Childhood, Pro Wrestling, and Being a Mark
Back before “sports entertainment” was a thing, my dad ran an independent wrestling company. Think less Vince McMahon and more flea market Jim Cornette.
He’d book shows in high school gyms, bingo halls, auction barns, basically anywhere that had space for a 16x16ft ring. Because of that, I spent the first five summers of my life stuffed between my parents in a late 70s Chevy Silverado. This was a time before mandatory child seats, seat belts, and common safety knowledge. We travelled the Carolinas, towing behind us a trailer full of wood and metal. The bed of the truck was full of mats and turnbuckles, 12 packs of Natural Lite and multicolour cable ropes. At our feet were empty Salem cigarette boxes, beer cans, and a black belt with a big metal plate.
We’d arrive at an empty building around midday and my dad and his motley crew of weekend performers would go to work setting the ring up. I would sit on the bleachers, a few toys in hand and watch the men strain and swear and finally turn a pile of random junk into the fabled squared circle. I’d try to stick around and watch them do run-throughs of the matches but usually, I’d be swept off by my mother to come sit with her and the other women in the concessions area. More often than not, I’d sneak off to go hang out with my dad and the other menfolk, getting ready for that night’s show. It was there I was schooled in the secrets of the business.
One of the secrets of wrestling is that there are these things called “works”. A “work” is when you get over on a crowd. It’s the act of getting people to suspend disbelief long enough to become emotionally invested in what you’re doing. It’s a grown-up version of playing pretend. As an example; On April 27th, 1991 during the peak of a white-hot feud, Earthquake (Whose real name was John Tenta. He was billed as 6’7ft 486 lbs) crushed a bag that held Jake “The Snake” Roberts pet python Damien. Damien had been Roberts’ sidekick and was a character in his own right. When Earthquake “crushed” his bag, the crowd went wild. Those fans that lost their minds and completely bought into the story are known as “marks”. With Roberts tied up in the rings, he was unable to do anything but watch this huge mountain of a man crush his pet and only friend presumably to death. Roberts work is some of the best ever to grace the inside of a ring, and that night he was on point. His face full of despair, he yelled and screamed for Earthquake to stop, for it to all not be true. In reality, it wasn’t true. The snake was never in any danger and Jake Roberts didn’t watch his only friend die. The role of Damien that night was played by ground meat shoved inside a pair of pantyhose.
Too many times I was hauled away from the wrestlers and forced to sit still and be quiet in some boring corner, far away from the banging of bodies on the mat and counts of three. In those moments when dad and the crew overruled my mother, I was the official gopher for the night. I’d run the lengths of the gym, hauling beer, towels, cups of water to the guys in the back. Before the main event, I would usually be out of sight, asleep in the truck far away from the crowd. Wrestling was a constant in my life, and I loved every bit of it.
Growing up in the Carolinas it was kind of hard not to be surrounded by the sport. The closest major city to my little backwoods hometown was not only the home of Jim Crockett Promotions (which would be sold to Ted Turner in the late 80s and become World Championship Wrestling) but also the home to one of the biggest names in wrestling, The Nature Boy Ric Flair.
Arrogant and flamboyant, confident and animated, Ric Flair was, and still is, pro wrestling. From his expensive shoes to his bedazzled and feathered robes, he was the icon for the sport. His theatrics, his ability to tell a story not only with his passionate speaking/screaming but also his body set the bar for how a professional wrestler should perform. In my eyes, he and the men he faced in the ring were more than human. They were like the Greek gods. But with championship belts and American accents.
And that’s what the allure of pro wrestling is. It’s men who look like superheroes acting out comic book storylines live and in person. It’s bigger than life characters taking part in beautifully violent choreographed battles. Good guys versus bad guys, babyfaces versus heels, heroes versus villains, add some beautiful ladies and it’s the male equivalent of a daytime soap opera. But with way more punching than kissing.
Sadly, a real-world workplace injury brought our wrestling adventures to an end not long after I turned six. The ring was broken apart and not put back together. It’s corner post used in the fencing for our merger herd of cattle. The hefty Silverado replaced with a smaller truck. The walls of my dad workshop stopped getting promotional poster stapled to them. It was over.
But my love for professional wrestling continued on.
It wasn’t until middle school that my love for pro wrestling, or as the regional accent in my head says “rasslin'”, became socially acceptable. But still, it wasn’t something that many girls my age were into. Along with my ill-fitting boys pants and at home butcherblock haircuts, my excitement for wrestling set me further apart from my female peers. Nevertheless, I was enthralled. What I lacked in a social life, I made up for with being a wrestling fan. No matter how many times my interest was discouraged with “But you know it’s fake, right?” I continued on.
High school and college came after and with them, more adult responsibilities than I should have had to take on. The schedule I was keeping kept me away from the TV for most of the week. Still, when I could, I would sit down Monday and Thursday nights and watch wrestling with my dad. Like keeping up with the Atlanta Braves, wrestling was how we bonded. I’d watch the spectacle of The Undertaker, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and DX with glee. My dad, in typical grumpy old man fashion, would complain about how wrestling had “gone to hell” and was nothing more than “a bunch of hogwash”. With the space between us filling up with more and more things, it became our last avenue for connectedness.
But like all storylines, that too would end.
The day of my courthouse wedding, it was a disagreement centred on the name of his old promotion that kept my dad from coming to witness the event. Someone had decided to use something close enough to his promotion’s name and he felt slighted they hadn’t consulted with him first. At least, that’s the story that hurts the least to believe. If I can believe he missed my wedding for something he gave numerous years of commitment to, it really doesn’t seem like that big of a deal.
After all, I know what a work is. And I’m a big enough mark to believe it.