Flashback Friday: Wrestling USA

A history of American professional wrestling, from Clarence “the Kansas Demon” to “Animal” Steele, eater of turnbuckles.
Flashback Friday: Wrestling USA
Focus on Sports/ Mickey Palmer

Imagine you are there as Big Jim Browning applies for the first time ever the devastating flying leg scissors and proceeds to “squeeze his opponents’ bowels clean.” Chester Patton did, and wrote about it for the October, 1981 issue of High Times.

It’s Wednesday evening, a little after 7 PM, and already all the good seats are gone. Cigar smoke and rough voices turn the air blue; laughter peals raucously from the rear of the building. A lot of money will change hands tonight, and God knows what will come after. A momentous occasion. Well, it’s been a momentous year. Six months ago, almost to the day 267 white boys had the literal shit kicked out of them by one of the largest Native American tag teams ever assembled for a single match. Gen. “Gorgeous” George Custer had amassed quite a considerable reputation as heavyweight champion of the U.S. Cavalry, though his tactics were not always sportsmanlike. Yes, Gorgeous George slung 157 effeminate pounds around with more than a little swagger in his gait, and not all enlightened fans will mourn his passing. Nevertheless, he will be remembered for the rough and ready competitor he always was.

It’s a minute or so before the hour now, and all eyes face toward the stage. A few glance around for the scraggly gray beard and high forehead of President-elect Rutherford Hayes. Surely he hasn’t missed the opportunity to be present at the dawn of a new era in martial art. But he has, so fuck him. Finally, six minutes after the hour, the men appear onstage.

Tonight, December 27, 1876, James Owens, the champion wrestler of Vermont and billed as champion of the Eastern states, would wrestle Col. James H. McLaughlin, killer of two men and maimer of a third, billed logically as champion of the West. The winner would win the $1,000 purse and become the first heavyweight champion of the world. By decree. Fifty cents would get you into the second balcony to see this wonderful event. A dollar would reserve a nicer seat.

An interesting proposition, this: that two men, Americans, compete against one another with the mutual understanding that the winner of the match would then call himself not champion of Boston nor of Massachusetts nor of the United States, but wrestling champion of the world. Hyperbole? Yes. Offensive? Yes. Important? Not really. Two out of three falls and five hours later, Owens is crowned champion of the world.

The history of professional wrestling is a colorful and sordid one, which begins, of course, much further back in the past than the Owens-McLaughlin bout. But as our purpose here is to investigate the uniquely American style of pro wrestling from the Gorgeous George of the Little Big Horn through our own Gorgeous George of the little TV screen, a detailed explanation of its origins will bear little fruit. The sport (let’s be generous) no longer greatly resembles the wrestling matches of 3,000 years ago, when a guy could wrestle for a really nice tripod, or, for second place, a skilled woman. The tripod was sort of the La-Z-Boy of 1000 B.C. Actually it was little more than a glorified camp stool (often cunningly designed) that could sometimes be used to hang a pot of soup from; it was apparently a coveted item in the estimation of the early pro wrestler.

But we digress. Two and a half years later Jim Owens is defeated by H.M. Dufer for the world’s title. But, due to referee indecision, Dufer does not get the championship belt and another time-honored tradition is engendered: Henceforward, both men will call themselves world champion.

In the 1870s and ’80s professional wrestling exists by attaching itself to local fairs, cattle shows and big-city “sporting taverns,” where gentlemen can sit and quaff ale while watching a pair of dim-witted leviathans struggle in each other’s sweaty arms. Great fun. And fun it is at Harry Hill’s saloon on the corner of Houston and Crosby in Manhattan for drinking buddies Thomas Edison, Oscar Wilde and P.T. Barnum, slinging back schooners of fine beer, sucking cigars and pounding the table with glee as the bleeding begins. All the action takes place under newly installed incandescent lighting, invented by Edison so he might see the half-naked men with greater clarity.

