Everyone in the Felt Forum perked up noticeably as soon as Hillbilly Jim's name flashed on the television screen. Jim is a youthful, strapping, big-shouldered character who wears a furry beard, overalls, a worn leather hat, and a rather overbearing grin. The fans have taken to the Southerner because he has been cast as one of their own -- for months he had been seen seated at ringside rooting for good guys during WWF telecasts, and then during one of Hulk Hogan's matches, when the champ was suffering at the hands of one villain or another, big Jim rushed through the ropes to help his hero. (Meltzer said that before coming to the WWF, Jim -- whose real name is Harley Daniel -- had wrestled both in Memphis and Calgary; since he had also made his Canadian entrance as a face in the crowd, Calgary's television fans who watch the WWF show had been subjected to his debut twice.)
Jim's opponent was not Rene Goulet, as both the program and Titan's spokesman claimed, but a morose-looking heel named Charlie Fulton. Fulton has been around for a long time, so when Jim (who got a big laugh when he had to be reminded by the referee to remove his hat) extended his paw for a friendly handshake, he declined; whether out of miscreance or prudence was unclear -- Jim appeared to be around eight inches taller -- but Jim's friendliness persisted for another minute or so, until Fulton charged across the ring into the ropes and bounced off of them back towards his opponent in order to hit him, but to no avail. After trying the same move again, unsuccessfully, Fulton attempted to pick Jim up for a bodyslam three times in succession. This made Jim chortle mightily, whereupon he picked up Fulton and tossed him onto his back a few times.
After a few minutes of this, Fulton decided to slip under the bottom rope to take an apparent "breather." Fulton, evidently deciding that an equalizer might bring this jolly hayseed with a sixty-pound advantage down to size, slipped a hand down the front of his wrestling trunks to get at something he seemed to have hidden there. It was a strange moment -- the audience recognized the "foreign object" ploy immediately, and they gasped as one to see the pathetic desperation to which a career of losing scrub matches to bigger, unflappable musclemen had driven Fulton. Yet Jim wasn't bothered; he just threw Fulton down a few more times and finally picked him up in a bear hug.
The next match was dreary, but the crowd's disappointment evaporated as soon as rock singer Cyndi Lauper's theme song piped over the loudspeakers to herald her appearance, along with her charge, WWF Ladies' Champion Wendi Richter. Opposing her is challenger Lelani Kai, whose career is supervised by the Fabulous Moolah -- and from this point on in, no contestant who appeared could not have been instantly identifiable to every paying customer.
It has been said that The Fabulous Moolah, who owned the Ladies' Belt for about 25 years, virtually destroyed women's wrestling in her capacity as a handler of women wrestlers for promotions around the country. But thanks to Lauper, girl-wrestling underwent something of a renaissance.
Ladies' matches, once prohibited in New York, generally turn into catfights, with much scratching and hairpulling. Lady wrestlers often prove to be more acrobatic performers, taking more risks; where men lift and fall in a slow, pronounced rhythm, the ladies' bodies whip around rapidly in a flurry of tossing curls. (It is said that some of the girl-wrestlers of Japan are among the best athletes, male or female, in wrestling today.) Yet the suspicion remains that the point of ladies' matches is to display as much moving flesh as possible, and even perhaps to suggest that each contestants' tight-fitting suit is on the verge of giving way. Which didn't happen that night. Instead, Richter lost her title, because Moolah cheated, and Lauper seemed very upset.
Then Paul "Mr. Wonderful" Orndorff, who'd been heard making derogatory comments about blacks on WWF telecasts, dispensed with black wrestler Tony Atlas without much trouble, to the fans' chagrin. The high point of Atlas' career came in 1982, when he emerged victorious from a "battle royale" and thereby earned the right to face then-WWF champ Bob Backlund in a title match. What was unusual about their match was perhaps not that Atlas was the only good-guy that Backlund (who is white) had ever wrestled in the WWF -- rather that it virtually coincided with a highly publicized boxing match on June 11, 1982, between heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, who is black, and contender Gerry Cooney, who is white. Boxing fans will recall that Cooney had been regarded as a "comer" until he was knocked out by Holmes in the thirteenth round; wrestling fans remember that Backlund appeared to thrash Atlas rather soundly.
Another later preliminary pitted bad-guy contender Don "The Magnificent" Muraco against a less familiar Italian import with a face as sweet as his name, Salvatore Bellomo. A few weeks afterward, Hogan -- who is frequently photographed wearing a silver cross on a chain around his neck -- referred to Muraco as "that Prince of Darkness," but his chances tonight against Bellomo looked pretty good to the fans in the back of the Felt Forum; during the ring introduction, one commented, "Muraco loves to eat Italian!"
