By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor – Classic Wrestling
This week, Senior Editor Jim Phillips presents a look back at The Best of Road Stories & Ribs, with three very special traveling tales.
Number 1… A Night Like No Other
The air grew stagnant and thick in the classroom, as the boy sat in anticipation for the school bell to ring. He had waited for what seemed an eternity as he watched the second hand on the clock, click and seem to stick in place. In the pit of his stomach he wanted to run out and put the school behind him as he ran for the freedom of the weekend. This was no ordinary Friday evening however. This evening was special.
For as long as his memory had withheld him, the vivid images of the squared circle and the gladiators that battled within its roped arena of combat. He was mesmerized by them and they way they captivated the crowds and held them in the palms of their hand. Not a Sunday morning passed that he couldn’t be found lying in the floor, fixated on the action that hummed out of the large wooden encased television that took up one end of the living room. It was good vs evil, it was honor vs treachery, it was church, it was life.
After what seemed an eternity the bell rang and he was free. The wind flew beneath his feet as the pedals on the Bmx bike spun, and whirring of the wheels only fueled his heart to peddle faster. Rounding the corner to home with a scratch of gravel and dust, he dismounted the still rolling bicycle and burst thru the front door. His heart raced, as he knew that in a few short hours he would be there, watching it all in person. The next two hours passed with snail-like precision, and the boy thought his father would never get home for dinner. He knew that after that, it would be time to head out. When his father was halfway thru his meal the boy was already finished eating and sitting on the edge of the couch, legs anxiously jumping. As soon as his father’s hands touched the old hat he kept on the hook by the door, he was moving out the door to the car. The ride to the event was filled with the excited thoughts of what may be to come, and the undoubted carnage he was about to behold.
As the old sedan pulled into the parking lot of the Civic Center he could hear the noise coming from inside the building. He ran ahead of his father to the large front doors of the old building. He had been there for school functions and driven past it so many times on his bicycle, loaded down with newspapers to be delivered. But tonight, this night, was different. The building took on a shadowy mystique that he hadn’t felt in it before. It was an electricity he sensed in the air, and the hairs on his arms and neck stood on end as he peered thru the doors to the auditorium, where he could see the empty ring up on the stage. His senses were beckoned the other way to the smell of hot popcorn and the buzz of activity around the merchandise booths.
“Programs, popcorn, peanuts! Get your t-shirts here!!”, filled his ears with the sensation of a circus atmosphere as barkers tried to sell their wares.
It was a euphoric sense of controlled mania and chained insanity that really tugged at his heart. He was happier than any Christmas morning, or birthday party he had ever been to. Even at his young age he knew that this was a special moment to be savored and he tried to sear everything into his memory. After a brief wait in line for refreshments they made their way to their seats. The smile on the boy’s face seemed never-ending as it grew with every snap of the head as he took in the crowd around him and the sounds of last minute preparations from the other side of the large golden yellow curtain that draped behind the ring.
Then, as the lights fell dark and the announcer stepped thru the ropes he knew he was there. In that special place only some fans understand exists. The time between the Star Spangled Banner and the last minutes of the last fall of the night. That little piece of heaven that we all live for…show-time. The next 3 hours felt like 3 minutes as he cheered and booed and laughed. He was told great stories by amazing workers, and even got to see Dick Murdoch make friends with a little old lady in the crowd who kept waving at him and yelling. The boy would learn later that she was giving a special salute and telling Mr. Murdoch that she thought he was Number 1.
As the boy walked back to the car with his father he knew that this was the beginning of something more for him. He grew up with wrestling and followed it through many promotions and across hundreds of miles of traveling to see it live. No matter how many times he went to see an event, there was always that little boy inside him. The one that was so excited to go, and who felt that electricity of being there in that holiest of holies; the wrestling matches. After that night, his life would be changed forever.
As some of you may have figured out by now, that young boy was myself. Heritage and the stories of the road are among the things I love most about this business. In this series we will take a look at some stories of the business from the men and women who lived them. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.
2. The Slap That Rocked Pro Wrestling
Welcome, once again friends, to another installment of our road soldier diaries. As fans we get the chances to see really historic moments very rarely in the wrestling world. Those who have paid their dues and proven themselves worthy to be let amongst the ranks of the greats of the squared circle have seen more than most. I have traveled the roads for hundreds of miles in search of these moments. Sometimes alone, and at other times accompanied by friends, or perhaps I was lucky enough to get to ride with some of the workers from show to show. Whichever the case, I always savored the road and time spent among friends and at live events. This weeks story comes from a time when I was in my teenage years and life was so much simpler.
