I woke to some bad news this morning, the news that we have lost another wrestling great. My friend Gilberto "Pepe" Melendez better know as Gypsy Joe passed about 1am this morning in a Middle Tennessee Hospital.
My first memories of Joe are of seeing him on Georgia Championship Wrestling and Memphis Wrestling. It did not take long watching Joe that you knew he was a rare breed of man. He would hit his opponents with his famed over hand chops and headbutts and you never doubted if they connected or hurt. Even when I started wrestling Joe years later he was still all man and a yard wide.
Joe to some came off as a grumpy older wrestler who hated everything. He wanted you to think that too. As Ricky Morton says "Joe so grumpy he don't even like ice cream". Truth was far from the truth if you took the time to know Joe and let him know you. Joe was rough and told you like it was but he was always there to help you understand our profession. He was there to give advice about your matches. Ask any wrestler who has broke in to wrestling in the Middle Tennessee area the last three decades and they will all have a story about how Joe helped them.
He was a wealth of knowledge and had the pedigree to back it up. Several years ago Joe was staying with me and we researched his career. He was amazed on what I could find of him online. Joe was funny about what he wanted people to know. He guarded his age like gold in Fort Knox (more on that to come). He had several personalities during his career some he liked and some he wanted to forget.
As I googled his names he would tell me stories about each one. As each one was a phase of his life. He was Aztec Joe in the Detroit territory, Chief Tuna in Alaska, one half of the World Tag Championship Team The Blue Infernos with Frankie Martinez in the Tennessee and Alabama Territoris in 1966/67. If you go to Southern West Virginia and start talking about the old WOAY TV Saturday Night Wrestling days the first two names that come up is Jan and Gene Madrid. Joe was Gene Madrid. They are to West Virginia what The Wrights and Whitey are to East Tennessee.
I remember one night in the dressing room about 10 years ago Bill Dundee asked Joe how long he had been wrestling. Joe said "Almost 40 years" everyone laughed as Dundee said " 40 years!?! I have been in America almost 40 years and you had already had runs on top as The Blue Inferno and other names a decade before" In Joe fashion he replied "you don't know everything".
As I said Joe was very private about things. He guarded his age, birth name, and where he was born. When Jerry Lawler wrote in his book that as a young teenager Joe was his hero in Memphis wrestling Joe was very proud until he saw The King had listed his birth name.
Around 2008 I started working with Joe on a book about his life. After a few days he decided he did not want to do it because he would have to open up about something he did not want to. I still have the few notes.
Joe told me he came from Puerto Rico in his early twenties and worked his way as a farm hand from Florida to New York. He wanted to be a New York Yankee. He found work at a produce market unloading trucks. He would get a try out with the Yankees. When I asked him about it he said "all but one thing went great". He said "I could catch the ball, I could Throw the ball, but I could not hit the ball." I asked was you nervous? he Said "no it was to fast!"
He turned his attention to learning to boxing. He started training at a local gym in New York. he said 'his trainer was always yelling at him to not let the other guy hit him. Joe was as tough as they came. One day a few well dressed men walked into the gym and everyone's attention went to them. Joe asked who they were and someone told him they are wrestlers. Joe had never seen wrestling but he liked how well dressed and the attention the wrestlers were getting.
That night Joe went to see the matches and he was hooked. The next week when the wrestlers came into the gym Joe started asking about breaking in. He would laugh when telling me how hard they made him train thinking he would quit. He said he trained for almost a year before breaking in as Pepe Figueroa in New York area.
he had no idea that wrestling would take him around the world many times over wrestling across the North American Territories, Cuba, Korea, Japan, The Caribbean, and few other International Spots.
In the late 1960s Joe settled in West Virginia and became Gene Madrid. The brother of Jan Madrid the areas number one fan favorite. Joe also bought part of the promotion. He would spend the next few years beat West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kansas City area.
Joe also did well for him self in Japan where he was a main stay from the 1970s to 1993. He started with the old IWE promotion where he was known for bloody matches. Joe is credited as being the first person to jump off the top rope in a cage. After IWE closed, he was as a regular for All Japan. At the end of his days in Japan he was wrestling for the W*ING promotion. He was known for hardcore brawling and bloody style matches. Joe had his last match in Japan in the early 2000s.
Joe told me when he came to Tennessee for Nick Gulas he was to be here for only six weeks. I asked when was that he said laughing "thirty years ago". In the 1980s Joe would wrestle for Nick Gulas, then George Gulas's UWA, and The Jarretts. His last run for Jarrett coming in 1986. He also had went back to Kansas City in 1985. He last appearance on Memphis TV would come in the summer of 1997 as the guest of Jerry Lawler talking Memphis History.
After his years in the Territories Joe would become a pioneer of the Tennessee Independents based out of Nashville he wrestled for numerous promotions in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama. Even though he was older he did have a name from years of TV and was still as tough as anyone in wrestling. He would compete several nights a week until I think 2011.
Joe for three years in a row told me he was 77. Last year he told some people he was 84. I saw his age listed today as 82. Both Jackie and Don Fargo told me Joe was older than them. Paul Morton for years said he and Joe were the same age. Paul was just shy of his 90th birthday when he passed in December of 2010. I think only Joe and The Good Lord know his true age.
Joe would stay with me and Misty at times for a couple weeks at a time. He loved watching ball games, drinking coffee, and telling his stories. He shared his faith with us many times. I'm going to miss him as everyone who knew him will. Joe was one of a kind.
Joe fought many battles his last years. He lost part of one of his legs. The years of traveling and wrestling seemed to catch up with him. The last time I saw Joe was last year at the Gulf Coast Wrestlers Reunion. Even in a wheel chair and frail he was still Joe. He was so happy to see the boys and everyone was happy to see him. A big thanks to Shane Morton for getting him there and taking care of him.
To my amigo I say thank you for your friendship, your advice, and the memories. Thank you for all that you gave to the sport we loved. You truly gave your heart, blood, body and life to wrestling.
until we meet again
Sinner Saved by Grace