By Lindsay Toler
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By Allison Babka
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By Jake Rossen
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By Kelsey McClure
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Doesn't matter how many times you've cut that cut. When a truly gorgeous man is in your barber chair, the stakes are higher.
Such is the challenge Debois "Big Syke" Sykes faces the first Saturday of every month. It matters little that Big Syke's got several pounds on his client, that the man in the chair is his boyhood buddy or that the compensation for his precision will be a mere five dollars (plus a modest tip). What does matter is that the object of his clippers' attention is the coif of a champion. The coif of the Mid-Missouri Wrestling Association/Southern Illinois Championship Wrestling heavyweight titleholder.
Which is to say, the coif of Gorgeous Gary Jackson.
Though he has the build and the nickname of a wrestler, Big Syke leaves the grappling to the stocky, five-foot-eight Jackson. The two grew up on the north side and attended Central High together for a year before Jackson transferred to Vashon. They remain close, both personally and geographically; Sykes' Hebert Street home is but a five-minute drive from Jackson's two-family dwelling on Penrose and Prairie. Sykes' salon, situated beneath the giant elm tree in his back yard, may just be the only haircuttery in St. Louis that postpones appointments if it rains.
"Just like baseball," Big Syke cracks.
Although he cops to once coaxing Sykes into cutting his hair in a lightning storm, in the event of a rainout Jackson usually schleps to Scott Air Force Base for his ritualistic trim. But you get the distinct sense that the AFB's not nearly as gorgeous as the routine at Sykes' pad.
"This is the real-deal Gary Jackson right here," says the champ.
As Big Syke carefully glides his clippers across Gorgeous Gary's symmetrical fade, Jackson, his buff bod engulfed in a white bedsheet, allows that his training regimen has been less than rigorous of late.
"This is the only day I trained," he concedes with a grin, noting that in only a few hours he'll defend his title in the feature match at the South Broadway Athletic Club. "The rest of the week I just sat in front of the TV with a remote."
"This is an old military cut, Sarge," Sykes announces, putting the wraps on the monthly touch-up by handing Jackson a hand mirror. "High and tight."
Gorgeous Gary thanks and pays, then politely shrugs off a sidewalk cologne salesman on the way back to his luxury Chrysler sedan.
He brings the fuel-injected engine to life with a twist of his wrist. "Five-dollar haircut and a two-dollar tip," he declares. "Makes me look Gorgeous."
He hasn't always been Gorgeous. At one point in his career, he was Action Jackson. Then there was Nite Train. With Gorgeous, Jackson plays glamour god, draping himself in fabulous outfits and loudly touting his pretty-boy persona.
"Gary is the Ric Flair of local wrestling," posits South Broadway Athletic Club television announcer Tim Miller, likening Jackson to the bleached-blond "Nature Boy," who ruled the national pro-wrestling circuit in the '70s and '80s with a combination of in-the-ring resilience and over-the-top obnoxiousness. "If you love him, you love him. But if you hate him -- God, you hate him."
The comparison isn't as farfetched as one might think. Gorgeous Gary actually fought Flair back in the day, back when he was earning up to $2,000 a week as an also-ran on the national scene.
But Jackson's rise was stymied by that fateful pile-driver bad timing, which stalled his career in an era when racism ruled a burgeoning empire that was programmed almost exclusively by white good old boys.
Nowadays the champ's lucky if he clears $100 a month. But even if it doesn't pay the bills, wrestling remains Gorgeous Gary's number-one priority. Pond size notwithstanding, this fish has to swim.
"If there weren't a dime to be made tomorrow," says Jackson, who turned 44 this past August, "I'd still lace up."
At the South Broadway Athletic Club on the night of the third anniversary of the September 11 al Qaeda attacks, the pretzels are cold, the whiskey is warm and the hamburger patties in the concession case are afloat in a mysterious oily liquid.
At the announcer's table sits Herb Simmons, a bespectacled man with a remarkably large midsection. To his right is a slight fellow in a baseball jacket, Tony Casta, who could pass for a young Burgess Meredith. Seated near the pair, the younger, wild-eyed TV announcer Tim Miller -- the matches are televised locally on public-access cable -- is already fueling up.
"I always drink when there's wrestling involved," explains Miller, who during the workweek manages a Shell station in Benton Park. "The drunker I get, the more brutal I get with my comments."
The crowd tonight will top 500, and they can get even more brutal than Miller. Hoosiers, hipsters, rockers, sluts and brats file in slowly, plopping down on folding chairs. In one corner of the American Legion-like club, a group of mentally retarded citizens takes over four tables. The whole scene appears to be in dire need of a power washing -- or at least a jolt of well-scrubbed splendor to class things up a bit.