Memphis Magazine, May, 1983
By David Dawson
Talk about a hell of a card. We got your Bruise Brothers and your Galaxians and your Sheepherders. We got your crowd-pleasing superhero muscle-flexers like Dutch Mantell and Sonny King and Bill Dundee and – yes, believe in it – Jerry “The King” Lawler. We got your newcomers like Philip Rougeau and Cowboy Jim Dalton. We got two – count ‘em, folks – two Heavyweight Title Matches, one for the Mid-American Crown and one for the International Crown. It’s Monday night at the Coliseum. The Fights. What more could a guy want?
Well, how about Sweet Brown Sugar, Jimmy Hart, Jacques Rougeau, Rick Morton, Bobby Eaton, King Cobra, Carl Fergie, Steve O. and Austin Idol? Disappointment over the fact that Abdula the Great is unable to make it tonight is quickly quelled by the thought of such a line-up. A small army of Big Guys, some of whom wear masks, some of whom have their heads shaved, some of whom bleach what hair they have white, some of whom actually bleed real blood right there in the ring, are all on hand to provide us with some of the absolute best wrassling action this side of Madison Square Garden.
Let’s go inside and check it out, shall we?
“I’m telling you, man, I got to go to the bathroom!” The speaker is a black man, about 35, who has on jeans and a Chicks baseball cap. He stands just inside the Coliseum doors, pleading with the man at the gate to let him in to relieve himself. “There ain’t no bathrooms outside, man. Listen, I’ll be right back.”
“You ain’t coming in here without a ticket,” the gatekeeper says. “No way.”
“But I got to go to the bathroom!” The man does indeed look desperate, even though he is not yet to the hopping-around-on-one-foot stage.
“Get out of here,” the gatekeeper yells.
The man in the baseball cap goes outside the glass doors, turns, and shows the middle finger of his left hand to the gatekeeper inside. “That bastard tries that every week,” he tells me. “He’ll just go around to one of the other doors and try it again. He won’t get in, though. Everybody around here knows him. Hell, you’d think he could come up with some other plan. He’s just about worn that trick out.”
A group of teenagers arrives and asks how they can get downstairs to get some autographs. One is wearing a black Van Halen t-shirt, with the sleeves cut off. His girlfriend snuggles up into his hairy armpit. With them are two other girls, who look to be a bit younger, 13 perhaps. “Go down by the first aid station,” the man tells them. “You might get to see one of the fighters, I don’t know.”
The group runs down the stairs, their sneakers slapping against the stone floor. I ask the gatekeeper if that is yet another ruse to try and gain entry without paying. “Naw,” he says, touching a match to an unfiltered cigarette. “Those are good kids. They come around here a lot. They’ll get ‘em some autographs, too, just you watch.”
From inside the arena, I hear the strains of the national anthem being played over the p.a. system. It’s eight o’clock on the dot. This, at least, is one show that starts on time.
My seat is located on the floor, off to what would be sidecourt at a basketball game. After the national anthem we – the crowd and I, a distinction I am pleased to make all night – are treated to what writers of potboilers would call a “pregnant moment.” The bloodlust is beginning to rise. The crowd begins a kind of wail, all eyes focused off to where six Memphis police officers – baseball caps in place – wait to escort the first wrestlers to the ring. There is about to be violence. The crowd could not be more ready.
In front of me sit three girls of about 15. All three are wearing brand-new Panama jack long-sleeved t-shirts: one pink, one white, one yellow. Jack himself stares at me in triplicate from their backs through his monocled eye. All three have similar hair-do’s as well: long on the sides and back, with a shorter portion combed neatly back upside their ears. All three are eating enormous Pronto Pups smeared with enough mustard to choke a horse.
The one to my left – in pink – elbows her friend in yellow. Her mouth is too full of Hot Pup to speak, so instead she points at a tall guy with shoulder length hair and a Rolling Stones shirt. “Yeah,” the one in yellow agrees, “he’s cute. But not like Roy. That guy looks like a wimp.” The guy walks past slowly, similar to the way a model passes your table at a cafeteria casting a sustained leer at the girls. “He’s gross,” the one in white says as soon as the guy is out of earshot. “Ya’ll just wait until Philip Rougeau comes out. Now there’s a real hunk.”
From the p.a. system, the rugged strains of the theme music to Peter Gunn come blasting out. Lance Russell, seated in the shower of light that bathes the ring and sets it off like a museum piece, begins his night’s work: “And now, weighing in at a combined weight of 428 pounds, the Bruise Brothers!”
From above my head, there is a thunder of applause. Yet around me, on the floor, there is a mere smattering. I look up and find that almost all of the people sitting up above the floor area are black. Downstairs, almost everyone is white.
