Wednesday, March 12, 2008

My First (and Probably Last) Post About Professional Wrestling

It’s been a while since I’ve undeniably embarrassed myself around here, and I feel that runs contrary to everything we know about blogs. So let’s rectify that:

With some accuracy, I can date the birth and death of my interest in professional wrestling. I know it was born sometime when I was 10 years old, because on January 23, 1984, Hulk Hogan beat The Iron Sheik at Madison Square Garden to become WWF champ. I had turned 10 on the 17th of that month, and it was sometime soon after Hogan’s ascension that I discovered the “sport.” My fandom must have expired by the time I was 14, because when I moved to Texas in the summer of 1988, I wasn’t following wrestling at all.

I’m not sure what accounts for this freak show’s relatively rapid transit across my cultural radar. It wasn’t a sudden sophistication. I may have moved away from grappling once in Texas, but I was still, for instance, eagerly awaiting the world premiere of Bon Jovi’s video for “Bad Medicine.” No, as ashamed as I am to say it, given that I’m pretty sure I have friends who were reading Lionel Trilling at 14, it wasn’t a sudden sophistication.

I think I understand what drew me to wrestling. But before I go on, let me swallow any remaining pride and confirm the extent of my enthusiasm. This is a picture of a friend and I standing in my driveway -- artfully posed by my older sister, who was around 15 at the time:

Let’s close in for a look at that T-shirt, which says what you think it does:

That’s right: Hulk-A-Mania. And yes, that’s my family’s Buick LeSabre behind us. This post is brought to you by the year 1985.

(Along with the many other ways the photo is hilarious, there’s something great about that shirt on such a scrawny-ass kid. I would have that build, more or less, until sophomore year of college.)

At this point in its history, pro wrestling was taking a decided turn toward family-friendly entertainment. I would read about old matches from the ‘70s in which wrestlers -- who looked like normal guys -- were drenched in blood. The photos that accompanied these stories were fascinating and disgusting to me, and it felt illicit to see them. As was long the case (still the case?) with me, the truly illicit didn’t feel thrilling or liberating -- it felt dangerous and foreboding. So part of my interest was luck; the sport was getting a bit more cartoonish, which appealed to me more than its street-brawl past.

But as friendly a face as it was hoping to adopt, wrestling wasn’t exactly crawling with political correctness in the 1980s. (I doubt this has changed much.) One crowd favorite was Junkyard Dog, an African-American wrestler who wore a heavy chain trailing from a collar around his neck. But at least he was a good guy -- who would exit the ring after victories to a jubilant crowd and the strains of “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen. Perhaps even less p.c., and on the “evil” side of the sport, was Kamala, “a Ugandan cannibal with a painted face and body who wrestled barefoot and in a loincloth.” (He actually still looks pretty scary to me -- this clip shows him entering the ring to wrestle Moondog Spot, who, along with his brother Moondog Rex, hailed from my favorite hometown of wrestlers: “parts unknown.” Actually, details like that make me remember that I also liked the ridiculous humor.)

In fairness to my parents, who were doing their damndest to raise me as a decent citizen, their feeling about this hobby of mine could be described as concerned-but-hopeful. They certainly didn’t want me to end up living in Greensboro, North Carolina, saving some portion of a meager paycheck to attend the local action once a month. My father would take me to the occasional night of matches at Nassau Coliseum, and I think (hope) it was clear to him that I didn’t believe what was happening had any legitimacy. I knew it was fake. But that might have been the biggest draw to me -- it was a fictional universe, attentively crafted by storytellers. The details might not have been worthy of Dickens, but the carnivalesque plots were. It was the idea of such a universe, one both imagined and real, that appealed most to me -- I think wrestling was an outlet for the normal fantastical energy that led other young boys to "Dungeons & Dragons" and Tolkien. I was just channeling that energy through my sports-geek self. (I was obsessively collecting baseball cards by age 6. I never really got into sci-fi and fantasy, though I was a devoted comic-book fan from about 4 to 10 or so. I never read Tolkien or Dune or wanted to be a wizard. This is not to impugn those who did, really.)

Just when you thought the self-incrimination was done, I have to admit to having subscribed to three wrestling magazines at one point. Pro Wrestling Illustrated, the best of them, arrived in a manila envelope each month, like porn. Looking back, I have a strange inclination to defend PWI. Given the subject matter, it wasn’t bad. Here’s a typical cover:

That’s Greg “The Hammer” Valentine. He doesn’t look particularly savage, or much like a genius, does he? My dad was on an airplane with Valentine once, and excitedly shared the news with me when he got home.

(Researching information about wrestlers on Wikipedia is endlessly entertaining. The Iron Sheik was once a bodyguard for the Shah of Iran’s family. Kamala was really a guy named James Harris who grew up in Mississippi. And then there’s this classic nugget about Sgt. Slaughter:
During the mid-1980s, Sgt. Slaughter released a full length LP, Sgt. Slaughter and Camouflage Rocks America. It featured a number of original songs, including "The Cobra Clutch," as well as a cover of Neil Diamond's "America.")
One more anecdote about my dad that I think is worth sharing, this one involving Slaughter himself:

When I was about 11, a big, colorful wrestling book came out, and one day Sgt. Slaughter was in midtown Manhattan to sign copies. Dad worked in the city, so he brought home a copy for me. Years later, I learned that the line for Slaughter’s appearance stretched around the block, and that Dad’s friend, Dave, who had accompanied him on the lunchtime errand, said “Here, give me that,” took the book, and scrawled Slaughter’s signature himself. I love that story. I can look back on it now -- like that picture above -- and laugh. Barely.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wish you had posted this one day earlier. I
sat next to your Kindergarten teacher yesterday
at a luncheon. She must be 90 or so and she
still remembers how difficult it was to get you
away from the classroom book shelves to absorb
the day's lessons. You were reading full-length
Superman comics at four, so when the wrestling
phase came along, your father and I were confident you were not duped by its unrealities. Didn't you have a Hulk Hogan birthday cake once? Or was that the Incredible Hulk?

Thanks for the funny stroll down memory lane.
Love ya!

10:46 AM  
Blogger lmha said...

How cute you were. And I actually thought that was Rosie O'Donnell in a dye job on the cover of that wrestling magazine until you identified the wrestler. Tell me that doesn't look like Rosie.

3:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seeing this innocent portrait of a young Hulkamaniac on the same week that the Hulkster Spitzered his wife brings a tear to my eye. Those were simpler times. I always felt that the Macho Man was far more of a gentleman. -- Jason

4:50 PM  

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