Escorting The Magnificent One to the ring, in full dress, is his newfound manager, Mr. Fuji, the WWF's perennial Japanese villain (who explained in a WWF Magazine interview that "to avenge Japanese honor" for the loss of World War II, he dresses formally as Emperor Hirohito did for the signing of the surrender in 1945). Mr. Fuji also wears a seemingly benign smile that invariably is described as a "sadistic grin" by broadcast announcers, who now credit him with schooling Muraco in the finer points of brutality, though Muraco has long been a villain, or "rulebreaker" in the argot.
Middle-aged wrestlers frequently become managers. Generally it is a younger performer whose prosperity is placed in the hands of some rulebreaker emeritus, and so when the rising star's face becomes glazed over with arrogance and he begins baiting referees in the ring, and kicking, the wrestling magazines blame his downfall on the wicked manager's skill in brainwashing and "mind control." (Nevertheless, advertisements in many of the magazines encourage the ambitious reader to purchase books that will help develop his own talent for "controlling minds"; other full-page ads in the magazines sell good-luck charms, wrestling-trivia games, and scents said to have aphrodisiac qualities.)
Ordinary rulebreakers merely scowl, gouge, punch, and elbow, but when a big, quick athlete as strong as the linebacker-like Muraco (a former surfer from Hawaii) is cast as a top-ranked cheat, he can be maneuvered into an enormous attraction before he wins a title. In the WWF, a skilled rulebreaker like Muraco is almost never matched against another rulebreaker; however by winning a given match against a good guy ("fan favorite") he may serve to ease another wrestler, whose popularity is waning, or who has fallen into the promoter's disfavor, down a rung -- or, since fan favorites seldom wrestle one another, either, he might dethrone a champion to facilitate a title change: in 1983 a skilled rulebreaker called The Iron Sheik (a former wrestler on the Iranian Olympic team) beat Bob Backlund for the WWF title a few weeks before he surrendered the crown to Hulk Hogan. In due time, a rulebreaker can even become a fan favorite, once he feuds with his manager or renounces his cynical past (or if he moves into another territory, or if the fans stop hating him; many fans like heroes with tainted pasts -- like Hogan, or Dusty Rhodes -- the best).
The skilled rulebreaker is frequently called upon to put the crowd into fearful awe by handling an overmatched nobody with casual sadism. Muraco and Bellomo join battle by trading forearm smashes, with Muraco gaining a quick advantage, soon tossing Bellomo around like a salad. A few arm-twists later, Muraco, with a toothy sneer of indifference for the fans (who taunt him with cries of "Beach bum!") circles to one side of his fallen enemy and hoists him by the hips over one shoulder in preparation for a reverse "piledriver."
The piledriver is a maneuver which involves turning your opponent upside-down and dropping him on his head. First Muraco let Bellomo down a notch from his shoulder, shifting him so the feckless Italian hangs suspended, legs sticking up in the air: chest against Muraco's stomach, head between Magnificent thighs. But before dropping his knees to bring the crown of Bellomo's head crashing beneath a combined body-weight of 490 pounds, Muraco paused grinning, and, placing his free hand behind the scalp of the dangling victim, gave his head a push, pressing Bellomo's face into the crotch of his trunks. Finally the drop: Muraco fell kneeling, astride Bellomo's head, Bellomo bounced limply away, and then Muraco walked over to braid their legs together in a "figure-four leglock." Muraco unflexed his calves, cuing Bellomo to grimace and quickly hold palms aloft to signal his submission.
Then it was hero Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka's turn, against "Cowboy" Bob Orton. Snuka, a dark-skinned South Sea Islander whom Verne Gagne brought from Hawaii, used to be incredibly popular in New York, and has now been embroiled in a feud with Piper, though for some reason Orton has become the object of his anger.
At its best, Snuka's performance of the move that gave him his nickname -- in which he climbed to the top rope and leapt perhaps fifteen feet above the ring -- used to be one of wrestling's most exciting moves and helped make him one of New York's most popular wrestlers. But Snuka's ability seems to have suffered since the death of a woman named Nancy Argintino after she was found injured in his motel room in Whitehall, Pa. in May, 1983. (Two months before, it had taken nine deputies to arrest Snuka at a motel near Syracuse, New York, when police answered a report of a woman screaming; after Snuka was charged with four counts of assault and resisting arrest, police identified the woman as Ms. Argintino, according to the New York Post.) Nevertheless, New York fans still greet him with spontaneous enthusiasm. Snuka beat Orton in a frenzied match in which the latter appeared to hurt his arm (when Orton, who plays Piper's "bodyguard" came back down the runway later that evening, he wore a cast on his arm). When a crowd, which jumped and shouted when Snuka pinned Orton, is as worked up as the one in the Felt Forum, it is nearly impossible not to get caught up in the excitement.
