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The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame
Heroes & Icons
By Steven Johnson, Greg Oliver, Mike Mooneyham
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2012 Steven Johnson and Greg Oliver
All rights reserved.
The hero's job
"Superfly" Jimmy Snuka once described the role of the hero or babyface in twelve words. "Go out, get your heat, one big babyface comeback, and go home." That's about as simplistic as it gets, and in many respects it's not far from the truth. The good guy suffers an unconscionable beating, comes back against insurmountable odds to regain control of the match, and either wins or loses, depending on the plans for that particular contest or program. But that belies the dozens of little nuances that successful heroes must master as part of their job description. It's not enough, Florida Championship Wrestling President Steve Keirn said, to brush your teeth, comb your hair, and smile for the fans. "When you're a babyface in this industry, it's pretty difficult to just get over. To me, you can walk out, flip everybody off, and you're automatically a heel. But if you walk out and wave at everybody, that doesn't make you a babyface. You've got to learn to entertain that audience, earn their hearts doing good spots."
Foremost among budding wrestlers' homework is learning the difference between registering, selling, and dying, the three degrees of beatdowns virtually every hero must undergo. Each elicits much-desired sympathy from the audience, but there is a subtle and important distinction between them. George South, who's been wrestling and training in the Mid-Atlantic for three decades, calls it one of the most misunderstood aspects of the profession. "People don't sell when they should sell. People die when they should sell. It's an art form and it's very difficult to teach." Think of registering, he said, as a flinch from a punch or a hold that momentarily shakes up a babyface. Selling is the next step on the agony scale, and it takes pain to a higher level. "Old-timers relate it to a fish. They're just flopping along like a fish out of water. But you can still throw a punch. You still have some life left in you," South said.
What the hero can't do in all but the most exceptional circumstances is "die" — lie motionless on the mat or the floor — because then all hope is lost and fans' confidence in the character's resiliency is shaken to the core. Fans have to have some belief that their hero is down, but not out. "Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson taught me that at an early age — don't die out there," said Jerry Brisco. "Don't go out and just flop around and die. Your body is always moving, you always have some tightness to your body, and you're always fighting back ... It made their job easier. You fight them, let them get you down, you fight 'em, get 'em down, build it up, you build that comeback up. After the third or fourth time, you start fighting and you pop them with a full-blown comeback. It's a big difference between fighting and coming back."
Ah, the comeback. Nothing brings the crowd to its feet like a great comeback, but even that is an art form, not a wild series of untimed punches. Thatcher, who's wrestled, trained, announced, and done just about everything else in his career, compares it to a slow burn with a big explosion at the end, like a Fourth of July sparkler. The hero might be on his knees, shaking the cobwebs from the beating — not dying, mind you — when he reaches back for a shot to the gut just as the heel comes in to finish him off. "Just enough to slow him," Thatcher cautioned. "The heel comes back in. This time the babyface gets a shot in; it's a little stronger, it's got a little more juice in it. And then finally the heel gets rocked a little bit, and when that happens, it should be hell-bent for action. The people should be ready for it and the babyface, that's when he should be shaking his fists, the heel's backing off and begging for forgiveness and that's when the babyface gets to him and starts bumping him."
Since the babyface, by definition, abides by the rules of fair play — or is supposed to — he is more confined in the tactics he can employ and thus at a definite disadvantage against a no-holds-barred monster. Though the onslaught of kick-ass babyfaces since the 1990s has changed that equation, for most of wrestling history, heroes lost credence with their followers if they stooped to the gutter level of their foes. WWE star Al Snow said that should influence the way the hero approaches his match. "As a heel I can put my hand up, I can put my hand down. I can back up. I can duck out of the ring. I can get on my knees and beg. He can't do any of those things. I can cheat. I can do absolutely anything I want. Babyfaces have to be more aggressive than the heel. They have to take the fight to the heel because the more the babyface takes the fight to the heel, more than ever, the heel has a reason to do anything he can do to beat the guy."
The life of a good guy
It was, Bobby Fulton thought in retrospect, kind of like the paparazzi chasing Princess Diana, though on a different scale. Fulton and tag team partner Tommy Rogers were the heartthrob Fantastics tag team in the Mid-Atlantic when they set out from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Greensboro. Somehow, a pack of fans found them and started trailing them along Interstate 85, waving, cheering, and blowing their horns. Fearful that they were about to be run into a ditch, the Fantastics tried to outrace their admirers, with no luck. Finally, as a last resort, Fulton and Rogers chased away their devotees, telling them to stay away or suffer the consequences.
