Cincinnati Post – March 23, 1999
By William Weathers
‘So close. So close.’
I remember those words going through my head as I watched live professional wrestling on the old Zenith. The show came from a studio at a station in Nashville, about 60 miles away.
My father and I would watch. When Mr. Tojo, I think his name was (a terrible villain supposedly from the recently vanquished Empire of Japan) took his good-guy opponent by the arm and slung him across the ring toward the corner, the good guy would run across the ring and flop head-first into the turnbuckle.
‘How hard do you think you’d have to throw a 200-pound man to get him to run across the ring,’ my father would ask teasingly. Thus he began to clue me in on the professional wrestling scene.
That it might not be strictly on the up-and-up never bothered me. I delighted in putting on swimming trunks and one of my parents’ bathrobes and trying to get my neighbor, Norman, into a head-lock. Norman, who was older and who could have thrown me into a turnbuckle in a neighboring state, obliged.
My weekly devotion to TV wrestling was complete. The fact that I don’t remember any of the good guys’ names, but virtually all of the bad guys, seems telling. My favorites were Jackie and Don, the Fargo brothers. These guys looked huge, strutted large, and wore bleached blond ducktails — with the duck’s tail long and Brylcreemed into shape.
Every bit as entertaining as the matches were the commercials and the banter between the announcer and the promoter, one Nick Gulas. Gulas wore his black hair slicked back in a prototype of the Pat Riley cut. The sponsor was Shyer’s Jewelers, the owner, Harold Shyer, functioning as on-air talent:
‘If you don’t know diamonds, know your jeweler. And if Harold says it’s so – it’s so.’
Harold had a way of pronouncing diii-aaahhh-munn-dds so that it had about seven syllables. My idyllic, farm boyhood — prowling through cornfields with my collie-shepherd cross named Brownie and seining for minnows in the creek — was wonderfully spiced by the sordid TV spectacle of Harold Shyer and Nick Gulas and Jackie and Don.
My father, seeing my devotion and my attempts to emulate the masters, once took me to our local high school gym to see one of the touring matches. What a thrill. I was probably all of 7 or 8. Daddy showed me how they set up the floor of the ring so that it had some ‘give’ to it, and so that it made a tremendous noise when, say, Mr. Tojo or one of the Fargo brothers would body slam one of the good guys.
I have since learned from several fathers of different generations that this taking of the son to the wrestling match is one of the great father-son rituals in our land. It spans eras from at least as far back as the 1930s to the present, and shows no sign of slowing as it hurls headlong toward the turnbuckle of the 21st century.
So it was that when the ticket fairy suddenly favored me with a pair for WCW Monday Nitro wrestling at Firstar Center last week, I took my almost-9-year-old. What a far cry from the high school gym of the 1950s. The cavernous coliseum crowd roared as laser beams swirled and smoke billowed up and across the gladiators’ entryway. Richard Strauss’ ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ (the theme from the movie ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’) swelled, timpani shots pounding, as ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair entered, accompanied by four sequined sweeties.
I was a little nervous because I’d heard rumors that modern pro wrestling featured beer-can-throwing fans. Not on this night. Tame as can be. An NFL crowd is rowdy by comparison.
The grand finale pitted Goldberg (current, top-of-the-heap sensation in World Championship Wrestling) and the Nature Boy against Hollywood Hulk Hogan and Kevin ‘Big Sexy’ Nash.
Aside from coliseum-sized light-and-sound accompaniment, what has really changed about pro wrestling in the past 40 years is the athleticism of the wrestlers. Billy Kidman at one point, after throwing Rey Mysterio Jr. out of the ring, stood on one of the ropes and bounced, using the rope as a catapult, springing into the air and doing a full ‘one,’ as gymnasts call it, a forward flip out of the ring, at least eight feet forward, and onto Mysterio as Mysterio lay on the concrete floor and functioned as a landing pad.
You won’t catch me telling one of these guys that what he does is fake. When Post columnist David Wecker asserted to Ric Flair about 10 years ago, in an office at Channel 9, that pro wrestling is ‘a dance,’ the Nature Boy put Wecker (with Wecker’s permission) in a combo figure-8 headlock scissors hold from which Wecker was still ailing two weeks later.
We ate pizza, swilled soft drinks, spilled popcorn, yelled a lot and generally loved the whole thing. What’s not to love? I didn’t get a bachelor’s degree in drama by being ignorant of the fact that theater’s elements include spectacle, plot, character, dialogue, music and scene. Wrestling’s got ’em all. (Doubt the plot element? How about accusations Flair hijacked the WCW? Huh? Doubt the character element? How about the Hulkster’s going over to the dark side?)
Speaking of spectacle, did I mention that the hiphop-dancing Nitro Girls are lovely and talented?
I even got a flash of remembrance from my boyhood when a guy a couple of rows back, showing himself to be a true believer, at one point yelled that his favorite combatant had been ‘so close – so close.’