In the subdued lighting of the Coliseum, as their theme music plays, the Bruise Brothers themselves make their way to the ring. They are both black, big, and dressed alike: blue jeans, dark jackets over no shirts, sunglasses, and pork pie hats. One carries a briefcase. They bop a little as they walk, as if both are afflicted about the knees.
When they are spotted, the white downstairs begins to cheer as well. There are the Good Guys for tonight. How that is determined, I don’t know, but the crowd does. Wrestlers change characterizations on a regular basis – today’s hero is next month’s villain. Somehow, from the very beginning of each match, you can tell who’s who, and how they stand with the crowd.
“They’re neat,” says Panama Jack white in front of me. “That was a great movie,” she adds, referring to the John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd film. Then, with no reason given, she says, “Let’s move.” Her friends rise with her, and together they set out to wander the Coliseum.
As the bell rings starting the match between the Bruise Brothers and their tag-team opponents, King Cobra and Carl Fergie, I lose sight of the girls as they disappear shoulder-to-shoulder in the direction of the Pronto Pup stand. For them, anyway, the wrestling is secondary.
Beside the ring, Jimmy Hart, one-time rock-and-pop idol, runs around the ring like a fox trying to find a way into the chicken coop. He exhorts his Bruise Brothers, who have taken off their hats, glasses and jackets, to whomp tar out of their opponents. Each time one of the Brothers hits either Fergie or King Cobra (I was never able to figure out which was which), the crowd yells, “BOOM!” The wrestlers fling each other about the ring, and each time one hits the mat he does so with a thud, the ring bouncing almost as much as a trampoline. Then, with no fanfare, one of the Brothers climbs up the turnbuckle. The crowd – both upstairs and down – rises to its feet for this one. Hey, we know somebody’s gonna get crushed, right? Nobody wants to miss this. And sure enough, the Brother dives off onto an opponent who is lying prone in the ring.
“That sucker’s out!” a man three seats down from me yells. “He ain’t never getting’ up after that!”
The referee slaps his hand onto the ring three times. At 10:27 of the match, the first bout of the night is over.
“I told you they was bad,” a man from upstairs screams.
Carl Fergie and King Cobra sit in the ring shaking their heads, trying to regain their senses by the looks of it, as the Bruise Brothers are led away triumphant between the rows of cops who have secured a path for them.
One down, seven to go. The crowd is just now getting worked up. They have seen a good belly-flopping dive which looked to smush a Bad Guy in the ring. Man, and what a dive it was!
The bloodlust is fully risen. Now is the time for some real action.
“That’s what you call the ‘Black Cloud,’” a man tells me. He gestures up to the seats above the floor, seats which are filled with black people. “I don’t know why they always sit up there, but they sure enough do.”
The man has a goatee and a worn-looking stocking cap on, giving him the appearance of a Canadian lumberjack. His accent – and that of the woman with a blond Gidget-style hair-do who holds his hand – betrays this image. This man has never lived north of Dixie.
“It’s mainly because they like to holler at the white people,” the man says. “I guess that’s it, anyhow.” The woman disagrees. “It’s because they can’t afford the expensive seats,” she says. Upstairs a seat costs $4. Downstairs they go for $5 and $6.
Whatever the reason, the crowd is very much aware of the racial separation at the Monday Night Wrestling Matches. I check this out with a black guy who gives his name as Andre. “Sure, man, this is a segregated affair, no doubt about that,” he says.
The second match of the evening pits The Galaxians against Rick Morton and Cowboy Jim Dalton. The Galaxians appear dressed in purple and orange robes over similarly colored body suits. When they remove them, they reveal the fact that they are hooded, with wedge-shaped white masks covering their faces. Bad Guys. Any wrestler who appears masked and hooded is automatically deemed a Bad Guy, and in the case of the Galaxians, the crowd – upstairs and down – roars its disapproval in the form of a chorus of boo-ing and Bronx cheering.
Their opponents are announced next. The Good Guys. Rick Morton wears regular boxing trunks. Cowboy Jim Dalton has on blue jeans, suspenders over a bare chest, and on his hip is a holster with a big old six shooter in it. When his name goes out over the p.a. system, he steps to the center of the ring and draws the pistol. Before anyone can tell what’s what, he fires three blasts (blanks, mind you) into the air, sending the purple and orange Galaxians scampering out of the ring and up the side aisle. The crowd hoots at them as they go.
From out in the hall, a big guy in an Ole Miss t-shirt with his blue jeans pulled up too far comes running in and jumps onto an empty chair just in front of me. “What are they doing?” he says to no one in particular. “Are they shootin’ guns?” When he spots the pistol in Cowboy Jim’s paw, he lets out a huge “Heeeeehaaaaw,” and waves his hand around in the air. “Ran their asses out of there, didn’t they?” he says.
A few minutes later, the Galaxians are led back to the ring, this time accompanied by cops. Cowboy Jim removes his big iron hogleg and puts it up, so that the bout can begin.