Riding the crest of the enthusiasm will be the youthful tag-team duo of Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo, who are managed by a WWF veteran named Captain Lou Albano. Albano is a gravelly-voiced, slobbish character who used to be one of a "dark triumvirate" of heel-managers in the WWF -- the other two were Fred Blassie, who still manages, and the late Grand Wizard, who wore sunglasses and a lame turban, and in real life was a partner of Vince McMahon, Sr. named Ernie Roth. For some wrestling fans who had enjoyed his performances as a heel, the WWF's rehabilitation of Albano's character after various forays into film and television acting was the last straw. Tonight, he, too carries a "grudge" against Piper.
Both Windham (the son of a wrestler) and Rotundo are big, All- American gridstar types. In the ring, Rotundo is cast as a younger brother who tends to get himself into scrapes from which Rotundo must save him. Windham seems to appeal to young girls. He is probably not championship material; not because of his athletic ability (he has only demonstrated a few ordinary throws in the WWF, but he is said to have put on some good shows while wrestling for Jim Crockett in the Carolinas), but because his radiant features -- he wears long bangs of genuine-looking blonde hair -- simply make him so good-looking that with sufficient individual exposure he might upstage all the other babyfaces in a WWF card. "Never a great wrestler -- never a main-event boy, always a semi-windup guy, strictly for a top-of-the-preliminary match," is how one former wrestler described the wrestling career of a handsome, blonde-haired fellow named George Scott, the booker for the WWF (Scott is described as Vince McMahon's best friend), who used to wrestle in a tag-team with his real-life brother Sandy. The description also fits Windham -- a typical Windham-Rotundo win is so rapid that the crowd scarcely sees more than a flash of blonde hair grabbing his opponent and yanking him around the ring. In the WWF, Windham and Rotundo seldom wrestle as good as they look.
Their opponents tonight are a pair of masked villains named "The Assassin" and "The Spoiler." Thanks to grim associations with executioners and criminals, the mask has always been a great gimmick for heels at least as far back as nineteenth-century France. Rookie wrestlers breaking into the big time often wear the mask; or an established wrestler might wear one if he had been kicked out of town in last week's match. Skilled good-guys who have worn the mask recently are Mil Mascaras, Mr. Wrestling, and Mr. Wrestling II; and, way back when, the angel who tested "Biblical" Jacob -- who of course also gained a "title" in the match, preliminary to an anxiously-awaited reunion with his disenfranchised brother. But like most everything in wrestling, the mask serves manifold purposes: fans naturally wonder what it is about his past that would force this man to cover his face, since nowadays the masked guys don't do anything that other wrestlers don't.
But whether the wrestler who hides his face is good or evil, for every fan watching him, the masked performer signifies an individual whose face is invisible, and so the cipher becomes a token of the fan himself: and here is why the masked wrestler is so useful in a card -- the notface is yours, since yours is the only face in the arena which cannot be seen.
Assassin and Spoiler didn't seem to struggle so much as concede to Windham and Rotundo, who beat them in less than three minutes. It wasn't clear if this was the reason for the crowd's hysteria, or whether the imminent approach of the long-awaited main event had done the trick. Enthusiasm and occasional riots notwithstanding, wrestling crowds are by and large relatively placid; in part because more children are in attendance than at, for instance, a hockey game. Moreover, speaking of beer sales at the Garden, an employee of concessioneer Harry M. Stevens, Inc. described adult wrestling fans as "basically sober; they don't come to drink."
No, they were there -- along with a nationwide television audience for the MTV special, which cut from its taped segments and joined the Garden card at this point -- to see the challenger, Piper, enter first, splendidly: dressed in a kilt and a "Hulkamania" t-shirt (which he tore to bits, in the manner made famous by Hogan) and an electric guitar. When he wrestled in the Mid-Atlantic circuit for Jim Crockett Promotions, Piper's "gimmick" was a set of bagpipes, which he carried to the ring to underscore the Scottish heritage of his character; tonight, for the benefit of the national MTV audience, he took the guitar -- the hidden gimmick all along -- and smashed it against a ringpost. Following Piper was his "bodyguard," "Cowboy" Bob Orton, whose leather vest and cowboy hat seem to help make him look about as friendly as a gas jockey working the lobster shift again. In the Felt Forum, fewer booed than watched quietly as Orton and Piper hung around the ring, chuckling, perhaps anxious.
If all goes right at the end of the night, the crowd's excitement, which has been stoked with these queerly compelling, violent pas-de-deux -- each wrestler trading supremacy, each taking turns submitting his body to the other's violent whim, like longtime lovers playing a risky bedroom game -- will turn into fascination when it sees the babyface borrow the heel's tactics, losing his innocence. Here is where all of wrestling's sexual angles converge -- ordinary ones, such as exposed, sweaty flesh; forced ones, like long, bleached hair, or kilts. ("See," explained Shire, "your main event is like having sex with a girl, okay? A lot of it is because wrestlers could always understand sex when I told 'em, 'It's like having an orgasm in sex.' That's the epitome of the night as far as the fan is concerned.") The memory of humiliation and anonymity is still fresh in the fans' minds; the ultimate stakes are oblivion and catastrophe.
