Wrestlemaniac: The Rise and Fall of Billy Jack Haynes and the Oregon Wrestling Federation

In 1988, Katherine Dunn considered a professional wrestling promotion gone wrong.

Billy Jack Haynes. (WWF promotional still)

On Feb. 9, Billy Jack Haynes, 70, was arrested on suspicion of murdering his wife, Janette Becraft, 85. As of this writing, he has not been charged with a crime.

The arrest is a bleak coda to an unusual life. Haynes was Oregon’s best-known professional wrestler, standing astride two eras: the regional, rickety wrestling promotions that won local allegiance, and the slick, cable-televised World Wrestling Federation.

In 1988, Haynes left the World Wrestling Federation to launch his own circuit, the Oregon Wrestling Federation. He lured big names: Rip “The Crippler” Oliver, Coco Samoa, Tiger Chen Lee and Mr. Magnificent of Minneapolis. Six months later, Katherine Dunn examined what went wrong on the cover of WW.

Dunn, then a WW columnist who answered reader questions and covered boxing, would achieve fame of her own one year later, with the publication of Geek Love. She died in 2016 at the age of 70.

This story was first published in the Sept. 22, 1988, edition of WW.

Not long ago, Billy Jack Haynes was at the top of the heap. The Oregon-based professional wrestler was a star, commanding huge fees and adoring fans. Seventeen months ago, Haynes was one of the main events for “Wrestlemania III,” a mega-event in Pontiac’s Silverdome that drew 93,000 fans. Billy Jack rose to the occasion. He rode an electric chariot through screaming fans to the ring, his spangled jacket — green and gold for his home state — reflecting the lights of the stadium. A favorite with crowds, he was the all-American “good guy” wrestler with fans so devoted that thousands in the crowd wore ink images of his bearded face on their T-shirts.

Today Haynes is back home in Oregon City with his life and his dreams crashing around him. His fellow wrestlers spit his name. His list of friends has shrunk dramatically. Stress and lack of exercise have him in the worst physical shape of his life. A dozen creditors are threatening lawsuits. He is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. He and his wife, Selena, hide in their house, unwilling to answer the nagging telephone unless the caller knows them well enough to ring once, hang up and then ring again.

Billy Jack says he dreamed wrong.

Though the sports media dismiss it with a snicker, wrestling is one of the most popular and enduring forms of entertainment in the United States. Since the ’50s it has also become the rage of Japan, Australia and much of Latin America and Europe. For millions of ardent fans, the wildly hostile gymnastics, zany nicknames and soap-slick feuds of the wrestling ring are the next-best thing to religion.

The excitement in the cash box during the last few years has drawn even tycoons Ted Turner and Donald Trump to the business. No town in America is too small to have occasional live shows, and wrestling consistently crams the largest indoor arenas from Madison Square Garden to the Kingdome. (The crowd that howled for Billy Jack Haynes that “Wrestlemania” night at the Silverdome not only set the U.S. indoor attendance record for any sports or entertainment event, it also spent more than $1.1 million on concessions alone in just four hours.) Cable TV now offers 30 to 60 hours a week of wrestling programs. The broadcast networks are moving in. Professional wrestling in the ’80s is a worldwide, multibillion-dollar industry, and it is growing fast.

Billy Jack Haynes had spent six years learning the game from bottom to top. He thought he could come home to Oregon and cash in on his own fame and the growing popularity of wrestling. He would start his own wrestling promotion company and be a star in his own ring. But as Haynes discovered, the action outside the ring can be even tougher than inside.

At 36, his nobby, boyish face is upholstered by a close beard and black bangs that cover the scars on his forehead He is 6 feet 3 inches and 260 pounds. His clothes strain not to split over his bodybuilder’s shoulders and thighs. He has no discernible neck, and he carries himself with a certain modesty, chin tucked toward his chest — a big man whose brawn and bravado have taken him to the top of his profession but who seems surprisingly anxious not to get in your face.

