Those Cold Blue Eyes
A portrait of Dick the Bruiser
By Jim Walker

Nov 7, 2001, 11:21am
Dick the Bruiser, who lived most of his life in Indianapolis, was known as “the World’s Most Dangerous Wrestler.” He once started a riot so violent in New York’s Madison Square Garden that he was never allowed to take the mat in that state again. He broke arms and noses. He and his cohorts spilled pints of blood, smashed folding chairs over each other’s heads. He would yell into the TV microphone, “There isn’t a man alive I can’t lick.”

Dick called her “Rio.” On Saturday, Nov. 10, Dick will be dead 10 years. Rio says she’s doing all right with it, sunning herself on the beach behind the ocean-front condo he paid for with years of beatings.

Rio’s real name is Louise Iacona. She was the 13th child born to a family in Salem, Mass. She met Dick the Bruiser in Las Vegas, where she worked as a professional dancer and he was a bouncer. She was 19. He was 23. She liked wrestlers, but she fell in love with the Bruiser.

She’s 60-something now, and spends most of the time working on her tan. Although it’s storming in Indiana, it’s sunny where she is: Indian Rocks Beach, Fla. — the place where Dick died at 62 in 1991.

Rio recalls Dick thinking he had a case of the Hong Kong flu. He’d just returned from a tour of Japan where he was wildly popular. But this was much worse than the flu. A blood vessel burst in his esophagus while he was lifting weights in his home gym. He died almost instantly.

Rio was there. She was always there. “He was going to keep wrestling. He wouldn’t stop,” she says. “He was so macho he didn’t think he should stop. So he didn’t until he died.”

Dick the Bruiser, the gravelly-voiced professional-wrestling legend, died his way.

“It happened so fast. Nobody could do anything for him and he wouldn’t have wanted anybody to,” Rio says. “I’m sure God knew that was the way Dick wanted it.”
Now, she talks to her husband most every day. “I tell him, ‘You’re up there, so leave me alone. I’m down here and there’s nothing you can do about it now.’”

He was her life

Even from the afterlife, Dick the Bruiser is big enough to reach down and touch those close to him — even those who only saw the burly blond brute wrestle on their black and white TVs. Everyone has a Dick the Bruiser story. They rode bikes past his house and saw him sitting in a lawn chair. They saw him break somebody’s arm in a bar. He babysat their cousin.

Rio knew him best. She took care of him for 38 years; in their Kessler Avenue home, she cooked eight-course meals that started at 9 p.m. and lasted until midnight. She barbecued course after course to satisfy her 275-pound husband’s endless appetite. They screamed at each other out by the pool. Once, she thought he was a burglar and took some shots at him with one of their many guns. “Hey, you crazy bitch,” he yelled from behind the trash bin. “It’s me.”

He was her life. And she liked it that way. “I was his chief bottle washer. I didn’t mind doing it,” Rio tells me. “My friends, the neighbors, they would tell me, ‘I wouldn’t do that.’ I just told them, ‘You’re not me.’ I enjoyed being a housewife and taking care of him and the kids and the animals.”

When Dick was working an out-of-town wrestling show, Rio would always leave a meal on the kitchen table. That usually meant 35 pieces of chicken. He’d sit down and munch it all at 2 a.m.

Even when she wasn’t in the kitchen, Dick had jobs for her. At his favorite Chinese buffet on 38th Street, Dick would assign Rio and Michelle, their daughter, the task of peeling the breading off the fried shrimp. He only wanted pure meat. And there was something symbolic about having the women do this for him.

“He was a controlling man. German men are always bossy. That didn’t bother me. I allowed him to be the man of the house,” Rio says. “Today, a lot of women wouldn’t accept that. I took the good and the bad. He was a powerful, hard-working man. And I was committed to him 100 percent. No, he wasn’t perfect. But who is?”

Everybody feared him

He was born William Afflis in the small town of Delphi, just outside of Lafayette. His mother, Margie, wanted a girl. She was so sure the baby was going to be female that she had the room decorated in pink and bought lots of frilly, pink clothes. When it turned out the child was a boy, she denied it for three days.

