Keeping Kayfabe With Kareem


Pro wrestler Kareem Muhammad in the camo tights, with Kevin Sullivan behind him.

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.


The Pipes Are Calling


The WWE gathered to pay tribute to yet another fallen star last night. Sadly, they’ve had a lot of practice doing this sort of thing.

You know when there have been too many professional wrestlers dying when one of the more outspoken men about the number of pro wrestlers dying dies himself.

When I heard the news late Friday afternoon, I wasn’t crushed. Sadly, I had come to expect it.

Roddy Piper was one of the first wrestlers to make the transition from the squared circle (Hulk Hogan beating him to it by about half a decade when he appeared in Rocky III) to the silver screen when he “retired” in 1987 to be a lead character in the cult classic They Live. He bounced back and forth between movies, TV, and wrestling the rest of his career, doing in podcast in what turned out to be the final months of his life.

Why are they all dying? Is it the steroids? The pain-killing drugs? The pressures to perform, financially or otherwise? I have no clue. It is happening it other sports mediums too, football for one, baseball on occasion. But it’s happening to a point that it’s making me numb to it all, and I don’t like the feeling.

Requiem Of The Dream

Gordon Solie and Dusty Rhodes sharing a light moment at the old Tampa Sportatorium.

Gordon Solie and Dusty Rhodes sharing a light moment at the old Tampa Sportatorium.

As I mentioned yesterday, Dusty Rhodes had passed away Thursday at the age of 69 in Orlando.

To understand why my first childhood sports hero was a professional wrestler who appealed to the blue collar fan, you have to understand that in the Tampa Bay area I grew up in, wrestling was not sports entertainment but was presented completely as a sport. Prior to 1975, there were no Tampa Bay Rowdies, no Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Lightning and Rays were still way ahead in the future.

Every Saturday night at 7pm, if you had a TV on, you were probably watching the televised matches on WTOG Channel 44 that were basically what would be called today an infomercial for the wrestling cards all over the Florida circuit, which was a link in the larger chain known as the National Wrestling Alliance that consisted of many such circuits across the country and worldwide. Gordon Solie, a well known local radio announcer of the era who also did lap by lap reportage over at Tampa’s old Golden Gate auto racing speedway, recapped the feuds, called the televised matches, and ran down the cards that were upcoming in the respective Florida markets the show aired to.

In the early to mid 1970’s, along came this bleached-blond Texan named Dusty Rhodes (real name: Virgil Runnels, Jr.), who may not have been the most technical wrestler who ever existed, but had the gift of gab and charisma that stood out amongst the “bad guys” of the era. Dusty was getting so much cheering from the crowd as a bad guy that the inevitable decision was made to turn him into a “good guy” in the spring of 1974. Five years later, he became the first what I would call “thespian wrestler” to win the NWA title, (five years before Hulk Hogan did likewise in the WWF in 1984), usually a throne that went to guys who could either wrestle and/or fight because the champion traveled from circuit, and one of those circuits just might attempt to go off script against the reigning champ and try and take the vaunted title for their own region.

It was also more of natural thing to give the title to wrestlers who could be both good guys and bad guys at the time depending on the region, because the reigning champion would easily be a platonic villain, and the hometown challenger a platonic hero for attempting to take a world championship. With Dusty as the world champ (winning the NWA belt three times: 1979, 1981, and 1986), the “mold” of the champ having to be a villain was more or less broken.

Rhodes continued his career on and off stage up until this very year, with sons Dustin and Cody taking up his profession. If Hulk Hogan is the Babe Ruth of pro wrestling, Dusty Rhodes would be akin to Joe DiMaggio.

Rest in peace, big man.

No (Only) Big (Cities) Allowed (In The NBA Finals)

Miami Heat forward-center Chris "Birdman" Anderesen.

Miami Heat forward-center Chris “Birdman” Andersen.

Flipping channels between innings of the Marlins-Rays game in Miami, I happened to catch an altercation between Miami player Chris “Birdman” Andersen and Tyler Hansbrough of the Indiana Pacers.