Who will submit? Why? Suddenly the Felt Forum screen yielded a closeup of Hogan stalking down the runway towards the ring, and the sound system burst into Hogan's theme song, borrowed from Rocky III (about Hogan, one wrestler said, "actually the music is what goes over, the rock song is what gets the people going") and the crowd finally boiled. Flanking the champ was a sternfaced Albano, (who had gotten mad at Piper after the last card) and Cyndi Lauper, also indignant, along with her boyfriend.
Perhaps few of even the most sophisticated fans understand why they might have found the WWF's finishes so appealing. Maybe it's because, dressed punkishly, with her hair dyed red, Lauper might look like someone's sister; a little nutty, but probably nice. Albano seemed like your uncle who finally has quit drinking and straightened himself out. Dwarfing them, at six- eight, Hogan (who stopped to say hello to his famous friend, NBC television star Mr. T, seated at ringside) looks like an eight- year-old child's ideal Pop, late from work, who has come home to find that someone has been picking on his children, and trying to confuse them.
Meantime, bad-daddy Piper and his drinking buddy have been leering in self-congratulation, and certainly not doing a thing to undo everyone's conviction that they had orchestrated every note of injustice that had been sounded in the match.
It might not have taken much to stir the crowd, which was so worked up that the match had scarcely begun before Hogan had quickly undergone the babyface's obligatory loss of temper: he and Piper began dispensing frenzied armwhips against each other -- and so here, finally, was the climax.
Among the booker's considerations in working out a finish for a big card seem to be what the fans' mood has been in the past, and what it might be in the next few months. The outcome that seems to bring the most fans back for the next installment is when the favorite loses the main event "by disqualification," because, as every wrestling fan knows, you can't lose the title by "dq."
("The big finishes are very, very intricate; even a minor change in it can cause a change in something that's three or four weeks away," said Jay West. "This is part of the skills of the guys, being able to make that finish come off exactly as it's supposed to. I saw several thousand matches while I was working for them, and you know, mistakes are gonna be made; say a guy's gonna to come off the rope, and he's supposed to power-slam the guy, and that's supposed to be it -- but you'll get your foot caught in the rope, or somethin'll happen, and you can't make the finish come off that way.
"Well, rather than technically tryin' to come up with somethin' in their head, they'll go right back and do the exact same thing again, which is very, very obvious to the fans that have been comin' for years. Even to the hard-cores, it is going to seem very, very unusual for a guy to do the exact same finish again."
Hogan took the advantage initially, even slamming Piper once. Piper came back and took Hogan down, and a minute later, wrapped an arm around the champion's neck: the notorious "sleeper-hold," favorite of millions. Hogan drooped, and seemed about to lose until the camera zoomed in on his arm, which slowly raised itself, one finger held aloft. Hogan -- roused, furious -- began trembling with rage.
Naturally, once the babyface makes his comeback, the fans must be primed for the rematch. This night, after the referee got "knocked out" (or "bumped," in the trade) in order to prevent anything from actually being decided, a bunch of the performers from the undercards (including Hulk Hogan's famous friend, NBC television star Mr. T) jumped back into the ring. Finally, what looked like a coterie of Garden security guards and a bunch of Titan personnel, including George Scott -- broke into the ring to wrap things up.
It was 10:58 when the fans began filing out of the Felt Forum.
VI. "There was a boy. . ."
The figure-four leglock (used by many wrestlers, most notably Ric Flair these days) was popularized in the 'forties by "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers, the postwar era's greatest skilled rulebreaker. "Buddy Rogers wasn't vicious," recalls Al Wrobel of Wrestling's Main Event Magazine, "but he could mix it up, and if a wrestler started in with dirty tricks, he could give it right back to him. He was a very strong, athletic wrestler." Bill Apter, of T.V. Sports Magazines: "Buddy Rogers kept himself in perfect physical condition, knew how to handle each opponent, and probably was one of the most intelligent wrestlers in the ring. He was very colorful, with his golden blonde hair, and the 'Strut.'"
Said Roy Shire: "Buddy Rogers. There's another guy I don't like. He's a no-good ass. He couldn't beat my wife. He was lucky, though, in wrestling. He had a great body. He really had a nice, pleasing body. He was no Mr. America, but a damn good body, probably one of the best workers in the ring. I don't mean a good wrestler, I mean he couldn't beat my wife. But in the ring he was so convincing. He did great things in the ring."
