Cody And Curtis: A Friendship Destined For The Hall Of Fame
Photos Courtesy of Mark Keenan & Bob Magee
Brian Hildebrand met Mark Keenan in the early 1980’s and worked together in a youth ministry retreat program for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. “When I first met Brian, he wore rainbow-colored suspenders,” Keenan remembers with a chuckle. But it was their shared interest (some say “passion”) for professional wrestling that made them life-long friends.
According to Lawrenceville Catholic graduate Keenan, Hildebrand—a North Catholic High School grad—later worked for a group of parishes in the South Hills before going to college in Dayton, Ohio. It was there while on his first day of disc jockeying at the college radio station that Hildebrand earned the nickname “Master of Disaster.” The title would later prove valuable to him.
Keenan was a college football linebacker and guard who first played at Bethany College in West Virginia. His freshman roommate was a New Brighton, PA student named Troy Martin. “That’s where the seed was kind of planted,” said Keenan in a recent email. The two fast friends got into trouble off the field and faced disciplinary probation in their first year. “You can’t take Lawrenceville out of the kid I guess,” he continued.
Like with Hildebrand, Keenan and Martin also enjoyed professional wrestling. Keenan transferred back to Pittsburgh to major in Education and play football for Duquesne University. Martin graduated from Bethany.
Since 1984, Hildebrand was cutting his teeth on the independent wrestling scene as a photographer and manager. “I took Brian to his first indy show in Chillicothe, Ohio. It was for Bobby Fulton’s father,” noted friend, Ken Jugan. Jugan was a indy wrestler, WWE enhancement talent, and sometimes referee before becoming Lord Zoltan. Hildebrand had returned and graduated from CCAC, and initially did not stray far from his Mt. Troy Road home. He lived with his father, Regis, a Pittsburgh city cop, photographer and private eye for attorneys. Brian sold shoes at the North Hills Village Mall to make a living and worked on as many wrestling shows as he could as with the ring name “Mark Curtis.”
Hildebrand desperately wanted to be a wrestler, but his height—described as 5’6” and 5’7”—and weight—at most 145 pounds, did not translate into athletic success. He would ultimately wrestle women and other managers, while wearing peach-colored tuxedos or hot pink tights, according to a feature story in the Pittsburgh Press from January, 1988. Or he’d don a turtle costume and wrestle in comedy matches. Always eager, Hildebrand often wrestled just about anyone he could, from “midgets” to future superstar Wendi Richter and the aforementioned Lord Zoltan.
Hildebrand started his wrestling training at Geto Mongol’s school and managed Terry Funk, Larry Zbyszko, Cactus Jack, “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert and others as “The Master of Disaster, ‘Dr.’ Mark Curtis.”
In 1986, student teaching didn’t interest Keenan, and he learned that Martin had started to train with Dominic DeNucci in Beaver County and Hildebrand moved from Mongol’s school.
Keenan took a job as an area foreman with the Housing Authority of Pittsburgh and turned his attention to the squared circle. “I supervised mostly trades and laborers,” Keenan said. “It paid well at the time and allowed me to take time off to wrestle.” Hildebrand and Keenan routinely make the 20-mile trip north to Freedom, Pennsylvania together. “I used to pick [Hildebrand] up every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday to ride him there,” said Keenan. “There was quite a class forming there.” Another student who gained fame in that hardscrabble atmosphere was Mick Foley, who drove 400-miles every weekend from his college in Cortland, New York to attend classes at the gym.
“I actually had my first match about three months after I began to train,” said Keenan. He was appreciative of the fact that DeNucci gave his stamp of approval to get booked on an independent show. “He didn’t until you were ready.” He continued, “I didn't even have tights yet. Dominic gave me a pair of his old ones to wear. I didn't realize how loose they were until my opponent grabbed them.” With a hearty laugh, Keenan noted that those in the front row got a little more than they bargained for that evening because of the loose-fitting trunks. Hildebrand was always managing someone on those shows.
Keenan quickly found his way into bigger talent pools. “From 1986-1989 I worked for WWF as enhancement talent on TV and worked alot of house shows in tri-state area,” he said. “Same for NWA and AWA at the time.”
Keenan wrestled as “Dante DeNucci” until 1990. He had established a reputation with the “Heartbreakers” tag team and the boy from Lawrenceville found himself being managed by the legendary Lou Albano for a short while. Business was picking up.
In 1990, UWF wrestler and promoter Eddie Gilbert as at a show in Ohio with Keenan and Troy Martin. He told him that he was looking for good guys to rebrand “Shane” and “Cody.” Martin quickly became “Shane Douglas” and Keenan became “Cody Michaels.” The next year, Cody Michaels went to the Memphis-based United States Wrestling Association (USWA) and tagged with Jerry Lynn. In November, 1991 he and Class of 2018 WWE Hall of Famer Jeff Jarrett won the USWA tag team championship in Jonesburg, Arkansas. The duo held those straps for two weeks. The plan was to establish Michaels as a tag champ and transition him into a top fan favorite.
In March 1991, Michaels was supposed to take on Steve Austin for the Texas Heavyweight Title at the Sportatorium in Dallas for ESPN TV. As fortunes would have it, one wrestler no-showed and “Superstar” Bill Dundee asked Michaels if he could wrestle two matches that night. Michaels agreed to wrestle “Hollywood” John Tatum. Tatum tossed Michaels over the top rope and he was supposed to land in a particular way. That didn’t happen. “I was going to take the bump, land, jump back in and go at John,” Michaels related. “However, a combination of a loosened top rope and an over eager throw caused me to land on the top of my head and snap my body over to the side.” Michaels could not feel his right side. He was taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where he found out that his neck was broken. He was in traction for two weeks. “To my amazement the still aired the match on ESPN (which at the time was a two-week delay),” he remembers with a chuckle. The injury would ultimately damage and shorten his career.
