He performed in places like Madison Square Garden more times than Frank Sinatra, Jack Dempsey and lots of other big names.
But after 11,697 shows, animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams performs his last death-defying act Sunday with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Pittsburgh."Everybody asks me, `Why now?' " he said in the thick German accent he hasn't lost since he came to the United States 22 years ago. "I want to step down when I am really good. I don't want to be like Ali, Sugar Ray, `Another fight, another fight.' "
A U.S. citizen since 1979, he calls himself "German-engineered but a proud American" and often sports a cowboy hat and a Western-style shirt. Though he's 56, Gebel-Williams remains enviably trim, 141 pounds with a ruddy complexion and his trademark sweep of blond hair.
He announced two years ago that he would retire from "The Greatest Show on Earth" at the end of the 1990 season. He plans to settle at his winter home in Venice, Fla., with his 20 Bengal and Siberian tigers.
After 42 years on the road, he said, training 20 tigers is getting a little riskier because he has lost some of his quickness and eyesight.
And glasses wouldn't look so hot with his skin-hugging tights and sequined boleros, he joked.
"When you have 20 tigers, it's not easy to act like nothing can happen," he said. "I've been like their father, their brother. I've been in charge always. But when one tiger is hurt, they always blame me."
His domination in the ring comes from a soft-spoken training method based on mutual respect that separates him from his chair-and-whip-wielding predecessors like Clyde Beatty and Mabel Stark, who taught animals to fear them.
Gebel-Williams strokes his elephants' trunks, pats the tigers and mumbles commands in German, Indian or English. He welcomes animal rights advocates to attend his training sessions.
"That's the difference between me and everybody else," he said. "I did everything with open doors.
"In 21 years never did somebody say I treated an animal wrong."
Gebel-Williams began his career when he joined Circus Williams in Germany as an usher at 12. He became so much a part of the Williams family, who had hired his mother as a seamstress, that he added their name to his. By the 1960s, he was well-known as one of Europe's top animal trainers.