Village Voice – May 17, 1976
By R. Meltzer
Just another usual Wednesday night on LA’s KMEX Channel 34, an interminable half hour to an hour or so of Spanish-lingo wrestling coverage from the Olympic – punctuated by an occasional Anglo-decipherable expression like “Wow!” or “Bakersfield Stadium” – before finally we get to the meat of the broadcast, King’s English interview time with Judo Gene LeBell, brother of Olympic lucha libre (Sp. For “free fight”) promoter Mike LeBell and son of Aileen Eaton, the most successful female entrepeneur in the history of boxing. Tonight smiling carrot-topped Gene has something IMPORTANT to announce: Ernie Ladd has over the weekend won the AMERICAS’ TITLE, Southern Cal’s version of the champeenship shebang. Ernie, the only major matman of Afro genes who’s ever been allowed to perform as a bonafide non-chickenshit villain (as well as the only decent footballer since Bronko Nagurski to become an equally decent wrestler), walks in from stage right with his gaudily bejeweled crown and Americas’ belt a-glistening. Perfunctory congrats from Gene followed by a GREAT calculated who’s-your-first-defense-gonna-be-against? Sequence involving a good 10-15 names: “How about Andre the Giant?” “No, Andre is NOT a worthy contender.” “Okay, how about John Tolos?” “No, HE is not worthy, either.” “Pork Chop (a “real” name: wife’s moniker is Lamb Chop!)?” “You gotta be KIDDING.” Etc., etc., on down the list until ultimately the non-awesome Chavo Guerrero is suggested almost rhetorically. “Yes, I will fight Chavo Guerrero, he is worthy, I will in fact fight him right now for all in TV-land to see.” O-right!
What happens is little Chavo the turkey proceeds to beat big Ernie the champ’s ASS. Pins him for a 3-count and leaps triumphantly toward the rafters as ring announcer Jimmy Lennon – uncle of the Lennon Sisters! – makes the victory official in his wrinkled gray bargain-basement suit. Guerrero goes beamingly for Ernie’s belt – belts’re GREAT, y’know! – but shit Ern ain’t parting with it, he’s protesting and COMPLAINING about something – Quickly thru the ropes strides Geno with his mike to see what’s wrong, turns out Ladd’s claiming THE TITLE was not ON THE LINE to which LeBell plaintively 2-centses “But you PROMISED.” “SO I LIED!” chortles the ex-defensive lineman, his championship intact SIMPLY BY HIS OWN DECLARATION (gosh!), yet another incredible addition to the Wrassling Book in the Sky on sacred LA parchment.
Like there’s ALWAYS been a good deal more variety to the LA proceedings than in N.Y. anyway, to wit: 1. Bad guys actually winning major matches (in this case merely to set up an untelevised return grudge affair two nights later but Madison Square Garden won’t even HEAR of things like that, like first and foremost they’re afraid of the consequences – e.g. riots by the largely Puerto Rican audience – should a wimpy Victor Rivera type goody-goody EVER lose and – getting a bit more sinister – it’s kind of obvious the N.Y. promotion thinks of itself as playing a Horatio Algeresque role in the education of what it takes to be simple Caribbean folk in need of an unswerving lesson in good-good-over-evil, y’know a whole social control routine the likes of which the Eaton-LeBell clan’d never inflict on the sophisticated Mexes who’re in their seats to experience as much goddam satisfying return-match drama as the traffic will bear anyway); 2. Masks (some ancient NY State law or something actually forbids covering up the old phiz – guy might be an escaped con on the lam!); 3. Villains vs. other villains (NY fear is the fans won’t be able to RELATE to unleashed badasshood per se); 4. Bad guys who go good at the drop of a hat and vice versa (former Am Champs J. Tolos and Freddie Blassie have been working this viable scam for years: ambiquity/ambivalence incarnate); 5. Handicap matches (big mothers like 7’4″ 470-pound Andre hafta fight one puny opponent at a time at the Garden – State ATHLETIC Commission guidelines! – whereas in sunny Calif it’s cool to more evenly match jumbos against a pair of normals so in effect NY’s actually INFLICTING the “handicap” on the ordinary sized jerkoff); 6. Cage fandangos (the guys are in the ring by themselves – no ref – surrounded by this 4-sided fence, winner is the one who climbs out first, object is to so maim the other bozo he can’t do no climbing: no-holds-barred in its most unrestricted form); AND OF COURSE 7. THE ANNUAL 22-MAN BATTLE ROYAL – the crème de la crème of catch-as-catch-can action.