And the fans told on them. They called the office, and Fulton and Rogers found themselves reamed out for being rude. "That was [Jim] Crockett and they called us in and said, 'Hey, we have a complaint, some of the fans said you were not nice to them.' But we were babyfaces, and as babyfaces we had people following us and sometimes jeopardizing our safety. And sometimes we didn't want them to know where we lived and they would beat us home, beat us to our place. Hey, I like the wrestling fans and everything but sometimes it's just tough."
Being a hero is not always what it's cracked up to be. Just about every babyface has a story about being interrupted in a restaurant or a restroom by overzealous fans, and it can be draining. "The people expect more of you, and especially back then, they expected you to be what you were selling, the clean-cut, Mom's apple pie and Chevrolet," Thatcher said. "I did enjoy the fans but there were times when you wanted to say leave me alone." More significantly, there is general agreement that a babyface in the ring should possess at least some of the attributes of a babyface outside of it, lest the dissonance between the personalities confuse fans. There might be no better example of that than the late Gino Hernandez, who, with his long black hair and considerable sex appeal, was the embodiment of a wrestling pinup model. Only one problem. "With all due respect, Gino Hernandez was not a babyface," Prichard said. "Even though they tried to portray him as a young, good-looking babyface, Gino was an asshole and he came across that way. There was no denying that. Gino Hernandez was a heel ever since he was a kid. I say kid; I'd known him since he was eighteen years old. There has to be some connection between the person and the wrestler, or else the audience is going to sense that and turn their backs on him."
It's not true that every babyface is an out-of-control narcissist in love with himself. Having a big ego, in fact, is probably a requirement for a top hero — if you don't believe in yourself, how can you expect the paying fan to? "The babyfaces are prima donnas, or they wouldn't be babyfaces," opined Gil Hayes. "I've known guys that were babyfaces, making less money, because they wanted to be babyfaces. If they were working as heels, they would have made more money, but they gave up the opportunity of making more money because they felt they were happier just being a babyface."
The problem comes when the heroes start listening too much to their adoring public, effectively blurring the line between wrestling and reality.
"Nightmare" Ken Wayne worked a long program with tag team partner Danny Davis all over the South with Tommy and Johnny Rich, and saw how the mind of a hero can take something out of context. "We were doing stuff to where we'd put them over, but we'd still kick the shit out of them afterward so we'd get our heat back. I think the world of Tommy, don't get me wrong, but he'd sit out there amongst the fans signing autographs, and hear, 'Aw man, them Nightmares kicked y'all's ass last week.' He'd come in the dressing room and go, 'Hey man, we need to go over because they say y'all are kicking our ass.' Now, Tommy was at one time probably the best babyface in the country, but that's an example of getting totally wrapped up the wrong way."
Little wonder then that many wrestlers prefer to have people hate their guts. When Rick O'Toole (Brogdon) broke into wrestling in Detroit in the 1970s, he had a fan's perception of a wrestling hero — the guy who gets all the wine, women, and song — so he walked up and down Allen Road near trainer Lou Klein's gymnasium, wearing tie-dyed pants and muscle shirts. "I thought it would be something else to be a worker, get put over, and get women and girls," he said. "Then, as I kept walking so many miles to draw attention, I began to get hungry. I didn't have a penny, but I looked good. It didn't take me long to figure out this is all about money and making a living ... You never have to worry about what the fan is thinking, because as a heel you do not worry so much about the fans' thoughts, just the fact that what you do gets those fans thinking and reacting."
Wrestling enthusiasts have gotten closer than ever to the sport through developments like social media and fan fest–style events, so they quickly can develop a jaundiced view of a hero who walks around with his nose in the air, too self-absorbed to deal with the masses. At the same time, though, some wrestlers see the changing relationship between fan and star as a way to reestablish an emotional connection unmoored when the business became less shielded from the outside world. They can show that they care about their fans, and their fans can show that they care about them. "I'm not going to lie to you; after three hours of doing a meet and greet, physically I'm tired — because I stand. When I do my appearances, I don't sit in a chair and have my eyes staring at the table, not making eye contact with the people," said Sean Waltman, who worked as the 1-2-3 Kid, X-Pac, and Sixx. "I stand up the whole time, whether it's two, three, or however many hours it is. I don't sit behind the table. I interact with the people, I stand with them, and I talk with them, we have conversations. It takes a little bit longer to do it that way. I enjoy it, and the people enjoy it."
