Adnan Al-Kaissy, who passed away on Sept. 6 at the age of 84, left behind a colorful legacy in the wrestling business. That legacy stands not only in the United States, but also in his homeland of Iraq, where he achieved legendary status, amassed great wealth and popularity, and was a classmate of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Al-Kaissy, born Adnan bin Abdul Kareem Ahmed Al-Kaissy El Farthie in Baghdad on March 1, 1939 (although some have claimed he was born five years earlier), performed in front of tens of thousands of fans in his native country from 1969-72, going against such stars as Andre The Giant, Bob Roop and George Gordienko.
But his growing popularity, and fear of Saddam and his ruthlessness, would eventually convince Al-Kaissy to leave the sports limelight behind, along with more than a reported $2 million in the bank, and flee the country in the middle of the night.
He would eventually return to the country where he had begun his pro wrestling career more than two decades earlier.
Coming to America
During his initial boat ride to the United States, Al-Kaissy (also spelled Al-Kaissie) met Canadian pro wrestling star Yvon Robert, who encouraged him to take up the sport, an idea Al-Kaissy put in his back pocket.
He proceeded on to the University of Houston on a football scholarship, although he had never played the sport. Surprised to learn that the ball had points on both ends, the soccer standout was a natural athlete and a quick learner, so the transition to football was surprisingly smooth. When the coaching staff later bolted for jobs at SMU, however, Al-Kaissy drove to Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and introduced himself to the wrestling team.
His first test was a 350-pounder who outweighed him by well over a hundred pounds. Al-Kaissy got behind him in a couple of minutes, slammed him on the mat and had the big man screaming from a broken ankle. The OSU coach immediately handed Al-Kaissy a scholarship.
Al-Kaissy earned All-American honors, captured an AAU title in the 191-pound weight class and led his squad to NCAA national championships in 1958-59. Shy of finishing at OSU by just a few credits, he earned his bachelor’s degree at Portland State where he doubled as assistant wrestling coach. He went on to get his master’s in education at the University of Oregon where he also coached the wrestling team.
With an accomplished amateur wrestling background and remembering the words of veteran grappler Robert, Al-Kaissy broke into the pro ranks. He returned to Houston where he teamed with former Cougar football teammate Hogan Wharton and won the Texas tag-team title doing a gridiron gimmick.
He became a pro star under the name Billy White Wolf. Even though Al-Kaissy was Iraqi, the Indian gimmick was a natural. He looked more like an Indian than most of the wrestlers of that era who masqueraded as Native American performers.
“Everyone tells me I looked like (actor) Anthony Quinn,” Al-Kaissy said in a 2005 interview. “When I put the headdress on, I looked like a real Indian. I picked up the gimmick of speaking a little Indian, and it got over big. Fans don’t care who you are as long as you do the job right.”
Having not been in Iraq in seven years, the 23-year-old Al-Kaissy decided to go home and visit family in 1963. The homecoming was a sad one. He discovered that his parents had died several years earlier. His family had hidden it from him because they were afraid he would leave school and return to Iraq before graduating.
“I was so sad. I cried so hard for my mother. I came in with about $30,000 in cash just to give to my mom and my dad to make them happy. I had dreamed about them and coming home,” he lamented.
The People’s Champion
As a make-believe Indian chief, Al-Kaissy became a star in this country as well as Japan and Australia. Playing the role of a villain as well as a hero, he became well-versed in how to manipulate the crowd and perfect his craft. In the seven years after his return from Iraq, he lived in a number of wrestling hotspots, including Dallas, San Francisco, Portland, Honolulu, Japan, Australia and London.
Homesick for his native land, Al-Kaissy returned to Baghdad in 1969 to find his old friend Saddam firmly entrenched in the political scene. It wasn’t long before he summoned Al-Kaissy to a meeting in which the wrestler was told that he was the newest national hero. It was clear that Saddam wanted to use him as a role model.
“We are going to take care of you,” Saddam said. “You are going to make us proud. So we are not asking you to stay and do this; we are expecting you to do this.”
“We hugged and we kissed,” recalled Al-Kaissy. “He told me that he wanted me to stay in Iraq, but I explained to him that I was only back home on vacation.”
“No vacation, no vacation,” replied Saddam, “this is your home. You are staying.”
“You’re the boss,” Al-Kaissy told Saddam. It was much like a scene in a Godfather movie. It was an offer he just couldn’t refuse.
The locals soon began talking more about Al-Kaissy and sports than they were about the unstable and dangerous political situation in Iraq.
Revolutionary sentiment and factionalism was the order of the day, said Al-Kaissy, who witnessed executions and assassinations. Between 1968 and 1973, through a series of sham trials, executions, assassinations and intimidation, the party ruthlessly eliminated any group or person suspected of challenging Baath rule.
“Before I came back, average people would sit in the coffee shops playing dominoes and chess and cards, and all of them talked about politics. Who’s going to be assassinated tomorrow? Who’s going to be shot tomorrow? Who’s going to be hung tomorrow? But they all forgot politics and began following me on television. They changed their focus,” he said.
Al-Kaissy became one of the most popular men in Iraq during the early 1970s and was showered with gifts. He recalls fans bringing goats to sacrifice at his matches and Baath Party members asking him to marry their daughters.
“It was amazing. I had a beautiful palace. But I was a prisoner of my own life at home. I couldn’t go outside because of the people,” he said “It was frustrating, but what could I do? My popularity became greater than Saddam, and he didn’t like it. But he kept using me because it allowed him to achieve what he wanted.”
With Saddam’s blessing, Adnan began bringing in wrestlers for shows in Iraq. Top stars such as Gordienko, Roop and Andre The Giant (then known as Jean Ferre) were all brought in for events at Baghdad’s cavernous al-Shaab Stadium.
A match with Andre was the highlight event of the 50th anniversary of the Iraqi army, and a number of world dignitaries attended. Al-Kaissy estimated that at least 300,000 people (an undocumented and likely exaggerated claim) turned out for the one-match show, with more fans outside the sports stadium than inside.
Source: The Post and Courier