Like take for instance this year’s edition of #7 which this here sportswrite hack had the good fortune to witness in the flesh. Friday before Super Sunday back in January. Olympic Auditorium is almost full, 10,000 or so while nowadays mama Aileen can’t even GIVE it away for the hifalutin “legit” sport of pugilism. Great motherheppin sleazy slice of Americana, this joint. Popcorn get cleaned up maybe once a month. Your feet stick to the floor. Cerveza’s GOTTA be the most watered down anywhere which explains why many patrons don’t mind throwing their full cups of the swill up toward the ring – there’s even this one Chicano regular who’s got a knuckleball type deliver down near perfect, very little rotation so nothin gets spilled till it’s already past the seats. Half price for kids under 12 (NY State don’t even ALLOW em in under 14: must figger they’re TOO YOUNG to eyeball figure-four legvines and flying knee drops to the scrod!). Old yellowed photos of Ace Hudkins and Kid Chocolate dot the walls. When the men’s john is full they’ll pass their water in the nearest garbage can. WORST seegars ever sold by a major sports dive. Old St. Nicholas Arena was never this funky and certainly not Sunnyside Gardens. DAMN nifty palais de sport and its crowning glory is the battle ROYALE (as local esoterics insist on calling it): TWUNNY-TWO still-sweaty-from-their-prelims bruisers (no time for a shower!) comin back out for the biggest 22-man showdown in all the world – certainly as hell including the gridiron – all of em in the ring together for upward of an hour goin at it like krazy till finally they’re down to one single only slightly sweatier cauliflower-bender, winner-take-all booty of 20 grand going to said survivor…
Big issue this year was whether or not gigantic Andre was gonna repeat as top-o-the-totem (nobody’d ever won two years running). Very conceivable he could get toppled at a moment of imbalance and then 8-10 standard-siz muh-fuhs could pounce on him for the required duration, happened in ‘72 with 601-lb. Haystacks Calhoun so why not pituitary Andre? A swell inevitable high school physics solution to the monster question but it ain’t happened however by the time we’re almost down to less total opposing poundage than’d be needed to do the trick – when remarkably the big ape turns DUMB, falling prey to the taunts of JC Dykes, rogue manager of masked combatant Inferno #1 tho not a contestant himself. Andre pursues JC out of the ring, grounds for automatic elimination and y’shoulda seen the bafflement on the big moron’s face as ref Red Shoes Dugan (famed for his red shoes) tells him it’s all over boss.
(And what’s really genuinely great about Battle Royals is precisely this intermediate hokum, the shenanigans that transpire between the participants before you’re down to where it really counts. Cause like let’s ADMIT for argument sake that the final finish is maybe – uh – predetermined, okay well even so there’s LOTS of room for spontaneity and improvisation and all that shit at the midway stages of battle, y’know like even ACTUAL professional grudges being worked out between guys who (seemingly) authentically can’t stand each other. The result is infinitely more free-form and unchoreographed than NY ever ever gets with the possible exception of Killer Kowalski.)
