San Francisco’s Cow Palace (or Daly City to be accurate) has played host to virtually every kind of major indoor event. Sports, rock concerts, rodeos, political conventions and circuses have all added to the fabled arena’s history since its opening in 1941. But considering all of big names that have appeared there, it may surprise a few of you to learn that the man who sold out the Cow Palace the most times was professional wrestler Ray Stevens. Starting in 1961 as promoter Roy Shire’s top attraction, Stevens filled the Cow Palace 10 times with crowds north of 15,000, and had drawn houses in excess of 10,000 over 50 times by the time that he left the territory in the early 1970’s. Although the professional wrestling business was very profitable in the Bay Area throughout the 1960’s and ‘70’s, it reached its peek in early 1963 when a trio of Cow Palace meetings between Ray Stevens and Pepper Gomez was conducted, attracting close to a combined 50,000 patrons. And while pro-wrestling is an enterprise whose matchups and results are subject to the whims of the promoter, the buildup that led to the Stevens-Gomez bouts was shaped largely by events that were beyond the control of anyone involved with the promotion.
Roy Shire began promoting wrestling in the Bay Area in early 1961, and quickly turned a once dormant region into his own personal goldmine. Shire’s formula was simple but effective…he produced a weekly pro-wrestling television show for KTVU Channel 2, and used it to showcase his talent as well as to publicize matches he was staging all over Northern California, with the monthly Cow Palace show being his crown jewel. But TV aside, the most important factor to Shire’s success was his decision to build his wrestling empire around Ray Stevens. Billed as the “United States Heavyweight Champion,” Stevens represented a unique approach to the theater of professional wrestling-a bad-guy that always wins. Cast as a villain, Ray Stevens did everything in his power to make wrestling fans hate him, and in turn, those fans became willing to shell out money to hopefully see him get beat. Month after month, an all-American good-guy would be brought in as Stevens’ opponent, and each time, Stevens would somehow retain his championship, making the fans even more eager to witness his demise.
Ray Stevens had both the personality and athletic tools to make him one of pro-wrestling’s biggest stars. His tough talking gravel voice, delivered from the side of his mouth, produced memorable outrageous interviews, where Stevens would insult everyone from his opponent and the fans, to the announcer and entire San Francisco area in general. But in the ring, he was even better. Now acknowledged by many as one of the best showmen in history of the business, Stevens knew how to work the crowd, and in the process, almost always produced a great match. One of Ray’s best assets was his ability to make his opponents look good. By allowing himself to be flung all over the mat, and occasionally completely out of the ring, Stevens constantly seemed in danger of losing his title, only to bounce back in the end through some kind of foul deed. The fans, of course, ate it up, and kept coming back hoping someone, whether it be Bill Melby, Wilber Snyder, or Bobo Brazil, would give Stevens the beating he deserved.
On the June 17, 1961 Cow Palace card, while Ray Stevens was tangling with Cowboy Bob Ellis, Pepper Gomez quietly made his debut on the undercard. Hailing from Los Angeles, Gomez was billed as being from Mexico City in order to appeal to the many Latino fans. Within a few months, Gomez established himself as one of the top good-guys in Shire’s stable, making him a logical choice for a lucrative showdown with Stevens. But business was so good during the latter half of 1961, continuing into first part of 1962, that Shire decided to hold off on a Stevens-Gomez match, and instead placed Pepper in semi-main event tag team matches. But whatever long term plans Shire had regarding Ray Stevens and Pepper Gomez, they all came crashing down during the first week of July, 1962.
Much to Roy Shire’s chagrin, Ray Stevens took up motorized go-cart racing as a hobby, and days after his successful June 30 title defense against Bearcat Wright, Stevens suffered a broken leg while competing in a race, and was sidelined for three months. Stevens’ accident not only deprived Shire of his number one drawing card, but also left the U.S. title vacant. Shire moved quickly. No sooner had wrestling fans been advised of Stevens’ mishap when it was also announced the Pepper Gomez had won a tournament to determine Stevens’ successor, and now wore the belt. The fact that no such tourney ever really took place didn’t really matter…the show would have to go on without Ray Stevens, at least for awhile.
As the complete opposite of Ray Stevens in both personality and ring style, Pepper Gomez proved to be a popular champion, but not quite the box office draw that Stevens had been. Pepper’s first defense of the title against former Oakland Raider turned wrestler Don Manoukian drew 11,123 customers, a drop from the 15,750 people who watched Stevens battle Wright three weeks earlier. Gomez’s matches against Kinji Shibuya and Waldo Von Erich produced even smaller turnouts, so it was a relieved Roy Shire who welcomed Stevens back on October 13 to wrestle on the undercard of a title match between Pepper Gomez and The Sheik. Stevens’ return could not have come quickly enough, as the Gomez-Sheik match drew only 6200, by far the smallest Cow Palace gate Shire had ever experienced. Billed as being more than one year in the making, the first ever Stevens-Gomez bout was scheduled for November 10, 1962.
With a sellout looming, Shire knew a decisive victory for either wrestler could kill the golden goose, so in front of 15,450 fans, Ray Stevens and Pepper Gomez fought to an unprecedented 60 minute draw. Usually, an inconclusive ending like that would produce an immediate rematch, but Shire decided to hold off for a couple of months, teasing wrestling fans by having Stevens and Gomez wrestle in Cow Palace “co-main events” for two straight shows against other opponents, all while Stevens used his Friday night TV airtime to constantly clamor for another crack at his title. The ploy worked pretty well, as both cards drew more than 12,000 customers. If the publics appetite wasn’t wetted enough, an on air incident pushed the Stevens-Gomez feud to another level.
In his prime, Pepper Gomez was billed as the “man with the cast iron stomach.” To demonstrate the strength of abdominal muscles, Gomez would allow wrestlers to jump off the top rope of the wrestling ring onto his midsection, thus proving his imperviousness to any attack to that part of his body. During a January 1963 addition of Channel 2’s “National All-Star Wrestling,” Stevens asked if he could give jumping on Pepper’s belly a try. Gomez granted Ray’s request, but in typical Steven’s fashion, he landed on Gomez’s throat instead, severely “injuring” Gomez in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers (don’t worry…Stevens was an expert at that maneuver, and could pull it off without the slightest harm to his foe). A furious Gomez, recovered by the next broadcast, demanded a chance for revenge, so the second Cow Palace Stevens-Gomez meeting was held on January 26, with a no time limit, no disqualification stipulation. With 16,305 fans looking on, Stevens won back his title when Gomez, trying the same move Stevens had pulled on him on television, missed, and was rendered unable to continue.
The third bout of the Stevens-Gomez series took place on February 23, this time with a special “pin falls” only clause. A record crowd of 17,310 was on hand to witness Stevens successfully retain his U.S. championship in slightly less than 20 minutes. Rumors circulated that the Stevens-Gomez pairing had grown so profitable that promoter Shire was considering an outdoor match at Candlestick Park, but Shire knew that three Cow Palace matches (plus several more throughout the territory) was the logical limit, at least for the time being. Roy Shire’s wrestling promotion was profitable for several more years, and Ray Stevens and Pepper Gomez would meet several more times, often in tag matches (in fact, in 1968, Stevens became a “good guy,” and briefly became Gomez’s tag-team partner). But never again did professional wrestling match the popularity it enjoyed from 1961 to early 1963, and now, 50 years later, it’s hard to convince anyone under the age of 45 that there once was a local wrestler named Ray Stevens who, at least among young men, was as well known and popular as any San Francisco 49er or Giant.