OK, so we’ve established that I went to a wrestling show with my dad and that gave me the initial itch for pro wrestling. But it was still a LONG way to go before I got to scratch it as a pro myself.
Allow me to explain…
I became a pretty big fan of the local stuff at Scarborough Arena and tried to make it to the events every two weeks. My dad was fairly compliant as it gave us a “guys night out” with him, myself and my brother (Jamie) and usually some other kids that my dad’s friends would pawn off on him to give them a free night out with their kids well supervised. My dad is excellent with kids so everything went smoothly every time and we always had a good laugh by the end of the evening, even though we were bloodthirsty animals just an hour before!
My perceptions of “big time wrestlers” changed considerably when I went to the cinema and saw Rocky III featuring “Thunderlips… the Ultimate Male” (a.k.a. Hulk Hogan) in his breakthrough role in to the mainstream.
WOW! This guy was a MONSTER and while a TOTAL jerk during the match with Rocky, but wound up being this really nice guy by the match’s end.
Hmmmm. This guy was a COMPLETE lunatic when the audience was there and the cameras were on but was ACTUALLY a reasonable human being outside of the ring! Seemed to me that he wasn’t really on the level, so while I was impressed, I made an unconscious decision to stay a supporter of my local promotion.
After all, the Sheik was insane 24/7. So I preferred the “realism” of him to the “act” of the Hulk.
I know, I was a tool!
WWE (WWF at the time) was HUGE and you couldn’t throw a stick in the air without it landing on someone or something to do with wrestling. I would hear about guys like Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Junkyard Dog and of course… the Hulk, and their triumphs every week through friends of mine at school and the Dojo.
While I could appreciate their enthusiasm for “TV stars”, why couldn’t they see that Luis Martinez was still in contention for the belt at Scarborough Arena? Didn’t they understand that while Hulk was busy doing cereal commercials, Bobo Brazil was fighting the very forces of darkness that The Sheik was bringing right to our front doors?
How’s about a little support over here?!
One weekend I had off from karate/kung fu class (I must have been ill) and I got to sit and watch a full episode of Maple Leaf Wrestling, which was the WWF’s main Canadian TV product at the time. It consisted of a bunch of squash matches along with interviews pumping up the next big event at Maple Leaf Gardens… THE big arena in Toronto.
I watched and thought some of the guys were cool but still couldn’t get why people were SO focused on THIS particular promotion. I guess at the time I didn’t know the WWE characters as well as my locals, not to mention that I only knew the electricity you feel at a live event when I went to see my local promotion… but we’ll be covering THAT soon.
Either way, I’m watching when we come back from commercial and see a short, thick, blond guy making his way to the ring wearing a VERY tacky championship belt.
I asked my brother if this guy was the champ (Jamie was well aware of all things WWF as he watched it religiously every Saturday afternoon while I was at the Dojo) and he said “yeah”.
“This guy?” I asked. “This guy beat that Hulk guy for the belt?” I was in shock!
“No that’s the Intercontinental belt, it’s like the Number Two title.”
“Is that like a silver medal, or something? Or is it in a different weight class?” I queried.
“It’s wrestling, dumb-ass!! There are no weight classes!” he snorted. (Note to self: Be sure to slap brother in meaty part of back of head next time in Canada for that remark now that there have been cruiserweight and light-heavyweight titles in WWE.)
I didn’t fully understand, I just wanted to know when Hulk was fighting. He was the only character I knew on this show and I guess I craved a little familiarity.
“Hulk doesn’t fight on TV. You have to go to Maple Leaf Gardens to watch him.”
“Why?” I asked.
Jamie shrugged and said, “I guess he doesn’t fight for free, so you gotta pay to see him.”
Though I thought that was stupid sounding at the time, in hindsight it turns out my brother is more in tune with the actual business side of wrestling than a lot of promoters I currently work for. (Second note to self: Hold off on the slap. Jamie has earned a break with this.)
I sat and watched more while eating my apple-cinnamon oatmeal when my eyes got opened to a larger world through a segment that didn’t involve ANY in-ring action.
Piper’s Pit changed my life!!
A very average looking guy came out wearing a kilt (okay, maybe a little UN-average) and the crowd went WILD!! He didn’t say a word but with the smug look on his face and the air of confidence he brought out on camera it seemed that EVERYONE who ever lived was screaming for this guy’s blood!!
He introduced himself as Rowdy Roddy Piper and made various claims about being the best broadcast journalist, the best wrestler, the best EVERYTHING in the world and by proxy, everyone else around was AT BEST, number two!
Needless to say, I fell in (hetero) love!!
He commanded the audience like a symphony bringing them up in union against him and then cutting their legs out from under them (figuratively, of course as “hardcore” wrestling was still a few years away from being fashionable at this point) and watching them crash down on themselves when he got away with whatever the plan was that week.
What I didn’t get at the time was how well he would give the audience hope during a promo, that he would finally talk himself in to a corner, that he would finally get his comeuppance but then slip out the back door safe and live to fight another day. At the time I just thought he was burying everyone around him, when actually he was building them up in the fans’ hearts so that when he did rip off the babyface, people never blamed anyone but Piper himself. They never lost a step when in the ring with Piper and in turn everyone was elevated.
I now consider Roddy a good friend and I’ve been honored to share time with him in and out of the wrestling business (including a TV series that I starred in with him for a full season, but that will be covered in a future column) and I want to tell everyone that he is every bit the class gentleman this business seems to weed out. He is a great guy, a great performer and a great friend.
Roddy, this business owes you a debt of gratitude and I’ll gladly start the ball rolling by saying thank you.
For every minute you entertained me. Thank you.
For everything I ever learned from you. Thank you.
For being one of the three performers that influenced me to become a wrestler (I’ll get to the other two later). Thank you.
Sorry to go off on a tangent there, but most columns in this business just complain about everything and get on their soap box and tell you how to improve it (in their eyes), but no one ever seems to be thankful of those who drew us in or have anything positive to say. So, since it’s my column, I’ll make the effort here.
Roddy showed me the GLORY of being a heel (wrestling term for any “bad guy”… NOT just Razor Ramon!). Since I was scared of Sheik and didn’t really know any of the WWF performers at the time, I never considered the idea that the “bad guys” might be more complex, more dynamic and just plain more INTERESTING that the “babyfaces” and Roddy led the charge.
Hulk had a promo during the show to hype the MLG event, a few more matches happened with regular looking guys getting KILLED by people in more interesting attire, but I couldn’t get Piper’s Pit out of my head.
That lead to my wrestling magazine obsession and being blown off by one of the biggest stars of the 1980s at a live show. But I’ll get in to that next time!