Emerging from this genial climate comes William Muldoon, wrestler, sometimes actor, and eventually New York’s first boxing commissioner. In 1881 Muldoon wrestles Clarence (“the Kansas Demon”) Whistler for a putative eight hours. The Kansas Demon loses the match, as well as his right ear. Hungry for revenge, he meets Muldoon two years later and succeeds in having his collarbone crushed. The Demon’s most sincere claim to history is his relation to James Whistler, the American painter.

In ’87 John McMahon calls himself the champ, as he defeats our Mr. Owens and goes on to become part of P.T. Barnum’s Theatre of Wonder. He and Vermont strongman Ed Decker wrestle for the audience and swap the title back and forth with great frequency. (To say that wrestling never recovered from this induction into the circus is to speak truth—the only wonder is that Barnum didn’t pit the Fat Lady against the Flipper Boy. But, of course, that was to come later.)

With the dawn of a new century comes an arrogant Iowa boy who, at the age of 21 and by his own decree, is made the new champion of the world. This, as we have seen, should not be considered unusual. What is unusual is the fact that Frank Gotch makes good on this claim and defeats all comers for the next 14 years. Perhaps the most famous and touted set-to of all time is the collision between the American world champion, Gotch, and an incredible Russian grappler by the name of George Hackenschmidt. Hackenschmidt, a former personal bodyguard of the czar, brings to America the reputation of being the best Europe has to offer, as he all but rips the limbs from every wrestler who has the decided misfortune of finding himself opposite the scary Russian. In 1908 Typhoid Mary is still at large, Henry Ford is cranking out something called a Model T, and Gotch meets Hackenschmidt for the first time. Gotch is the undisputed victor. Amazingly it appears as if Frank Gotch is indeed the heavyweight champion of the world.

A few years earlier, ingenious San Franciscans had devised something they called “tag wrestling,” a variation destined to remain popular throughout the century. The idea is to create an aura of fellowship by pairing two men against two men, thereby having a total of four persons involved in a single match. As the theory goes, only two men are in the ring simultaneously, their partners awaiting a slap of the hand to exchange places with their comrade. The most propitious method of executing such a match is to drag your opponent over to your team’s corner and take turns with your tag partner to crush him into submission, unconsciousness or death. Such innovators are the Californians.

After the 1908 defeat Hackenschmidt is predictably hungry for a return match with the champ. Gotch, however, is uninterested, having something of a temperamental personality. Gotch is convinced, or says he is convinced, that Hackenschmidt is beneath whatever fine moral qualities a wrestling gentleman should have and refers to Hackenschmidt in the most abusive terms printable. As Milton MacKaye so succinctly put it in a 1936 article, Gotch “considered himself as important as a United States Senator, and his manners were very little better.” However, in 1911 a gentleman named Jack Curley, who is to become the most famous wrestling promoter and impresario of the century by means as ingenious as they are devious, finagles the vociferous Mr. Gotch into meeting the great Russian again. Gotch stomps him again, and Hackenschmidt subsequently loses interest in the attempt to dethrone him.

On April 14 of the following year a 300-pound wrestling eunuch with the handle Yousif, the Terrible Turk (a popular sobriquet throughout the century), meets with misfortune off the banks of Newfoundland when the brand new Titanic, billed as “unsinkable,” sinks after a collision with a large iceberg. Yousif, it is claimed, is sucked to the ocean floor by gravity, a quantity of gold carried in his belt making him even heavier than his already substantial size. Later that same year Frank Gotch, sometimes thought of as the last legitimate wrestler and perhaps the most skillful wrestling athlete of modern times, decides to retire. The title passes to a certain Dr. Roller who defeats someone named Charley Cutter for the honor.

In 1915 the authorities finally catch up with Typhoid Mary. Mary has the unique distinction of being what newspapers describe as a “veritable peripatetic breeding ground for typhoid bacilli.” Apparently invulnerable herself, Mary is the most stunning example imaginable of the prototypical carrier of disease. To make the situation even more ghastly, Mary has what appears to be an insatiable passion for cooking and insists on making her living in this manner. New York health authorities have known about Mary since 1904, but she proves to be elusive, moving from job to job under assumed names, from restaurants to private homes to nursing institutions, even to Sloane Maternity Hospital, all in the capacity of handler and preparer of food. In 1915 Typhoid Mary is apprehended by authorities. Instead of receiving a bullet through the head, she is interned in Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island and kept there until her death, 23 years later.

