Under the Learning Tree Season 1: Jericho & (mostly) Guevara
1.1 | Wrestling Roots in Texas
1.8 | Taproots of Pro Wrestling
A Story of Skills Passed from Mentor to Protégé
A Globe and Era Spanning Journey
Stretching Back 140 Years and Through 4 Continents!
Sammy Guevara gasps at his earliest root, Farmer Burns, demonstrating his fabled neck strength
Here at Pro Wrestling Musings, we have writers with different perspectives and preferences, from different generations and walks of life, from at least four different continents. Some of us are big fans of New Japan, or Stardom, and some even still follow WWE. But one thing we almost all have in common is a love for the upstart US promotion, All Elite Wrestling. One of the central threads in the tapestry of story in AEW in its first four years has been the story of Chris Jericho's factions: first the Inner Circle and then the Jericho Appreciation Society. And threading through the center of that story, very consistently over several years, is the story of a mentor and protégé between the veteran Jericho and rookie firebrand Sammy Guevara. Stories of mentors and protégés are a central trope in pro-wrestling storytelling because the best pro-wresting storytelling is strongly rooted in reality, and the reality of professional wrestling is that mentorship for the transmission of skills and traditions from deep in the mists of memory is fundamental to its very existence.
I've always been fascinated by the long and unlikely-seeming heritage of pro wrestling. I have found that one of the most illuminating angles on that heritage is to look back at who trained who, and then who trained that trainer, and so on, stretching that chain as far back as one can. With the modern world's hypertextual crowd-sourced internet encyclopedias it only takes a few clicks to follow the story of that sort of "Learning Tree" from the leaves down to the roots. But the caveat is that you can't blindly trust a wiki! That's another fascinating aspect of researching pro wrestling's heritage: the painstaking task of teasing apart fact from kayfabe, (an old carny word for "fake" which wrestlers use to refer to parts of the storyline that they are trying to prevent the audience from knowing are fictional,) from misinformation.
A Lion's Tale
For example: for decades, Chris Jericho was reputed to have learned the ways of grappling in the dreaded basement of fellow Calgarian wrestling stars Bret & Owen Hart. The Hart family is one of the most iconic in a sport filled with iconic families, and the basement gym of paterfamilias Stu Hart was so infamous for brutal regimens of training that it could only be known as the Hart Dungeon. When Jericho published his memoir, A Lion's Tale, in 2007, he set those rumors to rest. While the future Lionheart did learn the ropes at a camp called the Hart Brothers School of Wrestling, where he met fellow-trainee and lifelong friend and ally Lance Storm, it was found not in a legendary "Dungeon," but in a rented-out bowling alley, and elder Hart brother Keith only dropped by to collect the checks! 
The beginning of a fashionable friendship
The actual training at the "Hart Brothers School" was handled by a local wrestler, (who had only recently graduated from the camp himself,) named Brad Young, as well as by Ed Langley—a referee whose qualifications to train pro wrestlers are unknown, and who merely read to them out of Stu's training manual! 
Learning Tree of Jericho's initial Training
Later, Jericho did get an opportunity to train a bit in the infamous Dungeon, but that training was not with a Hart, but with one of their longtime kayfabe nemesis, known in the West as Mr. Hito.  There are no interviews to be found asking Brad Young who exactly trained him, and the stories about Ed Langley make it sound like he had no wrestling training at all. Jericho's later trainer, Mr. Hito, is not so obscure as the others, but the most I've been able to discover about his training days was that it occurred in the late 60s at the dojo of the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance,  the promotion that had a monopoly on men's pro wrestling (or puroresu) in Japan throughout the 50s and 60s. 
It can be frustrating to research a wrestling star's Learning Tree and not be able to get beyond the first level or to only get lost in a thicket of unverified rumors. But that's the one extreme. Now let's look at the real-life Learning Tree of Jericho's kayfabe protégé, Sammy Guevara, to see the opposite extreme: a chain of mentorship heritage linking one current pro-wrestling star to mentors of mentors across three continents and back 140 years to the very deepest roots of the pro-wrestling heritage!
Protégé to a Legend
On Wednesday nights, on the AEW Dynamite program, young Sammy Guevara plays the role of the devoted protégé to a wrestling legend in the person of AEW's first World Champion, Chris Jericho. But over a decade ago, back in their common hometown of Houston, Texas, teenage Sammy was protégé to a wrestling legend in his real life, specifically as a trainee of the Five-Time WCW Champion, Booker T. 
Booker T mentors infant Guevara
Like Chris Jericho (and like Booker himself, as we will see in the next section,) Sammy will admit that the famous name on the door of the school wasn't always around to do the hands-on training. But unlike them, he credits Booker T with working with him directly as often as he could and really mentoring him with good advice, and he's always given credit solely to Booker for his development into the professional he is today,  so we will take him at his word.