Heroes in history
Where would wrestling's good guys be without Mother Russia? During the Cold War, many a grappler was gainfully employed by administering patriotic whippings to Soviet sympathizers like Ivan Koloff, Nikolai Volkoff, and Nikita Mulkovich. Even in 1908, nearly a decade before the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, Frank Gotch beat Georg Hackenschmidt, the Russian Lion — actually an Estonian — for the world championship, popularizing wrestling in North America. When Gotch won a celebrated and controversial rematch in 1911, he cemented his status as one of the most admired athletes of the day. "Never will there rise a champion who will 'toe hold' his way deeper than Frank Gotch into the hearts of the followers of the game," said C.E. McBride, sports editor of the Kansas City Star. Though his career is outside of the time frame of this book, Gotch was the prototype of heroes for years to come — a strapping, clean-living Iowa farm boy, stout of heart and skill. He died at just thirty-nine, but his legacy lived on in champions like Joe Stecher and Earl Caddock, and it's not an exaggeration to say that stars such as Lou Thesz and Verne Gagne fit neatly into the Gotch lineage.
And where would wrestling's good guys be without the support of the common folk? After Gotch left the scene, promoters turned to footballers Gus Sonnenberg and Wayne Munn to attract crossover sports fans, but business waned until Jim Londos took over as champion in 1930 and set attendance records everywhere he went. Londos was a break from the past, a Greek immigrant considered too small and too foreign to be the sport's brand name until promoters gave him a shot. Though Londos did not invent the babyface character who overcomes great odds — that goes back to David, Goliath, and biblical times — he perfected it as a template for generations to use. Inventiveness and resourcefulness were his stock cards, and his appeal to blue-collar workers, women, and ethnic fans kept the turnstiles clicking, without the aid of TV or the internet. "With the possible exception of Frank Gotch, there never was a more colorful champion in American wrestling history than Jim Londos," Ring magazine editor Nat Fleischer wrote in his famous wresting study, From Milo to Londos. "The Greek Adonis had what is commonly known as 'It,' with a capital 'T.' He was dramatic and knew the meaning of the word showmanship."
Finally, where would wrestling's good guys be without TV? The advent of nationally televised wrestling in the late 1940s strengthened babyfaces' hands; it was easier to depict good versus evil on a video screen than it was in a newspaper headline, while engaging styles and physiques became more important than ever. "Celebrities like Sheik Lawrence of Arabia, Argentine Rocca, and the famous wrestling team of Garibaldi, father and son, are destroying the prominence of names like Gable and Turner," wrote Bob Cooke of the New York Herald-Tribune. Vincent J. McMahon, father of the current WWE chieftain, once quipped that Rocca sold more TVs in the industry's infancy than comedian Milton Berle. That was wrestling hyperbole, but Rocca was the precursor of acrobatic artists that soon could be found in every promotion in the country.
Starting in the late 1950s, and extending through the 1970s, though, a sea change swept over the industry, affecting the fates of babyfaces, whether they were All-American boys or overseas imports. Many of the old-line territorial promotions were acquired by active wrestlers who installed themselves as the face of the franchise. A sample and by no means inclusive: Ray Gunkel took a majority of the Atlanta office from Paul Jones and Don McIntyre in 1958. Lee Fields bought the Gulf Coast territory in 1959, just before "Cowboy" Clarence Luttrall asked Eddie Graham to join him in the Florida booking office, which Graham ran for twenty-five years. Gagne purchased the Minneapolis office and was proclaimed champion of the nascent American Wrestling Association in 1960. Fred Kohler, the forward-thinking Chicago promoter who brought wrestling into living rooms across the country, sold his territory in 1965 to Dick the Bruiser (Afflis) and Wilbur Snyder. The Sheik (Edward Farhat) acquired Detroit from non-wrestlers Jim Barnett and Johnny Doyle. Bill Watts acquired the Tri-State promotion from Leroy McGuirk, and added Oklahoma to the fold when McGuirk left the business in 1982.
In virtually every case, the new boss was on top. Gagne held the AWA world title nine times in the 1960s and 1970s, once for more than seven years. Bruiser's World Wrestling Association was centered in Indianapolis and on Bruiser, the federation's top titleholder fifteen times in twenty years. Fifteen also was the magic number for The Sheik in Detroit, as he held the U.S. championship at least that many times. And you'd need an abacus and a mainframe to tally up Jerry Lawler's reigns as Southern heavyweight after he and Jerry Jarrett took control of Memphis from Nick Gulas in 1977; the most reasonable estimate appears to be forty-one.
Excerpted from The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame by Steven Johnson, Greg Oliver, Mike Mooneyham. Copyright © 2012 Steven Johnson and Greg Oliver. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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