by Stephen Von Slagle
With the exception of former Chicago Bear/NWA World champion Bronco Nagurski during the 1940s and until the phenom known as Goldberg arrived in the late 1990s, Ernie “The Big Cat” Ladd was perhaps the most successful pro football player-turned-pro wrestler in the history of the sport. Additionally, at 6’9″ and well over 300 lbs., the former San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Oilers standout was one of the most influential “big men” wrestling has ever seen. Known equally for his treachery and penchant for cheating as he was for his talent and overwhelming size, Ladd was perceived by fans of the era to be one of the most dangerous men in the sport. He was also one of the most well-travelled, competing in the IWA, NWF, AWA, WWWF, WWA, MSWA. and virtually every regional promotion that made up the National Wrestling Alliance. Literally everywhere he went, “The Big Cat” created controversy and excitement while inspiring hatred and admiration, as well as winning plenty of championship gold along the way.
Born on November 28, 1938, Ladd attended Grambling State University and began his pro wrestling career in the 1960s in a way that best utilized his fairly well-known name; wrestling professionally during the summer months of the NFL’s off-season. However, after several very successful years on the gridiron, the injuries began adding up and Ladd, facing the end of his NFL career, chose the more controlled setting of the squared circle. By the late 1960s, he made the transformation to full-time wrestler and quickly established himself as one of wrestling’s top performers even though he was essentially still a rookie. His natural speed — incredible for such a huge man — and sheer athletic ability enabled Ladd to excel at his new profession almost immediately. Meanwhile, his quick interview delivery and ability to draw some very intense heat from the fans was the final ingredient in Ladd’s recipe for pro wrestling success. By the time the 1970s rolled in, having gained much in the way of experience, Ladd had become one of the biggest box-office draws in the sport.
Ernie Ladd’s size advantage was almost always overwhelming and when he combined his strength, speed, and size with an ever-growing knowledge of wrestling, the result was championship after championship for the un-gentle giant. The big man won the NWF Heavyweight title after slightly over a year and a half of full-time competition when (as a fan favorite) he defeated the hated Waldo Von Erich on June 9, 1972. Ladd soon lost the NWF Heavyweight title to Abdullah the Butcher, but it didn’t matter because “The Big Cat” just went out and won another belt, this time traveling from the National Wrestling Federation to the NWA’s Los Angeles promotion, where he won the prestigious Americas Heavyweight championship. After defeating legendary California grappler John Tolos, Ladd (by now a much-hated heel) held the Americas belt for nearly six full months before losing to Victor Rivera on December 1, 1972. But, as would be the case throughout his career, Ladd recovered from one title loss by simply winning a new one. Less than three months later, he was once again in a new promotion, and, once again, wearing championship gold. When Ladd teamed with Baron Von Rashcke on February 24, 1973 in Detroit, the hated duo defeated the legendary combo of The Bruiser & The Crusher to win the WWA World Tag Team title. Ladd & The Baron formed a very formidable team, holding the WWA World Tag Team title for five months before finally dethroned by the dream-team of Dick the Bruiser & Bruno Sammartino.
Ladd’s brawling ability, his giant boot to the face (an exciting, unique move at the time), and his controversial taped thumb (a lingering “injury” from his football days that he used as a weapon during his matches) all added up to success for “The Cat” and even more championships were to follow. Following his stint in the WWA, Ladd returned to the NWF and scored a pair of North American championships in 1974. Also in 1974, Ladd defeated Carlos Colon for the World Wrestling Council North American title in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The nomadic Ladd then made his way to the World Wide Wrestling Federation, where he was managed by the Grand Wizard of Wrestling. Ladd challenged WWWF champion Bruno Sammartino for the title, and although he had Bruno near defeat several different times, “The Living Legend” always walked away from matches against Ladd with his WWWF reign intact. While in the WWWF, Ladd also engaged in brief but intense feuds with Chief Jay Strongbow and Ivan Putski. Later, when Backlund was WWF champion, Ladd once again returned to the Northeast to challenge the young champion. Still, just as Sammartino had done before him, Backlund always managed to retain his title against Ladd, if only barely.
Other important regional championships won by the monstrous Ernie Ladd include the NWA Florida Heavyweight title in 1977, as well as the Mid-South Arkansas State title in 1978 and the Louisiana Heavyweight title in 1980 and 1981. Ladd was one of the biggest stars the Mid-South territory had ever known, both as a heel, and, eventually, as a babyface. In addition to the two Mid South Tag Team titles he won with partner “Bad” Leroy Brown, Ladd enjoyed four runs as the prestigious Mid-South North American Heavyweight champion. As North American champion, Ladd feuded with the likes of his monolithic archrival Andre the Giant as well as Dick Murdoch, Paul Orndorff, Mr. Wrestling II, Magnum T.A., “The Candy Man” Ray Candy and, of course, The Junkyard Dog.
In 1980, Ladd formed a nearly unbeatable team with fellow behemoth Bruiser Brody and the rugged duo won the NWA Central States Tag Team title. Following their run as Central States tag champs, Ladd moved back to the WWA, where he won one of the most prestigious titles of his career, the WWA World Heavyweight championship. Throughout most of 1980, Ladd feuded with perennial WWA champion Dick the Bruiser over the promotion’s top prize, trading the title back and forth during an intense, violent feud. Then, in 1981, Ladd moved on to Dallas’ World Class Championship Wrestling, where his winning ways again continued. While in Texas, he won the area’s top championship, the American Heavyweight title, holding it for six months before losing to “The Modern Day Warrior” Kerry Von Erich. Following his loss to Von Erich, Ladd bounced back and won the Texas Brass Knuckles championship in 1981.
However, as the 1980s set in, Ladd’s body, and his knees in particular, began to deteriorate. Unable to perform at the high level he’d achieved for so many years and unwilling to slide down the ladder into obscurity like many others before him, Ladd simply took himself out of the game, wrestling less and managing more. At the same time, behind the scenes, Ladd served very successfully as booker for Bill Watts, the first African-American to hold such an important position. While booking the Mid-South territory, Ladd developed a number of new stars and compelling, memorable storylines that contributed greatly to the growth of the promotion. Meanwhile, as a manager, his star protégés were the awesome Wild Samoans, whom he led to several titles, including the Mid-South and Florida tag team championships.
By 1986, following a stellar run as a wrestler, manager and booker, Ladd entered the World Wrestling Federation where he had a short but successful stint as a WWF commentator. Not long after providing color commentary for WrestleMania 2, Ladd then retired from the sport altogether. During a career that spanned more than fifteen years, Ernie Ladd set an example for other NFL players who were searching for an athletic career off the field, proving that there was respect, competition and, most importantly, money in the world of professional wrestling. Although his character in the ring was that of a lying, ruthless back-stabber, his real personality was as far from that as could be. A true class act and an athlete like few others, Ladd was inducted into the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame (1981) and the Grambling State University Hall of Fame (1989) as well as the WCW (1994) and WWF (1995) Halls of Fame.
Following a lengthy bout of cancer, Ernie Ladd passed away on March 10, 2007, at the age of 68.