A man named Richard Morgan Flehr sheds his expensive suit jacket, folds it with meticulous neatness, turns, and is promptly smacked full in the face, sometimes with a metal chair, sometimes with a chopping backhand, sometimes with whatever is handiest. He does a precise, dramatic, slow motion pirouette and falls face first with a thunderous thud that makes you marvel even if you have seen it dozens of times before. Remarkably, later on he will rise heroically, and sometimes will repeat it.
He has been falling flush on his face for the better part of the last four decades.
How many concussions do you suppose that adds up to?
There must be a secret. And as a matter of fact there is, and it belongs to that Richard Morgan Flehr gentleman, who is better known by his stage name as Ric Flair. Or The Nature Boy. He is a revered member of one of the oldest, longest-running entertainment troupes in the country—professional rasslin’. Its members are a combination of thespians, athletes and, above all, stunt men.
Their tolerance for pain is awe inspiring. Yes, there are scripts to follow and choreography that must be precise, and yes the outcome is predetermined, and yes there must be a suspension of disbelief by the audience, but friend, never, ever doubt that what they do hurts. Hurts like Billy Blue Blazes.
Now look… look up there, see that man perched atop the top rope… preparing to launch… it is Randy Mano Poffo, a.k.a. Randy Macho Man Savage and this is his signature move, The Flying Elbow. There are no pads, nothing that has give, only bones to splinter, muscles to shred, ligaments to tear, tendons to rip. Macho Man makes himself into a missile. His opponent has been stretched out on his back, making for a conveniently helpless target. The result is a train wreck and Macho Man does a victory strut around the ring, then makes a triumphant exit, and only when he is out of sight does he contort his face and give in to the pain. It is a scenario repeated, night after night, town after town, year after year, until… until… until… well in the words of Macho Man: “There’s no place on my body that doesn’t hurt.”
In addition to his flying pyrotechnics and rainbow wardrobe, he played the role of lead man in one of the more entertaining skits, a version of Beauty and the Beast, along with the fetching Miss Elizabeth, who exuded an appealingly helpless vulnerability, and George the Animal Steele, a slow-witted but affable sort who would scoop the padding out of a ring post and serenely, happily munch away.
Macho Man, at 58, came to a tragic end, killed in a car accident. His passion for the life in the squared circle was perfectly summed up by his brother, Leaping Lanny, who told an interviewer: “Even in the casket he looked like he was just resting until he could get up and kick your ass.”
Pro Rasslin’ is an acquired taste, whose roots go back to the 1940s and carnival midways featuring the likes of the Fabulous Moolah and Killer Kowalski. Sophisticated, no. But there is a long-standing core of loyal fans, impassioned zealots who have lived and died through Royal Rumbles and Summer Slams and Raw and Smack Down and…well, there apparently is no end to the possible extravaganzas just as there no apparent end to televised matches frequently interrupted by the opportunity to dig into your wallet… a Hulk Hogan T-shirt on which he is flexing those pythons is king of the merchandizing.
Her name was Mary Lillian Ellison and she billed herself as The Fabulous Moolah and promised to deliver, in her words: “Lipstick and Dynamite.”
Her signature was The Flying Mare and then, for variety, The Flying Scissors.
I interviewed her at the Champaign County (Illinois) Fair in the summer of 1957 and she was cordial and quite accommodating, as were every one of that profession that I spent time with through the years.
In demonstrating The Flying Mare, she grabbed a fistful of her dark tresses and said: “Honey, you ought to see me pull taffy.”
Moolah was a ground breaker and barrier buster, the woman who opened the door for all the others. Her greatest triumph was a 13-woman Battle Royal in 1956. She had a long and glorious life–when she passed in 2007, she was 84. Graveside tributes are still on her head stone.
He was a Polish Canadian and his name was a mouthful—Edward Wlaslaw Kowalski Spunik, but he wrestled as Killer Kowalski. He debuted in 1948 as The Polish Apollo, a reference to his body-builder physique. It was said you could strike a match on his sculpted torso, and at various times he performed under the aliases of Tarzan and Hercules.
Television was in its infancy when Killer came along, so his timing was fortuitous. TV needed a villain, and who better than a man named Killer?
He took to the role instantly, a preening, taunting bad man sneering and strutting and working the crowd into a proper frenzy.
Killer embellished his ferocity in 1952 in a match with Yukon Eric. Killer’s signature move was a leg drop, which he administered with customary gusto, and when he came down he brought with him a part of Yukon Eric’s ear. Word spread quickly as proof that, see, as defenders of the sport crowed, it’s not fake.
As with The Fabulous Moolah before him, Killer Kowalski enjoyed a successful run—he passed in 2008, at 81.
His name was Robert James Marella but he wrestled as Gorilla Monsoon, and he was indeed a sight to behold when he strode into the ring, all six feet, six inches and 400 pounds of him.
He was the first of the giants, and he was surprisingly agile and quick in contrast to other big men, who tended to be slow methodical plodders. His signature move was The Airplane Spin punctuated by The Gorilla Splash, in which he would lift his opponent over his head, spin him round and round and then when the unfortunate opponent was properly dizzy, fling him away as you would an unwanted package.
In a mega-hype pay-per-view match of wrestler versus boxer, Gorilla grabbed Muhammad Ali and hoisted him over head, preparing to spin. Ali squirmed and wiggled like a hooked bass. The audience squealed in gleeful anticipation but the promoters teetered on the brink of apoplexy at the thought of the biggest money-making athlete in the world being Gorilla Splashed.
Gorilla, a shrewd business man, allowed Ali to escape, and explained: “You don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.”
Gorilla was everywhere—a tag team partner, a tag team opponent, a promoter, a play-by-play analyst and for years he was the face of professional wrestling. On TV he was instantly recognizable by his trademark tuxedo. Gorilla and his tux—one more touch of class.
He passed in September of 1999, gone much too soon at 62, and mourned and missed still.
A confession: Professional wrestling is my secret pleasure, and from time to time I like to drop in just to see what the grunt ‘n groaners are up to. I’ve introduced my sons, my grandsons and pretty soon will introduce my great grandson to a roll call that echoes through the years:
There was Haystacks Calhoun, who lifted my car out of a no parking zone and asked me: “Where do you want this?”… and Jimmy Super Fly Snuka, one of the early top rope aviators… and Jake the Snake Roberts and his reptilian friends… and oh yes, The Undertaker and his mournful death knell bell… and The Big Show, who can step over the top rope with imperious ease… all these and dozens more I have seen and marvel at still, marvel at their capacity for pain, wonder what is their secret, and it is this: Wrestling is like writing… if it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right.