Wahoo! The Incredible Adventures of Chief Wahoo McDaniel: Wrestling Superstar
by G. Neri
“Any story worth telling is worth embellishing.” –Sputnik Monroe, Wrestler’s Reunion
He didn’t have the good looks or the strongman build of a wrestling superstar. Round in the belly and big in the nose, he sported a mug that only a mother could love.
His family called him by his birth name, Ed McDaniel. But in the wrestling ring, where he wore his trademark Indian headdress, white leather boots, and championship belt, the fans called him Chief Wahoo. They clapped their hands, stomped their feet, and when he started his war dance, the rafters shook from the screams of “Waaahooo!”
But Wahoo McDaniel’s legend spread far beyond the wrestling ring. He could smash a baseball into the bleachers, score five touchdowns against the best football team, or run a marathon on a dare, just as easily as he could pin an opponent to the mat. From the time he was a teen, Wahoo McDaniel triumphed over any challenge that stood in his way.
His beginnings were humble. Ed was born in Bernice, Oklahoma, on June 19, 1938 to Hugh and Catherine McDaniel. Ed’s father, an oil patch welder, went where the oil was, and took his family with him. When Ed turned 11, his family finally settled in the heart of oil country—Midland, Texas.
Ed, who was part Chickasaw, part Choctaw Native American Indian, didn’t take kindly to Texas. His grandfather had been one of the first U.S. Indian Marshalls in the Oklahoma Territories. But whenever Ed played Cowboys and Indians with his friends, he was always the bad guy.
“Why do I always gotta be the one who’s tied up or killed?” he complained.
“Cause you’re the Injun and they’re bad,” is what he heard back. Ed hated being the “Injun.” He longed to be the Lone Ranger, the one with the mask and the mystery, the one who always triumphed in the end.
One Indian that everyone loved was Ed’s father, who was called “Big Wahoo,” a Native American name that expressed his love for big-game fishing. A Wahoo is a fish known for its ferocious fighting and Ed’s dad could put up a good fight when called upon. Big Wahoo realized that Ed was not proud of his heritage. Ed saw Indians as being stuck on a reservation, unemployed and drunk. Being part German on his mother’s side, Ed sometimes tried to pass as white. But his dark skin and Indian features betrayed him. He often came home with a bloody nose or black eye from fighting with the neighborhood kids.
Whenever Big Wahoo took Ed fishing on Lake Amistad, he told bigger-than-life yarns about a Native American hero named Jim Thorpe, just to inspire him. Thorpe was a mixed-blooded Indian like Ed, but the papers hailed him as “All-American Jim Thorpe.” This great athlete accomplished the single most amazing sports feat of all-time by winning 15 different events in the 1912 Olympics! It was as if the Great Spirit himself cheered Thorpe on.
“If you listened to the wind closely those days, you heard the Great Spirit chanting Wa-Tho-Huk.” said Big Wahoo. “That’s Jim’s Indian name. It means “Bright Path.”
“The Great Spirit will never chant my name,” added Ed.
Big Wahoo laughed, patting Ed on the head. “You never know, son. Any challenge you set your mind to, you can achieve. People may say you can’t be a champion because you’re an Indian. But the Great Spirit will always cheer you on.”
Ed didn’t feel like a champion but, like Thorpe, he soon discovered that he was a natural at sports. He learned to run fast by escaping the school bullies, so he joined the track team. He grew big and muscular, and started using sports to fight back. He thought there was no sense in getting beat up when he could beat his opponent on the field in front of a crowd. Being a winner made him popular.
As Ed grew bigger, he learned to wrestle, which made his father proud. “A good Indian knows how to wrestle,” Big Wahoo said. Through his talents on the mat, Ed gained his opponent’s respect without having to stoop to the tricks of a schoolyard bully.
Ed decided he could do everything Thorpe did. He tried baseball next, determined to become an All-Star catcher on a Pony League baseball team that just happened to be coached by the future President of these United States, George H.W. Bush.
Ed became the team leader, who could hit, run, and entertain the crowds with his on-field hustle. He was so good, so strong and so passionate about winning that the team went all the way to the State Finals. When asked about Ed many years later, Mr. Bush proclaimed, “I’ll always remember him as a wonderful kid who captured the imagination of West Texas in the 1950s. He was idolized and worshiped by everyone who knew him.” The Great Spirit was watching.
