Rediscovering The Gorgeous One
From Odessa Steps Magazine Issue Six, Matt's article about Gino Hernandez wrestling in Houston for Paul Boesch.
When it comes to pro wrestling, contextual sources should be taken as suspect. House gates can be inflated. Shoot interviews have the most dubious of untrustworthy narrators (wrestlers). Dirt sheets can be contradictory and often received inputs from biased leakers. This is increasingly true the further back you go as such sources become less frequently available, memories become fuzzier, and conventional wisdom overtakes the actual truth. It is even more perilous when judging wrestlers' in-ring skill, for critics may value different attributes than the wrestlers themselves. In such cases, primary sources, filmed matches themselves, in large number and against many different opponents, can serve as the best sort of evidence.
Of course, this also becomes more problematic as we get further into history. Much of what we have on tape, even back into the 80s, tends to be studio matches. Arena footage, those week in and week out matches in front of much the same crowds, where balance between measured innovation, variety, and all the old tricks in the book, was necessary, is exceedingly rare. Thanks to the wonder of Buddy Rose's ego, we have some of the Saturday night Portland TV, which just happened to be from the Arena. Deeper into the decade we have Continental television. Of course, we have the oft-tedious MSG footage and the all-too clipped "garbage tapes" from Mid-Atlantic. Past that, it's just bits and pieces, a Memphis match here, an AWA one there, not whole shows and certainly not whole shows on a weekly basis.
That's always called into question the stories of just how good Gino Hernandez was. Much like a David Von Erich, Gino died young, passing away under debatably suspicious circumstances at age 29. According to Gary Hart's book, this was right before he was to start, with Chris Adams, in Crockett. Up until a year or two, what we had of his career was a bit of Georgia TV, some Southwest TV, World Class TV and some stadium shows, plus a spot or two in Japan. While the World Class footage was very much Gino in his prime, there was only so much one was expected to do against the Von Erichs in Texas. It certainly wasn't comparable to other territorial anchors of the era, be it Rose in Portland or Lawler in Memphis.
That changed with the onset of the NWAonDemand service, footage from the weekly Houston Arena cards from the Paul Boesch library. The footage is generally from 78-86, whole cards posted one match at a time as reels are converted. Gino was a mainstay until 1983 (with a short run in 1984 as well), having turned heel into 1978 and having stayed close to the top of the card as a heatseeker drawing in crowds who wanted to see him get comeuppance until he left. In two years of weekly uploads, we've gotten dozens of Gino matches from multiple eras. In the paragraphs to follow, I'd like to share what we've learned, highlighting some of Gino's feuds and certain takeaways about him as an in-ring worker, using specific matches as primary evidence.
Nothing of babyface Gino has been posted, but we have a number of post-turn matches in 1978 and 1979 that give us a great look at how he was developing as a heel at age 21 and 22. Here he was still finding his way, playing up his flamboyance for the last row and even baiting the crowd's homophobic tendencies a bit. He bumped big and distinctly, including the Flair flip into the corner (which Flair himself could not have been doing for too long), stooged heavily against not just dominant opponents like Rocky Johnson (7/7/78) (going so far as to get spanked by him to the crowd's absolute delight) but also against ones with a sort of moral superiority, like erstwhile ref and occasional wrestler Nick Kozak (9/8/78) or the young Von Erichs.
He was very good, even very early, at only taking advantage in a match after he'd earned it through a bit of underhandness. In taking control against the technically superior Kevin Von Erich (1/11/80), he made sure to pull his opponent's tights to escape a hold and, in the rope-running that followed, made sure to eat a shoulder tackle before sneaking a kneelift in to start the match's heat segment. Even then, he got the most out of what he was doing, tossing Kevin out for a king of the mountain segment; this minimized how much he actually had to get over on Kevin and gave him plenty of time to play to the crowd, both great things for a vulnerable heel. For someone who had to serve as a lead heel in a city, week in and week out, he was incredibly selfless in this regard. While he was portrayed as dangerous and conniving, and while he had a top notch finisher for the late 1970s with his back elbow drop off the second rope, his endless stooging both kept the match engaging and made his opponents look good at all imes, even in defeat. This served to put more all the more heat on him when he won a match, even more than if he had dominated the babyfaces the whole way through.