Rags to Riches, Felon to Legend
Stay right there in Houston but rewind this story a few decades, and Booker T isn't a wrestling legend yet: he's just "Junior," namesake of his father, Booker Huffman, Sr., who had passed away when he was only a baby:
In 1978 Junior is 13, orphaned by his mother's passing in a household accident; the youngest of a passel of siblings hiding from social services in a crumbling apartment.
In 1982 Junior is 17, a high school drop-out and accidental father working dead-end jobs and selling weed to pay for his baby son's diapers.
In 1987 Junior is 22, one of the "Wendy's Bandits" who had gotten some local evening-news fame for a string of robberies of different locations of the fast-food chain throughout the Houston area while wearing their Wendy's uniforms.
In 1989 Junior is 24, a felon on parole, released early on good behavior, and a single father because his son's mother had been unable to care for him. 
Wendy's Bandit Superstar Smile
Booker "Junior" Huffman was living with his big brother Lash and working at a mini-storage, when one day in 1989 Lash came home and said that he had checked out a new wrestling school that had opened up, and that he thought they should become a pro-wrestling tag team together. Junior was incredulous, but Lash made his case: they had the athleticism, they had the showmanship, so maybe this was something they could really excel at. But it would cost them three thousand dollars that they didn't have. Luckily, Junior's boss at the storage unit believed in his potential, and paid him a $3,000 bonus to give him a chance to live out a dream. 
So Lash and Junior attended Ivan Putski's Wrestling School, associated with his short-lived Western Wrestling Association promotion. Putski was a power-lifting strongman nicknamed "the Polish Hammer" who had been a pretty big pro-wrestling star in the 70s and 80s, and, (as we shall find is pretty common,) his name above the door did not mean that he did any of the actual training. Rather, it was journeyman wrestler Scott Casey who would show the brother duo the ropes.
Casey would also suggest to Junior the character that he used in his early days: "GI Bro," an African-American combat veteran, suddenly timely again with the Gulf War breaking out.  Since Booker developed this character as an independent wrestler before hooking up with any major promotion that would have insisted on treating any intellectual property as "work for hire," he owns "GI Bro" outright, which would lead, decades later, to Booker filing an unsuccessful lawsuit against Activision for a Call of Duty protagonist that he deemed a knock-off. Judge for yourself—"GI Bro" on the left vs. "Prophet" on the right: 
GI Bro vs. the Prophet
Scott Casey saw something special in Booker, and told him that people might call him all kinds of slurs behind his back, but that he and his brother had the size, the ability, and the talk, and that before long Booker would be a champion. 
Casey's words to his protégé would prove prophetic. The Huffman brothers spent a few years making waves in the regional wrestling scene as the Ebony Experience, then in 1993 got called up to a major promotion, World Championship Wrestling, to appear as Harlem Heat—regulars on their nationally-televised hit show, Monday Nitro. Soon they would be tag team champions, and in 1999, Booker would win the first of many World Championships.
A Wrestling Journeyman's Start
When Scott Casey told Booker T that he had the potential to be a world champion, Casey was winding down a reasonably successful in-ring career, but one which never saw the Cowboy hit such heights himself. He had bounced from regional promotion to regional promotion for 20 years, making money and having fun, but never being the hottest thing going. Finally, at the tail end of this run, Casey became part of the big 80s boom of the WWF. "A rising tide lifts all ships" is the unspoken motto of professional wrestling, so he was glad to be a part of something hot. But he was only ever a very minor part. 
The career I've described is the career of a barnstorming journeyman of the "territory" era of wrestling which spanned the 50s through the 70s and early 80s. In that time, likely hundreds of men plied their trade and earned their living bumping and bleeding for the roar of the crowd in much the same way. How did such a journey begin? For Scott Casey (and many other Texas wrestlers!) it started at West Texas State, just 20 miles down the road from the Funk clan stronghold of Amarillo.
Cowboy Scott Casey in Texas
The book/film/TV franchise Friday Night Lights has popularized the mythic status of high school football in the tiny towns of rural Texas. But in slightly larger towns that might boast a small land grant university, the local collegiate football team is often just as much of an obsession, and it was no different in Amarillo. The West Texas State Buffaloes were the local football team and Dory Funk was partner to the promoter of the local wrestling cards and the star of the show, having won over the wrestling fans of the Amarillo area despite being a transplanted Hoosier, himself. When his sons—future wrestling legends Terry and Junior—graduated from high school in the early 60s, they attended nearby West Texas State and played on the football team. After graduating, they joined their Dad's promotion as the next generation of Funk wrestling stars. And ever after, they stayed involved with the football team and used it as their personal scouting grounds for big athletic guys who might make good wrestlers.
