The scariest moment in my life? It’s a toss-up between being face-to-face with an enraged elephant and being pursued by the most maniacal professional wrestler in the history of the “sport.”
I almost shit a brick when Morganetta the elephant stood on her hind legs and trumpeted in anger ten feet away from me. She was being herded into her trailer after the Sixteen Acres Fourth of July Parade in 1975, but she momentarily turned on her trainer, and I felt sure she was going to stomp both of us. But that fright was nothing compared to the time another behemoth scared me nearly to death.
Fast forward to the following year, when I almost shit a cinderblock as a bloodied, taunted, and enraged George “The Animal” Steele charged at me, my brother, and a couple of our friends from Maebeth Street in the Springfield Civic Center.
All right, I admit it. As Steele chased us, we knew full well that professional wrestling was fake, and that “The Animal” would never assault teenage and pre-teen fans and invite a certain lawsuit, not to mention criminal charges. And I kept telling myself this as he got closer and closer. Nonetheless, when a bald, six-foot-two, 288-pound crazy-looking wrestler closes in, you have to ask yourself a question: do you feel that holding your ground is worth the risk? Well, do ya, punk?
APRIL 1970Boy did the guys on my street—A.K.A. the Maebeth Womblies—love professional wrestling in the 1970s. It was a lot less overblown back then, the days prior to all the Wrestlemania bullshit in the 1980s, before the “sport” became a mega-spectacle, a titanic force in the entertainment industry, before there was a Hulk Hogan children’s cartoon, for Christ’s sake. Looking back, the golden age of wrestling was so darn stripped down compared with today’s product, now complete with light shows and pyrotechnics with the wrestlers emerging from the dressing room with unprecedented hoopla. Wrestling was a definitely a low-budget affair three decades ago, aired immediately following Roller Derby on Saturday mornings. I was hooked at seven years old, the first time I watched it, mesmerized and terrorized by George “The Animal” Steele as he pummeled some bum mercilessly, pricking him repeatedly with what appeared to be a pin or a needle he hid in his tights.
“Why doesn’t the referee do something about this guy?” I asked my father when he walked into the room.
“You’re watching this garbage?”
“He’s—he’s cheating! He’s hurting that guy! He’s gonna kill him!” I exclaimed.
“Bob, it’s fake. I didn’t know you were watching this. Watch something else. Aren’t there cartoons on, or something?”
Yes, there were cartoons on other channels, and Bugs Bunny was just as violent. But this wrestling stuff was… just…. simply… awesome! The fact that it was scripted made it so wonderfully cheesy. Memo to the ladies: it’s a guy thing, like our love for the Three Stooges. You never quite understood it, and you never will.
How can you not love a “sport” in which a villain such as Stan “the Man” Stasiak rendered his opponents unconscious, momentarily stopping their hearts, with his vicious heart punch? Not many fans remember that Stasiak was for a short time the WWWF champion—it seems that the powers that be determined that the ever-popular Bruno Sammartino should be king of the ring for a while, but it would have been an uncomfortable scenario for a “good guy” to dethrone belt holder and fan favorite Pedro Morales. So they had Stasiak do it, and then eight days later Sammartino disposed of the heart-punching heel, ending his short reign.
Was it the ultimate irony—or maybe just bad karma—that Stasiak ultimately perished from a heart attack at age 60?
In wrestling parlance, the evil characters were called the “heels,” cast as “bad guys” to make the “good guys” look like heroes. I don’t know why I idolized the “bad guys” so much—maybe it was because the ultimate villain of my childhood, Richard Nixon, loomed so large in my young life.
The colorful wrestling heels of the Seventies: unlike the steroid pumped morons of today, these guys had personality:
- The Wolf Man, a Charles Manson look-alike, was led into the ring by a leash and collar by manager “Classy” Freddie Blassie.
- Bugsy McGraw, the bald psycho who literally barked at his opponent and the crowd.
