-Yeah, wrestling is a racist business. You see what guys are always worried about is losing their spot. Like Wally Pipp with the Yankees, takes one damn day off and he gets replaced with Lou Gehrig who doesn’t take a day off until he’s literally dying. Wrestling is like that only vicious. And the problem with a black kid trying to break into the business at least in the early Sixties was that every territory had precisely two spots for black wrestlers, maybe two and a half. The first spot was the Uncle Tom best friend of the hero, the side-kick, the guy who gets the shit kicked out of him so that the hero can rescue him. The second spot was for a bad-ass nigger who kicked your teeth down your throat as soon as look at you funny, a real mother-fucker who’d take your wallet, your girl, your car the whole fucking lot, an animal basically. The third guy or two and a half guy if you like, was a fast-talking manager who dressed like a pimp and talked like one too.
Maybe there would be an exception here and there for a football hero, but by and large those were the roles available...
-You sure it’s not you the racist?
-Again with the judging. Look, I didn’t make the system ok? And, in fact, by the time I started wrestling, the system had started slowly evolving.
-I just don’t think that your language is appropriate.
-My language, my fucking language is inappropriate? This is the way it was, and no pussyfooting around being too scared to say “nigger” just because us white folks ain’t supposed to say the word, none of that changes how things were back then. Black wrestlers if they were heels, they were bad-ass niggers. That’s the right fucking word. And being politically correct about it - you just end up being wrong.
Now, these guys, they had to fight for their spot and they had to fight to keep it, so they weren’t about to go around training some kid and mentoring him and shit just so that he could take away their spot. I mean these were not nice guys, I mean these were the kinds of guys who would break a rookie’s arm on their first day, if they were lucky or their ankle if they weren’t. Not that it was just the black guys doing this you understand, it was just the guys who were paranoid about losing their jobs who were like this. I mean there is no such thing as job security in wrestling. No unions - christ don’t even get me started there - no pensions, no nothing. If you got hurt, you had to hope that the promoter was a decent guy and paid you while you were injured. Some did, some didn’t, some paid but not as much as if you were healthy. And there was nothing and no one to tell these promoters otherwise - maybe every once in a while the wrestlers would get together and tell some piece of shit that if he didn’t start paying some well-liked but injured star that he wouldn’t have a roster to screw over anymore in the morning, but as a general rule the promoters decided to do what they wanted to do and the wrestlers lived with it.
So, for guys on the bubble and the black guys were always on the bubble, a rookie was someone to fear, someone to hate, someone to shut down. And there are stories, horrifying stories of how far these guys would go to eliminate the competition. There was a football player out of ‘Bama, Mark Taylor, hurt his knee trying out for the Giants, so he decided to try his luck with the wrestling business. He ended up training in Florida in the old NWA territory down there. The guy whose spot it looked like he was going to end up taking was a bad-ass mother-fucker by the name of Bad Bad Leroy Brown, like the song right. He does his best to make the training as hard as possible which on one objects to or does anything about because wrestling has this long tradition of hazing and weeding out the guys who just can’t cut it. I mean the show has to go on right? So, you need guys that you can depend on when things fall in the shit, which they always do.
Anyway, this poor Taylor fuck, sticks it out, finishes his training, and Brown pretends like now that the training is over, everything is cool and invites the kid out for a drink, and he takes him to this fucking dive, coloured-only bar when those things still existed - don’t fucking roll your eyes at me, that was the fucking word on the sign on the door, that’s what they were called. They’re at this bar for maybe ten minutes, a brawl breaks out, Taylor gets worked over something good and someone hits him hard enough for his eye to pop out of his socket and Brown steps on it. Finished that fucking kid’s career in a fucking hurry, I tell you.
Now, I’m not saying that anything bad would have happened to Darryl if he had gone for help learning how to wrestle with one of the local black wrestlers. Not automatically like. But, it was probably a damn good thing that he ended up being trained by a crusty old German Jew instead.
