Cover Story: Lords of the Ring

Click! Thump. Click! Thump. Click! Thump.

Sixteen-year-old Rob Ruby glanced into the rearview mirror. His passenger, the massive wrestler Dick Garza, was performing his customary stress-relieving ritual in the back seat: popping the links off a thick, steel chain with his mammoth thumbs. By the time Rob had driven Garza to his match, the car was littered with busted links.

“They were like worry beads for him. The other wrestlers thought he had the strongest hands in the world.”

And that night, nearly 40 years ago, Garza seemed depressed, recalled a laughing Ruby, 55, a man with a James Earl Jones-like voice who always sounds like he’s speaking through a megaphone.

“My brother was driving him once and they got cut off by some people who were taunting them — it was a very bad scene. Dick reached into their car and pulled off the steering wheel, which was pretty effective.”

Chauffeuring a disgruntled giant with bionic hands might seem a tad strange for the average Jewish teen. But for Rob and Allen Ruby, it was all part of growing up in the family business. The wrestling business.

The Ruby brothers — now both successful Bay Area lawyers and, respectively, longtime residents of Piedmont and Saratoga — grew up in the heavily Jewish Detroit suburb of Oak Park, attending public schools teeming with fellow Jews. Their mother, Irene, held PTA meetings in the rumpus room with the white glove and pillbox hat crowd.

But their dad was Bert Ruby, the “Jewish Sensational Light-Heavyweight,” a wrestler, promoter and the host of TV’s “Motor City Wrestling.” Along with Hank Greenberg, Bert was one of the Detroit Jewish community’s most beloved athletic heroes (in fact, Irene even dated “Hankus Pankus” before marrying “The Magyar Hercules”).

So, try as they might, the Rubys didn’t always blend in with their middle-class Jewish, suburban neighbors. Jaws dropped on the very first day the family moved into Oak Park, as Bert eschewed hiring a professional moving company and, instead, enlisted his biggest and strongest wrestlers.

A nattily dressed man driving a huge black Cadillac often ferried Bert’s troop of “midget wrestlers” to the family home, where “dwarves and giants” such as pint-sized Fuzzy Cupid or the gargantuan Garza (aka The Mighty Igor) mingled with Irene’s PTA crowd.

Irene, in fact, was in on the act, serving as the editor, publisher and sole writer of the Detroit Wrestling News (she produced it from her hospital bed the week Rob was born in 1949). She also chauffeured wrestlers to and from shopping center openings (700-pound Happy Farmer Humphrey ruined the back seat of the family’s Mercury).

And the Ruby brothers themselves served as publicity men, barkers and ringside announcers. Rob’s booming baritone was announcing combatants such as Chief Don Eagle, Cyclone Anaya the South American Bombshell and Klondike Ike by the time he was 14. Allen was co-anchor of TV’s “Motor City Wrestling” at 17.

Allen, now 59, is a head taller than his younger brother, and actually followed his father’s footsteps into the ring, wrestling during breaks in college before opting to bash his head, exclusively, into the books at law school.

He has since earned a reputation as one of the state’s top litigators, representing the National Football League during the latest $1 billion suit by Raiders owner Al Davis — and, in 2001, winning an $80 million settlement from the government in the case of defense firm employee Henry Boisvert, who claimed wrongful termination for reporting the faults of the Army’s Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

Allen recently told Stanford Lawyer magazine that professional wrestling taught him “how to get beat and not whine about it, and that was the most valuable lesson I could have learned as a trial lawyer.”

Rob, who learned to lose gracefully without the benefit of a folding chair blow to the head, is now a highly respected Worker’s Compensation attorney with an office in Oakland.

As boys among men, however, road trips with dad were an adventure.

“This was the time when freeways were just starting to make all of America slightly more homogenized, but small towns were very different from the big city. We’d laugh that the population of the town was 800 but 2,500 people showed up for the wrestling show,” said Rob, a congregant at Oakland’s Temple Sinai whose wife, Eileen, is the president of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay.

“Going to a county fair, I would get the big microphone that went over the whole fairgrounds and blot out the individual barkers who were trying to hustle people in to see the piranhas or bearded lady. I’d wear my collarless Beatles jacket and I felt like I could have been the man from Mars. Girls asked for my autograph, which was hysterical, but I liked it. I always looked my age, but, you know, I have a big voice and people suspended their disbelief. Maybe they thought I was a dwarf.”

The Ruby brothers recalled their father’s early career as something akin to a Horatio Alger story — only much more violent.