The list of West Texas State Buffalo football stars who went on to join Dory Funk's organization and then to pro wrestling glory is long and illustrious, including names like: Stan Hansen, Tito Santana, Manny Fernandez, Bobby Duncum, Dick Murdoch, Ted DiBiase, Tully Blanchard, and "the American Dream" Dusty Rhodes. 
Quarterback Tully makes yearbook
Scott Casey never made as big a name for himself as any of those guys, but he played for the Buffaloes, too. And in 1970 when he was getting ready to graduate and thinking about what might be next after college football for him, Terry Funk took him aside and asked him if he wanted to stay in Amarillo his whole life? Or travel the world? Casey immediately replied "where do I sign up?" 
Most of the gridiron joes brought into the Funk circle were shown how to work by some combination of Dory or Terry or Junior. But when it came time to show the ropes to Scott, the Funk clan must've been busy, because they relegated it to their B-team. Maybe they wanted him trained up at the same time that the Funks were putting on a wrestling show, because neither the Funks nor an actual wrestling ring were available for the task! Instead, Bobby Duncum, who had been trained by Junior just a couple years before,  brought Casey over to the house of rookie Duke Myers who had been trained by "Soldat Gorky" —a fake "Russian" wrestler out of Portland, Oregon who went by "Wolfman" John Smith when he wasn't doing the "evil Russki" grift—earlier that year, and had been bouncing from promotion to promotion since. Myers laid out blankets on the lawn and in that inauspicious training environment, the two walked him through the basics of bumping and selling. 
The Great Billy Thom
And the Mystery of "Barba Roja"
If that was the end of the story of Scott Casey being trained to be a wrestler, we would be nearly done finding the roots of Sammy Guevara's Learning Tree. To break it down quickly: Myers's trainer, Gorky/Smith was trained by a local Pacific Northwest regional star of the 40s, originally from Finland, named Paavo Ketonen, about whom little is remembered or recorded. 
Duncum was trained by Dory Junior, and Junior was trained in turn by his Dad and by two of Senior's most capable wrestlers: Ricky Romero and teen prodigy Johnny Como. 
Senior had been trained in his turn by legendary Indiana wrestling coach, Billy Thom,  a giant of wrestling in the 30s who straddled the usually separate worlds of amateur and pro wrestling. After his own days as a stand-out amateur finished, he went on to both win championships as a pro and lead Indiana University to several NCAA championships as coach, and even coached the 1936 Olympic team, where three of his Hoosiers made the team, and one took silver.  He is presumed to have used his amateur skills and picked up the work from the pros as he went along.
The Great Billy Thom
"Johnny Como" soon after moved on from the Amarillo territory and returned to his adopted home of New York where he also went back to the birth name he is better remembered as—Pedro Morales. He traveled to many territories through the years, but was a mainstay of the New York City territory—the WWWF—and became the first Latino to win their World Championship in 1971. Sources agree that when Morales was just a teen, he moved from Puerto Rico to New York City and was trained as a professional wrestler by a man known as "Barba Roja". However, many luchadors have competed with that piratical ring name, (meaning "Red Beard,") and I struggled to verify which of them specifically trained Morales. 
WWWF Champion, Pedro Morales
When I crowdsourced this question out to Twitter, I got the answer I'd been searching for from a knowledgeable Puerto Rican wrestling fan @elboricuapwo : the correct "Barba Roja" was an Argentine wrestling star who had moved to New York City to train the next generation at Gimnasio Latino, where a prior generation of Latino wrestling legends such as Antonino Rocca had trained, as well as later ones such as Carlos Colón. 
The Enigmatic Barba Roja
Most hispanic wrestlers in Texas at this time played the heel (villain) role, but "Rapid" Ricky Romero was one of the biggest fan favorites not named "Funk" in the region, and was Senior's right hand man. (He got over by being himself, but ironically, a generation later his sons took on the ring name "Youngblood," and got over by putting on a headdress and playing at being Native American!) He was recruited and trained by Diablo Velazco and Raúl Romero—legendary trainers of lucha libre, the unique Mexican tradition of pro wrestling.  But those two cross this Learning Tree a second time via a completely separate branch, so we will hold off on going into further detail on that particular root.
The story of Sammy Guevara's Training Tree has so far taken us back as far as the 1930s while remaining almost entirely in Texas, other than a few small detours to Mexico, New York City, Oregon, and Indiana—not exactly the "3 continents and 140 years" promised at the top of the page. And that would be the end of it, if the impromptu workout in Duke Myers's yard had been the end of Scott Casey's training. But Casey's disaster of a first match led him down a different path....
We'll explore that path and the rest of the roots of Sammy Guevara's Learning Tree next time!
Link to Part 2!
Learning Tree Lineage Diagram
Work-in-Progress Learning Tree Hypertext Document
A Lion’s Tale, a memoir by Chris Jericho