“BOOM, BOOM, BOOM,” the crowd yells as either Rick or Cowboy Jim slug one of the Galaxians. You can hear the pop of fist on body suit each time they do; it sounds like somebody clapping his hands softly. For awhile, though, it looks bad for the Good Guys. The Galaxians are fighting dirty – one of them even has the gall to kick Rick in the thigh repeatedly.
But just after Lance Russell announces that there is one minute to go, Rick crawls over to his corner and reaches out to tag Cowboy Jim. The crowd rises to its feet. This is it, man, he’s gonna do it. Cowboy Jim races into the ring and grabs one of The Galaxians, and flings him all the way across it into the turnbuckle, leaving him flat on his back. Then he takes out after the other Galaxian, chases him out of the ring, catches him, drags him back, puts his chin onto one of the ropes, which he uses like a slingshot to bounce him back out of the ring again.
The big silver bell at ringside is struck. The match is over. A draw. Shoot, man, didn’t they see the way those Galaxians were cheating? No, Lance Russell announces the match as a draw. Boy. Just wait until next week. Those Galaxians are too much.
All four wrestlers are escorted out by police. Two matches down, five to go. It’s not even 8:30 yet. A body gets a lot of Fight for four bucks in this town, let me tell you.
Sonny King defeated Philip Rougeau. Jacques Rougeau defeated Dutch Mantell. Bobby Eaton took the Mid-America Heavyweight Title home with him by defeating Sweet Brown Sugar. Bill Dundee, a crowd favorite who gets kissed a lot on his way from dressing room to ring, and Steve O beat the Sheepherders, bald guys with beards (another certain sign of Bad Guyness). And in the big match, the main event, Memphis superstar Jerry Lawler got whupped by Austin Idol, who thereby retained the International Heavyweight Title. Oh, and by the way, Sweet Brown Sugar had to leave town because of his loss. It was one of the conditions of the bout.
That’s what happened. But please, if you have any mercy about you at all you will forgive me for not tell you how. After the first two matches, my critical eye went stone blind. Thinking back, I’d be hard pressed to even give you a fair description of the wrestlers themselves. There was a steady stream of them – seven bouts, one right after the other – and frankly they begin to run together in the mind, despite the garish costumes and shaved heads.
My notebook offers no help. I find written in it such things as: “They look like puppy dogs, newly weaned, trying to nip one another’s ears on a carpet.” Or: “Each time a punch is thrown, the puncher stomps his foot on the mat, and each time someone falls over from such a punch, he waves his arms like a windmill.” Or, finally: “Each match seems to go the entire time limit. The wrestlers seem to take their cues from Lance Russell, who announces when there is only a minute to go. The match is resolved quickly after that.”
From what I know of AAU wrestling – the kind that’s practiced in college or the Olympics – all I can say is that this ain’t it. The only bout that seemed similar to AAU wrestling was one between Philip Rougeau (the one that the Panama Jack girls thought was such a hunk) and Sonny King. The two went through about five minutes of trying to get the various holds – half-nelsons and the like – on the other, and the crowd liked it not one bit. They hooted and booed until finally (with about three minutes to go) the two started punching and kicking and flinging one another into the ropes, and the crowd then began to cheer.
Is it real? To even address such a question in print would be about the same as sitting down and writing an essay on why the Easter Bunny leaves no tracks in the flower beds. The important question here is: do the people who shell out good money to come and pretty much fill the Coliseum week after week think it’s real?
Here is what some of them had to say:
- Danny, from Horn Lake: “I don’t know, man. I think some of it is. I mean, they get mad at each other sometimes, and you can tell they ain’t fakin’ it then. Man, it’s something when they get mad at each other.”
- Andre, a short black man in his thirties: “Ain’t no way to fake blood.”
- Rob, a pianist from Memphis: “It’s the best comedy show in town. Who gives a damn if it’s real?”
Whatever their opinions, the fans continue to pay and continue to holler for their heroes. They know the rules, and are very much aware of any infractions – usually committed when the referee’s back is conveniently turned – and most importantly, they seem to have a wonderful sense for a good performance. On the night I went, some of the wrestler seemed bored, or sleepy, like they were just going through the motions. The crowd rewarded them with catcalls. Enthusiasm was what counted. That, and a hell of a belly flop off the turnbuckle. That never failed to please.
Just before the Lawler/Idol match – the main event – I find myself in need of popcorn. Outside, in the line to the concession stand, I see the black guy in the Chicks cap who had been begging to get in to use the bathroom an hour and a half ago. He is walking along furtively, avoiding eye contact. Thank God for trusting gate keepers, I think. At least he’ll get to see the big Championship bout.
The guy ducks inside just as the contestants are being announced.
