The history of “modern” professional wrestling goes back well into the 19th century though the distillate thinking is that it reached its first “golden era” (at least in America) after World War II, leveled off in the 60s, and experienced a decline in the 70s. It rebounded in a very big way in the 80s once it was more or less centralized but not necessarily in a way that benefited the wrestlers themselves. Anyone who has seen Mickey Rourke’s “The Wrestler” should quickly understand that it is usually someone else other than the wrestler who makes the big bucks. Obviously, there have been individuals who have carved out their own financial independence (or seem to have) in a way that has transcended the ring – Hulk Hogan, Mick Foley, and The Rock come to mind. If you want more background on the history and evolution of Atlanta wrestling in particular then check out this page, this YouTube series, and this page.
The appeal of wrestling has always been pretty basic. The guys of old said what they wanted and any resulting conflict was handled quickly by going into the ring. All problems could be addressed via physical competition which as we know isn’t how life really works but if you can relieve your frustrations by watching some other guys deal with theirs in an entertaining fashion (even if they are only acting) then perhaps its worth a watch. They draw out the villains who at first seem to be getting a way with unchecked badness though the good guys eventually catch up to them and administer justice in the form of a “smackdown” thereby restoring order after which it all starts up again because, you know, that’s the cycle. It’s okay to watch but I wouldn’t recommend actually trying to apply a “crossface chickenwing suplex” to a jerk co-worker or a “heart punch” to the guy who cut you off in traffic as 1) there are serious legal consequences and 2) you would probably hurt yourself more than the other guy. Just keep cool and learn to meditate. I don’t know how many guys (and a few gals) I’ve seen who attempt various wrestling moves (usually after several drinks) only to wind up in the Emergency Room where the pain of embarrassment usually far exceeds the pain emanating from any actual physical injury.
I wasn’t what you would call a “true” wrestling fan but in the late 60s there were only three network channels and a single public station. As far as I was concerned wrestling stood out from the other shows of the time (I could never get into Bonanza) so it provided novel entertainment. Initially, the wrestling matches were shown on WQXI / WXIA TV but later moved to TBS Channel 17 where it found a new generation of fans or perhaps just some viewers who were stuck at home and had nothing else to watch. A guy named Ed Caparal called the action and conducted interviews though Freddie Miller was later part of the scene as was Gordon Solie. You should also remember that television sets at that time had a problem with the channel selector knob falling off or breaking altogether in which case you had to use pliers to change stations. (One might also have to use a coat hanger in place of a broken antenna). For the UHF channels it was a bit easier as you could spin the selector dial. Let’s just say that switching channels could be a pain so people might have watched wrestling because they were too lazy to get up.
“Policemen turn in their badges when I come to town” – Rowdy Roddy Piper
The least you need to know about wrestling is that the good guys are “faces” and the bad guys are “heels”. Occasionally a face can become a heel (or vice versa) but the roles usually remain intact for a while once established. The primary purpose of the televised matches was to setup conflict that could only be fully resolved later that week (or month) at a live ticketed match. Some injustice would be perpetrated by a heel against a face involving assault from behind, gang beatings, challenges to one’s masculinity / lineage, or attacks with a folding chair. The better wrestlers were those with the ability to creatively trash talk (also known as “shooting”) to further insult opponents and their fans thereby promoting ticket sales. The nature of the manufactured conflict would also frequently fall along political lines wherein the “heel” is alleged to be from Russia (Nikita Koloff) or whatever region is currently perceived as being the least friendly to US interests. I’m told that in the 50s that German and Russian heels were quite common and that those “Iron Curtain punks” were always soundly defeated by “wholesome American boys” who knew “damn good and well how to whip some commie ass”.
