"Stomping at the Greensboro Coliseum"
Esquire Magazine, November, 1968
by Larry Bonko
It is maybe thirty minutes before the main event. Make that Main Event! Subtlety is for the Lowenbrau ads. This is professional wrestling. The posters look undressed without here and there: Main Event! The Masked Infernos versus The Scott Brothers! Four Big Bouts! Smoking in the Lobby!
Thirty minutes or so before the Main Event! Masked Inferno Number One is sitting around in what he calls his ordinary, everyday street mask. It is a cloth number in cobalt blue trimmed in black. Very nice.
This is the mask with an extra large hole around the mouth to accommodate a slice of toast or a serving of grits. "They wear the masks to breakfast," confides J.C. Dykes.
Dykes is dressed in tights and a shirt the precise shade of his hair. Type O positive red. Dykes is working with his boys on this night. Usually they go on without him.
Dykes says his guys will wear those damn masks to bed, too, if he hears about somebody prowling the motel and asking questions. The Infernos come from Europe. That is all you get from Dykes.
Dykes said it is easier to get Howard Hughes' phone number than to find out more about his guys.
Consider Dykes, and perhaps Dumas pere was not so demanding of his man in the mask. Yet with Count Mattioli, or whoever it was in the iron mask, the consequence was the wrath of Louis XIV. With the Infernos the mask is making a living, baby, a living.
When the semi-windup is on, The Infernos start to strap on ghastly leather masks. Work clothes. The masks have thick laces in the back. Dykes pulls the laces tight. Maximum security is a fishermen's-bend knot.
If some punk in the ring pulls off a mask, it is all over for J.C. Dykes and The Infernos. Bye-bye to the big money. Bye-bye to $70,000 per.
The masks are their bag, the schtick. If the mask comes off, it is finish to twenty-nine months of building the act in places like Norfolk, Virginia; Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Charleston, West Virginia.
Suppose somebody high up in government spills it about Failsafe. We'll recover. Suppose somebody finds out when Zsa Zsa Gabor was born. She'll live through it.
If the masks go, it is End of Act. It is back to the preliminaries. Or worse. Back to wrestling Victor, the 540-pound bear, or Terrible Teddy, who is also a wrestling bear.
Dykes looks after his boys and their masks because he is the manager. He is what the other wrestlers call a "piece" man because he gets a piece of the action.
Once in a while, if the price is right, Dykes will wrestle at the elbow of his guys in the six-man tag matches. This is bad business for the people who clean up arenas. When Dykes is in the ring the customers throw things at him, including large chairs.
Dykes is not bad when it comes to the double wristlock or the chicken wing or the inside toehold. But what Dykes does best is talk.
"We are the best and most talked about and the most publicized tag tag in the whole world," he says. All the tag teams are modest like that. Go ahead and ask The Amazing Zuma and Haystack Calhoun what they think. Go ahead and ask The Fabulous Kangaroos.
Dykes is right about one thing. The Infernos are quite big on The Tour. The Tour consists of one-night stands in a broad sweep of the middle Atlantic; north to Richmond, west to Charleston, and south to the bright-leaf country.
The Tour is eight years old. It belongs to C&M Promotions and The Tour is doing phenomenal business. The Tour also has a little thing going on television. Weekly programs have beefy Nielsens in twelve rich markets down South, including Miami. "You name it for this part of the country and we're a better attraction," said Joe Murnick, who is the M in C&M. The C is Jim Crockett who leaves The Tour to Murnick.
Murnick IS The Tour to the good old boys and the good old girls who show up, right regular, to see four bouts, twelve wrestlers and ninety minutes of action. The format never changes.
Murnick has wide shoulders and his closely cropped hair is shocking white. Somebody once said that Murnick looks like an alp. Maybe so. But he is friendlier, smarter than an alp and knows what kind of live entertainment sells along with the red-eyed gravy.
One of these days Murnick and Crockett will outdo themselves and maybe a lot of arenas and school gymnasiums will be crushed to splinters by the ticket buyers. One of these days C&M Promotions will develop the absolute attraction in professional wrestling; perhaps an Oriental midget female tag team.
