altogether.

“After wrestling, you gotta have something to keep you moving,” Rose said. “If you don’t, you’ll end up like everyone else. You may as well lay out in the fields and die.”

Gypsy Joe returned to the U.S. in the 2000s. His pace had slowed, but the veteran continued with a regular onslaught of local matches. His youthful muscles gave way to forehead wrinkles and a slower in-ring tempo, but crowds continued to pay to see the septuagenarian in the main event.

WWE Magazine honored Joe as the “World’s Oldest Wrestler” in 2007 at age 73, and the man who lived life through a diving knee drop would continue until his final match in 2011.

The retirement show in his Tullahoma, Tenn., hometown drew a congregation of old colleagues and new fans alike.

“You could tell there was some miles on him, but he still had that pep. He still had that fire,” Rose said. “He was still Gypsy Joe when I saw him.”

Whether or not fans get to see Gypsy Joe a final time Saturday, the legend’s legacy is secure. The doors will open and fans will pour in to watch their heroes from bleacher seats. Wrestlers will assemble for bell time back stage at 8 p.m. and say their prayers for Gypsy Joe.

“He really wants to be there,” Beal said. “I don’t think he can travel. But he’s still fighting.”

The show will go on in a community Joe helped build, while the man with unmistakable chops continues his own battle for health.

“He’s something special; he’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever met,” Rose said. “If there’s any guy who’s gonna kick out, so to speak, it’s him.”

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at 423-757-6592 or jlafave@timesfreepress.com.

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