Friday, December 31, 2010

Wrestling Night - By Lee Y. Greene, Jr.

An installment story about my hometown in North Alabama.

Hartselle, Alabama is like most other places of 12,000 or fewer souls in the South. Most everyone is moderate to middle class, as the area prospered only when the Tennessee Valley Authority came in the 1930’s to change our area from an agrarian economy to a service economy. With the advent of the aerospace and defense industries in a nearby county, our hometown evolved into a bedroom community.

Folks live here, but work and spend their day elsewhere. Because of this suburban evolution, we have lost the days of porch sitting and story telling, now that we commute and no longer really know our next door neighbor. That doesn’t mean that funny things don’t happen here, but that fewer connections are available to tell them. This is a story from my hometown:

Back in 1985, while I was in high school, afternoon TV consisted of quality programming, unlike now. Instead of Jerry Springer, Maury, and Cops, we had Georgia Championship Wrestling. For younger readers, Georgia Championship Wrestling was the forerunner of today’s NWA and WWE.
Every afternoon, three or four bouts occurred on TV with promotions of locations where the next action would be. One day, in Fall of 1985, Hartselle, Alabama was the venue, and not just any low card fight, but the man, Tommy “Wildfire” Rich would be here to defend his title against his main adversary, Brad Armstrong.
Well, the fact that Hartselle, Alabama was even mentioned on TV was a big deal to the under 17 crowd. Our town was finally on the map. A big wrestling match was to take place here and this news was as big as the McDonalds’ grand opening a few years earlier. Not even Decatur could boast of an event of such magnitude.

One the day of the fight, a handful of HHS students (you know who you are) decided that we needed to go and see this spectacle. This was not an everyday thing, and we were not going to miss this opportunity. If not for the show itself, but to see who would show up to see it. We were not disappointed.

The doors of the Sparkman Civic Center opened an hour early to accommodate the throng that had swelled outside in the parking lot. If I recall, about four of us arrived together about that time, so we could get the special “ringside seats” that cost an additional two dollars each. For some reason, the two dollars was a problem for many who attended, as they were relegated to the yellow stacking chairs and fold-out bleachers against the back wall. The ring did not look like the ones on TV. A piece of canvas that looked like it doubled as someone's mainsail on a boat was tightly stretched across a steel frame, with angle steel “turnbuckles” rising from each corner. The “ring” ropes were actually garden hoses that were screwed together around the steel frame. They were green with a yellow stripe along them, and brass hardware on the ends. At this point we realized that were in for the lowest common denominator of sporting events.

Our fellow wrestling fans were from the working background many Hartselle residents were, and many from the County as well, had obviously been waiting for the big day. The police were there, as a precaution and thank goodness. A few had brought signs, not realizing that they would not be on TV as this was not a televised fight. A few others looked like they were hoping to be discovered and could have given the card fighters a good beating.

Show time arrives and the Civic Center lights dim except for one lone fixture above the ring. It is fight time, except that a fight in the audience breaks over some unrelated misunderstanding, and the lights are immediately re-ignited to get a stabbing sorted out. I imagine the wrestlers were probably used to this, but we weren’t. After the “stickin” was cleared up, twenty minutes later, the first fight begins, in the now fully illuminated auditorium. The first two fights were rather nondescript. The wrestlers were not well known and the crowd did not respond with much enthusiasm. A tag team match was next with some better-known fighters. These guys had actually been on TV, so the crowd starts to get animated. Slams into the canvas were matched with whoops and hollers of joy and frustration as the crowd was divided on their allegiance in the contest. The “referee” in the match was somehow ”distracted” by some protest by a member of one of the teams, while the other took advantage and abused his adversary with a move that was so illegal, that the entire crowd recognized it and began screaming and hollering at the “official”. It was now on. This was the frenzy we came to see and at that point got all our money’s worth of entertainment. The crowd became enraged at the lack of professionalism exhibited by the referee, and began to rush the ring shouting, spitting, screaming, and gesturing toward him. The seating arrangement was now a point in history of the event, as everyone was standing around the ring. The tag team fight was over, albeit by nefarious means, and the angry mob was on fire.

The only thing that could soothe the now raw nerves of the audience was the announcement of the main event. The promoter called his name, and the man everyone came to see, Tommy “Wildfire” Rich, emerged from the dressing rooms behind the stage, carrying his shiny, over-the-top, and ridiculously large Georgia Championship Belt high above his head. The crowd went into another frenzy, even more furious than before. Grown men were holding up their children to see this historical moment. Some women wept. It was both a happy and sad day for my hometown.

The antagonist of the show, Brad Armstrong, later emerged to boos and catcalls from the frenzied crowd. After several minutes of crowd cheering and booing, the fighters settled into their respective corners for pre-fight consultations with their pimp-like mangers fanning themselves with hundred dollar bills.
A bell from seemingly nowhere sounded and the main event was on. This wasn’t supposed to be much of a fight, as Tommy Wildfire Rich had defeated this opponent on TV a few weeks before, but the fight did not seem to go his way. Brad Armstrong tossed Tommy into the garden hose ropes many times. He flipped Tommy over and tossed him around (like they had obviously, previously rehearsed). The referee in this event, who looked a lot like one of the wrestlers on the early fight card, was in charge and almost slapped the canvas three times on Tommy. This was not looking good for the defending Championship belt holder. Tommy was tossed into the turnbuckle closest to us, seemingly out of strength and beaten within an inch of his life, a kindly looking, woman, that could be anyone’s grandmother, eased up to the side of the ring and began to cuss Tommy out like a sailor on a submarine. I am not sure if it was encouragement or just her opinion that she was giving, but during her tirade, her false teeth fell out and hit the floor of the Civic Center. Without missing a syllable, she scooped them back up, put them into her mouth and continued her cussing.

Tommy, apparently summoning the strength from the now screaming, out-of-control fans, begins to rise and slowly exact justice on the challenger. He turns the momentum of this event to a crescendo of violence toward Brad Armstrong that results in the three canvas slap signal from the official that the event is over and Tommy has successfully defended his ridiculously large shiny belt.
The crowd goes wild. Everyone is high-fiving each other, and completely satisfied that they got their money’s worth from this event. No one ever suspected that “the play’s the thing”. A big giveaway, that no one seemed to ask why, was that all of the wrestlers were now seated at the exit to the auditorium signing photographs of themselves for $10 each. Sitting next to each other, borrowing sharpies and making change, with the guy they were fighting for their life, a few moments earlier.

That was the last time I am aware that Hartselle had TV sponsored wrestling. Recently, we have had cage fighting and Bad Boy Boxing, but they usually involve locals fighting each other for a purse. It is still fun to see, and it sells so well, that the fire marshal is involved to maintain building capacity limits. But it will never match that night in 1985 when history was being made in our hometown.