By Tim Hornbaker
Bill Olivas entered the public eye as a colorful
professional wrestler and passed away recently a
man of God. The wrestling world, which was
thoroughly entertained by his uniqueness on the
mat for about 20 years, was not immediately alerted
to his death on February 6, 2008. But now, as we
learn more about his demise at the age of 86, the
industry can celebrate the famed Elephant Boy,
and remember the countless performances that
thrilled, and sometimes even scared us.
Born William Victor Olivas on March 26, 1921
in Ventura County, California, Bill was raised
around Ojai. After high school, he attended two years
at a Catholic Seminary college, much to the delight of
his parents, William and Salina. However, on
September 26, 1942, he joined the United States
Army and was shipped to England in preparation for the Normandy Invasion. According
to most stories, it was during this time that he encountered a fellow soldier who was
moonlighting as a wrestler. One night, his friend’s opponent failed to show up, and
Olivas filled in, entering the profession.
On D-Day, Olivas went ashore with the combat engineers, and reportedly worked as
a chaplain’s assistant for the remainder of the war. In an interview with the Federal
Bureau of Investigation on April 7, 1960, he explained that a short time after his military
discharge, he was approached by a friend to wrestle professionally on a circuit in
Southern California. The documentation states that Bill said that he weighed
“approximately 260 pounds at that time and had expressed a desire to this friend
concerning wrestling.” His weight, however, was an embellishment, as he weighed closer
Appearing in preliminary contests in smaller towns under the name “Billy Olivas,” he
gained valuable experience in the American-style of grappling, and also worked as a
referee in 1947 and ’48. In 1949, he became “Tony Olivas,” and adopted Mexico as his
homeland. Along the way, he developed the characteristics more affiliated with that of a
heel, and shortly after his debut in Chicago in 1951, promoters were telling him to grow
his hair out – which would account for a “bushy” and unruly look. That would play into his
new style, and shortly after his April 2, 1951 appearance at the Marigold Arena in
Chicago, Olivas met independent booking agent Jack Pfefer.
Under Pfefer, Olivas made the life-altering transition to the “Elephant Boy,” and
became an instant headliner in the shrewd booker’s nomadic troupe. According to the
FBI interview, “Pfefer told him he would act as his agent and would guarantee him $250
clear a week and would give him one-third of his earnings over $250.” Olivas originally
signed a three year deal with Pfefer, and began appearing across the nation in feuds
with the likes of the Zebra Kid, Lord Dizzy Pinkerton, Nature Boy, and “Gorgeous” George
Grant. Pfefer gave Olivas a second, Slave Girl Moolah, and often billed him as a
claimant to the heavyweight title.
According to the interview, Olivas was affiliated with Pfefer “for five or six years and
he was one of the top wrestlers in the country.” He stated that “when he was wrestling for
Pfefer, Pfefer stayed very close to the wrestlers working for him,” and that he wrestled in
Havana, Juarez, and Windsor, outside of the United States. Since about 1957, he had
“been wrestling primarily on the East Coast for Jim Crockett, and while in Virginia, he
became interested in the promotional side of the business. He inquired about the
possibility of running shows in such places as Virginia Beach, Petersburg, and Elizabeth
City, North Carolina. Bill Lewis and Jim Crockett, National Wrestling Alliance members in
the Mid-Atlantic territory, were not interested in any plan to promote involving Olivas.
Unwilling to accept that decision as final, Olivas went to the Virginia State Athletic
Commission and asked about obtaining a license to stage matches in Virginia Beach
during the summer of 1959. Bill Brennan of the commission told him that there wasn’t a
monopoly held by Lewis or Crockett locally, and that anyone could apply for a license.
The only thing was that the individual had to live in the state for at least a year. Olivas
didn’t qualify. Brennan, however, told him that there wasn’t a stipulation to apply for a
“booking agent or manager’s license,” and Olivas applied, receiving it on June 10, 1959.
Olivas went to work to build a coalition on the periphery of the NWA, gaining licensed
promoters in Petersburg, Hampton, Virginia Beach, Hopewell, Lawrenceville, Suffolk,
Hancock, Hague, Richmond, Portsmouth, Newport News, Williamsburg, West Point,
Chatham, Rocky Mount, Staunton, Clifton Forge, South Boston, and Tappahannock.
Many of these cities, if not all, were being avoided by Lewis in the promotion of matches
with Alliance talent. With the promoters and towns in place, Olivas now needed to find
the wrestlers to make them available for shows.