He was a big kid, and he ran with a rough crowd in southeast Portland. In 1968, when he was 15, his mother died, and Andy Kendall, the former light-heavyweight boxer, drove up to the Plaid Pantry at 72nd and Flavel just in time lo see young Billy Jack whipping the tar out of some character in the parking lot. “The Scappoose Express,” as Kendall was known, invited Billy to the boxing gym. Billy went and had several amateur bouts.

He was 22 when his carpenter father went blind from diabetes in 1975. Billy worked as a janitor and took care of his dad. He drifted to the dog track, nearly killed a man in a brawl and was convicted of first-degree assault. He took up weightlifting and bodybuilding in prison and stayed with it after he was released. By the time he was 27, he weighed close lo 300 pounds, and in 1982 he took second place in the Mr. Pacific Coast competition. At the same time, Billy lack worked as a bouncer at the Stone Pony — a nightclub notorious for its odd mix of colorful patrons. The professional wrestlers from Don Owen Promotions often stopped in after their matches.

Like most Portlanders, Haynes had grown up with the Saturday night wrestling show on Channel 12. Since the 1920s, when Don Owen’s father, Herb, started producing boxing and wrestling matches in Oregon, the Owen family has produced more than 22,000 ring shows. The Owens’ shows have been the training ground and launching pad for grappling stars from Super-Fly Snuka, Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Rowdy Roddy Piper back to the original hypester of the ’50s, the guy from Eugene who is credited with the creation of professional wrestling as we know it, Gorgeous George Wagner.

Mainly because of the Owens’ promotions, the Northwest has a long tradition of wrestling as a proud career in which talent, skill and showmanship are developed through experience. Success is not measured by a win-loss record, but by how much “heat” a wrestler can generate in the audience — sympathy and admiration for the good guys and hatred for the bad guys. The reward for this delicate art is not just money but, as in baseball and ballet, the seductive lure of cheers and fame.

It was Dutch Savage, a well-known Owen wrestler, who suggested that the young bouncer at the Stone Pony might have what it takes for a wrestling career.

On the Road

After four months of wrestling school and two years with Owen, Haynes jumped to Florida, then Texas, back to Owen, and Florida again. A seven-day workweek for $50 a day was standard. He learned to save money by car pooling to the day’s event with other wrestlers, each titan paying mileage to the one who drove. The seventh night, Saturday, was the televised show crucial to draw the crowds to the smaller weekday shows After a few years, like most wrestlers, Haynes had broken bones, strained tendons, lost some teeth and fought off scabies and other infections from the filthy ring mats along the way. Like other wrestlers — sometimes working two or three months without a single day off — he tried to save money while paying his own travel and work expenses out of that flat $50.

Wrestlers are independent contractors, and when Haynes couldn’t wrestle he was out of luck. He survived with no medical or unemployment insurance, no workmen’s comp. II the money wasn’t great, the promise of more was out there. And the scouts for the nationally televised wrestling promoters were beginning to notice.

While working in Florida, Haynes met and married Selena, and they moved to Atlanta, where Billy wrestled for Jim Crockett’s National Wrestling Alliance, which broadcasts to more than 200 television stations across the country on WTBS and the Ted Turner cable network. The small-town nights were the same old roadshow, but the TV nights paid better. Still, he was only there two months.

Haynes says he left Crockett because he was paid much less than he’d been promised for appearing in a major television extravaganza.

“Everywhere you go it’s the same thing,” says Haynes. “To get the talent the promoters will promise anything. Big money. But when you’ve been there a few weeks and settled in, the money just fades away.”

