An old friend of mine – Tim Garoutte – asked me recently about a story I once told regarding an encounter that a football teammate of mine had had with a professional wrestler named Bobby Eaton. It took me a while to scratch this particular tale up from the memory banks (probably because Tim did not use the full and correct name of the wrestler, that being, of course, BEAUTIFUL Bobby Eaton). But it finally came to me anyway, and I recalled the occasion in question when a 6’-5, 275-lb starting right tackle for the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles took a seriously misguided step one winter night and whacked ½ of the Southern Tag Team Champion Midnight Express, the Beautiful One himself, in the back of the head from his second row seat. My muscle bound buddy learned that wrestlers, when touched in such a manner, are apparently released from all restraints that would prevent the pummeling of said offender. When security finally separated Eaton from our tackle, who by this time was on his back in the fifth row, and escorted our humbled Golden Eagle from the arena, Beautiful Bobby leaped into the ring and stood in the spotlight, basking in his villainy, to an equal mixture of boos and cheers from the 5,000 or so in attendance that night in Cookeville. What a glorious night of wrestling!
As I laughed upon this extracted gem of a tale from years ago, I realized something. Maybe my “inner redneck” is not so “inner” after all. If truly pressed, would I not be forced to admit that many of my fondest memories are intertwined with the ridiculous sport/event/spectacle that is professional wrestling?
Just last week, I read in Rick Bragg’s column on the back pages of Southern Living magazine where he said that, in his boyhood, television with only the two or three channels available was much better than today. Now, what 40-something alive in America would not agree with that? Well, I sure do. But then Bragg went too far. He had the audacity to add a throw-away statement at the end of his paragraph that basically said that ‘his day’ was a day when “the worst thing on television was professional wrestling.” I was taken aback. My heart sank just a little bit. “The worst thing”? Had Bragg never seen “Let’s Make a Deal”?
When I was a boy of 14, my brother and I visited our big-city Georgia cousins in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta. Of course, all cultured boys of our age in rural Mississippi in 1978 knew an important fact about Marietta, Georgia, and we were surprised, shocked in fact, to learn that it was something that our Marietta cousins didn’t know. It was common knowledge, we thought, that the very best in rasslin’ could always be found in the famous Marietta Civic Center. We rushed to check the paper and found that, sure enough, on the very Saturday afternoon we were in town, Tommy “Wildfire” Rich, Dusty Rhodes, Bullet Bob Armstrong and Chief Wahoo McDaniel all would be making an appearance within 2 or 3 miles of where we stood. If that didn’t make a kid envious of big-city living, nothing would. The Civic Center was at least half full (which strangely came as a surprise to our Georgia relatives), and right away we got a taste of what we had come for. It seems Tommy Rich’s head had been shaved on one side by Arn Anderson months before, live on TBS, and somehow miraculously it was still in EXACTLY the same condition when he reached the ring on this Saturday. And he was still just as mad about it as he was the day Anderson applied the clippers in the first place. A titanic battle ensued, followed by another, and another. We even hung around outside the Civic Center after the matches ended to watch the rowdiest of rowdy fans throw wadded-up paper cups at the Outlaw Don Bass, who flipped us off before ducking into his car. “The worst thing on television”? Really, Mr. Bragg?
I think now of holding a young cousin up on my shoulders for an autograph from Jerry “The King” Lawler at Northeast Community College in 1985; of watching a short, fat, 60-year-old Tojo Yamamoto chest-chop 6’-8 opponents to the mat on Channel 5 every Saturday in the 70’s with Tojo’s biggest fan, my short, fat, 60 year-old grandfather; of my dad’s encounter with Plowboy Frazier over the last piece of fried catfish on the Freshtastiks Food Bar at the Tupelo Bonanza; of taking a date (my lovely wife Rothann) for a romantic evening in the green building south of Main in Tupelo to see Kimala the Ugandan Giant take on Superstar Bill Dundee in 1981; and of finally having to turn off Wrestlemania XV when my six year-old Reggie elbow dropped on me from the back of the couch as his older brothers tried to apply figure-four leg-locks on each other in the middle of the living room floor.
Tojo and Papa have been gone a long time now, and yeah, I know that Kimala was really from Senatobia, not Uganda. And the truth is – Plowboy actually got that last piece of fish without much resistance from Dad, even though he would still tell you different.
But, the worst thing on television? Really, Mr. Bragg? “Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Banana Nose!” At least that’s what “Beautiful” Bobby Eaton would say.
And my friend Tim wondered if I had enough material to do a whole story on wrestling. Tim, Tim, Tim. “2 minutes gone, 58 minutes to wrestle.”