Thursday, November 30, 2017

Friday Night at 8:15

by Andy McDaniel
Mid-Atlantic Gateway Contributor
Originally published in May 2010

The smoke circled through the air as if a cloud had settled from the sky. The bright light that beamed from the center of the room cast its glow through the haze down to the white canvassed battlefield below. The crowd, eager with anticipation lets loose with a mighty roar as the time keeper strikes the bell signaling that it was 8:15, it was Friday night and professional wrestling had come to town!

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The challenges had been laid down, all the threats of terrible beatings had been made; now it was time to put up or shut up. The wait was finally over, weeks and weeks of interviews, sometimes months of build up had prepared us for what was about to come. Our heroes were there to bring justice for all the evil deeds that the villains had taken part in and caused so much grief and anguish to everyone with their terrible ways.

For many of us this scenario was a staple part of our week or at least a few times a month. One of my absolute favorite childhood memories was going to the wrestling matches with my Dad on Friday nights. Each and every Saturday (unless it was pre-empted for tennis or something, and boy did I ever hate that) Mid-Atlantic wrestling was on television. These larger than life figures filled the screen and each one clearly defined whose side they were on. The good guys did everything they could to please their adoring fans. They shook hands, they signed autographs at ringside and they let you know that your cheers really meant something. The bad guys did all they could to prove they were indeed bad. Their job was easy, do the good guy wrong, cheat, antagonize the cheering crowd, pull hair, hide the forbidden “foreign object” from the referee while at the same time making sure that the people in the seats screaming at the referee to look were the only ones who saw it. It was a magical time and for many it was not hard to believe. These men, and on rare occasions women, knew their jobs and they did them very well. It was up to them to bring in the crowds. The more serious the feud was, the bigger the audience would be. The more real it seemed, the louder the cheers and jeers.

The formula was simple. It was the age old real existence of good versus evil. The combatants in this contest were often good friends and the intention was certainly not to hurt each other if possible, but when the bell rang it was showtime and business was business. The good guy was going to do all he could to please his fans while trying to stay within the rules (which for him was certainly difficult because of the strict sanctioning of the NWA board of directors), but his foe, the dastardly bad guy, he had neither concern for the rules nor any care of obeying them. He wanted to make the people as mad as possible. He wanted to do what was needed to win even if it meant causing pain and hurt to the beloved hero that all had come to see. He was going to taunt everyone with his cheating ways and more often than not he would do his best even if by hook or crook to squeak out a win so that no one went home happy. Why was that? Well of course so they would come back the next week to see justice served to him because of his cheating ways, but that didn’t always happen right away. It was not uncommon for it to keep going for several months before the conclusion, the blow-off, the highlight of the feud, if you will. It might be a street fight with “no rules”, it might be a chain match or some other specialty weapon but, if things really needed to be settled once and for all and there had been problems with outside interference or the bad guy always running, then it was time to bring out the steel cage. If it came to this it was not uncommon to see someone giving an interview telling of what was going to happen while grating a head of cabbage against a wall of cyclone fencing. The effect was powerful. This was serious, it had gone on long enough and somebody was going to get hurt and hurt bad.

The crowds would come out in droves. This was a must see event. Was it violent? Yes! Was it bloody? Yes! Was it dramatic? Yes! Was it believable? Very! Because this is what made it work, the two men in that situation knew what to do to make it look that way. They knew how to tell a story. They knew how to take a situation that people could relate to and draw them into the story. It worked! And it was an incredibly enjoyable night of action, drama, sports, athleticism all rolled into one.

There were no script writers, no creative departments and no movie people who knew nothing about the business. Instead it was just some very talented, very agile, very believable guys  who knew how to draw a crowd and knew how to tell a story. Who didn’t believe that Wahoo McDaniel was really tough or that Blackjack Mulligan looked really mean?

It was all done with local television outlets all over the country in what were called territories. The television shows helped to promote the local events but it was the guys in the ring that brought the people out. I remember watching each Saturday morning and occasionally late Saturday night and hardly being able to wait until the following Friday because then they would be here in town live and in person. It was before music or large video screens and pyrotechnics; just knowing that your favorite wrestler was in the same building that you was created the excitement that filled the air. While waiting on the main event the preliminary guys always did a great job in getting the crowd worked up. The occasional thrill of passing your hero on the road while driving to the arena added to the thrill of the night. It was truly an exciting time.

Things have certainly changed as the years have gone by. Although the performers today can do some amazing and seemingly impossible stunts and they surely have more exposure than the ring warriors of the past, there is just something missing. It is not the same by any means. The ability to tell a story and truly build a feud that drew in the crowds has been taken away or at least not allowed. Three weeks to create something only to try and convince people to spend $40 or $50 on a pay-per-view is called sports entertainment. The problem is the entertainment is not always entertaining. Things have been too rushed and nothing means anything, there is no reason for the situation or proper time has not been given to get people interested enough to keep up with it. In the days past there were very clear reasons for the feud and there was a lot of work put into that to get the fans involved. When a cage match was called for there was a reason. Today on any given Monday night there could be a cage lowered from the ceiling for no apparent reason and then there is no blood, just doesn’t serve much purpose or look remotely believable.

The history of professional wrestling is a long one. Certainly not one without conflict, controversy, turmoil, back stage politics, shady promoters, but not many people knew about that stuff, because we didn’t need to. It was about Friday night at 8:15 that really counted to the fans. It was about seeing Wahoo McDaniel walking out in full headdress to face the stone faced Johnny Valentine in a match that would leave both men battered and scarred and send each person home saying, “we just saw one heck of a fight!” It was seeing Rufus R. (Freight Train) Jones get his revenge on a young braggart named Ric Flair because for weeks and months he had done him wrong. These were magical times that this writer fondly remembers. Looking back they were not always PG moments, they certainly were not politically correct, but then again this was pro wrestling and it was not supposed to be. Those days are long gone, but the memories will live within this fans heart forever.

Thanks Wahoo, Ole, Gene, Rufus, Paul, Blackjack, Johnny, Greg, Burrhead, Sandy. George, Two-Ton, Ric, thank you all and so many more for creating a lifetime of great memories that will never be forgotten.

(Originally published May 2010)

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