Bert’s ascent to the Midwest’s lord of the ring had been even more unlikely than his boys’ rise from wrestling junkies to legal eagles. He had arrived from Hungary in Depression-era Canada as an intelligent but largely uneducated youth with an agricultural worker’s permit, though he’d never worked a day on a farm in his life.

He earned enough to eat — most days — via odd jobs, and hung out with a group of fellow impoverished Jewish immigrants. Their one joy in life came when he, the only literate member of the gang, would read the newspaper aloud every evening.

Bert’s big break came when an enterprising gas station owner, unable to obtain a caged bear to attract gawkers, decided instead to pay a few bucks to local strong boys to knock each other senseless as a spectacle. Bert’s ringwork caught the eye of a local wrestling promoter, and he instantly went from starvation to earning $100 a week — big money.

While young Bertalan Rubinstein (who later truncated his name to Rubi, then Ruby), had never envisioned he’d fold, spindle and mutilate scantily clad men for a living, he did come to the job uniquely qualified.

The 10th of 12 children of the president of a Hungarian Orthodox shul, Bert Ruby had built a reputation as the town’s toughest Jew by the early 1920s. The one man in the neighborhood rich enough to own a car never bothered wasting money on a jack. Instead, whenever he blew a tire he’d send for young Bert to lift up his car while others changed the flat.

By the time he was 13, Bert was locally famous for disarming a rifle-wielding Romanian soldier who had been terrifying patrons at his grandmother’s tavern.

With a dad like Bert, Rob Ruby always felt secure, even when riled wrestling crowds charged the ring, or wrestlers, nursing a simmering grudge, broke into maniacal brawls backstage.

And blood — there was plenty of that. In Battle Creek, a bleached blond wrestler whose gimmick was to behave effeminately and intersperse his wrestling with ballet moves was attacked by a whiskey bottle-wielding fan, who “caved in his face.”

Another wrestler was assaulted by a little old granny, who vaccinated him with a hat pin. Bert broke his nose with hockey player frequency, and sported two cauliflower ears. And Rob’s favorite “baby face” (the in-house term for a good-guy wrestler), Larry Chane, used to “get thrown over the top rope, hit the third row of chairs without stopping and then get up and drive me home from matches that night.”

But wasn’t it all fake? No one involved in the wrestling business will answer that question directly — it’d be like a magician revealing his tricks. Though Rob does note that “I never met anyone who ever bet a penny on wrestling.”

He also adds an anecdote.

One night Rob was announcing a match between Chane and a wrestler called The Mighty Mephisto, and only 200 or 300 fans bothered to show up.

“Everyone knew it’d be a bad payday, and you’d think some performers and athletes would just give a perfunctory performance and get on their way. But they decided, in a perverse way, that they were going to overachieve and put on a fantastic show,” recalled Rob.

“It was an incredible match, the vibes were extraordinary, and the crowd absorbed it totally except for a young man in the front row who was clearly very drunk and not really tuned into what was happening. Chane was bleeding pretty profusely from his forehead — he was literally bleeding for this crowd — when the young man let out a comment: ‘Ah, this is just a big fake.’ And the wrestlers heard it.”

Chane, amazingly, broke character. He coolly sauntered over to the young man’s seat, methodically ran his pointer finger across his bleeding forehead and gently left a bloody fingerprint between the heckler’s eyes.

“I don’t know exactly what happened but the whole rest of the crowd turned on this young man. And they literally hooted him out of the arena,” continued Rob.

When he was about 45, Bert Ruby did more than bleed for the crowd. He had a heart attack, mid-match.

The “Jewish Sensation” took nature’s hint and became a full-time promoter in the mid-1950s. But though he was always strong as a bull, Bert came from a long line of men with weak hearts. Another heart attack in 1967 killed him. He was only 57 years old.

Bert had never worn a shirt or shoes unless he absolutely had to, and Rob still bears a pained expression when he remarks that his father didn’t live long enough to follow his boys to the Bay Area — “He would have been a natural Californian.”

In the years since, however, the Ruby brothers have heard plenty of stories about the impact their dad had on other people’s lives.

One old boss of Rob’s claimed he and a group of other children were caught in a storm while paddling rowboats in a Detroit-area lake until Bert jumped in a boat, paddled to the rescue, lashed the kids’ boats together and rowed back to shore.

Another co-worker told Rob that his father lifted up a refrigerator several movers couldn’t budge and carried into the family’s kitchen.

“It sounds like a cliché: The gentle strongman,” said Rob Ruby. “But that’s who he was.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.