I was supposed to finish my two part Flying Hurricanes series this week. Actually, I was supposed to finish it last week, but I had a cold and a novel to write and I got lazy, bitch, bitch, whine whine, etc, etc, etc...
This week, I just don’t have the heart. Or I should say, my heart is heavy from the memory of perhaps the greatest rudo of all time. And while you won’t read a word about him in this column, really this is all about him, all about the memories of him...
This one’s for you Eddie...
So long and thanks for the memories, Papi.
When We Were Marks Heels Remember, Faces Regret
”All this time it was just a ploy to get Dusty Rhodes in the ring. I had to take a lot of hard knocks from Ivan Koloff. I had to take a lot of licks from the Assassins and everybody else, but I wouldn’t tell them what was on my mind. I plotted and I planned. It took me almost a year and a half. But finally, finally I got Dusty Rhodes where I wanted him.” -Ole Anderson
I moved to Halifax in the fall of 1980.
Me, my parents and my three sisters squeezed into an upper flat on Williams Street, a small one block street that led directly into the Commons - a large piece of open land abutting the Halifax Citadel with the famous clock. A giant open playground in other words.
I immediately made friends with a kid my own age across the street named Adam. We shared a few common passions: “dinkies” (small toy cars); bad science fiction films (we both loved Flash Gordon for instance); board games; and wrestling.
Adam’s parents had a house to themselves the size of the house that I lived in that was split into two flats across the street. There was also a finished basement that basically belonged to Adam - including a separate TV - an unbelievable luxury for that time.
Every weekend, almost without fail, it was to Adam’s basement and to this TV that all the local boys on the street made a pilgrimage. To watch wrestling - to watch the Atlantic Grand Prix. Invariably afterwards, we would get chased out to the Halifax Commons to play, but that time in front of the TV before hand was sacred.
Now, the odd thing was that when I was introduced to this sacred ritual, I didn’t need to be told anything. I knew the champion Leo Burke. I knew the tag team of Rudy Kay and his brother Bobby. I knew that Rudy was the small one who took risks and that “Booby” was the incompetent larger brother who could clear the ring, but only after his brother got pounded. I knew Big Stephen Petitpas, the big dumb galoot from New Brunswick, Leo Burke’s best friend. And most of all, I knew the Beast, the shaggy, almost out-of-control hairy wild man of the Maritimes.
I also knew Sweet Daddy Siki, the prancing pretty boy, I knew his manager, “No-Class” Bobby Bass, the true Renaissance Man of the Maritimes because he managed, he wrestled both as a singles wrestler and as a tag-team wrestler, he would act as a colour man on the TV show, he would even referee... in a completely biased fashion. I knew his screw-up klutz of a brother, Ron Bass. I knew, oh god did I ever know, Bobby’s tag-team partner, his shaggy answer to the Beast, the Cuban Assassin. And beyond all of those, I knew the European Champion, Killer Karl Krupp.
There was a weird mirror relationship between the Beast, the Cuban Assassin and Killer Karl Krupp. Two shaggy men and one clean; two brawlers and one technical wrestler; two serious men and one ridiculous; two heels and one face; one man who spoke well and often and two who spoke barely at all; two loners and one who hunted in packs; one fascist, one capitalist, one communist; three men who hated each other.
To begin with you had the Cuban Assassin, the Communist brawler who seemed capable of pulling out a foreign object from anywhere. Almost always found in a group that included his long time partner and mouth piece “No Class” Bobby Bass, the Assassin rarely spoke, but when he did he was capable of hysterical, wacky promos. A somewhat ridiculous shaggy-haired figure, the Assassin was capable of turning serious on a dime and when he was serious, the Assassin was a killer.
Not as much a killer as his fellow heel Killer Karl Krupp though. Krupp was clean where the Assassin was shaggy, technical where the Assassin was a brawler. Krupp to fit his image as a German heel, used a riding crop, but mainly as an insult. His true finisher was the Klaw, as expertly applied as any user of this mysterious hold. The other move that Krupp was expert at was stalking his opponent while walking the ropes like a tightrope walker and then springing on his victim like a giant bald spider.
(When you watch the Undertaker do “Old School” you are watching the heritage, the memory of wrestling in action. Krupp taught Killer Khan how to do that move and Khan taught the Taker. Or at least that is how the legend goes... in the Maritimes. By the same token, Test’s version of the Boot was taught to him by Leo Burke who taught him the version that his old tag partner Big Steven Petitpas used.)