Anyway, Darryl starts working out with Von Hess in the summer of 62, and Hess works him like a dog, roadwork, push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, the works, to make sure the kid won’t quit on him. And once he’s satisfied that the kid is in good enough shape he starts training him. Now Von Hess is flying by the seat of his pants a little bit, because amateur wrestling isn’t exactly the same as professional wrestling. I mean an arm bar is an arm bar, but amateur wrestling has a lot more specific rules, plus there are styles like graeco-roman or freestyle and shit. So Von Hess does some reading, talks to some coaches and gets Darryl ready for the new school year.
When Darryl goes back to school, he’s put on some muscle and he tries out for the wrestling team. Now, he’s a little raw, but his coach can see right away that Darryl can go. But he doesn’t like Darryl’s weight, figures if he can drop him down ten pounds, throw Darryl in to that weight category, he’ll be unbeatable. So, he puts him on this insane diet and forces Darryl to spend two, three hours a day in the sauna to sweat off the weight for a tournament. It’s not very surprising that Darryl is now exhausted when he does his extra training with Von Hess, who doesn’t catch on right away because he’s doing a tour just as school starts. But when Von Hess gets back and figures out what is going on, the shit hits the fan. Von Hess and Darryl’s Mama storm into the school and have a confrontation with the school principal and the wrestling coach slash phys ed teacher. Now, the principal sort of knows that this is going on unofficial like, but that doesn’t mean that he’s happy being yelled at for endangering the health of his students by two people who are very good at yelling. Between Darryl’s Mama going all Gospel on his ass, and Von Hess who is being so sarcastic that he could draw blood, the principal is boxed in. And then the wrestling coach makes the biggest mistake in his sorry life and takes a swing a Rose Luke, and Von Hess takes him down so fast that he knocks him unconscious on the floor of the principal’s office.
End result being, Von Hess ends up adding even more brutality to his legend as the wrestling coach gets wheeled into an ambulance and never comes back. Von Hess volunteers to coach the entire wrestling team as long as the school and the parents keep it on the down low. He ends up getting each of the kids to sign a contract like Darryl and spends time with the parents working out a diet and exercise program that won’t end up killing them. He insists that they all keep up their grades. And while it doesn’t happen overnight, the school becomes a powerhouse in wrestling. Sometimes a wrestler doesn’t make the weight limit, but then Von Hess just enters him into the next weight class, arguing that a well-nourished athlete can beat one starving himself to death any time and twice on Sunday.
Once Darryl hits sixteen, Von Hess starts bringing him along during the summer tours. Like me at that age, Darryl starts wrestling in matches when someone gets hurt or someone gets needed, but because Darryl needs to keep his amateur status, they put him under a mask and make him wear gloves and coveralls, so that people can’t even tell that he’s black. That’s why Darryl wrestles wearing gloves to this day. He got so used to wearing them while he was on summer vacation, that he couldn’t wrestle without them once he turned pro.
In his senior year of high school, the wrestling team are the best team in the state, but they don’t get to prove it because the there are still two tournaments, one for the coloureds and one for the crackers. Darryl still gets his scholarship, scholarships and he can basically write his own ticket go to any university he wants. And there are a bunch of integrated northern schools who want him to come up north badly. But Darryl doesn’t want to go too far from his Mama, plus he wants to stick close to “Coach” Von Hess especially because Anne-Marie Hess, who is like Darryl’s second Mom, well she’s sick. So off he goes to University at a nearby segregated school on the wrestling team naturally.
Von Hess keeps training the wrestling team for the local high school, but also helps out on the University team as a sort of an associate coach. This is more work for him, but his wrestling career is winding down a bit and he needs to be distracted after his wife Anne-Marie dies of breast cancer, late in Darryl’s first year in University. And by now there are literally hundreds of people keeping this secret - some for nearly a decade - that this bad bad bad man, this evil Nazi is donating his time to train black athletes. All of the colour mags, all of the dirt sheets have the story, but out of respect for Von Hess, they all sit on it. Keeping the wrestling real, playing fake what we call kay-fabe was a lot stronger than.