The footage does come in bits and pieces. For instance, we have only the tiniest hints of his most memorable feud of this earlier era (78-79), with Jose Lothario, his former mentor. Much like Lawler and Dundee in Memphis, they were able to headline cards week after week with a different gimmicks, a karate glove match, a cage match, a Mexican Death match, and a loser painted yellow match. Past some tag team matches with various opponents (including frequent partner Gran Markus for Gino and El Halcon for Lothario) we unfortunately only have the Texas Death Match (1/19/79), but it's viscerally violent and absolutely heated. If Gino was someone whose greatness we can try to reaffirm through the Houston footage, Lothario was a uncovered gem. He was one of wrestling's great punchers with incredible timing on just when to unload on a comeback, knowing exactly how to play the crowd for ultimate effect. The hints of tag matches and promos, along with the big gimmick match, provide sure signs of just how classic this feud was and just why they could successfully run it for as long as they did.
Gino branched out further in 1980, staying near the top of the card in Houston with a number of memorable feuds against a variety of opponents, proving himself by year's end against national and international stars. By this point he could carry even more of his side of the match. He started the year feuding with former partner Gran Markus. In general, he served as a natural foil for someone to turn babyface against, because he was so committed to his character and to drawing heat, even at the expense of his own reputation of toughness. For that reason he made the ideal opponent for newly turned Mark Lewin. We're lucky to have Lewin's face turn against Gary Hart in a match against JJ Dillon's Toru Tanaka (4/11/80). It's a great twenty-five minutes of pro wrestling that had been hidden away from the viewing audience for decades, with the crowd electric for Lewin to break his long-time alliance with his manager. Gino punctuated this perfectly by running into attack Lewin and side with Hart, setting up a feud tht would get the fans to support the turn all the more. The matches that we have (5/16/80, 9/12/80, 10/3/80) show Gino really getting the best out of Lewin, who shined a minamalist walking tall babyface, with big mean shots and a bumping, chickenshit heel to play off of.
Gino played a similar role for Brody at times during the year, and from the footage we've gotten (8/29/80), he served as one of Brody's best opponents in Houston. If you're not going to have someone who will go toe to toe with him and make him give more than usual (like the Mongolian Stomper for whom we have a great Brody match) a heel unafraid to stooge up and down is best. That's not all he could do by this point, however. We have a Jr. Heavyweight Title match with Les Thornton (10/24/80) where he portrayed a more dominant technical cheater, believably keeping the champion on edge throughout the match (we have a great NWA International Jr. Heavyweight title match with Chavo Sr. from the next year (5/22/81) with Lou Thesz as ref where Gino has to literally fight off the crowd on the way in too). There's also a match with the original Sicodelico (5/9/80) where Gino's able to deftly adapt his style to a more lucha feel. Given his last name, he was occasionally paired off with luchadores when they came to Houson. He finished the year with two big matches that really showed his burgeoning star power, first holding his own against Dusty Rhodes (12/5/80), and then working a classic-style NWA Title match with Harley Race (12/11/80). For the NWA title match, the big December show for the year, he worked as an underdog who had the crowd behind him, a heel, but their local, personal one. Still, he never broke his character, ultimately losing his chance due to the over the top rule and then willfully squandering all of the goodwill he had garnered during the match by throwing a temper tantrum.
By the beginning of 1981, Gino was fully developed, able to carry the weight as lead heel against opponents big and small. He'd just survived a gauntlet of Brody, Lewin, Dusty, and Race, but even more telling is his performance from March against someone near the bottom in the card in Gary Young (3/28/81). Young had gone to high school with Gino and he had the crowd's sympathy because he was billed from Houston, but he was an opening match guy. It was definitely a mismatch on paper. Despite that, Gino worked with him for twenty-six minutes, giving up much of the match but always in a way that made Young look good, never really at his own expense. Young lost the match but was far more valuable to Boesch afterwards than he was before. Gino wasn't hurt in the least. That's just how good he had become in a few short years.
