St. Louis Wrestling Champ Moondog Rover Is Ready for His Triumphant Return

A heart attack took Paul McKnight out of the ring last summer. Now he's prepping for his comeback on Saturday

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click to enlarge Moondog Rover, a.k.a. Paul McKnight, is a beloved figure at the South Broadway Athletic Club wrestling matches. He has not performed for six months due to a heart attack in July.
REUBEN HEMMER
Moondog Rover, a.k.a. Paul McKnight, is a beloved figure at the South Broadway Athletic Club wrestling matches. He has not performed for six months due to a heart attack in July.

There is nothing quite like a night of wrestling at South Broadway Athletic Club (2301 South 7th Street, 314-776-4833, sbacstl.org). Since 1985, the Mid-Missouri Wrestling Alliance has organized match after jaw-dropping match within the historic south city institution, a location that has hosted boxing and wrestling tournaments in the Soulard area since 1899.

Each and every second Saturday of the month, the building becomes an energetic melting pot, offering one of the most unique and entertaining cultural events one can experience in the City of St. Louis. Every walk of life attends, and nobody acts like a stranger. Two dollar draught beers flow like wine, and by the end of the night, your face hurts from smiling so much.

For over 10 years I have been lucky enough to attend many matches at South Broadway Athletic Club, and one major consistency is the crowd voicing its opinion of the participating wrestlers. Children showcase homemade posters stating which wrestler they think “stinks,” and fearless wrestling fans lean in on the barricade to challenge the largest of competitors. However, it is no secret which wrestler the crowd absolutely adores. A wrestler who appears to be more animal than man, is said to be born from the darkest corner of the most putrid swamp, and utilizes an oversized bone as a weapon of mass destruction. The wrestler is Moondog Rover.

With shaggy white hair and an untamed beard, Moondog gives off the appearance of an unhinged Santa Claus out for revenge. His sole means of communication is barking like a feral canine, and a derelict rope is the only thing holding up his frayed pants.

click to enlarge Moondog Rover only uses a frayed rope to hold up his pants when he's wrestling and is known for barking at opponents and fans.
REUBEN HEMMER
Moondog Rover only uses a frayed rope to hold up his pants when he's wrestling and is known for barking at opponents and fans.

Moondog is well known for hiking up his leg like man’s best friend to pretend to pee on kids shoes, and the maniac wrestler is not afraid to take a bite out of his opponents. To say the audience is charmed by Moondog’s antics would be an absolute understatement. The room echoes with fans barking like wild dogs every time he enters the ring, and chants of “Moondog” are heard throughout the night.

These barks of admiration almost came to a tragic end in 2022 however, when 57 year old Paul McKnight — a.k.a. Moondog — suffered a heart attack following a wrestling match in mid-July. Thankfully, Moondog survived, but he was left with the real possibility of a fate worse than death in his own eyes: never being able to wrestle again.

For the last six months, Moondog has been on the road to recovery, undergoing test after test at a cardiac rehab facility while awaiting clearance from doctors to wrestle again. I met Moondog at DuBowl Lanes (2711 Lemay Ferry Road, 314-892-3900, dubowllanes.net)  in Lemay on his birthday to learn more about his near death experience, and to hear how wrestling has shaped his life.

Normally, Moondog is associated with tearing into his adversaries while foaming at the mouth. During our discussion, he helped his mother arrange cupcakes while explaining his story in a soft, comforting voice — contrary to barking like a junkyard dog.

Reuben Hemmer: So where are you from? What was your first experience with wrestling?

Moondog Rover: I was born Paul McKnight on November 13, 1965, in Detroit, Michigan, however I grew up at my grandma’s house in Bradford, Tennessee. My first taste of wrestling began watching wrestlers like Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee on TV. We moved around a lot [when I was] a kid, and wherever there was a local wrestling channel on TV, I watched it. Places like Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee — many of my biggest influences were wrestlers in the mid-south.

