In the ring he was a villain, but in real life this man from Dodge City was a civil rights champion.
Roscoe Monroe Merrick was born in Dodge City on December 18, 1928 to Ruie Merrick. Roscoe's father, Roscoe, had died in an airplane crash the month before. In his early years Roscoe lived with his grandparents. When Roscoe was four, his mother married professional baker Virgil Brumbaugh.
As a teen, Roscoe took an interest in wrestling, joining the Dodge City High School wrestling team. Also in his teen years, Roscoe became aware of racial discrimination. Many of his co-workers in his father's bakery were African-American and he couldn't understand why they were treated differently based on the color of their skin.
At the age of 17, Roscoe enlisted in the U.S. Navy serving on a submarine tender. After getting out of Navy in 1947, Roscoe's first professional wrestling match was against seasoned wrestler Bill Ely for $5 at a carnival. He won, and was hired as a regular wrestler at carnivals. During this period, Roscoe quickly learned to fill the role of the "bad guy," throwing insults at his opponents and their girlfriends.
In 1951, he became Pretty Boy Rocque and wrestled around the Midwest.
Supposedly he earned the name "Sputnik" in Mobile, Alabama in 1958 when a white woman saw him embrace an African-American man. Shocked, she said, "you’re nothing but a damned Sputnik," referring to the satellite the USSR had launched the year before.
At the height of the Cold War, calling someone anything pertaining to the Soviet Union was an insult. But as a bad guy, Monroe embraced the name.
In January 1959, he started his National Wrestling Association (NWA) career in Memphis. Furthering his bad guy reputation with his over the top interviews, he was boastful and arrogant. Adding to the effect was his jet-black hair with a white streak through the center caused by an earlier head injury. He was "the most hated man in Memphis." He played that role to the max, wrestling for record crowds in Memphis. His promoters loved him.
Among his titles and honors are numerous tag team and NWA championships, Memphis Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1994, NWA Class of 2017 Hall of Fame and a 2018 induction into the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Legacy Hall of Fame.
However, he is most remembered for his fight against racial discrimination in Memphis. Monroe noticed many pro-wrestling fans were black and most of seating, including the floor seats, were for whites only. Blacks had to sit in the tiny balcony.
Often, many of the whites only seats were empty and the balcony was full. It angered him to see blacks turned away when the balcony sold-out.
As the biggest wrestling draw in the area, he refused to wrestle at shows where blacks weren't allowed to sit in any seat in Memphis' Ellis Auditorium. The promoters caved; but this new practice was financially wise and it spread to other venues throughout the south.
His role in desegregation in Memphis was documented in a 2001 National Public Radio broadcast. In 2002, the Rock 'n' Soul Museum in Memphis featured in him a display.
He remained the bad guy in the ring, but was popular among blacks. And most teens loved him for his rebellious attitude similar to that of fellow Memphis resident Elvis Presley.
In the 1960's after Memphis, Sputnik wrestled in other regions in a quest for nationwide fame, but he never achieved the fame he had in Memphis. By the time he returned to Memphis, he was the "establishment" and his tag team foes were "The Hippies."
Monroe died in Edgewater, Florida, at the age of 77 on Nov. 3, 2006. He is buried in Alexandria National Cemetery, Pineville, Louisiana.