During his wrestling career, the Mighty Hercules, worked at or near the top against many of the biggest names of the era. He had high profile matches with many of the biggest stars of his era, like Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, Ted Dibease, Randy Savage, Keiji Muto, The Road Warriors, Jim Duggan, Wahoo McDaniel, Ricky Steamboat, the Rock & Roll Express and countless other.
But for the past several years, he had been a forgotten name from the past. After his career ended in the mid 90s, he had bounced from job to job for the past decade. While his contemporaries, at least the living ones, still were getting independent work based on their 80s fame, there was no demand for a Hercules who looked anything but Herculean. While more big name wrestlers probably live in Tampa than just about any place in the U.S., few had seen him in recent years. Just before his own death, Mike "Hawk" Hegstrand bumped into Hercules. He told friends he had aged greatly since the last time he saw him. He had no teeth [he told one friend he lost them in an auto accident, but apparently he was trying to save face] and had gotten heavy due to a thyroid problem, a far cry from how everyone remembered him. Hegstrand had remarked to friends that he didn't look healthy at all. And on 3/6, he never woke up, having died in his sleep. He left behind a wife and a family of five girls and a boy, who ranged in age from 11 to 25.
Full autopsy results are pending, but the circumstances of death are hardly family to anyone who had followed pro wrestling. The cold way of say it is that, most likely, the bills once again came due. He had been scared for his health because of the rash of his contemporaries who had passed away, in particular Hawk and Curt Hennig in 2003, who were a year or two younger than he was, and had lived the same lifestyle. He hadn't gotten a check up in years, but in December, spurred on by Hawk's death, and watching old videos of his matches and seeing so many deceased people that were his contemporaries, he had gotten a full medical checkup. He was told his health was fine, aside from the thyroid issue. The medication caused him to gain 20 pounds very quickly, but he was talking about going back to the gym. On 3/5, he spoke for an hour to his son, Jeremy, 23, who had moved away to Texas and had been out of contact with him. He made plans for the next morning to go to breakfast with his oldest daughter, who he was very close with. But he wasn't feeling well, which he attributed to a bad reaction from the medicine, and wanted to see a doctor. He was told they were overbooked and couldn't see him, but gave him an appointment for 3/9.
When he was young, he was never worried about his health or what he was doing to himself.
"You do things to keep your job," said his wife, Debbie Fernandez, noting the killer schedule left him with little time to see a doctor during those days and get a full physical.
"He was a really good person," said his oldest daughter, Nichole Rae Fernandez, 25, who was born at about the time he started wrestling. "He only lived for other people. He wasn't materialistic at all about himself. He just wanted to give us the best. We saw him always stop and help people he didn't know on the street. He never complained about anything, but always worried about other people."
Fernandez spent lots of time with her and his other daughters in recent years, to make up for the time he was gone during his wrestling career, but was having a difficult time with his life.
Raymond Constantine Fernandez was born May 7, 1956, in New York. His mother died from cancer at the age of 22, when he was six. His father, a former wrestler, and weightlifter, moved with him to Tampa to be with other family members. His father worked in the sheriff's department, where he became friends with Eddie Graham. Ray wrestled at Leto High School in Tampa in the 167-pound weight class, but was by no means a star. He had the structure that would make him famous already, with the wide shoulders and small waist, as his father had gotten him started on weight training at the age of 13 and it became his all-encompassing hobby. He started dating his wife when both were in high school. They went to different schools, but they shared the same birthday, but he was two years older. She remembered him as a quiet kid, totally unlike his later wrestling character, and he lived to weight train. He would tell her he wasn't a very good athlete, he wasn't fast or anything, but he was good at pushing heavy weights. After he graduated high school in 1974, he joined the Air Force for three years. During that period, the two were married in 1976.
As a teenager, he would peek into the gym window in Tampa to get a glimpse of Superstar Billy Graham, in town for matches with the likes of Dusty Rhodes, working out. He idolized the muscular wrestlers of that era in Florida, Graham, in particular, Don Muraco for his big shoulders and huge traps. It's most likely a combination that Fernandez was born with the genetics for the shoulders and traps, and he trained them harder than other body parts at a young age because of Muraco. Later came lots of steroids, and his physique was known for his own freaky shoulders and traps, almost like a slightly smaller but more cut version of Bill Goldberg. At his largest, he weighed 280 pounds on a 6-2 frame, although he was a little bloated at that weight. He probably weighed around 260 in his best WWF cosmetic shape. It was through his father's connection with Graham, and because he had won some local powerlifting championships, that he was trained for pro wrestling under Hiro Matsuda. He started in Florida in 1979, working local shows, before being sent to San Antonio to start his full-time career in 1981.
