By Jesse Marx
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It didn't take long for the word to get around when Ray Whebbe Jr. died. Whebbe, who was 48, had been in ill health for a long time before succumbing on the operating table in the early morning hours of August 15. While hardly a household name in the Twin Cities, Whebbe was nonetheless a minor legend in certain circles. Among small-time boxers, minor-league wrestlers, street people, and social workers, nearly everyone knew Whebbe. And even if they didn't know him personally, they knew of him.
Maybe they caught a glimpse of Whebbe's once orbital, later gaunt figure on his long-running cable access show, The Spectator. Or maybe they read his columns--Whebbe banged out countless typo-ridden screeds for various small Twin Cities newspapers over the decades. Perhaps they met him at local homeless shelters. For years, Whebbe worked in social services; and from 1987 to 1994, he organized an annual rock and wrestling benefit for the homeless--by all accounts, the crowning achievement of his career as a promoter.
People knew or heard of Whebbe for one reason: He relentlessly made it his mission to be known. In the face of chronic disappointment and epic physical suffering, he plowed ahead. He was a hack, both figuratively and literally (he drove a cab for three years). But he was a hack possessed of boundless drive and a distinct personal code.
"Ray always made his bookings," recalls Patrick Hollis, Whebbe's longtime friend and housemate. "That was one of the things he always said, 'You've got to make your booking.' Come hell or high water, he'd make it. He said he never missed a deadline, and he was very proud of that."
Invariably, people who are asked to describe Whebbe will use the word "colorful." The story that comes up most often is the tale of Whebbe's one fight, in 1994, as a professional boxer. Whebbe--who gloried in hanging around boxers and wrestlers--had accompanied a group of Minnesota boxers to the Chinese hinterlands for a fight card.
As it happened, one of the boxers didn't show for the scheduled bout. Whebbe volunteered to step in. It is a gross understatement to say that he was in no shape to fight. For most of his life, Whebbe was morbidly obese--peaking at around 400 pounds. After having his stomach stapled, he shed much of that weight. But at the time he stepped into the ring in Macao, China, there was so much loose flesh on his body that he looked less like a fighter than a shar-pei, the famously loose-fleshed Chinese fighting dogs.
Accounts vary as to what happened next. Whebbe always insisted that he got off a few good shots before being felled. That's the version many of Whebbe's friends choose to believe. Others say it ended both more quickly and more ingloriously, with a retreating and passive Whebbe getting whacked on the back of the head.
"I watched the fight, if you want to call it a fight," recalls Jack Basting, a heavyweight who fought on the same card. "Ray had no experience. It wasn't pretty, I can tell you that. He just got his ass knocked out." Why Whebbe would even step into the ring--without any experience or proper conditioning--is another question. "I don't think it was for the money. I think he just wanted to make sure everything went smooth," says Basting. Whebbe, in fact, never did receive the $1,000 he was promised for his short night's work.
But if his performance as a boxer was fodder for laughs in the Twin Cities fight circles, Whebbe viewed it with pride. "If somebody said something rude to him, he'd say, 'Well, I boxed professionally in China. What have you done?'" recalls Eddie Sharkey, a local wrestling impresario and longtime Whebbe associate.
Over the years, Whebbe was involved in numerous boxing and wrestling promotions closer to home. Disasters were the norm there, as well. Fred Askew, a heavyweight boxer whom Whebbe befriended in the early '80s, remembers a card in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Whebbe helped organize the show, which was intended as a protest and benefit to address the treatment of local juveniles by the police and the courts in the community.
"The city was split. The person that ran the hotel where Ray and I were staying was with the other side," Askew remembers. "When we came back to the hotel, all our bags were sitting outside. Ray just started laughing. I was ready to tear up the city. I said, 'What the hell's wrong with you?' And he said, 'Freddie, there ain't nothing we can do about it.' And he just kept laughing. That was Ray."
Whebbe got used to defeat, and he was drawn to other people who had experienced their own share of hard luck in equal or greater proportion. At homeless shelters, Whebbe occasionally recruited clients to round out local fight cards. "You could call him for a fighter and he'd say, 'Oh yeah, I got one. He's from Philadelphia and he can fight like a son of a bitch,'" says fight promoter Ron Peterson. "And it would be an old fucking wino who couldn't walk or talk. He got them fights, and they'd get knocked out right away. For a while there, he had someone on every card."
But unlike the sport's more notorious meat peddlers, friends say, Whebbe genuinely seemed to be trying to help out when he got a bum a fight. And, sometimes, the men he pulled from the missions actually were bona fide fighters. For a spell, Whebbe managed the late Walter Cowans--one of the legendary opponents of the Midwest fight circuit.
