by Ken Hudnall Borderzine
There are certain individuals who have made an impact on the American psyche whether they intend to do it or not. In the last few years, one of those who has made such an impact in both the worlds of entertainment as well as the world of politics is a man by the name of James George Janos. The reader may know Mr. Janos by his stage name, Jesse Ventura, politician, actor, author, veteran, broadcaster, body guard and former professional wrestler who went on to serve as the 38th Governor of Minnesota from 1999 to 2003.
Ventura was born James George Janos, on July 15, 1951, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the son of Bernice Martha (ne Lenz) and George William Janos, both of whom were World War II veterans. Ventura's older brother served in the Vietnam War. His father’s parents were from what is now Slovakia, and his mother was of German ancestry. Ventura was raised a Lutheran. He attended Cooper Elementary School and graduated from Minneapolis’ Roosevelt High School in 1969.
From December 1, 1969, to September 10, 1975, during the Vietnam War era, Jesse Ventura served in the United States Navy. Not content with simply serving in the military, Ventura moved into the world of special operations, volunteering for SEALs training. He graduated with BUD/S class 58 in December 1970 and was part of Underwater Demolition Team 12.
There has been some discussion in the media regarding Ventura's military service. He has frequently referred to his military career in public statements and debates and, in spite of accusations, has never made any effort to claim honors to which he was not entitled. Never one to avoid controversy, he was criticized by hunters and conservationists for stating in an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune in April 2001, “Until you have hunted men, you haven’t hunted yet.” In January 2002, Ventura, who, previously, had never specifically claimed to have fought in Vietnam, disclosed for the first time that he did not see combat. However, Ventura, who was stationed at Subic Bay in the Philippines, was awarded the Vietnam Service Medal, which was given to military personnel who took part in the contributions to the war effort in Vietnam. This has led to some confusion regarding his military background.
Showing little concern for public opinion even in these early years, near the end of his service in the Navy Ventura began to spend time with the “Dago” chapter of the Mongols motorcycle club, in San Diego. He was known for riding onto Naval Base Coronado on his Harley-Davidson wearing his Mongol colors. According to Ventura he was a full-patch member of the club and even third in command of his chapter, though he never got into trouble with the authorities. In the fall of 1974, Ventura left the club to return to Minnesota. It was shortly after this that the Mongols entered into open warfare with their rivals, the Hells Angels.
Back home in Minnesota Ventura attended North Hennepin Community College in the mid-1970s. At the same time he was continuing his education, he began weightlifting and wrestling. He was a bodyguard for The Rolling Stones for a short time before he ventured into the world of professional wrestling. It was during this time period that James George Janos began to transition into the world famous Jesse Ventura.
The world of professional wrestling
It was during this time period that James Janos began to look for a career that suited his tastes. He liked physical activity but his personality had become more flamboyant. The world of entertainment looked attractive, but he couldn't sing or dance. That left professional wrestling.
Entering the world of professional wrestling, Jesse Ventura was given the assignment of creating his new persona. To this end, he created the stage name Jesse “The Body” Ventura to go with the persona of an over bearing beach bodybuilder, picking the name “Ventura” from a map as part of his “bleach blond from California” character. As a wrestler, Ventura generally performed as a villain and became known for the motto “Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat!”
It is interesting to note that much of his flamboyant persona was adapted from another world famous wrestler, “Superstar” Billy Graham, a charismatic and popular performer during the 1970s and ’80s. Years later, as a broadcaster, Ventura made a running joke out of it claiming that Graham stole all of his ring attire ideas from him.
In 1975, Ventura made his debut in the Central States territory, before moving to the Pacific Northwest, where he wrestled for promoter Don Owen as Jesse “The Great” Ventura. Sometime later, he adopted the more permanent nickname, “The Body”. During his stay in Portland, Oregon, he had notable feuds with Dutch Savage and Jimmy Snuka and won the Pacific Northwest Wrestling title twice (once from each wrestler), and the tag team title five times (twice each with Bull Ramos and “Playboy” Buddy Rose, and once with Jerry Oates). He later moved to his hometown promotion, the American Wrestling Association in Minnesota, and began teaming with Adrian Adonis as the “East-West Connection” in 1979. The duo won the promotion’s World Tag Team Championship on July 20, 1980, on a forfeit when Verne Gagne, one-half of the tag team champions along with Mad Dog Vachon, failed to show up for a title defense in Denver, Colorado. The duo held the belts for nearly a year, losing to “The High Flyers” (Greg Gagne and Jim Brunzell).
The next phase
Shortly after losing the belts, the duo moved on to the World Wrestling Federation, where they were managed by “Classy” Freddie Blassie. Although the duo was unable to capture the World Tag Team Championship, both Adonis and Ventura became singles title contenders, each earning several title shots at World Heavyweight Champion Bob Backlund.
Ventura continued to wrestle until September 1984, when blood clots in his lungs ended his in-ring career. Ventura claimed the blood clots were a result of his exposure to Agent Orange during his time in Vietnam. Ventura did return to the ring in 1985 forming a tag-team with “Macho Man” Randy Savage & Savage’s manager Miss Elizabeth. He also participated in a six-man tag team match in December 1985 as he, Roddy Piper, and “Cowboy” Bob Orton defeated Hillbilly Jim, Uncle Elmer, and Cousin Luke in a match which was broadcast on Saturday Night’s Main Event. After a failed comeback bid, he began to do color commentary on television for All-Star Wrestling (replacing Angelo Mosca) and later Superstars of Wrestling (initially alongside Vince McMahon and Sammartino, and with McMahon after Sammartino’s departure from the WWF in 1988), hosted his own talk segment on the WWF’s Superstars of Wrestling called “The Body Shop”, and did color commentary on radio for a few National Football League teams (among them, the Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Ventura most notably co-hosted Saturday Night’s Main Event with Vince McMahon and the first six WrestleManias (1985–1990) and most of the WWF’s pay-per-views at the time with Gorilla Monsoon (the lone exception for Ventura being the first SummerSlam, in which Ventura served as the guest referee during the main event). Following a dispute with Vince McMahon over the use of his image for promoting a Sega product, McMahon – who had a contract with rival company Nintendo at the time – released Ventura from the company in August 1990.
In February 1992 at SuperBrawl II, Ventura joined World Championship Wrestling as a commentator. His professional wrestling commentary style was an extension of his wrestling persona, as he was partial to the villains, which was something new and different at the time, but would still occasionally give credit where it was due, praising the athleticism of Dynamite Kid and Randy Savage (who was championed by Ventura for years, even when he was a fan favorite). The lone exception to this rule was the WrestleMania VI match between Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. Since they were both crowd favorites, Ventura took a neutral position in his commentary; even praising Hogan’s display of sportsmanship at the end of the match when he handed over the WWF Championship to the Warrior after he lost the title. The praise of Hogan’s action was unusual for Ventura because he regularly rooted against Hogan during his matches. Hogan and Ventura were, at one point, close friends. Ventura, however, abruptly ended the friendship after he discovered, during his lawsuit against Vince McMahon, that Hogan was the one who had told Vince about Ventura’s attempt to form a labor union in 1984. Ventura was released by WCW President Eric Bishoff for allegedly falling asleep during a WCW Worldwide TV taping at Disney MGM Studios in July 1994, though it's been speculated the move may have had more to do with Hulk Hogan’s arrival shortly before.