- Waldo von Erich, a scary dude inflamed the crowd’s wrath by throwing out the Nazi salute.
- Sergeant Slaughter, a the gigantic ex-marine, would get right in the faces of referees and opponents and chew them out, platoon sergeant-style. The dirtiest deed in this career was whipping Bob Backlund with a riding crop. He ended every interview with commentator Vince McMahon by declaring “You’re dismissed!”
- Superstar Billy Graham, the ultimate egomaniac, made a huge production out of taking off his cape and draping it on a pink coat hanger that hung from the top rope. He drew the fans’ ire when he interrupted Peter Maivia’s ukulele solo by grabbing the instrument and smashing it to pieces on the Samoan’s head.
- The bleached blond Valiant Brothers: “Handsome” Jimmy and “Luscious” Johnny who were hated for ganging up on Ivan “Polish Power” Putski.
- Spiros Arion, a reviled Greek wrestler, turned on his Native American tag-team partner Chief Jay Strongbow during a match, beat him unmercifully, pulled fistfuls of feathers from his ceremonial headdress and shoved them in his former ally’s mouth.
- Killer Kowalski, whose signature “Stomach Claw” move paled in comparison to Steele’s “Flying Hammer Lock.”
And then there was the baddest of the bad. The ultimate heel, George “The Animal” Steele, was a sight to behold: hairy as an ape except for his shaved head, bulging eyes at time focused upward at imaginary beings above his head. His wagging green tongue made him look not only profoundly retarded, but also dangerous. With a habit of biting open the ring’s turnbuckles prior to matches and chewing on the stuffing, spreading it all over the canvas, he was….hell, an animal.
So whenever professional wrestling came to the Springfield Civic Center, of course my friends and I were going to get tickets. What the hell else was there to do in the middle of summer in Sixteen Acres? There we were, playing Wiffleball all day, only to retire to my garage when we got too hot in the baking sun. I had accumulated a stack of wrestling magazines, and we’d thumb through them until we cooled down. We’d talk about wrestling for a while, get in arguments about which wrestler could kick which wrestler’s ass, rank on each other’s mothers for a while, and then either resume our Wiffleball game, or splash and dash in neighborhood pools, or see whose bike could produce the longest skid mark on the street, or blow off some firecrackers down the pond. Ya think we were itching for some excitement or what? To be sure, when wrestling came to town, we’d finagle ticket money from our parents and hoodwink one them would give us a ride and pick us up.
I can’t recall many of the other wrestlers on the card the day George “The Animal” Steele went on the rampage, but I do remember Haystacks Calhoun, weighing in at over 600 pounds, was in a tag-team match. The only reason he comes to mind was because, as I reported, I loved the villains, so I rooted against Haystacks, screaming, “You’re a bum, Fatstacks!” and getting chided by some middle-aged white trash woman next to me. “That’s not nice,” she pointed out. Jesus. The queen of etiquette demands proper behavior at… professional wrestling in the Civic Center, where people were flipping the bird at wrestlers and throwing beer and trash into the ring. I also remember Waldo von Eric going after a guy in the crowd who had spit at him, only to be confronted by the fan’s wife. Security personnel managed to persuade him to get back in the ring. Someone also threw a cup of Coke at Butcher Vachon after his match. He wasn’t too pleased about that, but he didn’t pursue the soda thrower. There was no way a wrestler would hit a fan, right?
Well, time had come for the main event: an incredibly portly Dusty Rhodes vs. George “The Animal” Steele in a steel cage match, and I was chastised again by the bitch in the next seat for calling Rhoads “fatso,” and a “load,” etc.
Steele pulled his usual antics, chewing up the turnbuckles and rubbing the stuffing in Rhodes’ eyes, and we knew full well that there was no way the WWWF was going to script a Steele victory over Dusty, the darling of the fans—there would have been a full-blown riot. Of course, Rhodes got abused the entire match, only to pull off an amazing comeback victory and bloodying “The Animal.”
