2010-11-04 / Opinions

Inside Wrasslin’

Confessons of a Professional Wrestler
By TOM POLAND tompol@earthlink.net

Once upon a time, wrestling was an ancient martial art where men grappled, clinched, fought, threw, and took down each other. And then show business got into the ring with wrestling.

Like car racing, wrestling grew up to be big-time entertainment. The key word in that sentence is “entertainment.” People love to see body slams, chairs smashed across bodies, and men tossed out of rings. All this vicarious violence must somehow be good for the soul, but deep inside we know it’s fake. Right?

The wrestling you see in the Olympics and on college campuses is real. It’s not wrasslin.’ No, wrasslin’ occupies a place somewhere between grade B movies and a vaudevillian theater of the absurd drama. It all comes down to acting and pretending. True?

I remember how my Granddad would get in his recliner near a sizzling, snapping wood stove, and settle in for a winter’s afternoon of wrasslin’. Without fail, he’d fall asleep and miss the big match. What, exactly, did he miss?

Well it’s hard to say. I grew up with a confusing image of wrestling. Just how real is it? Among the items on my bucket list is one I recently checked off: Talk to a real wrestler.

In the early 1990s an imposing man with a tremendous sense of humor walked into one of my writing classes. Sam Morton was a law officer, a homicide investigator, and a one-time deputy sheriff with an English degree from the Citadel, that military school of Pat Conroy fame down in Charleston. He’s also an entertaining fellow as you can see from this snippet of his autobiography.

“A Rock Hill, South Carolina, native and 1985 graduate of The Citadel, Sam Morton is co-author of five fiction anthologies. He holds bachelors and masters degrees in English. He is a member of The Inkplots, a group of published writers and authors active in South Carolina’s vibrant literary experience.

“His past occupations include a 12 year-stint as a robbery/homicide detective for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department in Columbia, South Carolina, a ten-year career as a professional wrestler, and one long week as the blade changer on the potato cutting machine at the Frito Lay plant in Charlotte, North Carolina.”

Sam wanted to break into writing and that he did, becoming a novelist and freelance writer over here in Columbia. This native of Rock Hill, South Carolina was a semi-professional wrestler known as the Patriot. He studied wrestling under the Fabulous Moolah, a woman here in Columbia reputedly known for her signature wrestling move: biting the toenails off her opponents and defiantly spitting them back in their face.

Sam was often a heel, that’s wrestling parlance for bad guy. Being a bad guy was a persona far from the wisecracking good guy we all know and admire. I asked Sam about his wrestling days and here’s what he had to say.

“When I was a heel, or bad guy, which was most of my wrestling career, I was part of a tag team called Justice Inc. We wore suits, ties, and sunglasses to the ring. We were from the government and we were ‘here to kick your ass.’ All three of us used the last name Justice. There was J.D. Justice, C.W. Justice, and I was Sam Justice.”

I told Sam about a childhood experience I had: my first-ever wrestling match. My Dad and Granddad and I went to watch some wrasslin’ at Bell Auditorium. My chief memories of the evening were a lot of shouting and clinched fists, a distant ring where men threw each about, and the glare of bright lights. During the matches, more than one wrestler was thrown against the posts and a bloody face resulted every time. Not a trickle, mind you, but a flood of red.

When the matches ended, we went down to the ring, and Dad had me sneak under the ring’s curtain to see, like that famous bear, what was on the other side. I found several, small broken glass capsules. I asked Sam if wrestlers really bled or did they use fake blood in glass capsules. It was a 50-year-old mystery I wanted to put to rest.

“Some of the tricks we used, especially to ‘juice’ or to bleed, was that in the locker room before the match, we’d take snippers and trim a triangular edge off a razor blade. Then we’d use athletic tape to conceal the blade. At some point during the match, your opponent would take you outside the ring and either throw you into the ring post or hit you with a chair. You’d fall, writhing in pain.”

