-King Cage, King of the Cage, the Old School Hero, the King of Hardcore, the Hardcore Hero, the Hammer, Black Jesus, Luke Cage, probably the most beloved wrestler in the last twenty years. A guy who paid his dues for so long that when he finally succeeded, everyone was happy for him, from the other wrestlers, to the fans, even to the promoters who had spent so long under-utilizing him. And one of the reasons that everyone was so happy is that Darryl Luke is one of the last of the true gentlemen in our so-called sport. Always willing to talk to fans, always willing to help his fellow workers, always giving back more than he takes. Out of all the guys that I ever met in this rotten business, Darryl is the one guy that I always thought that I would have liked if I had met him outside of wrestling, and he was the one wrestler that I trusted without reservation...
Which is why his betrayal hurt so much. Still does. Itís why Iím here today.
The key to understanding Darryl is that while you might think that weíre the same age, the truth is that Darryl is about a decade older than me. He grew up dirt poor in the Old South. His Dad died in Korea when Darryl was still very young, three or four, so he was brought up by his single Mother. Now Mrs. Luke is a strong woman, and she brought up Darryl right, but in the Fifties, being a single mother was tough. And of course, being poor and fatherless in the Fifties wasnít nearly as tough as growing up black in the South during a time when being black in the South was somewhere between a sin and a cross to bear.
Now, what I can gather from Darryl over the years, from a very early age he made a decision that he was going to go to University and get a degree, and make his Mama proud of him. Right from the beginning, Darryl was a strategic thinker. He knew that as the son of a deceased veteran, he could get some funding for university, but that money might not be enough by itself, and he didnít want his Mama to be forced to pay a cent of his university education. I mean she would have gladly paid, but Darryl saw how hard she worked just to put food on the table and he didnít want her working herself to death for him. So, he studied his options. He could get an academic scholarship, but the competition for those scholarships was sure to be intense. Darryl had already sized up his competition and while he was confident he was their equal, he knew that he couldnít guarantee victory. On the other hand, doing well in athletics might help his bid for an academic scholarship, and give him a crack at an athletic scholarship.
But what kind of sport should he compete in? He was a solitary kid, not prone to joining teams which eliminated football, baseball and basketball. Not to mention that there werenít many baseball or basketball scholarships in those days. There was track and field, but Darryl felt that the competition there was too intense for him. No, Darryl needed a sport with an existing scholarship program; a sport where strategy was essential; a sport where being a brainy loner would help; a sport where he would have an edge. So, when Darryl discovered that there was a scholarship awarded each year to the best black wrestler in Georgia, he knew that there was only one thing to do: he would have to speak to his next door neighbour, the Nazi.
-There were Nazis in Atlanta in the early Sixties?
-The early Sixties was the glory time for Nazis in America. There was Hoganís Heroes on the TV. Every week it seemed, Sinatra or Redford or Brando would be fighting Nazis on the big screen. And in the wrestling rings, in every promotion there was a leather wearing, monocle sporting, goose stepping German who all seemed to use a nerve pinch called ďThe KlawĒ and who sported unlikely names like Killer Karl Krupp or Baron Von Shrek or Count Orloff. And in Atlanta, the biggest Nazi of them all, the man who had terrorized fans and wrestlers alike: Von Hess.
Von Hess was one of the first of the Nazi wrestlers, actually making his debut as a wrestler during the Second World War while he was still a teenager. Old enough to wrestle, too young to drink, or vote or fight in the war. He was also one of the most authentic. Most of the Nazi wrestlers were just tall blondes who liked playing dress-up. Few could speak any German unless they memorized their lines in advance. Virtually all of them were born in the United States. Von Hess, on the other hand, was born in Germany and spoke fluent German. He came over to the United States with his family in 33, his father seeing the writing on the wall much earlier than most.
Von Hessí family moved to Atlanta, and bought a house on a street with a lot of German families. Now, there was long standing wrestling tradition in Germany and at that time it was extremely technical wrestling that the Germans favoured. In fact, the real old timers would talk about matches held in German beer gardens where the whole point of the match was to make it last as long as possible so that the crowd would stay and watch and drink lots of beer. Weíre not talking about 15 minute matches here or even sixty minute Iron Man matches, weíre talking about matches that lasted three - four hours or more, fighting over individual holds like it was the end of the world if you didnít reverse an arm bar. It was the old timers on this street who trained Von Hess.
