BOOK REVIEW: “Flowers For Adrian: The Life and Death of Adrian Adonis” by John Ellul

To be honest, before reading this book, I didn’t know much about Keith Franke, aka Adrian Adonis. His rise to the national stage of the WWF and subsequent passing in 1988 precedes my fandom by a few years and even then, he hasn’t been featured in many of WWE’s documentaries since the advent of DVD box sets and recently, specials on WWE Network. Further to that, I only really knew him as the obese, flamboyant host of The Flower Shop and subsequently, the man who had his head shaved at WrestleMania III giving birth to Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake. Author John Ellul likely realizes that many modern-day fans are in the same boat as me and therefore, tasked himself with uncovering Franke’s early years as well as his pre-WWF career.

Like many from his era, Franke was quite the journeyman, spending time in Mid-Atlantic, Georgia Championship Wrestling, Japan, the WWWF, Don Owens’ Portland territory, NWA Hollywood, the Funk’s Amarillo territory in Texas, and many others. Given that he found himself falling into wrestling at an early age, being able to travel all over North America to learn and grow as a performer helped him to establish a reputation as an eager student of the game. Franke refused to overstay his welcome in any one promotion, feeling the urge to move on after seemingly hitting both his creative and performing heights. It’s a far cry from today when performers like Randy Orton spend the entirety of their careers in one promotion. I was particularly blown away by his time in Amarillo where he routinely challenged members of the audience to legitimate fights. The number of ways this could have gone wrong is staggering, to say the least, but outside of one occurrence, he handily beat his opponents and kept the cash prize he had offered in exchange for his defeat.

The research here is exhaustive, to say the least. Ellul pulls from a variety of sources including the memoirs of many of Adonis’ contemporaries including Terry Funk, “Rotten” Ron Starr, Bret Hart, Bob Backlund, Freddie Blassie, and many others. John also includes excerpts from many “shoot” interviews, magazine articles, documentaries, and of course, Franke’s family as well. One surprising note included a reference to a 1983 match against Bob Orton Jr in Joe Blanchard’s Southwest Championship Wrestling that contained commentary from Dave Meltzer and Jim Cornette. At the time of this match, Meltzer notes, it would not be an overstatement to say that next to Ric Flair, Adrian Adonis could be considered the best wrestler in America. It’s a shocking thing to hear given that Adonis is rarely mentioned or showcased by WWE or any other modern promotion.

Devoting a good chunk of Adrian’s story to his long-standing friendship with Roddy Piper helped to really flesh out the importance of their clash at WrestleMania III, arguably the biggest stage Adonis ever worked. The two traveled up and down the highways of North America and shared the spotlight in some of the biggest territories on the map. Their brutal months-long feud that made both performers’ careers in California consisted of street fights, cage matches and blood baths abound. Interestingly, this was the opposite dynamic of their program in WWF with Adonis playing the scrappy babyface and Piper the ruthless heel. Ellul uncovers the evolution (or devolution depending on how you see it) of the character he is most known for; the bleached-blond, overweight, homosexual stereotype that he portrayed in his final years on a national stage. Looking back, it’s painful to watch given how far we’ve come with openly gay performers working in many of the top companies.

It’s a shame that later in his career, his substance abuse and weight problems hindered his ability to be viewed as a top star despite his overwhelming talent. Near the time of his death, reverting back to the independents with a few options still on the table for a national platform, Franke had dropped over one hundred pounds and looked to turn his life around. Tragically, he would pass away during a small tour of Newfoundland following a horrific car accident. Much of the aftermath is covered here including a story about several ring hands who attempted to get away with money and personal items from the performers who passed away in the accident, Adrian included.

Much like Liam O’Rourke’s 2018 biography of Brian Pillman (Crazy Like A Fox), John Ellul’s FLOWERS FOR ADRIAN is one of the most complete examinations of a performer’s career. I would go so far as to say that Ellul’s work could also be considered a history of the territory system between the mid-70s to Franke’s passing in the late 80s; it’s that extensive. This is an easy recommendation to those looking to learn more about a special performer who never quite got his flowers.

Flowers For Adrian: The Life and Death of Adrian Adonis” by John Ellul is available now through Amazon 

About Brandon Sears 27 Articles
Insurance broker by day, constant reader and wrestling-watcher by night.