Saturday, November 28, 2015

Dr. Joseph Estwanik: A Doctor Remembers

Noted Charlotte orthopedist recalls his experiences treating the wrestlers of Jim Crockett Promotions, marvels at their toughness and athleticism
by Kyra Quinn
Special for the Mid-Atlantic Gateway

Editor's Note: For a review of what first led to this article and interview by Kyra Quinn, read "Yes Virginia, there is a Dr. Estwanik."

“Let people know how great these athletes were,” said Dr. Joseph Estwanik, referring to the wrestlers of Jim Crockett Promotions in the 1980s.  Dr. Estwanik said this at the close of our recent telephone interview, which he had graciously agreed to after I reached out to him with questions about his involvement with professional wrestling decades ago. 

Dr. Joseph Estwanik
Not Just a Doctor on TV 
After recently discovering that Dr. Estwanik was still practicing medicine in Charlotte some 30 years after his initial appearance on Crockett television, I became curious about how he had become associated with the Crocketts, and about the extent of his involvement with the wrestlers. Estwanik had appeared on television as part of two highly memorable and now-classic angles: the ankle injury to Dusty Rhodes at the hands of Ric Flair and the Andersons in the buildup to Starrcade ’85, and the neck injury suffered by Ric Flair as the result of being piledriven on a ringside table by Terry Funk in 1989. But I wondered: were those two TV appearances all there was, or was there perhaps more to his story?

As I found out, there was much more. Joe Estwanik treated many of Crockett’s wrestlers throughout the 1980s. They were his patients and his friends, and his respect for them, even after all these years, remains profound and undiminished.

The Wrestling Connection
Dr. Estwanik’s association with professional wrestling developed as a result of the geographic location of his practice as well as his own background in and involvement with athletics, including Greco-Roman wrestling. Estwanik moved to Charlotte in 1978 after graduating from medical school at Wake Forest University and completing his residency. At that time he was one of the few doctors in the Charlotte area with an interest in sports medicine, which resulted in, as Dr. Estwanik put it, “sort of a natural hook-up with the Crocketts. Plus,” he added, “I was an avid weightlifter and bodybuilder, so I actually was in the gym with many of the athletes anyway… so I think I gained the, if I can say, respect for my knowledge base of wrestling [and] of weight training.”

“Tough as Nails”
Though he treated numerous Crockett wrestlers over the years, Dr. Estwanik actually had no professional relationship with Jim Crockett Promotions. “I think I felt better that way,” he explained, “that I was able to maintain a doctor-patient relationship. But because we had so many athletes in common I couldn’t help but at times meet the Crocketts or serve a need for them if I could.”

Dr. Estwanik maintains an incredibly high regard for the wrestlers he treated, telling me, with amazement in his voice, “their athletic ability was superb, and… their toughness was insanely crazy!” Few people would know more about that toughness than Joe Estwanik. As the doctor to so many of the wrestlers, Dr. Estwanik was privy to injury knowledge that remained well-hidden from fans at the time. “I had their x-rays,” he explained, “and I knew the battering that they were taking, and I had performed some of their surgeries.” Estwanik continued, “It was even amazing what they sacrificed in the normal post-operative expected recovery, to get back on the road and perform in some capacity, somewhat shielding or protecting an injury or an operated area.” Dr. Estwanik even gave an example of seeing a wrestler in the ring on television still wearing the post-operative dressing Estwanik had applied at the completion of his surgery.

During those days, as part of his research for an academic paper that he later presented, Dr. Estwanik also surveyed over 100 professional wrestlers regarding injuries they had sustained throughout their careers; that paper, he says, documented the serious reality of the injuries the wrestlers were living and competing with. His succinct summary of the results of his research and observation: “They were always, always injured. They were tough as nails. And finally, they never got a day off.”

Patients and Friends
Joe Estwanik did not require any prompting when asked if he had any specific recollections of the wrestlers he worked with during the 80s. Immediately the memories started to flow. “Chief Wahoo McDaniel,” Estwanik recalled, “what a character and an extraordinary guy. I got to know him very well and operate on him.” Estwanik marveled at Wahoo’s toughness in continuing to wrestle into his 50s even though, as Estwanik put it, “anybody who was not a physician could see the significant arthritic changes” by simply looking at Wahoo’s x-rays.

Other wrestlers who Joe Estwanik counted as both patients and friends include Magnum T.A., Jimmy Garvin, and Ivan and Nikita Koloff. “So many of [the wrestlers] were so pleasant to work with,” Estwanik shared, “and just genuine guys from the gym, compared to a persona they got paid to play.”

