When I was 11-12 years old, I went through a phase. I was addicted to professional wrestling. Somewhere out there, there's an individual my age (39) who will appreciate this post. First off I'll tackle the age old question (real vs. fake) from the unique perspective of a 5th grader. At the time, I wasn't really sure either way. Of course my family would just chuckle and claim "that the blood is from ketchup packets." But I knew the blood was real and some of the story lines seemed very credible. Lots of angry foreigners (Ivan Koloff - The Russian Bear, The Iron Sheik, Boris Volkov, and countless others). You've got to realize that my naivete was shaped by my rudimentary understanding of the political landscape. The early days of the cold war, Ronald Reagan's assertion that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire", that bone-chilling movie where everyone gets nuked (I think it was called The Day After) and my vague recollections of the Iranian Hostage crisis from when I was 10 years old - All these things played a role in shaping my thought process. The good vs. evil refrain was something simple I could grasp.
I would go to the matches too. I think this would later fuel my obsession with arenas and stadiums. After endless requests, my parents finally broke down and took us to the Pittsburgh Civic Arena for a WWF event. And they even opened the roof that night. I thought the entire thing would open up but it still had a magical feeling. I still remember some of the matches. Ivan "The Polish Hammer" Putsky (probably the most boring wrestler of the time) defeated this guy (I think it was The Unpredictable Johnny Rodz) with a headlock that seemed to span the entire 15 minutes. Speaking of boring, how about the Intercontinental Champion Pedro Morales? I remember the tag team of Tony Gorea and Rick Martell winning. The main events were Don Muraco (my personal all-time favorite) vs. Rocky Johnson and Bob Backlund defeated George "The Animal" Steele in less than a minute. I felt robbed that the main event was over so quickly; nonetheless, I was hooked.
Pro wrestling touched my life personally. We had a brief run-in with the legendary Bruno Sammartino of Pittsburgh. Get this. My father accidentally received his Paine Webber brokerage statement in the mail sometime around 1980. This was back in the days when they hand-stuffed the envelopes. Think about it. The names Saferstein and Sammartino were obviously next to each other in the stack. I never understood the story until my brother recently mentioned it. For some reason, I thought it had to do with a luggage mix-up at the old Pittsburgh airport.
Anyway, I needed more. So I delved deeper into the various magazines (The Wrestler and Inside Wrestling). Then I discovered these independent newsletters. These things would detail the results of ALL the matches. Now I knew who was victorious in Rochester and Erie, who was defeated in Allentown and Syracuse. I was immersing myself in this shit. As I stated, I needed more so I began watching the Atlanta Superstation circuit. These characters seemed more uninhibited, crazed and reckless. The days of Dusty Rhodes, Paul Orndorff, Abdullah the Butcher, The Moondogs (Rex and Spot) and countless others. The beauty of WCW - they would come to Wheeling about 3 times a year. When they'd do the interviews and mention "Wheeling" or "Cambridge," my ears would light up.
The real vs. fake dilemma reached critical mass when I saw "Mad Dog" Buzz Sawyer and Tommy "Wildfire" Rich emerge from the 7/11 on Market Street with a case of beer. They were laughing and stumbling. What the fuck? These two were bitter enemies engaged in a huge, ongoing feud and now I witness them hooping it up? Could they have possibly settled their differences? I watched the following week with great concern, but much to my chagrin, they still hated each other. I had difficulty reconciling this mess.
During this time, I took up photography and converted the downstairs bathroom into a credible darkroom. I would shoot my own horribly distant pictures and develop them. All in all, it was a good learning experience. Take that glossy picture of Stan Hansen and carefully place it in the fixer and stop bath.
And I managed to get my review of the local matches nationally published! I submitted a review of the main event to "The Wrestler" - A Texas Strap Match between Captain Dick Murdoch and Buzz Sawyer. They altered some of the phrasing but maintained most of its integrity. Fortunately, the writer kept the words "bloody and brutal." And to see my real name "Eric Saferstein" next to the column... I was in heaven. Now I was famous.
