In the lexicon of professional wrestling, kayfabe is the lost art of keeping the performance as authentic as humanly possible in all aspects of the business. It is not done as much now as it was decades ago, because travel, cable TV, and the Internet changed those aspects of the business. But, back in that era, when wrestlers traveled within regional circuits from city to city, “good guys” and “bad guys” would not usually travel together. If they did that, the public would figure out quicker that the business was staged, or “a work” as the industry calls it.
Back when I was 15 (not quite yet 16) in 1987, my first encounter with a pro wrestler was with a bad guy, better known in their terminology as a heel. That doesn’t mean of course that the performer is a bad guy in real life, but merely the role he plays to help his company draw, or in other words, make money for them and in turn, for himself.
I was roaming around the old Sunshine Mall in Clearwater at the JCPenneys. Most of the sets are tuned into Channel 10 on a Saturday afternoon, airing UWF wrestling, which was the old circuit that emanated from Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas by that time. It was the first time I had seen the UWF on local TV, but I was a reader of the Bill Apter wrestling magazines, which is why I went to the mall to begin with, to stock up on magazines to read at the old Super X drugstore. In the era before the Internet, the mags kept a fan up to date what happened in the territories you didn’t see on local or cable TV. If you wanted to know what was going on in the WWF, you didn’t need the mags, because it was on TV everywhere via cable at the very least. If you wanted to know what was happening in the Northwest circuit based out of Portland, you’d need mags for that.
Watching the TV, I didn’t dawn on me immediately who was right next to me: a large African-American man dressed in a camo shirt and pants, chatting with a larger than average woman of color. Recognition dawned, but the name briefly escaped me. Pouring through the magazines covertly, I figure out who it is: it’s Kareem Muhammad, who got his start as Ray Candy before changing his moniker and becoming part of the tag team known as the Zambuie Express with Elijah Akeem, who used to be Bad Bad Leroy Brown. He’s working in the CWF circuit in Florida, which would wind up folding later in the year when Jim Crockett Promotions (the Mid-Atlantic circuit based in Charlotte, but by then rapidly expanding nationally to keep pace with the already expanded WWF) bought out the circuit, but then expanded too quickly. Ted Turner would buy the Crocketts out in late 1988.
(In the business, it’s not unusual for guys not well known to change names, gimmicks, homes, and go from being a good guy to a bad guy every so often. Remember, it’s all about the promotion finding the best matchups of good guys and bad guys that will get butts in the seats. Now a days, it’s not about getting fans to the local arenas, but getting ratings for the cable TV shows and the pay-per-view cards, the total opposite of the what it used to be.)
Figuring that out, we have a nice, respectful conversation. His tone is a bit gruff, probably because he’s got me figured for a mark (a fan who may or may not know the realities of the business). I wasn’t about to disrespect him, because while I’m a big kid, this dude TOWERED over me. He’s easily got six inches of height on me, plus about 100 to 150 pounds.
I wasn’t about to razz him for being a bad guy, or to say wrestling is fake. I already KNEW wrestling was stage crafted, and it didn’t seem a good idea to confront someone MUCH bigger than me. Back then, if you questioned the credibility of pro wrestling, it was not uncommon for the one making the allegation, or anyone thinking they could take a pro wrestler, to get beat up or injured. (Hulk Hogan was one such wannabe at one time, who wound up with a broken leg when he first tried to break into the business.) I didn’t know that at the time, but I figured it’s best to keep a level head.
With that, I parted, with a story to tell my pals at Largo High School on Monday, though I don’t remember if I ever did tell it.