Wrestler Prepares To Throw In The Towel

Roanoke Times – June 1, 2001
By Taylor Loyal

Mike Staples leads a double life.

By day, he’s a family man, father of three, and a supervisor at the RADAR transportation service in Roanoke.

By night – or at least on nights when enough people are willing to plunk down $8 or $10 to see him bounce around a wrestling ring — he’s Rolling Thunder, a 402-pound warrior who sends his opponents to the mat with a drop kick or a power slam.

He loves both lives. But each year it gets harder to climb into the ring and wrestle. He’s got a fiance. He’s got a good job. His mother worries about his health.

Saturday, he says, will be his last match.

Rolling Thunder, 36, will be hanging up his tights on a night when he will be one of the youngest performers on the card.

Starting at 8 p.m. in the Salem Civic Center, the North American Wrestling Association’s Legends Tour will offer a showcase of some of the biggest names in professional wrestling — Doink the Clown, Boris Zhukov (formerly Sgt. Slaughter) and Ivan Koloff, who all are in their 40s and 50s. Ricky Steamboat and Chief Wahoo McDaniel will make guest appearances, but they won’t be wrestling. According to promoter James Wells, Steamboat retired after back surgery and McDaniel, now 61, has been sidelined by diabetes and poor vision.

Wells said Saturday’s performers will represent the old days of wrestling, back before it was overrun by alcohol and cursing and scantily clad women who pull each other’s hair. Wells said he doesn’t go for “all that crazy stuff” that happens nowadays on Monday nights. His wrestlers stick with traditional wrestling moves.

“They’re not busting up no tables,” he said. “I ain’t paying no $75 to $100 for a table. They can use a chair maybe. Or a trash can.”

Today’s big-time performers generally acknowledge that their wrestling extravaganzas are staged dramas. But the guys on the Legends Tour make no such admission.

“This is no stage act,” Rolling Thunder said. “I got scars to show you.”

Frank Parker, who will wrestle Saturday as part of the Death and Destruction tag team, agrees.

In 1996, Parker woke up in a pool of his own blood in Georgetown, Ky., after Bulldog Brown bashed him in the head with a metal chair. His trainer, World Wrestling Federation Hall of Famer Jimmy Valiant, stood over him, holding the severed tip of his ear.

Parker was rushed to a hospital a few miles away, got 34 stitches to reattach his ear, and then wanted to return and wrestle again that night. The promoter wouldn’t let him.

That was the first of four concussions he’s suffered in his career. Some mornings he wakes up so sore he can’t make it to his job at Christiansburg Recreation Center, where he works as a trainer.

Parker has leaned on the advice and example of Valiant, who began wrestling before Parker was born.

Valiant, who will wrestle Koloff on Saturday, made a deal with himself a long time ago: He would wrestle every week for 40 years. He started in 1964 and hasn’t stopped since, slamming rivals to the mat in Madison Square Garden and going into the ring as many as seven days in a week — twice on Saturdays and Sundays.

He’ll be 59 in August and hasn’t missed a week.

To keep his adrenaline flowing, he opened a wrestling school in Shawsville.

“When you go to an old folks’ home . . . you’re around all old people and you act old,” he said. “We’re up here at this camp around young kids and we act young. It’s gonna keep you groovin’ and movin’.”

Most of the Legends on the ticket have fond memories of fighting for free just because they loved hearing fans cheer their names. But after years filled with knockouts and knee surgeries, most of them know it’s time to throw in the towel.

Rolling Thunder has reached that point.

He’s whipped some of the biggest names in the business — Koloff, Mankind and Abdullah the Butcher. Saturday he will fight Big Vader in the main event. He said he plans on pulling out all his tricks — the drop kick, the power slam, possibly the sunset flip.

But while Rolling Thunder can talk confidently, Mike Staples shows tiny signs of worry. Staples talks about how Big Vader, who weighs in at 401 pounds, doesn’t care if he hurts you. Staples talks about his back and ankle troubles. Staples talks about his wedding plans and his 40-hour work week.

As he sits at his desk and contemplates his retirement from the ring, his head sinks into his massive shoulders.

He goes silent for a few seconds. Then his alter ego returns.

“I might surprise you,” Rolling Thunder says. “I might come back in two or three years.”

Tickets for the Legends event can be bought from Ticketmaster in advance for $10 or at the door for $12. Ringside is $15 and kids can get in for $6.

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