In this same year the 55-year-old Dr. Roller loses his world’s title to a gentleman who will become one of the enduring legends of pro wrestling; a man who quickly gains the reputation of being the most dangerous adversary of his time; a man who will terrorize wrestling for the next 20 years, winning and losing the world’s title so many times it becomes pointless to enumerate them; a man who works out for untold hours on a wooden model of the human skull to discover the most effective method of crushing it in his meaty arms; the mighty Strangler: Ed (“the Strangler”) Lewis.

The Strangler is not only a consummate practitioner of leverage and balance, a master of the brain-damaging headlock and wizard of the “squared circle” (what ring announcers romantically and oxymoronically call the wrestling ring), he is indirectly responsible for a shift of style in the spectacle of pro wrestling so profound in its nature that it results in a new era of semiathletic vaudeville that will culminate 60 years later in the glazed eyes of a hypnotized maniac in south-central Texas.

Called the Strangler, for his punishing headlock, Lewis wraps his muscular arms about an opponent’s head and squeezes and squeezes. Lewis develops this maneuver to a deadly science and, though there is no record of his actually having killed someone, there are rumors of brain clots, tumors, lesions and other difficulties appearing in the medical records of his adversaries—rumors that could be truth or propaganda, for wrestling fans love nothing so much as this sort of pseudo-information. But the sad thing is this: If you are among a crowd of ten or fifteen thousand spectators all trying to make out what in hell is going on with those two figures down there in the ring, lying motionless on the canvas for the last 45 minutes, you begin to wonder what you have paid your money to see. And after a while you don’t give a flying mare who the jokers are in the ring, what their reputations are or how many opponents they have sent to the brain ward of Wrestler’s Hospital. Add this to the emergence of World War I, when many wrestlers join up for the opportunity to try their manly techniques against solemn Germans in a dark French forest, and you have the beginning of waning interest in an already boring sport. Nevertheless, some wrestlers come to light in the early ’20s: Joe Stecher, Earl Caddock (whose brilliant career is cut short by a tonsil operation gone awry), and the brothers Zbyszko (Stanislaus Zbyszko is said to be an educated man who speaks a dozen languages and plays a hot accordion to develop his grip).

The inexorable decline of the spectacle/sport is stymied by the brilliant application of this grain of good sense: To get wrestling off its back, you must get it off its back. In 1928 this is what happens. Gus Sonnenburg, former football player for Dartmouth, changes wrestling forever by refusing to wrestle in his first match. Rather, at the bell, Sonnenburg charges his opponent, leaps into the air, and slams his well-muscled 225 pounds into the chest and face of the amazed mat man. Down he goes. Sonnenburg, by grafting the flying tackle onto the traditional methods of wrestling destruction, has taken pro wrestling off the mat and into the air.

Sonnenburg’s contribution to the evolution of American pro wrestling is immediately appreciated by fans and inspires a new generation of wrestlers to explore this virgin territory of aerial combat. Fans are treated to the arousing sight of Jumping Joe Savoldi, yet another former football player, introducing the flying drop kick into wrestling and his opponent’s face and chest. Joe executes this maneuver, which quickly becomes a favorite of spectators and a permanent “wrestling” tactic, by effecting a prodigious leap skyward and lashing out both feet horizontally to connect with the jaw, throat or chest of his curiously stationary opponent. These newfound athletic techniques, complemented by the introduction of Ira Dern’s airplane whirl (a visually pleasing tactic in which one wrestler hoists the other way up onto his shoulders and turns round and round until the riding wrestler is presumably too dizzy to defend himself, at which time he is dashed to the canvas where he lays like a puddle) and Big Jim Browning’s flying leg scissors (accomplished by flinging one’s crotch at one’s opponent, encircling him with your legs and squeezing his bowels clean), result in a temporary resurgence of interest in wrestling. Spectators can now see. Wrestlers are no longer lying down and groveling on the canvas but are flinging each other madly into the ring ropes, running exuberantly about the ring, leaping, diving, charging and hurtling themselves at each other with murderous abandon. So amazed is the public at such extraordinary gymnastics and kinesthetic hyperbole that the wrestling boom continues right through the Depression until it is squelched in the mid ’30s, due, according to sportswriters and promoters alike, in substantial degree to a new form of entertainment that is free.

