D Magazine – March, 1981
By Mike Shropshire
You wake up a couple of hours before dawn, feeling drained and strung out from the savage dream which seemed as if it wouldn’t end.
The melancholy old building, eerie and half-lit like an abandoned subway station . . . the deformed multitudes, shouting and gesturing in some kind of grotesque agony . . . the bell clanging . . . the disturbing sensation of not being able to find your way out of there . . . that screaming Jap . . .
Right away, you decide not to retell this one to Dr. Weinglass, your shrink. The Freudian implications are simply too rich. Next time, lay off the guacamole.
The disturbing aspect of your latest subconscious docu-drama is that it’s simply too lifelike. That dictatorial voice droning on about, “One fall, 60-minute time limit for the Heavyweight Brass Knuckles Championship of Texas.”
Maybe it had something to do with the tiff you and the little woman had in the kitchen the other night over the so-called lipstick she thought she found on the paper napkin on the floorboard.
You grope around the shelves in the medicine chest for something which might coax your stomach out of the fast lane when you’re blind-sided by a divine revelation. A faraway voice, the same one that warns you not to answer the phone because it might be the MasterCard guy, suddenly whispers, “That was no dream, you damn fool. It really happened.”
Yeah, yeah. It all comes back now. The wrestling matches. You actually went. God, what an experience.
The phenomenon of professional wrestling, like American politics, maintains a genealogy which eventually traces its way to the circus.
It goes back at least a century, when the key attraction of a one-night-stand tent show touring the sticks was an act where the muscle-bound bad boy would issue a challenge to the rubes.
A “plant” in the audience would materialize and the combat which followed provided tantalizing entertainment for the hillbillies. The entire show was based on P.T. Barnum’s hypothesis that the yokels of the world will believe anything if it’s packaged just right, a premise which Lyndon B. Johnson exploited to optimum benefit.
The carnival routine, thanks to the miracle of television, has been refined into the spectacle currently available to viewers in the Dallas/Fort Worth market every Saturday night at 10 p.m. on Channel 11.
Is it fixed?
The people who print the big-time metropolitan dailies apparently think so, since their commentary on the wrestling matches is compressed into a one-paragraph agate type summary which appears once a week.
Professional wrestler Fritz Von Erich considers that situation and says, “They call it fake. I’ve never known of a sportswriter yet who put on a pair of tights and climbed into a ring to find out. I’ve been in this business a lot of years and I know of no instance where the winner of the match wasn’t the best man in the ring.”
Von Erich, who is perhaps the finest athlete produced in Dallas – although it’s unlikely he’ll ever ben inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame – has every right to make such a statement.
There is no substantive evidence to indicate the outcome of professional wrestling matches is predetermined. If you believe that the wrestling matches are a scam then you must also consider the notion that the Dallas Cowboys’ “miracle” comeback against Atlanta was planned in one of the executive suites of the National Football League and intricately rehearsed on a secret practice field.
“The sports pages don’t pay any attention to us all, since there are so many other topics to tear down these days,” Von Erich said. “I’m just as glad.”
Whatever the media may have to say about his profession should be of little consequence to Von Erich, who has become a millionaire through wrestling and owns an impressive estate on Lake Dallas which is not unlike Southfork.
Von Erich bears a startling resemblance to an athlete named Jack Adkisson who played football at SMU and set the discus record there in 1950. They are, in fact, the same person.
“My mother’s maiden name is Von Erich and my grandfather’s name was Fritz,” he explains. “When I got into wrestling, it occurred to me that Fritz Von Erich beat the heck out of Jack Adkisson when you put it on a marquee.
“Back in those days, I couldn’t do a damn thing without getting hurt. People think of Fritz Von Erich, the great wrestler. They’d be amazed to find out I lost my first 12 professional matches.
“I finally won against an Australian guy named Jack Pinchoff. He was an old guy, over the hill, but really knew the business. I beat him in Austin. I wrestled him again the next night in Corpus Christi and he broke my shoulder.”
Von Erich now pretty much presides over the pro wrestling scene in Dallas, and three of his sons, David, Kevin, and Kerry, are the leading attractions in the incredible productions which happen ever Sunday night at the Sportatorium.
For the uninitiated, an evening at Sportatorium wrestling will prove spectacularly entertaining and, at times, viscerally disconcerting.
“I’ve been coming here about once a week for 26 years,” a man at the Sportatorium beer stand explained. “At first, I came to watch the wrestlers. Now I come to watch the fans.”
