Professional wrestling is dead, right? Vince McMahon murdered it for the tax break. There are no more Masked Superstars from parts unknown and we all know that the “wild man” from the Sudan’s real name is Larry and that he owns a rib joint in Atlanta. All that’s left is the corporate angle: employee v. employer (us v. them). Of course, we can continue to wish for wardrobe malfunctions, but they have duct tape for that in 2011. And maybe there’ll be snuff matches in 2111, but that’s a long way to go for a whiff of the Real (that true fans of professional wrestling so desperately crave). You might ask: “Well, didn’t you know that professional wrestling was fake in 1979?”--And the answer would have been “yes,” but I wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone in a million years. It was part of the illusion as well as part of the fun.
Sometimes when I give a test back to my students, I’ll ask a professional wrestling trivia question for a prize. In the old days, the student would have to mind-meld with me to win the classic Dusty Rhodes trading card, but nowadays the answer to “What professional wrestler died of a Soma overdose” can be googled in less time than it took me to ask the question. (It was Louie Spicoli if you’re curious). As the semester progresses, my students will ask me to “walk like Ric Flair” or “talk like Superstar Graham” as a reward for saying something brilliant. To tell you the truth, I really don’t mind. I’m a bit of a ham, plus I feel more like a sports entertainer and less like a teacher with each passing year.
Professional wrestling has been my favorite “thing” since I was 5 years old. In 2nd grade, my friends and I would turn a card table upside down, attach twine to the legs, and have matches with our Johnny West action figures (and no one ever referred to them as dolls). In 6th grade, my friend Allen Gilbert and I made “Mid-Atlantic Tag-Team Championship” belts in his garage and wore them for the entire school year. We would have matches at recess with my mother serving as special referee and she would always cheat so that we would win. In college, my friends and I dressed in 3-piece suits and headed for the Richmond Coliseum to cheer on The Four Horsemen any time they were in town. To this day, I think it could be argued that my tastes in hair/facial hair can be traced back to how southern profession wrestlers were wearing their hair back in 1982.
So what is the psychological attraction of professional wrestling for me? Why did I beg my long-suffering parents to take me to over 150 matches (including family vacations to North Carolina and Florida) when I was a child? Why do I love professional wrestling?--Because when I was a kid, professional wrestlers were the only fat people on tv. I was overweight and insecure and the wrestlers were everything that I wanted to be (i.e., strong, smart, and cool). I was a fat kid and they were my only role models. What did I have in common with Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln? I wanted to be Dusty Rhodes (the self-proclaimed “chubby plumber’s son from Austin, Texas”). Dusty Rhodes weighed well over 300 pounds and spoke with a lisp, yet when he claimed to have “wined n’ dined with kings n’ queens” and to have “slept in alleys, ate pork n’ beans”. I desperately wanted to believe him.
With this in mind, I think the best tribute that I could do for the idols/icons of my youth is to assemble a top ten list of my favorite wrestlers. I guess I should warn you that I’m a mark for the old Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling (the one with Bob Caudle and David Crockett) and that even as a child, I thought that the WWE was corporate and choreographed. I also realize that the true fans of professional wrestling will want me to qualify my criteria for picking a top ten list as it relates to mic skills, popularity, and actual wrestling ability. Well, Pro Wrestling Illustrated always used to qualify their fan voting with the disclaimer, “If you could watch the matches of only one wrestler, who would it be?” and I think that definition will work just fine for me.
10) STAN HANSEN might be the only wrestler on the list that I never saw in person. As a kid, I read about the “the lariat” in the pages of Pro Wrestling Illustrated. And per the trappings of our post-modern culture, maybe it’s better that I know about Stan Hanson from reading about him in a wrestling pulp as opposed to friending him on Facebook. Did you know that he broke Bruno Sammartino’s neck? Did you know that he popped Big Van Vader’s eyeball right out of its socket and then Vader shoved it back in and kept wrestling? There was no internet or cable tv back-in-the-day either. I would tell you that I stayed up late reading about the brutality of Stan Hansen under the covers with a flashlight, but for the sake of my image, let’s pretend that I was rubbing one out instead.
