Professional wrestlers (or, as my father prefers to say, "wrasslers") were the first television stars, with the flamboyant Gorgeous George serving as an early role model for the young Cassius Clay. Wrasslin' was a sport (or performance art) enjoyed in large arenas in big cities and in small armories along Main Street, U.S.A. St. Louis figures prominently in wrasslin' lore -- in fact, East St. Louis is the home of former world champion Lou Thez.
Wrasslers back in the pre-Hulk Hogan era had a comforting familiarity about them. They looked like guys who worked in the mill (and often did), rather than the sculpted specimens of Goldberg and Ric Flair (pictured, who is the latest incarnation of the Gorgeous George motif). They had big guts and beefy arms and the pathos of grown men who eked out a living by playing pretend.
Even the bad guys had a sympathetic melancholy about them. My dad took me to the armory in Albany, Ore., to see a wrasslin' card when I was about 10. Tough Tony Boron was only rivaled by the Crusher as the meanest, dirtiest brute on the Pacific Northwest circuit in those days. Tough Tony strangled his opponents whenever the referee wasn't looking, which was most of the time, and would finish them off with a crisp left hook. I'd seen Tough Tony on the tube numerous times defeating noble good guys like Chief Billy White Wolf in ways that were infuriatingly ill-mannered.
I was prepared to boo Tough Tony mercilessly, but as he hobbled on slightly bowed legs up the aisle toward the ring, he failed to project the menace that emanated from his television image every week. He was a short, weary, middle-aged man holding onto a vestige of fame, one step away from a shift on the loading dock.
The new, glossier version of professional wrestling doesn't let the curtain slip as it did in the old lunchbucket days of the sport/art. The WCW Slamboree at the Trans World Dome, starting at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, May 9, will provide supercharged psychodrama with good and evil drawn in broad, unmistakable caricature. There will be high-flying body slams thrown and potent, antagonizing rhetoric spoken. There will be plenty of spectacle, but not much charm.