Estwanik also recalled being there with his friends during some difficult times; he was one of the few visitors Magnum requested to see in the hospital after his career-ending auto accident in 1986, and he was there as a friend to Nikita Koloff as Nikita’s first wife, Mandy, died of cancer in 1989.

Agony at the Omni and Dusty’s “Hard Times”
When Dr. Estwanik finally did appear on-screen for Jim Crockett Promotions, he did so in the middle of one of the hottest angles and well-crafted stories in wrestling history: the ankle injury to Dusty Rhodes which set the stage for the Flair-Rhodes main event at Starrcade ’85 – one of the key moments in the legendary feud between the “Nature Boy” and the “American Dream”. As most fans of that era will recall, the injury occurred at the Omni in Atlanta on September 29, 1985, when Ric Flair turned full heel in grand and nefarious fashion, gleefully joining the Andersons in a brutal three-on-one attack in a cage against Dusty Rhodes. It was the ultimate betrayal, with Dusty having just single-handedly rescued Flair from a beating by the Russian trio of Ivan and Nikita Koloff and Krusher Khruschev.

Dr. Estwanik talks about Dusty's injury.
The attack resulted in a serious injury to Dusty which Flair had inflicted by landing a knee drop off the top rope onto Rhodes’ ankle. In the aftermath, Rhodes lay in clear agony on the mat, tended to by the Rock and Roll Express, announcer David Crockett and several others. As the house lights were brought up, the stunned Omni crowd watched with grave concern as one side of the cage was removed, the ring ropes were loosened, and the “American Dream” was carried to the dressing room with a huge bag of ice tied around his ankle.

On the following week’s “Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling” the angle was recapped, with Tony Schiavone informing fans that Dusty was put on a private plane and flown to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he was examined by Dr. Joseph Estwanik. Subsequently, David Crockett conducted an interview with Estwanik in which the doctor explained the diagnosis of a third degree ankle sprain and addressed Dusty’s time frame for recovery. (Estwanik also appeared in a later interview with Dusty to discuss his rehab progress). Rhodes was put in a cast and was out of action for over a month, during which time the feud only became hotter as Dusty gave inspired interviews, including “Hard Times,” one of the most well-known and beloved promos ever. To go back and re-watch the events leading to Starrcade ‘85 is to be reminded of why people believed: incredible athletes, charismatic personalities, and storytelling that was compelling and realistic.

Dusty Rhodes in the cast.
When I asked Dr. Estwanik about his interview with David Crockett all those years ago, he chuckled and had to confess that he didn’t remember it among all the other interviews he has given. But he did reveal something that is likely to surprise and possibly intrigue many fans: Dusty did have an actual injury. We can’t know for certain when the injury occurred; we can speculate that it may have been something that had been bothering Dusty and was then worked into the story at the perfect time. But regardless of timing, Estwanik stated: “There was an injury. TV exaggerates everything… but it was an injury requiring some immobilization and he elected to go with a cast… it’s the same cast on him that I would put on anybody.”

Dr. Estwanik took it in stride when I suggested to him that, during that era, there may have been a number of skeptical wrestling fans who did not believe he was a real doctor. “The fact is,” he laughed, “my enduring signature is suture lines, healed scars from surgeries.” He continued, assuring us, “I was really performing ACL surgeries and all the other things.”

These Days
In addition to his very successful Charlotte orthopedic practice, Dr. Estwanik continues his three-plus decades of work as a ringside physician for the sport of boxing and has also served in that same capacity for numerous years in Mixed Martial Arts. His extensive list of professional experience includes serving as the team physician for USA Boxing at multiple international events, and having served as the President of the Association of Ringside Physicians. In addition, Dr. Estwanik, along with Ken Shamrock and others, was instrumental in developing the original Boxergenics Grappling Glove used by MMA fighters; he developed the glove in the early days of MMA when the sport was in danger of being banned. That basic glove, says Estwanik, in still in use today, and he now jokingly refers to himself as the “idiot that didn’t patent it.”

Joe Estwanik’s favorite sports are the combat arts (which include wrestling, boxing, martial arts and MMA), in which he has decades of experience as both a treating physician and a fan. But he does seem to hold a special place in his heart for the professional wrestlers he knew and treated in the 1980s. When asked if he had become a fan of wrestling during that era, Estwanik responded, “You can’t help but watch your buddies.” Estwanik missed those buddies when Jim Crockett sold the business and the wrestlers left town. He still keeps up with some of them, though, and very fondly recalls that special era, telling us: “It was a great time of my life. I loved it.”

November 28, 2015 is the 30th Anniversary of Starrcade '85. The event took place on Thanksgiving night in the cities of Atlanta, GA and Greensboro, NC.