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REMEMBERING THE ONE AND ONLY BLACKJACK BROWN

By Mike Johnson on 2022-08-01 22:43:00

“My brother, what’s going on?”

Every single conversation with Blackjack Brown on the telephone started the exact same way.

It’s hard to express the importance of David “Blackjack” Brown when it comes to the impression he made on professional wrestling and the doors he opened for so many who worked in and around professional wrestling.  Some of that is due to the era where he was most active, but a lot of that was a specific, profound choice because he felt such a deep respect for those in the business that he never wanted to take even one small iota of thunder and attention away from them.

I am writing this not as a way to completely recount Blackjack’s career or his importance but just to try and make some of you out there know a little bit more about our friend (and when I say our, I mean professional wrestling as a whole), because he was a great person, a great character and someone who to his last breath, loved professional wrestling and professional wrestlers.

Before professional wrestling, Blackjack (for the record, no one ever, EVER called him David; I wrote his first name in the headline writing about his passing while I was absolutely stunned, I don’t think even his own mother called him David) was involved in bodyguarding, an imposing tall figure when young who worked with a lot of music stars, including Diana Ross.  This led to a connection with WPLJ’s Jim Kerr and The Morning Crew.  Blackjack had a connection to PLJ for many, many years and can be seen in lots of early WWF Wrestlemania press conferences repping PLJ.

Blackjack parlayed all this into writing for a lot of early pro wrestling fanzines and newsletters and through his close friendship with the equally legendary George Napolitano, had a regular column in the WWF Madison Square Garden program until that publication was taken in-house by the company.  To me, George and Blackjack were like Abbott and Costello.  I can't even imagine them apart and their back and forth conversations were always entertaining, these two true blue NEW YORKAS talking wrestling.

Blackjack was one of the regular characters in and around the NYC wrestling scene, his ever-present baseball cap, a camera slung around his neck and his trademark black gloves, which covered the scars of burns he suffered young in life in an unfortunate accident, all part of the distinctive look that was complimented with an ever-present suit jacket no matter how hot or cold it was outside.

The legend was that one night Blackjack Mulligan bestowed the Blackjack name upon him in a bar after a MSG show and from that point on, he was Blackjack Brown.  He was ever-present at every WWF PPV and especially any TV taping and live event in the NYC area.  Then every WCW PPV.  Then every ECW show.  He was there, part of the ecosystem.

In the days before the Internet, The New York Daily News had a weekly Friday night column written by The Slammer.  This would be my first inkling that Blackjack Brown existed and for a long time, I assumed (as many still do) that Brown was writing the article.  That’s not the truth, although given that Brown’s 900 line would be plugged regularly at the end of the column and that Brown was calling in all the WWF house show results to the Daily News (yes, they ran the results on the same page as the MLB and NFL game results), it’s easy to see why someone would think that was the case.  In reality, the Slammer was a New York Daily News writer named Hank Winnicki, who today writes for Newsday.  It was never Blackjack, although Blackjack was regularly providing information for the column, which was meant to be a light-hearted, silly entry into pro wrestling more than a hard-hitting analysis.  It was meant to be fun fare and while it may not have aged well, it was pretty much the introduction to finding any wrestling news for a casual fan in the New York area. 

I can remember being in High School and in a special journalism class, one of the weekly assignments on Fridays was literally reading the newspapers in NYC.  That was it.  It was probably the teacher’s way of getting paid to do nothing that day, but every Friday, there would be the Slammer’s column and at the end would be some over the top blurb for Blackjack’s Gab line.  BIG FIGHT BACKSTAGE!  REFEREES BRAWL!  FIND OUT WHERE SURVIVOR SERIES WILL BE HELD!  There was always a plug and I always wondered, who is this guy, how does he know this stuff and why isn’t it just in the newspaper?

