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A feared wrestler and gentle father dies at age 77

Walter Nurnberg, once half of the Von Stroheim brothers, retired to Florida and entertained others with stories of his glory days.

By ERIN SULLIVAN
Published August 18, 2006


It was as if he were two different people.

Inside the ring, Walter Nurnberg was mean. He looked like Mr. Clean - bald head, goatee, barrel chest - but one that would rip your head off and then mop the floor with your blood.

Outside the ring, he was soft-spoken. A gentle giant. He didn't like to hurt people. He liked to have a nice meal with his family. Watch sports on TV. He liked to tell stories about the good old days, when he was famous.

He was born of meager means and clawed his way to fame. And then he ended up living in a room in his son's trailer - shared by his son's wife, two grandsons, an asthmatic 15-year-old Yorkshire terrier named Skippy and a cat named Abby - off a dirt road in Zephyrhills. That's where he died on Sunday evening (Aug. 13, 2006). He was 77 years old.

The only reminders of what he once was, when he was a young man and not in a wheelchair, were locked in an old suitcase: newspaper clippings and photos and programs. And in his head. He could remember all the details about 1964, his best year on the wrestling circuit, but not remember what he had for breakfast that day.

He had once been feared and heckled around the globe. He wrestled a full-grown Alaskan brown bear named Sonny in the ring and kissed it on the lips. He made the knees of Rocky Johnson shake - a famous wrestler in his own right, though he might be more well known as the father of pro wrestler and movie star Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. the Rock.

And this is how Mr. Nurnberg ended up: a normal, elderly man with aches and pains, a little dementia and a large belly, whose family had to put him on a diet and hide cookies from him on top shelves, out of his reach. Every so often, his daughter-in-law would get him to sign autographs for her co-workers at the steak restaurant where she works. He liked doing that.

Mr. Nurnberg, the son of a German lumberjack, grew up on a farm in Canada. Born in 1929, he was a bruiser who stood 6 feet 3 inches and, at his prime, weighed 270 pounds.

Everything about him was thick: his chest, his arms, his legs, his fingers. His hands were huge, and when he became famous, he used them to cover his opponents' faces, squeezing his fingers and thumb on their temples, the pressure points, until they fell. That move was called the Claw.

Mr. Nurnberg wanted to be a professional hockey player, but at the time he tried out with teams in Canada, he was too young to play. So he went with his other love: professional wrestling. He headed to America, where in 1960 he met up with his German cousin Kurt Rutkowsky in Detroit.

Because the cousins looked so similar, a promoter billed them as brothers. From that moment on, they became Kurt (Rutkowsky) and Karl (Nurnberg) Von Stroheim.

Until their deaths, that's what people called them: Kurt and Karl. Their shtick was that they were German villains. Their heads were shaved and they had bushy, black goatees.

The two spent two decades traveling the globe as the Von Stroheim brothers. They wrestled in China, Japan, India, South America, Europe, Africa and other places. Though the winners of matches were decided before the fights, the tag team held several world championships.

And the injuries were real. Mr. Nurnberg's wrestling injuries ached till his death. He had both knees replaced, and his left leg was amputated just below the knee. Rutkowsky died in 1985.

In the 1980s, Mr. Nurnberg retired to Florida with his wife and son. He delivered mattresses for Florida Mattress. He kept active in wrestling, doing a little bit of promoting and still fighting in local events until he just couldn't physically do it anymore.

Mark Nulty - owner of WrestlingClassics.com, a Web site that details the history of professional wrestling - said the Von Stroheim brothers were not superstars but were well known.

"If you brought in the Von Stroheims and featured them, you would do well," Nulty said.

Nulty, who runs his business out of Ocala, knew Mr. Nurnberg.

"He was an absolute gentleman," Nulty said. "Real easy to get along with. Very devoted to his family. And you could just tell that his family adored him."

On Sunday, Mr. Nurnberg's 5-year-old grandson found him slumped over in his wheelchair. His son, Leo Nurnberg, gave his father CPR for 20 minutes until the ambulance came. Leo Nurnberg said the doctors thought his death might have had something to do with his heart.

On Wednesday afternoon, in the house, Leo Nurnberg cried. He's a big guy, like his father was. He is Mr. Nurnberg's only child. He said his father was his best friend.

"I can't believe it," he said, at the kitchen table, holding his forehead in his big hand. "He was the best dad anybody could ask for."

Visitation for Mr. Nurnberg is 3 p.m. today at Hodges Family Funeral home at 36327 State Road 54 in Zephyrhills. The funeral will follow at 4 p.m. The funeral home can be reached at (813) 788-6100.

[Last modified August 17, 2006, 21:51:04]


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