by Stephen Von Slagle
Reggie “The Crusher” Lisowski was one of the toughest and most popular personalities in wrestling during the second half of the 20th century, battering and bruising his helpless opponents to the delight of his legions of working-class fans for over thirty years. He first established a reputation as one of the elite brawlers in the sport during the 1950s and early 1960s, and then went on to tag team glory with his drinking buddy and fighting partner, the legendary Dick the Bruiser. It made no difference whether the 260 lb. cigar-chomping Crusher entered the ring as a singles wrestler or as part of a tag team, championships and a deservedly fearsome reputation followed his every step. Reggie Lisowski’s nickname was one that he earned in the ring, by doing exactly what the name implies. A nearly unstoppable barrel-chested bulldozer, “The Wrestler Who Made Milwaukee Famous” steamrolled over his opposition. Wrestling technique and a vast repertoire of moves was not The Crusher’s style, but, proving himself as one of the toughest brawlers in pro wrestling history was…
Born on July 11, 1926, Lisowski began his career humbly in 1949, and paid his dues early on as a journeyman. After gaining much-needed experience, and with a few wins under his belt, Lisowski was ready for matchmakers to start investing their time and effort into him. Originally cast by Chicago promoter Fred Kohler as a “bad guy,” The Crusher’s barreling voice and quick wit combined with his beer-swilling, cigar-puffing, tough guy persona eventually made him a popular hero with the middle-aged, working class (and primarily male) pro wrestling fans of the day.
His size, power, and brawling skills (along with a dash of wrestling ability) resulted in victory after victory for the charismatic brawler, and, following his inevitable babyface turn, the Midwestern fans he performed for soon rallied in great numbers behind their polka-dancing hero. Another facet of The Crusher’s style was his stamina, and more importantly, his unwavering ability to absorb punishment from his opponent and remain as strong as ever. From his fans’ point of view, The Crusher actually enjoyed getting beat up, thriving on a good fight, and it seemed that the more he bled, the stronger he got.
In addition to being a top wrestler, The Crusher crossed the line into the elite champions of the day, despite his straight-forward, somewhat simplistic, no-frills brand of wrestling. Early in his career, Reggie enjoyed a great deal of success with his “brother” Stan Lisowski, and the brawling duo won the AWA World Tag Team title in 1958 and again in 1959. Proving he was more than just a run-of-the-mill tough guy, he won the Omaha version of the World title (an important championship at that point in time) on February 15, 1963 by defeating the hated Fritz Von Erich and went on to break out of his role as a “tag team wrestler.” The barroom brawler followed up the major title win with another, even more important, victory when he defeated Verne Gagne on July 9, 1963 in Minneapolis, Minnesota and made history by unifying the Omaha and AWA World championships. In the end, The Crusher wore the AWA World Heavyweight title on three separate occasions, firmly establishing himself as one of the premier champions in the sport at that time.
The Crusher’s fame and reputation was known far and wide, although he was not a frequent world-traveler like some of his legendary counterparts. Instead, he preferred to stay within the prosperous midwestern territory of the AWA (Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Omaha) although he also competed in the NWA’s midwestern (St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit) and southeastern (Georgia, Florida) circuits. While he would have AWA championship tag team runs with Red Bastien, Billy Robinson, and Baron Von Raschke, as well as an NWA Georgia Tag Team championship reign with Tommy Rich, The Crusher was at his brawling best during the decade he spent teaming with William Afflis, better known as Dick the Bruiser.
The Bruiser and The Crusher were very similar wrestlers, although far from being copies of each other, and they had a chemistry that was like few in the history of the sport. It was as if the two were brothers, separated at birth and reunited in the ring. From a wrestling fan’s point of view, when The Bruiser and The Crusher weren’t smoking cigars and drinking beer before and/or after the matches, they were demolishing their opponents inside the ring. The unbeatable blue-collar heroes took on the best tag teams of the day (such as The Blackjacks, The Valiant Brothers, The Texas Outlaws, Nick Bockwinkel & Ray Stevens, and basically the entire Bobby Heenan Family) and handled them like they were rookies. The Steel Cage Match was Bruiser and Crusher’s specialty, and the team fought in dozens of them over the course of their lengthy partnership, rarely — if ever — losing one. On the contrary, Crusher & Bruiser’s opponents invariably left the ring a bloodied and battered mess. The Bruiser and The Crusher, however, often would not get enough violence during their matches, and occasionally traded punches with each other after their victories, to the roar of the delighted AWA crowds. The two beer-guzzling brawlers teamed to win the AWA World Tag Team title on no less than five separate occasions. During the same decade, they also wore the prestigious WWA World Tag Team title six times, making the duo, arguably, the most dominant and successful tag team of the era.
The appeal of The Crusher’s unique combination of violence and humor was never more apparent than when he faced off against the last great enemy in his lengthy run in the AWA, Jesse “The Body” Ventura. The egotistical Ventura often took time away from the start of his matches to do an elaborate posing routine, which didn’t sit too well with the no-frills Crusher. Before one of their matches, The Crusher interrupted Ventura’s routine and challenged “The Body” to a posing contest, with the fans deciding who the winner would be. Raising the stakes even higher, stipulations were added; if Ventura won, The Crusher would have to pierce his ears and wear earrings while if Ventura lost he would be forced to smoke one of The Crusher’s cigars. The arrogant muscleman, who took his posing very seriously, quickly agreed to The Crusher’s challenge.
With his ego and reputation on the line, “The Body” painstakingly performed a highly choreographed series of bodybuilding poses, but still received an overwhelmingly negative reaction from the crowd. The cigar-chewing Crusher, on the other hand, merely had to raise his two (beer) barrel-sized arms into the air and flex, and the crowd exploded with enthusiastic cheers. When The Crusher was announced as the contest winner, Ventura’s massive ego was severely bruised and, following the humiliating loss, he snapped. The enraged bodybuilder lit a cigar and reluctantly began puffing. But, as “The Wrestler Who Made Milwaukee Famous” soaked in the adulation of the crowd, Ventura attacked and proceeded to jam the lit stogie into the popular veteran’s eye. The dramatic moment appalled and angered wrestling fans, which seemed to please Ventura even more, and in the following weeks he proudly proclaimed himself to be the man who finally ended the legend, and career, of the mighty Crusher. However, after taking some time away to “recuperate,” the aging-but-still-dangerous veteran returned with a vengeance, exacting his violent revenge on Ventura in AWA cities from Chicago to San Francisco and all points in between.
Much like the vast majority of Verne Gagne’s core talent base, The Crusher eventually left the AWA and joined the World Wrestling Federation in 1985, appearing in the WWF on a limited, part-time basis. Following a forty-year career inside the squared circle, Lisowski finally retired in February of 1988.
The Crusher was, arguably, the overall biggest-drawing performer in the history of the AWA and one of the most famous wrestlers of his time. He was immortalized by legendary punk rock groups such as The Ramones and The Cramps, both of whom recorded songs in honor of the beloved brawler. On June 8, 2019, a bronze statue of The Crusher was unveiled in his hometown of South Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The Crusher is a member of the WCW Hall of Fame (1994), the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame (1996), and the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame (2005).
On October 22, 2005, Reggie “The Crusher” Lisowski died of a brain tumor at the age of 79.