Before business boomed with the era of Hulkamania running wild, the wrestling world consisted of various territories that shared talent on a rotating basis as large crowds descended upon their respective wrestling meccas to catch their favorite stars in action. While bonafide superstars like Bruno Sammartino and Buddy Rogers are fondly remembered, their contemporaries have somewhat fallen to the wayside in the history books. Without these hidden heroes of wrestling, this sport would be vastly different today.
Born March 27, 1929, in Rochester, New York, “Handsome” Johnny Barend wrestled as an amateur from the age of eight and continued throughout his time in high school. Upon graduation, Barend served with the United States Navy during World War II and continued to wrestle during his service, beating everybody on the 19th Fleet, being put in charge of his commander’s gym, and was invited to go to the Olympics, but he turned it down and went pro.
Trained by Ed Don George, Barend made his debut in November of 1949 making quick work of Faro Rinaldi. The bright-eyed smiley kid from Rochester quickly made a name for himself in the Tri-State area, amassing win after win. Soon thereafter, Barend made the trip to California in the early 1950s and formed a partnership with Mexican-American sensation Enrique Torres
His career would skyrocket when he made the leap across the ocean to Hawaii’s 50th State Big Time Wrestling under promoter Al Karasick. This endeavor on “The Big Island”, while beneficial for his career, was simply a stop before going on to do other things. Forming a partnership with Sandor Kovacs, Barend struck gold in the form of the Hawaiian Tag Team championships. As quickly as they won them, they lost them and Barend left the territory for greener pastures.
Traveling the globe with his friend Buddy Rogers, Barend was a formidable foe for the World’s Heavyweight champion. As one of the wrestlers whose in-ring style was trusted by Rogers, the duo would travel the territories and do battle over and over again in front of hot crowds night after night. While he never got the win over Buddy, this friendship would cement Barend’s path later on when looking for work on a bigger scale.
When Rogers moved on to other opponents, Barend capitalized on his growing popularity and transformed himself in the image of his famous friend. Now going by “Handsome” Johnny Barend, the New Yorker kept a mirror on standby during his matches to catch a glimpse at his stunning good looks much to the dismay of the paying spectators. With his ego running rampant, he linked up with Magnificent Maurice to form a credible tag team. Wearing top hats and capes, this hated duo, alongside manager Mr. Kleen (aka The Grand Wizard), would win Tag Team championship gold in Indiana, Ohio, Hawaii, and Detroit.
With his hot new tag team with Maurice and the friendship with Rogers, Barend jumped at the opportunity to work for New York’s World Wide Wrestling Federation. Success followed him wherever he went, as he quickly captured the WWWF United States Tag Team Championship in his stint in New York… it wasn’t with Maurice, however. Barend was on top of the World as the partner of Buddy Rogers.
His partnership with Rogers rising his star, Barend tried his hand at singles competition in the territory as well. As a natural talent, he was successful and captured the WWWF United States Heavyweight championship twice in 1963 – trading it back and forth with beloved hero Bobo Brazil in Philadelphia and Baltimore.
His time in New York came to an abrupt end when he was blacklisted by the promotion for speaking up on Vincent J. McMahon’s shady business practices. As the saying goes, the WWWF door closed, but the door for increased fame in Hawaii quickly swung open.
Bringing the pageantry of New York to 50th State Big Time Wrestling, Barend changed up his style to include knee-high wrestling boots, dark glasses, top hat and cigar. Under new promoter Ed Francis’ direction, Barend returned to the territory and quickly won the Hawaiin Heavyweight Championship over Neff Maiava and saw his fame skyrocket.
After a quick absence from the territory, Barend returned full-time to the island and became a top player. His crazed character captivated the audience with his amazing promo work. Starting every interview by stepping out of an upright coffin, he remained spaced-out as interviewers Francis or Lord James Blears tried to coax some comprehensible words from his deranged mind, providing wise words such as “win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat” that would be etched into wrestling history books years later.
With complete lunacy, Barend could talk anybody into buying a ticket to see what zany antics he had in mind for the matches. His maniacal laughter, along with Batman’s theme song playing softly in the background, captured the attention of Hawai’i so much so that he regularly had 50% of the television viewership in the capital tuned in to catch his speeches.
While he was undoubtedly a dastardly heel, the people of Hawaii formed respect and love for “Handsome” Johnny and the feeling was mutual. Making the island home, Barend soon fell in love with a local Annie Lum and it was love at first sight. As his love for Hawaii was equal to that of his life partner, they got married in the middle of the ring at the Honolulu International Center in “Hawaii’s Largest Wedding”. Ever the professional, Barend would wrestle, alongside his best man Jim Hady, right after he kissed the bride and lost the Hawaiian Tag Team championship to Curtis Iaukea and Dutch Schultz.
No slouch in the ring, Barend would also dominate inside the ropes during his time in Hawaii. Capturing the Hawaiian Tag Team championships seven different times, with six different partners, Barend was as much of a singles star as he was a tag team specialist. The highlight of his pro wrestling career remains his two reigns as the Hawaiian Heavyweight champion.
Unfortunately, “Handsome” Johnny’s career came to an end in 1972 due to an unfortunate leg injury. Packing up from the Big Island and once again making Rochester home, Barend lived a quiet life outside of the business alongside his loving wife. Barend passed away in 2011 at the age of 82 but his impact on Hawaii and the professional wrestling business as a whole will forever be felt.
His quirky interviews and wild wacky attire forged the path for the deranged crazy gimmick to succeed on top of the card. The legacy of “Handsome” Johnny Barend lives on through every crazy heel in the business.