The Sportatorium, situated down on picturesque South Industrial Boulevard, is the result of the genius of the late Ed McLemore. The building, which consists mostly of corregated metal, was custom-designed for wrestling productions and country/western music shows. Total capacity is probably less than 5,000.
When McLemore broke away from the Houston-controlled wrestling circuit in the early Fifties and began importing his own talent (such as 400-pound Farmer Brown), someone torched the Sportatorium. A truce was accomplished and the arena was rebuilt.
The fans arrived early on wrestling night at the Sportatorium and cluster around the parking lot, taking snapshots of their favorites and getting autographs.
Most of the wrestling fans are apparently not from the higher echelons of the social ladder in Big D. In fact, many of them display the Thorazine eyes which can typically be found in the day room at the Rusk State Hospital.
By 7:30, when the first of the preliminary matches begin, the Sportatorium is packed. The early matches consist of candidates for the big money who haven’t established their reputations. “A guy starting out in the business can look forward to making maybe 25 grand a year for the first couple of years,” Von Erich says.
“But since you have to pay your expenses on the road, you only break even at that level – if that. But if a guy has the determination to stick it out and has fan appeal, he ought to start getting some semifinal matches by his third year and then he might be on his way.
“Harley Race, the world champion, grosses a half-million easily and probably doesn’t work but 30 or 35 matches a year.”
“To get into the top money in wrestling,” said an “insider” in the business, “is kind of like getting into the Mafia. Once you’re in, you’re in. But it’s hell getting in.”
A wrestler called The Monk appeared in one of the earlier matches at the Sportatorium. He is clearly not yet “in.”
The Monk is actually Steve Miller, who was a heavyweight Golden Gloves champion in the early Seventies in Fort Worth.
His career is remembered there because Miller would often burst into tears while knocking his boxing opponent into New Jerusalem.
Now he enters the wrestling ring with a shaven head, full beard, and clerical robe that appears to have come from the closet of Ming the Merciless. Apparently, The Monk still maintains his affectation of crying in the ring.
“Hey, Grapehead!” shouted one of the ringside fans. “You gonna cry for us tonight?”
“You shut the hell up,” The Monk responded.
“Frankly, I wasn’t so good as a boxer, but I was notoriously odd,” said Miller.
“I was a little weird, very emotional. I’d get everybody excited and got ‘em laughing for a long time. I have clippings in my scrapbook with headlines like ‘Crybaby Miller Wins Again.’ There was this story in the sports pages after I beat Larry Montgomery for the championship where his coach said, ‘I saw those tears and knew we were in trouble.’
“After I’d won an important bout in the state tournament, I was shopping in Arlington and a kid came up and asked me for my autograph. That had never happened to me before and I’d never felt so proud. I signed the piece of paper and the kid said, ‘Aren’t you Red Bastien, the wrestler?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m Steve Miller, the heavyweight boxing champion of Fort Worth.’
“The kid just walked off, and I saw him wad up the paper with my autograph on it and throw it away. That’s when I started thinking about a wrestling career.”
Miller decided to shave his head after one of his first appearances in pro wrestling. His opponent jerked out a fistful of Miller’s already thinning hair. It didn’t grow back.
“I don’t win many matches because I’m not that experienced. But I have something about me which will help, and that’s my big old ugly face. I have a face that would scare off a mongrel dog. That amounts to charisma and if you have it, you’re gonna make a lot of money in this business.
“I hope to be there in a couple of years. I’ve got a lot to learn, but I’m mean enough. I worked as a bouncer in the toughest bar in Alaska.”
Miller lives in a mobile home in West Dallas. “I live in a scuzzy part of town, but I’m into it,” Miller says. “Most of the wrestlers’ favorite joint is Café Dallas. But I never felt at ease around people who think they’re sophisticated and put on airs. I just like to go to low-rent dives and pat the Mexicans on the back.”
The Monk lost his match to the “Baby Face,” which is wrestling parlance for the good guy. The baby face in this case was some old cat of about 50.
The bad guys are known as “Heels,” and all the talk is that you’ve got to be a Heel to make it in Dallas because the Baby Face market is currently monopolized by the three Von Erich boys.
Most of the leading Heels are managed by wrestler Gary Hart, who appears at matches wearing a business suit and fashionable hood, the kind popularly sported by medieval head choppers.
That costume probably generates dirty looks when Hart visits a 7-Eleven store or the bank. Wrestling fans like to bash out the headlights of his car and scratch the paint.