Jerry Lawler gets the biggest hand, of course. But he’s not, I am told by a woman there with her 8-year-old daughter, always so popular. “He’s the goat sometimes,” she says. “Right now he’s not.”
He and Austin Idol put on the most active show of the night. In other words, there is a lot more flinging into ropes and a lot less rolling around like puppy dogs. With just minutes to go, Idol dives on Jerry and the referee slaps the mat three times, very quickly. Lawler has been cheated, or so the crowd seems to believe, a victim of the old quick count. On the way out there is both cheering and booing for the two wrestlers. “Not everyone likes Jerry Lawler,” the woman with her daughter tells me.
Outside, in the sudden chill of that spring evening, two young boys wrestle in the grass beside the Coliseum. One of them jumps up and says, “That’s not how he did it! He got his leg and did this” – the kid rolls his opponent over onto his back – “and then he pinned him.”
“Oh,” the other one says. “You mean like THAT.”
Like dogs responding to one of those ultra-high pitched whistles, the two hear their names being called by a parent from way off in the parking lot; immediately they jump up and run through the slowly moving cards. The Fights are over – almost. It will be a whole week before such thrills are to be had again.
The phone rings at The Party Shop, next door to Buster’s Liquors at Poplar and Highland, about ten minutes after the main event has ended. “No, Bill Dundee has not come in yet,” says George Gully, owner. “None of the wrestler have come by.” Gully hangs up the phone and rings up a six-pack of Mexican beer. “Same person every Monday night,” he tells me. “She always wants to know if she’s missed Bill Dundee.”
For as long as anyone around The Party Shop can recall, the wrestlers have been stopping in after the matches to pick up beer and snacks to fortify themselves for the long trip back to Nashville, where most of them live, and which serves as something of a center for the Southern circuit. Since the store is located right on the way from the Coliseum to the freeway, their arrival has become an anticipated one. The fans are hip to them.
Tonight, the cars begin arriving about 10:20, just minutes after the Lawler/Idol match has ended. The faithful back their cars into the spaces, affording a better view of Highland; should one of the wrestlers decide not to stop, the fans who congregate here want to know about it. They want to be able to flip on that engine and go peeling out into the traffic to tail them out of town.
Most of the cars bear Mississippi license plates. Two Camaros, a Pinto, and several pick-up trucks are on hand tonight. “In the summertime we’ll get about 30 cars out here every Monday night,” Gully says. “When school is in session, though, we usually don’t have that many.”
Wait a minute. There’s something happening over at the Exxon station next door. A man with a shaven head and beard is transferring duffel bags from the trunk of one car to another. The moonlight shines on his pate and outlines the girth of his round belly. Could it be? Yes, it is. A Sheepherder! A Bad Guy, sure, but what the hell. One of the Camaros starts up and squeals its way over to the Exxon lot so that the three guys inside can get a better gander at whoever is over there. Who knows, maybe some Good Guys are over there as well. Just as they leave, one of the fifteen or so young girls gathered on the sidewalk in front of The Party Shop says, “Here they come,” and points down Highland toward Central. A big grey and black Cadillac, with two smaller cars right up on its rear bumper, rolls into the lot.
Out of it steps Bill Dundee himself, wearing a red satin baseball jacket that says “Superstar” on the back in white cursive letters. With him is Philip Rougeau. He has a long-sleeved t-shirt on, with some kind of writing on the sleeves. It appears to be too small for him, but then he is a hell of a big guy.
Rougeau and Dundee stroll into The Party Shop and head for the beer cooler in the back. A small clot of fans – most of them young girls, with a few scruffy-looking guys thrown in – congregate by the front door to await their return.
While they are mulling over the beer assortment, the Sheepherder who was spotted over at the Exxon lot sticks his head in the door. “Where do you keep the 7-Up’s?” he asks. Gully tells him they are in the back. “Oh,” he says, a snarl on his lip, before turning to leave. No one asks him for an autograph.
“The Bad Guys won’t come in here while the Good Guys are inside,” Gully says. “Usually the Bad Guys show up first, before the fans get here even, and kind of clear the way for the Good Guys.”
“You mean they take it that seriously?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” Gully says. “That’s the way they do it, though.”
Dundee and Rougeau decide on a domestic beer. They pay, and go through the door to greet the followers. Autographs are signed for twittering teen-aged girls, and Dundee allows several of them to give him a kiss on the cheek. As their Cadillac pulls out into the traffic on Highland, several cars follow, the fans inside wanting to preserve a view of their heroes as long as possible. After all, it will be a whole week before the faithful have another chance to see them live, up close, kissable.
Perhaps next week Dundee will be a Bad Guy, forced to wait while a Sheepherder or Galaxian makes up his mind over what brand of beer, what sort of cheese, what manner of cracker, to buy. In the world of professional wrestling, the fan is forced to grab glory while it’s available. You know, like who wants to kiss a Bad Guy anyway?