My aunt Doris would take me along to live matches, and I really enjoyed watching wrestling with her any chance I got. Us kids would go to the matches early on Saturday morning, because a few of the organizers would pick us out of the crowd to help set up the ring. That was our free ticket in, and I was always the one in the crowd yelling, “Pick me! Pick me!”

When we moved to Indiana, I started wrestling from eighth grade through high school, and that only increased my desire to pursue professional wrestling. Then my family moved to the St. Louis area in 1982, where I finished high school at Ritenour High. A guy I went to school with came up to me and said: “Hey do you still love wrestling? Go down to South Broadway Athletic Club this weekend and talk to [wrestler and promoter] Tony Costa.” I made my way down there, and I still don’t know what Tony saw in me, but he looked me up and down and said “We work out here on Mondays and Tuesdays.” That started in November of 1987, and I’ve been going ever since. Thirty-five years later I'm still at [Mid-Missouri Wrestling Alliance].

RH: How did you become Moondog Rover?

MR: I originally began wrestling under the name, “Crazy Paul,” and I found myself at a match in Tennessee where one of the original Moondog [collective] wrestlers, Moondog Spot, was performing. He approached me and asked if I had ever considered being a Moondog. I said, “No, I haven’t,” because I was really doing my own thing, but then I thought “Why not? We’ll see how far it goes, and let's have some fun with it.” So I went ahead and became Moondog Rover.

I started working with Moondog Spot at his shows in Osceola, Arkansas, and I was just having so much fun being Moondog. We found ourselves doing what they call “running the circuit.” Memphis Coliseum on Monday; Louisville Gardens on Tuesday; Tunica, Mississippi, on Wednesday; an off night on Thursday; Osceola, Arkansas, on Friday; Saturday morning TV and Saturday evening shows; and finally Sunday at The Gaylord in Nashville. I did that whole circuit for six or seven months while holding down a full-time job at a tractor-trailer company.

RH: How was life on the road?

MR: It was challenging with a full-time job, but I always looked at it as more experience. I work for a company called Dino’s Logistics, and when I was younger I would drive [long-haul]. If I knew I had a layover for the weekend, I would look up the local booker. I always brought my stuff with me, and I’d go to them and say: “Hey, you don’t have to pay me. I just want the experience,” and they’d put me in the show. I’ve met so many different people this way, it's really been a dream. For instance, one match I faced [Dwayne] The Rock [Johnson]! Me and Moondog Spot took the title away from him and his partner. I even hit him over the head with my bone. It’s never been about the money, just the passion for the sport.

click to enlarge Moondog Rover has been wrestling for 35 years and is known for hitting people with a bone.
REUBEN HEMMER
Moondog Rover has been wrestling for 35 years and is known for hitting people with a bone.
RH: Sounds like that bone has hit many famous heads. I imagine being hit with an object by one of your heroes, or hitting them with your own, is a pretty big deal in the wrestling world.

MR: The bone has hit quite a few. Oh yeah, some of my most memorable matches were against Jerry “the King” Lawler, “Superstar” Bill Dundee, “Handsome” Jimmy … matches against those veterans is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. One of the last ones I did with Lawler was an outside show he put on at his barbecue place. It was misting rain and only 40 degrees. A lot of folks didn’t show up because of the weather, including the sound guys. The match still went on, but that vinyl ring was slick as all get out. So we just took all the matches outside of the ring and used his barbecue place as a prop! I hit his head on the side of the building, and we ended up getting into the fans. He grabbed a broom and smacked me with it. I was just really enjoying it all.

RH: You can tell in your performances there is an old school charm. Nothing is really ever offensive, and the crowd really loves it. What are some of your favorite ways to get the crowd going?