He was the answer to a few trivia questions in wrestling. He was in the very first match at the first Starrcade, where, under a mask as Assassin #2, he teamed with Jody Hamilton as Assassin #1 to beat Rufus Jones and Bugsy McGraw on November 24, 1983, at the Greensboro Colesium. He later became the last wrestler who Freddie Blassie managed, when Blassie retired from the road in 1985. He was the first Wrestlemania opponent of the Ultimate Warrior at Wrestlemania IV at Trump Plaza at Atlantic City, losing in 4:29 of a match that was set up when the two did a TV tug of war angle which saw the chain they were pulling supposedly snap under the intense pressure. He was also a member of arguable the two most famous tag teams in the history of Georgia wrestling, although never in Georgia. He was an Assassin, managed by Paul Jones. He was the one who unmasked when he lost to Jimmy Valiant in every city in the Carolinas in 1984 for the successful "Boogie Woogie Man" series. After an angle which saw his beard cut off, Valiant put up his hair in every arena on the circuit against the mask of The Assassin. The biggest show of the series, on March 17, 1984, at the Greensboro Coliseum, drew a nearly packed house of 13,900 fans for a show that had a co-feature of Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat doing a 60:00 draw in what was billed, in what was a great promotion, as Steamboat's first match back after a worked retirement. Fernandez lost, and unmasked, as he did in every major arena on the circuit, and left the area.
He went straight from that gimmick to becoming the new Mr. Wrestling II in Mid South Wrestling, when the famous Wrestling II, Johnny Walker, insisted on being called just Mr. Wrestling after a heel turn. They worked many matches against the Rock & Roll Express. The idea was to build to a turn, and use Walker's legendary status to put over the younger Hernandez and make him a top singles heel. After being unmasked by Duggan, he was likely the first pro wrestler ever to go on television and brag about steroids, as in Mid South during an interview for a main event feud with Jim Duggan, he did a localized promo for Oklahoma City, flexing his arms, saying "Looking at these arms. Five dianabols [a popular steroid in those days] a day."
He wrestled regularly for about 17 years in many circuits. In the early 80s, great physiques in wrestling were still something of a rarity, let alone one with good size and who could move. Renamed Hercules Hernandez, he was considered one of pro wrestling's real rising young talents in 1982 when working for Bob Geigel in the Central States. He worked in several circuits for the next three years and the tag of rising star only got stronger. Inside the ring, he peaked in 1984, when he was one of the top 50 wrestlers in the world while working for Bill Watts. After a brief run in Dallas, he returned to his native Florida as a star the next year, and was made top heel by booker Wahoo McDaniel, who was looking for a fresh heel to work with. He was given both the Florida and Southern titles simultaneously. He got into a real fight with booker Wahoo McDAniel. which he both won and lost. He won the fight, which gave him quite the rep in the business as somebody not to be messed with since even though Wahoo was 19 years older, he was still thought of in reverent terms by those in the industry for being a tough guy. But he lost his job, which wasn't the first time he was fired from a wrestling territory. It ended up being his greatest career break, as he signed with the WWF.
In a run lasted more than six years, Hernandez worked from jobber to headliner, as a journeyman performer who never quite lived up to his promise. The schedule in those days was impossible, and the drug use, steroids, downers and recreational drugs, was plentiful by many, if not most, of the top wrestlers of that era. By that point, he was hardly unique in being a big guy with a good body, although he had one of the best physiques, and was one of the legitimately strongest men in the company. He was also no longer unique in that he was one of many who relied largely on their physique rather than their wrestling ability as their calling card. He partied as much as, if not more, than most. The steroids took him up and down. He was very polite to everyone when he started, and people remember him as funny guy, but he could also be a wild man when depression hit. Being on the road took its toll on his marriage, and he was divorced during that period. He and his wife re-married in 1991. One night in Cincinnati, he broke a glass backstage with a fire hose and brought it to the ring, and nearly lost his job. He at first copied his act from two star wrestlers who had not appeared in the WWF since it went national, stomping his feet like Duggan and barking like Bruiser Brody, as well as carry a chain to the ring as his gimmick. He later dropped everything but the chain, and had to give up the stomp when Duggan joined the promotion. After Blassie was taken off the road, he was moved to the stable of Bobby Heenan. Later, in an attempt to make him a top singles babyface, they did an angle where Heenan sold him to Dibease. Hernandez didn't want to be a piece of meat who could be bought and sold, and rebelled, leading to a series of high profile matches, where he first squashed DiBease's bodyguard, Virgil, leading to a series with DiBease. But he never got over strong as a babyface, lost in the series, and largely floundered for a while.
