The Greatest Bar Fight in History: Mongo vs. the Bruiser
By Tim Bean
Everything about that night went wrong in a hurry, and Alex Karras (who would famously play Mongo in Blazing Saddles a decade later) admitted that he should have known better.
He shouldn’t have put any money down on football games. He shouldn’t have gotten in so tightly with the Butiscaris brothers and discussed buying into their place in Detroit, the Lindell Bar. He shouldn’t have agreed to work as a kind of celebrity bartender.
More than anything, he should have known better than staging this hokey wrestling stunt which hinged on Dick “the Bruiser” Afflis not flying into one of his Looney Tunes rages.
Like Karras, Dick Afflis had once played for the NFL. Karras knew exactly why Dick quit playing football. More money, sure, but the real reason behind Dick’s move is his love of fighting. He liked to fight. Even his scripted wrestling matches sometimes turned into the real deal. In 1957, his match at Madison Square Garden had gone off-script and turned into a real fight. Then a real riot. By the time the brawl ended, the Garden was covered in a sea of shattered wooden chairs. It took sixty policeman to subdue the crowd and the wrestlers. “The Bruiser” wasn’t just a character.
Before the Detroit Lions picked up Karras in 1958, Karras had worked the wrestling circuit and he and Dick “The Bruiser” Afflis had become fast friends. Both came from Indiana—Karras born in Gary and a legendary Emerson High School football star. Dick grew up in Delphi, played football and wrestled at Lafayette Jefferson High School and then for Purdue, then three years with the Green Bay Packers. Then he left it all for professional wrestling, which had exploded once televised bouts entered the industry. Dick helped the younger Karras along with his wrestling, mentoring him like a big brother.
When the Detroit Lions grabbed him in the first round of the 1958 NFL draft, Karras walked away from wrestling without hesitation. Dick was a little hurt and a little irritated. Wrestling pays better and was a hell of a lot safer than football. You were a star, not a faceless grunt on the gridiron. Dick loved every minute of being in the ring. He thought Karras had, too.
Dick watched Alex Karras become one of the Motor City’s athletic icons. One of the greatest defensive tackles in NFL history, they said. Unlike many players, Karras had evolved a calm, easy-going rapport with fans and press. His quick, imaginative mind cranked out jokes and stories easily, but the man turned to a six-foot-two granite slab on the field.
When Karras got slapped with a one-year suspension in 1963 for gambling on football games, Dick offered to get him back on the circuit. Put a nice bit of scratch together. Karras wasn’t wealthy, by any means, and the only income he had to weather the gap in NFL checks was from the Lindell Bar, which he shared with the Butiscaris brothers. Karras liked the bar and liked the brothers, but he knew they had a reputation in the city.
The Butiscaris weren’t exactly connected, but they were serious men. Friends of friends, or however you wanted to say it. It was through them that Karras had put down some small bets from time to time, more out of habit than desire. But the NFL found out. The Lions made no secret about wanting him to sell his share of the bar and distance himself from that lifestyle.
Karras knew he would, eventually, but after 1963. For now, he needed the cash. When Dick offered to get him on the circuit again, Karras accepted right away. Now that he was famous in Detroit, he’d be a bigger draw with a bigger paycheck. He’d make more in a few bouts than he would in a entire season with the Lions.
When Dick suggested they play up their rivalry before the match with a little pageantry, Karras wasn’t as enthusiastic. The idea was this—Dick comes into the Lindell, insults Karras, they have a tussle, then everyone departed. The incident would hit the newspapers and the match would sell out. Easy.
Dick stomped in well past midnight on April 23, just a few days before their advertised April 27th match. Both he and Karras had rehearsed the script beforehand. Karras made sure everyone in the bar that night knew the exchange was a wrestling bit and nothing more. He had all his bases covered.
Problem was, no one thought to tell Jimmy Butiscaris’ Uncle Charley, who picked that night of all nights to visit his niece’s husband’s bar.
Karras knew something was off as soon as Dick stepped in the Lindell. The always-present cigar jutted from Dick’s mouth, clenched between his molars because five of his front teeth were missing. Although an inch shorter than Karras, he had forty pounds of muscle on the younger man. Dick’s shirt strained like an overstuffed sausage casing and when he stepped in the bar, he squinted and stared at every patron. Mob guys, bookies, hooligans and hoodlums, people that had killed people—Dick didn’t care. He was the Bruiser.
Dick saw Karras at the opposite end of the bar. Dick’s eyes narrowed even more and he teeth spread in a hard grin around the cigar.
The bartender asked Dick if he’d like a drink, but Dick didn’t even let him finish. He stretched out one arm and stabbed his finger at Karras, who stared at Dick through his heavy-framed glasses.
“Nah. I want that fat f——g four eyes to serve me,” Dick growled.
Alex, to be honest, was a little relieved. The way Dick had looked coming in, he thought things were going to go bad, but so far so good. Dick was on script. Jimmy would refuse to serve him, the Bruiser would rip Jimmy’s shirt, and jab a light punch at him. A few more words, then it was done.
Jimmy told him to leave, Dick the Bruiser grabbed his shirt and tore it and then gave him the stiffed punch. It looked real enough.
No one saw Uncle Charley until it was too late. As this exchange had unfolded, Charley had crept over to the pool table and grabbed a long cue, raising it above his shoulder and working slowly to Dick’s side. He saw Dick grab Jimmy, rip his shirt, and then jab a fist at him. Charley didn’t hesitate.
“Hey!” Charley said.
Dick turned to him.
Charley swung like Mickey Mantle. The pool cue swished through the air and caught Dick just below his eye, breaking the cue and slicing Dick’s face open. It would later need stitches. The cigar shot from his mouth and pattered on the floor. Blood spattered on the bar. Dick stood blinking for a moment.
Alex Karras opened his mouth, but there was no stopping Dick now. In fact, there was no Dick now. The hulking bloody-faced mass of blonde hair and rage that squared off against Uncle Charley was the Bruiser, forever and ever, Amen.
By now, someone had let Charley in on the play acting. Charley dropped the remnants of the broken pool cue and stepped away from the Bruiser, who seemed to grow taller and wider and meaner, like a living steam boiler.
The Bruiser grabbed the closest thing to him: a candy and peanut vending machine that weighed roughly two hundred pounds. The Bruiser gripped the sides of the machine, grunted and lifted the entire machine off the ground. The tendons in his arms stiffened like buried cables. Snacks and coins tickled and jittered inside the machine. The Bruiser lifted the entire vending machine over his head.
Rage hadn’t entirely taken Dick over. He had enough presence of mind to know crushing this middle-aged man with a hunk of steel and glass might be a bad choice. Instead, Dick pitched the vending machine slightly to the side, missing Charley and any patrons, but crushing the bar’s color television. Its tube imploded with a flash and sizzle, raining down glass on the battered vending machine.