Hart gives the impression of being a Heel’s Heel. “Most of the people who dislike Gary really don’t know him,” said a wrestling insider. “You have to get to know him before you can really dislike him.”
The second match featured a performance by a miniature muscle god with the happy stage name, “Chief Billy White Cloud,” a promising Baby Face. White Cloud actually comes from Monterrey, but the American Indian traditionally maintains a high appreciation index at the wrestling matches.
In fact, the most popular wrestler ever, perhaps, was Wahoo McDaniel, who, in real life, reputedly once won a substantial wager by chugalugging a quart of motor oil and running 40 miles without stopping.
“Well, I can believe the part about the motor oil,” said one of Wahoo’s contemporaries. The University of Oklahoma kept this man on its classroom rolls for four years in return for his exploits on the field of honor.
Militants for the American Indian cause might be a little put off by Billy White Cloud’s spectacular feathered costume and his tendency to do rain dances and whoop “wa-wa-wa-wa-wa” just before he kicks his opponent in the neck.
White Cloud might counter that wrestling matches aren’t supposed to serve as a forum for politico-ethnic reform and point out that he can earn more money in a week with his Chief White Cloud parody than he could make in a lifetime sitting around Arizona roadsides selling Kachina dolls.
Jose Lothario, who’s been around forever, came into the ring next and made short work of Raul Castro, a masked wrestler.
Certain wrestlers are encouraged to wear masks simply because they have ordinary facial characteristics. Wrestlers find that they’re more professionally marketable if they look like movie stars or, preferably, are incredibly ugly.
Lothario has a sagging midsection, but moved around the ring like the Russian dancer Baryshnikov while working over Castro. At the conclusion of the match, Lothario attempted to rip off Castro’s mask, but the vanquished performer escaped and slinked back to the dressing room while the fans, many of whom could qualify for the World Museum of Chromosomal Disorders, hooted and jeered.
The referee, who bears a striking resemblance to Grandpa on The Munsters, raised Lothario’s arm in victory.
“Lothario’s gotta be in his mid-40s, probably,” says Fritz Von Erich. “He’s typical of a lot of guys. He’s so skillful at what he does, he might be around another 10 years. That’s what I like about wrestling. Get to be this age in most other sports and, man, it’s over with.”
Next came the main event, a three-person tag-team match. Two of the Von Erich boys, David and Kerry, along with Bruiser Brody, marched down the aisles of the Sportatorium with an air of patrician elan. Now the audience was wailing.
The Von Erich boys, in their mid- and early 20s, have the physical structure of Grecian deities.
“They’re gifted athletes,” Fritz says, oozing with pride. “They all made all-state in football at Lake Dallas High, and Kerry, the youngest one, set an age group world record at the University of Houston in the discus.”
The adoring crowd pressed around the ringside to have the photographs of the Von Erichs, available in the lobby for $2.25, personally autographed.
David, the oldest, has experienced his share of adversity. He lost his child in a crib-death tragedy and is now divorced.
“David’s got a pretty good head on his shoulders. The other two, well, they have some growing up to do still and sort of enjoy a good party, if you know what I mean,” said the wrestling “insider.”
But they’re all cashing in, and there are two more, supposedly, about to enter the profession.
After several minutes, the villains materialized behind a police escort which would have done credit to the late shah.
The cops come in handy. Gino Hernandez, formerly “under the care of Gary Hart” and therefore, a Heel, infuriated the Sportatorium crowd recently by ripping up some Von Erich photos belonging to kids seeking autographs. The ability to spur the crowd into a frenzy of hate is known in the trade as “giving heat,” and Gino is good at it.
So good that, when he was later pitched over the top rope and into the crowd, someone approached him with a five-inch knife. (Fans who get out of hand in this fashion find they’ll be dealt with harshly.)
The villains on this occasion were Tim Brooks, who’s been known to work on his opponents with a dog chain; Gary Hart, wearing what looked like a Spiderman costume with “CHICAGO” stitched on the side of his tights; and a sensational Oriental import named Kabuki.
Kabuki’s face was painted white and he carried a sword.
This trio would clearly be out of place at the Mother’s Day buffet at Brook Hollow.
Brooks, who appears to have lived much of his life in a foxhole, although he’s actually from Waxahachie, spit at the crowd and cast an occasional French salute.
Kabuki, the assassin, approached David Von Erich and waved the sword underneath his chin. Von Erich looked like he didn’t know quite what to think. A week earlier, Kabuki had strangled an opponent with a coat hanger in Fort Worth.
