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By Mike Johnson on 2017-10-16 11:28:00

Melvin "Burrhead Jones" Nelson, who wrestled for a number of territories, including the WWWF passed away yesterday at the age of 80.  Nelson had been dealing with a number of health issues including blindness due to glaucoma in both eyes and arthritis issues with his legs that left him bed-ridden at a medical facility.

Born in South Carolina, Nelson moved to New York City at 17 and entered professional wrestling after befriending several wrestlers at a gym near the vegetable distribution plant he worked at.  He worked as an underneath talent using the ring name Jimmy Jones (christened that by Vince McMahon) for several years before heading out to work a number of different territories.

It was a tumultous time in American history and Nelson was working in Southern territories.    Due to racial segregation at the time, in some areas he could only wrestle other African-American talents as laws prohibited him from wrestling caucasians. Nelson would sometimes be relegated to refereeing when promoters did not have an opponent they could utilize for him to face.  With racial tensions at a high in the country, that led to scenarios where Nelson couldn't even eat at the motels he was staying at.

"I was somewhere in Tennessee, and this was later, where this restaurant chain was right on the motel site where we stayed, " explained Nelson in 2009 interview with Mike Mooneyham.  "I couldn't go in there and eat. And this was back in the '70s. The motel was right next to it. To me I suppose I got away with more than the black people there. The black people used to sit on one side, and the whites sat on the other. In Mobile and Dothan, the whites would come to the ticket box in the front, the blacks would go around the black. The blacks had a special section in the building. They couldn't sit at ringside. The people didn't mind because that's the way they were raised. They didn't know any better. They thought that was the way it was supposed to be. They didn't give a hoot. When me and Frank Dalton worked for the championship in this cotton sack match, all the blacks were on one side. I was a heel then, and I said next week I'm gonna bring my mama here, because my mama can beat Frank Dalton. Just shooting my mouth off on TV. Billy Golden was doing the booking there. He said, `Hey, Burrhead, what's going on here? All these people are wondering if your mama's here.' I told him I was just shooting my mouth off to get some heat because I was heeling. That night when I jumped out of the ring and looked on the white side, I hollered, 'Mama!' You should have seen those white people look around and try to see a black woman on that side. And then the black people started looking around to see if there was a black woman on that side."

Even worse in hindsight, the Burrhead Jones ring name came from the afro Nelson wore.  Named such by  promoter Billy Hines, who referred to him as "Cockleburrhead Jones" when promoting Nelson, the name is the type of thing that would never happen outright today, although certainly characters meant to push the buttons of racism are used even today, including the current WWE champion.  Burrhead Jones may have become the persona he was most known for, but the origins of it are pretty horrible.

"I think because of the commercial when the black folks had first come out with the Afros, " Nelson told Mooneyham.  "I was wrestling as Jimmy Jones. Billy Golden was booking the territory. Billy was watching a commercial on TV, and they changed my name to Cockleburrhead Jones, but it was too long for the promotion. They shortened it to Burrhead. I went to Morgan City, La., that night, and everybody said, "Hey, look at Cockleburrhead Jones." Some of the guys I didn't know. I said, "No, my name's Jimmy Jones." When I finally got to where I wanted to go in the dressing room, here's that damn Billy and Jimmy Hines laughing like crazy. "We changed your name, man, to Cockleburrhead Jones." I got mad as hell because I had my wrestling jacket with Jimmy Jones on it. I couldn't wear that out. I had to destroy all my stuff. I didn't want to go out as no Cockleburrhead Jones. After that it caught on, and I just relaxed and let it go. That's where that started. When I went to North Carolina they kept it up. They kept it up when I went to Puerto Rico. Carlos (Colon) questioned me as to what that meant, if it was some racial slang or something, which it was, in a certain way. But I told Carlos it was like a pine burr, with the knots and stuff. So he went along with it. But in a way, to a certain extent, it was racial."

Nelson worked a ton of territories, including Mid-Atlantic, the CWA and Gulf Sport Wrestling in Tennesee, Georgia Championship Wrestling and Championship Wrestling from Florida. He worked as both babyface and heel, depending on the scenario and taking part in a series of "loser gets tarred and feathered" matches led to protests from the local chapter of the NAACP in Mississippi.

"Burr" was never world champ, he never headlined a PPV, he never owned a BMW, hell, he may have never owned a car but he was more the embodiment of our industry then Ric Fair, Bret Hart, or John Cena," said legendary trainer and wrestler Les Thatcher.  "Why? Because 6 or 7 nights a week he ground it out in tank towns in front of a hundred fans to big crowds in major arenas making the current & future stars of wrestling look not good, but frigg'in great, and he did it with love and passion and because that was his job. He always met you in the back after making you look good with a hand shake & a smile on his face. If anyone failed to say thank you to "Burr" they should be tarred & feathered and run out of town."

Nelson officially retired in 1987, quietly, but would still wrestle from time to time.   He worked for over 15 years after leaving the business, managing a warehouse in North Carolina.  His last public appearance was a signing at the Mid-Atlantic Legends convention a few years back in Charlotte, NC.

Nelson always praised professional wrestling as a family and felt that, as someone with a tenth grade education, he had gotten a PHD in life experience from traveling and working in professional wrestling that provided for him later in life after he retired from the business.

In 2006, Nelson moved back to New York City in order to spend time with his children. 

When he was permanently hospitalized several years later, his biggest complaint was that he couldn't listen to pro wrestling because his hospital room wasn't wired for cable television.

On behalf of everyone associated with, we'd like to express our deepest condolences to the family, friends and fans of Melvin Nelson.

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