Long before “The Adorable One” battled and bloodied the likes of Junkyard Dog, Uncle Elmer and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in the WWE, the leather-clad biker “Golden Boy” Adrian Adonis wreaked havoc throughout the AWA with Jesse “The Body” Ventura in a team known as the East-West Connection.
Winning the AWA World Tag Team Championships in 1980, Adonis and Ventura feuded with “The High Flyers” Jim Brunzell and Greg Gagne in violent cage matches for more than a year, leaving a trail of broken bodies, “crimson masks” and stained canvases along the way.
Today, July 4, marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Adrian Adonis, whose real name was Keith Franke. He was 33.
While on a wrestling tour in Newfoundland in the summer of ’88, Adonis and fellow wrestlers Pat Kelly and Dave McKigney were killed when the minivan they were driving hit a moose just before sunset.
To commemorate the anniversary of Adonis’ passing, WrestleNewz.com chatted with wrestler-turned-politician Jesse “The Body” Ventura and legendary commentator Jim Ross about their reflections on “The Adorable One.”
“My observations of Adrian was that he was a guy full of charisma who could actually wrestle, which is always a winning combination,” Ross told WrestleNewz.com.
“His TV persona was ahead of its time as it related to his flamboyance, but I always felt he was one of the best in-ring talents that WWE had during his time there. And of course Adonis and Ventura had a nice run as a tag team in the AWA. They complimented each other very well. Ventura and Adonis were two guys with wrestling territory experience and trained the old school way, and who understood their roles. They knew each other’s individual strengths and built their matches around those assets.”
JR added: “Jesse seemed to always be more cerebral than most wrestlers in the era of the ’80s. He was well read and interested in a variety of topics that were newsworthy. Jesse loved to pontificate to whoever would listen, while Adrian seemed to be more ‘one of the boys,’ the few times I met him. Even though both guys meshed well in the ring, my observation — albeit limited to the pair — was that they were extremely different outside the ring. I might be wrong on that assumption.”
Ross was right, Ventura confirmed: “Adrian was a terrific partner in the ring, and our only falling came outside the ring, because Adrian lived a very wild life,” Ventura told WrestleNewz.com. “And that wild life eventually caught up to him, as we know he certainly died premature, long before he should have. But also, because of the style of life he lived, I didn’t like being his babysitter after a while. That wears on you because being on the road in this business, you’ve got enough trouble taking care of yourself.
“But in the ring, there wasn’t a better partner that I could have, and any problems we had occurred outside the ring — nothing serious though. I at one point just finally said, ‘Look, Adie, it’s time we both go our separate ways at this point.’ And we did and there was no hostility between us or anything.
“You know what, I can compare it like this: if we were the Road Warriors, I was Animal and Adrian was Hawk. If you know anything about how different those two were outside the ring, that’s an easy comparison if you look at it that way. Then you’ll see the differences between Adrian and I, as Animal was very homespun and family oriented, while Hawk lived a very wild life.”
Throughout ’82, the East-West Connection would wrestle in tag team and singles competition in the WWE, and both Adonis and Ventura challenged Bob Backlund for the World Heavyweight Championship.
When the East-West Connection finally parted ways, Adonis formed a tag team with Texas outlaw Dick Murdoch, calling themselves the North-South Connection, debuting in the WWE in ’83, and later winning the World Tag Team Championships from Tony Atlas and Rocky Johnson.
Ross said that although Adonis reached the peak of his fame portraying the effeminate “Adorable” character, his best wrestling years were behind him by that point:
“Though Adonis created a memorable persona with his own talk segment, The Flower Shop, during his ‘Adorable’ years, I loved his work particularly in the early part of his career, and his tag team work with Dick Murdoch was money,” said Ross. “Adonis and Murdoch were always fun to watch even though they oftentimes seemed more interested in doing comedy rather than serious wrestling, that both were highly versed in doing.”
It was during this time that Ventura retired from his full-time in-ring career due to blood clots in his lungs that he claimed were the result of exposure to Agent Orange during his time in Vietnam. Ventura then stepped into his iconic role as colour commentator alongside Vince McMahon and/or Gorilla Monsoon, calling some of the most historic and memorable bouts in WWE history, while maintaining his cocky heel persona.
In late ’85, after being briefly managed by Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and adopting the DDT as his finishing move, Adonis’ in-ring persona began to change gradually. By early ’86, he was carrying a briefcase emblazoned with the phrase “Relax with Trudi,” while spraying perfume in the ring before matches.
From there, his effeminate “Adorable” character took shape, bleaching his hair blonde and wearing pink trunks along with scarves, leg warmers, dresses, hats, and clownish amounts of eye shadow and rouge. Adonis also gained a great deal of weight at that time, tipping the scales at 350 pounds.
“I never understood why he seemingly ‘let himself go,’ regarding his weight issues, but others who knew him better might be able to address the matter,” said Ross. “But even when he was 300 pounds plus, he was amazingly agile and athletic.”
Both Adonis and Ventura would thrive in their roles during the WWE’s ’80s heyday, with Ventura calling many of Adonis’ classic matches, like his Hair vs. Hair Match against Roddy Piper at WrestleMania III.
“It was like anything, we’re just like free agents in any other sport and we move on,” said Ventura. “And I was greatly saddened by his death because he left behind children. But I know for a fact that he took care of them and had good insurance policies and all that stuff. So, I’m sure his kids are doing fine today.”
Ross remembers Adonis as one of the finest in-ring technicians of his day. “He was an extremely sound in-ring performer who had excellent grappling skills,” said Ross. “Adrian was very gifted, and was an amazing, pure wrestler who could move superbly even as a heavyweight.”
Ventura agreed: “Inside the ropes, he was a very accomplished wrestler and he knew the psychology of the business very well. Adrian, he was a phenom.”