One of his high school coaches wanted to mold him into the new Jim Thorpe. “You can be a champion too,” the coach said. “I can see that you love to win.” Ed did. It made him feel accepted by even the white kids.
The coach pushed Ed to excel not only in baseball, but track and field as well. Ed soon dominated all the decathlon events except one. He was afraid of heights, so he refused to do the pole vault. But in all other events, Ed’s times and distances were almost equal to Jim Thorpe’s record times in the 1912, a truly remarkable achievement for anyone, let alone someone his age.
Like Thorpe, Ed loved football too. He became a football star for Midland High, leading the state in rushing and making First Team All-State two years in a row. He once scored five touchdowns against the best team in the Texas panhandle.
Ed was enthusiastic about winning and proved it in every sport. Because of his amazing achievements, Ed’s father started calling him “Wahoo” because he showed the fighting spirit of a champion.
From that point on, Ed would yell “Wahoo!” when he threw the shotput. His dad would shout “Wahoo!!” whenever Ed hit a homerun in baseball. His mom would cheer “Wahoo!!!” as he pinned a wrestling opponent. And the fans would scream “WAHOO!!!!” after every touchdown he scored in football.
Wahoo grew into a strapping lad, almost 6 feet tall and weighing 280 pounds. When he was drafted by the Armed Forces, he was rejected because the Army’s weight-to-height ratio listed him as obese. But few soldiers were more athletic than Wahoo.
Instead, football became his ticket out of Texas. He proved his worth in Midland but he decided he needed a bigger stage to play on.
In 1955, Wahoo returned to the state where he was born, accepting future football legend Bud Wilkinson’s invitation to play for the University of Oklahoma. The Sooners were the #1 team in the league and in the middle of a record-breaking 47-game win streak. Wahoo wanted to play with the best.
Wahoo started taking on any challenge, no matter how outlandish, just to prove himself. Once, on a $100 bet, he ran 36 miles from his dorm in Norman to the city limits of Chickasha. Even though he had no training as a long distance runner, he took the dare, racing under the hot, brutal Oklahoma sun in six hours flat, a remarkable time considering he had just run ten miles further than a marathon!
So great was Wahoo’s will to prove that he could do anything that he once ate a gallon of Jalapeno peppers and drank a quart of motor oil on a dare. The last act he didn’t care for, because for months on after, everytime he’d sweat, he smelled like an old pickup truck.
Coach Wilkinson knew that he had to harness Wahoo’s wild energy. He threatened to kick Wahoo off the team if he didn’t follow the rules and get good grades. Every time Wahoo missed a class, he had to run up and down the bleachers 25 times. By the end of the season, he had run those bleachers more than 700 times. Wahoo learned to listen to the coach. He respected winners, and Wilkinson had already won one national championship.
Wahoo got tougher and smarter. He switched from the backfield to defensive end, a position better suited for his size. The results? The team won two more national championships! Wahoo lettered 3 times and even set the University record for the longest punt ever— 91 yards, a record that still stands today.
Wahoo graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1960, just in time to join the brand new American Football League. In his very first game as a New York Jet, in front of a record crowd of 45,000 fans, Wahoo became a household name. When he made his first tackle of the game, the stadium’s announcer said “Tackle by Wahoo McDaniel.” Laughter rippled through the crowd. Wahoo grew angry. Determined to make his name feared by the opponent and loved by the fans, he took over the game. When Wahoo became unstoppable, the announcer got the crowd going by shouting “Who made that last tackle?” The crowd would chant back, “Waaa-hooo!” He had his best game to date, making 23 tackles. He was now on his way to becoming one of the most popular players in the league. He even put “Wahoo” on the back of his jersey, the only time in league history that a player’s nickname replaced his real name.
Being a football star in the Big Apple had its advantages. For one, it allowed him to pursue his other passion, wrestling. When promoter Jim Barnett came looking for an Indian wrestler, Wahoo fit the bill. Even though he had never exploited his Indian heritage, Wahoo saw an opportunity to become a success in the ring too. “I’ll rassle in Madison Square Garden and make me a fortune,” Wahoo vowed.
