There have been quite a few professional wrestlers that have come from the realm of professional football: John Layfield, Steve Williams, Bill Goldberg, Ron Simmons, but none of them have had as much success on the gridiron as well as in the ring as African-American wrestling pioneer “Big Cat” Ernie Ladd.
Ernest Ladd was born on November 28th 1938 in Louisiana, but spent the majority of his formative years in the small town of Orange, Texas. A stand-out on both his football and basketball teams in highschool, Ladd went to Grambling State University in Louisiana on a full basketball scholarship. Basketball, however, was not the sport that brought Ladd the fame and attention that eventually transferred over to his professional wrestling career.
In the fourth round of the 1961 NFL Draft Ladd was selected by the Chicago Bears, but it was the San Diego Chargers that ended up taking “The Big Cat” in the fifteenth round. Ladd stood at an impressive 6’9” and weighed over 300 pounds, and was said to be one of the biggest athletes during his time playing on the football field with a 52-inch chest, 39-inch waist, 19-inch neck, and size 18 shoes! During his time with The Chargers, Ladd was able to lead them to an AFL Championship in 1964, and spent the 1966 season playing for the Houston Oilers and the 1967 season playing for the Kansas City Chiefs. In 1981, Ladd was inducted into the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame.
During the football offseason, Ladd began wrestling around the San Diego area as a way to make some extra cash and become a huge draw. Trained by former NWA Champion Bobo Brazil, a man of Ladd’s size was pretty much cut out for two lines of work: football……and professional wrestling. After pestering knee problems cut his football career short, Ladd took his impressive frame to the squared circle full-time in 1969. Initially a fan-favorite due to his superstar status, Ladd turned heel in the 1970s becoming one of the most hated bad guys in the business as well one of the first black men to portray a heel ever.
Ladd often portrayed a loud-mouthed, un-politically correct, arrogant grappler who would cheat to win….frequently taping up his thumb which he claimed was from an “old football injury”. You know the common wrestling trope where the heel walks out of the match and accepts a count-out instead of finishing the match? Well some people refer to that as “pulling an Ernie Ladd” due to him originating the practice. Probably Ladd’s most famous rivalry, though, was his program with the legendary André The Giant, or as Ladd commonly referred to him: “The Big Fat French Fry”. You can watch a match below that the two had for the WWWF (WWE) at Madison Square Garden in 1976, and an interview with an older Ladd talking about just how big André really was.
Ladd challenged for the WWWF Title on three occasions against Bruno Sammartino, Pedro Morales, and Bob Backlund. After his stint with the WWWF Ladd spent a bit of time in Bill Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling where he feuded with stars like Paul Orndorff and The Junkyard Dog and even tried his hand at managing with Afa and Sika, The Wild Samoans. Around this time was when Ladd started drifting away from in-ring competition into a more backstage role, working as a booker for Watts. In 1986, Ladd retired from wrestling due to the knee problems that plagued him during his football career starting to only get worse, and he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1995.
Ladd lived a relatively quiet life after his retirement; dabbling in politics, acting, and even opening up his own restaurant in his homestate of Louisiana. In the winter of 2003, Ladd was diagnosed with colon cancer and given four months to live, but went on to live for four more years after the diagnosis until he passed away on March 10th, 2007. Ladd was survived not only by his wife of 40+ years, but also his four children and multiple grandchildren.
A lot of people find it hard to transition from the realm of legitimate sports into the world of professional wrestling, but Ladd was able to do it seamlessly. An icon for generations to come and a legitimate beast in terms of size and stature, the “Big Cat” will always be remembered as one of the pioneers of African-American wrestling.
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