Tuesday, May 22, 2012

SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY but mostly Saturday mornings

When I was a boy, my dad took me to the Kerrville sMall (it aspired to be a mall someday, but that day is yet to come) to witness a well-publicized wrestling match between a man and a bear.

I imagine it went well.  I have no idea.  Evidently there wasn't a sufficiently compelling episode of Unsolved Mysteries on that night to keep the entirety of Kerrville's residents from cramming into the sMall to watch this epic brawl.  And, being a boy, I had no way of seeing anything that was happening in the hastily-constructed boxing ring in the middle of the sMall, even when my dad grabbed me by the armpits and lifted me above his head to try to see above the crowd.  I've never seen the sMall that filled with people, and I doubt the business owners therein have either.  I'm pretty sure there was a man, and a bear.  I feel safe in assuming that the bear was heavily sedated in order to make this fight possible without any genuine danger.

I wanted to put a comically juxtaposed picture of Yogi Bear here, but for some reason all Google gave me were old pictures of some baseball dude (who then later invented Yogi Bear, I guess?).
I have no idea if we stayed for the duration of the "match," but I know the crowd was having a blast since they were roaring with approval on a regular basis.  Whatever was going on in the ring, it was entertaining them.

There's a chance someone just wheeled in a TV instead.
It was an unassuming prologue to a most ignominious childhood fascination of mine, as I must now admit to you all that I spent a good nine months of my youth trapped in a personal obsession with professional wrestling. 

I'm not proud.

Frankly, I blame peer pressure. I hung out with several other kids who were eyeballs-deep in wrestling culture and who swore to me that it was awesome, and that I should check it out.  And as I was a child, with all of the principles, discernment and convictions that that label implies, I dove in with both feet.

A kid named James, from the next street over, was endlessly excited about some wrestler I'd never heard of.  Hardly a conversation went by without James excitedly mentioning him, and yet I had no idea what this wrestler's name was for weeks and weeks of hearing James talk about him.  This wrestler's name was Hulk Hogan. Now, surely you've heard of the man, but believe it or not, there was actually a time before Hulkamania ruled the nation and left the keys with its incompetent younger brother, Pastamania.

And since I'd never seen the man and only had James' bizarrely adrenaline-rich, run-together account of him, I was convinced that there was an awesome wrestler out there named Kokogan.  Like "cocoa-gun." That's how James said it, every time.  I had no idea what to expect when and if I finally laid eyes on Kokogan.  Was he Samoan?  Would he be wearing some sort of tribal headdress? Was he a wizard? There was no guess that could be tossed out as unrealistic.

Kokogan, I presume...?
James wasn't much help in educating me on any aspect of wrestling, as his compendium of wrestling knowledge seemed to be culled from his own fevered imagination as much as any true source. He rhapsodized at length about the Von Erich family of wrestlers, but in his typical fashion managed to cram all of their names into as few syllables as he could possibly convey to me, so I had no clue who was who or where a person's name ended and the sound of James swallowing began.  I was able to cull what I thought was reasonable, albeit not verifiable, information from James about the family's various famous wrestlers out of sheer name repetition, including Kerry Von Erich, Erich Von Erich, Sporty Von Erich, Posh Von Erich, Crosby Von Erich, Stills Von Erich, Donner Von Erich, Vixen Von Erich, and at least a half-dozen more who were each unfailingly referenced by their whole names. Never just a reference to "Kerry" or "Keenan Ivory," no no.  James breathlessly described a match he'd seen where one Von Erich was wrestling some dude, and a veritable gaggle of other Von Erichs materialized in order to gang up on this hapless dude in what sounded even then like a witness account of a hate crime. 

Pictured: some Von Erichs, in all statistic likelihood.
Given that the Von Erich family was on the fringe of popular wrestling, and thus not showing up in the World Wrestling Federation in its 80s heyday, I began to wonder if James had made them all up in order to impress me, which would have proven a flawed plan under scrutiny from any angle.

Speaking of the WWF, it wasn't long afterward that another childhood friend showed me the first three Wrestlemanias, on handy VHS tapes he'd obtained from his permissive parents when they weren't letting him watch all the 80s slasher flicks he could handle.  And I witnessed the theatrics of Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant and was instantly seduced by the wacky personalities and ridiculous live-action cartoon antics on display.  Within days of discovering Wrestlemania, my friend let me in on the fact that the WWF broadcast wrestling matches every weekend.  On TV. For free

And we gorged.  I almost immediately developed a favorite wrestler, and for as cool as The Artist Formerly Known as Kokogan was, and for as awesomely giant as Andre the Giant was, no one was as cool to me as Junkyard Dog.  I somehow came across a poster with his likeness, and promptly plastered it on my bedroom wall in public adoration.

No, he isn't nude here, though I thought so, too.
The more I look at photos of Junkyard Dog now, the more I realize how flimsy a gimmick one needed in order to flourish in the WWF in the mid-eighties.  "Uh... I always have this chain!" was good enough to grant a hook and flesh out a character. I imagine these guys spent as much time defining their gimmicks and nicknames as they did their abs and pecs.

"I still want to keep 'Cocoa Gun' hip-pocketed for my adult film career, so..."

Plus, in at least half of the photos I can find of the man, I'm reasonably sure he's the guy who played Isaac on The Love Boat, plus several years' worth of anabolic steroids.

