A Childhood Hero Dies
--The Journal Sentinel
Milwaukee- An icon in professional wrestling circles who was considered a man of the people because of his blue-collar Milwaukee roots, Reggie "The Crusher" Lisowski has died, losing his final bout to a non-cancerous brain tumor, his son said. Lisowski, 79, died Saturday night, having never fully recovered from surgeries to remove the tumor at the base of his brain stem, David Lisowski said Sunday.
The two surgeries affected The Crusher's ability to swallow and left him partially paralyzed. The brawny brawler had to be fed through a feeding tube for several months.
But the operations never crushed Lisowski's spirit, David Lisowski said.
Through it all, the Crusher kept on working out.
"He worked out on his last day. That's how he wanted to go," said David Lisowski, of Delafield. "He did concentration curls and triceps work. He just had to work out every day. . . . In his mind, he never thought he was old."
Lisowski, who played fullback for South Milwaukee High School, learned to wrestle while in the Army in Germany during World War II, old newspaper stories about him say.
The Crusher came back from the war and played semi-pro football, his son said.
Then one night, Lisowski, went to a carnival in town. There, someone had set up a ring and was urging people to step up. If you could beat the guy in the ring, you would get a $1.
"Well, he stepped into the ring and beat him, and he got a buck," David Lisowski said. "He did this for a couple of days and beat everybody. That's how he got interested in wrestling."
From there, he learned that some wrestlers worked out at the Eagles Club, so he joined. Eventually, he hooked up with a Chicago promoter, who got Lisowski matches at a small armory in Chicago, where the wrestler earned $5 a night.
In Chicago, Lisowski drew the attention of a promoter who booked wrestlers from all over the nation. That promoter, according the news reports, put Lisowski on national television and took him on the road. At one point, according to a 1952 news article, Lisowski drew 8,000 people to a bout in Buffalo, N.Y.
Lisowski and his family lived for a time in Canada and in Texas while he pursued wrestling full time, David Lisowski said. Eventually, they returned to the Midwest and Wisconsin, where the cigar-chomping, beer-drinking Crusher quickly became the people's favorite.
"The Crusher was a mainstay in professional wrestling for so long," promoter Frank DeFalco said of Lisowski's more than 30-year career, which spanned from the 1950s to the 1970s. "He sold out the Milwaukee Auditorium and Arena on a number of occasions."
A promoter along the way once said of Lisowski that the wrestler "just crushes everybody," David Lisowski noted, and that's how the name "The Crusher" began.
Though he began his career as a bad guy, people took to the barrel-chested wrestler. "He never really changed his style. He was a villain, but for some reason people started liking him more," David Lisowski said.
DeFalco says that was because The Crusher was just a good "old-fashioned wrestler."
In 1985, a reporter asked The Crusher why he was so popular in Milwaukee. "I think the working people identify with me, because years ago I worked when I wrestled, too. I worked in a packing house. I worked at Ladish, Drop Forge, Cudahy Packing House. I was a bricklayer. But finally, I got away from punching the clock," he said.
The flamboyant American Wrestling Association brawler became known as "the wrestler who made Milwaukee famous."
Some of the ads promoting wrestling, might have helped, too. DeFalco remembers one in which The Crusher had a barrel of beer on his shoulder and said he was going to kick "The Weasel's" butt all over Milwaukee and then "we'll have a party, take all the dollies down Wisconsin Avenue and go dancing." The Crusher was referring to Bobby "The Brain" Heenan.
In another commercial, The Crusher bent a tire in half. "Not many people can do that," David Lisowski said.
The Crusher teamed up with William "Dick The Bruiser" Afflis and won a number of tag-team titles.
Lisowski also participated in what people said was the first cage match ever, in which The Crusher took on Maurice "Mad Dog" Vachon. At one point, Vachon was kicking The Crusher, and "some woman was climbing the cage to save The Crusher," DeFalco said.
David Lisowski said his dad won the battle - Mad Dog ended up in the hospital, but The Crusher was a mess, too. "He came out really beat up. His head was cut up. He had a busted eardrum. The whole right side of his body was bruised. But the next day, he went to Green Bay to wrestle," David Lisowski said.
In 1985, The Crusher, still a favorite son, battled seven others for a different title - best amateur conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Billed as the "Battle of the Batons," The Crusher took third.
Although flamboyant, The Crusher took professional wrestling seriously.
In 2001, after fellow wrestler Jack Wilson died, a Wisconsin Public Television reporter wanted Lisowski's number to interview the wrestler for a special on professional wrestling.
The Crusher wanted no part of it.
"People make a joke out of it," he said of wrestling. "But it wasn't a joke to me. It was a living."