By the mid ’30s the national radio networks have been formed and are busy plying their audio wares. For some sports this is extremely advantageous, but for pro wrestling it is nearly catastrophic. It seems that while baseball or football or even boxing can be broadcast over the airwaves with results at least approaching believability, the same blow-by-blow (or hold-by-hold) broadcast of a wrestling contest is perceived by a listening audience as nothing so much as ludicrous. Difficult enough to forcibly maintain some suspension of disbelief while physically present at the match, listening to a radio announcer who is trying to explain what is happening in the ring without sounding like some fucking idiot is too severe a strain on audience belief.

Drastic times call for drastic measures. It is now put up or shut up time for wrestling. Sensing this, the promoters conceive of a new type of violence through which to assault the very concept of credibility. All restraints are shattered, any vestige of subtlety hunted down and exposed, no possibility left untried to wrest from the ”sport” any remaining taint of legitimacy. We reach at this point the beginning of the second great evolutionary stride, which will be brought to final fruition in 11 years with the peaking career of the most famous wrestler of all time: Gorgeous George Wagner.

It is during these days that characterization is exploited to the ultimate limits of imagination. In these post-Depression days the foreign element begins its long and popular reign, with Jim Londos, vanquisher of Strangler Lewis, meeting and defeating all comers in a mock xenophobic frenzy. It is in 1934 that an unlovely 300-pound bearded nonathlete takes center ring in this true spirit of sideshowmanship. This gentleman, unsuccessful boxer, unsuccessful Shakespearean actor and unsuccessful Miami policeman, finds success by storming the wrestling circuit under the name of Man Mountain Dean (a.k.a. Frank Leavitt). A man mountain he is, and wrestling fans delight in the unusual sight of such copious poundage bounding gleefully upon a less corpulent challenger. The Man Mountain makes his presence felt atop the bodies of numerous competitors until being stopped cold by the champ, Jimmy Londos.

The late ’30s are rather lean years for the sport, regardless of the ingenious efforts of the likes of Daniel Boone Savage, a large, grinning, long-haired man who plays the part of some backwoods geek come to the city with his oil-burning lantern, his corn squeezin’s jug, and sometimes his ol’ hound dog on a rope.

In 1936 Dick Shikat takes the world’s title away from Danno O’Mahoney, by his own admission defying the instructions of the promoters to throw the bout to his opponent. Shikat, as he declares, is tired of losing when he can win.

This ”expose” is far from astounding, for by now professional wrestling has long been suspected of not being anywhere close to reality. Already the New York State Athletic Commission has forbade the billing of professional wrestling as anything but an “exhibition” so as not to confuse the phenomenon with a sport. In 1936 something named Ali Baba, the Terrible Turk beats Shikat for the world’s title. There are now at last five claimants for that position. Wrestling is sick and there’s no denying; 1938 sees the last wrestling exhibition in Madison Square Garden for 11 years. Lou Thesz wins the world’s title (or one of them, anyway) from Bronco Nagurski in St. Louis, but nobody cares.

In the early ’40s an ex-typewriter repairman by the name of George Wagner makes around $100 a match on the wrestling circuit and uses the unremarkable stage or ring name of Elmer Schmitt. Born around 1916 on a Nebraska farm, Wagner is fine-honing an act that would make him a rich man by the end of the decade, the biggest draw in wrestling, and one of the most hated actors on television.

On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb is exploded in the New Mexican desert. That evening, while scientists all over America are drinking themselves senseless in celebration that the world has not been incinerated in an atomic chain reaction, junior heavyweight champion LeRoy McGuirk defeats the masked Cloud by pulling the Cloud’s mask awry and slamming a few high knee-lifts into his torso. In the next bout a mincing, marcelled, bleached-blond, 208-pound pantywaist swishes into the ring with his partner Tony Morelli for the tag-team match against Indo Cherokee and Danielle Aldona.