"Oh, hey, -- I'm gonna tell you somethin' about Rogers, he ain't got a gut in his fuckin' body, he couldn't -- he didn't know a hammerlock from a padlock; he was a connivin', cutthroat sonofabitch when he was in the business. As a person he was a no-good bastard. Around him -- aw, greatest guy in the fuckin' world, you know, 'Ho, hey man!'-- anything you'd say he'd go for. But he'd stab you behind your fuckin' back.
"But the thing that he had -- in the fuckin' ring, he was the greatest in the fuckin' business in the ring. A great performer."
"I invented the book of the rulebreaker," confesses Buddy Rogers today. "But -- as life went on, I seen the light, and sort of went the other way. I will admit, it's easier getting along this way, yes it is."
Rogers was born "Herman Rhode" in Camden, New Jersey (he is fluent in the German he learned from his immigrant parents) and says he began wrestling at the local YMCA when he was 8. Ten years later in 1939 he won his professional debut at the Garden Pier in Atlantic City, and proceeded through victories in his first 47 matches before losing to Ed "Strangler" Lewis in Philadelphia in 1941. Rogers captured scores of sectional titles in his 24-year career before he won the NWA heavyweight title before a packed Comiskey Park on June 30, 1961. Two years later he captured the first championship of Vince McMahon, Sr.'s fledgling World-Wide Wrestling Federation, only to relinquish it shortly after, losing to Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Garden in a match that lasted only forty-seven seconds.
Rogers retired back to his home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a few miles from Camden, where he has lived since, with occasional stints at the mike: his WWF interview show, called "Rogers' Corner," only lasted a few weeks in 1983 before Vince McMahon, Jr. pulled it for a WWF Magazine show. Rogers has since appeared on Verne Gagne's telecasts.
Two days after the card at the Garden, I drove down to meet Rogers at a diner near the newly-rebuilt Garden State Racetrack, agreeing to call him from a pay phone. A few minutes later he rolled into the parking lot, smoking a cigar at the helm of a spotless black Lincoln Continental. He's conceded an inch or two to his waistline -- today is his 64th birthday, he says -- but his face shows rosy, indefatigable health under a backswept, full mane of whitening gold. Rogers's six-foot, four-inch body is still massively well-proportioned, and seems too big even for the luxury car; but his dictionary-sized hands are graced with a manicure -- as well as, on one pinky, a huge gold ring, scattered with diamonds, like chocolate chips in a cookie. A minute later he pulled up beside a second Lincoln in his driveway, and was soon relighting his cigar as we talked in his living room.
"This particular war will end up with -- you see, there's three big Caesars in Rome," said Rogers warily, turning his sentences slowly in his rolling southern-New Jersey accent. "There's too many Caesars in Rome, and Rome has to fall apart -- or the Caesars have to eat each other up in order to accomplish what they set out to do. The worst that can come out of this whole thing is that Crockett has to say to Ole Andersson, 'Let's get away from Gagne and join Vince, and we'll get the whole East Coast,' and so they'll kiss and make up.
"See, Crockett won't let Gagne get any bigger than Crockett is, and Gagne won't let Crockett get any bigger than Gagne is. They both want to devour McMahon, but instead of uniting -- saying, 'Hey man, the hell with this personality struggle, let's eat that son of a bitch up' -- which they're very capable of doing -- well, daddy, you take it from me: Gagne and Crockett will be at each other's throats the moment one gets bigger than the other.
"Yeah, I got leaks all over the place, all over Vince McMahon Jr.'s territory, down South. I just got a call this morning from Wally Karbo [a Minneapolis promoter associated with Gagne]. He'll just call me up and I relinquish my thoughts to them, they'll relinquish their thoughts to me.
"McMahon just about now realizes what he took on. He thought he was going to roughshod over everyone and anyone. Now, his dad wouldn't have done this.
"McMahon, Jr. is the modern-day Hitler of professional wrestling, and if you told him that to his face, he'd take you out and buy you the biggest steak you could eat. He thrives on the people around him hating his guts. He loves it -- but he doesn't realize that in the final analysis he'll get torched and he'll burn."
But doesn't McMahon use television well? "He's just overexposed, he doesn't use television well. Let me tell you something, the way he has handled T.V., it hasn't done wrestling any good. Where does rock-and-roll fit in with wrestling? Wouldn't you have to be pretty stupid to inhale what he's putting across -- and have a love for wrestling? How long do you think what he's doing is going to resemble wrestling?
"What does it say on the canopy over the Garden, 'Wrestling,' or 'Rock and Roll'? The two don't mix. Can you imagine if Cyndi Lauper managed Muhammad Ali? How long would it last before the public would say, 'Bullshit, what are they doing?'
