Malone, Fla., native and longtime Dothan resident Leon Baxter was a hero to many when he stepped inside the squared circle wearing a mask as the legendary Wrestling Pro.
“Leon was old-school wrestling – man he was old-school,” longtime referee Larry Brock said. “He just loved the business and he was tough.
“I remember one time I was in the ring with him and he was wrestling Don Fargo. And Don Fargo said, ‘I’m from Hell’s Kitchen, N.Y.’ And Leon said, ‘I built Hell’s Kitchen.’”
Baxter died on Thursday at the age of 81. Besides being a top professional wrestling star in the 1960s and 1970s, he worked 22 years in the Houston County Sheriff’s Department.
Dothan’s Charlie Platt, who for years worked as a television commentator for the sport, believes Baxter was one of the best ever in the business.
“There are folks at national places that will disagree with me, but I’ll say this, I have seen two friends die in the month of August and I would rank them as the No. 1 and No. 2 toughest men that ever got in the wrestling ring,” Platt said, referring to former NWA champion Harley Race and Baxter.
“Those two could back up anything you saw, and more. He (Baxter) was a master of his craft. When they were breaking him in down here, they were doing a challenge that if you could pin the man within 10 minutes, you would get $1,000. Of course, nobody ever did. He was that tough.”
Platt said Baxter was one of the strongest wrestlers he ever saw.
“He could do a lot of amateur stuff and he was also a strong man,” Platt said of his talents in the ring. “He could pick up the biggest guy in the business and hold him up for a suplex and you would think he was going to hold him up there all night before he came down with him. He didn’t know exactly how strong he was.”
Platt saw another example of that brute strength while visiting Baxter’s home.
“I guess it was in 1977 that a hurricane came through and I went by his house to check on him,” Platt said. “There was a little barn behind his house and the storm had knocked down a power line to the little barn.
“I went to the door and his wife told me, ‘He’s out back.’ When I went around to the side of the house, here comes Leon up the hill with a deep freezer on his back. And he didn’t take the food out before he moved it.”
Baxter began his wrestling career in Oklahoma and went by the name of Tarzan Baxter. He would later wrestle throughout the southeast, often wearing a mask. Baxter and another Wiregrass resident, Dick Dunn, were a successful tag team known as the Superstars and Red Shadows.
But Baxter reached his greatest notoriety when he became the Wrestling Pro in the Gulf Coast Championship Wrestling territory, which included Dothan, Pensacola and Mobile as its primary venues.
“It seems like the story goes he put the mask on somewhere and he was more effective drawing with the mask on than without – the mystique of it,” Platt said. “He also kind of wanted to protect who he was down here. But he had that distinct voice and everybody knew it was Leon Baxter.”
Baxter was a headliner throughout much of his career before retiring from full-time competition in 1978, though he continued to help train other wrestlers.
“He was a big draw everywhere he went and made good money in the business and always took good care of his money,” Platt said. “He gave back to the business. Everywhere he went he was great because he could back up what he did.”