Saturday, March 14, 2009

My Life and Pro Wrestling: The Real and The Scripted - Part 1

I may not have made it through my life without pro wrestling. That may be the first time that sentence has ever been written. I am actually laughing my ass off as I write it, but I am very serious. It is a part of who I am and, even though people think I am nuts to say it out loud, I am proud of being a pro wrestling fan.

Like many children in 1980's, I started watching wrestling when I was little and got hooked. Watching these larger-than-life characters like Hulk Hogan, Sting, The Road Warriors, "Macho Man" Randy Savage, and the Ultimate Warrior face off against the biggest and baddest wrestlers in the world was a fantastic escape from reality. In a way, it's similar to how people start watching soap operas. It just kind of happens. In fact, pro wrestling has often been called the “male soap opera” because the stories are based on the same outlandish and bizarre criteria. The difference is that instead of someone having an affair, or being blackmailed, or dying in a plane crash, all of the wrestling story lines culminate in the ring where these pseudo-gladiators battle to resolve their issues.

As a kid, my mom and dad would watch it with me from time to time, telling me who their favorites were. Once they bought me and my friends tickets to a live matches for my eleventh birthday party which ranks up pretty high on my list of "favorite birthdays". Even my sister would watch with me, cheering who I hated just to annoy me. In addition, my mom allowed me to have "Wrestlemania Parties" at my house. The parties always escalated into our own wrestling matches in the living room that created a few holes in our walls from using the recliner as a top rope and turnbuckle. Sorry again, Mom! Other times, the action would move to the front yard where the neighborhood kids could join in and their parents would cringe at their participation in such a ridiculous activity. I was ecstatic! The more kids in the battle royal, the better!

I'll take partial blame for my infatuation with pro wrestling, but it may not be entirely my fault. Wrestling was part of my family long before I was born. Apparently, my great great grandfather on my mother’s side was a carnival wrestler of Irish and Scottish descent. I do not know his name, but I do know he stood 6’ 4’’ with red hair, chiseled features and a stocky frame. Throughout his career he wrestled his way through different territories across North America. A territory was a particular region of the country that a wrestler would work in for six months to a year and then move on to a different one. For instance, a wrestler could work in the northern states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas. Once he had faced all the opponents he could, he would go down to the southern states like Georgia, Alabama and Florida and wrestle a whole slew of new opponents in front of a new crowd.

My father’s side of the family was into wrestling in the more traditional sense; as a form of entertainment. My grandmother had twelve boys (no girls, but that is a story for a later time), and it was a semi-regular thing for my great grandmother, Grandma McArdle, to take her however-many grandchildren to the wrestling matches at the Saint Paul Auditorium or the Minneapolis Armory to watch wrestling greats like "Da Crusher", Dick The Bruiser, and Baron Von Raschke wreak havoc. "Granny Mac", as she was affectionately known, was a die-hard wrestling fan who always had her patented whistle in hand to grab the attention of the referee when the bad guy had an illegal foreign object in his tights that he was going to use against his opponent. At the end of the evening, she encouraged her grandchildren to run down to the ringside area to get autographs. Granny Mac even suggested they attempt to jump into the ring and wrestle around. From what my father and uncles tell me, they were spit on, spilled on, and Lord knows what else every time they went to the matches. I can only imagine the chaos. Maybe these little bits of family history left me with no choice. Being a pro wrestling fan may have been my destiny...(cue the corny music!)

Other than my family history and "Wrestlemania Parties", there are two memories of pro wrestling that stand out from my childhood. The first was in 1986. My sister and I were poster children for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF) and were lucky enough to participate in all the events for the local Minnesota Chapter. We met many local and national celebrities including some pro wrestlers from the American Wrestling Association (AWA). They were a Twin Cities based territory that showcased matches all over the U.S. as well as Japan. Angela and I were asked to participate in a commercial that promoted a wrestling event they were having where a portion of the proceeds were going to the CFF. I was well aware of the AWA and very excited by the opportunity to meet a few of my heroes.

When we arrived at the AWA headquarters there were albums full of autographed pictures of the wrestlers waiting for us, as well as a staff member who took us on a tour of the studio while we waited to make the commercial. During the tour, I was fortunate to meet a young Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty, who were happy to chat with me and even let me try on one of their Tag Team Championship belts, which, even at its smallest size, fell right off my waist like a lead weight and clanged on the floor. Eventually, we headed to the interview area where we were met by Verne Gagne, one of the most legendary icons in amateur and professional wrestling, who affectionately called me his “buddy" all day long. Next, we met Verne's son Greg, a talented second generation pro wrestler that was pulling double duty by conducting the interview that day. Finally, we saw the two monsters who were going to hold us during the interview: Scott Hall - AKA Razor Ramon years later in the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) - would be holding Angie and Leon “Bull Power” White - later known worldwide as Vader - would be holding me. At the time, they were both awaiting their big breaks in the wrestling business. These men were massive at 280 and 400 pounds respectively, but were so gentle and gracious with us. Scott Hall in particular was awesome. He horsed around with me and gave my sister little kisses that she later said tickled because of his mustache.

