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Swede Hanson

Sport: Wrestling

Born: March 27, 1933

Died: February 9, 2002

Town: East Orange

Robert Fort Hanson was born March 27, 1933 in East Orange. The boy everyone called Swede stood more than six feet tall and weighed 200-plus pounds when he entered high school, and kept on growing. He had enormous hands and wore size 17 shoes; fans would later nickname him Big Foot. Besides his size, Swede was also quick and agile. The star of the East Orange high school football squad, he was offered a scholarship by Wake Forest following his junior season. Money was tight in the single-parent Hanson household, so when Swede was offered a job at Newark Airport as an aircraft mechanic, he turned down the scholarship and dropped out of school before his senior year.

Swede kept in shape as an amateur boxer in the mid-1950s. He had a 64–3 record, losing all three times to the same opponent, but captured a pair of Golden Gloves titles. Pro fighters were captivated by Swede. They befriended him and sometimes sparred with him, too. He spent time in the ring with Rocky Marciano and Archie Moore, and Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis were among his friends. In 1957, at the suggestion of New Jersey promoter Willie Gilzenberg, Swede decided to become a pro wrestler.

Swede trained with George Tragos, a star-maker in the grappling world. After three months he turned him over to promoter Vince McMahon, whose son Vince Jr. would run WWF and WWE a generation later. He was paired with another wrestling neophyte, Bruno Sammartino, and the clicked. McMahon booked them all over the region and in a few years they were both huge stars. Swede was famous for his enormous size (6’5” 275 lbs.), his bright blond hair, and the hardest punch in the sport.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Swede worked primarily in the Carolinas. He and Rip Hawk formed one of wrestling’s most successful tag teams. Known as the Blond Bombers, they would be together on and off for more than 15 years—nearly all of that time as bad guys (aka “heels”). They differed from others of their ilk in that they refused to “cheat” to win matches. They wrestled clean, as it were. The pair won several championships in the 1960s and introduced the quick tag, exchanging places every few seconds to wear an opponent down.

In 1971, Swede suffered a heart attack. He became a fan favorite for a while, and eventually faced off against Hawk. By the end of the decade, he was back to being a heel under the management of Freddie Blassie. To build up the menacing aspect of his character, Swede’s vanquished foes were often carried away on a stretcher. In 1979, he earned a title shot against Bob Backlund, but lost. During the 1980s, Swede joined WWF and recast himself as a good ol’ boy, complete with long hair and a Confederate flag. He retired in 1986.

During his post-wrestling days, Swede worked construction and also managed a bar. He became a huge Duke basketball fan, although he reportedly never attended a game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Swede suffered a number of health problems in his late 60s, including diabetes, high blood pressure and Alzheimer’s. He passed away in a Columbia hospital in 2002.

 

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