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.

Nov 24, 2004 at 4:00 am
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.

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.

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.

"My first night in India, they had a news conference," says Orton, a onetime NWA tag-team champion who still wrestles on occasion in Legends matches. "Tiger Singh was their big star. In the middle of the press conference, I slapped him off his chair. I turned around and had twenty rifles pointed at me. Every night for nineteen more nights, I had those rifles pointed at me in the ring."

Understates Orton: "It was very peculiar."

As Vince McMahon marched toward monopoly, regional touring circuits became increasingly irrelevant. The result: Gary Jackson arrived on the scene about five years too late to get swept to prominence. Nowadays the WWE has just one official feeder organization, Ohio Valley Wrestling. WWE's chief upstart rival, TNA (short for Total Nonstop Action), tapes its cards for pay-per-view on a Universal Studios lot in Orlando.

"There's no question Gary would have gotten his chance in the old style of wrestling," Larry Matysik asserts. "Everybody knew who the best performers were. Today that isn't the case."

The matches were scripted in the glory days of the Chase, too, but the old-timers say there was a difference: Back then audiences knew wrestling skill when they saw it. In a realm that lived or died according to its regional fan base, a colorful personality wasn't enough. You had to have the moves.

"It used to be wrestling," Tony Casta laments. "Now everybody wants to do too much circus stuff. And Gary's really not into all that flying crap."

Kids today -- once they grasp the rudimentary holds, most pups shun them in favor of crowd-pleasing acrobatics, a style favored by Phil E. Blunt and talented younger wrestlers like Spoiled Steven Kennedy, who'd leap at the opportunity to join OVW or TNA.

But should they seek the counsel of the graybeard local champ while training at the South Broadway's annex, Gorgeous Gary will oblige with a coaching session, and he'll wash down the tips on grips with the ipecac of reality.

"They send their photos to Vince McMahon, who gets 300 of those per day," Matysik says. "Gary and [fellow veteran] Ron Powers take them under their wings and say, 'Hey, don't quit your day jobs.'

"Gary's the old guy now," Matysik reflects. "God, that's scary."

When Gorgeous Gary Jackson was coming up, St. Louis' north side was home to scores of community centers, and West Florissant Avenue was chock-full of small businesses.

"The closest you came to a gang in my day was sports teams," recalls Jackson, pulling his tan Chrysler into his driveway. Permanently affixed to the brown brick above Jackson's doorstep is a sign offering a $500 reward to anyone with information leading to the arrest of vandals on the property, half of which houses a daycare center operated by Jackie, Gary's gorgeous wife of thirteen years.

Jackson earns his keep as a transporter with the city sheriff's department, shuttling prisoners to and from the workhouse in a specially equipped van. But when the nation is at war, he takes leave to assume his post with the 131st Fighter Wing of the Missouri Air National Guard, headquartered at Lambert Field.

At the 131st Jackson serves with workaday soldiers and local luminaries alike, chief among them St. Louis Ram Bryce Fisher, who often visits area schools to share his experiences in the service with impressionable youngsters. Jackson, who holds the rank of tech sergeant, performs less glamorous roles: running base gymnasiums, cooking and serving food to his fellow soldiers, making travel and lodging arrangements for personnel in transit and conducting search-and-recovery expeditions in post-disaster areas like the site of the felled World Trade Center towers in New York City.

In short, Jackson is a sort of utility man, or in military parlance, an "augmentee." He doesn't man the cockpit of an F-15; he's the guy behind the guy behind the guy. And this particular guy's versatility has enabled him to see the world, lengthy stints in Germany and the Persian Gulf counting among his many military travels.

Given his druthers, Jackson would have -- and still would -- hit the road with even more frequency for his true love: wrestling.

"I was just waiting for the opportunity to go," says Jackson, who picked up scores of stand-in gigs on the now-defunct National Wrestling Alliance and World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) circuits in the Midwest and South. "I was ready for the road. My wife was ready. She accepted the fact that I could be out on the road for three months at a time. If somebody called me right now and asked me to wrestle in an hour, I'd go. I was called at work one day at ten and asked to be in Louisville by six. I took a half-day off and drove.

"Everything within a 250-mile radius, I'm going to go check it out myself," Jackson adds. "I've always had a good-running car and a good solid phone number."

Just when Jackson's star might have had a chance to shine on the national stage, the wrestler was stymied by a fellow pro. Koko B. Ware, with a build identical to Gorgeous Gary's, would parade into the ring with a bird on his shoulder, arms flapping, to the strains of Morris Day's "Squawk, Hallelujah." At one point, according to Larry Matysik, Vince McMahon and WWF brass considered pairing Jackson and Ware as a tag team. They decided against it, Matysik says, because the federation already had one black duo -- and that one was enough for the time being.

"If they ever put him and Koko together, they'd have made a great team," Matysik claims. "But McMahon said, 'I don't want two black teams.'"

Jim "J.R." Ross, a WWE executive vice president who doubles as announcer for the organization's hit Monday Night Raw telecasts, has been involved in the sport since the early 1970s. While he insists that pro wrestling has rid itself of even the slightest tinge of racism, he acknowledges that this is a fairly recent development, and that racial quotas weren't uncommon when Jackson was reaching his prime.