In the mid-'90s, Whebbe ran a boxing gym out of the American Indian Center on Franklin Avenue. As a troubled teen, Wolf Bellecourt found the gym and, he says, it helped turn his life around. "At the time, I was going through lots of depression, lots of despair. I think those were feelings shared by most of the native boys," Bellecourt recalls. "After we trained, we would always have a talking circle. The gym was a tool for Ray, not necessarily to make boxers out of us, but to teach us how to control our lives and not be controlled by our environment. He used to take all the kids out to eat. It all came out of his pocket."
That Whebbe was drawn to the downtrodden is not surprising. Growing up on St. Paul's east side, Whebbe ran with the wrong crowd, dealt drugs, and fancied himself a thug. He also got busted, spent time in the workhouse, and finally went into treatment. Friends say he managed to stay sober for better than a quarter of a century, though not by any stretch of the imagination as a traditional 12-stepper.
"At the meetings, one of the tenets is to say that you're powerless over whatever chemical used," friend Patrick Hollis recalls. "But Ray would always get everyone riled up by saying, 'I'm powerful.' He'd say, 'It doesn't control me, I control it, I make the decision. So I'm not powerless.' That's how he viewed life."
If sport was Whebbe's great passion, his calling, in a manner of speaking, was journalism. Over the years, he founded one neighborhood newspaper (The Whittier Globe), wrote columns for a half-dozen others, cranked out two wrestling histories and, finally, landed a job as the editor of The Watchdog, a muckraking tabloid bankrolled by a group of Twin Cities landlords.
The paper was pure Whebbe. In its pages, he noisily inveighed against municipal corruption. He was boundless in his contempt for Minneapolis pols like disgraced former City Council member Joe Biernat, ex-mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, and Police Chief Robert Olson.
"DID STERRIODS RUIN THE STATES BUDGET?" [sic] blared the front-page tease for a Whebbe story that claimed Jesse Ventura's use of steroids as a wrestler adversely affected his ability to govern. Perhaps because of the time he spent among wrestlers, steroids were a favorite theme of Whebbe's. In a story on the Minneapolis Police Department, he claimed steroid abuse was rampant among the rank and file, and a leading cause of brutality.
Most of Whebbe's friends knew that he tended to embellish and exaggerate. They all forgave him, though. "He was kind of hard on the truth sometimes," observes Eddie Sharkey. "But in a way where he was just trying to help someone. He wasn't trying to hurt no one."
Richard Darud, who produced Whebbe's cable access show The Spectator, agrees. "In the world of hustlers, he could swerve with the best of them. Sometimes, he'd do things I'd question. But when they're always trying to swerve you, you've got to swerve them," Darud says. "Ray never got his due. He was always in the hunt for the payday. In the last few years, I think he realized the payday was not coming. Even the wrestling books he wrote, there weren't any real paydays, just a little chicken feed."
If Whebbe's professional life was the source of considerable frustration, he didn't exactly find refuge in his personal life. He was married once for a time, and had several girlfriends over the years. Nothing worked out. "He was lonely," recalls Darud. "Ray liked the young women. About three years after I started with him on The Spectator, our relationship soured because he had this young girl he dropped everything for. At the time, he was just 40, she was like 22. She was taking him for a ride, and he knew it, but he didn't care. She played him. A year or so later, after she went away, he called me up and said, 'Richie, you were right.' And we got back together. Picked right up where we left off."
Still, by last May, Whebbe seemed to have settled into a new, seemingly more tranquil life. After years of living either alone or sharing an apartment, Whebbe rented a house in the Phillips neighborhood. "He kind of handpicked the people he wanted to live with, to make his family. This was going to be his house, and this was going to be his family," says friend Patrick Hollis. Whebbe was the house cook. On Saturday nights, he would invite other friends to watch fights on TV.
The good times didn't last. Within three weeks, Whebbe, who lived with a staggering number of health complications, fell ill. Chronic problems from the operation to staple his stomach worsened; a bleeding ulcer led to heart trouble. He bounced back and forth from the Hennepin County Medical Center to a St. Louis Park nursing home. The Watchdog published a picture of him on his deathbed.
In the end, Whebbe died as he lived--with an inordinate amount of physical suffering. Friends who visited were shocked. In his final days, Whebbe, who had been whittled away by his illness, had ballooned.
"Last time I saw him, I didn't even recognize him," says Ricky Rice, a retired wrestler. "I asked Dukes, my old tag team partner, 'Where is he really? Because that's not him.' He didn't look like anything like his old self."
To a person, Whebbe's friends were surprised by how hard the death hit them. For the old wrestler Eddie Sharkey, it is like the loss of a landmark. "He was always around. Just a guy you take for granted," Sharkey sighs. "Then he's gone."