The Final Bell

The passing of wrestling promoter Sam Muchnick rekindles interest in the wrestling days of yore

Jan 13, 1999 at 4:00 am
Though there are plenty of small-circulation magazines dedicated to the old days of professional wrestling, it's the modern version of the sport that's brought big dollars into play, with the stars of the game edging into mainstream status.

All those "NWO" T-shirts, all those "Austin 3:16" caps, all that talk about Jesse "The Body" Ventura's ascension to the role of Minnesota governor. Stories on Bill Goldberg and Steve Austin in Spin, Rolling Stone, USA Today. All compliments of a game that many still find, well, ridiculous and beyond belief.

Veteran wrestling announcer and writer Larry Matysik, the voice of the KPLR (Channel 11) show Wrestling at the Chase in its last years, answers the age-old question of credibility, saying, "For those of us in the business, who've put blood, sweat and tears into it, it's real. It's absolutely real."

Or, as he eloquently puts it: "For nonbelievers, no answer is satisfactory. For believers, no answer is necessary."

One of the greatest believers in the sport was a venerable St. Louisan, Sam Muchnick, who died on Dec. 30 at the age of 93. He was the leading promoter in St. Louis for decades, with his live cards at Kiel Auditorium and his tape-delayed broadcasts of the classic Wrestling at the Chase evoking memories for plenty of St. Louisans in all age groups.

Matysik says he was hired by Muchnick to do play-by-play for the Chase series, with a minimum of input from Muchnick.

"It's funny," Matysik says. "From the start, he never led me into doing it in any particular way. He wanted to do it as a sport, to do straight announcing. He didn't like the hard sells, the carnival-barker stuff -- which was fine, because I agreed with that. With Mickey Garagiola and I, it was like listening to your neighbors talk about wrestling. It's not that we knew any more about wrestling than you did; it's not that we're geniuses. It's just that we were around it more. It's something that Jack Buck once said.

"I remember growing up with Jack Buck, Buddy Blattner, Harry Caray, Joe Garagiola doing the calls. And it wasn't until I was into the matchmaking end of things, towards the end, that I knew what would happen. Nobody knew. The business was very much protective. In fact, that might be too soft of a word. They just really didn't want people to know."

And, as Matysik notes, that filtered right down to the announcers at ringside, who were calling the action "blind," not sure which way the bout would turn. It kept things interesting for them and for the audience.

Muchnick's ability to hire top-notch announcers was just one of many skills he brought to the table. Obviously, names like Buck and Caray resonate with fans of baseball; fans of the old school of Wrestling at the Chase surely remember the dry, distinctive call of Matysik and Mickey Garagiola's whimsical color commentary.

In fact, it was a job that Garagiola didn't seek out. Becoming the color man and ring announcer, that was all Muchnick.

"The show had been on since 1959," he says. "My brother had been doing it in the 1960s. In 1969, Sam asked me to be a ring announcer. Hell, I was a waiter -- I didn't know anything about doing that. Here I've been waiting tables, but Sam said, 'You've got a line. You can do it.' The next week, I'm announcing the fighters, where they're from, what they weighed. And I did that until the show went off the air in 1982."

For those in their 20s and 30s, Wrestling at the Chase was very much a Sunday-morning staple, when politics, religious shows and movie theme shows (like Western Theatre) competed for attention. Kids, though, obviously gravitated toward the scenes coming from the Chase, which was an absolutely bare-bones operation, with a ring, a couple of cameras, bleacher seats rising up in the back and fans within spitting distance of the contestants.

Garagiola, a delight to speak to on the subject, remembers, "Where I lived, on the Hill, every tavern played Wrestling at the Chase on Saturday nights. The people were really into it -- they'd be sitting at the bar, talking wrestling, yelling in Italian."

For some, the show was more than a passing fancy. It became an introduction into one of America's most fascinating subcultures.

"It's all real vivid to me," says Wayne St. Wayne, South Grand artist and a former pro wrestler. "Wrestling at the Chase sparked my whole interest after watching it by accident one Saturday night. Then I learned that the TV matches weren't the only matches, that they were also held at a big place called Kiel Auditorium where I'd never been. On TV, you'd get the guys fighting lesser competition, but at the Kiel, the best were going against one another.