At this point, he no longer needed a partner. Despite that, in getting one, he went from being excellent to cementing his legendary status. With the turn of the year to 1981, Boesch moved away from Hart and Lewin and started using Joe Blanchard's Southwest Championship Wrestling talent instead. This brought Tully Blanchard into the territory and it was immediately a match made in hell. The two were the Dynamic Duo, perfectly balanced to one another. Unlike other great teams, be it a flying technician in Bobby Eaton and a flashy showman in Stan Lane or the workrate of Tommy Rogers and the charisma of Bobby Fulton, Gino and Tully were two of the same: dirty, stooging, mean, and arrogant, doubling down on a good thing in a way that's rarely been seen in wrestling history. They were paired off against a myriad of teams and we've been lucky enough to be able to see a number of these matches: against Scott Casey/Tiger Conway Jr. (1/16/81, the first a solid Southwest babyface and the second another hidden find in te Houston footage),Junkyard Dog and Conway (9/25/81), Mil Mascaras and Manny Fernandez (9/18/81), Tommy Rich and Dick Slater (12/11/81), Mascaras and Tito Santana (12/18/81), and into 1982 the lost team of Ricky Morton and Ken Lucas (9/5/82). They were brilliant heels in these matches, showing tail during the shine, cutting off the ring and using every trick in the book when in control, and often times stealing a victory in the most aggravating way possible. Gino stood out especially, a constant burst of motion, always basking in a moment of victory or recoiling against a moment of defeat, gloating from the outside when Tully was in charge, trying to sneak around for a cheapshot at every chance he had. He was fully committed and always on, drawing the fans in from the first instance they saw him to the final one when he retreated to the back. He exuded full investment in about every moment of the match; if he cared that much about what was going on, the fans would too.
The partnership with Tully wasn't just limited to tag matches. Each of them constantly interfered in the other's singles matches as well. There are special matches and moments with Gino we haven't gotten yet (such as the cage match with Rich (5/14/82), set up by Gino costing Rich a title match with Bockwinkel (3/26/82) and with a stipulation that Boesch had to kiss Gino's foot if he won, or a dog collar match with JYD (2/5/82)), but we do have a Mask match vs Mascaras (11/26/82), with Tully in a cage above the ring, and much of the feud with Dick Slater has been released. The latter, much like the Lewin turn, feels like another missing piece of wrestling history finally brought to light. The two feuded over the Southwest title in 1981-1982 and all of this came to head in an incredibly heated loser leaves town challenge in September (9/3/82). The prelude to the match was the duo coming out to attack Tony Atlas after he finished a brass knuckles match with the Mongolian Stomper. Slater made the save and they sgued right into the main event, thus ensuring a certain level of excitement from the very beginning. Atlas and Blanchard would show back up by the end, and the pop and the general atmosphere for Gino finally getting his comeuppance was absolutely electric. It was the sort of sustained pop that would have been talked about for years if we had the footage earlier. This was the sort of reaction that Gino could inspire.
That match and feud, like many of the actual specific details of Gino's pre-World Class career, had simply been forgotten. There was no footage of it. It had not been written about much. Thankfully, though, we were able to see it again after all these years and to get such a better grasp of the true quality of Gino Hernandez as a heel, a star, and a pro wrestler. As I write this, the service's future is up in the air. There are still dozens of Gino Hernandez matches that have not yet been converted and posted. I hope that we get them eventually. For now, though, I''m glad that we've gotten those ones that we have, and that we finally have the proof to realize that Gino was a wrestler who absolutely lived up to both his reputation and his promise. I only wonder what might have been if he had lived into his thirties to go on to Crockett and elsewhere and I think that Paul Boesch, who obviously cared for him so deeply, would be happy to know that a new audience has been able to rediscover him almost forty yearsafter the fact.
In addition to being a contributor to Odessa Steps Magazine and the WInter Palace Podcast, Matt D writes regulary for the Segunda Caida website.