Haynes’ big break came in ’86 with an invitation from the powerhouse of the game, the World Wrestling Federation. The product of three generations of wrestling promotion by the McMahon family, the organization was a regional promotion out of upstate New York until young Vincent K. McMahon look over from his father in ’82. McMahon, still in his 50s, took three years to establish a national TV empire and then slammed the continent-wide target with the first “Wrestlemania” broadcast nationally from Madison Square Garden in 1985. Incorporating celebrities from Cyndi Lauper to Liberace in that first spectacular show, McMahon launched Hulk Hogan as a superstar and the WWF as a major entertainment force throughout the United States. Revenues for 1987 alone were more than $450 million.

Producing 1,200-plus live shows a year — three a day — all over the country, McMahon hires his scores of wrestlers everywhere. The pay starts where most promoters leave off, at $1,000 a week. The organization also produces and syndicates live high-gloss television programs to 500 broadcast and cable stations and dubs seven foreign-language versions for 40 nations around the globe. Closed-circuit and pay-per-view programs, plus 40 videocassettes, souvenirs, a slick fanzine and now rock-music albums — songs sung by the WWF superstars, and even by WWF honcho Vince McMahon — are all major moneymakers.

World Wrestling Federation shows coming into Portland’s Memorial Coliseum over the last few years were the first competitions ever to challenge Northwest promoter Don Owen in this state. Now, with WWF events scheduled for Pendleton, Eugene, Salem and various other towns, Owen insists, “They are out to take over the world.”

For Billy, the WWF invitation was confirmation of the strength, skill and raw charisma he had developed as a wrestler. His ring persona — with the flat black hat copied from that worn by the original quiet, dangerous warrior of the Billy Jack flicks — had guts, integrity and humility, a magic combination for the “good guy.” He was good enough to get into the WWF. Staying meant more hard work.

Selena Haynes stayed home in Oregon City as Billy Jack crisscrossed the continent by air, working 60 to 90 days without a break.

“You’re on the road a lot in the WWF,” says Haynes, “and you’re away from your family. If you’re married, you get depressed. You’ve got women throwing their butts at you all the time, and you ask yourself, ‘Shall I nail this or be a decent human being and not do it?’”

A former bank teller, far from her family in Florida, Selena worked to fulfill one of her husband’s long-term dreams — to own a serious weight-training gym. Through her efforts, the Billy Jack Haynes Gym in the Danielson Hilltop Mall held its grand opening in November ’87.

Somewhere along the way, the idea of being a promoter in his home state began to intrigue Haynes.

His last WWF appearance was in January 1988 at the Memorial Coliseum in Portland. He won a tag-team match with his tag partner and fellow Oregonian, Ken Patera. By then, with all his national television exposure, Haynes could rarely walk a city street without being mobbed by autograph seekers.

There are rumors that he was fired by the McMahon organization for a “bad attitude,” but Billy Jack says he had planned to leave after this show because he was ready to start his own promotion. Whatever the case, the WWF roadshow left town the next morning, and Billy Jack Haynes stayed behind.

In early February, Haynes approached the Oregon State Boxing and Wrestling Commission to discuss the requirements for a promoter’s license. In partnership with Selena Haynes. Billy Jack and the Oregon Wrestling Federation were licensed in March.

“Most promoters have never worn the tights,” says Haynes. “They just sit back and count their money. They don’t know what it’s like to go down the road and take all the bullshit. I wanted to be a promoter who is also a wrestler, one of the boys.”

Portland businessman Mark Caplan, son of Irwin Caplan, legal advertising manager of the Daily Journal of Commerce, was one of the man intrigued by the potential of Haynes’ promotion. “It penciled out,” he says, “to a million-dollar-a-year operation just to start.”

Caplan. who was brought in early as a promotional and marketing adviser, worked with Haynes in the planning stages of the OWF. Having studied Vince McMahon’s techniques from a distance, Caplan liked what he saw enough to interest investors in the Haynes operation.

The Plan

The promo effort was gaining momentum in March. When they appeared on a KATU “Town Hall” program on wrestling. Haynes and Caplan both talked up the OWF. Shortly afterwards. KGW news did a story on Billy Jack’s founding of the federation, as did The Oregonian.