9) RAVEN: Don’t tell any of my freaks, but part of my workout ritual at the gym is to break out Raven’s crucifixion pose while chanting “What about me?!” and “What about Raven?!” in the bathroom mirror between weightlifting sets. Of course, I realize that’s probably not what Scott “Raven” Levy had in mind when he began doing the Christ-on-the-cross pose, but I emulate him nonetheless. I guess I’m ultimately a sucker for 1990s teen angst as well, plus who else but Raven could have invented something called the “Clockwork Orange House of Fun” match? There was also a time around 1997 when Vince McMahon was in the process of selling out the entire wrestling world when it was quite refreshing to watch Raven hypnotize jobbers in Paul Heyman’s mom’s basement. Raven had previously told both Vince McMahon and Eric Bischoff to “kiss his ass” too and that’s a nice boost for anyone’s wrestling resume. I guess you could call Raven my one guilty pleasure on this list.
8) CACTUS JACK MANSON: There was a time when I would have called Cactus Jack my favorite wrestler, but somewhere along the line, I think Mick Foley started reading too many of his own press clippings--either that or he sold out to the McMahons quicker than you can say “bang-bang”. Like if the corporate lawyers at Mickfoley.com ever read that I referred to him by his original moniker of “Manson,” they’d be in Iowa tomorrow putting a lien on my collection of professional action figures. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the oldschool Cactus Jack and everything that he stood for, but I’m not tuning in to The View next week to hear him read excerpts of his poetry--ok, I would, but I’d change the channel if Mr. Socko made an appearance. And conventional wrestling wisdom dictates that “sitting on a thumbtack in a bingo parlor don’t make you Ric Flair".
7) SUPERSTAR BILLY GRAHAM was the original, smack-talking, steroid freak and many other famous poseurs (Hulk Hogan, HHH, Scott Steiner, and Jesse Ventura to name just a few) owe their schtick to him. I only got to see Superstar Graham wrestle once (and his hip was brought to the ring in a separate suitcase), but he still lit up the Norfolk Scope. I’ve probably read 10-12 wrestler autobiographies and I would say that Superstar Graham’s Tangled Ropes (2007) is the best-written, especially if you’re the kind of reader who prefers steroid party stories over random wrestler brags about their sexual conquests. Also, if you run into Superstar Graham in 2011, please don’t tell him that he’s been the only constant in my celebrity dead pool since 2002.
6) HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order): 1) KURT ANGLE is the last professional wrestler--oh, it’s true, it’s damn true. 2) OX BAKER was the first person that I ever saw give “the finger” (to an old lady in the crowd in the Madison County High School gym circa 1977). 3) BRUISER BRODY died like a man. 4) I have a crush on MICKIE JAMES. She’s my Facebook friend, but I’m not stalking her. 5) HEAD because everyone wants head. 6) CHIEF WAHOO MCDANIEL posed for a picture with me on his horse when I was six years old. 7) THE FABULOUS MOOLAH wrestled more matches in 4 weeks than John Cena wrestles in a year. 8) LORD WILLIAM REGAL deserves to be on everyone’s list for what he did to Bill Goldberg during “the streak”. 9) BARON VON RASCHKE was born in Nebraska---and dat is all da people need to know. 10) JOHNNY WEAVER hit on my mom one time at the popcorn stand on the varsity football field in Louisa.
5) TERRY FUNK: What do you want me to say about The Funker? That he suffered more for his art than any professional wrestler in the history of the business? Should I talk about the first barbed-wire match in history (with Dusty Rhodes) or about how he tried to suffocate Ric Flair with a plastic shopping bag? Should I talk about his IWA-Japan’s king-of-the-death-match series with Cactus Jack that ended with dynamite and an exploding ring? Terry Funk spent 43 years of his life in junior high school gyms, county fairgrounds, strip malls, and bingo halls and I bet The Funker might fight you tonight if you were in Amarillo and brave/dumb enough to walk through the gate at his Doublecross Ranch.
4) RODDY PIPER: There’s a framed wrestling poster in my childhood bedroom from 11/22/81--live from the Culpeper Junior High School gym. The main event was Ric Flair v. Greg Valentine for the United States title, but Johnny Weaver v. Roddy Piper stole the show. I was only 13-years-old, but I already knew that dudes didn’t wear dresses (or kilts) in Culpeper, VA on a Saturday night in 1981 (or 2011 for that matter). And Roddy Piper coming to the ring surrounded by a screaming mob that I’ll affectionately refer to as my “home people” was as electric as anything that I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life. I don’t remember who won the match that night, but I knew Rowdy Roddy Piper was destined to be a star. The dog collar match with Greg Valentine where Piper’s eardrum was shattered was impressive as well--and we drove all the way to Richmond to watch it on closed circuit tv. More recently, while Hulk Hogan was blathering on to Larry King about “Hulkamaniacs needing to buy his new grill”, Roddy Piper was calling for universal health care for all professional wrestlers.