MR: Oh yeah I don’t cuss, that’s just how I learned. There’s a whole new generation that’s a little more fast paced and exciting than what I'm doing, but you gotta stick with the classics. In Louisville, Kentucky, there were these four women who were not paying attention to the show, sitting front row with their husbands right behind them. All of the pretty boy wrestlers were shaking their stuff at the gals, and these pretty boys were getting mad because the ladies weren’t paying any attention. So during my match, I got released from a chain link leash, and I popped a bunch of Alka-Seltzers to get the foam in my mouth going. I did a dead sprint right at them with all of that foam flying, barking my head off! Three of them actually got up and ran away, and the fourth couldn’t move because she was so scared. But that was the whole point! They sure watched me after that.

RH: It’s an art form!

MR: Exactly, I know critics say we choreograph and whatever — but the truth is I make stuff up as I go. It’s a good way to gauge the crowd, and see how they react to stuff. There’s times we’ll go to town, and I was supposed to be the good guy and they ended up hating me. OK then, so I'll be the bad guy!

RH: Has being the bad guy ever backfired?

MR: Oh yeah. One time me and Moondog Spot were wrestling in some little town in northeast Arkansas, and we ended up getting a police escort out of the town. We tore up the opponents we were facing, a father-son team, and the father had a wife who was a wrestler as well. We threw her in the mix, throwing an ironing board at her, crutches, what have you. Turns out she was the mayor’s daughter! The mayor wasn’t too fond of our match, so the police escorted us out of town. There were like 300 to 400 people there, and it was all torches and pitchforks! Got our money back from the hotel at least.

RH: Well it is no secret you are beloved at South Broadway Athletic Club. When did you realize you became a crowd favorite?

MR: I think more or less when I got my name from Moondog Spot. After working with him in Tennessee, I came back up here to wrestle with Tony Costa at [Mid-Missouri Wrestling Alliance]. I more or less proved myself carrying that name, and the crowd started going ape for what I was doing. I think that was the turning point. I have all the wrestlers I worked with down south to thank for that, as well as [wrestler] John Blackheart and Tony Costa. I don’t know what they saw in me, but they saw something, and Blackheart really took me under his wing. He was the one who showed me the ropes. Since then, I find myself in situations like a bachelorette party where the bride was wearing a “Bite Me, Moondog” shirt and dragged me on [the] bus to take photos. It’s so much fun.

click to enlarge When he worked as a long-haul trucker, Moondog would wrestle all over the U.S. He wrestled whenever he could.
REUBEN HEMMER
When he worked as a long-haul trucker, Moondog would wrestle all over the U.S. He wrestled whenever he could.

RH: I always see a lot of people taking selfies with you at the South Broadway Athletic Club.


MR: A lot of people keep telling me I should charge for selfies, picture sales, etc. etc. I really don’t care, and picture sales really aren't that great anyways. I just want people to leave with a smile. I can sell T-shirts and whatever little things I have, but these days with cell phones you could just make up a picture of us together. So taking a picture is no biggie. I just want them to enjoy the show, and to come back for more.

RH: Besides recent events, was there ever a time in the last 35 years where you thought about throwing in the towel?


MR: There have been a few times where wrestling got real monotonous, and you’re just going against the same person over and over and over. Even though we’re putting on good matches, it can get boring. That made me think about hanging it up and doing something else. Like bowling! That’s my second passion for sure. I do it here with my little brother in a league called Sunday Funday. Bowling certainly is a little more relaxing, but wrestling is like therapy. It is my therapy. It releases so much stress and beats my normal job driving a tractor-trailer around the city all day … and the way some folks drive. I’ll just put it like that. Y’know, they wanna cut off us semi drivers hoping we can stop on a dime with 80,000 lbs behind us, and that's real stressful, so I need something to relieve that stress — and wrestling does that for me. I got 10 screws and a plate in my leg, a little bit of a torn bicep, cuts all over my head, several concussions, but none of it’s ever stopped me.

RH: So what happened the night of July 9?

