Sunday, October 25, 2015

Old-School Wrestling: Nothing “Kayfabe” About the Feel

A steel cage and the word fez made me a bona-fide razzlin’ fan at the age of 12.

The “cage” was actually eight large sections of fencing, rectangular (both the sections and the fencing itself) strapped together around the squared circle. The promoter had been advertising the main event to be conducted therein on the Boston Garden’s upcoming card of matches as unprecedented in the city’s history.

I’d been regularly partaking of a couple of weekend offerings in this vein for some months prior – a studio show (Championship Wrestling) out of Pittsburgh and one (All-Star Wrestling) from the D.C. area with more of an arena feel. The promos/interviews were all pre-recorded and pumped up the feuds and match-ups featured on the next local extravaganza. The bouts on these programs tended all to be “squash” matches to put over the stars and their capacity for devastation.

But it was he larger-than-life personas of the performers that was the real hook. The Italian Strongman Bruno Sammartino was already an iconic champion; popular Puerto Rican Victor Rivera had yet to taste defeat in his young career. Though he hailed from Morgan’s Corner, Arkansas, the over 600-pound Haystack Calhoun was everyone’s “Neighbor.”

The bad guys were just as imposing and intimidating as the heroes were awe-inspiring – the wily Prof. Toru Tanaka, the vicious Killer Kowalski who’d once knocked the ear of Yukon Eric clean off, George “The Animal” Steele. There were goose-stepping Nazis like Waldo von Erich and Hans “The Great” Mortier, royalty such as King Curtis Iaukea and Baron Mikel Scicluna, and just plain old nutcases like Bulldog Brower and “Crazy Luke” Graham.

Long-time WWF broadcaster and executive Gorilla Monsoon was still an in-ring performer, billed as The Manchurian Giant, listed at 401 pounds and managed by a dapper and loquacious little fellow named Wild Red Berry. Ironic that Monsoon, who would long play straight-man for the likes of Jesse Ventura and Bobby Heenan at the announce table, would utilize a spokesman, huh?

Curiously, it is through the avenue of Management that Steely Dan … er, I mean the fez finds its way into the story.

One of the combatants in the up-coming cage clash was the nefarious Sheik (in real life, a dude from Detroit named Ed). This Sheik – not to be confused with the Iron Sheik who long challenged Hulkamania in the ‘80’s – was represented by a smug and slimy motormouth who called himself Abdullah Farouk. The get-up of the venom-spitting (and I do mean “spitting”; ol’ boy was rather juicy-mouthed) Farouk always included dark shades and an odd-looking conical cap, with a tassel attached to its flat top.

Though I didn’t know it at the time – and despite being hep to the existence of the word (Mom had already spurred an interest in crossword puzzles) – that was a fez. This exotic piece of headwear kinda resembles a party hat and is often used in sit-coms and such to symbolize membership in fraternal-type organizations (The Loyal Order of Water Buffalo).

Oddly, “Abdullah Farouk” (in actuality, the late great Ernie Roth) would soon turn in that fez for a turban. He was re-dubbed The Grand Wizard, spinning his syrupy soliloquies for grapplers as diverse as a cheap Gorgeous George rip-off named Beautiful Bobby and a tough Texas hombre like Black Jack Mulligan or Ernie Ladd. Some of the Wiz’s best performances may have occurred during his occasional guest appearances on an irreverent Sunday evening Boston radio program called the Sports Huddle.

But on that final Saturday in March of my 12th year, Abdullah Farouk was still a one-trick pony, shilling for the Sheik who would be challenging Sammartino, in a re-match of their inconclusive donnybrook (Good Ol’ J.R. had yet to invent the slobber-knocker) of the previous month.

“Pro Wrestling” in those times was still firmly cloaked in the nudge-nudge, wink-wink garb of “kayfabe.” (Trust there was nudgin’ and winkin’ aplenty when the Wizard hooked up with Eddie Andelman and his radio cronies.) While indeed a mere choreography of combat, the bouts were promoted and presented as real. Entrance themes, Piper’s Pits and similar “entertainment” had not shouldered into the “sport.” Aerial moves were limited to flying drop kicks and the occasional leap from a turnbuckle – that’s how Walter Kowalski attained his alliterative moniker.

An expectant hush would come over the dim arena prior to each match. You’d notice the police escort moving in the aisle first and just try to figure out who that was in the midst of them. “Which match is next?” It was as basic as it was big time.

Of course there was no pre-match mystery leading up to the cage match – rather an intermission.

Since both Bruno and the Sheik were old-school ground-bound grapplers, the “structure” itself would serve primarily as a battering ram. (The more acrobatic Pedro Morales would soon come to utilize the gimmick more creatively during a run as WWWF champion.) The match that night was decided when a back-jumping Farouk, having out-maneuvered the outside ref and entered the cage, was thrown into his man by the opportunistic champion. The Sheik’s frantic scramble to prevent Bruno’s calm exit through the cage door was futile.

Those Garden events were very popular and quite well-attended. Indeed, the program for the next card – I’d immediately gotten myself onto Promoter Abe Ford’s mailing list – boasted a crowd in excess of 15,000 for the steel cage show.

That summer Ford would present an extravaganza so tantalizing that the “Gahden” wasn’t big enough – it was staged at Fenway Park. Amidst the smorgasbord of matches – cage, stretcher, ladies, midgets – was a 10-man over-the-top-rope Battle Royal in which (get this!) each participant was required to ante up a $50 entry fee, the winner receiving a whopping two grand for his night’s work.

Ah … that old black magic called Razzlin’.

Here’s how one writer “sold” that precursor to Wrestlemania – not to mention its requisite boost in ticket prices: “I have inquired around as to the cost of putting the show together … even with customers arriving in large numbers, it’s hard to see how Ford can make any kind of a profit. He’ll have a huge struggle just to break even.”

A fledgling reporter for the Boston Globe saw it like this.