Until then the citizens must make do with what is available. There is Chief Little Eagle who is three quarters Shoshone. There is Haystack Calhoun who is 601 pounds. There is Tammie Jones who is a fine cook, and there is Hiro Matsuda from Japan somewhere and Nikita Mulkovitch from Dubno in the Ukraine.
C&M has made a capitalist of Mulkovitch. This solid, bearded, fearless, "dirty" Russian wrestler is as welcome as matches at a pot party. Promoters love him. Customers despise him.
"I pull hair. I kick. I stick finger in other man's eye. I hit with fist. I am dirty," admits Mulkovitch, smiling through a handsome beard. "Would you believe I paint? Oils. Look here."
Out pops a color Kodak. The Russian has painted a matador in a perfect pirouette.
Mulkovitch is the absolute villain. He wants to be a bad guy. No guessing about him. A bad actor. Same goes with The Infernos.
The Infernos are polite people but basically evil people right own to their shoelaces. God bless professional wrestling for making the definition between good and evil as sharp as it is. Other masked men in other vocations have come to us as chiaroscurists.
The Lone Ranger, for example, operated outside the law and never once advised criminals of their right to an attorney. Hardly anybody ever trusted Tonto, who also wore a mask. And only heaven knows what Batman and Robin had going for them.
But Mr. Wrestling is as absolutely good as The Infernos are evil. He wears a white mask and white trunks. He is stronger than dirt. He is a good guy. Bright, too. Listen and hear how he strings together three words without even one grunt. A clean man. One day, when the universe is ready for it, he will confront the evil of The Infernos. The ultimate match will be here. "Get thee behind me, Satan."
Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson have bleached their hair. Who can trust a man who does THAT? Hiss on Hawk and Hanson. Down with The Infernos.
The poison is there for these guys four nights a week. The cheers and the affection is there, too, for George and Sandy Scott and Johnny Weaver and George Becker who, well, who look like good people.
"Weaver is my favorite," said the swinger in the leopard-skin coat. She is wearing purple lipstick. Good legs.
Who cares about the gold drain? So whatever happened to the Pueblo? Who is Gene McCarthy? Never mind that. The people in the seats want to know about the important stuff. Why in the name of heaven did Rip Hawk have to tear up Little Eagle's war bonnet and beat him bloody?
The lady in Row B made a sign and brought it for The Infernos to see. It says, "Let's trade J.C. Dykes for three Vietcong."
Before the main event, Sandy Scott is in his dressing room trying to add up victories. It is no use. "In twelve years I guess we have won ninety percent of our bouts." The exact count escapes him.
Nobody counts victories or defeats. There is no need. The customers tell the promoter who is going good. They buy or they stay home. If the Scotts do not play to 12,000 people in one week it is an off-week.
There is a lot of burlesque in professional wrestling. No laughs or pratfalls or anything like that. But the participants have the exaggerated movements of a second banana. Some old men are still in the ring. Some of the old girls stayed too long in burlesque, too. The flab shows.
"This here business is ninety-five percent scientific wrestling and five percent showmanship," insists Dykes.
Many of the other wrestlers agree. Come on, now. It is more like fifty-fifty. If these big men played it ninety-five-to-five the people would stay home and watch The Beverly Hillbillies on television.
Murnick and his partner had the benefit of timing when they began The Tour in 1960. Professional wrestling was ready for a comeback. It flourished and died along with Uncle Miltie and those other grey faces in the early days of television.
The wrestlers worked in Australia, England, Scotland, central Europe and Africa, and waited for somebody to get the sport going again. Murnick and Crockett obliged. They booked tight, ninety-minute shows with wrestlers who established rapport with the audiences.
It was simple stuff. The good against the bad. The pretty wrestler against the ugly one. If the citizens wanted to hear Bernstein conducting Grieg's Norwegian Dance Number Two, or if they dug Gore Vidal, they could go watch somewhere else.
"The people want action," said Murnick. "It's here."
The tag event is large box office because four men are involved and four men make more noise, create more excitement and create more boos and hisses than two men. The pay is exceptionally good. Murnick once paid a tag team $700 for one match. The main-event guys always work against a share of the house.
