by Stephen Von Slagle
William “Dick the Bruiser” Afflis was an early NFL football star turned pro wrestling legend, one of the key performers during wrestling’s boom following World War II, and without question one of the most influential brawlers ever. As Dick the Bruiser, Afflis originated and personified wrestling’s beer guzzling, cigar chomping, tough-as-nails bar room brawler character and from the 1950’s through the early 1980’s, The Bruiser was a force like few others within pro wrestling. Quite simply, he faced off in some form or another against virtually every wrestling superstar for over 30 years. In the past, it was once joked in wrestling locker rooms that no matter where you had been during your career, until you’d faced off against Dick the Bruiser, you couldn’t really call yourself a true pro wrestler.
Known as “The World’s Most Dangerous Wrestler,” at 250 lbs. of muscle, with his crewcut, a neck thicker than his head and trademark gravely voice (the result of a crushed esophagus sustained during his NFL career), Dick The Bruiser was, along with Buddy Rogers, among the most hated villains in wrestling after he began his career in the late-1950’s. But unlike the sophisticated Rogers, The Bruiser was known and feared for being a merciless juggernaut inside the ring, brutally punishing his opponents before finishing them off, usually via his infamous top-rope knee drop. Meanwhile, his bulldozer, beer-swilling persona was both hated and, at the same time, incredibly popular with the fans. With a famous name from his days as a Green Bay Packer and nationwide notoriety garnered from his bombastic, televised exploits inside the squared circle, Dick The Bruiser quickly became one of the best-known wrestling personalities in the game and a true cross-over media celebrity.
His first major championship was Chicago promoter Fred Kohler’s prestigious NWA United States Heavyweight title, which he won in his rookie year and dominated for the next five, capturing a total of five U.S. championships between 1957 through 1962. At the same time, he also ruled the tag team division. In 1960, he and Gene Kiniski teamed to win the NWA World Tag Team title and between 1963 through 1975, The Bruiser would go on to win the AWA World Tag Team title five times with both Wilber Snyder, and, of course, his longtime fighting partner The Crusher. Dick the Bruiser also won the AWA World Heavyweight championship in 1966, and dominated the WWA World Heavyweight title, winning it nine times between 1964 through 1984.
One of the most controversial performers of the time, Bruiser was literally banned for life from wrestling in the state of New York due to his involvement in the 1957 riot at Madison Square Garden. The riot, which resulted in serious injuries to dozens of fans, led to a law that stood for over fifteen years which prohibited anyone under the age of 14 from attending matches at the Garden.
Still, after a decade or so of being one of wrestling’s most feared villains, yet consistently drawing large crowds (especially in Bruiser strongholds like Chicago, Minneapolis and St. Louis), The Bruiser eventually became a complete, and incredibly popular, fan favorite. He still guzzled beer and chewed on his trademark cigar, but now he, along with The Crusher, was stomping all over the “bad guys” instead of trying to cripple the “good guys.” The two similar brawlers seemed as though they were brothers separated at birth and they absolutely dominated tag team wrestling in the Midwest.
For the better part of a decade, virtually no one pinned the shoulders of The Bruiser or The Crusher and even fewer made it out of the ring without being battered and bloodied by the violent blue-collar heroes. The team of The Bruiser and The Crusher was virtually unstoppable and the fans truly loved their exploits. In fact, the duo was so dominant during their matches against rivals such as The Valiants, Rhodes & Murdoch, Von Raschke & Ladd, The Blackjacks and the Vachon Brothers that once their matches were over, they would often trade blows with each other, to the thunderous roar and delight of the sold-out crowds. In addition to their AWA World Tag Team title victories, The Bruiser and The Crusher won the WWA World Tag Team title six times between 1967 through 1976. Even Bruno Sammartino, in one of his very few non-WWWF championship reigns, teamed with The Bruiser in 1973 and “Annihilation Inc.” (as they were known) held the W.W.A World Tag Team titles for nearly six months before dropping a tainted pinfall to The Valiant Brothers.
As the 1980’s rolled in, The Bruiser wrestled primarily in the WWA as well as competing for other Midwestern promotions like Central States, the AWA and for longtime friend Sam Muchnick in St. Louis. Behind the scenes, William Afflis used his experience and knowledge to make the WWA, which he owned and operated, into one of the most successful regional promotions of the day.
Eventually, in 1985, he won and lost his last WWA World Heavyweight title to Greg Wojokowski and soon after, following 30 years of volatile competition, he retired from the ring. Although his Indianapolis-based WWA, like so many other regional promotions of the time, eventually closed in the mid-1980s, Afflis remained involved with wrestling, working as a talent agent for World Championship Wrestling and occasionally appearing on-screen as a special referee for important WCW matches.
Dick the Bruiser is a member of the WCW Hall of Fame (1994), the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame (1996), the St. Louis Wrestling Hall of Fame (2007), and he was twice inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, for his tag team with The Crusher (2005) and as a singles competitor (2011).
On November 10, 1991, William “Dick the Bruiser” Afflis ruptured a blood vessel in his esophagus while lifting weights in his home and ultimately passed away due to internal bleeding at the age of 62.