I discovered, thanks to Sam’s confessions, what all that writhing really accomplishes.

“While we were ‘writhing,’ we were uncovering the edge of the blade and sliding it along our forehead where all those capillaries are just under the surface. A couple of swipes and you’d bleed like a stuck pig.”

And those glass capsules? Sam shed light on my half-century mystery.

“There were always the glass capsules, but you never knew when those things might break when you didn’t want them to, and almost invariably, you couldn’t get them to break with a sledgehammer when you needed them!”

As Sam talked, the veil on wrasslin’ began to lift. But what, I wondered, happens when all those metal chairs get slammed across a wrestler’s body or head? Surely that wasn’t fake. I had to know.

“Another trick,” said Sam. (My disappointment continued to soar.) “To keep from hurting someone when you hit them with a chair you always hit them with the seat where your butt goes. That way the chair would ‘give,’ folding in its natural position. The sound it made and the look it gave the crowd were incredible.”

Well, okay. All this made sense. (My disappointment meter had now climbed off the charts.) If it were real how could a wrestler make it to the next match? Still, I’d seen a few matches on TV where wrestlers got the dickens beat out of them. What about that? Sam set me straight.

“The last thing we’d do is whip somebody with a belt or leather strap. To accomplish that and make it look like you were beating the devil out of them, you stood at one shoulder and actually aimed and slapped the strap on the mat just inches from the opposite shoulder. You could reach back as far as you wanted and hit as hard as you could and you’d barely touch your opponent, but you’d be beating the hell out of the mat.”

All this staged violence and outright chicanery sure fools people. Back in the 1980s when a lot of us 30-somethings ran in a pack as 30-somethings are wont, we exhausted the usual fun things to do. One night in a moment of boredom and sheer brilliance, I invented a concept known as Culture Night.

For a long time, Tuesday evenings were Culture Night. The key to this newfound entertainment was alarmingly simple: do something you’d never do, go somewhere you’d never go like a honky-tonk bar where one of those electric bucking broncos threw hayseeds all over the place.

One night we went to a wrestling match at a place called the Township Auditorium. A huge ring complete with a cyclone fence greeted our widened eyes. The wrestlers would be trapped. No way to escape!

The evening started with a bang. The emcee, a former wrestler in a tuxedo by the name of Rowdy Roddy Piper, warmed up the crowd with promises of mayhem and malevolence. Suddenly an inbound missile from the balcony, a juicy, ripe tomato, screamed in hitting Rowdy Roddy full force in the chest splashing tomato pulp and juice all over his face.

Galvanized, Roddy Rowdy went berserk, the crowd went into a frenzy and a night of wrasslin’ had begun. Rowdy Roddy, you should know, was a Canadian who pretended to be a Scotchman, complete with bagpipes, tartan kilt, and Scottish rage. He’s considered one of wrestling’s great heels.

It so happened that we sat behind a monster of a man that night. Low-slung and wide like Java The Hutt, this man took his wrasslin’ seriously, something I discovered too late. When one especially fake elbow smash missed a fellow’s head by six inches I turned to my companion. “This stuff is fake.”

Java recoiled in rage, turned to me and said, “No hell it isn’t.” Sweat popped from his brow. His shoulders were big as hams, and his hair stood up like an abused junkyard dog. His nose, broad as a racecar’s air scoop, quivered in rage. Being the victim of a real body slam held no appeal.

A few minutes later sitting in the back of the auditorium, we watched from a safer vantage as grandmothers and all manner of normally mild-mannered folks went crazy. People cursed, threw things, and raced around the ring in a fury the likes of which I’ve not seen since. We saw it all: blood, mayhem, chair smashing, and a crowd gone mad. It was my last wrasslin’ match and in time Culture Night, unlike wrasslin’, became yet another failed social experience, body slammed by adulthood.

Visit my website at www.tom poland.net. Email me with feedback and ideas for new columns. tompol@ earthlink.net

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