Andersen made contact with Hansbrough in an effort to provoke a fight out of him not once, but twice.  “Birdman” did not get ejected from the game, although such a move was well within the purview of the NBA rulebook.

I’d rather watch a hockey game than the NBA if both sports were on at the same time.  Let’s just say I’ve had a lot of questions over the past few years about the product and how a big city team seems to get the close calls in a game all the time.

No, I’m not trying to be the sports version of Alex Jones here, although I’m probably failing that goal miserably.  Anyone remember Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference final between the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings?  The officiating of that game was so bad, Ralph Nader even wrote a letter to NBA grand poobah David Stern.

I enjoyed watching the NBA all these years, but at the rate they are going, the sport of boxing and the entertainment form of wrestling have better smells to them.

A Pilgrimage To The Church Of Hulkamania

In the first weekend of March in 1989, I was a senior at Largo High School.  My grades and studies there weren’t the best, and I wallowed through that time in my life a bit unmotivated.  With a little help from some family members, who lit the proper fire under my ass, that part of my life was turning around, and I had made the Honor Roll soon after the second half of the year started.

So my mother arranges for her co-workers who had families of their own to take me to the WWF matches at the USF Sun Dome the first Saturday of the month.  All the Saturday evenings I had spent watching the rasslin’ on TV, I had never attended a card, nor visited USF.  To give you an idea of how much wrestling I watched back then, I could usually spot a good guy about to turn bad or vice versa well before it happened.

For example, the main story back then was the breakup of the “Megapowers” team of Terry Bollea (Hulk Hogan) and Randy Poffo (Randy “Macho Man” Savage).  Randy was managed by real-life wife Elizabeth Hulette (with the stage name dropping her last name and throwing a “Miss” in front of her first name, even though she was really a Mrs.), but his WWF character was such an egomaniac that I’m thinking that there’s no way the duo could last long without a clash of personalities and temperament taking place.  And sure enough, they have a series of tag team bouts on TV and PPV with that storyline, introducing the premise that these two can’t trust each other, culminating with a prime time bout on NBC where Savage eventually betrays the Hulkster.

The card I went to in Tampa had a “steel cage” match (designed to favor the good guys, but the bad guys were always able to figure out chicanery of their own) between Hulk Hogan and Ray Traylor, better known at that time as The Big Boss Man, a deranged prison guard from Georgia, or so he portrayed.  Hogan won the match in short order, and was flexing his biceps and bending his shoulders as we left to beat the traffic out to I-275 and head back home.

Now, I wasn’t a naive kid growing up.  I knew that there was some stagecraft involved with these matches.  If they realistically beat the poo out of each other as they appeared to, their medical bills would go through the roof.  So the night after the matches, my mother lets me in on a secret: the very same matches that we just saw in Tampa would be taking place in Ft. Lauderdale the following night.  With that, I showed her the roster of matches on the card, and pointed her to the small print on the bottom that said that these matches were exhibitions.

A few months later, the two same men had a cage match on Saturday Night’s Main Event, the late night NBC show that aired in lieu of Saturday Night Live on occasion back then.  It had the exact same moves as the match I had seen in Tampa a few months prior, with a few different spots thrown in to give the resemblance of authenticity to it.  A few weeks after the match I had seen in Tampa, another near duplicate of the match I had seen in Tampa took place in Boston.

But I have nothing against wrestling.  Wrestling was like a church for the nonreligious.  A place you could believe in your favorite good guys, at root against those satanic villains.  I’ve been to two other wrestling cards in my lifetime, one in Jacksonville, another at a used car lot in Largo, of all places.  Every time I went, I had fun.  And if you have fun, you’re living right.

Legends Die Hard

Junior Seau, 1969-2012.

It should not have ended this way for Junior Seau.

A hall-of-fame caliber linebacker for three different NFL teams, Seau should have continued to make his voice heard on the menagerie of football TV shows we see hours of week after week in the fall months.  He probably could have pitched any product Madison Avenue wanted him to.  He should have continued to live well as the impacts of professional football continue to break down his physical body.

But on May 2, 2012, a self-inflicted gunshot changed his fate and others forever.

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