3) JIMMY “BOOGIE-WOOGIE MAN” VALIANT may very well be the most REAL person on this list. And I realize that “real” is relative when it comes to professional wrestling, but I’m almost certain that Jimmy Valiant wasn’t just playing a trailer park hillbilly on tv. And if I could have any video that has ever existed, it would be the clip of a down and out, Boogie Man drinking Mad Dog 20/20 on the streets of Charlotte with a group of homeless people--you know, the one where Big Mama (Boogie’s old lady at the time) steps out of a limousine and calls out to him: “Hey Boogie Man, let’s go party!” Boogie’s response: “No, Big Mama, Boogie Man down. Boogie Man hurt.” You should also note that Vince McMahon didn’t fly in some off-Broadway actors to play the street people--the people were really homeless and I like to pretend that their pay for the day was a few more bottles of Mad Dog 20/20. And if this skit wasn’t “real”, I think it was about as close as professional wrestling will ever get. I actually met Jimmy Valiant at a mall in Blacksburg around 1993 when he was collecting money for juvenile diabetes. Our three-minute chat turned into a three hour conversation and after it was over, The Boogie Man gave me a free autographed poster and tee-shirt. I returned the favor by going back to my apartment and bringing back tee-shirts for Boogie and his new old lady, Angel (and Boogie refused to comment on what happened to Big Mama because Angel was always listening). Boogie also invited me to come down and try out for his wrestling school in Shawsville, but my mama said “no”.
2) “THE AMERICAN DREAM” DUSTY RHODES has “wined n’ dined with kings and queens/has slept in alleys, ate pork n’ beans/he’s the need you want, the want you need/he’ll make your back crack, your knees freeze, your liver quiver/if you don’t dig that mess, you got the wrong address/while everyone else is in the back room laughing and joking/Big Dust is out front, cookin’ and smokin’”. What can I say about the American Dream? I think he’d be #1 on my list if not for the fact that he spent most of my childhood in Florida instead of the Carolinas. In a nutshell, Dusty Rhodes made it ok for all of us to be fat. If you’ve never seen a picture of Dusty Rhodes, let me paint the picture: 330 lbs., kinky hair, a large, red birthmark on his stomach, and a speech impediment. And he grew up to live the American Dream. I’m not going to tell that I used a red magic marker to give myself a red, splotchy birthmark when I was in 6th grade, but I will you tell you that whenever I’m in a really good mood now and realize that no one is looking, I’ll take off my shirt and dance around the mirror like I was about to give someone The Dream’s patented bionic elbow.
1) “NATURE BOY” RIC FLAIR: Do you remember where you were when you heard the news that John Kennedy had been assassinated? Do you remember the first time that you heard the Beatles? Do you remember what you were doing on 9/11? Well, the first time I turned on the television in 1973, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair was on WTVR out of Richmond. And when I turned the tv off after his retirement speech in March 2008, I realized that there had never been a moment in my life that The Nature Boy hadn’t been a part of it. (Mercifully, Flair unretired in the spring of 2009 and is now a part of TNA Wrestling on Spike TV). And if I’m telling the truth, Ric Flair is Alpha and Omega to me. I don’t care about your politicians and I don’t care about your movie stars. I’m not ashamed to say that Ric Flair is the most important icon of my entire life. The Nature Boy was always there for me and always made me feel better about my life (if only for a little while). I hid under the table between my dad’s legs in that Raleigh restaurant in 1976 when Ric Flair and Greg Valentine (with rings on every finger) came in for lunch. I haven’t seen my Aunt Nora in 5 years, but the next time I see her (probably at someone’s funeral), I’ll ask for the story about the time Ric Flair ran over her mailbox in 1978 (She claims that he called her a “fat bitch” and she called him a “blonde-haired SOB” as she chased him down a Louisa County dirt road trying to get his license plate). Ric Flair is as much a part of my life now as he was in 1978. Case in point, whenever one of my students appears to be more interested in updating their Facebook status on their iPhone than listening to my lecture, I’ll kick into my Ric Flair impersonation (complete with strut) which goes a little something like this: “Facebook, I think I might go to Taco Bell for lunch----woooooo! Facebook, I think I might order a Beef Meximelt and a Coke----woooooo! I’m walking down the hall---woooooo! I’m opening the door---wooooo! I’m walking out to my car---woooooo!” And what do my students say when they see me in Taco Bell after class? They scream, “woooooo” and ask me to retell the story of the time that “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair ran over my Aunt Nora’s mailbox.
Crazy Carl is the author of Bloodreal and Fat On The Vine.
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