Ken “Cowboy” Thompson, a lifelong Hudson County resident who’s called Bayonne home for 27 years, says that people he passes on the street still recognize him from one of his many pro wrestling bouts over a 30-year career. He worked the local circuit, and wrestled in several televised World Wrestling Entertainment match-ups.
He’s been known as “The Executioner,” “Killer,” “Sergeant,” or simply Ken Thompson, but “Cowboy” is the name that’s stuck through more than 100 matches, thousands of body slams, choke-holds, and submission finishes.
Thompson has been hooked on professional wrestling since the ’60s and ‘70s, when contenders like Killer Kowalski had the limelight.
“I got hooked on the reactions and interactions with the fans that I saw on TV,” Thompson said. “When a gym opened up in Hoboken on Washington Street, I started going there for $5 a week, and the rest was history.”
His last match took place at Saint Peter’s Prep in 1998. A few years ago, Thompson had been in talks with promoters about a WWE comeback. Though immediate plans fell through a few years ago, the-63-year-old legend has been training intensely in mixed martial arts, strength, and conditioning, to prepare for any openings.
Thompson made his pro debut at the alarming age of 14 years old.
“Back in the day, they said ‘If you wanna wrestle, kid, you’ve gotta step up to the big guys, the 200- and 300-pounders,” Thompson said.
As he took on opponents in Hoboken throughout the ‘70s, where fans paid $2 for a five-match lineup, his cowboy persona began to take shape, largely influenced by a childhood desire to star in Western flicks. He quickly took on the role of the heel. In pro wrestling jargon that means an antagonistic persona, donned a hat, vest, gloves, and boots.
“They’ll always remember me as the villain,” Thompson said. “It was all about getting a reaction out of the fans between the outfit, running around and kicking the ropes, yelling and screaming at people, and messing around with the audience.”
Like all great wrestlers, Thompson created a signature match-ending move. His was the “Boston Crab.” The move involved him body slamming his opponent, rolling him face down, wrapping his arms around his opponent’s legs, and yanking back in a squat.
While most parents would have a conniption fit at the sight of their 14-year-old getting tossed around like a rag doll by a 300-pound professional wrestler, Thompson said that breaking into the scene was an overwhelmingly positive force.
“It kept me out of trouble when I was a kid,” Thompson said. As an adolescent, he never got into drinking, smoking, or drugs. He still abstains.
“I never got involved,” Thompson said. “There were gangs in Hoboken in the ‘70s. I always hung out with positive people, because it was rough back then. If you wanted trouble, you got it. So, I went to school, I went to work, and I wrestled.”
After three years at the Hoboken gym, Thompson became a mainstay in the circuit in the northeastern United States and in Montreal, wrestling under the American Wrestling Federation banner, while maintaining a reputation and presence in New Jersey matches. During that stint, he had a televised bout with Dominic Denucci, the former pro wrestler and trainer.
Promoters tapped him for a series of WWF (now known as WWE) matches during the organization’s 1980s heyday. Soon enough, he shared the ring with the giants he’d watched delivering pile drivers on TV during his childhood.
As soon as he went head to head with Greg “The Hammer” Valentino, a 40-time WWE champion, the reality of his ascent set in.
“I thought, ‘Here I am, this is the real deal now. This is the one. This guy could kill me, or show mercy,’” Thompson said. “His manager was the Grand Wizard, who I wrestled on TV twice.”
Thompson’s WWF stint peaked during a prime time match against former Minnesota governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura in 1982.
You can take ‘The Cowboy’ out of the ring, but …
Thompson’s prolific wrestling career ended after his face-off at Saint Peter’s Prep in 1998, as a result of what he said were a few false promises made by promoters. While circumstances took “The Cowboy” out of the action, they certainly didn’t take the action out of Ken Thompson.
Throughout his wrestling career, he worked full-time. He served in the National Guard in the late 1970s, before becoming involved in law enforcement. He worked as a corrections officer in the Hudson County Correctional Center, and as an auxiliary police officer in Hoboken.
In recent years, he’s worked a number of jobs at Stevens Institute of Technology. He began with the campus police, then switched to locksmithing, followed by maintenance, and, finally, became an electrician for the university, which he’s still doing today.
“I’ve worn a lot of hats,” Thompson said.
While working full time to support his family, he’s been training for years as a mixed martial artist, and now teaches a wide range of seminars, ranging from self-defense to exercise courses for students of all ages.
He trained under Bayonne’s own Grand Master Austin Wright, Sr., who directs the New Jersey chapter of USA Martial Arts. Thompson’s made a few USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame appearances, including Trainer of the Year and Coach of the Year.
One of his self-defense seminars is available to Stevens students. Another is run with the Christian Church of Bayonne, where Thompson plays bass guitar in the musical portions of the service.
Fit and fearless
“I teach martial arts as an exercise program for people of all ages, and separately, I teach self-defense techniques that can be used in the street,” Thompson said. “In the street, it’s not a sport, there’s no regulation, and everything goes. I always focus on teaching students how to get out of situations as quickly as possible, and that involves a lot of common sense.”
The martial arts have wide-ranging appeal.
“It’s something that can be good for everyone. If you want to get serious, you can get serious, but if you just want to sweat and have fun, work on your balance and physical health, that’s great, too.”
Thompson, who’s been married for 44 years and has five grandchildren, has reached a fork in the road. Part of him wants to open his own martial arts gym in Bayonne. On the other hand, he’s primed for a triumphant WWE return as soon as a window of opportunity opens.
If he makes it back into the WWE, he plans to resurrect the showmanship deeply woven into the organization by 1980s-era WWF mainstays, especially those who were in it for good, clean fun.
Rumor has it that the organization, owned by Vince McMahon, is seeking edgier content to move away from a PG rating. Thompson disagrees with the approach. He feels wrestlers would be losing touch with its roots.
“The charisma isn’t there the same way it was with the old timers,” Thompson said. “Back then, people made their names known. They’re all extremely athletic, don’t get me wrong, they’re doing some very crazy, dangerous stuff. But the stuff with the light bulbs—that’s just crazy, that’s not wrestling.”
Thompson said that athletic feats and showmanship are the things die-hard fans want above all else.
“The furthest I’d go is hitting somebody with a chair,” Thompson said.
Time will tell if Bayonne’s own Cowboy will again don his gunslinger’s garb. What’s certain is that Ken Thompson is fully prepared and ready for action.