East Tennessee wrestling legend passes away

Matthew Lane • Apr 23, 2015 at 7:32 AM

KINGSPORT - If you went to a wrestling event in Kingsport in the 60s and 70s, then you know the name Ron Wright.

And chances are you probably hated him too.

Wright, 76, a Kingsport wrestling legend and notorious “heel”, passed away on Tuesday at his home with his family by his side. A celebration of life gathering will be held at Hamlett-Dobson funeral home on Saturday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Wright, along with his brother and tag team partner Don, were two of the most well-known wrestlers in the Tri-Cities from the 1960s through the 1980s.

“(Ron Wright) is without a doubt to this area what Jackie Fargo was to Memphis, Johnny Weaver was to the Carolinas, and Mr. Wrestling 2 was to Atlanta. The only thing different is he was home grown,” said Beau James, owner of Southern States Wrestling. “He is ours. Ron is an East Tennessee original and leaves behind box office records that will never be broken, memories that anyone that ever saw him will cherish and many fans, friends, and a family who loved him.”

Wright began his wrestling career in the early 1950s at the Kingsport Boy's Club, then began working for a local boxing and independent wrestling promoter who ran events out of the Kingsport Civic Auditorium. Wright initially worked as a referee, but his first big in-ring break came in 1961 when he faced his friend Whitey Caldwell in a television match.

During the match, Wright threw Caldwell out of the ring so hard it broke his shoulder and sidelined him for a year.

James said that's how the feud started between Wright and Caldwell.

In the 60s and 70s, no one drew more heat in the ring than Wright; he was the quintessential East Tennessee redneck heel. Matches were held weekly in Kingsport, Bristol and Johnson City, with Wright teaming up with his brother Don and others, including Tiny York and Fred White.

Ron and Whitey even mended their differences long enough to win the Southern Tag Championship in 1966.

“Many of these packed houses were due to one simple fact. People were coming to see Ron Wright lose,” James said. “No one had heat like him.”

Former wrestling Manager Big Al Bass attributes his start in the business to the Ron and Don Wright.

“I started out setting up the ring, then they let me be a photographer and I just gravitated into the business,” Bass said. “It's a sad day for East Tennessee. Ron was our celebrity and he was my childhood growing up. Ron was hated, but loved too and he was really respected.”

From Kingsport to Knoxville was Wright territory, Bass said.

Wright later became a manager for such wrestlers as the Mongolian Stomper and the Dirty White Boy. In the late 1980s, Wright began showing up on television again for Ron Fuller's Continental Wrestling.

“I only met him a handful of times but because of his contributions to the business, pro wrestling in Kingsport is still popular today,” said Tony Givens, owner of the NWA Smoky Mountain wrestling promotion.

Local wrestler and Iron Ring Wrestling owner Jeff Tankersley said when he was going through a hard time in life and feeling way down, he happened to run into Ron Wright at the Food City gas station.

“(Ron) pulled up in his black Monte Carlo SS and I remember him getting out of his car with his cane, walking over to me and saying, 'Son. Hold your head up. Don't let what they are saying get you down...keep moving forward,” Tankersley said. “He will never know how I needed to hear that, especially coming from him.”

In October 1988, James said he promoted his first wrestling event for Continental Wrestling through Ron West. In the main event was Wright managing Moondog Spot vs. Ron Fuller. Wright had lived in North Carolina for a few years, but moved back to Kingsport in the early 1990s, was involved in local dirt track and go-cart racing.

James said Wright's health made him stop making appearances and one of his last appearances was at the Brad Armstrong memorial event in 2014.

“I don't think you will ever find anyone that could get the heat that Ron could by just talking,” James said. “His actions around the ring were sneaky, and with him just standing up out of his seat he could bring everyone in the arena to their feet.”

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