By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
At 61, Savannah Russell is still a hulk of a man. With a slight slouch, he stands 6' 2". His hands are enormous and fiercely veined. And though he's decades past his physical prime, he retains the carriage of his younger self—even with a limp, he moves with an athletic ease.
On a summer afternoon in his apartment in south Minneapolis, Russell is leafing through a portfolio of his clippings. In photo after photo, a great beast of a man gazes back at him, a creature of immaculate musculature in black briefs and jackboots, hoisting a shining Universal Wrestling Federation title belt over his enormous shoulders, staring down the camera with all the bravado of an immortal.
The man in the pictures was called Savannah Jack, former champion of the UWF. He studied under Vern Gagne and Eddie Sharkey and crisscrossed the country wrestling in hundreds of matches a year.
"I liked fighting," Russell says with a grin and a shrug. "And I was good at it."
Russell was born to fight. At the tough intersection of Dale and Iglehart in St. Paul where he was raised, it was a means of survival. By the age of six, he'd already seen a man shot to death outside a bodega. By 16, he owned a lengthy juvenile rap sheet for assault and drug possession.
"The way I was going," he says, "I was gonna end up in jail. Or dead. Or I was gonna kill somebody." His voice trembles and he looks away. It's a minute before he composes himself. "I didn't know what to do."
Jumpin' Jim Brunzell would change his life.
Russell had played against Brunzell as a defensive back for the Golden Gophers. A decade later, Russell was driving a city bus, making a stop at Minneapolis's Convention Center, when Brunzell boarded. By now, Brunzell was known as Jumpin' Jim, famed member of the Killer Bees, wrestling in the WWF and running camps for up-and-comers.
After Brunzell got off the bus at his stop, Russell drove away full of inspiration.
"I thought, 'I can do that,'" Russell recalls. "He wasn't much of a wide receiver. If Brunzell is 'rassling, I can, too."
By 1985, Savannah Russell had become Savannah Jack, and he had survived a grueling daily regimen of five-mile runs in wrestling camps that left him so exhausted he could wring a quart of water from his sweatpants. He was hired into the UWF by Cowboy Bill Watts at a rate of $5,000 a week, traveling 300 miles a day to wrestle in Tulsa, Baton Rogue—all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska. He was also sustaining himself with the 10-week cycle of steroids provided by Minneapolis dealers.
It was the prehistory for major-market wrestling, a time when the sport still pretended to be real, when a strict division was upheld between the faces and heels —a wrestler could be fined $1,000 for being seen with a known enemy, in public or in private. And in 1986, backstage before a match in Tulsa, Cowboy Bill Watts, the owner of the UWF, approached Russell to inform him that, in just a few moments, he'd be taking the television title from Buddy Jack Roberts.
"When you travel around all the time, you have diehard fans that follow you," says Russell. "And long before, I had this woman fan. Months before I won, she said, 'You're gonna have the title.' But when I found out...." Russell chokes again, capsized by the gravity of the memory. "I was dumbfounded."
It was a title he held for almost a year—the second-longest reign in the federation's history.
But something was amiss. Russell's strength was failing him, and his timing was off. He began to sputter mid-match. Going for his usual morning swim in a hotel pool in Baton Rouge, he could barely breathe, and had to struggle to pull himself out of the pool by the ladder. He had to sleep sitting up—blood was pooling in his lungs. A Minneapolis doctor advised him not to wrestle, and recommended a heart biopsy. But like everyone in his profession, he was uninsured, and contractual pressures forced Russell back on the road.
In 1987, he was in Fort Worth, preparing to wrestle. The night before, he had coughed up a blood clot so large it wouldn't wash down the sink. At show time, he was breathless, and just moments into the match, he was entirely fatigued. Once he got back behind the curtain, he collapsed.
The owner of the federation to which Russell had been lured with promises that he would be the franchise superstar offered no solace. "Either get back in that ring," he said, "or you're not getting paid."
Russell didn't have to think. He didn't change his clothes, didn't shower. He drove back to Minneapolis in his wrestling robe, saw a doctor, and was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy—heart muscle disease. Over-exertion put him at risk of sudden death. His career was over.
Since then, Russell has been a blackjack dealer, and a pit boss at Mystic Lake. He's driven cabs for Blue and White. He had his first stroke in 2001. He awoke in a daze on his living-room floor, unable to move, unable to speak. His face drooped with paralysis. His right side was numb. In the hospital, he had another. Two years later, another. A cardiac arrest followed—in his chair, while paramedics worked to revive him, he was clinically dead for several minutes.
What is left is a man who tends to bird feeders outside his garden-level window, gentled by hardship, who, despite strokes and loss, keeps a champion's bearing.
Russell sorts through his pictures, looking at the fearsome, powerful man he once was. Beaded with sweat at a match at Minneapolis's First Avenue alongside teammate Eddie Fritz. Airborne above the top turnbuckle. Standing before 60,000 fans at the Louisiana Superdome—a crowd so deafening, Russell says, he couldn't hear himself shout.
It would be easy to pity himself, or to resent the man captured in those clippings. But Russell doesn't. He's awash in joy, smiling.
"That's life," he says. "It's what life dealt for me. I could be dead right now." He turns a page. In the picture before him, he is posed against a white sheet, flexing his fists. Russell smiles and points at the picture. "I had the time of my life," he says. "I can say I'm the luckiest man."