"Most of the promoters were Caucasian ex-wrestlers and many of them had significant racial bias," Ross says. "Depending on the size of the territory, you had X number of blacks. And if you were willing to book females on the card, you couldn't book midgets: If you had one attraction, you didn't need another. A black wrestler, oftentimes, was considered a novelty or an attraction.

"A lot of these old-timers said, 'We can't have too many blacks on the show,'" Ross goes on. "Mid-South Wrestling got a lot of negative feedback for using the Junkyard Dog as its top hero in the '80s, which is ridiculous. The black guys had huge challenges. That's changed now."

Concludes Matysik: "The politics weren't right for Gary. It had nothing to do with talent -- it's all politics and business and bullshit. And Gary fell through the cracks."

Most South Broadway wrestlers were drawn to the ring as young bucks, via the top-rope cable-TV theatrics of Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Ric Flair, the Hart Foundation and the Rock. Gorgeous Gary Jackson fell for the sport of amateur wrestling in the mid-1970s when he transferred from Central to Vashon.

"It is boring. But it's where I started -- as an amateur wrestler on a mat," says Jackson, who was born in El Dorado, Arkansas, and spent his grade-school years in Dallas before moving to St. Louis as a teen. "It's just something I grew up with."

Gorgeous Gary's technical proficiency earned him a steady coaching and performing gig with Harley Race's Missouri-based Central States Wrestling after the Chase run ended, and it has contributed greatly to his role as de facto coach and mentor for several of South Broadway's up and comers.

"Gary Jackson was the key to my training," says Xtreme Kim Chi, one of two woman wrestlers who ply South Broadway's ropes. "Once he figured out that he liked me, he was like, 'OK, let's hit it.'"

"You have to go to Gary first," adds Phil E. Blunt, who works for announcer Tim Miller at the Benton Park Shell. "He does a ground-based style. He's the old classic."

While his style remains steeped in tradition, Jackson is more than willing to mutate his image. He has been known to don a pink unitard for out-of-town shows, and he purchased his gladiator outfit at a south-side boutique that specializes in bondage gear. No big deal for a man who once begged a tiny wooden train whistle off a local bank to top off his erstwhile "Nite Train" persona, suggested to him by the late, great King Kong Brody.

"When you get a compliment like that, it means something," Jackson says of the Brody-bestowed nickname. "I'll probably go back to Nite Train before my career's over. But right now I enjoy being Gorgeous. I'm always shopping to look fresh.

"Your personal appearance is everything, and not just in sports," Jackson goes on. "All the guys I came up with used to come out in suits. That was my idea of what a professional was."

At South Broadway, Jackson is the Randy Orton of an alternate, local universe. He hosts a weekly online radio show, The Body Slam, on newblackcity.com, and his mug graces the center of every single two-color poster Tony Casta prints up to promote his monthly card. And Gorgeous Gary's exploits are broadcast on cable television, even if the signal struggles to reach beyond the banks of the Mississippi, much less from sea to shining sea.

So strong is the lure of Jackson and his MMWA-SICW cohorts that even on a night when the baseball Cardinals are set to lock horns with the Dodgers in a National League Divisional Series elimination game, South Broadway draws its usual sellout crowd -- including a surprise visit from Big Syke and a small entourage who have come to watch Gorgeous Gary defend his title belt against blaxploitation throwback "Shaft."

Though generally cast as one of the sport's good guys, being pitted against a crowd favorite like Shaft inspires Jackson to shift roles, comfortably slipping into the persona of a heel, egging on haters with a seemingly endless repertoire of zingers.

"You want a title shot?" Gorgeous addresses a heckler as he enters the ring resplendent in blue and gold. "Then get a license!"

The match begins with Jackson pinning his opponent doggy-style and slapping him in the face. Escaping Gorgeous Gary's grip, Shaft flips Jackson belly-down on the mat and tiptoes across his back. Unfazed, the champ loudly questions whether Shaft belongs in the same ring with Gorgeous Gary. "You got what it takes to wrassle me?" he cries, looking his rival dead in the eye before maneuvering him into another crotch-to-rear hold.

Again Shaft slips the grip and in short order lands a helicopter-jump from the top rope, his head barely missing a low-slung light fixture. A brief series of body slams ensues, followed by three near-pins, each of which seems to signal the champ's demise. But on the third two-count, Jackson does what he does best: turn the tables on the opponent while keeping the action on the mat.

"One! Two! Three!" counts referee Jim Harris, declaring Jackson the victor after a forceful spin and pin.

This being Gorgeous Gary, of course, the show's not over.

"John Shaft, I was toyin' with you, sucker!" Jackson announces into the microphone. "I sat on my couch and played with my remote for three whole weeks! That's what I think of you, Shaft."

"You still ain't nothin', Jackson!" the defiant Shaft retorts.

Just then a swarm of South Broadway's faithful rushes Jackson, clamoring for autographs.

It's the same old story: Everyone wants a piece of the champ.