Bill attended Jefferson High School in Lafayette, living on his own in an apartment at age 16. He became a football star there, earning all-state honors and a scholarship to Purdue University. Already a bruiser, his rough tactics — including using a helmet to bean a Purdue assistant coach who had yelled at him — led to an early departure.

That brought him to school in Las Vegas, where his feisty attitude was overlooked and his hard-hitting diligence appreciated. “He was not such a great athlete back then,” Rio recalls. “He just tried so hard. He put everything he had into what he was doing. That’s why he got the scholarship. He was 5-foot-11. He was not a very big person. But he was strong as a moose. He would walk around the roof of the whole athletic building on his hands. He didn’t fear anything. But everybody feared him.”

Between colleges, Bill changed his name to Dick. And it was while working as a hardnosed bouncer at Harold’s in Reno that he drew the nickname “the Bruiser.” After graduating from college in Nevada, Dick signed up as an offensive lineman with the Green Bay Packers. This was 1951 and the pre-Lombardi Green Bay team was the worst in pro football — more interested in drinking than winning.

He played football until 1955 when he figured out he could make twice as much money on the wrestling circuit. Then, after nearly a decade of working as a much-hated bad guy for other promoters, Dick and fellow wrestler Wilbur Snyder — “the World’s Most Scientific Wrestler” — took over running their own events in the Midwest.

Dick the Bruiser, with his Championship Wrestling show live on Channel 4 each week, was a star in his home city and a legend around the country and the world. He had a big house on Kessler with a stand-up urinal in the bathroom and a swimming pool out back. He’d sit poolside almost immediately after waking at noon, doing business by phone and date book until well after midnight. Dick and Rio slept in a one-of-a-kind, 10-foot-by-10-foot bed. He drove a customized white Cadillac Eldorado with bright red interior. He threw big parties for the Indy 500, where he and Wilbur would race dune buggies — usually crashing them into the house or mailboxes. He drank Japanese beer before matches and two bottles of champagne afterwards. He was living the life and everybody loved him. Especially kids.

Rubbing it in the blood

Scott Romer, growing up in Indianapolis, was one of those kids. His parents were at a loss to figure out how to deal with their hyper 7-year old, who was struggling to pay attention in school. About the only thing Romer cared about was the Bruiser and pro wrestling. So a psychiatrist recommended taking him to a live wrestling show.

“As a child, that was the most exciting moment of my life, getting to see that. I remember taking my autographed program and rubbing it in the blood to see if it was real,” Romer says of the first match he attended, where the Black Jacks and “Pretty Boy” Bobby Heenan wrestled Dick and the Crusher in 1968.

Romer relives this moment, sitting in the cluttered downtown office of his photography business. Pictures of Dick and current WWF wrestlers hang on the wall, along with former President Gerald Ford, Mr. T, professional boxers and assorted nameless wedding parties. Romer makes his living taking portraits and photographing social gatherings — as well as covering high profile boxing and wrestling events.

“Wrestling was something I could always understand. I knew what time it was going to start on TV from the time I was 3 or 4 years old,” he says. “And, when the wrestlers would yell at each other, it just kind of reminded me of something I could relate to. So I just followed that path. And, to this day, things haven’t changed much.”

By the time he was 9, Romer was running up to the ring, taking a quick picture or two with his Instamatic 104 and hurrying back to his seat before one of the cops got to him. Soon, he was selling the pictures to fans, making as much as $200 or $300 a night, stuffing dollar bills into his shoes and pockets.

Eventually, the Bruiser caught wind of young Romer’s money-making venture and ordered him backstage. Getting his first glimpse behind the scenes, Romer saw all of the good guys and bad guys grouped together in the same large locker room. Just past them, Dick and Wilbur shared their own private two-room area — a lobby where wrestlers waited for payment of either $45 or $95 and a changing room stocked with a cooler of beer. There, Romer sat nervously in front of the Bruiser. Dick said it was OK to sell his pictures. Romer just had to bring him 20 percent of the take.

“Everything had its price,” Romer says. “But, for the experience I had, I would have paid to do it.”

