WrestleMania 25 was this weekend and I have to admit, it gave me pause. Twenty-five years and 25 events. It was just yesterday, wasn't it, that Rowdy Roddy Piper entered the ring playing bagpipes for his tag-team match with Paul Orndorff against Hulk Hogan and Mr. T. in Wrestle 1? Thirteen is an awkward age for anyone, and it was nice to have one April night to act like one of the kids from "Lord of the Flies" and dance around a fire with an ululation escaping your lungs -- which I did when Tito Santana first won the Intercontinental Title and not again until the Jets got Brett Favre.
Twenty-five years. You come and go as a wrestling fan in your life. No matter who you are, you are a fan for at least five minutes. The exuberance of watching your favorite wrestler enter the ring to his pumped-up arena-themed music when you're a kid is unmatched in your lifetime -- and that includes Super Bowls, World Series and the like. As big sports fans as we are, nothing takes you from 0 to 60 like the Macho Man all aglitter sticking his tongue out to the crowd during "Pomp and Circumstance." Or the bells sounding the coming of the Undertaker. (Insert your favorite wrestler X and theme music Y here.) Like Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: And so it goes.
I spent some time this week musing about wrestling years gone by. How it's normal to leave wrestling and move on to other things in your life as you grow older, mature, and find your way in the world. But I realized something.
Forget about kindergarten, all I needed to know from life I learned from the WWF, back before the F became an E and pandas and koalas became more powerful than Vince McMahon. If I could go back, I'd drop out of school and enter the Church of the Squared Circle.
As kids, we learned about language and anatomy from announcer Gorilla Monsoon. Who else on earth was qualified to teach us both subjects at the same time? I think you could be a rich person if you could pull that off. Gorilla's lessons? Why use simple words when more unique, intelligent-sounding ones would do. The stomach was the solar plexus. The toes were metatarsals. Some wrestlers were felled by ligament damage, long before we knew what the ACL even was. A kick to the groin area was getting a shot to the lower abdominal region. The small of the back? Nah. It was the "lateral collateral area" of the back. The back of the head was the external occipital protuberance.
Use those phrases. You sound smarter than your average doctor -- and you were tricked into learning them. I could go into the way that Venus Flytrap got the kid to learn about physics in that famous "WKRP in Cincinnati" episode as far as trickeration and learning go, but we'll have to save that for another day. As well as Jan Smithers versus Loni Anderson. I was always a Bailey Quarters guy, anyway.
We found out about betrayal long before we went on our first date. A good guy could turn out to be a bad guy in disguise at any time. See, you can trust people, just not all the way (or until you get married). When Sally Smile (not her real name) broke your heart by making out with your best friend at a party when you were 16, you were steeled for it because you remembered how Andre the Giant turned heel on the Hulkster in WrestleMania 3. You weren't completely devastated, because you suspected it might happen all along. You never forgot that.
Current events were always a tough subject for a good little Hulkac to swallow. In the mid-80s, America had no greater foes than Iran and Russia. Maybe you didn't get the politics, but you knew the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff were the enemy. You didn't understand the hostage crisis, but you knew when the Iron Sheik grabbed the microphone and yelled "Iran, number one!" over and over to incite the crowd before a match that he had to get GOT. (Sorry, I slipped into "The Wire" mode there for a second.)
Volkoff would sing the Russian national anthem before his duel and get pelted with pennies and beer cups because of it. (Come to think of it, the anthem wasn't always the same week after week -- but, like Santa Claus, some curtains are best left closed.) What was the nuclear arms race? Who cares? As long as we were told we were winning (like it was an Olympic event) and Volkoff went down in a heap thanks to Hacksaw Jim Duggan's 2 x 4, we were happy and full of Americana. And splinters if you happened to be ringside.
And so it goes.
At ESPN now, I deal with sports stars who are tightly wrapped up in the "me" generation. T.O. Randy Moss. Jay Cutler. But I learned all about being a "me" guy and how to handle it from Superstar Billy Graham. The first person I ever saw go third person was the Superstar. Sometimes he would do it seven times in 20 seconds. ("Superstar Billy Graham is going to knock out the American Dream. Superstar Billy Graham knows you're rooting for him. And Superstar Billy Graham is going to deliver.") I wonder if he walked around his house like that. "Superstar Billy Graham is hungry. Superstar Billy Graham has to go to the bathroom. Superstar Billy Graham is out of toilet paper." Think I'm lying? Check him out on YouTube. No one says "the ring will erupt with charisma" like he does. Before Bo knew anything and Rickey Henderson began every sentence with his first name, there was the Superstar. So I hear the third person now, and laugh rather than cringe. I can deal.
Every time I hear athletes say "It's not about the money" as they hold out for more money, I think back to Ted DiBiase, the "Million Dollar Man," who would walk into the ring with his bodyguard Virgil and a briefcase full of cash. He always had enough money to convince his opponent to take a dive and lose (before he had Virgil hit him over the head and take back the money he had just given him). His tagline was: "Everybody has a price for the Million Dollar Man." So whenever football players claim their negotiations are about respect, I picture Virgil standing next to them with his leather case until they can't take it any longer and reach in for the cash. And they always do. Everybody has a price.
Nightly, I do my fair share of interviews, and I always want to make sure my listeners get all the information they need from my guest. Thank goodness I apprenticed at the feet of Mean Gene Okerlund, who would invite a wrestler to stand next to him, and ask him how he could possibly beat his upcoming opponent, and then just let the man rant for two minutes and get on the verge of a coronary before he would step in, thank him and then throw it back to ringside. Very effective.
The first person I ever used this strategy with was Don King. It works. A good interviewer always knows when to get out of the way. Though sometimes Mean Gene had to do it physically as well as metaphorically.
Boy did I waste my time in English, history and math. (But not typing. It's the most important skill you'll ever learn in school and the only thing from all of your education you'll take with you the rest of your life.) So I thank the Ultimate Warrior, just how the generation before me gave the nod to Superfly Jimmy Snuka, and the one after me pays respect to The Rock (especially after "Be Cool." Now that was funny stuff, Dwayne).
And so it goes.
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