I was raised to love reading, enjoy classical music and the arts, open doors for women, and to use a cloth napkin. One would never guess that beneath the refined shell of this Renaissance man beats the heart of an old school professional wrestling fan. I am not talking about the hyper-thyroidal muscle bound monsters that perform in mega-stadiums with jumbotrons and fireworks. I am talking about wrestling as it was when I was growing up. Before the WWE, wrestling was much less global and each region of the country had its own regional promoter-owned wrestling alliances. It had a local feel that made wrestling not only fun to watch, but for me it became a bonding experience with my two brothers and my father.
I couldn’t wait for the weekends when we would sit down and watch Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling (a Jim Crocket Production) and Georgia Championship Wrestling (hosted by legendary announcer Gordon Solely – renowned for inventing the names of muscle groups being tortured in the squared circle). To me, this was the hay day of the “sport.” Physique was not as important as mic skills and the ability to “sell” both moves and personas. The other thing was that not everyone was a superstar. Many of the wrestlers were “jobbers.” Jobbers were there to lose on the TV shows, get crushed by the main eventers. The fans loved watching these hapless men beat pillar to post, but even some of the jobbers had their own following. What aficionado of the sport could ever forget the Mulkey Brothers? They were malnourished looking twin toe heads who were so bad that the fans became consumed by “Mulkey Mania” (a term coined by wrestling manager Jim Cornet). Unlike today, the stars mainly battled at the halls and auditoriums where the customers paid to see the action.
While my father was never glued to the TV shows like Chris and I were, he was a fan and would tell us tales of watching wrestling when he was a boy, of seeing legends like Lou Thez. More importantly he actually took us to a few live events. Event is a term that I use loosely, because when wrestling came to my area they weren’t even staged in a large gymnasium. We would drive the fifty miles to the big city of Columbia to watch the matches at the Township Auditorium (advanced tickets could be purchased at the Taylor Street Pharmacy). I remember one show we attended, there was an elderly black man with white hair and few teeth sitting near us and he kept predicting the winners, cackling, and providing a lively commentary that kept me in smiles and stitches. The main event that night was Rick Flair (still wrestling now in his sixties!) against Rufus R. “Freight Train” Jones. You would have had to have seen Rufus to really appreciate him. He was a fan favorite and a son of South Carolina. He was large, overweight and as with so many black wrestlers of the time his main weapon was the head butt. Not politically correct; I know, but it was after all the seventies. The match had an hour time limit, and as I recall most of that time Rufus kept Rick Flair in a headlock (a classic “rest” hold). Still it was great match, with Flair retaining his title and the fans happily booing the outcome.
Chris and I enjoyed wrestling so much we started the Handal Wrestling Alliance (HWA). When our little brother Greg (seven years my junior) was old enough he joined in the fray as well. We made belts from poster board for the HWA Champion, and the TV Champion, but we also had the Sofa Champion and the Hall Champion for when matches were held in those portions of the house. Chris and I knew that wrestling was staged and therefore we never applied full strength to our fights, however we faked with amazing gusto! We became masters of the figure four leg lock, the spinning toe hold, the sleeper, and the highly illegal pile driver (a cause for instant disqualification). This bit showmanship escaped our little brother who thought our matches were real, so Chris and I endured some bit of pummeling from Greg because we didn’t want to ruin it for him.
My enthusiasm for this pastime amongst the three of us (which continued through our early twenties) led me at times to assume a wrestling alter ego. I gathered scraps of cloth from my mother’s sewing room and fashioned a mask for myself with the uneven bits of cloth crudely stitched together in a Frankenstein’s monster jigsaw fashion. I would leave a room as Teever and return as the Crusher! The Crusher while never really involved in matches was primarily a purveyor of the sneak attack, to leave my brother Chris in a confused heap. After each attack, the Crusher would disappear as mysteriously as he had arrived.
I could go on for pages reliving favorite matches (those between my brothers and those we watched on TV and read about in magazines), but I realize my passions are not everyone’s. Watching wrestling, reading the fan magazines, and fighting in the living room, on sofas, in hallways and any other place the mood struck were some of the happiest times I spent as a young man. Forever in my memory, I will recall the names of the greats: Jack Brisco, Mr. Wrestling I & II, Dusty Rhodes, Ernie “the Cat” Ladd, Ox Baker, Ricky Steamboat (brother of the legendary Sam Steamboat), Paul Jones, Wahoo McDaniels, Andre the Giant, Gene and Ole Anderson (the Minnesota Wrecking Crew), and so many others.
The only bitter memory I hold is the night in 1986 when I was the reigning Handal champion and lost the title to my brother Chris. It was the night before his wedding, in a hotel room, alcohol was involved, and the title changed hands in an impromptu bed match. I appealed the board of directors but justice was not to be mine, they upheld the decision. It was a travesty as anyone present would tell. My shoulder clearly lifted from the mattress before the count of three.