By the time he was 14, Romer was selling pictures to Pro Wrestling Illustrated and wrestling magazines in Japan. He became the Bruiser’s official photographer, catching rides to and from matches with Dick’s TV announcer, retired wrestler Sam Menacker. Romer was living a dream. And Dick became like a father to him, giving him his first beer, teaching him about the business — and life.

“Back in those days, if you were a fan of wrestling, you were persecuted. I had friends and relatives telling me it was fake. I knew that some of it was fake. But I still wanted to believe in Santa Claus,” Romer says. “It wasn’t really until I started going into the dressing rooms and seeing the Germans like Baron von Raschke and Ivan Koloff speaking with a regular American accent that I figured it out.

“The wrestlers would pretend to have arguments when they’d see me come up the stairs. They’d hit the lockers and do things to try to intimidate me. But I couldn’t get intimidated. The Bruiser protected me.”

Living in Bruiser’s world

Their relationship would grow even closer a few years later. Dick’s 30-year-old daughter, Michelle, had been married to wrestler Spike Huber for nine years. They lived next door to Dick and Rio. One night, Huber didn’t come home. He’d decided to leave Michelle for another woman. This didn’t please Dick, who sat on Huber’s porch with a shotgun, awaiting his return.

Huber wisely stayed away until Dick was out of town. Then he told Michelle they were through, and hit the road. Romer, 24 at the time, was soon dating Michelle and handling Huber’s old job, which meant taking the ring truck on the road, setting up the ring and tearing it down — all for $45.

He and Michelle soon married. But there was no fear in becoming son-in-law to Dick the Bruiser. “He was my childhood idol. Throughout my marriage, I was very proud to be able to call him my father-in-law,” Romer says. “I had a love relationship with Dick. I was young. I wanted to be a family member. So that was probably part of my motivation for getting married. Although I thought, at the time, I loved her.”

Romer soon discovered what being part of the family entailed. “I had to give up my life, what I had, my friends, because Bruiser always wanted us hanging around him,” he says.

Every summer, Romer’s stepson played little league football. Romer skipped a game once to play tennis with a friend. Dick got so upset that he called Michelle at 2 a.m. and told her their ocean front condo was available for a week and she could go down there and stay — but Romer wasn’t included. The next day, she had her bags packed. One week ended up being three weeks — punishment because Romer chose tennis over his stepson’s football game.

Meanwhile, Romer became more and more a part of the Bruiser’s wrestling business, performing as an on-screen manager named Saul Kreechman. Romer portrayed a bad guy who cheated to help his team win; Kreechman was an enemy of the Bruiser’s. So, when Romer went to his in-law’s house, Dick wanted him to wear a disguise so people wouldn’t see the two being friendly.

Eventually, things fell apart and Romer decided it was time to get out of his marriage with Michelle. On the night before he secretly planned to pack his toothbrush and cameras and depart, Dick paid a visit. He was wearing army fatigues and a Nazi hat, carrying a wooden gun that Romer thought, at first, was real.

“He just came upstairs and sat in the recliner and stared at me with those cold blue eyes. I thought it was the end of my life. I thought he knew something,” Romer says. “And it was just a joke. I saw my life going before my eyes. And I’m wondering, ‘How does he know?’ He was just joking me. That was his sense of humor.”

Here comes Junior

When Romer left, Tim Replogle — then wrestling as the Bruiser’s rival, the Golden Lion — stepped into the picture and married Michelle. With his father, Karl, a longtime referee for Dick’s shows, Replogle grew up a fan of the Bruiser — even when Dick was a much-hated heel in the early days. “I didn’t care. I loved him,” Replogle says.

Part of the attraction was young Replogle’s strong resemblance to Dick. With his stocky build and crew-cut hair, Replogle looked more like his hero than did Carl, the Bruiser’s real son. As Replogle grew into a bulky young man, he asked Dick to train him as a wrestler. Six months later, the Golden Lion was World Tag Team champion with the Wild Polynesian Man.

“Dick was the real deal,” says Replogle, a former high school teacher and wrestling coach who works full-time as a food broker in Fort Wayne. “In the ring and out of the ring, he was always the same person. He was always a rough, tough type of guy.”