The celebrated champion Dory Funk Sr. trained the young football player for a career in the ring. Wahoo had learned collegiate-style wrestling from the Sooners #1 ranked wrestling team. But Funk taught the rookie about the pitfalls of the business. He showed Wahoo the secrets of the ring, like how to come up with signature touches to help sell his image. Wahoo invented moves like the “Indian Deathlock” and the “Tomahawk Chop,” a strike so loud it could be heard in the upper decks of the arena. He even incorporated football-style tackles and dropkicks into his act. To top off his image, he dressed like a proud warrior Chieftain and called himself Chief Wahoo.
In those days, promoters often created ethnic characters to battle each other. Wrestling on the biggest stage in New York was all about Show Business. The bad guys were wild Indians, tough Russians, mad Sheiks, and masked Mexicans. Usually they were played by white Americans who dressed up as a gimmick. But Wahoo took his heritage seriously. Tired of the Indian being portrayed as the heel, he chose to play only the good guy, the hero. He wanted to be a positive role model, a tough guy with a heart of gold, a winner and champion. His Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes were known for being fierce warriors and bravehearts. He would bring that image into the ring and make it his own. He wanted to replace the ethnic stereotype image created by team mascots used by the Cleveland Indians, Milwaukee Braves and the Washington Redskins: the war paint, the red skin, the single feather. He would wear an authentic tribal headdress and would protect it at any cost. If the feathers were ever damaged by an opponent, Wahoo wept for his lost honor then beat his enemy senseless. He slept on bear rugs and kept his house at 60 degrees to toughen him up.
Some still thought he was being used by the white man. But to Wahoo, he was a Native American standing up to, and most times, defeating the cowboys. “We Indians have been pushed around for years, but now the pushing is over!” he said defiantly. He would soon use his name to help open the doors for future generations of Native Americans.
Wahoo took advantage of his football stardom, rising to become one of the most popular wrestlers in the 1960’s. His name on the bill sold out stadiums and arenas. He soon made more money in the ring than on the football field, becoming one of the best-paid athletes in the country. Outside of track and field, there were no Indian sports heroes to be found. Now they had one on the football field and in the wrestling ring!
Wahoo battled many of the greatest, and most colorful, wrestlers of his era— Blackjack Mulligan, Sgt. Slaughter, Andre the Giant, Bruiser Brodie, and Jesse “the Body” Ventura. He set box office records with his feud against Superstar Billy Graham, even during the harsh blizzard seasons. His battles in Houston against Dory Funk Jr. and “Professor” Boris Malenko drew the biggest crowds ever in Texas. He filled the Coliseum, and had to move his fights to the Astrodome in order to accommodate the crowds.
Fans loved him. Opponents feared him. TV star Hulk Hogan did almost anything to avoid a match with him. A standing offer of $15,000 to anyone who sent the Chief into early retirement was never collected.
In 1981, Wahoo beat “Rowdy” Roddy Piper for the United States Heavyweight Title. Soon after, he won almost every title in wrestling, often as the first person of color to do so. He earned heavyweight titles in Florida, Texas, Georgia, and the popular Mid-Atlantic, which he achieved a record five times.
Wahoo became the undefeated master of the Indian Strap Match, the most difficult and damaging battle in the ring. Careers were ended in these epic clashes where two men, connected by a 20-foot leather strap wrapped around their wrists, wrestled until one man dropped. The winner had to drag the loser to each corner of the ring, tagging the post as he went. Pinning a 300-pound man was one thing, but dragging him to all four corners without him getting up, was an awesome feat.
The legend of his Mid-Atlantic years was built upon his incredible battles with Johnny Valentine for the Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Title. The fights were so ferocious that one match spilled out of the ring, into the audience, down to the dressing rooms and out into the parking lot! On July 26, 1975, Wahoo achieved what many believed to be the impossible— he crushed Johnny Valentine for the Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Title. Those who witnessed the bout say it was one of the most brutally intense battles ever fought.
But no rivalry captured Wahoo’s warrior spirit more than his epic bouts with Ric “Nature Boy” Flair. The intensity of these legendary battles had never been seen before. At the height of their feud, they wrestled almost 180 times in one year alone. “Wahoo was the toughest man I ever fought,” Flair would later say. “He’s the kind of guy who, if you let up for one minute, it’s all over.”