When Murnick books a head-to-head match in the main event he books a name; people like Gene Kiniski or Lou Thesz. On other nights it is the tag-team match or, for a spectacular, the six-man event or the twelve-man lumberjack match.
The bill proclaims, "Eight strong wrestlers surround the ring to keep the tag-team contestants in the ring at all times. Should they choose to leave they will be thrown back in by the seat of the pants."
The citizens are in a frenzy for tickets. On a lumberjack night in Norfolk, Murnick could sell out the 3,452-seat arena three times over. Four major cities in the state are about to start construction on facilities of 10,500 seats or more.
Murnick wonders what is taking so long to get the things built. The double lumberjack match awaits! Midgets girls versus more midget girls!
When The Infernos and the Scotts met in the main event at the Norfolk Municipal Auditorium last March it was bloody. Nobody is sure which team won because, at the end of the third fall, all the wrestlers leaped into the ring and started to beat the hell out of each other.
The customers stood on their chairs and said, "Hot damn. Give it to the Infernos." The Citizens would talk about it all week.
Sandy Scott has been in the ring for twelve years. He worries about a possible spinal injury which could end his career tomorrow or the next night or the night after that. He said it is no problem to come back from the broken nose and the torn tissue.
"But when something happens to the back . that is it."
Becker started young and has been in and out of rings for thirty years. With Weaver, Becker won the Southern Tag-Team Championship. The title means a nod of recognition from the obscure National Wrestling Association, a large metal belt and, always, a guarantee of a percentage against the gate.
"This sport gets in your blood," said Becker. He quit for a while. His brother Bobby, also a wrestler, died of leukemia. George was shaken.
Becker is getting too old for the traveling. Here today and there tomorrow. The two-suiter is packed just so. After the bout it is a shower, maybe an autograph or two, and pop! The grip snaps shut; on to another town.
Johnny Heidemann used to be in the main events. Nothing to it. Agree to wrestle a bear and you are in.
"So maybe you'll get lucky and get the bear in a good humor."
Heidemann, sweat glistening on his bald head, was talking about the times he was in there against Ginger and Terrible Teddy. Bad customers.
"The winter is no good. The bears would rather be where they should be. In hibernation. The last place they want to be is in a ring. The summer is no good. Too hot. Hot lights and thick fur."
Heidemann used to wrestle bears all the time. The last time was in Albany, Georgia. When the match ended he phoned his wife and said it was all over with the bears.
Heidemann explained, "They muzzle the bears but it's still easy to get a finger inside the leather. I almost lost a knuckle. That night the bear was making a swishing noise. Look out. That swishing noise means an angry bear.
"After he clamped down on my finger, about 1,600 pounds of pressure, I scrambled out of the ring with the bear still mad. The referee puts up his hand to show me the way out of the ring and the bear makes a sweep for his hand. He got a finger. I tore the ref's pants and made a tourniquet."
Only bears win over bears, said Heidemann.
You survive in bear wrestling by using a technique called the turtle. Fall down in a lump and pull in arms and legs. Make like a turtle. Maybe the bear will go away.
Mulkovitch knows about the bears, too.
"You think to yourself that in the forest the bear swats ten-pound salmon out of streams with a little swish of the paw. You think about this when the bears stand up high in front of you. Maybe seven feet high."
So what if the bear is wearing a muzzle and so what if somebody removed the claws. "I spent a lot of my time before a bear match in mortal fear," said Heidemann. "The other guys would stand around and watch me shake."
The bear bit is an act, a staple in professional wrestling.
The men revel in whatever eclat has come to them. They have a way about them which suggests the satiation of contestants around Plaza de Toros de Sevilla. It is the kind of fulfillment you find in a hippie who has inspected a bundle from home and found, among other things, a button proclaiming, "Apple pie makes you sterile."
Hey, there, Rip, baby. Want to talk about that beauty of a scar you got there in the middle of your forehead?
"Hell, yes. Cracked 'er open on a ring post. Bled like a pig."
Now this is not the style of the Black Venus. The Black Venus will look away with her shoelaces when somebody asks about the time Black Venus broke a black ankle when a tough sweetheart bounced her out of the ring on her black tail.