“At that point my honest intention was to try to rehab, get ready, and go to Atlanta,” Michaels continued. “However, once I returned to Pittsburgh and went back to the gym it was obvious that wasn't going to work.” He decided to return to college and earn a Chiropractic degree. He completed those studies, moved to Davenport, Iowa and graduated in 1996. He moved back to Pittsburgh to set up his practice, which he maintains to this very day. He had healed enough to wrestle periodically, even making appearances in Steel City Wrestling, which had its own rich history in the Pittsburgh region.
Hildebrand really started to make a name for himself when he went to Jim Cornette’s “Smokey Mountain Wrestling in 1992.” Hildebrand idolized the firebrand that is Jim Cornette. “Brian moved to Memphis and never came back,” Michaels said. There Hildebrand he served as “Senior Referee” Mark Curtis. While the opinion of Smokey Mountain Wrestling remains extremely positive, it only lasted until 1995. In its finale, Smokey Mountain’s founder, Cornette, was attacked by the entire locker room and was pinned by…Mark Curtis. It was at this time Hildebrand met his wife, Pam, who was very supportive of his career, and assisted during the Smokey Mountain run.
All of this time, Keenan and Hildebrand remained great friends.
“Shane began to talk to me about Eastern Championship Wrestling and the change to ECW,” Michaels remembers. “I met with Paul Heyman and Shane and told them I would be willing to work with them to expand their brand in Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio areas.” Michaels got ECW their first TV spots regionally, into Ohio and West Virginia. He was instrumental in some of the Pay Per View deals and got back into the ring for ECW. Long-time photographer Howard Kernats remembers riding with Keenan to an event in which Michaels was to appear. “He wouldn’t tell me who he was wrestling,” Kernats adds. When they got to the arena, Michaels challenged Douglas for the ECW title. “It was one of the greatest matches I have ever seen,” says the man who became ECW’s unofficial photographer of note. Michaels left ECW in 1999.
After leaving Smokey Mountain, Mark Curtis once again became Brian Hildebrand in ECW. When he left ECW, Hildebrand once again became Curtis in WCW. On a September 8, 1997 television broadcast from Milwaukee, a fan slid under the bottom rope and into the ring. Curtis took the interloper down and slapped on a guillotine choke hold. Famed commentators Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and Tony Schiavone called Curtis “Shooter” for making the save until security arrived.
Hildebrand was first diagnosed with stomach and bowel cancer in 1997. He had part of his stomach removed, but he continued to referee and do what he loved best.
When he was diagnosed with stomach cancer a second time, friends came together for an epic fundraiser. The Cody Michaels-produced “Curtis Comes Home” was held on July 30, 1999 at the Rostraver Ice Rink, an hour south of Pittsburgh. Some 1,500 fans descended on the arena for the event, which included talent from all of the major organizations of the day, as well as legends such as DeNucci and Lord Zoltan. Bruno Sammartino made an appearance. As part of the 9-match card Cody Michaels (with Jim Cornette) defeated Hugh Morrus and DeNucci dispatched of Zoltan. It’s interesting to note that the forecast for the day was “hazy, hot and humid” with an expected high of 92. Several reports indicated that it may have even been hotter inside the Rostraver Ice Rink that day.
It’s been reported that “Curtis Comes Home” raised $30,000 for Hildebrand’s medical bills. Brian continued to work until early September, 1999 when he refereed a match for South States Wrestling in eastern Tennessee.
When Brian Hildebrand passed away on September 8, 1999 in Florida, he was surrounded by his wife Pam, Keenan, and fellow friend and referee Charles Robinson. Hildebrand was 37.
“[Brian] was a dear friend,” said professional wrestling journalist Bill Apter in a recent email. “His passion and dedication to the business of Professional Wrestling became his life's work. Brian did everything one could do in our world of wrestling during the precious yet much too short time we had to enjoy with him.”
Michaels has continued to work on various wrestling-related projects over the years, including a part in “Pro Wrestlers v. Zombies,” a low-budget horror movie that included Shane Douglas, Kurt Angle, Roddy Piper, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and others. He also promoted the city of Pittsburgh’s first MMA event. And he remains married after 24 years “to my wonderful wife Diana,” and has “two great kids—Kaitlin who lives in Orlando, Florida, and son Cody who resides in Washington, D.C.
This year, the long-time friends join an ever-growing list of professional wrestling personalities with ties to Pittsburgh (or who call it home) who are inducted into the Keystone State Wrestling Alliance Hall of Fame.
“I’m sending out my congratulations to Mark Keenan for this big honor of being inducted into the KSWA Hall of Fame,” said fellow DeNucci alumnus Mick Foley in an email. “During The course of my friendship with Mark – your friendship that goes back 32 years, I have always known him to work his very hardest, in order to be the very best he could be. Whether it was becoming the best wrestler he could be, the best chiropractor he could be, the best husband or best father, Mark put his very best effort into anything he set his heart on. I was proud to be his colleague in our crazy little world professional wrestling – but even prouder to be his friend outside of it.”
From another long-time friend, Shane Douglas via Twitter:
The friendship between Curtis and Michaels is now immortalized forever, just like those rainbow-colored suspenders.