Yes, it’s Gorgeous George, the original Nature Boy offending all of America with his unmanly vanity his love of bright colors and exotic robes, his faggish manner, his tuxedoed valet who sprays the ring and ropes with a perfumed phenol base to kill all germs, the bride of television—Elmer Schmitt no more.

Clearly the most offensive thing about Gorgeous George is his seeming inability to lose a match. He pins the feckless Indo Cherokee with trickery two stiff right-hand smashes and an aerial headlock. During the coming years Gorgeous George and television develop a symbiotic relationship of the highest magnitude. The broadcasting of the pink-tighted battling hermaphrodite’s exploits actually enhances the sale of television receivers and in turn makes George internationally famous. Gorgeous is right when he simpers, “I don’t know if I was made for television or if television was made for me.”

It isn’t long before Gorgeous George brings in something like $100,000 a year. Soon there are Gorgeous George dolls, athletic supplies, bathrobes and even live Gorgeous Broad-Breasted Turkeys from the Gorgeous George Ranch in California.

In 1949 we have the triumphant return of wrestling to Madison Square Garden, featuring, of course, Gorgeous George. The fact that the card is to be held on February 22 draws an outraged editorial from New York Times columnist Arthur Daley who rails against the impropriety of defaming the birthday of the father of our country in such a clownish manner. Daley says, among very many other things, “If television has a sin on its soul, it rests in the fact that the video art revived interest in a sport that was dying the natural death it deserved.” Despite Daley’s position on the matter, Gorgeous George meets and defeats Ernie Dusek in Madison Square Garden in front of a paltry crowd of 4,197. Nevertheless, the crowd will grow and wrestling is on the road back to popularity and financial good health.

The ’50s move along with television wrestling and wrestlers like the very large Primo Camera, briefly the world’s heavyweight boxing champion; a grotesque called the Gorilla; chloroform expert Count Dracula; a light-footed sweetheart called Golden Superman, replete with golden cape, locks, shoes and trunks; another rustic character named Farmer Jones (wearing overalls, no shoes and carrying his pig and jug); and the Argentine Sensation, Antonino Rocca. Rocca arrives in the United States in May of 1949 and by virtue of his tremendous ability to walk on his hands becomes a favorite warrior of the Garden crowds. Wrestling climaxes in the ’50s, aesthetically anyway, with the Argentine Sensation’s part in the famous wrestling riot of Tuesday, November 19, 1957.

On the evening of the 19th, Sputnik, the world’s first rocket-powered artificial satellite, has been circling the earth for six weeks. In Madison Square Garden the last match of the evening features Antonino Rocca and Eduardo Carpentier in a tag-team contest against Dick “the Bruiser” Afflis and Dr. Jerry Graham. The match ends when the Bruiser and the doctor are disqualified for unseemly brutality but the doctor will not stop bashing Rocca’s head into the turnbuckle. As the story goes, told by the clashing parties to the New York State Athletic Commission, Rocca becomes genuinely upset upon genuinely bleeding from the forehead, and, grabbing Dr. Graham’s villainous skull, drives it into the corner ring post until it resembles his own. Aroused by the sight of real blood, about 500 exuberant fans charge the ring in a bloodthirsty frenzy desiring to assist Rocca in the mortal destruction of Graham and Afflis. Despite the ensuing storm of flying bottles, chairs and persons, no one is killed, though 2 of the 60 policemen attempting to restore order are injured and some 200 chairs are reduced to kindling. Rocca and Graham are subsequently fined by the athletic commission for inciting the normally bovine spectators to mob action.

By the end of the ’50s wrestling has reached its peak of innovation. The characterizations (caricatures, rather) required for the drama of the squared circle were more or less standardized and philosophically situated on one or another extreme of the moral dialectic.