The Black Venus! The Black Venus is 34-26-42.
The Black Venus is thirty-eight. She is a mother eleven times. She is a grandmother several times. Black Venus is 34-26-42 which is, well, not bad for a grandmother.
"The men don't know about the children. They make passes. I hear the wolf whistles," said Black Venus.
Two or three years ago a promoter took Waver Pearl Bryant to one side and said, "Look here. Pearl is for Pearl Bailey. Let's get you a new name. Black Venus."
The promoter had bad eyes. The Black Venus is brown. Up there in the ring the sweat is all over her brown thighs. Somebody has left a Hershey bar out in a light rain.
The kids are back home, in Los Angeles. They are with Mr. Black Venus who is the pastor of the New Morning Star Baptist Church.
Somebody once wrote of the Black Venus, "She is a champion in the ring and at home.
She explains, "I liked this wrestling thing ever since I can remember. It is always what I wanted to be in."
A match involving Negro women is not of headline caliber. Third banana. But it has consistent appeal. Black Venus heard about the money in it and she started to train after Number Eleven arrived.
Every once in a while Black Venus is in the ring against Miss Marva Scott, who is younger. Miss Marva Scott wears eye shadow and a white outfit which could have been in Slave Girl Moola's wardrobe.
"I believe we have a lot of sex appeal," said Miss Scott.
The good old boys in the audience look hard at the girls. Hard as hell. Who knows? A tit is liable to pop out of that white thing she is wearing.
Then again maybe it is masochism. A lot of the customers on Tobacco Road never heard of masochism but they know it feels good under checkered shirts to see one woman, all sweaty, up there in a ring dominating, mistreating and hurting another one.
Now, sure enough, maybe the wife won't go for it. But these girls do it. They do it for money. "The money is good," said Miss Marva Scott.
The times are good, too. The men are attentive. So what if Miss Marva Scott is a wrestler, a professional wrestler. So what if she doesn't smoke and so what if she says never mind to Haig & Haig. So what?
Explained Miss Scott, white teeth showing, "I have to keep strong so I can carry on."
She means carry on up there in the ring where the money is. Talk about your attractions in sports and the theatre. Mantle at bat in the bottom of the ninth. Who needs him? Unitas with the ball on third down and three. Forget it. Give the customers a couple of Negro girls in the ring, and hot damn, you have something there.
The women wrestle with quick moves. Flair. "Fast style, I call it," said Marva Scott of Columbus, Ohio.
There HAS to be a lot of hair pulling. Women fight that way.
"Not much of it," say the girls. This is business. Who wants mussed hair? Look at Ethel Johnson and Penny Banner and the rest. They keep themselves looking very good.
Style! It just has to be. The Garvin Brothers from Canada somewhere have their hair a shocking shade of white or yellow. Hiro Matsuda of Japan somewhere wrestles in his bare feet and gives the customers a little karate between falls. He would make it in a remake of Charlie Chan.
The girls have style, too. The Black Venus has to have something because she is a grandmother and the good old boys whistle when she comes into the ring and a lot of the soul brothers like her just fine. Just fine.
It is absolute showmanship. A lot of people dismiss the whole sport as theatre and not very good theatre at that.
Sandy Scott said if wrestling is theatre the bouts should be held off-Broadway. "They say we are actors. How come the actors' union doesn't make us join? We could use a union."
A union could picket for equal rights. Everybody march for the right to gouge the other guy. "The hard way is the best way for me," said Scott. "The hard way is the scientific way."
Maybe a union could do something about the guys who work on old injuries. Got a gash in the forehead? Watch out because some lug is going to ram your head into the ring post.
"When I get hurt like that I think maybe I am in the wrong business," said Paul Jones, a young wrestler with handsome features and thick wavy hair. Here is a matinee idol if there ever was one.
One day, perhaps in a year or two, Jones will be headline material. Maybe he will find another wrestler who will take the name of David Farragut. Think of it. Main Event! Paul Jones and David Farragut versus the entire Confederate Flotilla!
It could be a boffola act if they can get the Confederate Flotilla to wear masks.