The late Swede Hanson—a wrestler with heart – Phantom of the Ring

The late Swede Hanson—a wrestler with heart – Phantom of the Ring – Obituary

WHEN I LEARNED OF THE death of Swede Hanson, a piece of me died with him. Growing up, the Swede was one of the wrestlers I most wanted to see ply his wares in Madison Square Garden.

Along with his long-lime tag partner, Rip Hawk, Hanson was one of the game’s best workers, and one of the great heels. Big, blond, and nasty, Swede always gave us fans our money’s worth. Even when he finally came to the WWF in the twilight of his career, he still wrestled with something we came to take for granted but now miss badly in today’s workers. That something was heart–and the big Swede had it in abundance.

Robert Fort Hanson was born in East Orange, NJ., in 1933. Tall and athletic, his first love was boxing, and he made his mark in the New Jersey Golden Gloves, compiling a record of 61-3, with 37 of his victories coming by knockout. Yet, Willie Gilzenberg, who promoted boxing and wrestling in New Jersey, saw something else in the 240-pound amateur. Gilzenberg told Hanson his career would be better spent in a wrestling ring. After watching a few bouts from ringside, Hanson agreed and was sent to train with George Tragos.

If ever there were a man who could be called the “Trainer of Stars,” it would be Tragos. As I recounted in last issue’s column, the late, great Lou Thesz gave Tragos much of the credit for making him into a champion, and a better endorsement than that you can’t get. It took three months for Tragos to get Swede ready for the ring. When Tragos deemed him ready, Swede was sent to Gilzenberges partner, Vince McMahon, for his first match against Miguel “the Mexican Bull” Torres in the Paterson (NJ.) Armory in late 1957.

To give Swede more experience, McMahon sent the fledgling wrestler to Pittsburgh, where he worked television matches for Toots Mondt, another McMahon partner. In those days, television was where a wrestler learned how to perfect his craft and character. Most of the time, up-and-comers lost to the bigger star, but in the process learned not only how to work a match, but also the finer points, such as how to sell a move and how to draw heat and let the opponent get heat. In professional wrestling especially, one cannot learn how to win until one learns how to lose.

One other memory of this time stood out for the Swede. He was the first opponent for a young Bruno Sammartino. They did so well together that they were booked almost on a weekly basis throughout the territory. “We eventually became good friends,” Swede once told Wrestling Perspective Newsletter. “My son was then only a young boy and he loved Bruno Sammartino. For every year for about 20 years, Bruno sent him a birthday card. We call each other every year at Christmas time or something like that to see how the families are.”

In April of 1961, Swede traveled to the Carolinas territory to work for Jim Crockett. He would stay there for about 20 years. He started as a swinging single, noted for his matches with Chief Big Heart and Abe Jacobs. He was also noted for his punch, said to be one of the hardest in wrestling by no less an authority than Ric Flair, who was on the receiving end of many a Hanson fist during his career.

It was also during this time that he met and was teamed with a bleached-blond big mouth named Rip Hawk. The one thing a tag team needs to be successful is chemistry; this is what separates a good team from a great team. Hawk and Hanson had chemistry in abundance, staying together as a team for about 16 years, according to wrestling historian Mike Mooneyham.

They were perfect together. Both wore a bleached-blond flattop crew cut. Hawk was the smaller of the two and did most of the talking. Swede stood by his side, a strong, silent type. Together they stood out in an area known for its tag teams. Over the years Hawk and Hanson faced the likes of George Becker and Johnny Weaver, the Scott Brothers (George and Sandy), the Anderson Brothers (Gene, Ole, and Arn), Ric Flair and Greg Valentine, and Wahoo McDaniel and Chief Big Heart. To have a run as long as Hawk and Hanson’s points to a unique combination of ability and chemistry, keeping themselves fresh and always in the minds of the fans as a contender.

Rip Hawk proved much more than just a partner. He and Swede were close friends outside the ring as well. Inside the ring, Hawk polished the big guy by sharing his experiences. “Rip Hawk taught me a lot about being in the ring,” Swede told Wrestling Perspective Newsletter. “He also taught me a lot about how to leave the ring. One of the first things he taught me was don’t walk that fast when you go by because someone can trip you up and jump on you. You walk right alongside me or I’ll walk right behind you. Walk slow and deliberate. If you see someone who looks like they might do something, walk right up to them and stare, glaring in their eyes. I was never bothered after that.”

And a good thing, too, considering Swede’s track record with injuries. He and Hawk had acid thrown at them and had guns and knives pulled on them during their days together.

After a match with Billy Two Rivers in Lynchburg, Va., Hanson received a knife wound in the leg that required 72 stitches to repair. Yet, there he was the very next week, wrapped in an Ace bandage and long tights to the utter amazement of the fans. Cracked sternums and dislocated hips were also part of Swede’s repertoire of injuries, plaguing him until his retirement in 1986.

Swede ended his long career right where he began it–in the WWF for Vince McMahon.

He allowed his hair to grow out and darken to its natural color and took on the character of a Southern Redneck, using a ring jacket with the Confederate flag sewn on back in case we didn’t make the connection.

Though older and slower, and now fighting diabetes, Swede provided flashes of his younger days in matches with Bob Backlund, Tito Santana, and Ivan Putski.

Swede retired to his five-acre spread in South Carolina, where he tended to his land in between appearances at charity golf tournaments, but a new opponent emerged to take him down for the count, Alzheimer’s disease.

His last days were spent in Palmetto Baptist Hospital for treatment of pneumonia when he suddenly passed away during the night.

“I don’t know all the reasons [for his death]. It all happened so fast,” his daughter Luana told The [Columbia, S.C.] State newspaper. “The nurse told me his heart just gave out.”

It was the only way he would ever leave us.

Do you have a question for the Phantom? Then simply e-mail him at phanring@aol.com and perhaps you’ll see your letter in a future edition of WRESTLING DIGEST.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group