Personified under the glare of the auditorium lights were all the mythology and folklore of the American experience, come to life to battle as gods for the glory of a fictional station. There they were, pitting ethnic purity against ethnic purity social class against social class, decency against treachery: the mighty lumberjack, typified by the hearty Yukon Eric, down from the Matanuska Valley to defend the honor of Arctic Man; the whining, narcissistic Nature Boy bleached blond man-baby, coy, vain, prancing pupil of Gorgeous George, hated beyond description each time he cowers beneath the blows of a more modest and bland American, hated when he outwits same American and emerges victor; the never unpopular Native American wrestler, each a chief of his clan, Chief Kit Fox, Chief Wahoo McDaniel, Chief Jay Strongbow, Chief Running Hill, Chief Frank Hill, each exploding in furious Indian dance when angered, culminating in a deadly ”tommy-hawk” chop; the detestable aristocracy envied and feared by the subbourgeoisie, issuing forth Lord Carlton, Lord Blear, Lord this and Lord that; the cruel unorthodox Russians like Ivan Koloff or Alexander Smirnoff; the unreconstructed Nazism of Kurt Von Hesse or Baron Von Raschke; the talented Italians; the devious Japanese (still); the strong-headed black wrestlers, be they kind or vicious, delivering brutal head butts; the Maniac on a short tether, slavering, drooling, cross-eyed and dangerous; the big mean cowboys, the big nice cowboys, the masked sadists, the Angels and the Demons, the Davids and Goliaths, Achilles, Agamemnon, Lucifer, Christ. And the midgets.

Yes, the midgets. Though deserving of but little space, these diminutive and tenacious warriors can be seen racing their 70-pound frames like demented sports cars around the circumference of the squared circle, flailing at each other in Lilliputian rage. Athletes in their own right, gymnasts of occasionally extraordinary caliber, these children of the gods are popular as a novelty among the ranks of wrestling enthusiasts who enjoy the juxtaposition of such small violence against the bowel-rumbling tirades of the angered colossi.

And the women warriors. Women wrestlers have been popular in America for over 40 years, exhibiting each a longevity to rival any of the veteran grapplers of the larger sex. The Fabulous Moolah, for instance, current female champ, has held her title since the Eisenhower administration, and Mildred Burke, the first American female champion, reigned for a similar length of time. Female wrestling, despite its suggestive nature and the vicarious and licentious thrill derived by some from the sight of two muscular, bathing-suited women writhing vigorously one against the other, does not approach the popularity of male wrestling. It is, nevertheless, in the estimation of the cognoscenti, a fine counterpoint, as is the midget competition, to the main event of an exciting card.

Wrestling evolution of the last 20 years has been uneventful. Characterization of opposing warriors already finely developed, we see an adoption of new and bizarre types of machines: steel-cage matches, in which two wrestlers are confined by chain-link fencing to prevent their escape; Texas death matches, in which wrestlers battle regardless of pinfalls to “the end” (i.e., until one “cannot continue”); chain or strap matches in which warriors are linked arm to arm by a chain or a length of leather, the idea being to strangle your opponent; loser-leave-town matches; lumberjack matches; six-man tag matches; brass knucks matches; taped fist matches; and battle royales (in which a dozen or so wrestlers are in the ring at the same time, the winner being the last one left in the ring).

There are three major wrestling associations: the National Wrestling Federation (the biggest), the World Wrestling Federation and the American Wrestling Association. Each has its own lengthy list of champions, and dozens upon dozens of “championship titles” breed like Mary’s typhoid bacilli across the nation. There are state champions, regional champions, continental champions, national champions, interregional, tag-team, heavyweight, junior heavyweight, north, south, east and west champions.

Bleeding becomes increasingly popular, induced either by a secret carmine capsule in the hair or, as is now preferred, a small self-inflicted laceration across the forehead which is encouraged to open and flow by the obliging blows of an opponent’s forearm smash.