It was March, 1988. The smell was in the air, but not the smell of spring blossoms, or the freshness of that time of year. It was the smell of a fever; wrestling fever. For the last few weeks it had been advertised that the newly constructed Show-Me Center in Cape Girardeau, Missouri would be the host to live wrestling from the WWF. The Superstars of Wrestling was headed to our area and we all had the itch to go. Nothing was going to stand in our way from seeing what we loved more than anything. It was decided that myself, my best friend Sam Jacobs, my two Uncles and a couple of their friends would make the hour and a half ride to Cape in late April to raise a lil’ hell.
My Uncle and I had traveled to many shows in Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri when I was younger. The Show-Me Center was definetly one of the nicest and newest arenas that I had been in. We had attended a house show there not long after it opened, and Vince McMahon did a vigorous business there all through the 80‘s and 90‘s. This time, however, we had a crew along with us, and that Saturday afternoon in April couldn’t get there fast enough. We were packed and ready to that morning and headed down the road with a carload full. We got to the hotel and unpacked and went for a swim before we headed out. Showtime was at 4pm, and we did not wanna be late.
We got to our seats and not long after the lights went low. The electricity in the room was thick as Howard Finkel announced that the show we were going to see would be used as tapings for multiple Superstars of Wrestling episodes. We got to see “Iron” Mike Sharpe work the crowd but lose to the Red Rooster. The Islanders battled the Bulldogs. Koko B. Ware and Frankie were on hand to dance and pump up the crowd even more. We were lucky enough to see great matches all afternoon and some were worked multiple times by headline guys and “jobbers” to facilitate the different episodes being taped.
A few hours into the show we all took notice of a very attractive young brunette being escorted to a ringside aisle seat. I’ll never forget the white, tassled jean jacket she had on, as it swashed back and forth on her way to her seat. For the next 30 minutes she was the focus of our attentions, until, it happened. Rick Rude’s music hit, and we came to our feet. As a fan of the heels, he was always one of my most favorite workers to watch in the ring or on television. He was accompanied by Bobby Heenan, dressed to the nine’s as always. Rude made quick work of Jake “Milkman” Milliman with the Rude Awakening in the center of the ring, and Bobby bounded in with the microphone. It was time for his famous Sweathogs speech, where he chose a lady from the crowd to kiss. We all knew now why the girl in the special seat was there, but the implications of the next few minutes would start one of the great feuds in wrestling history.
That lady was Cheryl Roberts, and she was the spark for the explosion. Most hard core fans know what went down, but I think it’s good for the history to be preserved from a fan’s standpoint. Rude did his best wiggle walk down to her seat and asked to come to the ring but she refused and said that she was not interested in him at all. Rude worked it so well, and demanded to know why. She told him that she was Jake the Snake Robert’s wife. Rude went livid. She delivered what was one of the great slaps ever in the wrestling business. We heard it all the way to our seats without help of the live mic Rude was holding. This prompted him to grab her by the arm, and read her the riot act. It wasn’t long before Jake was down the aisle and it was a full blown slobber knocker, as J.R. might say. They fought up the aisle and off camera, but what was unseen by television was them fighting all through the backstage area to the locker room curtain. Some of those shots looked legit to me and I’m sure there was a little bit of action there between them to really sell it. This was the hard hitting 80‘s after all. Little did we know how much that storyline would fuel the next few months television and pay per views. It was a hot enough angle to turn one of the longest running heels, Jake Roberts a face, and cement Rick Rude as the premier heel in the WWF at that time. We were there and got to see it first hand.
Sometimes you get gifted with special happenings at live events, both on the primetime level and at your local indy events. It’s always kinda cool to be able to say, “I was there to see it live, for myself.”. As always, I urge you to get out and see live wrestling at any level of competition. There is NO substitute for that feeling you get when the lights drop and the mayhem ensues.
Next month I will start bringing you the road stories from some of the friends I’ve made in the wrestling business over the years. They have collectively traveled all over the United States and to promotions worldwide. I look forward to bring them to you and until then, keep the wheels turning and the freedom burning. I hope you had a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Enjoy the New Years Eve celebrations and party responsibly. Peace Bruthas and Sistas.
3. Our Patriotic Pulse Beats Strong in the Heartland
Welcome back friends as we set off on another journey down the roads and head to our next stop. This weeks story comes out of one of the darkest times in our nation’s history. Come back with me now, to October, 2001 and the No Mercy pay per view event in St Louis, Missouri.
To say that this was a tumultuous time in America as we were still reeling from the events of 9/11 would be an understatement. Several large public events had been canceled in the week or so following the disaster, and it was still unclear in the media if No Mercy would even go on as planned. Knowing Vince McMahon’s record for standing up in the face of adversity, there wasn’t any doubt in my mind whether or not the event would happen.
Like many other road trips, I was running solo on this one. I headed out just after two o’clock that afternoon for the hour and a half ride up to St. Louis. The nice part about going to see a live show in the city is the new Metro-link train that runs from the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, all the way through St. Louis, out to Lambert Field Airport and back. I pulled into the Swansea Station, had a nice smoke before boarding, then headed out to the Saavis Center for the show.