Every so often, they'd broadcast the matches from Madison Square Garden on USA network. The entire event would last 2-3 hours. This was a huge deal. My buddy and I would mimic the performance. An occasional elbow drop or Chief Jay Strongbow Indian dance (hell, he was on the warpath - his opponent's punches are ineffective if he's on the warpath). I remember one night we looked through the tv guide and it said "USA - Wrestling 9pm." We knew what that meant. We were on pins and needles all week with giddy anticipation of the Friday night rasslin. So the time finally comes. We tune in and it was BOXING, not wrestling. We were so pissed off we thought about suing. We had a hard time dealing with the raw grief that night. Our Friday night was squashed. I vaguely remember talking about trying to hire a lawyer. We were going to sue TV Guide and USA Network for misrepresentation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. At the time, we just called it "lying" though. I remember asking my parents if they knew some good attorneys. Only in West Virginia could a 12 year old be so litigious.
My obsession with pro wrestling eventually subsided by 8th grade or so. I tried to recapture the energy in the late 1990's. I would secretly tape the WWF during Monday Night Football and skim through it when I got home late. We even made signs and hit some of the matches. My favorite "I'd Rather be on Air France" was confiscated in Wheeling. This was immediately following the deadly crash of one of their Concords. However, "Russell Nesbitt Proudly Welcomes WCW" made it on national tv.
At a WWF event in Pittsburgh I proudly displayed the sign "Gangbang Gangrel." Gangrel was an early day vampire before it became so trendy and fashionable. Poor Gangrel, his schtik came a decade too soon.
One time, Jenn and I went to a Pirates/Marlins game at Three Rivers. The Rock was doing a pre-game autograph session as well as throwing out the first pitch. We got there and the line seemed like it was a mile long. We cut line and dug in. It got a little ugly as there was some backlash from the crowd but we held our ground. I was going to meet The Rock come hell or high water. We had him sign our posters and I told him he should use the line, "with your hee hee'in and your haw haw'in" more often. That's a great line. He just chuckled and smiled.
I have absolutely no interest in pro wrestling these days. The characters are too ludicrous and obnoxious. The acting and story lines are so over-the-top. It just kills any attempt at credibility. You see, credibility was vital back in the day. It gave you this emotional, visceral reaction. I recall one time at the end of the matches at the Wheeling Civic Center. The villain won the main event. This skinny, long haired fan was so upset that he kicked open the glass exit door. It shattered everywhere and he bolted into the distance. I remember thinking, "wow, is that guy pissed. You know, he has every right to be pissed off."
In this generation, the slow and methodical development of grudge matches and feuds just isn't there. And some of the story lines... For the love of god, it has become way too sexual. All the "Suck Its" and relentless boob jobs. I can't fathom watching this stuff from the perspective of a pre-teen. Then again, I can't quite grasp how young kids comprehend the world of internet porn these days. In my day, you'd see a Playboy magazine and every once in a blue moon, you'd take a gander at a sleazier publication. That was a big deal. Nowadays, you just get flooded with the stuff. There's no build up and anticipation. That's the best part of being a kid. I miss the old high school metal days when you learned about upcoming concerts from a flier at the show. Testament at the City Limits, Crumbsuckers at the Electric Banana, Agnostic Front at some dive in Oakland. Now you just go plug in the name on Pollstar. It's all about instant gratification. And from what I've seen, the youth of today has definitely been affected. Everything is packaged like an American Idol show. There's no room for the lengthy self-exploration. No tolerance for an incubation period. Just youtube the shit.
Pro wrestling these days is crudely scripted entertainment. And it's really low-end amusement at that. But I will say one thing about Vince McMahon. Love him or hate him, he's probably the coolest billionaire on the planet. He leads by example. Whether it's having his head forcibly stuffed in a toilet or getting hosed by a mobile beer truck, there's only one Vince McMahon. I guess I just wish for the good ol days. When getting hit over the head with a chair was a big deal. When the Iron Sheik would "load his boot" by tapping his Arabian sandal (seriously, how could that possibly make a difference). When a wrestler got disqualified but kept the belt. When you had a beef, the commissioner (Jack Tunney) had to be called in. When a series of three drop kicks were enough to finish off an opponent.
I wonder... why were the champions of my era so dull? Babyface Bob Backlund, non-talker NWA champ Harley Race, AWA stalwart Nick Bockwinkle. These guys were intolerably dull. With the exception of Ric Flair, most of the other major stars bit it. Sucked. At least the villains of yester year had some attitude. Nowadays they all have attitudes, even me.