Gene Petit, who was best known nationally in the WWF as Cousin Luke of Hillbilly Jim's clan of wrestling relatives from Mud Lick, Kentucky, passed away this morning, PWInsider.com is sad to report.
Petit was born in Humphreys, Mississippi and became involved in professional wrestling while playing football for the University of Tampa, where future WWE Hall of Famer Paul Orndorff was among his teammates. Petit befriended former Olympic wrestler turned pro Dale Lewis and began accompanying him to his booking for Eddie Graham's Championship Wrestling from Florida. Petit began training with Lewis and was tossed into the ring when a substitute was needed for a six man tag bout.
Soon christened Gene Lewis, he was billed as Dale's brother and two worked regularly as a tag team. Petit, like the other wrestlers of the era, floated from territory to territory, working the Pacific Northwest, Kansas City, Puerto Rico (where he worked as the masked Assassin) and World Class Championship Wrestling, where he became a member of the Mongols.
Petit eventually returned to Florida to play a bevy of masked wrestlers, including Kharma and Molakai for Kevin Sullivan's Army of Darkness and yes, The Midnight Rider. Of course, Dusty Rhodes was the actual Midnight Rider, but Petit, who had a similar body frame as Dusty, was used as a villainous version of the Rider controlled by Kevin Sullivan, who attacked Rhodes and had a series of matches with him.
Petit was brought into the WWF in 1985 as a member of Hillbilly Jim's family. At the time, Jim was a tremendously over babyface, with his back story being that he was a big, burly fan who hit the ring to help Hulk Hogan. Hogan, in turn, trained him to become a wrestler, although obviously Jim had worked in other territories. With Jim's popularity, the company booked several additional wrestlers to become family members as a way to flesh him out from a singles act into more of a group based around Jim.
The first was Uncle Elmer, who was longtime Memphis talent Plowboy Frazier. The second was Cousin Junior, who was best known later on as Moondog Cujo in the USWA. Junior was in and out really quickly, setting the stage for Petit to debut as Cousin Luke. At the time WWF had no problem with replacing departed talents with similar looking wrestlers (Danny Spivey replacing Barry Windham in the U.S. Express, Cpl. Kirchner replacing Sgt. Slaughter, etc.) so Petit as Luke was brought in by booker George Scott when Junior was on the outs.
Petit was brought right onto TV and onto the road, working against the likes of Roddy Piper, Adrian Adonis, Bob Orton and other villains of that era. Unfortunately, Petit broke his ankle after just a few weeks, which he blamed on a faulty ring. He was asked if he would be OK to work Wrestlemania 2, where the company planned for him to face Adrian Adonis. He was negative on that, so Elmer worked and lost in under a minute.
Unfortunately for Petit, by the time he was healed and ready to go, the timing for the group had come and gone with Jim in a different direction and Elmer long gone. Petit's time with the company was over before it had really started.
However, at the time, WWF wasn't as likely to go after talents using their WWF personas as they later would be, so Petit took the Cousin Luke persona and ran with it for the remainder of his career. He worked for the AWA at their TV Tapings in Las Vegas before basing himself in Bernardsville, New Jersey in order to work the plethora of smaller independent promotions that sprouted up in the late 1980s through the 1990s while also making rare international tours. Petit also promoted regularly in the NYC Metropolitan area.
Petit worked regularly until 2000, when back issues forced him out of the ring. He was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which he had been battling for years, leading him to drop way down from his recognizable weight. He had also battled diabetes and in recent years, was in a long-term health care facility.
Petit was also heavily involved with the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in Amsterdam, NY where he sat on the organization's Board of Directors from its inception on.
On behalf of everyone at PWInsider.com, we'd like to express our deepest condolences to Pettit's family, friends and fans, especially his extended family at the PWHOF.