"He was an angel as a person, but he had a devil inside him he couldn't control," said Brian Blair. Although the two were about the same age, Blair got started in wrestling in Florida a few years earlier, and was already a pro when he met Fernandez, who was trying to get in. "He was the kind of guy who would do anything for you."
His last meaningful run was as part of an underrated tag team called Power & Glory, managed by Slick [Ken Johnson]. He was the power, while partner Paul Roma [Paul Centopani] was the glory. Roma was a guy many in the company liked. He was good looking, had a great body and was very athletic, but because he was short, and more, because he had been a prelim guy for so many years that fans associated him with that level, it hurt the team in being perceived as on the level as the major teams during that time period. They were best remembered for having one of the coolest finishing moves in wrestling in 1991, called the Power & Glory. It was Hercules doing a superplex, which was still something special as a move, followed by Roma splashing the foe off the top rope, which also was still something special. But as impressive as Power & Glory were at times, they really went nowhere, as they were fed to the Legion of Doom. The team split up, and Hernandez got another babyface turn, but the time the idea of pushing him was over. With the company having to crack down on steroids at the time, his physique, which had relied on the drugs for so long, had flattened out. He'd been around forever as both a face and a heel, and without the physique, he really had nothing. He was jobbed out, and eventually let go, in reality a casualty of the forced changes in WWF's business.
He had numerous big matches during his WWF run, the biggest being on November 5, 1986, when he wrestled Hulk Hogan for the WWF title in a match taped for NBC's Saturday Night's Main Event, which drew a sellout of 16,000 fans to the Los Angeles Sports Arena. They did a gimmick where Hercules had Hogan up in the backbreaker, and let Hogan down, thinking Hogan had submitted, and he'd won the title. Hogan hulked up and the rest is history. The show drew a strong 9.7 rating. He also appeared in the main event, winning a Battle Royal, on the February 21, 1987, show from the sold out Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, which drew an 11,6 rating, which may still be the highest rated in the history of television in the 11:30 pm to 1 am timeslot. The Battle Royal was based around Hogan and Andre, a little more than a month before their famous Wrestlemania III match, but both ended up being eliminated. His win set him up for an IC title match with Steamboat, on the May 2, 1987, Saturday's Night Main Event. where he was disqualified in 6:00, and the show did a 9.5 rating. On February 3, 1989, on the live prime time main event from Milwaukee where Hogan and Savage broke up their Megapowers tag team to set up the Mania main event, he was in the other match on the live show, losing a grudge match to DiBease, with whom he once held in the Mid South tag team titles.
"He never thought of himself as a superstar," said Debbie. "He was a regular person. When he went out, he was never cocky and never had an attitude. I'll always remember the great person that he was. But it's hard for the guys. When they get out, they don't know what to do."
He also wrestled Steamboat at Wrestlemania II in Los Angeles, in what was one of the few good matches on that show. He wrestled Billy Jack Haynes at Wrestlemania III at the Pontiac Silverdome as the climax of their "battle of the full nelsons" feud, which ended in a double count out, set up by an angle where Hercules blooded Haynes up with his chain on television. But as part of Power & Glory, he lost to the Legion of Doom at Wrestlemania VII in Los Angeles in just 59 seconds.
He went to WCW when Watts was put in charge and remembered him from his territory. He was once again put under a mask, this time as Super Invader, managed by Harley Race. But that also went nowhere and he was quickly gone. His final major league run was in New Japan. He arrived in March of 1993, but the big push came a few months later. He and Scott Norton were put together as the Jurassic Powers, named after the movie Jurassic Park, on the advice of Matsuda. During the G-1 Climax tournament, on August 5, 1993, during the "Stop the Hell Raisers" series at Sumo Hall, the Jurassic Powers upset the Hell Raisers to win the IWGP tag team titles. They retained the belts in a rematch three days later, as well as beat Keiji Muto and Hiroshi Hase in a title defense. On December 10, 1993, in what was a major match at the time, the Jurassic Powers, the IWGP tag champs, scored a clean win in a title defense over WCW's tag champs at the time, the Nasty Boys. They lost the titles back to the Hell Raisers before 48,000 fans on January 4, 1994, at the annual Tokyo Dome show. But he wasn't as impressive inside the ring as that record would indicate. In late 1994, he was dropped by New Japan and his career as a major league star was over. He loved working for New Japan, even though it was physically hard on him because of the style. It was a time in his life he enjoyed because he could both wrestle, and in the interim, spend a lot of time with his kids.
He told friends over the next few years that he'd regularly talk to Jimmy Hart and Hulk Hogan, and be told to sit tight regarding another shot with WCW, which was using a lot of 80s WWF stars at the time. But the call never came.
