steve williams

Today, May 14, would have been the been the 53rd birthday of “Dr. Death” Steve Williams, a wrestler whose reputation for toughness — and capacity for kindness — made him a global star.

Though he only had the benefit of Vince McMahon’s marketing machine for fleeting moments of his long career, Williams was a valuable commodity to any promotion, which was a testament to his talents both inside and outside the ring.

“As strong as Doc was,” wrote longtime friend Jim Ross after Williams’ death, “had a heart of gold and was blessed with a kind, gentle spirit and a loving heart.”

Although he was known for extremely “stiff” in-ring battles, his toughest fight turned out to be his five-year struggle with throat cancer, which finally claimed his life at a Denver hospital four days after Christmas 2009.

Despite his ominous monicker, though, Dr. Death will be remembered for his eventful life, which took him around the world countless times and earned him the respect of fans and his peers. In commemoration of his birthday, here’s a look at the life and career of Steve Williams.

By the time he was 22 years old, Williams was already known as an exceptional and fearsome athlete — a standout in track, wrestling and football during high school, and  an All-American football player for the University of Oklahoma. During his college days he made it to the finals of the NCAA wrestling tournament (there was no shame in his loss, though, since he was defeated by four-time Olympic medalist Bruce Baumgartner).

His athletic gifts caught the eye of wrestling promoter Bill Watts, who signed Williams to Mid-South Wrestling, where he learned the ropes from fellow tough guy “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, among other emerging stars. By the time he landed in the pro wrestling biz, he was already known as “Dr. Death” — a nickname he earned by once competing in an amateur wrestling match wearing a goalie mask to protect a facial injury, making him look like Jason from the Friday the 13th movies.

When Mid-South Wrestling morphed into the Universal Wrestling Federation, Williams eventually became UWF champion by defeating Big Bubba Rogers, who would later go on to bigger things as the Big Bossman.

Through the 1980s he learned his craft primarily as a tag team wrestler, pairing with the likes of Ted DiBiase, Kevin Sullivan, Mike Rotunda, and another legitimate tough guy who died too young, Terry Gordy. But Williams could also hold his own as a singles competitor against practically anyone, and had a knack for both physical and verbal intimidation:

At the time the above video was made, in 1986, Williams predicted that he would only have “five or 10” more years in the wrestling business, but he underestimated his longevity by roughly full decade.

Unlike most American wrestlers, he didn’t find his biggest success in WWF/E, but instead overseas as one of the most revered “gaijin” (foreigner) wrestlers in Japan.

Primarily based in All Japan Pro Wrestling — the country’s premier league for many years — Williams dominated the competition between 1987 and 1997, remaining practically unbeaten over an entire decade.

Williams was known for a ring style that incorporated the best elements of his background: the explosive force of football, the technical takedown skills amateur wrestling and the fearless brawling of an Oklahoma tough guy. Rather than boasting just one signature maneuver, Williams had an well-stocked arsenal including the backdrop driver, the gutwrench “Doctor Bomb” and the so-called “Oklahoma Stampede” (essentially ramming an opponent back-first into the turnbuckles before powerslamming him to the mat).

When his decade in Japan came to a close, Williams returned to North American shores and performed on the independent circuit, including several appearances for ECW. On one occasion, he he came up just short of winning the ECW World Title from Raven.

Fans of mainstream wrestling were introduced to Williams a year later, when he was contracted to compete in WWE’s ill-fated attempt to cash-in on the burgeoning MMA craze, the Brawl for All. The tournament was meant to pit wrestling’s most legitimate tough guys against one another in “real” fights (which was a tacit admission by WWE that its core product was not real fighting). Although Williams defeated Pierre Carl Ouellet in the first round of the tournament, he suffered a second-round loss to Bart Gunn, who ended up winning the whole tourney — and later suffering an embarrassing knockout loss to Toughman veteran Butterbean.

His lackluster performance in the Brawl for All — after much hype from his longtime friend and supporter Jim Ross — made for an underwhelming stint in WWE, and he vanished from mainstream wrestling soon after.

“Doc never really recovered from the ‘Brawl for it All,” Ross wrote after Williams’ death.  “From an internal perception standpoint and I think that his close relationship with me also did him no favours. We both talked about that situation on many occasions over the years but overwhelmingly agreed that our friendship that began in the 70s was more important that any ‘run’ with WWE or any other company would ever have been.”

Williams made sporadic appearances for WWE and WCW over the years that followed (including some WCW matches with “Oklahoma” — a character meant to spoof Jim Ross — as his manager), but failed to regain his past momentum.

In 2004, he decided to test his skills in an MMA match against Alexey Ignashov for the K-1 promotion, but the younger and faster Belarusian fighter easily toppled Williams with knees and kicks in a fight that was over practically before it began.

Williams’ long and successful in-ring career was clearly coming to an end, and that realization was hastened by his diagnosis with throat cancer that same year. Though he continued to make occasional appearances throughout his illness, and he experienced a period during which the cancer seemed in remission, his best days were behind him.

He did pop up in WWE’s farm league, Ohio Valley Wrestling, to act as a mentor for a fellow Oklahoman who seemed in many ways to be a younger version of Williams himself: amateur wrestling star Jack Swagger.

But Williams’ health continued to go downhill, and he made his final public appearance at a wrestling convention in New Jersey in December of 2009.  Two weeks later, he was dead.

“Steve Williams had an overwhelming faith in God and that was his greatest gift and asset in his latter days,” wrote Ross. “It was also inspirational to those of us that were closest to him. Through Doc, I have learned that faith has to be one’s top priority, so at the end of the day the ‘Good Doctor’ prescribed me the best medicine one person can provide another.”

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