Darryl gets himself a Bachelor of Sciences degree, taking as many classes as he can on how the human body works, muscles, joints, bones the whole kit and kaboodle. What we call sports medicine, now, that’s what he was trying to do. Now this would have normally have led to Darryl going to be a doctor, but the call of wrestling, the lure of it would prove too strong.
Before Darryl graduated though there was one last tournament. Now, you have to understand that at this point they hadn’t started to run integrated wrestling tournaments yet, at least not in Georgia. Darryl had beaten every black wrestler in his weight class, but he had never gotten to wrestle against white wrestlers, in Georgia. So Von Hess pulls some strings and gets Darryl an exhibition match at the end of the Georgia State Tournament against the winner of the tournament. The organizers try to stack the deck by making it the winner of the Super Heavyweight class, who outweighs Darryl by fifty pounds which wasn’t easy even back then. I mean at this point, Darryl is six four, two sixty five and cut.
Of course, Darryl mops the floor with him. They say that that performance is what got Georgia to finally have integrated wrestling tournaments. Mind you, I figure that a court case probably had more to do with it. Now, Darryl has used up his University eligibility to compete as an amateur athlete, but he has options. The Navy and Army are both beckoning him to join their wrestling teams and they’ll pay for him to go to medical school. Plus joining either one gives him a really good chance of joining the Olympic team and competing in Munich in 72. Maybe winning a medal for the U.S.
But Von Hess has decided to do his retirement tour and Darryl wants to be part of it. Especially since by this point, Von Hess is his Step-Dad having married Rose two years after Anne-Marie died. The colour mags by this point are going insane wanting to tell this story by the way.
It’s at this point that Darryl and Von Hess put their heads to gether to come up with a name for him because Darryl is just not a good wrestling name. They decide that using Luke, his family name, as his first name makes sense. It’s a strong name, works as a first name and let’s Darryl keep some connection with his family. At this point, Darryl pulls out a comic book, and says that he should name himself after the main character: Luke Cage.
-OK, explain this. How does he get away with using the same name as the Marvel character?
-Well, Von Hess is a cunning bastard. When they print posters for Darryl’s first show as Luke Cage, Von Hess has the printer print one extra poster with a modified date saying that the show was taking place in sixty-nine instead of seventy-two. So, when Marvel finally realizes in like 76 - takes them long enough - that he’s using that name, they threaten to sue. Von Hess arranges a sit-down, with his lawyers and their lawyers. They have just gotten to the hand-shaking part and the Marvel guys are saying that if Darryl doesn’t cease and desist using the name Luke Cage that they are going to sue him for stealing the name. At which point, Darryl charges in, shatters the office door and starts doing this bug-eyed wild man schtick about how he didn’t steal the name, they stole his name, they stole his life, they stole his identity. Von Hess gets him calmed down and gets him out of the office and comes back to find the Marvel lawyers a little freaked out. Von Hess apologizes, says that Darryl has been under a lot of stress, but can you blame him? Von Hess explains that Darryl is like a son to him, that he married the boy’s mother and he pulls out this folded up poster from his wallet which he’s been carrying around for four years for just this occasion, only it looks like he’s been carrying it around for close to ten years. And he carefully unfolds the poster, explaining that it was the one from Darryl’s first ever wrestling performance, which is why he kept it. Calls himself a sentimental old fool as he slowly turns the poster around to reveal the 1969 date. The Marvel lawyers are totally shell-shocked and Darryl is still pacing around outside the office yelling about how he’s going to sue them. So, when Von Hess quietly suggests that maybe the best thing would be for each side to agree to let the other use the name and that they would combine their efforts to fight everyone else using the name improperly, the Marvel lawyers agree to this and the entire thing is signed, sealed and delivered so quickly it constitutes a minor legal miracle.
The really funny thing about this is that if you look in reference books about Darryl’s career you will see this fictitious card listed for a show that never happened as Darryl’s first match. And just ten seconds of research would have revealed that the date was impossible. Not just because of the school thing, not just because there is a three-year gap between Darryl’s first match as Luke Cage and his second, but because Von Hess only changed the year, so the date on the poster is impossible, could never have happened.