He bounced around different jobs over the past decade when independent promotions stopped showing interest. He sold cars for a while. He later worked in construction, as well as worked as a meat delivery truck driver. He bounced at Club Hedo in Tampa. For a while. he was parking cars at the University of South Florida, and it was a sad sight for many former wrestlers in the area to hear about him, because of all the money he'd made from the good years, seeing him in that situation. He first lost a lot of weight, then later, on the medication, got heavy.
"Not good," was how his wife described his adaptation to life after wrestling was over. "That's all he knew how to do. He was lost. He missed it and didn't know what to do. Wrestling leaves people with no benefits for later in life."
Gene Pettit [Hillbilly Cousin Luke], who knew him from the start, was, along with Frenchy Martin, two of the few people in wrestling to keep in regular contact with him. Pettit talked with him every month or so. Pettit booked Hercules for his final matches during the summer of 2002, and was going to bring him in for a show this summer in Bangor, ME. Pettit, using the name Mean Gene Lewis, the supposed brother of Dale Lewis, was in 1982, a member with Hernandez of the House of Humperdink [managed, naturally by Sir Oliver Humperdink] in Kansas City with the masked Superfly [the later Ray Candy].
Hernandez was so strong, that one day when a group of Central States wrestlers. Pettit, Terry Garvin [who booked the tour] and Candy were headed for a show in McKirk, NE, a local powerlifting official was a fan, and invited him to his basement. They set things up with official sanctioning for him to try and break the state bench press record. After a long drive, with very little warm-up, he put up what Pettit remembered as being about 485 pounds with a two second pause on his chest, at 242 pounds, to set the state record.
He made little money that early in his career, but worked regularly, including holding the tag team and TV titles in the Central States. He came to Kansas City from San Antonio, the first circuit he worked full-time, using the name Ray Hernandez, instead of Fernandez, probably because Manny Fernandez was a major star in San Antonio at the time. Booker Buck Robley spotted him, thought he had potential, and brought him to Kansas City for his first push, as Hercules Ray Hernandez. He feuded in 1982 with a second generation who was also supposed to make it big, but never did, Mark Romero, who also wrestled later as Mark Youngblood.
He moved to the Carolinas, where he was taken under the wing of Hamilton. His great physique was covered in Assassin garb, but he was turning into an impressive worker, carrying the in-ring for Hamilton, a fantastic talker, but who was over 300 pounds by this time and long past his prime. They usually wrestled Valiant, who was very limited in the ring, and Bugsy McGraw, so it was his job to physically carry the action.
The angle that was supposed to make him a major player in Mid South, feuding with the original Mr. Wrestling II after the breakup [a takeoff on the Mr. Wrestling I vs. Mr.Wrestling II feud in Georgia a decade earlier that was so successful], fizzled. Walker wasn't happy about his role in the feud, and gave notice, did put Hernandez as Wrestling II over in all the major cities once, and then left. This led to Jim Cornette hiring him as a bodyguard, since Cornette had just laid Duggan out with the ether on a towl gimmick when Duggan was distracted by a pretty girl [Wendi Richter, literally weeks before she appeared on the famous MTV special and became a celebrity beating Fabulous Moolah for the women's title]. Duggan unmasked him right away to start their program, which was both a singles feud, as well as a trios feud with Duggan and the Fantastics [Bobby Fulton and Tommy Rogers] vs. Hernandez and Midnight Express. Later, after the Midnight Express and Cornette left for Dallas, Hernandez was managed by Scandor Akbar. He was known then as Sheik Hercules [a takeoff on the successful Sheik Jerry Blackwell character in the AWA], with Watts on television acting as if an American wearing Arabian garb was the worst kind of traitor. In the first promo, as Akbar talked about dominating wrestling, Hercules asked where was the promised harem. Hernandez and Steve Williams had some strong matches with the Rock and Roll Express, but it was Hernandez and DiBease who beat them at the Irish McNeil's Boys Club in Shreveport on December 3, 1984, for the titles. It was a title win only to set up the rematch the big Christmas night show in New Orleans, where the Rock and Rolls regained the titles. He started a feud with King Parsons, but left the territory when there was no opening in Dallas, where later rival Haynes walked out.
This left Sunshine with no protege to feud with Jim Cornette's Rip Oliver. Hernandez filled the void, and working in a territory that Duggan had never worked, picked up the Duggan stomp and many Duggan mannerisms that he'd seen as Duggan's foe when Duggan was among the top babyfaces in the country. This didn't last long since there was an opening in Florida, his home state, for a top heel, and he'd been on the road for several years and was considered ready for the spot.