In the world of pro-wrestling, the line between what's real and fake is always blurry — and the true story about the death of wrestler Bruiser Brody complicates the unclear division between fantasy and actual events. Recently discussed on Viceland's newest series, "Dark Side Of The Ring," the murder of Brody, an absolute legend in the industry even before the killing, shows how complicated the politics of kayfabe really can be.
What's known about Brody's early life is that he was born Frank Goodish in 1946 and that he played football in college at Iowa State and later at West Texas State, according to "The Squared Circle: Life, Death, And Professional Wrestling" by David Shoemaker, who noted the latter school's athletics program would go on to produce several iconic wrestling performers. Brody briefly flirted with a longer football career before he was discovered by Fritz Von Erich, described by Shoemaker as a "Texas wrestling mogul," who gave Brody his wrestling nickname. He was later married to Barbara Smith, who remained his partner until his death. Together, they had a son named Geoffrey Dean Goodish.
Many other details of Brody's early life have been kept secret, as he prioritized the integrity of his pro-wrestling persona over the public's desire for "real" biographical information. In fact, during that era of pro-wrestling, it was fairly common for characters to assume the identity of their alter-egos even outside of the ring, in order to preserve the legitimacy of the performance. Brody was reluctant to even discuss his "shoot" (backstage wrestling slang for real) name in public.
A video of Brody — shockingly out-of-character — explaining his recalcitrance first appeared on YouTube in 2009.
"I don't think it's good that anyone knows I'm Frank Goodish," he says in it.
Evan Husney, the producer of "Dark Side of the Ring," explained that it was Brody's commitment to the illusory world of pro-wrestling that made him such a fascinating — but complicated — subject.
"This was the coolest, outlaw era of wrestling," Husney told Oxygen.com. "These wrestlers had to do everything they possibly could to protect the business and not expose it. Even if that meant living their character in real life and the stakes of that. The honor, and the code. To have that take place in a murder story — that happening in that world — it's even more crazy to try and figure out what's true and what's not."
"If you look at Brody, you might have seen a wrestling match before he came on and have been like, 'This is fake, this is whatever,'" Husney continued. "But then Brody comes out, swinging his chain right in front of your face. Then, him and Abdullah are bleeding on you, right in the stands. You're going to be like, 'Wait a minute, maybe this is real!' And that's an art form. It's a crazy art form. It's nuts, but it's also amazing. To take your gimmick and bring it out into the real world and still keep it up, it's incredible. It's the theater of life."
As a wrestler, Brody ascended to stardom seemingly instantaneously. His monstrous proportions (he was billed at 6'8" and 295 pounds) and leonine mane left a strong impression on crowds and led him to be cast as a "monster heel" — a longtime wrestling trope characterized by the unapologetic brutalization of smaller opponents. His talent was considered unrivaled.
"He could get a near-epic match out of just about anybody he wrestled," Shoemaker wrote. "Brody was both beast and poet: He wrote the epics in which he featured. He could turn any night at the wrestling show into a major event."
Vinnie Massaro, a California-based pro-wrestler who recently appeared on "Lucha Underground," recalled learning about Brody through underground tape-trading circles that pre-dated internet streaming sites.
"I remember getting a tape from Japan and he would literally go around and start swinging a chain. The Japanese fans were hysterical," Massaro told Oxygen.com. "He was just an all-around badass person. He was literally Bruiser Brody, his own entity. Nowadays people are like, 'That's just a gimmick,' but [for Brody] there was no gimmick. He was just his own persona ... I'm sure he could still be going now [if he were still alive]."
Brody would wrestle around the world, making several notable appearances at both New Japan Pro-Wrestling and All Japan Pro-Wrestling, and winning several championships in a handful of different federations around the globe along the way. He also worked as a producer on the World Class Championship Wrestling telecast, although he kept his off-camera role a secret.
In the underground of the wrestling world at the time, the first signs of what would later be called hardcore wrestling had begun emerging simultaneously with Brody's ascension to superstardom. In this sub-genre, most rules were suspended and ultra-violence was encouraged. Performers emerging from shows fully drenched in real blood was not uncommon. Brody quickly developed a penchant and reputation for these kinds of matches, especially in South America, where audiences had become particularly bloodthirsty.