Now, you would think that it would be simple as hell to sell Darryl. College All-American trained by Von Hess. But promoters don’t want a technical black wrestler, they want what they are used to, they want a happy go lucky loser or a hard-ass. But Von Hess and Darryl have an ace up their sleeve: Mickey Von Hess.
-Mickey Von Hess? Who’s he?
-I haven’t mentioned Mickey yet?
-Man, I can’t believe that I never mentioned Mickey. He is the key. He’s the reason that I’m here today. Without Mickey’s death - Mickey’s murder, none of it would have had to happen.
-There’s a quick answer to who Mickey was. He was Von Hess’ nephew, his sister’s oldest boy. He was Darryl’s age and when Darryl started training so did Mickey eventually. Now Mickey was never the amateur wrestler that Darryl was, but Mickey was - at showmanship, at charisma, at dragging the audience into the performance and keeping them - in terms of charisma, Mickey was the best I ever saw. And looks, christ, blonde hair, the chin, the good looks - I mean Mickey looked like he had been chiseled to wrestle. When Von Hess introduced him as his son, the Perfect Man, the Natural Superstar, the only problem was that no one wanted to boo him. Add to that the fact, that by this point that most people booed Von Hess more out of habit than because anyone really hated him. I mean he’s been wrestling in and around Atlanta for the better part of twenty-five years, he was an institution, at heart people loved him. Plus, by this point, Von Hess has a large following in the black community who are just itching for an excuse, any excuse to cheer for him.
Now, managing Mickey gave Von Hess a bit of a lever, because he was a heart-throb. Promoters were desperate to book him. Mickey and Von Hess did a tour where Mickey turned on his father and rejected all of the Nazi paraphernalia and the crowd went nuts for it. This would have been while Darryl was finishing off his degree. So, by the time Darryl is ready to go, Mickey is a hero, Von Hess is still a bad guy and when he walks in to the promoters’ offices and says that the three of them - him, Mickey and Darryl are a package, the promoters reluctantly agree, even when he demands carte blanche to run the angle the way he wants to.
So, Darryl comes in to the local circuit and at first everything is normal. Darryl is doing the usual Uncle Tom, happy go lucky shuck and jive and the local heels target him. A couple of weeks in, he’s in the middle of a three on one beat down when Mickey charges in to save him. Now, this is not unusual, but when they film the backstage vignettes Mickey is very evasive about why he went to the ring to bail Darryl out. I mean all he really has to say is that he didn’t like to see a three on one beat down, but by being evasive about it, he raises all of these questions. Then to add to the questions, Von Hess refuses to fight Darryl. Finally, as the fans are going slightly berserk especially because all of the colour mags are going berserk themselves hinting that something major is going to happen, they up the stakes by having Mickey confront his “father” and tell him that if he doesn’t tell Darryl the truth, that Mickey will do it for him. Finally, Von Hess comes to the ring with Darryl and Mickey and tells the crowd that it’s time that the lies stopped. He confesses to having an extramarital affair and announces that Darryl is his other son. He begs Darryl to forgive him for keeping it a secret for so long and rips his Nazi insignia off saying he’s spent too much time hating.
Instant Fucking Pandemonium.
I mean this is still Georgia in the early Seventies. Now for the blacks in the audience, they have been looking for an excuse to cheer for Von Hess for years, so they’re going bat-shit, but their are just enough good old boys who are pissed at seeing this integrationist crap going on at a wrestling show that a small riot breaks out. Which is good, because controversy sells tickets. So the promoter is happy, Darryl and Mickey and Von Hess are all happy because they are all working together as a team, and the colour mags are having fucking orgasms because they have ten years worth of good stories about Von Hess that they couldn’t tell and now they can and this angle ties it all together in a bow for them. And there are almost as many fights in the crowd as their are in the ring and tickets are being sold hand over fist and everyone assumes that it is only a matter of time until someone pulls the trigger on it and makes the Von Hess Family, the tag team champions of the world.