It was time for Steele to exit the cage, and a throng of kids and adolescents rushed up to the area between the ring and runway to taunt the wounded animal. We joined the crowd to get a close-up look at the guy. How often in life to you get to do that?
The gang cursed Steele, hurling crushed cups, coins, popcorn, and epithets, challenging him to fight. As he lurched toward the runway, the motley crew of fans got even braver with his back turned and converged on him.
Then he spun around, screamed, and charged. It was quite a frightening scenario: Steele, with fake blood running from his forehead down to his hairy stomach, on the move, and the crowd did an abrupt about-face and bolted. The taunters became a retreating wave of bodies that slammed into me full force. I was confident he wouldn’t touch a hair on anyone’s head, but there was that momentary terror that this guy was truly losing what few marbles he had in his head. I tried to fight against the stampede, but the sea of humanity pushed me back about 15 feet. To my horror, I saw my friend Craig Stewart lose his footing, go down, and get trampled by the crowd.
As Steele trudged back down the runway to his dressing room, I ran over to Craig and saw several sneaker treadmarks on the back of his Beatles “Let it Be” T-shirt as he lay face-down on the floor, but he was laughing when I helped him up. Fortunately, no fat fuck had stepped on him, and no one had stomped on his head.
We gave Rick Riccardi some shit for helping cause the panic because he had gotten incredibly close to Steele, but had turned tail and ran. “I knew he wasn’t gonna do anything,” said Rick, “but, you know.”
I had always loved telling that story. But another guy I went to grammar and high school with had an even better adventure: when I Googled George “The Animal” Steele, I came across a blog by Paul Brown, who, as a junior at Cathedral, actually covered a professional wrestling card at the Civic Center as a freelancer for the Morning Union newspaper in 1981. In the main event, Steele, who was thrown out of the ring, actually landed on the press table in front of Paul, pushed the high-schooler out of the way, took Paul’s chair, and attacked Bob Backlund with it outside the ring. Amazingly, Steele apologized to Brown in the dressing room after the incident. Steele was a perfect gentleman, and he sounded normal.
Normal? Steele? When I was a kid, rumor had it that he was a teacher, and I thought, “Wow, if that’s true, I bet none of his students fuck with him.” Well, it turns out that it was true. According to his website, Steele, whose real name was Jim Myers, was a full time high school physical education teacher and football coach at in Madison Heights, Michigan. He earned a B.S. from Michigan State and a master’s from Central Michigan University. The only mental handicap he suffered from was dyslexia, which wasn’t properly diagnosed when he was growing up.
You’ll be happy to know that there are many old-time wrestling matches on YouTube, including plenty starring “The Animal.” I happened to watch one in which he whales on some poor stiff, along with vintage bouts with Gorilla Monsoon and Pedro Morales, and a classic brawl with bad guy “Macho Man” Randy Savage. Steele’s psycho act translated well into the over-the-top wrestling of the 1980s, and he was involved in a hilarious “beauty and the beast” infatuation with Savage’s valet, the lovely Miss Elizabeth. Check out the match with Savage, in which he bites the Macho Man’s face, much to the disgust of commentator Jesse “The Body” Ventura. You see, Steele was recast as a “good guy,” a lovable but ugly idiot who eventually kept at ringside a bizarre hand puppet/stuffed animal he called “Mine.” Crohn’s disease finally ended his career in 1989 at age 52, although he did make a few cameo appearances in 1999 as part of a motley crew of wrestlers called The Oddities.
However, in my extensive research the guy who was the source of my outrage at seven years old—and who was responsible for the trampling of my friend—the most fascinating fact I uncovered was that he turned his wagging tongue green before matches by chewing Clorets mints. Fortunately, for Randy Savage, Steele had fresh breath as “The Animal” pretended to bite his face. And, fortunately, for the Maebeth Womblies, we never got close enough to Steele for a whiff of his minty mouth, because we were long gone the second he came at us.