Category Archives: Wrestling

Childhood heroes: Dusty Rhodes and Roddy Piper

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.

For heel lovers, Super Bowl is a dream matchup

Sunday’s Super Bowl offers tough choices for the average, American sports fan.

In one corner are the big, bad Seattle Seahawks. They’re brash, led by motormouth cornerback Richard Sherman – a rare athlete who talks the talk but follows up by walking the walk.

In last year’s NFC championship, Sherman offered this post-game gem, arguably the most polarizing moment in recent NFL history:

Love the look on Erin Andrews face there. It’s like she’s saying, “Don’t you realize I’m hot? I don’t know whether I’m offended by what you’re saying or that you’re not fawning over me.”

In addition to brash, the Seahawks are big and bad. They bludgeon opponents.

And they boast a crouch-grabbing, interview-hating, Skittles-eating force.

In the other corner are the New England Patriots.

They’re cerebral, always around late in the postseason. Oh, and they’ve been accused of cheating a time or two.

Take away the Deflategate and Spygate scandals, and NFL teams don’t get more boring than New England, even if the Patriots have a history of taking on at-risk players like LeGarrette Blount (anyone else believe Blount orchestrated his exit from the Steelers?), Aaron Hernandez, Randy Moss and that Molly-poppin’ Wes Welker.

Yep, for many, there’s not much to root for this Sunday – take up sides with a bandwagon fan base from the Northwest with a coach who derailed USC football or a cheating franchise with a decades worth of bad sound clips.

But …

For those of us who grew up cheering for the heel, who booed Tito Santana with every ounce of energy when his whack in-ring skills were on public display or proudly displayed the Four Horsemen sign as yinzers at the War Memorial Arena in Johnstown threw garbage, it’s a dream matchup.

In this corner, we have the Seattle Seahawks, the Arn Andersons of the NFL.

Arn Anderson was mean, nasty and did anything to win. HIs four fingers extended are like Lynch’s crouch grab.

In this corner, we have the New England Patriots, the Curt Hennigs of the NFL.

Like Hennig, the Patriots pride themselves on execution, perfection and technical ability. Hennig provided far better sound clips than Tom Brady or Belichick ever could, but there;s no denying the orchestration both display.

Really, it’s a dream matchup. Imagine Arn vs. Mr. Perfect in their primes. We’re talking 60-minute, falls count anywhere, tons of outside interference and a title change.

Speaking of title changes, the Patriots have too much to prove after Deflategate.

Patriots 37, Seahawks 19.

Steelers in need of a Dusty finish

Don’t rest easy, Yinzer Nation. Your Steelers aren’t the Steelers you’re used to seeing, unless, of course, you followed them during lean times in the 1980s, pre-1970s and, gasp, parts of Bill Cowher’s tenure.

In other words, the Steelers stink.

But stinking has them at 3-3, well within playoff contention. Sure, they lost to Cleveland, but the Browns are better than Steelers fans, who took to social media to remind everyone about the six Super Bowls without nary a consideration Cleveland won eight NFL titles back in the day, want to believe.

The Browns are better, and the Steelers are reeling. Coming off Sunday’s blowout, the Steelers were criticized by Bill Cowher and Hines Ward. Naturally, their critical remarks were taken seriously by fans, who believe Cowher is 15 times the coach Tomlin ever will be (not true) and that Ward is the epitome of unselfish play (also not true). Cowher must forget he lost nearly every big game he coached. As for Ward? Well, he celebrated a reception for negative yards because it was his 1,000th. That, folks, was the single cheesiest moment of Steelers football the past decade.

There was talk of being “soft”, “elevator music” and “fire Tomlin and Haley.” It’s been a rough week in an increasingly trying season.

How did a franchise so accustomed to postseason play hit times harder than Dusty Rhodes having his leg broken at the hands of the Four Horsemen? (For the record, Rhodes goes down as the greatest face in the history of the business. Don’t believe me. Watch this clip and soak in its awesomeness.)

The Steelers could use a few good, hard-working men like Dusty Rhodes. But there’s only one Dusty. And there’s 50-some Steelers heading toward a third-consecutive nonplayoff season. Not exactly a Dusty finish (Google it.)

So what went wrong? Here’s a few things:

Draft decisions

Let’s look at the Steelers’ 2009 draft class (in order): Ziggy Hood, Kraig Urbik, Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis, Joe Burnett, Frank Summers, Ra’Shon Harris, A.Q. Shipley and David Johnson. How many are still in Pittsburgh? If you said, “none,” you’d be correct. Hood hung around but never looked like a first-rounder. Wallace and Lewis provided good value considering each were selected in Round 3, but neither were retained. Losing an entire draft class is difficult to overcome, particularly for a franchise that fancies itself more of a clearance rack shopper than a big spender in free agency. To compound matters, no player from the 2008 draft class remains. That’s two wasted draft classes.

Ryan Shazier – the 2014 No. 1 pick – hasn’t been healthy (preseason or regular season). Jarvis Jones – the top pick in 2013 – played poorly as a rookie and is now injured. Picks were wasted on players like Mike Adams and Landry Jones. Alameda Ta’amu and Chris Rainey made headlines for off-field issues. Cameron Heyward – the 2011 No. 1 pick – regressed this year after displaying potential late last year.

Bad drafts fall on Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin.

Scouting

Speaking of draft picks, the Steelers select an overwhelming number of players from Power 5 (ACC, Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, Pac-12) conferences.

Why?

Are they not interested in scouring smaller schools and Division II and III for talent, or just too lazy?

Then, there’s the issue of chartacter. Choir boys aren’t required in the NFL, but the Steelers are making practice of reaching for players with issues. How many of those reaches have panned out?

Loyalty

Troy Polamalu played well in 2013, but nowhere near his old form. He can’t cover slow, plodding tight ends. Running backs blow by him on pass plays and the defense regularly gives us chunk plays over the middle. The Steelers needed to release Polamalu two years ago.

Same goes for Brett Keisel.

Same goes for Ike Taylor, who, sadly, still ranks as Pittsburgh’s best cornerback as he stands injured on sidelines.

They held on to James Harrison and Hines Ward too long. With Harrison and Keisel back, how soon until Ward is signed to bolster receiver depth?