Evangelist wrestles with the devil

Wagner: This 'Gorgeous' died in 1963
Wagner: This 'Gorgeous' died in 1963

OAK HARBOR - The Rev. “Gorgeous” George Grant is well acquainted with the black depths of deceit as well as the snug snap of soft pink tights.

“Gorgeous George: The Human Orchid,” was a flamboyant cross-dressing professional wrestler from the 1950s. Judging by advertising flyers circulating in this Ohio town, he's now “The End-Times Evangelist,” a bespectacled Fundamentalist preacher. His ads feature a black-and-white photo of the primping palooka, juxtaposed with a stern suit-and-tie gent clutching a King James Bible.

The latter-day Mr. Grant will “reach the lost for Christ” Sunday through Wednesday at Grace Baptist Church in Oak Harbor.

He'll talk of God's love and judgment. And he'll talk about wrestling, he says.

He won't talk much about the other Gorgeous George.

The man most sports historians identify as “Gorgeous George” has been dead since 1963. He was not George Grant. He was George Wagner, a Nebraska native whose wrestling career was going nowhere before he slipped into a marabou-trimmed satin robe just after World War II.

During his heyday, Gorgeous George was one of the most famous and controversial entertainment figures in the world.

Entertainment Weekly calls Nov. 11, 1947 - the date Gorgeous George first minced into the TV ring - one of the Top 100 most influential moments in TV history. He usually arrived in long satin robes accompanied by a male valet, sprays of perfume, and a recording of “Pomp and Circumstance.''

With his platinum-blond curls pinned back with golden bobby pins, he was part Liberace, part Little Richard. And when the thumping started, the 220-pound leviathan was all business.

Historians call Gorgeous George “the original showman of professional wrestling,” a man whose campy theatrics started the “sport'' on the road to becoming a multibillion-dollar entertainment business.

George Wagner may have been all those things, Mr. Grant says, but he was not the original “Gorgeous George.”

“When we get down to nitty-gritty terminology, I'm the original Gorgeous George,” he said this week from his South Carolina home. “People are going to believe what they want to believe, but I put my gimmick together without any knowledge of George Wagner. How he got his gimmick, I don't know.''

Mr. Grant may have done the creating, but Mr. Wagner got the glory, the pioneering TV contracts, fame, money, and credit.

But meantime, George Grant got Jesus.

And after Mr. Wagner was called to his final reward, Mr. Grant resurrected and redeemed the “Gorgeous George” persona for the glory of God. He has been preaching since he was “saved'' in 1965.

“When I wrestled, I wrestled under the name of Gorgeous George. I have tons of wrestling memorabilia [but] I don't need no proof,” he said. “What do I owe you? I don't have to prove nothing to nobody.''

He said he even wrestled George Wagner along the way.

“He was an extreme egotist,” Mr. Grant recalled. “Several wrestling promoters tried to get us to team up, and we would have been sensational together back in 1954 and 1955. But he was one who had to have everything his way or not at all. So because of that, there were several promoters who did not use him. They used me.''

Two years ago, he told ABC News he “made lots of money and had lots of fame. But I felt used, unhappy, unfulfilled.” He did not say the man featured in TV archive clips was someone else, but he did mention an “imitator” who he fought in 1957 and 1958.

“That was then,” he told interviewer Buck Wolf. “Nobody can imitate me now.”

The Rev. Rick Bickelhaupt, pastor at the Oak Harbor church, said his son, a sports editor at Ashland University, looked into the legend and found four wrestling Gorgeous Georges.

“I don't know where this George Grant fits in,” Mr. Bickelhaupt said.

He said the identity question doesn't change anything - the soul-winning services will go on. “He still was a wrestler and has a message ... When [Mr. Grant] gets here, I'll ask him about it.''

Mr. Grant, a true believer, is undeterred by questions. “You believe what you want to believe,” he says. “I know the truth.''