There are few names in the wrestling industry that are looked upon as fondly
as Ray "The Crippler" Stevens. Fans loved him - when he wasn't making them
hate him - and his fellow wrestlers thought he was just about the closest
thing to the perfect wrestler that ever existed.
"You see, anyone who ever saw Ray Stevens in his prime became a slobbering
mark for him. I should know because I was the biggest mark of all," wrote
Superstar Billy Graham in his autobiography. "I'd been a fan since the first
day I peeked through the slit in the curtain and beheld a master craftsman
performing his art. Stevens was so fluid, his timing was unassailable.
Nothing was ever rushed or delayed. He took big bumps on a hard ring, and
watching him sell made a believer out of me."
Carl Raymond Stevens, of West Virginia, used to hang around the Toe Hold
Club in Columbus, Ohio when he was just a teen, and started wrestling for Al
Haft when he turned 15 in 1950. Big and chunky, he would grow into a 5'7",
A huge fan of Buddy Rogers (hence the dyed blond hair), Stevens spent most
of his early years as a tag team competitor, teaming with and learning from
Don Fargo and Roy Shire. When Shire took over the San Francisco promoter, he
wanted his old partner on top.
It was a masterstroke that made him a legend, whether it was teaming with
fellow Blond Bomber Pat Patterson, or feuding with Pepper Gomez. The Cow
Palace became a second home, one where 17,000 fans would jam the place to
see a master in action, usually delivering his devastating Bombs Away knee
drop from the top rope.
In 1971, he headed to the AWA, where he gained "The Crippler" nickname, was
managed by Bobby Heenan and teamed with Nick Bockwinkel for three tag title
runs. "Ray was the consummate worker, the consummate professional," said
Bockwinkel. "Whether he went it alone, or he went in with somebody, six man,
four man, he just, when I saw he was a consummate professional, and he was
able to blend with anybody."
His last major runs came in the WWWF and Mid-Atlantic, where he helped shape
future stars like Jimmy Snuka and Ric Flair. Stevens retired for good in
Married for a time to woman wrestler Theresa Thies, he always enjoyed life
away from the ring too. "Ray was like a kid, he liked to play, whether that
meant wrestling, racing cars, rodeo or whatever," said Joe Pottgieser, who
ran a Stevens Fan Club in California.
In 1995, the mayors of San Francisco and Oakland jointly proclaimed April 5
"Ray Stevens Day", and he was honored as a true local legend. He suffered a
heart attack in late 1994 in Minnesota, and died in his sleep from heart
illness at the age of sixty on May 3, 1996 in Fremont, California. His funeral was a packed
affair, with old wrestlers, bikers, rodeo friends mixing and telling stories
- Chris Sokol and Greg Oliver