Danny Hodge: The Oklahoma Shooter
By Dave Meltzer
One could make a strong case that Danny Hodge was the greatest collegiate wrestler in history. As far as being a tough guy, every single tough guy of his era will tell you Hodge was in a class by himself. His credentials and stories more than bear that out, bear being just one of a multitude of stories. With the possible exception of André the Giant, nobody had more stories told about him than Hodge, but unlike with Andre, the stories told were not embellished.
College wrestling’s version of the Heisman Trophy award, The Hodge Trophy, is named after him. The award for the best high school wrestler of the year, the Junior Hodge, is similarly named for him. As a pro wrestler, he was the world junior heavyweight champion (a title recognized by both the NWA and the AWA) for most of his career and defended it in two different rival promotions in Japan. He dominated the title from 1960, holding the Number 2 world championship at the time in the NWA less than ten months into his career, until a broken neck suffered in an auto accident that by all rights should have killed him, on what was for all real purposes the last day of his career in early 1976.
As junior heavyweight champion, he frequently wrestled both the NWA and AWA world champions. There was no junior heavyweight champion in history who could compare with him as far as the status of the championship when he was champion. Almost all the heavyweight
champion vs. junior heavyweight champion matches he was in ended in one hour draws because he was very big on protecting the value of the junior heavyweight championship. With the possible exception of Jushin Liger, Hodge would have to be considered the greatest junior heavyweight champion wrestler of all-time. And unlike with Liger, Hodge mostly main evented and had major success everywhere he went as a heavyweight as well. Privately, in the pro ranks, he was conceded to be the baddest man alive, toughest shooter of his era and maybe of any era, even though he was smaller than the vast majority of headliners during his heyday, usually at about 205 pounds.
On October 9, 1959, Hodge debuted as a pro wrestler, at the Tulsa Stockyards beating Sasha the Great. After less than ten months since he started training in the sport, on July 22, 1960, in his fourth shot at the title at the Stockyards in Oklahoma City, Hodge beat Angelo Savoldi in a two out of three fall before a sellout of 6,000 fans to win the NWA world junior heavyweight championship - a title that would become synonymous with Hodge for most of the next 16 years.
By 1961, the title, which was largely defended in a few places, started being defended in the major markets. In Texas, Hodge beat former American Football League all-star Don Manoukian, and did a number of 60:00 draws with the area’s top star, Pepper Gomez, in title matches, as well as did a double count out with world heavyweight champion Pat O’Connor. He defeated light heavyweight champion and Mexican legend Gori Guerrero several times in West Texas. He first came to the AWA billed as world junior heavyweight champion in 1965, defending the title against The Crusher, Pampero Firpo and others.
In January 1968, Hodge made his second Japan tour, this time for the Trans World Wrestling Association, where his heavyweight title win over Thesz did a 26 rating. Hodge later called it the greatest moment of his pro career to have Thesz put him over for a world title, and him being the first person to hold a major world heavyweight and junior heavyweight title at the same time. A key is that Thesz was known as the God of pro wrestling in Japan, and up to that point in time, had only lost to Rikidozan and Giant Baba, who were management’s top stars. The win over the God of Japanese pro wrestling, the man who had the legendary matches with Rikidozan a decade earlier, made Hodge a huge name in that country. He had already made himself a name coming in as the world junior heavyweight champion in matches with Matsuda.
After the TWWA folded, the larger JPW group brought him in for the first time. He and Wilbur Snyder were the company’s headliners in early 1969. This was the height of the Giant Baba & Antonio Inoki era as International tag team champions. This was a boom period for business, with the promotion airing on two different networks in prime time. As far as visibility, because of the matches being on network television and doing such big numbers, the Baba & Inoki vs. Hodge & Snyder feud would probably be the biggest program of Hodge’s career.
In early 1971, Hodge spent a month working for EMLL in Mexico as the world junior heavyweight champion. Business was strong during that period, and he did all main events at every major arena in the country. He teamed with the likes of Blue Demon, Rayo de Jalisco, Anibal and Huracan Ramirez, against the era’s top rudos, El Solitario, Angel Blanco, Dr. Wagner, Rene Guajardo, Perro Aguayo and Katsuhisa Shibata (the father of Katsuyori Shibata). His biggest main event at Arena Mexico was on February 26, where he and Rayo beat Blanco & Solitario in the main event before 15,000 fans.
On August 25, 1973, Hodge was brought in by Roy Shire to defend his title against The Great Yamamoto (Kantaro Hoshino) at the Cow Palace in San Francisco before 8,044 fans. To show the respect Shire had for him, Hodge won the first fall in just five seconds with a Thesz press. The ring announcer after the first fall said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have just seen the pro wrestling record for the fastest pinfall in history, five seconds by Danny Hodges (sic).” The second and third fall went normal lengths, but it was notable that Shire would give his all-time record to a guy who was not even a regular.
When he suffered the broken neck in the auto accident, he was told he could be paralyzed, or never walk again. He never believed it for a second, and wanted to get back to wrestling. When he realized that couldn’t happen, he went into a severe depression. He tried all kinds of jobs, and tried running a restaurant and bar, and then started working in the oil fields. One day on the field, his foot slipped through one of the steps and his back went out. He needed back surgery and had to live with intense pain.
He walked slightly bent over and limped slightly, and later said that he could never get a full night’s sleep again.
Still, in public, he remained a great ambassador for both pro and amateur wrestling for decades. He always seemed upbeat, never publicly complained and was quite humble when discussing his accomplishments. He had a brief time as a sports celebrity, and a longer time as a local television star who was respected as a master of his craft in many parts of the world.
He then had a second life as the sport’s living icon, as amateur wrestling historians made him a mythical figure and made sure his name would outlive him when his amazing accomplishments that are likely to never be equaled are talked about every year with the presenting of the Dan Hodge Trophy, which has been awarded since 1995. And with all that, there is also the realization of how much different things would have likely been had he been born 50 years later.
“Dan Hodge is the only man in athletic history to win national titles in both boxing and wrestling, he won a silver medal in the 1956 Olympic Games, and it is only fitting that he is inducted into any Hall of Fame that aims to celebrate the best in pro wrestling from across the world,” said historian Mike Chapman.