Brody underwent somewhat of a face turn at the time — wrestling slang for when someone known for their villainy transitions to a more heroic role. Because his handsome appearance was less grotesque than that of many of his opponents, he took on the role of "monster slayer" in fights against opponents like Kamala the Ugandan Giant, the One Man Gang, and Abdullah The Butcher, according to Shoemaker.
It was a brief tour in Puerto Rico in 1988 that would ultimately end Brody's career — and his life. The circumstances of the incident to this day remain unclear.
Backstage, Brody and a wrestler named Invader I (shoot name: José González) had been arguing — about what, exactly, no one knows. The two took their "business discussion" into the showers for privacy. That's when Brody was stabbed repeatedly. A wrestler named Dutch Mantell, who has also performed with WWE under the name Zeb Coulter, described the confusion at the scene.
"We all heard a scream and saw someone's hand with a knife go into a bigger guy," Mantell told Shoemaker. "González ran out a secret hideaway in the back and we all ran in and knew it was pretty bad. Brody's main chest wound had blood that was bubbling — so I figured his lung had been sliced open. He kept asking [pro-wrestler Tony Atlas] to take care of his wife and kids. He knew he was dying, but could talk. It took well over an hour to get the ambulance there ... I called Mrs. Goodish and told her she better come down a few hours before he died, that the rumors she heard were true."
As described by Atlas in "Dark Side of the Ring," the hospital was chaotic and filled to the brim with people in need of emergency treatment, prompting Brody's fellow performer to forcibly carry a doctor into the room to treat his friend. Mantell added that police at the time believed the stabbing to be some kind of wrestling-related hoax.
"Brody had already been taken out. But the police walked in thinking, 'Well it's just another crazy, wild wrestling brawl.' They didn't think it was real!" Mantell says in the documentary.
The police's skepticism hampered the investigation, according to Mantell and Atlas.
"[Atlas] was telling the cops, 'That's the guy you need to f--king arrest, right there,'" recalled Mantell. "And he pointed to Jose González ... If you're a policeman and you come into a situation that you think could be staged — they didn't think it was real. Tony knew it was real so they were actually engaging each other from different perspectives. That's why the disconnect."
Massaro believes that this part of the story was a bit exaggerated, perhaps to cover up some more nefarious dealings behind the scenes.
"Pro-wrestling nowadays, nobody thinks anything is legit. Maybe back then it was like that for the first hour, but then after that — I think it was more of the actual people in charge telling the cops to look away. So, I'm not buying that," Massaro said.
González was charged with murder but was ultimately acquitted after claiming he had acted in self-defense. Husney believes that because many Puerto Ricans believed Brody was in fact the monster he had at one point portrayed, it became harder to convict González.
"It was Brody's persona that the jury perceived that man to actually be," Husney claimed.
Additionally, many who were called to testify about the crime did not receive their summonses until after the trial was already over.
"I already knew the verdict by the time my subpoena arrived at my door. It was 10 days late," Mantell said. "That's why the verdict came back not innocent but not guilty. José never testified."
Brody was given a perfunctory funeral in Puerto Rico shortly thereafter.
Brody has posthumously received several accolades, including an induction into the WWE Hall of Fame, often considered one of the highest honors in the entire industry. But, as Massaro explains, the way his death is specifically remembered remains somewhat divisive in the wrestling community.
"Within the wrestling industry, there's two versions of the story," Massaro said. "One is the tragedy of it, the story where people are really sad. The other is a cautionary tale. It's a reminder to be careful where you go. Not every place is your home. It made Puerto Rico this insane territory where where wrestlers were like, 'It's rough, be careful.'"
Despite his untimely end, Brody has been canonized as a sort of patron saint of the industry. A pro-wrestling manager of 10 years who goes by the stage name Chad Epik told Oxygen.com that Brody remains a guiding light for younger stars.
"Brody is a man we still very much look up to," Epik concluded.
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