It was a Saturday morning, 1980-something, and I was posted on the couch at my grandparents’ house on Water Street in West Brownsville. Nobody in the room could look away from the television.
Professional wrestling, as it was called back then, or sports entertainment for those born after 1990, drew us in like a tractor beam.
This wasn’t just some nickel-and-dime program filled with jobbers, ham-and-eggers and scores of larger-than-life characters. Nope, it was a replay of WrestleMania.
The first WrestleMania.
Within 10 minutes, I was hooked.
King Kong Bundy, Ricky Steamboat (who wrestled Matt Borne, a person I’d later write about as a sports writer), The U.S. Express (Barry Windham and Mike Rotunda), Junkyard Dog, The Iron Sheik, Cyndi Lauper, Mr. T, Hulk Hogan and two characters I was quickly drawn to – “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff.
I was 10 years old, but I left my grandparents’ house a new man, transfixed by this blend of athleticism, brawn, violence and entertainment. It blossomed into a boyhood obsession. When forced to go to the grocery or department store with my mother, I immediately hit the magazine rack to scour pages of The Wrestler or Pro Wrestling Illustrated. I’d memorize each magazine’s wrestling rankings for various leagues – WWF, AWA, WCCW and, my favorite, NWA. I bought into characters. I truly believed Nikita Koloff was a Russian war machine incapable of being destroyed by American forces and, someday soon, he’d lead a communist takeover of our country and we’d be forced to live lives of misery, and singing Nikolai Volkoff’s version of the Russian national anthem. I spent Saturday mornings watching three consecutive hours of wrestling. Thumb wrestlers, rubber action figures, wrestling magazines – it all filled my closet and were among my most cherished possessions. I went as far as to figure out how to watch Saturday Night’s Main Event on my tiny 9-inch black-and-white bedroom television without awakening my parents.
We went to every card held at Cambria County War Memorial in Johnstown and Jaffa Mosque in Altoona. When possible, we hit matches in Pittsburgh. We watched wrestlers drive into the arena together. We were there so often, Ric Flair occasionally looked for us in the crowd so we could stand and salute the Four Horsemen. How cool is that?
Wrestling became such a part of my life I wanted to be a professional wrestler, and when I disappointed my parents with a report card, wrestling was taken from me.
Those six-week periods remain some of the worst of my life. At least me and a few friends had an imaginary wrestling company to ease the pain of not being able to watch.
Unlike many of my friends, most of whom developed a similar passion for a “sport” many of us believed to be 100-percent real, I gravitated toward the bad guy, or the heel as they’re called today. Hogan, Tito Santana, Steamboat and the like were of little use to me. I rolled with Flair, Arn Anderson, Curt Hennig, Jake Roberts and Randy Savage.
If the wrestler could cut a great promo, now that was worth something.
And when it comes to promos, not sure any did it better than Dusty Rhodes, the only true face who I found fascinating, and Piper.
Rhodes, now there was a face worth following – the best face in the history of the business. Piper may be its best heel. Sadly, both died recently.
I received news of Rhodes’ death while driving to work June 11. It was a big blow. Rhodes was innovative, charismatic and the ultimate underdog. He wasn’t my favorite wrestler – Flair was and always will be – but the yearslong feuds between the two leave me with lasting memories. And no one cut a better promo than Rhodes.
Not even Flair.
Piper was the maniacal, kilt-wearing madman whose character was from Glasgow, Scotland. He brought instant heat to everything he did, and Piper’s Pit was often the highlight of WWF’s normally boring weekly programming.
Piper was a genius with the mic, so much so his in-ring work was not appreciated fully. From Portland to the NWA to WWF, Piper put in great work. He put people over. And, as wrestling fans wised up over the years, he became a beloved figure.
News of his July 31 death hit the news three days ago. Another reminder that we’re getting older and that the heroes of our youth can’t last forever, especially when those heroes made sports entertainment a career.