"What's he creating? You're never going to get me -- and I've got as much ability in wrestling as anybody living -- to believe that rock-and-roll is the salvation of wrestling. They're thriving on bullshit. How long do you think Cyndi Lauper is going to jump in the ring and take a punch at a 280-pound wrestler, and he flies eight rows out into the seats?
"You know, there's such a thing as insulting even an idiot's ability to think. If you're trying to educate suckers, you'd better make sure you have an answer for them when they wake up and find out."
After World War Two, Rogers emerged as one of wrestling's top attractions while the nascent beam of television magnified the squared circle. "I was the first performer in the history of television, on the first thirteen-week deal out of the old Rainbow Arena in Chicago. Television was so weak back then that when it hit the Continental Divide it couldn't get over the Rockies into the West Coast. Later on, we televised out of the Olympic Auditorium in L.A., and though it came east to Salt Lake City, it couldn't get over to Denver.
"None of the wrestlers had any idea that T.V. was going to make wrestling so big. All of us were very anti-television at the start, because we thought we were giving away our livelihood. We all thought that people would not come to the arena to watch the matches when they could get it for free at home. And a lot of us were reluctant to -- I was reluctant to sign up for the next 13 weeks. But after I got going about six or seven weeks, I'd walk into towns, and everyone would know me, whereas before only a wrestler would know me. And the longer it went on, the stronger it got."
Soon television begat the celebrated, epochal "Gorgeous George" -- the vainest of them all, since, of course, he wasn't more gorgeous than anyone. George was either a joke, or his cheapshot wins were spit in your eye. (He also launched an arsenal of alliterative names, as well as other costumed weirdos; his legacy endures today in the peroxide hairdos of countless wrestlers, like "Gorgeous Jim" Garvin, valeted by his girlfriend Precious, who sprays room deodorizer.)
George's act was not, however, popular with other wrestlers: "Gorgeous George came out with the flash," said Rogers. "And we were all ticked off at him, but see, he'd never wrestle guys like myself, or Lou Thesz, or Bobby Managoff -- you know, great names. He stayed away from us. We wanted to wrestle him, but -- see, George was like the WWF is doing now, putting Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T in there. (See, you're mixing the batch. What happens when Mr. T says to you, 'I'm not going to lose a fall, I can't afford to lose a fall in Madison Square Garden?' What are you gonna do, beat him up? Like hell you are.)
"George had a big fantasy world around him for around three years. Every promoter wanted him, because he could pack the house. But, see, when you put bullshit into the house, remember what's comin' out -- it ain't gonna be wine and roses. After three years, the bullshit waned away, and there wasn't anything left -- and guess what? They had to resort to that good old word called -- 'Wrestling.'
"In the early 'fifties the bottom fell out -- the houses weren't there. He was managed by a guy on the West Coast named Johnny Doyle, and when Doyle -- see, when you got flesh-peddlers like McMahon, Crockett, guys like that, they only utilize you when you're hot. Look at Bob Backlund -- greatest example in the world. [Backlund lost the WWF title in December of 1983 when his manager, Arnold Skaaland, threw a towel into the ring in the middle of the match.] When he was hot, boy, they were for him. The minute that sucker couldn't draw, they couldn't grind him up fast enough. But, thank God, Bob was too smart, he didn't go for being ground up, he walked away, said 'I don't need you.' It's good to save your recess money.
"When George went, he went altogether. His name was George Wagner, he came out of Columbus, Ohio, a little farm area. Died on the Coast. The day that he died, the next day we wrestled in Dallas, and they passed a hat around to the guys that could afford it, and we all contributed to bury him. He passed away at a bar that he once owned -- he'd owned a bar, a motel, everything in this whole complex -- bumming drinks from the bartender that he had once hired. True story. He died insolvent. A very sad, sad ending.
"You see, they leave out the real meaty things that the public should know about. Here's a guy, when times were tough to make a buck, he made millions -- I watched him light cigars with hundred-dollar bills -- not once, several times -- and I thought to myself, 'Boy, there'll come a day when he'll wish he had that hundred.' And that day came, and I lived to watch when that day came.
"We never got along. I basically admired George for the chutzpah that he had, to create what he did, but I couldn't admire him because he was invoking this bullshit into my business, that I made a livelihood out of. In other words, 'You build a stew, and I'm going to piss in it.' He was pissing in my stew. I knew it couldn't last long, in fact I was highly surprised that it lasted as long as it did."
A slender, pretty, blonde-haired woman came in to ask us if we'd like coffee. Buddy introduced his wife Debbie, whom he met twenty years ago when she was playing trumpet and trombone and leading a band he hired for his nightclub in nearby Lindenwold. "It's hard, it's very hard having a family. You have to be very dedicated, and well, naturally your family has to give a lot in order to make you successful. They have to relinquish a lot. By not having you around, it's a hard situation -- that's why so many marriages don't make it.