He used that very chain to mix most of Gavin McLeod's drinks.
No one was less pleased with my new hobby than my dad. He detested professional wrestling with a passion that tells me he was once jumped by six or eight Von Erichs but is just too proud to cop to it. I never once heard him pronounce the phrase "professional wrestling" as if it was anything but a virulent gum disease.  We once had a spirited exchange which ended with my sputtering incoherently in anger at not being able to complete whatever I was trying to say to defend pro wrestling; thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, I was able to get this transcript from the Library of Congress:

Me: "Yeah, but you've gotta respect how-"
Dad: "No, I don't. I don't have to respect anything those clowns do."
Me: "Okay, but you've at least gotta respect how much-"
Dad: "No, I don't."
Me: "OKAY, but you at least have to respect the amount-"
Dad: "NO, I don't have to respect them. I have no respect for any of them."

I've completely come around to his side now, and had done so by the time I could be described as a pre-teen.  But in 1985 I could not be deterred.  Men were flying through the air dressed like parade floats, knocking each other over and shrieking crazy-eyed taunts into the nearest camera, every Saturday morning.  There is no way that computes to an eight-year-old boy as anything other than the most awesome thing ever to ever exist ever, ever.

Also, tear-away rubber shirts. Forgot to mention that.
Some of the most insane shit ever came from the WWF promotional department in the mid-eighties.  Just give this guy some Kabuki facepaint and some almost certainly gangrene-inducing armbands, plus all the cocaine he can fit into his skull at one time, and then put him in front of a camera with no script and tell him to riff on his upcoming match for five goddamned minutes!  Andy Kaufman couldn't have dreamed up a better scenario for entertaining little boys and/or mental patients.

Then they veered from the Day-Glo gooftastic shit a bit with the introduction of The Undertaker, who with his assistant, Paul Bearer, introduced a nation of kids to darker themes and almost certainly inspired the opening of the first Hot Topic store.

"And cool kids attach a chain to their... um, their wallets!  Yeah, that's it."
The Undertaker made a grand show of locking his opponents in caskets whenever he beat them in the ring, to much audience screaming and panicky commentary from the announcers about how on earth this man was allowed to have his assistant bring a coffin into the arena and proceed to murder a man via asphyxiation after their choreographed tickle-fight.  Amazingly, the evening news never seemed to cover the various public executions that the commentators believed The Undertaker was committing every week, but it was the eighties.  The news had stories about teenaged werewolves playing high school basketball to cover.

Anything to bring this asshole into police custody.

The gild began to flake free from the sweaty homoerotic lily, though, when I came to the crucial realization that some of my peers evidently never did, not quite a year into my infatuation.

Wait, he didn't even hit that guy, but the dude flew backward anyway!  ...Oh...

And the ember began to die, just like that.  I tried to continue in some sort of bubble of willful disbelief, but the whole enterprise was beginning to unravel for me.

For one thing, that much-ballyhooed free Saturday morning wrestling show was quite obviously shit.  The producers would march out some big name, like "Rowdy" Roddy Piper or Bret "The Hitman" Hart or "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan or Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake or Jake "The Snake" Roberts or Ted "Million Dollar Man" DiBiase...

No, it isn't just Mad Libs. And how do you even know what that is?
...and then pair him against some no-name jackass with no hook, no props, no garish makeup and no cool nickname, like he was just some contest winner or something.

"And in this corner, wearing a polo shirt and what appear to be recently ironed khakis, the challenger... Gary!"
These matches would end predictably even by professional wrestling's standards, with the no-name defeated in mere seconds so that the big-name wrestler could chew more scenery with his post-match interview which conspicuously promoted his appearance at the upcoming and super-expensive pay-per-view wrestling event where it was promised he'd be going up against a worthy foe.

Oftentimes there wasn't even a shitty match.  The Saturday morning show would literally parade big-name wrestlers out before the cameras solely to brag about how mercilessly they were going to pummel each other at Wrestlemania Call Your Cable Provider For More Information, then walk away and treat us to future ESPN Classics match-ups like Barry Horowitz vs. Tom "The Meek Accountant" Anderson, with a surprise appearance by Nathan "Doesn't Quite Have the Choreography Down Yet" Jones!

It was becoming awfully threadbare, as I began to develop taste and recognize that not everything put before me was automatically the greatest thing I'd ever seen.

You thought I was kidding about Pastamania earlier, didn't you.
And then came No Holds Barred, which was unabashedly one of the shittiest movies ever committed to celluloid.  I'm half-convinced that Hulk Hogan got some bad information from his doctor that he was terminally ill, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation stepped in to let him fulfill his dream of starring in a movie about how rad it was to be Hulk Hogan.

Turn to any page in the script and all you'll see is "HULK HOGAN DOES SOMETHING FUCKING AWESOME" with no punctuation to be found.
And I made the simple connection that there was absolutely no difference between this (barely) scripted film and the pre-ordained "sporting event" that was televised every Saturday featuring most of the same cast of characters (and the occasional Dairy Queen manager who happened to own a unitard). 

And, just like that, the last bridge collapsed between me and any want to keep watching professional wrestling.  I couldn't even think about it without fresh ridicule bubbling up.

"So, wait, this is a thing that people like, and root for in contests? And his name is Beefcake, but that's NOT his nickname?  How is that not Lars from Metallica, and why does he have Charo's dress on?"

And amazingly enough, I had made it out of childhood without having to wear a cast or hobble around on crutches for weeks on end after some sort of ridiculous attempt to emulate pro wrestling moves.  Nah, I removed yet one more degree of realism by saving all of my best injuries for my attempts to emulate things I'd seen Optimus Prime do.

And best of all, my dad got to see me take down my Junkyard Dog poster and turn my back on professional wrestling, and henceforth forever recognize that anyone making a reference to wrestling should be referring to the Greco-Roman variety if they're to be taken seriously and treated with basic dignity.

Y'know, to avoid embarrassment.

1 comment:

  1. I loved it. Both this recounting and the original learning curve.