Thursday, June 01, 2017

Live and in Person

You Never Forget Your First Live Wrestling Event
by Wayne Brower
Special to the Mid-Atlantic Gateway

Getting to see a wrestling show in person became a priority thing for me to accomplish.  As most kids would naturally do, I started with the parents.  Dad was no wrestling fan, although he always let me watch it on television. 

Charlie Harville
Host of "Championship Wrestling" on
WGHP Channel 8 in High Point, NC
Nevertheless, my desire to experience the spectacle grew.  There were occasional matches in Winston-Salem and Greensboro, but almost always there was a card on Saturday nights in Lexington at the YMCA.  Lexington matches at the time were advertised on the Charlotte broadcasts but primarily promoted on High Point’s Channel 8 wrestling by Charlie Harville.  Charlie was outstanding in his role as announcer as he could describe the maneuvers and holds of the matches, and then further advance storylines with the wrestlers during interviews.  Lexington matches were sold as major events you must see.

The turning point occurred in the fall of 1964 when I was visiting an aunt and uncle who lived near us in Trinity.  Somehow the conversation turned to my enjoyment of wrestling.  My aunt said that they watch it, and also went to the matches in Lexington.  I didn’t have to say anything since I’m sure my facial expression spoke volumes.  She then asked me to go with them.

Wow.  It was the opportunity of a lifetime.  The chance of going to wrestling while hanging out with an aunt, uncle and cousin that I really liked.  I asked her to call the next time they planned to go.

The call came the following Saturday afternoon.  I was expecting it and had obtained prior approval to go from my Dad.  He made sure that I was taking enough money as not to be a financial burden to my hosts.  He also reminded me to “behave myself.”  I privately wondered how a person could do that at wrestling.

Shortly thereafter we were on the way.  My cousin and I rode in the back seat of her parents’ Ford Galaxie as I listened intently to her stories of previous matches.  Normally a 13 year old boy would ignore a younger girl, but I thought that she was cool and besides, she was already a Lexington veteran. 

Arriving at the YMCA was quite an experience.  The building was much larger than I had imagined, and so was the crowd.  We stood in line for a short time to buy our tickets.  My uncle told me to get one for general admission as it was cheaper than ringside and you could actually see better from the elevated stands.  He was right.

The experience began as quite a humanity lesson for me.  As the arena filled before bell time a great cross section of the community came in and began to take their seats.  All socio-economic classes appeared to be represented.  A well dressed older couple walked to the ringside chairs, taking their seats as they shook hands with fans nearby.  Sitting throughout that section and most of the general admission area were various families and groups.  Their general appearance and conduct was just like that of the majority of patrons.  Two other factions in attendance also had distinctive representation.  One could be best described as belonging to the crimson collar category.  They were very friendly, loud, full of excitement, and seemed to be really enjoying the action – even though the matches had not even started.  Then there were the others, a small but distinct clan that would now be best described as the depraved hillbilly characters in the movie Deliverance.  But no matter, everyone in the arena was a wrestling fan.

To prepare ourselves for the festivities, my cousin and I visited the concession stand.  The selections available were hotdogs, popcorn, and a choice of three drinks – Nehi Grape, Nehi Orange or Coca-Cola.  I got popcorn and a Coke and was set for the evening.

Returning to our seats we found that several people around us had also gotten refreshments and were supplementing their drinks with liquids from odd shaped bottles brought in under their coats.  Throughout the evening these fans appeared to be very thirsty and made several return trips to the concession stand for as long as their supplemental beverages held up.

Minutes before the 8:15 pm starting time the crowd had already become restless.  Boos, yells and various catcalls echoed throughout the gymnasium.  Many people began to clap and stomp their feet in unison.

The audience began to cheer as Wally Dusek came out of a side door, walked to the ring and rang the bell loudly.  Several people, mostly children, ran to the end of the building where there were two separate entrance ways for the wrestlers.  More cheers came from the crowd as Nick Kozak walked out to a rousing approval. He strolled to the ring acknowledging the fans while signing autographs for those in step with him.

The opposite scene was played out when Mike Paidousis came out of the heels’ locker room.  He motioned for fans to get away while shouting towards them and kept up the tirade all the way into the ring, eliciting much disapproval from the audience.  Mike was not to be denied as he continued to taunt individual fans at ringside during the introductions. 

The match was a tremendous spectacle.  Kozak and Paidousis really put on a show.  The noise from the grapplers’ kicks, chops and slams, especially as compared to wrestling on TV was astounding.  The fans, including my cousin and me, reacted to almost every twist and turn of the match, although not as much as some at ringside who appeared as wanting to physically involve themselves in the action.  A massive roar erupted when Kozak rolled up Paidousis for the pin.  The good guy had won my first attended match, and all was well in the world.