The most famous battle of 1976 became known as the “table leg and forty stitches” fight. Flair had just returned to wrestling after recovering from injuries in a plane crash. It was a dramatic return to the ring but Wahoo wanted the Heavyweight title back from Flair. As Wahoo battled for the win, they both fell out of the ring, shattering a timekeeper’s wood table. Dazed and cornered, Flair grabbed a table leg and swung wildly, tearing a gash around Wahoo’s eye that took 40 stitches to close.
Wahoo sought revenge. On December 27, 1976, he soundly defeated Flair in a classic fight for the Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Title. Flair never held the Mid-Atlantic Title again. Wahoo completed the feat by being named Wrestler of the Year.
What fans didn’t see in this fierce warrior was his generosity. Even at the height of their feud, Wahoo was one of the first to visit Ric Flair after he was in the plane crash. Hospital attendants restrained Wahoo outside of Flair’s room because they really thought he was there to finish Flair off. But in truth, they were friends and Flair thought of Wahoo as a mentor.
In the ring, if a young wrestler lost to Wahoo, he’d get a few tips from the champion on what he could do better the next time they met. In each future match, the young wrestler fought a smarter battle until he could almost defeat Wahoo.
Wahoo paved the way for other Native American wrestlers like Ricky Steamboat and Chris “Tatanka” Chavis. Because of Wahoo, now only real Native Americans portrayed Indians in the ring. Because of Wahoo, young fans could play the Indian as the good guy. Wahoo launched a wrestling school called The Chop Shop so that underprivileged kids could have a shot at the big time, too. He also worked behind the scenes as a promoter to help new-comers get their start.
In an official World Wrestling Federation ceremony, Wahoo passed the torch to Chris Tatanka, a 100% Native American who vowed to represent Indians with honor. He credited Wahoo for being his biggest influence. Wahoo was now being called the greatest Indian wrestler of all-time and one of the great wrestlers of the 20th century.
Despite all the attention he received, the wrestling life was not an easy one. Some people wondered if wrestling was real. But anyone who witnessed these grapplers up close had no doubts. Fighters would end matches with their faces covered in blood. Wahoo estimated that he endured over 3,000 stitches during his career.
“What I experienced in the ring was tougher than any football game I ever played,” he’d often say.
Life on the road was the toughest part. Throughout his career, Wahoo picked a territory, became a star there, then moved on to the next territory to start again. There was no national TV coverage back then, so he became a brand new celebrity everywhere he went. Wahoo moved from NY to Florida to Minnesota to Texas to the mid-Atlantic. He traveled the world, seeing Russia, Europe, Mexico and Japan, where he was invited 32 times. Wahoo wrestled well into his fifties. He fought for over 30 years, battling in over 11,000 matches, sometimes eight to ten fights a week.
The years of hard-fought clashes and endless travel took its toll on Wahoo. It resulted in four failed marriages and a few children who only knew their father as a TV star. Although he had countless fans and all the money he needed, he had never experienced being a good family man. With his father’s passing, he remembered how much Big Wahoo had done for him. He realized it was time for him to do the same.
After the birth of his only son Zac, Wahoo finally retired for good. He settled down in Texas where his mother lived, got reacquainted with the daughters he barely knew and spent time with his young son. He became an avid golfer and, some say, that may have been his best sport, except he always lost because his partner happened to be one of the greatest golfers ever, Lee Travino.
But spending time with Zac was the most important thing to Wahoo. He and Zac fished together on Lake Amistad, like Wahoo had done with his own father. On the lake, he wove many incredible but true tales for young Zac, who became fascinated with all the amazing characters in his father’s adventures. As Zac grew older, Wahoo taught him how to wrestle, passing on the secrets of the ring. “Any challenge you set your mind to, you can win. People may say you can’t be a champion because you’re an Indian. But the Great Spirit will always cheer you on,” he told his son.
On April 19, 2002, Ed “Wahoo” McDaniel lost his life to his greatest opponent: diabetes. Soon after his funeral, 15-year-old Zac McDaniel climbed into the ring wearing Wahoo’s Indian headdress. He asked Dory Funk Jr, son of his father’s mentor and one of Wahoo’s great ring mates, to train him to follow in his father’s footsteps. In a fitting tribute, Zac called himself Little Wahoo.
Today, Little Wahoo fishes alone on the lake where his father’s ashes are scattered. Under the endless blue skies of Lake Amistad, he listens closely to the wind, where the Great Spirit chants the name of heaven’s newest hero—Waaahhoooooooo!
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