Well, there was a great reason for that.  It was Blackjack’s way of making money.  The 900-line, known as the Wrestling Gab Line, was unique in that every day, Blackjack would take the train from Brooklyn to the office in Long Island and enter what legitimately was a closet (no, not being melodramatic here, it was INSIDE A CLOSET) where he would record a hotline update for when he wasn’t there, but when he was, Brown would pick up the phone and for $1.99 a minute, he would talk professional wrestling with whoever called.  Sometimes, he would have guests on - he once played me an amazing tape of himself with Bruno Sammartino AND Buddy Rogers on together talking to fans, and sometimes he’d loop in well known fans he liked and they’d talk live for 99 cents a minute, keeping the callers on for as long as possible, until it was time to head home, putting up a recording for fans who would call in until the next day.  Brown loved doing the 900 line and kept it going until the realities of the Internet led the company that hosted it to close down.  It was great money for him while it lasted and somewhere, he had oodles and oodles of tapes we often talked about utilizing here for Elite subscribers but never got around to making it happen.

He got paid well, but, the reality is, Blackjack would have done it for free just to talk professional wrestling.  He talked to everyone and anyone.  Before there was such a thing as an influencer as a term for those online, that’s pretty much what Blackjack’s role was.  He had this way of just starting conversations with anyone and everyone and by the end, he was their friend and if he could go out of his way to open some doors for you the way others had done for him, if he believed in you, he would.  He befriended a 14 year old Justin Roberts at a show and kept pushing him to pursue a career in pro wrestling, telling Justin he believed he could do it and reminded Roberts “I’m never wrong.”  

"Lots and lots of talents have Blackjack to thank for their career and he knew it..and they knew it. I know the part he played in mine and I am so thankful that he was there from the very beginning to encourage and guide me over the years." - Justin Roberts

Blackjack wasn’t wrong about a lot of people.  He mentored and was the sounding board for countless people in the business.  Bubba Ray Dudley credited him with being the one to make the phone call that got The Dudley Boyz in the WWF on a recent episode of Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Sessions.  Austin’s response was, “I know Blackjack.”  Of course he did.  Everyone did.  There’s a reason everyone from Eric Bischoff to Taz to Prince Nana to Big Vito to Tommy Dreamer spent time praising Blackjack this week - he did what he could for them and lots of others, and unlike a lot of people in the social media age, he didn’t do it to further himself, or internet clout or Retweets.  He did it out of a pure love of professional wrestling, wanting to pay it forward.

Blackjack did a lot of that for me, too.  One day, my phone rings and it’s Blackjack and he says, “I wanted to introduce you to my friend.”  It was Bruno Sammartino.    Another time, we were meeting for breakfast before a wrestling convention and he said, “I promised my friend you’d meet him for breakfast.”  It was Rocky Johnson, who I assure you had no idea that he wanted to meet me, but that led to a series of breakfasts I will always cherish every time Rocky and Blackjack were in town at the same conventions.  But, he didn’t do this for me - he did it for everyone.   He loved connecting people together and seeing how the conversations would go, his big old smile as he enjoyed everyone's company.

Blackjack legitimately loved being around wrestling.  He was proud of every photo and everyone that he considered his friend -a photo of him with the McMahon family sat on the mantle in his house in Michigan, surrounded by lots of family photos.  He felt a kinship with everyone in the business and was always cognizant that he was lucky to be around it and to have the rights to come and go as he pleased at WWF, WCW and ECW shows, whether he was shooting photos at ringside, writing a column for the Chicago Sun-Times or just passing information on to The Slammer.  He believed in the sanctity of storylines and in the personal privacy of the talents, because he came up in a different era and he would shake his head at some of the things I would write about, but never ever told me how I handled reporting was wrong and never, ever shied away from telling me how proud he was that I’d done as well as I did.  

"If I ever had to create a Mt. Rushmore of pro wrestling journalists and insiders, Blackjack Brown would’ve been on it. One of the best guys I ever met in the industry. A true friend all that knew him. He really was one of a kind. He was so good to me early on in my career. I never forgot how he treated me. Rest well Blackjack." - Mike Bucci aka Nova and Simon Dean

In sharing stories with his friends this week, many of whom made six and seven figures in professional wrestling, he had said the exact same thing to every single one of them.  He didn’t want credit.  He just wanted them to know he was happy for them - and you could imagine his big smiling face as he said it.

Blackjack was always smiling.  If you saw him coming from down the street as he was coming to meet you, here he was, his trademark limp and all, just smiling as he rambled down the street, his cell phone to his ear, talking to someone.  He didn’t WANT to get a cell phone, he was so old school but then once he got one, he didn’t want to get a new phone, because he had mastered the slow, painful art of texting via an old flip phone.  By the end of his life, he had three different cell lines, because he refused to retire the old phones.  He was a character that way.