One of the Atlanta stand outs was El Mongol (né Raul Molina) who was emblematic of wrestlers who were assigned roles not always congruent with their natural heritage and background. In the ring El Mongol was presented as a sadistic bone breaking Mongolian martial artist though he was actually a Mexican family man with a Fu Manchu mustache. It was the same with Canadian Abdullah The Butcher (né Lawrence Shreve) whose native tongue was English and whose culture was far from that of a “Madman from Sudan” as the script had it. But who cares as long as the crowd gets into it ? Just to say that if a wrestler is alleged to be a former KGB agent don’t be surprised if the guy couldn’t tell you where Russia might be located on a map. There were exceptions in that the Iron Sheik was Persian which came in very handy once US-Iran relations soured in a really big way although he got his start a few years prior to the hostage crisis. Other conflicts were based on one wrestler ripping off the image of another such as Tommy Wildfire Rich who allegedly appropriated the style of “Nature Boy” Ric Flair (a consummate trash talker). The most entertaining bit was that of the thinly veiled gay wrestler – a role first presented by the flamboyant Gorgeous George whose influence was apparent in guys like “The Exotic” Adrian Street and Adrian Adonis. Adrian Street would celebrate victories by applying lipstick to his supine opponent, kissing him, and then following up with a kick to the face which enraged the rabidly homophobic crowds who were disgusted by a triumphant overtly effeminate wrestler. The words you would hear from the crowd were not even remotely pleasant.
“I’m wearing six hundred dollar custom made lizard shoes” – Ric Flair
For those wrestlers who lacked the gift of gab there would be managers to do the trash talking for them. A prime example was Dandy Jack Crawford – a bowtie and bowler wearing aristocrat who lurked at ringside tripping up opponents with his umbrella while feigning innocence when caught. Some of these guys might have wrestled previously but usually they were men of average build hired for their strong ability to stir up crap and exacerbate ongoing feuds to keep the crowds fully engaged. They would sometimes “betray” their proteges by switching loyalties to opposing wrestlers (during mid match). Or, the protege might betray the manager resulting in a switch from heel to face (or vice versa). Most wrestling managers worked with heels since the potential for twisted plot lines was far greater than those of a good guy whose persona was generally more limited and boring.
Many of the early matches happened at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium, a once prestigious event space, which in 1980 became part of Georgia State University. Towards the end of its run it hosted rock shows and numerous high school graduations even as the facility fell into a state of neglect and disrepair. Large vermin could be seen in and around the venue. One of the roadies for Johnny Winter said that the rats backstage were impossible to scare off and would scamper on stage during equipment load in and sound check. (Why they didn’t come on stage during the actual show remains a source of mystery – maybe they just weren’t into the music ?) Once the Omni opened in 1972, the wrestling events moved there and while the word “Omni” has only two syllables it turned out that for Dusty “The American Dream” Rhodes it had three syllables – The “Ahm-a-nee”. The new facilities were far better and the seating capacity was much larger giving the impression that match attendance was down when it actually wasn’t it. But they turned up the heat anyway by having some “Cage Matches” to sell more tickets. (According to this source the first ever Cage Match was in Atlanta on June 25th, 1937 though it doesn’t say where it took place). These specialty matches were designed to up the ante by having a full on group melee with the winner being the proverbial last man standing. The customer got more bang for the buck.
“A computah took yo place, Daddy ! That’s hard times !” – Dusty Rhodes
Many of the the wrestlers of the 60s and 70s were not what you would call obvious athletes nor did their physiques reflect a lifestyle normally associated with a world class competitor in any sport. Many were just naturally large “farm boy” types who wanted more action than small town life could offer. So circuit wrestling provided relief in the form of mobility albeit to larger smaller towns in the region with Atlanta being the biggest. It was better than working in the local factory for the rest of your life. Despite the fact that lots of wrestlers were not physically “cut” it would be unwise for a layman to engage someone very accustomed to slamming into turn buckles and being thrown (or throwing someone) out of the ring especially when they are weighing in at 240 lbs. As the 70s progressed, bodybuilding intersected with wrestling and steroids became more freely available which led to greater strength and impressive physiques such that by the 80s many of these guys were truly intimidating – not that some of the old timers weren’t. Freddie Blassie, (for a time billed as “The Vampire”), used to file his teeth ringside in anticipation of biting his opponent. Of course the problem with steroids is that if your competitor uses them then so must you assuming you don’t want to look out of place. Then again, there were plenty of guys who carried extra weight and managed to be amazingly nimble in the ring.