Bruno Sammartino, an Italian wrestler turned professional just four years before, becomes the World Wrestling Federation heavyweight champion in 1963, folding former champ Buddy Rogers into a wallet-sized package in less than 60 seconds. Sammartino draws at least 100 consecutive sellout crowds to Madison Square Garden during his eight gladitorial years as world’s champion. It is during this time that the old “veteran” wrestlers of today emerge into the limelight of professional wrestling: Bobo Brazil; Gorilla Monsoon; Haystacks Calhoun (a man twice the size of Man Mountain Dean, punishing the scales at an astounding 600 pounds); the furious and deadly Funk brothers; Fritz Von Erich of the iron claw hold; Cowboy Bill Watts, treacherous former comrade of Sammartino; Chief Wahoo McDaniel from Oklahoma; Mr. Wrestling 1 & 2, masked nice guys; the Masked Infernos, masked bastards; the Spoiler; Harley Race; George (“the Animal”) Steele, eater of turnbuckles; and Killer Karl Kox, prima facie nut. There are more. Andre the Giant, Dick Murdock, the Crusher, Ivan Koloff, Superstar Graham, and legions follow.

In the closing years of the ’70s a new effort is made that proves to be new blood for wrestling. Television shows, following the lead of the “Georgia Championship Wrestling” television show from Atlanta, begin shaping up their acts. Much thought is given to smooth and colorful production, the camerawork becomes appreciably better, announcers are found who resemble their colleagues in boxing or other broadcast sports and who can command a semblance of credibility and wrestling takes on a new, albeit transparent, cloak of respectability.

Professional wrestling climaxes into the 1980s with a wrestling card on August 9,1980, at Shea Stadium in New York that draws almost 41,000 paying spectators, certainly a professional wrestling record for outdoor attendance. The card features the top of the line of living warriors, including Bruno Sammartino, former Olympic weightlifter Ken Patera, Tony Atlas, Larry Zbyszko, Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan and a dozen others. Without question, pro wrestling is once again riding high.

But why? Why do more than 40,000 presumably sane persons descend on Shea Stadium on a single night in the last quarter of the 20th century in order to watch a choreographed conflagration between well-paid athletic showmen? Why are they there? Do they think that this is reality that the gentlemen performing in this wrestling exhibition are actually pitting their fighting skills against one another in hopes of emerging victorious? We know why the warrior class is there: It is their profession, the nature of the class. But the spectators… do they know something that we don’t? Or do they know less?

Are they aware of the levity with which this spectacle is treated in every newspaper, every nonwrestling magazine, that has published an article on the subject in the past six decades? Do they know that professional wrestling never left the soul, heart and mind of P.T. Barnum’s Big Top it joined in marriage one hundred years ago?

What is it they see that is not visible to the uninitiated? Do they see visions of the future, some veiled metaphor in the flying leg scissors or vertical soufflé? Some intelligence of what is to come in the years of Apocalypse, some gleanings of the shitstorm of missile and fear, satellite particle beams searing off the tops of our cities, rocket attacks on the laundry radiation-soaked skies, freeways buckling, flinging autos into reservoirs, giants fighting in the clouds…?

Or are they drawn by some primal, tugging remembrance of a fictional past, when giants roamed the earth seeking adversaries for the love of blood and the breaking of bone. Are these the ancient warriors who sailed the treacherous seas, hungry for conquest, pillage and foreign women? Or are they merely blubbery incarnations of the sideshow geek, spectacles in the tradition of the Alligator Man and Jo-Jo the Dog Faced Boy? Some questions are not easily answered.

But chances are that these 40,000 are drawn to the spectacle of professional wrestling for the same reason that millions more sit motionless and amazed in their homes while the hypnotized Maniac Mark Lewin shrieks “Yeet! Yeet! Nyeet!” on their televisions, slavering, foaming, eyes rolling skyward, crushing the Shanghai sleeper hold across the windpipe and carotid artery of the now unconscious Austin Idol while the referee semaphores frantically for help and tugs to no avail on the Maniac’s arm.

Should we believe that the thousands of great aunts, beer suckers, college professors, dry-humpers, shoplifters and elected officials who sit stunned, eyes watering from video radiation and glued to the TV screen, are all out of work or brain-damaged? Do these folks really have nothing better to do with their time? Are they roped to their chairs, or too infirm to flip the dial? The truth is that this sort of thing is simply great fun to watch, and it’s much better to watch all the hypnotized maniacs on television instead of prying open your bedroom window on a long weekend.

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