The next bout of the evening involved two gladiators that I had seen often on television.  Similar crowd reactions as before greeted the hero, Mike Clancy.  He was really over, and worked it during his entrance.  His opponent received the worst so far.  It was George “Two Ton” Harris.  Two Ton was a real heel at this time, not the comedy figure he became later in his career.  There was no smile on his face, especially during his ring introduction as he brushed back his hair and yelled “Shut up!”  Harris was in control for the much of the match and was eventually disqualified, giving the win to Clancy.

A fifteen minute intermission was a welcome break in the action.  We got to talk about the matches so far, while the thirsty group beside of us got up and pronounced loudly that they had to go to the restrooms.  Announcements were made to the audience thanking us for our attendance, and outlining the card for next week’s matches.  North Carolina’s agricultural economy was in full strength as the entire upper portion of the building was now full of smoke.

The semi-final pitted the popular Doug Gilbert against Mike Valentino.  Another good back and forth match of action kept the audience interest going.  Neither held a clear advantage for any length of time.  The ring announcer reported “10 minutes – 10 minutes to go in the match!”  The crowd reactions, including my cousin’s and mine, picked up.  Wanting Doug to win, we decided that if we ran down to ringside and yelled a reminder for him to use his “Victory Roll” maneuver, he could overcome Valentino.  My aunt found this idea to be rather humorous and suggested to us that Mr. Gilbert was fully capable of winning without our advice.  “5 minutes – 5 minutes remaining in the time limit!” stated the announcer forcefully.  The grapplers picked up the pace in a final flurry.  But alas, the match ended in a draw.  As typical adolescents, we decided that we were probably right all along.

The main event was figured by all to be a classic for the ages.  As hyped repeatedly on the Saturday afternoon wrestling shows, it was a return bout where Bronco Lubich, Aldo Bogni and Homer O’Dell couldn’t run from sure defeat as they did last week in Lexington.  Their opponents, tonight in a Lumberjack Match, were again George Becker and the Kentuckians – Big Boy Brown and Tiny Anderson.   

The lumberjacks were all of the combatants from the prior matches: Nozak, Paidousis, Clancy, Harris, Gilbert and Valentino.  Even before the match started these guys were arguing and shoving to the point that the referee had to restrain some of them.   

Lubich, Bogni and O’Dell were the first out from their entrance and were greeted by a monumental heel response, and it was not all vocal.  Many fans chose to share items purchased at the concession stand with them, only not in the way which one would prefer to receive those refreshments.  Quick response by the Lexington Police officers in attendance slowed down much of the aerial bombardment being given to the trio.

The Kentuckians
(Mid-Atlantic Grapplin' Greats)
Becker and the Kentuckians were hailed as the conquering heroes as they came out to a gigantic pop.  Becker was the consummate wrestler loved by fans, and the Kentuckians were huge mountain men who looked and performed the part.  They even brought along a large cow horn which they hung on the ring post during their matches.

Introductions were not even completed when the contest began as wrestlers from both teams were tossed out to the lumberjacks, and vice versa.  Once the referee got things somewhat in order Tiny Anderson won the first fall with a “bear hug” over Bogni.  The crowd reaction almost shook the building.  This was no comparison to the emotions seen on TV from a studio audience, along with this live crowd’s reaction to every punch “ooh, ooh, ooh” when the good guy was pummeling the heel.

A restart of the match for the second fall saw continued action, both in and out of the ring.  O’Dell played his cowardly persona by only tagging in when his team had a complete beat down on an opponent.  To massive heat from the crowd, he would leap in, deal out a few stomps and quickly tag out. Lubich won the second fall over Becker to even the match.  This set the crowd off to the point that some within our hearing distance were questioning the heels’ ancestry, while others had even more distinct descriptions of Lubich, Bogni and O’Dell’s mothers.

Bronco Lubich and Aldo Bogni
with manager Homer O'Dell

( via WCCW Memories)
The deciding fall came in a most bizarre way.  Wrestling in the ring had the usual give and take, along with both sides getting time tossing opponents to the lumberjacks.  Only this time when tossed out, Bronco Lubich defended himself by slugging Nick Kozak, and then got back into the ring on his own.  Kozak took exception and went over to the ringpost, grabbed the Kentuckian’s cow horn, leapt up on the ring apron and proceeded to clobber Lubich over the head with it while the referee’s back was turned.  Becker covered him for the victory, followed by massive celebrating throughout the arena.  Good had triumphed over evil.

There was no doubt that this spectacle was everything, plus many times more than anything I had expected.  The pomp and pageantry, seeing those in person that I had admired on television, the size and behaviors of the crowd, along with my ability to conduct myself the same way and feel normal about it were just a few of the many reasons that I had to return.

As we filed out of the YMCA with several thousand other spectators, people were commenting on the matches, about the good time they had, but most of all about the outcome of the main event.  “O’Dell’s bunch got theirs!”; “It served ‘em right!”; “I liked what Kozak did with that horn!” etc.  

Yet another wrestling lesson for my youthful mind – it must be OK to cheat, as long as those doing it are popular.