Growing up in the days when I thought wrestling was real, I remember watching this unhinged individual with a green tongue who had a fetish for eating turnbuckles like popcorn. I would turn around to my mother and ask, “Does that guy need to see a doctor?” If I only knew then what I know now.
Jim Myers, otherwise known as George “The Animal” Steele has passed at the age of 79 after a long battle with various illnesses. His health was known to be in vast decline leaving this as less than a shock. The news that he had been introduced to hospice care circulated quickly leaving the wrestling world on the edge of their seats for the unfortunate news that another legend had been lost.
For those who weren’t aware, Myers was born April 16, 1937 in Detroit, Michigan, and was a good amateur wrestler and football player growing up, while also excelling at baseball, basketball and track.
His physical deficiencies and conducive knee problems prevented his athletic career from taking off, so he turned to teaching and coaching to calm his appetite. This direction led him into the Michigan High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame. After receiving his coaching accolades, it was time to shift his career into another direction. Not even Jim himself felt that pro wrestling was a viable option or profession.
When Steele first entered pro wrestling in 1962, he debuted as a masked performer from parts unknown. The reasoning behind the mask was him trying to disguise himself from his real identity of Jim Myers, local schoolteacher and coach, while he worked out with Gino Brito and other wrestlers.
Steele’s shift to the ranks of professional wrestling was financially motivated. “I made $4,300 a year teaching when I first started,” Myers recalled in a 2004 interview. “My first summer wrestling, I made $22,000.” After researching his early years, I was surprised to find out that Bruno Sammartino scouted him in Detroit, and brought him to the WWWF as Steele in 1967. Named after the infamous Steel City, he was advertised as a brutal, killer heel and succeeded right from the start.
As his self-made promos and attempt at a solid career began to take off, Steele relished the change in scenery from school to the ring. When asked about the climate in the arenas and in the locker room, Steele had this to say; “In all of wrestling, I may have been the luckiest person. A lot of guys had to go from one territory to the other. I would just teach and, on the weekends, go back in the Northeast, which would have the biggest paychecks. And I wasn’t there all the time, so I didn’t get stale.”
George Steele was a charismatic wrestler who gained notoriety and popularity as a hairy, green-tongued human monster that ate turnbuckle pads, became infatuated with female valets like Miss Elizabeth, and carried around a bald My Pet Monster that looked like him. His resume will not include any WWE World Championship runs, but will consist of a Slammy Award and a HOF induction in 1995. He did, however win the GWA Heavyweight Championship, the NWF North American Heavyweight Championship and share a piece of victory as a NWA Tag Team Champion with Frankie Laine. Instead of Gold accolades, he instead feasted on high profile matches or appearances that included challenging “Macho Man” Randy Savage for the Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania 2, as well as being ring-side for one of the greatest matches of all-time, Savage vs. Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat at WrestleMania 3.
Despite retiring in 1988 Steele’s career continued throughout the 90’s and well into the 2000’s. The Animal teamed with Taka Michinoku on a 1997 episode of Raw, returned as part of The Oddities in 1998, and even competed in a match against Jeff Jarrett on WCW Monday Nitro in 2000. I think we can all remember his most recent appearance on WWE TV that happened in 2010, when he showed up to “Old School Raw” and helped Kofi Kingston defeat David Otunga. Steele even dabbled his way into show business as a referee on Seinfeld in the ever infamous “man hands” episode.
The Animal will forever leave an image of fun and everlasting showmanship in a business that needs great gimmicks to survive. At a time when the Hulkster was convincing kids to eat their vitamins and say their prayers, Steele provided the audience with the ultimate alternative in programming. It was a credit to his hard work and practice to be able to survive in a time with such star power. Rest easy Mr. Steele and thank you for gracing our TV’s with your original personality and self-scripted cameos. In a time where things are scripted far too often, you gave us all a good show!
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