As I noted, Blackjack loved to talk on the phone.  He would call all hours day and night and out of every single person, from the sane to the mad men and women I’ve encountered in professional wrestling circles, no one, NO ONE, had worse timing for calling than Blackjack.  Sitting down to eat dinner?  RING.  Halfway through a movie and in the most dramatic part in a packed theater?  RING.  Driving on a highway in the pouring rain in the worst conditions ever? RING RING.  He had a personal radar for knowing the worst time to call and then when you’d pick up the phone… “My brother, what’s going on?”  He was calling just to call because he wanted to keep in contact with the people he cared about.

I think a big part of that was that he suffered a bad stroke a decade or so ago, one that led to him initially not remembering his own name (He said it was “Charlie”, for the record) and a long recovery that eventually saw him get back to a close semblance of normal, but from that point on, he was always checking up on everyone he liked and cared about, and was always telling them that he loved them, because, well, you never know.  The last words we said to each other, as we always did, was that we loved each other, and it brings me great solace to know that the last time I heard his voice, that was the last thing he  said to me and that he ever heard me say.

Blackjack had a lot of quirks as a person, which only accentuated the person he was.  He HATED to fly and I believe the last time he did was sometime in the 1990s where that was the only way to get to a Royal Rumble.  He took Amtrak everywhere.  He didn’t care if it took four days on a train vs. 2 hours on a plane.  He was going to take the train, make the connections and by the end of the ride, he’d have about 10 new stories of insanity he witnessed or friends he made along the way as he rode the rails.  But, you wouldn’t have gotten him in a plane for $10 billion dollars.  It wasn’t happening.

Blackjack also had a great gift for busting your chops in a way that was biting, funny but never insulting.  If someone pinched you on the ass, you'd turn and it was Blackjack enveloping you in a giant hug that lasted forever.  He was an incredibly friendly face who had an infinite amount of stories that would connect anything that was going on today to some NYC personality who was sadly no longer with us.  He lived through a lot of generations of fans and personalities and was complimentary of everyone.  He never had heat with anyone that I can think of him ever mentioning and if someone had something bad to say about him personally, it was likely a poor reflection on who they were as a person.

Blackjack and our circle of friends would go out a lot when he was in town.  He had a place called International in Brooklyn that he loved and he would always want to go to Dallas BBQ in Times Square, because he knew he’d crack up the table by messing with the servers.  One night, this was a legitimate exchange:

Blackjack:  Excuse me, miss?  These ribs?  Where are they from?

Waitress: I’m sorry.  It’s from a cow.

Blackjack:  No, where are they from?  The front or the back?

Waitress: I…don’t know.

Blackjack:  What State is the cow from?

Waitress:  I don’t know.

Blackjack:  Do we know what they are made of?

He would say this all matter of factly, not to be mean, but to see what responses he would get and see how long any of us could keep a straight face, which would not be long, as we’d all shake our heads and apologize to the young lady before we all, including the waitress, laughed at his ridiculousness. 

He just wanted to crack everyone, including himself, up.  That’s who was, someone who had great joy in being with his friends and in making everyone laugh.  He loved being with his people and around pro wrestling and the only thing more important to him was being with his family and his grandchildren and his dog back home in Michigan.  After WCW and ECW closed in 2001 and the pro wrestling world started to shrink smaller, Blackjack pulled back and spent more time with his family, which made all the times he was in town or all the weekends we were all together that much more important.

Two summers ago, I was driving from NYC to Minneapolis and back on a road trip.  I told Blackjack I’d come by to see him as I came through Michigan and suggested we meet at his local Golden Corral restaurant, which I had eaten at with him a few years before (and when we walked in, EVERYONE in this place knew him by name.)  The day of the visit though, suddenly I had to come to his house as he had gone shopping to cook for me.  I told him that was silly and to let me buy him lunch and the sound in his voice was the one and only time I ever heard disappointment in his voice.  Sensing this, obviously I said OK, I’ll be at the house. 

