Monday, June 30, 2014


None of the major local papers were on-hand to cover last weekend's eighth annual New England Wrestling Hall of Fame  Fanfest. Maybe the local sports desks were too absorbed by World Cup fever to send a few stringers to mingle with the mat stars of yesterday. This is a shame, since 10 years ago nobody in America even knew  soccer existed, but now it's all the rage, somewhere between Amanda Bynes and Duck Dynasty.

Then again, not only was the press not there, but wrestling fans were also conspicuous in their absence. Joel Gertner, who had once provided comic relief for the mighty ECW organization back in the late 1990s, sat in a corner by himself, looking slightly perplexed, but keeping a smile on his face. A fan asked what he was doing these days. "Stuff like this," Gertner said, pointing at his display table. There were a handful of 8 X 10 photos from his heyday. Pete Doherty,  a preliminary jobber who gave me no end of entertainment back in his days as  "The Duke of Dorchester," sat in another side of the room, much more animated than those around him. I asked him about an old rumor that used to float around the Boston Garden, something about the promoter letting him wrestle only because he owned the ring and stored it nearby. He said the rumor wasn't true, but he didn't mind if we spread it.

"They're gonna build a statue of me at the Garden," the Duke said. "They'll put it right next to the one of Bobby Orr. Don't you think I deserve it?" 

The event takes place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Warwick, RI in a series of rooms sparsely populated by large, oddly shaped people. Some of the bigger names included Tony Atlas,  Dory Funk, Jr., Scott Hall, Superfly Jimmy Snuka, Scott Steiner,  Nicole Bass, Ox Baker, Harley Race, Demolition, Virgil,  XPac, The Nasty Boys, and even Tugboat, still wearing his sailor's cap. Tony Garea was there, too, his hair still suspiciously perfect. Garea still works as part of the WWE show, as a sort of backstage agent. Vince McMahon Jr must not be paying him much, for Garea still charges 25 bucks for a handshake and an autograph. The price to get in the joint and rub elbows with the greats and ingrates was rumored to be 250 bucks, which might explain why the place wasn't exactly buzzing with activity.

"Baron Mikel Scicluna was the nicest guy in the business," recalls one senior fan, an autograph hound who nuzzles up to the old stars hoping for a freebie. "Did you know he was really from the Isle of Malta?"  The news sounds vaguely familiar, although I'd be happier to learn that Scicluna was an actual baron. And the worst guy?

"Maybe Bob Backlund," says the collector, who once was forced to recite all the presidents of our country before Backlund would give him an autograph.

A Q&A session takes place in another room. There are eight people on the panel. There are three people in the audience. One of the panelists takes over the session and starts asking random questions. Who are your favorite wrestlers? The usual names are dropped: Flair, Sammartino, Kowalski, etc. The panelists are soon looking at their watches. They can only reminisce about Killer Kowalski for  so long, although it's obvious they all revered him. Those who want to sound in the know call him by his real name, "Walter," although "Killer" sounds more authentic.

Surveying the main room, looking at Hall, Steiner, and company, one could be looking at a gathering of long distance truckers, or celebrity lumberjacks. Some of them still have the bulky muscles of their heyday, and the tattoos are still there, although age has given them the effect of art works melting in a museum fire. Old wrestlers have always reminded me less of ex-athletes and more of retired strippers. There's a similarity in that they make a living with their bodies, and in order to survive, they develop a sense of humor about their businesses, to the point of being slightly goofy.  Wrestlers age the same way as strippers, too, usually retiring to a warm climate, with an over reliance on tanning beds and hair coloring. They don't age the same as, say, old city workers or politicians.

Larry Zbyszko, looking thinner in retirement, seems to be in good spirits. A middle-aged man approaches him shyly, trying not to be too much of a fan-boy.  "You were my favorite," the man says, shaking his head as if he doesn't know why. Larry  breaks the ice.

"Because I was the biggest asshole?"

Larry was last seen in a major arena more than 15 years ago, but he still wears his hair the way he did in the 1980s.  Most of the wrestlers still wear their hair the way they did in the old days. Larry says something about still working for the WWE, providing voice over introductions for the company's new internet channel. "It's fun," Larry says, "and I don't have to go too far from my home to do it." Of all the people in the room, Larry seems the least like an ex-wrestler. He could be used car salesman,  or a rock star's agent.

Bobby Heenen sits quietly with his wife at a table. Four copies of his autobiography are stacked neatly in front of him. He was once a comedic Fallstaff, a bumbling heel you couldn't help but love. Nowadays his face has been ravaged by cancer, his body damaged by falls. A well-wisher approaches and praises Heenen as the greatest bump taker of them all. The fan asks if Heenen is making any money at the event. Heenen shrugs. Heenen's wife scowls and shakes her head no.

The merchandise isn't moving for Heenen, or anyone else. "I'm glad I didn't bring my books," says Zbyszco, who wrote a memoir a few years ago. "The publisher sells them to me at a discount, but only in bundles of 150. I knew I wasn't selling 150 books today."