Anyway sooner or later it’s down to just three left, Ernie, Mr. P. Chop, and a professed Ay-rab named Java Ruuk (camel on his garish-anyway bestriped trunks). A darkhorse if there ever was one, Java takes it with a stroke of inspired laziness and here’s how: rests at a turnbuckle while Ern and the Porker have at it with abandon on the ring apron, a little TOO abandony tho cause they lose their balance and plummet to the arena floor, it’s all over, and Java’s got the big V just for biding his time. (Most ostentatious triumph of Oil Consciousness to date.) Fuh. Shee. Chinga tu madre. Crowd leaves in mild disappointment ‘Ready for next week when Andre takes on both Inferno #1 and Dykes in a “loser leaves town” struggle. Customary deal is defeated party is exiled for 30 days but this time the contract calls for forever. And not just for grunt-n-groan purposes, this time it’s outa the entire state PERIOD. Which means Andre’s fucking GOTTA win, scheduled to do an episode of “Six Million Dollar Man” so how’s he gonna shoot it if he’s stuck in Chicago? Funny tho cause after he does take the pair’s measure he disappears to the greener wrestling pastures of somewhere-or-other anyway ($250,000-per-annum rumored earnings). Good riddance and that’s another point in LA’s favor: worthless gobblers are as likely to depart in victory as in defeat – so you’re not stuck with horrible tedious freaks nearly as long as in NY (I mean when the heck’s Bruno Sammartino EVER gonna depart the Garden? – took a goddam “broken leg” inflicted by Ivan Koloff to do it back at the turn of the ‘70s), the overall quality often getting stabilized as much on an AESTHETIC basis as on a political one.
Time marches on and destiny finally did hand Chavo the Americas’ Tit outright, prestige of course but for awhile he also had this other whatsis to supply a slightly more novel hunk of interest for the aficionados. Got this match in LA for something called the Jules Strongbow Scientific Trophy, way it works is the first s.o.b. to do ANYTHING ILLEGAL (needn’t be flagrant!) gets disqualified, TIMEKEEPER RING THAT BELL. Lots of wearisome legality of course, the kinda crap you get every few cards at the Garden and which leads to instant yawns and those inevitable comments from tired old-timers to the effect that “When wrestling was wrestling back in the good old days this is the way things ALWAYS happened.” Leave it to LA to package even the likes of this into something NEARLY viable and the bad seed of total viability’s built into the concept too: the awesome possibility of DIRTY SCIENTIFIC WRESTLING!
I.e. the act of pissing off your Mr. Clean adversary sufficiently to make HIM perform the first unlawful act (the corruption of certified purity!). Needed for the role is a namby-pamby relatively unemotional mediocrity capable of physically restraining himself while verbally deriding the cheese he’s facing. And since mediocrity is always in plenitude anywhere you don’t gotta look very far, in this case a bekilted fake Scotsman name of Roddy Piper (originally Rodney but they finally settled on Roddy cause his persona is closer to Roddy McDowall’s than Rodney Harrington’s or some such crap). Anyway by the time of his J. Strongbow appearance against Mr. Guerrero Roddy’s been in town maybe a month or so and he ain’t done diddleyshit one way or the other, perfect bland nonentity and his ring posture really IRKS the self-consciously proud and personable pseudo-macho Chavo: offers up his chin for a (disqualifying) knuckle sandwich, c’mon HIT me! Conspicuously bothered as much by the seeming impotence/masochism/sissyhood of the gesture as bytheimminenceofdisqualification, Chavo seems in constant danger of losing his cool, somehow each time at the last second asserting control over the arc of his haymaker, transferring the brunt of impact to the forearm (forearm smashes’re legal, always have been) time after time until…
Well Chavo didn’t emerge full-fledged from outa nowhere, initial gimmick was he’s the son of former campeon del mundo Gory (!) Guerrero and so finally this particular eve I’ll be dipped in shit if they don’t actually bring Gory back as sonnyboy’s soon-to-be tag partner, a bald pathetic chubbo in his late 50s at least and here is in street clothes sitting at ringside urging Guerrero hijo on against this Anglo faggot. Okay so you musta guessed already how the passive Ang-fag’s ultimately gonna get the hot-blooded Latino to uncork a title-relinquishing one-two to his waspy mug: takes a swipe at daddy! Fists, kicking, knees, everything, etc. follow, mucho rage and then mucho disgust at seeing the trophy (not a belt) handed over to this hideously grinning creepo. (Subsequent interview has Guerrero senior castigating junior for breaking “the first rule of athletics – keep control of your temper at all times or you are already half-beaten”; “I know dad but you’re my father, my BLOOD.”)