In keeping with the inflammatory tradition of wrestling interviews, Haynes was consistently critical of his rival, the Owen promotion. Despite having hired several of his old friends away from Owen, Haynes told Floyd Woods of the Clackamas County Review that, compared with the wrestlers he was bringing in, “Owen’s guys are fat, out of shape and poor performers.”

Haynes’ basic plan was the traditional wrestling format. His crew would wrestle six days a week in low-rent National Guard armories and high school gymnasiums all over the state. He would do benefits and play county fairs. The crucial Saturday show would take place in the OWF’s hometown, Oregon City, at the arena conveniently located across the parking lot from Billy Jack’s Gym. That show would, of course, be televised. The broadcast would he the primary advertising for the other six shows a week. Haynes signed a contract with KPDX, Channel 44, to produce and air his program.

But the commodity that would make the difference between Haynes’ organization and all others was the wrestlers themselves. His own experience told him which incentives would induce talented, skilled performers to drop whatever else they were doing and trek all the way to Oregon. When Billy Jack launched his long-distance phone recruiting campaign, his lure was extremely good pay by regional standards — guarantees ranging from $800 to $1,000 a week. He promised them transportation — two chauffeured vans, one for the good guys and one for the bad guys. The wrestlers would get a percentage of the profit from posters, T-shirts and even dolls modeled on their ring personas. There would be TV coverage, plenty of advertising and every safety precaution available for ring work.

And the wrestlers came. Some 20 wrestlers and a first-class referee answered Billy’s call. Portland’s Kip “The Crippler” Oliver, Coco Samoa, Brian Adams, Mean Mike Miller. Moondog Moretti and Gorgeous Joey Jackson gave up reliable berths with Don Owen Promotions. Others came from North Carolina, Florida, California, Tennessee, Missouri, New York — some moving their families thousands of miles. Some gave up lucrative occupations outside of wrestling to answer Haynes’ invitation. Tiger Chen Lee, for example, had left the WWF to do stunt work in Hollywood. With 23 years in the ring and credits including The Golden Child and several Schwarzenegger flicks, Chen Lee was still interested in Haynes’ offer. He drove up from Los Angeles. Mr. Magnificent, Kevin Kelly, the star of the Midwestern circuit, dropped his Minneapolis car dealership into a manager’s hands and flew out to Portland when Billy Jack called.

But even then, in March and early April, the cracks in the OWF were beginning to show, although no one understood their significance.

For example, Mark Caplan’s high-tech, computerized style clashed with the Haynes family’s notion of running the business out of a little red ledger book. Caplan says he could see getting the operation off the ground and then getting tossed out as no longer necessary.

“I was unwilling to involve investors,” he says, “without the assurance that I would be there to protect their money.” Caplan asked for a contract. Haynes refused. Long before Haynes’ first wrestling show ever took place, Caplan bailed out, taking, by his estimate, more than $100,000 worth of potential investors with him.

When the wrestlers arrived, Haynes asked them to work for half the money he had guaranteed them, “just until the promotion gets off the ground.” They agreed. Even half pay was more than many of them had been earning in their previous territory.

After months of preparation, the great OWF kickoff came on Saturday night, May 7, at the 2,000-seat Oregon City Civic Center. A crew from KPDX taped the show for delayed broadcast the following Saturday afternoon and a repeat on Sunday morning.

There were 1,800 people in the audience for the OWF debut, but it went downhill from there. Only 550 showed the following Saturday. Though the Saturday night shows hovered in the range of 300 to 600 ticket buyers, the crowds for the other six nights either never appeared or deteriorated rapidly.