So, when Von Hess started, he was the most authentic German Nazi anywhere, and while he wasnít the biggest wrestler, he knew ways to stretch a guy that most audiences had never seen. His specialty was taking some big athletic brawler and just breaking him in front of an audience. The key was Von Hess knew how to work a rest hold better than everyone that I ever saw. Most of the time, you do a rest hold to get some oxygen into your lungs, so that you can keep going. The other guy has you in your arm or leg twisted, so as your breathing, you give these little grunts of pain - I usually hissed. Now, when Von Hess did a rest hold, he had a way of doing it so that it looked like he was grinding it in, or he would move the hold from one arm to another, or he would taunt the crowd. The big thing is he would keep your interest, so that it wasnít obvious that the big dumb lunk that he was fighting was resting because he simply couldnít keep up. Von Hess on the other hand, could scream a promo to start the show, wrestle under a mask in the mid-card and do a thirty - sixty - ninety minute match in the main event and he would be ready for more at the end. Guys used to joke that if Von Hess wanted a belt, he would just force you to wrestle until you had a heart attack and then pin you while you flat-lined.
By the time Darryl and Von Hess first met each other, Von Hess had been wrestling for close to twenty years and terrorizing people from one end of North America to another. While, he was doing that, his neighbourhood changed. Black families started moving in and German families started moving out to more expensive houses elsewhere, and the more black families moved in, the faster the Germans moved, until the only German left on the street is Von Hess and his wife in the house that his father bought back in the thirties. Von Hess is just too damn stubborn to move, plus he has no real beef with any of the families on the street and when people asked him why he stayed, he usually pointed out that since the property value had gone down, he was saving money on taxes.
Now, while Von Hess surprisingly got along fine with all of the adults on the street, to all of the kids on the street, it was liking on a street with a combination of Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger and Jason Voor - fuck I can never remember what the last name of the guy from Friday the 13th is.
-Right, so the kids are all terrified of this not really old, but middle-aged guy on the street, and itís only made worse by the fact that the parents refuse to even consider the possibility that the Prince of Darkness is living on their street. I mean, by a certain point, most of the kids figure that he could pull out a butcher knife and eviscerate one of them in the middle of the street and their parents would find a way to explain it away. Halloween is the worst as he dresses up in full Nazi regalia, and none of the kids want to go anywhere near his house, but each of the parents forces their kids to go to his house - naturally, they think itís hilarious that their kids are terrified of this guy, and his candy is always treated with huge suspicion especially because his wife tends to make caramel apples or some shit like that, and there always stories of some kid who dies with a razor blade in his throat from one of those apples, even if no one ever knows which kid it is or what their name is.
And to make matters worse, Von Hess, like Stu Hart in Calgary has a Dungeon in his basement. I mean Von Hess doesnít call it a Dungeon, but thatís what it is, a place for him to take students and teach them the principles of grappling. So all of these big athletic guys, football players, policemen, longshoremen, wrestlers, jocks of all description, come to his house and within a very short time, you can hear them screaming from Von Hessí basement. And when they leave, they arenít running for a police station, theyíre shaking Von Hessí hand and thanking him. For the kids, this is in-fucking-explicable. I mean he is making cops scream in pain and they shake his hand rather than arrest him, handcuff him and beat the son of a bitch to death with their billy clubs.
All of which is to say that when a twelve year old, Darryl Luke goes up to Von Hessí house to ask him for help in learning to wrestle, it takes more than your average helping of guts to do so. I mean, for Darryl, this is exactly the best place to go and exactly the worst fucking place in the world to go, you know what I mean?
Naturally, Von Hess gives him a hard time about it. Tells him that what he does is not amateur wrestling. Tells him that he wonít have the stoumach for it. Refuses even to consider training him. But then Darryl maps it all out for him, University and how he plans to get there, how he needs scholarships to do it and how he needs to take the burden of paying for his school off his Mamaís back. Well, Von Hess thinks about this for a while and he makes Darryl a deal, in fact he draws him up a contract. If Darryl keeps his marks in the Aís, and if his mother gives permission, Von Hess will teach him how to wrestle, with one final condition... Darryl must also be his Shabbos Goy, because while Von Hess was only somewhat observant, his wife was a devoted observer of the Sabbath and it distressed her when Von Hess did work on that day.
-What the hell is a Shabbas Goy?
-Itís a non-Jew who does work for Jewish families during the Sabbath, turning on lights, cooking food, driving a car, that sort of thing.
-Whoa, slow the hell down. Youíre telling me that Von Hess - I mean I never saw him growing up, but I remember him being In Cageís corner at various times and Iíve seen pictures in wrestling magazines, youíre telling me that he was Jewish?
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I haven't shopped for wrestling tapes in a long time, but is eBay really cracking down on older WWF tapes as well? If so, that's pretty sad because most of my collection is stuff on older tapes that I got off eBay. ...oh, and good column too!