When I arrived, the level of feast he had prepared for a short visit was INSANE, especially since we spent most of the time with him showing off photos he had taken over the years and books that were written with thanks to him for things he had done for the authors.  He had missed Wrestlemania in Tampa that year, the first one he had missed in MANY years due to the COVID-19 pandemic making his travel that much arduous, so he HAD TO MAKE SURE sure I had grabbed him a Wrestlemania hat - he was never, ever without a baseball cap to cover his bald head.  He was thrilled that I had remembered, to the point he ran (well as much running as Blackjack could do) to grab it so we could take a photo before I continued on my drive.  It was the last time I saw him in person and I am so thankful we had that visit and photo.  I cherish it.

But, the conversations never stopped.  It was nothing for my phone to ring at 3 AM, 340 AM, 4:15 AM and I’d see his name and grab it, assuming something was wrong and I’d hear, “My brother, what’s going on?  You see this thing on YouTube the Road Dogg said about Vince?”  You couldn’t get mad at him.  He was Blackjack.  Once he’d figured out all the stuff on YouTube, he was amazed it was all there for him and he couldn’t wait to talk about it, because he loved talking wrestling with the people he loved.  His penchant for conversational calls in the middle of the night became something his friends all shared, exchanging times and sometimes realizing he would wake someone up, speak to them and then immediately call someone else.  Whether he was ribbing all of us or not, we’ll never know, but I’m sorry to know those calls won’t happen anymore.

Blackjack was a character and he was all heart, so it was impossible to get mad at him.  Many years ago, when Summerslam was in Pittsburgh, he was tasked with driving to an ECW house show the next day.  He got on the highway as everyone else was half asleep and 150 miles later, someone asked him why the signs said they were approaching Ohio, THE EXACT OPPOSITE WAY.  “Oh, sh**”, Blackjack said, made a U-Turn and went the other way, hours lost.  They arrived just as the first match was hitting the ring.  Was it a rib?  I don’t know, but knowing Blackjack, it could have been, or it could have been Blackjack just driving down the highway, thrilled he was on the road with his friends, because it’s what made him happy.

I’ve had a lot of people ask me how Blackjack passed.  Since his beloved Kay gave me permission to pass it on, I’ll say this.  It was unexpected.  He was scheduled to talk with his mother, who lives in a nursing home in NYC, as he did every night.  He never made the call.  His mother tried to call and couldn’t reach him, at home or on the cell phones.  Kay was called and asked a neighbor to check on him.  They entered the house and he was peaceful, sitting at the computer, as he often did.  His cell phone was ringing because someone was calling him, as they always did. Sometime after 7 PM local time in Michigan when he last spoke with Kay, he quietly left our plane of existence, leaving a lot of heartbroken friends behind.  I take great solace in knowing it wasn’t a painful, dramatic exit for someone who gave a lot of people joy over the years and someone who gave a lot of people big breaks and was a great friend to everyone he pretty much knew.  It's insane that someone who was all heart left us because his own heart quietly, quickly gave out with no warnings.  He was 65 years old.

Blackjack hadn’t seen a lot of people in person in recent years due to concerns about COVID-19 but he had attended a wrestling convention a few months back in Michigan.  When he called me to talk about it, he was as excited about the local talents as he was any stars he saw - and began breaking down which of them he thought would make it.  Mind you, none of them were wrestling at the convention.  He just met them and he knew which he thought had a chance. 

“My brother”, he said, “I’m never wrong.”

I don’t know if he ever was or not, but in my book, he never could be.

I know deep down Blackjack is shaking his head over the fact anyone is crying about his departure, but a wise man once told me that you are crying because that relationship meant so much to you - and Blackjack's friendship was immeasurably important, pure and true.  Not just for me, buit for everyone he encountered and befriended.  The world is much poorer without him.

I hope everyone has someone like Blackjack in their life and if you don't, I hope you find someone like him soon.  Your life will be incredibly better, just like the lives of everyone who knew BJ were so much better because of him, myself included.

My brother Blackjack, we will miss you forever.  Thanks for being you.  Until I see your smiling face again, God bless you Blackjack.

For Blackjack's services information and obituary, click here.  His family is asking that donations be made to the Michigan Humane Society in lieu of flowers.

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