Okay so for the next couple weeks it’s geezer Gory serving as the catalyst for Chavo’s wrath, foremost geezer-stomper being this masked nerd of a newcomer of presumed Mexican extraction known simply as Senor X (recite that “Quis”) who’s also reputed to’ve sent Tolos to the hospital in San Berdoo as the prelude to demolishing Gory in a televised encounter. Mask he’s wearing’s regrettably a little too unrevealing so to hype the gate Mike LeBell himself hasta come screaming into the middle of a Gene interview and reveal like the honest man he is that reliable sources have hepped him to the true identity of the Senor: none other than banished-for-life JC Dykes!!! ‘this leads to a cage match, giving CG a chance to avenge both papa and the reputation of the Olympic (remove facial concealment in a cage and there ain’t no way the gent can grab a towel and cover up just in the nick of time, the usual ploy). And sure enough: JC is banned FOR LIFE this time.
Bravo and so it’s on to an import from Texas and points southeast, the utterly non-wimpily malevolent Terry Funk who fuckin HATES Meskins in no uncertain terms: “I’m gonna beat you Chavo and I’m gonna beat you easy. What’s gonna make it so easy is your BREEDING and I think you know what I mean. You’re just a NO-GOOD SNAKY-HAIRED EGG-SUCKING LATIN AMERICAN DOG. I hate tacos, I hate burritos, and I hate YOU Chavo Guerrero . . . ” (Another outasight distinction between LA and NY is the former really lets bad-mutha personas take on bitingly racist overtones, I mean why shouldn’t a baddy be all a baddy is capable of being?) Chavo’s lame but agitated response: “The things he CALLS me! He calls me Latin American! He won’t get away with that!” (Hey Chango, where’s your regional-origin PRIDE f’chrissakes!)
Result of this ‘un: Terry gets disqualified, in this case a DEFEAT WITH HONOR if there ever was one (the one recourse bad-arses always have regardless of the locale thankgod!).
Okay so with Terry outa the picture almost as soon as he got there once more they gotta RESORT TO RODDY. So happens Glasgow’s finest managed himself a win over Gory on the Chavo-Funk undercard so another ballyhooed showdown is a natch and – hoot mon! – this time Piper pulls off the big one. Takes the Americas’-to go with his Strongbow and what’s worse for Chavo is he must leave town for the big 30. Contract tho doesn’t call for him to get on the boat IMMEDIATELY so he shows up in civvies to watch his pop AGAIN get pummeled by the Piper Cub. Also a repeat of him bein the first stoopid to commit the foul, charges in from his seat (disq. For Gory: “outside interference” clause of the so-called Bicentennial Rules) prompting Rod’s new partner Crusher Verdu (from SPAIN so’s he can act hoity-toitier than the New World Latinos and still speak their language!) to storm in himself and fuggin bloody up the senior cit’s wornout furrowed dogface (lotsa gore for Gory, about time!). So in other words it’s even the offspring’s FAULT that his pops got popped: it’s the dirties who’re committing the righteous acts of vengeance these days! THEIR prerogative! Analogous to much of what the commies’ve been doin for the last decade or so! (Ya’d NEVER see it in NY!)
Anyway there’s a whole slew of long-time local observers who think this shit is the NADIR OF EL-LAY WRESTLING. Okay, sure, agreed, maybe so – but on’t try t’ tell me NY at its HEIGHT was even half as good (and it sure ain’t at its height right now!). Like I’ll take Pipeline as tame and domesticated as he is (a people’s villain like Dean Martin is a people’s singer) over Tony Garea and Dean Ho ANY DAY. YET ANOTHER REASON TO LEAVE NEW YAWK!!!