Dr. Jerry Graham, a well-known personality of the ring and member of the notorious
Grahams tag team, met with Olivas and formed a union, telling the latter that he’d help
him obtain wrestlers for his agency. At the same time, Lewis contacted Olivas and
explained to him that Virginia was his territory, according to the FBI interview, and that he
had “plenty of friends” in Richmond that would help him win any head-to-head war.
Olivas also claimed that one night, Lewis came to the hotel he was staying at, and nearly
banged down the door of his room, as he yelled, “Elephant Boy, I know you are in there!”
On another occasion, he was confronted by a knife-wielding associate of Crockett, who
was trying to pressure him to abandon his promotional plans.
Olivas continued to charge forward, as determined as ever, and secured a 13-week
television contract with a station in Norfolk. He took civilized meetings with both Crockett
and Lewis, trying to come to a mutual agreement that all would benefit from, even
agreeing to a deal which would sent Charlotte talent to Norfolk for Olivas’s TV program,
and even put spots promoting Lewis’s live events. These plans quickly fell by the
wayside, and the heavy bickering continued.
Notably, this was turning into what could have been the largest antitrust prosecution
against the NWA since the Consent Decree was drawn up in 1956. Olivas was being
frozen out despite his successful attempts to build a large circuit. He explained to the FBI
in his 1960 interview that a number of wrestlers were contacted directly by NWA members
and told to quit appearing for him, and even given cash and job opportunities elsewhere
– just to leave town. He also complained that he was getting poor newspaper coverage
in Richmond compared to Lewis. It seemed that Lewis was right, he did have connections
in all the right places. But was Olivas being given a fair shake? The odds were certainly
Olivas also had to contend with powerful Capitol Wrestling and its honchos Toots
Mondt, Vincent McMahon, and Phil Zacko. After wrestler Chief Little Eagle wrestled on
his Norfolk TV show, he was reportedly blacklisted by Capitol. Jerry Graham was also
leaned on to sever his ties with Olivas, or face the consequences.
As expected, Lewis, in an FBI interview on July 6, 1960, denied ever having a
problem with Olivas in Richmond or any other Virginia city, and said that he had always
tried to be “friendly” with him. He also said that he never told any wrestlers to not work
for Olivas or to prevent him from being altogether successful in his endeavors.
Investigators for the Bureau continued to delve into the situation, and interviewed a
number of wrestlers, some of whom corroborated Olivas’s story. In the end, after
numerous public and private conferences, an assortment of conflicting stories, and a
thorough examination by the Department of Justice, it was decided in November 1960 to
forego any suit against Lewis, Crockett, Mondt, and McMahon for antitrust violations.
However, in one office memorandum to the DOJ Chief of the Judgment Enforcement
Section, an official wrote:
“The facts fully indicate that there has been a deliberate violation of the Judgment by
Lewis, Crockett and Mondt with the aid and assistance of McMahon, who admittedly had
full knowledge of the Judgment. I am confident that a verdict of guilty can be obtained
against Lewis and Crockett. The evidence against Mondt and McMahon is weaker. The
industry is not of too great importance or significance, economically it is true, but that
very willfulness of the violation makes it significant, I believe, and one that we ought to
For Olivas, it was a final blow in a harsh business. He made sporadic appearances
as his wrestling career came to a close, and ended up marrying a Ventura County,
California woman, and settling into a position as a health spa owner near Ojai. The
couple operated the business for 22 years. On December 3, 1988, Bill’s wife Martha
Following a 20-year wrestling career which saw international success, a long-running
family operated business, and a 27-year marriage, Bill Olivas was left to reevaluate his
life. A deacon at St. Thomas Aquinas since 1977, he decided to live with the parish’s
priests, and in 1991, he became a brother in the Order of St. Augustine, according to a
1997 article by Associated Press writer John Antczak. That year, at the age of 76, he
was ordained as a Roman Catholic Priest.
The evolving life of Olivas, from the military veteran who dutifully served during
wartime to a bushy haired pro wrestler in the Pfefer circus or fighting the establishment to
become a promoter to a man of peace and religion, was full of passion. His final gift to
humanity was to help pass on a wealth of information about life, culture, and
relationships. And in the style that made him famous, he gave all he was worth to deliver
the message of spiritual health. Bill Olivas is going to be missed.
|From Elephant Boy to Priesthood – William Olivas