Haynes reacted by trying to save money on advertising and advance promotion. “We’d arrive in a town and nobody would know we were coming,” says wrestler J.T. “Rock and Roll” Southern. “There were no posters, no ads, no radio spots. Do you know what it’s like to wrestle in front of 30 people? The worst feeling in the world is when you’re in the dressing room lacing up your boots and you know there are only 30 people out there. But you’ve got to get up for it. They’ve paid their money, and they deserve a show. You say. ‘Oh lord, let me just get through this night.’”

OWF wrestlers resorted to standing on street corners in small Oregon towns on the day of a match, handing out fliers to the passers-by. J.T. Southern says, " I was completely humiliated. It was like we were begging people to come and see us wrestle.”

Originally the real star of each event, Billy Jack soon stopped appearing at all in the roadshows, wrestling only on Saturday nights in Oregon City.

The promised vans for wrestlers’ transportation never appeared. They drove their own cars or car-pooled as usual.

Haynes began to abandon his armory bookings without bothering to cancel the dates. From a show every night, the schedule dropped to two shows a week, and sometimes one.

Payments were also falling behind on utility and equipment bills and the lease on the Oregon City arena. The stress was playing havoc with Haynes’ sleep.

“Billy let himself go,” says wrestler Brian Adams. “His hair was a mess. He didn’t shower. He was in the worst shape of his life. He didn’t even bother to put his teeth in anymore.”

The wrestlers’ half pay soon started shrinking. “I was getting $400,” explains Coco Samoa. “Then one week he gave me $300 and told me he’d make up the difference the next week. The next week he’d give me $200 and say he’d make it all up in the next check. But the next week it was down to $150.”

Several of the original crew, along with a referee, had already jumped ship, borrowing money or selling and pawning possessions to finance their escape from Oregon. Billy shocked his remaining crew when he told a local newspaper that the departing wrestlers had been dropped for failing to pass the drug test.

On Friday, July 15, the strained trust between Billy Jack and his boys exploded. All the wrestlers got their $150 paychecks and then demanded a meeting with Haynes in the dark arena at Oregon City. A full dozen men looking, even in street clothes, like the riled cast of a Conan flick, aired their complaints. The dwindling pay was ruining them. Several wrestlers had already been evicted from their apartments. The lucky ones found a friend’s sofa or living-room floor to camp on, while the rest were sleeping in their cars. Those with families to support were desperate. Coco Samoa, the father of five, was reduced to tears. For the first time in his 18-year wrestling career, he couldn’t pay his rent.

As in the rest of the entertainment industry, wrestling needs a promoter to lure ticket buyers into the seats and needs performers who make the audience happy once it’s there. The boys had done their part. Billy Jack had blown his end of the deal.

Now Billy Jack, the promoter, was telling his remaining wrestlers that they would be paid $50 a show even if there was only one show a week. Coco Samoa says, “He told us, ‘If it comes down to you eating or me eating, I’m going to eat. If it’s a choice of your bills getting paid or mine, my bills get paid. If you don’t like it, there’s the door.’” They walked out.

Two disastrous, patchwork shows later, the Oregon Boxing and Wrestling Commission shut down the operations of the Oregon Wrestling Federation on July 18. The business had survived less than three months.

During the first mad weeks after the collapse of the wrestling promotion, a siege of creditors and furious wrestlers demanding back pay kept Billy Jack and Selena Haynes hidden at home in Oregon City, available only to those who had the phone code they would answer. Now, with the threat of bankruptcy temporarily on hold, they are struggling to save the last of their assets, the Billy Jack Haynes Gym.

In keeping with his good-guy image, Haynes now accepts full responsibility for the failure of his promotion and the damage done to his employees. “I was the promoter, and it was my responsibility to make sure things got done. I didn’t do it. I’ve lost my dream and I feel lower than a midget. I thought I was cut out to be a promoter, but I was wrong. I’m not a big enough prick.”

Despite his good intentions, there are those in wrestling now who disagree. Billy Jack’s promotional motto — and he repeated it often — was, “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit.” Ironically, Billy Jack Haynes managed to reverse that process.

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