"You know the old saying -- 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder for somebody new.' My wife was an entertainer, she knows that the road is the road, and there's a lot of evil on the road. But we're at the stage of life where we -- you know, I'm retired now, and I live good, Debbie lives good, my son David lives good. We've been through it."
I asked if he'd ever used a personal manager or business agent. "Later on, around 1947, I locked up with a guy that's one of the most popular, or unpopular guys in wrestling, Jack Pfefer. Jack Pfefer -- when he fought for you, boy he was all blood and guts. I had everyone and his brother come up to me and say, 'Buddy, why don't you leave that son of a bitch, he's no good.' My answer to them was, 'Hey, he's working for me, and I know he's a son of a bitch, but remember he's my son of a bitch.'
"He came to me. We never signed a contract, never had an ounce of ink. We shook hands. And we both lived by the sword, and we did what was right.
"See, you don't have fidelity in this business today. And it stems from the promoters on down. The promoters are flesh-peddlers, overrated whores. You can't go by what somebody promises, you're only going to be utilized, and used when you're hot. And the moment you're not, you'd better say a prayer, and hope for something new, because they don't warn you, they just knock it out from under you."
Rogers has a low opinion of today's wrestlers. "Well, wrestling has changed. Like a 360-degree turn from my day. The holds that were great in my day -- especially the two that I invented, the figure-four leglock and the 'Atomic Knee Drop' -- are still the most famous holds today.
"The style? It's changed a lot -- outside of the original style that I invented, like the Strut, which is used by the best in the business today, such as Ric Flair [the platinum-haired current NWA champion] and Brutus Beefcake, who stumbles through it, he looks like he has shackles on his feet when he walks." (As Rogers notes, the haughty Strut is his customary gait -- straightening his knee at the top of each stride, he steps, bouncing, off the balls of each foot, like a slow-marching giant daring the ground to give way.)
I asked Rogers if he's had any exceptionally heated encounters in the ring. "Well, yeah, Killer Kowalski and I wrestled one time in Montreal, and I had a broken leg, and I remember one time I had a broken elbow with Johnny Valentine in Washington, D.C. Oh, you don't forget them things.
"In due time I got back to Valentine. Well, it took considerable months after, but in the rematch, he knew he had made a mistake. We were both a little scared going back into it, we respected one another -- I respected the fact that he broke my arm, and I wasn't going to let it happen again. I did feel that the first mistake he makes, I'm gonna inhale him, and he made a mistake. I put the figure-four on him, nearly broke his leg. So that was it. Now today, his son Greg Valentine uses that figure-four.
"With Kowalski -- he broke my leg. The match never started. The referee gave his instructions, and I was walking to my corner, he came from behind me, kicked me in the back of the leg. I went down, he kicked me some more, and my leg was broke. I couldn't stand, they had to take me right to the hospital. Had to refund about 15,000 seats.
"The next time -- oh, I think it was a little more emphatic with him I think, yeah. When it came to that match, I think I did him in more that I did Valentine."
I asked Rogers about the Rocca-Graham riot at the Garden. "Graham? To me, he was a very highly overrated wrestler. He didn't stand a ghost of a chance with Rocca." Rogers said he was the first in the U.S. to beat Rocca. "Rocca was the most agile, tremendously-conditioned athlete -- never got tired. I would sit back and admire this guy, really I would. I'd never tell him that, but hey, you know, I'm human, but God darn, I believe in one thing, and I'll give credit where it's due.
"What this business lacks today is a Rocca. Agile, acrobatic -- he could fly and head-scissors you from all angles, dropkick you, catch you in airplane spins. He'd just dazzle you with footwork.
"I had more riots that any one wrestler in the 'fifties. Right here in Washington, D.C., I got knifed in the back. Remember Bobby Davis?" [For a while loudmouthed manager Bobby Davis was the "Elvis Presley of Wrestling," thanks to a faint resemblance.] "He was my road manager, Bobby Davis. I said, 'Bobby, get that hot cigar off my back!' He said, 'What do you mean?', and so he came around the other side of me, and there's a big knife, just a wooden handle sticking out," said Rogers, pulling down the collar on his velours sweater to show the scar on his back. "I got stabbed in Mexico, St. Louis -- in fact it goofed up my ulnar nerve. Well, hey, I didn't mind fighting and riots, just so I didn't get stabbed in the eyes and get blinded. . . . It was a lot of fun. I wouldn't trade my life for any other athlete, for a lot of people I knew from day one. And I knew that I'd be the best at what I did, and even till this day I know that I was the best at what I did. I feel that, and no one can ever erase that thought.
"You get many acquaintances, you get few friends. You take it from Buddy, as long as you live, you'll be able to count on one hand your friends. And all the hair you have on your head, you'll get that many acquaintances, but on one hand, you can point out friends. You think of Buddy Rogers when you say that."