“I should have been born triplets. That’s how much talent I have, you pencil neck geek” – Classy Freddie Blassie
The Stewart Avenue connection was that many of these guys could be found drinking in area bars just like anyone else seeking diversion from the daily grind however that might be defined. They were usually treated well and enjoyed a form of celebrity recognition. One night there were approximately six of them boozing it up in LP Pips. André the Giant was up front near the entrance holding court with three women sitting on one of his thighs. He was drinking out of a beer pitcher as it didn’t make sense to provide him with the conventional 10-12 oz beer mug. Towards the back were Dusty Rhodes, Wahoo McDaniel, Ivan Kolloff, and some others whose names I’ve forgotten. The rules of Kayfabe (the protocols on how wrestlers should interact with each other in public) have it that heels and faces should never mix though there were no faces present so it was just some wrestlers getting soused after a match. Dusty seemed particularly moody and even when a few girls wanted to talk to him he brushed them off using his normal voice which was a far cry from that soul gospel accent he used on TV. If you aren’t familiar with his accent then check out the infamous Hard Times speech – “A computah took yo place, Daddy ! That’s hard times ! Start watching around the 50 second mark.
I attempted a conversation with Wahoo McDaniel who in reality had Native American heritage which calls into question his decision to drink like he did that night. He looked at me as if I were a bug on his windshield so I concluded it was in my best interest to move on. What struck me was that they were all bloated and carrying a lot more weight than I would have expected. And with the exception of André The Giant they were all shorter than they appeared to be on TV. Note that I didn’t say that they were “short” just that when an announcer says someone is 6’6″ though in reality they are 6’1″ then it’s gonna be surprising. You could see obvious razor cut scars on their foreheads (an old wrestling trick to get the blood flowing to rile up the fans) as well as the “road weariness” common to anyone who travels for a living. With the exception of André they all exuded a brooding “don’t f**k with me” kind of insolence and had no interest in answering questions or going into character for anyone not even the women who had been buzzing around.
But André (a native of France) was “on” that night which might explain why he was up front while the others sulked in the back. He was definitely interested in the ladies but I’m not sure they were interested in him outside of basic curiosity. That guy was super tall and his head seemed as large as a small beer keg. I offered him a “Bonsoir monsieur, comment allez-vous” which genuinely pleased him as I suspect he didn’t get much of that down south or if he did it wasn’t recognizable as French. He gave me a big grin and shook my hand which was truly shocking as his index finger landed on my forearm such was the size of his hand. I think he responded with a “Pas mal jeune homme, pas mal” but his voice was so low and thick it was hard to tell. (He made Barry White sound like a choir boy). The moment was short lived as he left to track some short-shorts wearing waitress who had caught his rather large, saucer-like eye.
When wrestlers of old recount their achievements, they frequently cite the various championship belts they might have “won” which is odd given that match outcomes, especially the marquee events, were always negotiated in advance. Thus, could anyone say that a “Championship Belt” really meant anything ? And some of the titles were perhaps created only to hype specific events such as “Introducing the new Georgia TV Tag Team Championship holders, The Assassins !”. Isn’t the championship belt thing just a prop in the ongoing saga between faces and heels ? For the most part it is though wrestling isn’t without its own brand of politics. It turns out that “winning” (or being selected to win) a championship is something of a testament to one’s popularity (or infamy) which can obviously help sustain one’s career. Being popular with those who booked the matches was essential to putting bread on the table. Those who couldn’t provoke a reaction, or appeal in some way to a regional crowd, or effectively trash talk were destined to become one of the anonymous drones who got tossed around (and out of) the ring literally and figuratively.
Since that time wrestling has been monopolized and corporatized with detailed employee contracts being the norm. Script writers exist to generate copy for promos and the wrestling matches more closely resemble rock concerts than the bare bones budget productions they once were when being produced and broadcast out of Atlanta. Everything is efficiently managed to the point of being incredibly boring. According to this Forbes article John Cena is the WWE’s top draw who pulled in around 9.5 million in 2016. I must say that after seeing his promos I was not impressed with his “shooting” ability compared to the old timers. When looking at YouTube vids of Ric Flair or Dusty Rhodes promos you see true improvisational artistry that betters that of any in-town hipster improv comedy troupe. But Cena’s promos come off as being dry rehearsed readings of tightly managed story lines. But that’s okay since the WWE will probably make more money off of merchandising in one week than I’ll make my whole life which tells you what it’s all about now. If I had to pick a favorite contemporary wrestler it would be The Undertaker although at this point in time he is now considered an “older” wrestler which means I must be getting “old” also – but how can that be ? © 2018 The Stewart Avenue Kid