The Brawner Brawlers

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Well, in that Press-Scimitar story, Burk spilled the beans about the Von Brauners, and I might as well let you in on the secret, too: Wrestling isn’t always real.

I know. I’m as shocked as you are.

It turns out the menacing Kurt Von Brauner from the Black Forest of Germany was actually Jimmy Brawner from Memphis, who had attended Whitehaven High School. Burk happened to remember him when the young man was a beefed-up body builder who had won the title of “Mr. Memphis” back in 1949.

Brawner could have starred in any of those Charles Atlas magazine ads, where the 98-pound weakling turns into a strongman practically overnight. In Brawner’s case, he was such a puny fellow that he wasn’t allowed to join the Whitehaven football team. So he started lifting weights, exercising, and eating better, and in just two years he gained 200 pounds of solid muscle, with his arms alone measuring 17 inches around. 

Tojo YamamotoFor a while, he worked on the railroad as a fireman, shoveling coal into locomotive boilers. After he won the “Mr. Memphis” contest, a reporter asked if that grueling job gave him all his muscles. “No, shoveling coal doesn’t build muscles,” he said. “It tears them down. I have to train hard to make up for my work as a fireman. I have never smoked or drunk, and I get plenty of sleep every night. I believe anyone can develop a fine physique if they want to work at it.”

It’s not clear just when Brawner decided to leave the railroad and become a professional wrestler. After picking up quite a few impressive titles on his own, beginning with the Southern Heavyweight title in April 1957, he met a shrewd fellow named Saul Weingeroff, considering one of the top promoters, and I bet that’s when Jimmy Brawner shaved his head, grew a menacing moustache, and became Kurt Von Brauner.

Oh, and about this time he acquired a brother, too — Karl Von Brauner (real name: Doug Donovan, born in Hamilton, Ohio). They made a formidable pair, and the Online World of Wrestling website lists almost four dozen state and world tag-team trophies they carried home from the late 1950s until the mid-1970s.

What’s really strange — I mean, on top of everything I’ve told you so far — is that sometime in the late 1960s, our Whitehaven grad retired from the ring, but that didn’t put a chokehold on the career of the Von Brauners. Kurt #1 was simply replaced by Kurt #2 — an entirely different person by the name of Willie Rutgowsky who (and this just gets too strange for words) really was from Germany. So it seems a genuine German who spoke perfect English was pretending to be a German who only grunted and scowled. But either nobody in the audiences noticed the switch, or nobody cared. The only thing that mattered was these were the “bad Germans” and the crowds loved it when the hometown heroes like Sputnik Monroe and Jackie Fargo sent them packing, all the way back to Bavaria (or, most likely, to their homes in Florida).

The Von Brauner tag team (or should I say teams?) finally retired when their bodies just wore out. Karl (Doug Donavan) passed away sometime in 2009. Kurt #2 (Rutkowski) had died years earlier, in 1993.

 As the only “German” with Memphis connections, Jimmy Brawner moved to Tampa, Florida, and ran a supermarket for a few years before passing away in 2004. Nobody seems to remember his days as “Mr. Memphis,” but his time in the ring — helped along with a great agent and a colorful moniker — made him one of wrestling’s legends.

One more thing. In that Press-Scimitar story, Bill Burk brought up an interesting point, and I’ll repeat it here. If the Von Brauners weren’t really Germans, where did Tojo Yamamoto (above) come from? It boggles the mind. 

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