Replogle remembers when Dick’s appendix burst during an outdoor show in Fort Wayne. The Bruiser didn’t go to the hospital that night or the next. Finally, on the third night, in excruciating pain, he drove himself to the emergency room.

“When he got there, he told them not to tell anybody he’d been in the hospital or he’d come back and beat them up,” Replogle recalls. “It was unheard of for him to be sick or in pain. He didn’t want anybody to see him that way.”

After 20 years as the Golden Lion, Replogle is now doing the circuit as Dick the Bruiser Jr. — drawing fans to shows in bars, halls and skating rinks here in Indianapolis. They love him. He looks and sounds just like the Bruiser and knows his trademark move: The Stomach Claw.

Following Dick’s death, promoters put a match together. Spike Huber and Replogle were a tag-team called “the Husbands” and Romer was their manager. Romer and Replogle wound up getting knocked out in the middle of the ring. Huber was the only one left standing. He picked up Michelle and left. She never went back to Replogle.

Michelle remarried Huber — her high school sweetheart and the father of her three kids — after 15 years apart. They live in Memphis, Tenn., and work as athletic trainers. “When we saw each other, it was inevitable that we’d get together again,” Michelle says. “It’s really unusual for things to work this way. But it’s good.”

She’s happy now with a quiet life away from wrestling. Growing up in Indianapolis, people often intruded on her family when they went out to eat or went shopping. “You felt like you were a movie star. We had a limo and people knew us everywhere we went. A lot of the people in Indianapolis would have rather seen him than the president,” Michelle says of her dad. “But I’m glad to have the simple life now. It was nice to have had a chance to experience both.”

Even if that meant seeing her dad do some frightening things. “Watching him was pretty scary for me. We saw matches at 8 years old and they were really rough and bloody,” she says. “It’s not like today. It was kind of stressful watching everybody get hurt so bad.”

Just as it was, sometimes, to have Dick the Bruiser for a dad. “That was pretty hard for me, being a girl. He was so domineering and really strict. That’s how he showed his love and everything, just like he did in the ring,” she says. “I guess that’s what made him good at what he did. It was really him.”

Watching from heaven

Dick the Bruiser’s last appearance in the ring was as a special guest referee for a WWF event in St. Louis. He was suffering from sore ankles and recovering from a hernia operation. At 62 years old, he struggled to lift himself into the ring. The fans booed him as he played the role of a victim. He couldn’t bend to his knees to make the count at the end of the match.

Romer was there taking pictures. He and Dick hadn’t talked since his marriage to Michelle ended. And they didn’t that night. “Bruiser had almost become a carnival act. His body was deteriorating, muscle had turned to atrophy. Wrinkles started showing,” Romer says. “It was very, very sad. No matter what it was worth, he was always my childhood idol. And to see him deteriorate like that, I was very sad. He couldn’t get away from the camera. And, in his mind, he still thought he could compete with the best of them.”

Michelle, who watched her dad on television that night, had a similar reaction. “It was like, oh my God, I can’t believe he did that,” she says. “I remember he called and said, ‘How did I look?’ and I said, ‘Oh, you looked good.’ What else could I say? He was my dad.”

If Dick is watching from heaven, as his wife Rio believes, he’s surely happy to know people still remember him in a better way. His stories remain alive.
“He had a deep heart. It just didn’t show — not even to me all that much,” Rio says, noting that he made lots of unpublicized visits to ailing veterans and donated time and money to other causes. He also deeply loved his mother and grandchildren. “He had a loud bark. He made a lot of noise. But there were two sides to him.”

She saw the other side of Dick shortly before his death. “He told me, ‘I did a lot of things that weren’t quite right by you. But I want you to know you gave me peace of mind. And that’s something money can’t buy. If I had something that needed to be done, my baby took care of it for me. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.’

“If there was ever any payback coming to me, I got it all then,” Rio says.

Even 10 years after her husband’s passing, she’s still hung up on Dick. “I loved him. I still love him. He’s the reason why I can’t find another man today,” she says. “Nobody compares to Dick.”