Drop-Kick Gorgeous

Bad timing and institutional racism kept Gary Jackson out of pro wrestling's spotlight. But he's got St. Louis in a hammer lock.

Enter a well-built black man sporting a cleanly shorn flat top and a shimmering gold suit. It's Gorgeous Gary Jackson, fashionably late.

Jackson ascends the staircase that leads to the club's sweltering locker room, where ex-World Wrestling Federation great and current Missouri State Athletic Commission inspector "Cowboy" Bob Orton is checking the wrestling licenses of Gorgeous Gary's peers. Hot on the champ's heels is Casta. After informing Jackson that his title defense versus Jerome Cody will be the first match after intermission, Casta, an ex-wrestler and longtime St. Louis-area promoter, takes his leave with a deadpan "Respect the belt."

Like Gorgeous Gary, his foe is black. In spite of this fact (or perhaps because of it), Cody storms into the ring wearing a Confederate-logoed unitard and waving a great big Rebel flag, eliciting a chorus of boos as he climbs through the ropes.

Gorgeous Gary Jackson's credo: "I'm an honest man, 
a bad man and a gorgeous man." You wanna argue?
Jennifer Silverberg
Gorgeous Gary Jackson's credo: "I'm an honest man, a bad man and a gorgeous man." You wanna argue?
Longtime South Broadway promoter Tony Casta used 
to wrestle back in the Chase days and laments that 
traditional holds have given way to top-rope antics.
Jennifer Silverberg
Longtime South Broadway promoter Tony Casta used to wrestle back in the Chase days and laments that traditional holds have given way to top-rope antics.

Except for this one guy.

"Wave it proud!" the Cody supporter hollers.

Entering to the bouncy beat of Fatboy Slim's "Rockefeller Skank," Jackson is clad in a leather chest harness and black warrior skirt, looking more Gladiator than Gorgeous. "I'm a bad man!" he screams, shedding the kilt to reveal yellow microbriefs. The match commences with Cody squeezing Gorgeous Gary's head between his thighs, a hold the champ -- a skilled ring technician since his schoolboy days at Vashon -- quickly slips out of, throwing his rival into the ropes and knocking him dizzy with a stern head butt. Cody bounces back with a body slam, after which the men proceed to alternately spin one other around the center of the mat on all fours, crotch to face, sweat dripping down their toned torsos. Then Cody breaks the monotony by trapping Jackson in a figure-four leg lock.

"Break his fucking legs!" yells the Confederate fan.

Jackson manages to loosen the leg lock, but his troubles are far from over as Cody threatens to steal the match by digging an elbow and boot into Gary's gorgeous face.

In the climactic plot turn, Jackson all but rises from the dead to pin Cody and retain his title belt. But as is often the case in pro wrestling, the fighting ain't over. Cody is a member of the Connection, a four-man alliance of bad guys who've got each other's backs. When one of their own gets whupped, retribution comes busting down the stairs in search of the victor. Gorgeous Gary has his own set of allies: a tag team called the Lumberjacks and a bald Harlem-based grappler who goes by "Shaft."

A brief four-on-four free-for-all dissolves into comparative placidity, whereupon Jackson and Shaft inexplicably begin slapping one another. Jackson borrows Miller's microphone for a moment of bluster and intimidation, two staples of the game.

"I'm an honest man, a bad man and a gorgeous man!" he proclaims. "John Shaft, you just got yourself a title shot. This man has no fans, he has no style, and he doesn't give back to the community. I'll see ya!"

"St. Louis is the Cooperstown of wrestling," declares Larry Matysik, equating the River City's seminal role in the sport's development to that of baseball's mythologized birthplace.

Matysik cites the trailblazing efforts of his former promotional partner, Sam Muchnick, the first president of the vaunted National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), which spawned World Championship Wrestling (WCW), which was eventually swallowed up by what is now Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).

"Little did I know that Vince was plotting to take over the world," quips Matysik, who at one point worked with McMahon. "Vince once said to me, 'We're television producers who happen to do wrestling.' But I always felt like I was a wrestling promoter who happened to be on TV."

McMahon's take, of course, is the one that proved prescient. But from 1959 until 1983, Muchnick (and later Matysik) hosted the legendary Wrestling at the Chase television series, which featured top-drawer NWA matches in a regal setting at the Central West End hotel. Throughout the 1960s and '70s, everybody who was anybody in tights made sure to appear in St. Louis on a regular basis, including "Nature Boy" Ric Flair, "Cowboy" Bob Orton, Harley Race, "King Kong" Brody, Dick Murdoch, Andre the Giant, Paul Orndorf, Dick the Bruiser and Ted DiBiase.

Fresh off a stint in Germany with the Air National Guard, a greenhorn grappler named Gary "Action" Jackson wrestled at the Chase in '83. Unfortunately for him, and for St. Louis, that year marked the end of Wrestling at the Chase.

With the advent of cable television, established stars like Orton, Flair, Andre the Giant and DiBiase reaped the benefits, playing sold-out Wrestlemania events to packed arenas and worldwide pay-per-view audiences. But reliance on TV revenue rendered an already theatrical sport downright soap operatic. The once-earnest DiBiase became the "Million Dollar Man," taping promotional segments that had him paying people large wads of cash to perform embarrassing public acts. ("Everybody has a price," DiBiase, flanked by his black bodyguard, Virgil, would announce to the camera.)

"The only places I haven't wrestled are Idaho and Iceland," says Orton, now 54. In his 1980s heyday he earned upward of $300,000 a year competing against the likes of Hulk Hogan in sold-out stadiums around the globe. Orton's 24-year-old son, Randy, is the youngest WWE titleholder in professional history. Both have wrestled at the South Broadway Athletic Club; Randy cut his teeth there before ascending the WWE ranks. Now, although Randy's earnings and royalty checks make Dad's old bankroll seem fit for the soup kitchen, Cowboy Bob, who grew up in Kansas City, has no regrets.

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