The second moment I recall was WWF's Wrestlemania III. I was able to watch it on pay-per-view at home with my dad. It was an amazing sight. Over 93,000 people jam-packed the Pontiac Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan (where the Detroit Lions played at the time) on March 29, 1987 to watch Hulk Hogan battle Andre the Giant in what was the pinnacle of the pro wrestling boom in the 1980’s. Wrestlemania is the Superbowl of pro wrestling, where they always had the best matches of the year. Needless to say, I loved the whole event from bell to bell. The part I remember the most was not a match, though. It was an interview with Hulk Hogan an hour prior to his match with Andre. Here is the full two minute interview below:

For some reason I related my life to this portion of that interview:

“…I realized that, sooner or later, you gotta live and die and you gotta face the truth. And for you, Andre the Giant, it’s time to face the truth, brother. Because, when I think about what you and I have to do, man; what I have have to do is nothing. All I have to do is merely beat a 7’ 4”, 550 pound giant. But Andre, you gotta face the truth, brother. In its purest form, man; the purest truth there is, man: The training, the saying the prayers, and eating the vitamins. And to beat me man, you’ve gotta beat every Hulkamaniac, every little Hulkster in the world, everyone that plays it straight, all the ones who don’t take any shortcuts, brother….”

If you can, forget the tear-the-shirt-off, over-the top theatrics, and the fact that he later admitted to taking "shortcuts." The message struck a chord with me, even though I was only seven years old. In my world, I was "Hulk Hogan", Cystic Fibrosis was my “Andre the Giant”, and my “Hulkamaniacs” were my friends, family, and even the strangers I didn’t know who were going through the same struggles. It just made sense to me. much as pro wrestling can make sense.

The years passed and thousands of hours of wrestling later, I was still a huge fan. Long after my friends had moved on to other interests, I was still watching religiously. Since wrestling had no off season it was always there to keep me company. I watched it through every phase of my life. From my days at home while Mom was at the hospital caring for Angela, as a security blanket when Angie passed away, during countless hours of therapy, and through my own illnesses, surgeries, and hospital stays. One time while I was in the hospital, Hawk from the Road Warriors came to visit me. Unfortunately, I had just come out of surgery and wasn't awake enough to chat with him. Damn the luck! I could have impressed (or scared) him with my vast wrestling knowledge.

My family and friends continued to tolerate my fascination with pro wrestling and even went so far as enabling it on several occasions. My Uncle Bruce would occasionally buy the pay per views and guess what happened? I was wrestling in the living room again. This time with my cousin Andy, who thought I was going to kill him. However, let me go on the record and say that was never my intention and he always won our "matches". Bruce would also purchase tickets for the matches when they came to town and invited me to tag along with his family. I am sure this was a way for him to revisit memories from his past with "Granny Mac" and create new ones with his own children and his nephew. The best part of it was knowing how much everyone enjoyed it, particularly Bruce, who I remember laughing out loud every time we went. It made me feel like less of a nerd when I saw people having as good of a time as I was.

Even now, the people that know and love me still embrace my inner-wrestling fan. You know what I was given for Christmas this year from my brother-in-law and his girlfriend? A foam rubber "Light Heavyweight Championship" belt! If I would have ever been a wrestling champion, light heavyweight would have been the right weight class! My friends will call me randomly with questions about pro wrestling which I shouldn't know the answer to, but often do. Last year, my father and a few of my uncles invited me to play at the History Theater. It was written by and starring Baron Von Raschke and chronicled his life and career in pro wrestling. I loved connecting with my father and uncles that night, chatting about wrestling and hearing who their favorites were as kids. Most importantly, my wife Carly continues to tolerate my love of wrestling. She knows it makes me happy, so she just smiles and rolls her eyes every time I have it on. I am living proof that you can be a wrestling fan and still get married. Shocking, I know.

For over twenty years I have been devoted to pro wrestling. Through the good and bad times of my life, it was there to keep me entertained and fill my head with memories that still make me smile. Someday when my friends or cousins start having kids, maybe they will go against their better judgment and let "Uncle Josh" take them to the matches to make some new memories. No wrestling in the living room afterward, I promise! Well, maybe just a little for old times sake.

If you think my story stops here, you are dead wrong. Keep you hands and arms inside the car at all times because next week my roller coaster wrestling tale takes me in the ring where I have an opportunity to follow my dream...I know you are all on pins and needles!

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