After we chatted about the Super Bowl, Rogers said that wrestling had once been as talked-about as football. "You know, a man'll come up to me and say, 'Buddy, how much of this wrestling's a fake?' Well, rather than get disturbed with him, or what the hell -- I'll admit, their intelligence is being played with every time you watch some of this garbage -- I'll tell him, 'Wrestling isn't a fake today, it's a lost art.'"
How did he get the nickname "Nature Boy"?
"I'd just come from Texas this particular time. This was 1949, and they wanted me to wrestle on the Coast, and I was living on Galveston Beach, fifty miles south of Houston. And any time you'd see me, I was dark brown; I always wore a white chenille robe, you know, and when I opened up my robe -- it was right about this time that Nat King Cole brought out the song, 'Nature Boy' -- everybody in the audience started to scream, 'Nature Boy!' And that little friend of mine, Jack Pfefer, says, when we got back to the dressing room, 'Did you hear what them people were calling you?' And I said, 'Yeah.' He says, 'We got a new name, we're gonna keep it.'"
We talked about the growth of wrestling in the 'fifties, and Rogers told of how Rocca came to the U.S. Now, according to "Antonino the Great," a profile of Rocca written for Esquire in 1959 by Robert O'Brien, Rocca was discovered in Europe by a wrestler named Kola Kwariani, who took the Argentinian to South America, where he impressed Toots Mondt and Primo Carnera one night in Rio DeJaneiro. Then, "Mondt and Kwariani arranged a co-managership deal," writes O'Brien. "Two months later Rocca and Kwariani came to New York and Antonino made his North American debut at Ridgewood Grove in Brooklyn."
But Rogers remembers that "they guy that brought Rocca to the United States was Nick Elitch. And he brought him into Dallas, Texas his very first match. I was in the main event that night, and Carl Scarpolis, the promoter there, tells me, 'Buddy, I want you to watch this guy. Nick Elitch tells me he's the eighth wonder of the world.' I said, 'Good, man, maybe I'll learn something from him.'
"Well, that night he wrestled the third match, with a guy named Al Lovelock. When he climbed into the ring -- well, right to this day, I must admit I've never seen anything like it, since, or now, or then, or what have you. He was phenomenal, and Scarpolis said, 'I oughta sign this guy up for a contract, but you know, Nick's got him, and I don't want to sign him away from Nick.'
"So finally Nick gets a booking to bring Rocca out to Los Angeles. The word that night had spread like wildfire about this guy. And Johnny Doyle, who was Gorgeous George's manager, booked him out there, and as luck would have it, Doyle calls up Toots Mondt and says, 'If this guy is was good as Scarpolis and everybody tells me, Nick Elitch better be lookin' for a new home.' And that's what happened, Doyle and Mondt stole him from little Nick.
"I guess Elitch died in the corner somewhere. They should have taken Nick and said, 'Look, we'll keep you as road manager.' But instead, they brought him to New York and they made Kola Kwariani his road manager.
"I've never seen anything like him. Never seen a guy leap up, give you a flying kick -- B A L L O O M you through the air, do a handstand in front of you, click his feet together, and kick you. Man, he did some ungodly things -- dropkick a guy, and you went down, and as you were getting up, he'd go around behind you, leap up on your shoulders, head-scissors you front-face, dive and throw his body out, and then wheel you through the air. That Al Lovelock thought his ass was in some kind of boxing-glove factory or something. He was just one big windmill."
Rogers remembers two fatal incidents in the ring: "One was Ala Pasha, I don't know if you ever heard of him, he got killed in Pittsburgh, and the other guy was Johnny Hajak, in Columbus, Ohio. . . . Well, with Hajak, there I know he was trying his best and missed a drop-kick. Went over the top rope, landed on his neck on the outside, on the cement floor. That ten-foot drop did it.
"I don't know if he died instantly, but he was dead on arrival in the dressing room. That's where I was. I tell you, it dampened the whole night. It killed the night, that was the second match. Everyone on the card -- no one could get enthused, couldn't care less. There were people in there getting sick, to where they'd throw up just thinking about it. It just killed the whole night."
A few minutes later, I thanked Buddy and wished him a happy birthday. Walking across the driveway, we spotted a furry little caterpillar, roused by the premature thaw, creeping over the asphalt. "There's a sure sign of spring. But he won't get very far," said Rogers, lifting his foot and squashing the worm beneath the sole of his patent-leather ankle-boot.
"I guess I'll always be a wrestler," chuckled Rogers, as he scraped the slime off his shoe. "If I ever write a book, that's what I'll call it -- 'I'll Always Be A Wrestler.'"
[end of Sleeper Hold, Part II]