Hart coaxed the sword away from Kabuki.
“Get that SOB out of there!” shrieked a middle-aged black woman seated at ringside. “He’s crazy!”
When the match began, Kabuki became a malevolent bundle of homicidal fury, seemingly jacked up on that same drug they used to feed Kamakazi pilots that transformed them into live-for-today no-accounts.
The Von Erich boys and the Bruiser put up a fierce effort and at one point, Tim Brooks staggered back into the corner with his face coated in blood.
“Make no mistake,” said our wrestling informant. “The blood is real. Sometime during the match, while Kabuki was in the ring, Hart slipped Brooks a razor blade and then he just knicked his forehead and started bleeding like hell.”
This procedure is known as “juicing” or a “blade job.”
Harley Race, the current world champion, is renowned as the best “juicer” in the business, reputedly able to spread a few tiny drops over his face and arms so that it appears he just stumbled out of a train wreck.
On this occasion, the night belonged to Kabuki, who raised his right hand in clawlike fashion, then made the howling sound of a dive bomber heading into Pearl Harbor as he clutched one of the Von Erich boys around the abdominal region.
The audience was horrified. It was not a pleasant exhibition for Von Erich fans, along with anyone else who cherished truth, justice and the American Way.
“I don’t know how Hart got that guy into the United States,” says Fritz Von Erich. “The SOB is dangerous.
“He’s a legend back in the Far East. I’ve had guys tell me they remembered him from when they served in Vietnam.
“I’d never seen a picture of him when he didn’t have that horrible face painted white. He must have some scars he’s trying to hide. But Kabuki’s really in demand now and he’ll draw a lot of money. It doesn’t make a damn about his reputation, though. Somebody’s going to beat him, and soon. I’d still like to know how Hart slipped him past the immigration authorities.”
Some say it was not that difficult. They say, in fact, that Hart imported Kabuki from Kansas City, where he happened to be known as Takachika and was working the prelims, without benefit of the painted face.
The mystery of Kabuki’s origin simply enhances his value and he clearly has the potential to become one of the arch-villains in the lengthy process of fiends who’ve performed in the Sportatorium..
He may even join company with the likes of Duke Keomuka, Bull Curry and The Spoiler.
“I remember Bull, all right,” says TV announcer Bill Mercer, who’s been doing wrestling in Dallas off and on since 1953.
“He kicked me in the face one time. That’s the only time I ever really had any bad trouble with a wrestler. It didn’t hurt much and left a little scrape over my eye.
“But he was a real Neanderthal.”
The Spoiler, who was occasionally mistaken for the personification of Satan and was acrobatic enough to be able to tightrope walk his way around the ring on the top rope, once got on TV and explained how much he “hated the Sportatorium fans’ guts.”
When asked how he felt about the fans who watched on TV, he said, “I hate them even worse because I don’t get any of their money.”
Another classic was the late Moon Dog Mayne, who delighted in disgusting wrestling crowds everywhere by entering the ring and eating raw eggs, dog food, and, on one occasion, a dead fish.
“Gene Kiniski is a tough guy who really stands out in my mind,” says Von Erich.
“Lou Thesz was probably the most skillful I ever wrestled, but Kiniski probably had to be the toughest. He’d knock your damn head off.
“He never did that to me, but he’s capable of it.”
The Von Erich boys put up a brave effort to beat Kabuki and his two low-rent companions, Hart and Brooks.
David Von Erich delivered tough forearm chops to Kabuki’s thoraxial region with a massive “splat” and the audience roared.
A couple seated on the third row was hard to figure. The woman, kind of twentyish, seemed moderately hip. Her male companion, about 40, appeared to have gone around the bend intellectually some years earlier. He watched the matches intently through expressionless eyes glazed over from some long-ago trauma.
Finally, he was overcome by the sheer spectacle of it all and jumped from the chair to scream, “Tear his eyes out!”
“Oh, Sonny,” gasped the fellow’s lady friend, who grabbed his sleeve and yanked him back down in his chair. Sonny wasn’t heard from for the rest of the evening.
Eventually, Kabuki dragged one of the Von Erichs into a corner and, along with his partners, triple-teamed their victim until the match ended.
The crowd, stunned, filed out. But the big majority obviously intended to return the following week to see justice, in some form, take its course.
The wrestlers, who are professionals after all, had done their job. There was nothing fake about the entertainment values at Sportatorium, and another evening of family fun had, all too soon, come to an end.