Moondog: I woke up that morning and felt fine, had a normal work day and everything. I got to South Broadway, and they stuck me with Dr. Dallas. Me and the doctor had a good match. After the match, my biceps and lower back started hurting. I went down to do the rest of the show, and my wife noticed that I didn’t come back out with the same amount of energy I usually do. The match ended, but my pain was still present. A lot of the wrestlers and well known fans meet up at a Denny’s in Arnold after the show to cut up and have fun, so we decided to just head there. I started loading up the car, and that's when I threw up. I just couldn’t get comfortable. My wife’s mother had [had] a heart attack, and that was one of the warning signs she had. My wife made the decision to head to Mercy South. After they hooked up the monitor, the doctor looked at me and said, “Oh yeah, you’re having a heart attack.” Then they took me into another room and started shaving me all the way down. I wasn’t supposed to be getting up off the table for x-rays, but I got up and got x-rays anyways. The nurses got mad at me about that, but my wife made the point that I was a professional wrestler, therefore I have a higher pain tolerance. I was told I needed open-heart surgery the following day, and as it turns out, the surgeon's assistant was a huge fan of mine! He owned two of my shirts actually, and asked me if I had brought my bone into the hospital with me. At first, they said they were going to have to shave my beard for surgery, which is a major part of my character. Thankfully the assistant got a couple of nurses to braid it off to the side. He saved my beard!

click to enlarge Paul McKnight, a.k.a. Moondog Rover, says that the only thing he likes (almost) as much as wrestling is bowling.
REUBEN HEMMER
Paul McKnight, a.k.a. Moondog Rover, says that the only thing he likes (almost) as much as wrestling is bowling.
RH: How did all of this make you feel?

MR: It all happened so fast, I didn’t really have time to focus on it. I had the operation that Sunday, and on Sunday night, they pulled the breathing tube. I recovered just a few days later. My wife had more worry about it than me, I think. Yeah, I was a little bit scared, because it is my heart, but I was more worried that wrestling would be over. But the surgeon, Dr. Ahmad, told me, “No, I want to get you back to your normal life. I want to get you back in the ring.” I really appreciate that doctor. He really wanted me back wrestling. The doctor even told me that being so active with wrestling for so long made my arteries nice and big, and that helped out so much during the surgery. No damage was done whatsoever. I made a recovery, and was home in just a matter of days.

RH: How has rehabilitation been?

MR: It’s really a miracle. They said from the point from when I began, to the point I graduated rehab, I recovered 150 percent. I feel great. I really can’t wait to get back into the ring.

RH: The last couple of matches I’ve seen you ringside selling merch. I’m sure that has to be torture being so close to the ring.

MR:
Yeah, I've been trying to hold myself back. It has been eating at me. Oh it has been eating at me, sitting on the sidelines. When I got out of the hospital, I went out to a show that [wrestler] Ricky Cruz put on. As much as I wanted to get into the ring, I knew I couldn’t. As I've progressed with the healing, I keep saying, “I’m good now,” but my wife, Anthony Costa, and all the other wrestlers keep saying “No, not yet.” So I kept asking the doctors, “When can I get back in the ring?” Originally, December they said would be OK, but that changed to January just to be safe. But to be fair, June to January is pretty good. Six months. So January 14th, I plan on being back in the ring.

RH: So what can fans expect for your big return match?


MR: It’s gonna be a surprise. Honestly, it's because I really don’t know what I'm gonna do. Ninety percent of my matchers are spur of the moment. Like my mentor John Blackheart always told me, things are gonna be different no matter who you go against, so why plan it? React to the crowd. And that’s basically been my whole thing for the last 35 years. If the crowd likes it, I'll do it again! It has become a big full circle. I started with MMWA and I am hoping to end my career with MMWA, but not any time soon.

The return of Moondog Rover to Mid-Missouri Wrestling Alliance will take place at South Broadway Athletic Club on Saturday, January 14, amongst many other matches. The bell rings at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 to $15. For more information visit MMWA's Facebook page.


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About The Author

Reuben Hemmer

Reuben Hemmer is a registered nurse living in St. Louis, Missouri. The influences of his upbringing have produced an insatiable curiosity for the human story and a powerful fascination with people and culture. Inspired by the beauty, pain, and honesty of the Midwest, he attempts to objectively document the complexities...
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