Most of the memorabilia available across the room is old fluff from the Hulkamania days: rubber dolls, plastic replicas of title belts; action figures of old wrestlers, magazines and programs with Andre the Giant and Lou Albano on the cover, even VHS tapes (VHS!). The vendors grow so bored that by noon they've wandered away from their tables, leaving the merch unattended. They know nobody wants the stuff. There are very few kids in the place, and today's kids only want games they can play on a computer screen. A Randy Savage figure means nothing to them. Autographs are still hot, though, and some of the die-hards still stand in line to get Dory Funk's signature. Funk looks stately, like Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda, standing tall in his cowboy hat. Fans have a way of acting familiar with their favorite wrestlers. One geezer acts as if he and Funk are old pals. Funk stares at him blankly: "And who are you?"

Some of the wrestlers are in rough shape. Their hands waver as they sign items. Some need help moving around. There are a surprising number of wheelchairs, crutches, and canes.  One female wrestler looks like a science lab experiment gone awry, her gut hanging over her leather belt like one of those grotesque milk-fed pumpkins that take first prize at a county fair. The sheer size of her makes one feel odd, like staring up at a massive waterfall. I feel bad for her, though, because she's seated next to a giant Peavey speaker blasting out some brain-deadening heavy metal.  She sits there, one thick finger in her ear, grimacing through the noise. Now and then a male fan stops to have a picture taken with her. One tries for a kiss.

Greg "The Hammer" Valentine has the look of a man who has just come out of a long, cozy nap. Valentine still wears his hair long, too, but it's no longer platinum. A fellow sitting with him asks, "How long can you stay here before you're totally wiped out?" Valentine shrugs his beefy shoulders, as if he's taken a lot of muscle relaxers to get through the day. He's happy to sign stuff, though, and is amazingly patient with a fan who can't get his camera to work. Later I learn that Valentine's daughter had passed away just weeks earlier, and wonder if this 'meet and greet' was a way to get away from his sorrows for a day.

There's Jimmy Snuka, sitting with a female companion. He once entered the nearby Providence Civic Center to a roar that I still recall as the most electrifying sound I'd ever heard - one could actually walk across the electricity that night as Snuka came out to face Ray Stevens. I've been to many sports events and concerts, including heavyweight championship fights, and a Madison Square Garden crowd of Puerto Rican fans cheering their idol Felix Trinidad, but no crowd matched the sheer emotional spasm of the customers who had paid to see Snuka fight Stevens. Snuka looks good here, surprisingly happy and sober, his face weathered like an old mountain side. He and Zbyszko greet each other in the hotel lobby with a big hug.

There are younger wrestlers around, too. They're from local independent promotions, trying to sell their own photos. The difference between the indy guys and the old pros is obvious. The guys like Valentine,  Atlas, and Garea still look as sturdy as oak trees, their faces hardened by years of travel. The young guys, God bless 'em, look like kids playing dress up.   The older guys look like they're on holiday, cruising through the day, not working too hard. "It's easy money," one of them whispers to me, which would be amusing if he was actually selling anything.

One fellow, a local promoter named Sheldon Goldberg, was telling how the younger men may not achieve major stardom, but are no less dedicated to the business. "They'll drive 100 miles, do their match, make enough money to cover their gas and maybe buy a hamburger, and then drive back home, another 100 miles." He's visibly touched by the yearning these young guys have to simply perform in a ring for 10 minutes. A few feet away from us is a wrestler wearing a cape. He'd actually made it to the big time a decade ago, all the way to Vince's Monday night TV show, but for one reason or another he's back on the independent circuit, his reputation clouded by rumors of steroid use and a drinking problem. He seems fine now. He's networking, telling people to follow him Twitter. 

It doesn't take long for a sense of sheer exhaustion to set in. The place has the feel of a wedding party that has gone on too long, but the guests are too polite to leave. In another room is a table of even older memorabilia than was in the main room, including a wrestling board game that looks sort of fun. A yellow post-it note is stuck to the cover: Pieces missing.  There's an old, autographed photo of Freddie Blassie wearing a sombrero. I think about buying it.

There's another table covered in old wrestler dolls. They're made of a stretchy material, and are heavy enough that you could knock a man out if you struck him in the head with one. I see an old Hulk Hogan doll, his fist raised. I see a Bruno doll, with hair on its chest. I see a John Studd doll. I hear there's a fan in the main room who carries a picture of Big John Studd in his wallet. No big deal, I guess. Bob Costas supposedly carries an old Micky Mantle card around. 

"I have a great story about John Studd," Goldberg tells me. "He was at one of these fan fests many years ago. He had his son with with him. He brought his son to a table like this one. He said, 'See the Hulk Hogan doll? Remember when I fought him? That allowed us to make money, and helped us buy our house. We should always be grateful for what Hulk did for us.' " 

I'm remembering the Hogan-Studd matches, back at the dawn of it all, when the vendor comes along and with one arm sweeps all of the old rubber dolls off the table and into a cardboard box. They lay in there, Hogan and Bruno and Savage and Flair, and a Snuka doll and an Andre doll, too. They looked for all the world like a pile of dead bodies, gladiators perhaps, shipped off after fighting to the death for a bloated and heartless emperor, sent down river where they won't be seen again. 

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