"Going down to Kiel was something I wanted to do for a few months. And once I did, it was one of the most exciting things I'd ever do in my life. The visuals were amazing. The glow of the white ropes, the smell of beer and cigar smoke, the roar of the crowd that would shake you down to your deepest molecules."

After traveling around the country, St. Wayne would find "that the Muchnick group made more with less. In other circuits, there'd be bleeding a couple times a night. Here you'd maybe bleed a couple times a year. It made things more special that way."

As fans of the show will remember, the action and all the additional accessories were stripped to a bare minimum. Costumes were threadbare, with a turban for a Middle Eastern wrestler, a cowboy hat for a Southerner -- pretty basic stuff. The wrestling was both simpler and more complex; the athletes were known to grapple for 10, 15, 20 minutes at a shot, sometimes going as long as an hour in title bouts. Holds, not flash, were the staple.

"I think, deep down, Sam didn't like what's going on now," says Garagiola. "Randy Savage started out with him but wanted the big money. He's the Macho Man. He added the beard, sunglasses, the dress he wears now. Ric Flair, he also started with us. I think Sam liked the old-timers -- Lou Thesz, Gene Kiniski, Pat O'Connor. These were the greatest guys in the world. College-educated, not some flaky guys who bunked down by the river. You looked at their background, you wouldn't know it, but they really learned the art of acting."

Matysik recalls that the last Muchnick bill was a going-away show for him at the Arena -- then known as the Checkerdome -- on Jan. 1, 1982. It was sold out, though the changing tide of the sport -- which would include Channel 11's cancellation of the old-style Chase show -- seemed inevitable. Glitz was coming into vogue, and the old champs were giving way to a new breed of showmen who were more interested in hyping the matches than in wrestling them.

"There was a surprise party for him after the show at the Arena Club, or the Dome Club, or whatever it was called at the time," Matysik says. "We brought out everybody in sports to pay tribute to him. We tricked him into the ring and brought out Joe Garagiola, who flew in, and others. Afterwards, the police gave him a nightstick,continued on next pagecontinued from previous pageinscribed with his name. They'd worked for him for years and wanted to give him a thank-you. They all came to honor Sam.

"And many of us thought things would change, that things would be different one day. Unfortunately, we were right."

Mickey Garagiola certainly has a lot of memories. He recalls a time when his brother was chased around the ring by Kiniski. Muchnick expressly forbade wrestlers from attacking the crew, and he scolded Kiniski for the transgression. He didn't know that later in the evening, Kiniski and Garagiola would wind up drinking a few at Smokey Joe's in Gaslight Square.

"And here he'd gone and chewed the guy out," Garagiola says.
In fact, Garagiola wound up the last person to see Muchnick, outside of family, before his death. As it turned out, Garagiola's wife was on the same floor of the hospital.

"I'll never forget," Garagiola says. "He'd ask a nurse or patient if they knew who I was. If they said no, he'd say, 'He's the greatest ring announcer in wrestling.' The next day, he was gone. Here's a man 93 years old, and he was sharp as you and I. He took sick about a year ago. I always said he was my godfather. He was good to the Garagiola boys."

Though Muchnick wouldn't be around to see it, Matysik believes there is a market for the kind of smaller-scale productions Muchnick produced. (Unfortunately, there will never be reruns: Channel 11, tragically, never made copies of the original Wrestling at the Chase programs; however, some bouts from that era occasionally appear late nights on the Classic Sports Network.) He feels that viewers would need to be "educated to it, just as they've been educated to what's on now. I don't know if there's room for that. And the talent of guys coming in wouldn't be there. Now, it's a fabulous entry, face paint, explosions, then three or four minutes in the ring."

St. Wayne, too, wouldn't mind a return to the old style. Like the others, he doesn't have much interest in the current style of pro grappling.

"I agree," he says. "There's a lot of people I correspond with who'd like to see wrestling the way it was. I'd like to see it. It could come in right at the same time that we bring back the streetcars.