As the train drew closer to downtown more and more people were boarding with WWF gear on. This was back before the World Wildlife Fund has won their court case and the amazing “Get the F Out” campaign that followed. The WWF and the Alliance were still locked in a bitter feud to see who was going to take control of the company. Now, while many claim that the years between 1996 and 2000 to be the greatest years in professional wrestling for on air product, I’d have to disagree. While they were laying the foundations for a legacy, I would say that the those days , following the Monday Night Wars, when we saw the competition between WWF/WCW peaking gave us some of the best content. It was during this time that we saw, without a doubt, the greatest out of the arena spot to ever air as Stone Cold and Booker T tore through a supermarket. We were also blessed with the chemistry of Kurt Angle, SCSA, and Vince McMahon as they gave us the cowboy hat and guitar singing moments from the locker room. It was this relationship and the deterioration between SCSA and Angle that led to the main event of the No Mercy PPV that October.
When the train rolled into the Saavis Center Station, the platform was already packed with fans clamouring up the hill to the front entrance of the venue. The local radio station was set up and broadcasting at the main doors as they gave away tickets and merchandise. Now personally, I never feel safe or comfortable in the midst of the herd, so I worked my way to the area by the east entrance, near the statue of The Hare, of Tortoise and Hare fame to have one last smoke before the gates opened. I always enjoy the time just before the event starts because you inevitably see some drunken rednecks trying to put on holds and land moves on one another as the adrenaline beings to surge. It’s the best pre-show there is.
The doors all popped, and the crowd started to line up to be checked as we entered. I have been to many, many live events, but the level of security around the arena that day was unprecedented in my years of attending shows. Now these days with TSA and all the other things we have become accustomed to, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. But in the days following the 9/11 tragedy, none of us were used to, or prepared for those heights of inspection. After going through the first metal detector, they check all of our signage and confiscated some that were deemed inappropriate for the show. They ran over us with handheld detection wands as they did this, and then moved us along until we went through a second metal detector to get inside the arena interior. Though many of my signs were in bad taste and offensive to the babyface workers I was there to jeer, none of were taken. I did my usual arena walk around, grabbed a drink and headed to my seat.
The place was filling up fast and the Sunday Night Heat show was set to start very soon. Lillian Garcia made her way to the ring, and just as she did the Titantron crackled to life with the large, beaming grin of sarcasm on the face of Vince McMahon filling the arena. He informed the crowd that this was the largest indoor gathering since September, and that the Saavis Center was at capacity of over 20,000+ fans that night.
He thanked everyone for showing their support of the WWF, and said that there wasn’t anything or any group of terrorists that were going to scare them away from giving us the best show they could. His patriotism and love of our country was more evident then, during that time, than it had ever been before. He cut away, and Lillian belted out one of her best National Anthem performances that I had or have yet to hear to this day. The chant of USA that went up afterwards sent chills through my body and brought a tear to my eye. Without any reservations, I can say that this was the loudest, longest sustained pop I have ever heard. I could only liken it to the story in biblical times of city of Jericho and the tumbling of it’s walls at the roar of the people that surrounded it. I thought the roof was going lift off the place.
The show that evening did not disappoint. We saw The Dudleys face off against Big Show and Tajiri. The Undertaker was in action against Booker T. During Torrie Wilson and Stacey Keibler lingerie match, Miss Keibler’s ring gear had it’s famous malfunction and almost gave us a bigger show than we bargained for as that match had to be cut short. Y2J took the WWF Title off of The Rock. One of the mostly highly acclaimed matches saw the implosion of the Edge and Christian partnership and they battled for the Intercontinental Title in a barn burner of a ladder match. Finally, the main event saw Stone Cold Steve Austin in a triple threat match against Kurt Angle and Rob Van Dam. Every single match brought it, and the entire show was strong.
It’s been almost twenty years since then, but I will never forget that event. People can say what they like about the wrestling business. It transcends many other things in life for me. It’s not because of the pageantry, or the bravado, or the over the top characters and workers that drive the soap opera like story lines. It’s that feeling you get in your gut and the lump that raises up in your throat at times like the one in this story. It’s the heritage, and legacy that comes of being a part of something greater than yourself. Maybe that seems like a romanticized view of things, but it’s truth about how I feel about the wrestling business. Stand by what you love and never let anyone take away from you because of it. Even all of you fat, out of shape, sweat hogs out there that need to be shown how a real man looks in the ring. Hahahahaha….sorry, I just couldn’t resist!!
Well, that brings us to the end of another road trip. Until next time Bruthas and Sistas, keep the wheels turning and the freedom burning. See you on the flip side. Peace