The story of one of Milwaukee's most beloved athletes.
Wrestling athletes from the era of black-and-white televisions aren’t as well remembered as some of their athletic counterparts. Names like Ted Williams, Sugar Ray Robinson and Gordie Howe ring more bells than Bruno Sammartino, Baron von Roschke and Mae Young.
In South Milwaukee, however, one hometown hero hasn’t been forgotten. Reginald Lisowski, better known as The Crusher, was a beer-guzzling, cigar-smoking, blond-locked, proud Polish-American who became one of the faces of professional wrestling in the days before Hulk Hogan or John Cena.
1) Remembered in Bronze
Fans are seeking to memorialize Lisowski with a life-size, 6-foot-tall bronze statue to be erected in his home neighborhood. He passed away from a brain tumor in October, 2005.
Chris Smith, a Franklin resident, started a GoFundMe page in December 2016, looking to raise $40,000 to fund the project. The description of the fundraiser reads, “‘Da Crusher symbolizes the embodiment of the blue collar, hard working history of the people of South Milwaukee and a monument honoring his memory will be a proud landmark for the people of South Milwaukee forever.” By the first week of February 2018, more than 150 donors had raised over $20,000. “Guys like The Crusher,” one donor wrote, “… molded our young lives and taught us new ways to torture our siblings.”
2) The Good Ol’ Days
Before the WWE created a national audience for single wrestling events, most promotions were regionally based. There was the WWF, Maple Leaf Wrestling, WWA, the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance and dozens of smaller promoters in the business. The Crusher worked for seemingly all of them, collecting 29 titles in his career.
Crusher was a lifelong athlete. He played fullback for South Milwaukee High School, but became enamored with wrestling while stationed in Germany at the end of World War II. By the mid 1950s, he was becoming a regular on TV. Within a decade, he’d become rivals with Johnny Valentine and tag-team buddies with Dick the Bruiser, a one-time Green Bay Packer who became known as “The World’s Most Dangerous Wrestler.”
3) From the Bar to the Ring
At age 13, Lisowski says he already weighed 200 pounds and was working as a bouncer, throwing drunks out of his father’s saloon. It’s a time he called “the college of hard knocks” and how he coincidentally started training for his later career.
At his peak, Crusher could bench almost 600 pounds, more than double his body weight. In 1981, a 450-pound opponent, Jerry Blackwell, mistakenly fell on Crusher’s arm during a bout. The resulting nerve damage nearly ended the Milwaukeean’s career. Two years of physical therapy later, he proved the doctors wrong and returned to the ring. Verne Gagne, another former wrestler, said, “The Crusher never was a great technically skilled wrestler, but he was tougher than nails and a brawler.”
Crusher attributes his stamina to staying out all night polka-ing with bar maids. This comes despite claiming, to prepare for a particularly challenging match, to eat “six pounds of Polish sausage a day, increase my beer from a case to a case-and-a-half, and I’m going to eat a lot of mashed potatoes and gravy.”
4) Pop Culture
The Crusher appeared in the 1974, AWF-produced film The Wrestler, not to be confused with 2008 Oscar-nominated movie of the same name starring Mickey Rourke. But he was most immortalized in the song “The Crusher” by The Novas in 1964. It features the unforgettable lyric, “Do the hammerlock you turkeynecks,” delivered by lead singer Bob Nolan as he imitates Lisowski’s unmistakable gravelly baritone. The song was later covered by The Cramps, reimagined by The Ramones, and occasionally heard on The Late Show with (lifelong wrestling fan) David Letterman.
Upon retirement in 1988, Crusher returned to Milwaukee permanently for a life that featured much fewer headlocks. Back on the south side, he resided with his five children and wife, to whom he was married for 55 years until she passed in 2003. Still, he’d never really left Milwaukee, keeping residence in town throughout his career.
Neighborhood kids would sometimes camp out in front of the celebrity’s home, watching the 250-pound beast go about his day. If the GoFundMe succeeds, they may be able to look upon his 22-inch biceps once again.