Killer Karl Krupp was an old school German heel: riding crop, black boots shined to a mirror finish, monocle, accent, the works. He was probably the most authentic German heel to work the wrestling circuit, because he was by origin Dutch, where most of his fellow “Germans” hailed from Minnesota or Texas. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Krupp could actually speak German fluently. As a result on the mike, Krupp was frighteningly effective. In the Maritimes, he was renowned for reducing the Atlantic Grand Prix announcers to stutters, so much so that he would frequently mock them by stuttering himself to set them up. To this day, all you have to say to a fellow Maritimer is “Miissster McCluck-Cluck” and they will respond “Krupp” or “Killer” within seconds. (The unfortunate announcer so famously mocked was Bill McCullach.)
And then there was the Beast. Shaggy like the Cuban Assassin. A brawler like the Assassin. A lover of weapons like Assassin. Although, unlike the Cuban Assassin, the Beast did not hide his weapons, he brandished them proudly, and where the Assassin was famous for the quantity and variety of his weapons - the Cuban frequently hid one weapon badly so that the referee could find it and thus be satisfied and stop searching and so miss the second or third or fourth weapon - the Beast, on the other hand, was famous for specializing in one weapon - the chain. Like the Cuban Assassin, the Beast was pretty much non-verbal. His idea for a promo was to appear at the entrance way when his most recent rival was in the ring and if he spoke at all simply say, “Sweet Daddy Siki, you drove me to this...” and pull out a chain and brandish it to the cheers of the crowd as Siki or Bobby Bass or the Destroyer fled like a pussy.
(Of course, it needed to be said that a strong wind could drive the Beast to demand a chain match. We often joked about back stage meetings where Leo Burke would call a meeting to discuss the latest outrage performed by the heels and get a consensus as to what would be done. These imagined meetings always ending with Leo going, “Everyone is agreed? Rudy? Good. Bobby? Great. Steven? Lanny? OK. Beast? Beast? Has anyone seen the Beast. Aw Crap.”)
Like Krupp, the Beast was an individualist, a lone wolf. While he didn’t take it to extremes like Krupp, the Beast was the kind of guy who believed in being self-sufficient. One of the reasons for the Beast’s extreme popularity was that in a region that to this day still worships the woods and the rivers and the seas, the Beast always looked like he had just walked out of the back woods or had stepped off a fishing boat. The Beast looked like our Uncles, our Dads. Where the Cuban Assassin was shaggy because he didn’t give a shit about his personal appearance, having no self-respect being a communist; the Beast was shaggy because he worked for a living, had honest dirt under his finger-nails. The Beast always gave the appearance that he had just spent a month away from civilization and his first stop after a good honest fight was going to be a pub for a beer and after that the barber. The heels always put a kibosh to those plans however.
Not that the Beast cared about that. He didn’t mind the fighting, he relished it. And he didn’t mind that the odds were against him ever. Rather like Val Armorr of the Legion of Super-Heroes, who rather famously once fought the Legion’s worst foes the Fatal Five to a stand still, where normally it would take the full 30+ Legion to beat them. Like the Beast, Timber Wolf didn’t mind his lone wolf status, he relished it.
Everyone in the Maritimes had an uncle like the Beast. In my case, it was my Uncle Chris who hunts wild life with a cross-bow because, “Guns are for wimps.” My Uncle Chris once went into the woods to chop wood with a friend. This friend, accidentally cut down a tree in such a way that a branch clipped my Uncle Chris in the side as the tree fell. Further compounding his error, this friend fainted on the spot, forcing my Uncle Chris to drag him back to the truck and buckle him in. After getting himself into the truck, the adrenalin having worn off, my Uncle Chris realized that it was now impossible for him to shift the truck out of first gear. So, he had to drive back to civilization, to the nearest hospital through some of the worst roads in all of New Brunswick stuck in first gear all the way.
Deep down, we all knew that the woods, the rivers, the seas, were dangerous, that when our family, our brothers, cousins, uncles, Dads went out that there was a good chance that they might come back changed, wounded, broken or perhaps not come back at all. What the Beast said to us was that it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that we kept fighting. That was why we loved the Beast more and above any wrestler in the Maritimes. Oh sure, we admired Leo Burke, he was our hero. But the Beast was family.
Now, the odd thing about my first encounter with wrestling, with the Atlantic Grand Prix in Halifax was not just that I recognized these characters. It was that I knew them and I already had opinions on them. I liked Rudy, I admired Leo Burke, I adored the Beast. I thought “Booby” was a tool and I thought Big Steven Petitpas was a goof who didn’t make the best use of his size. I didn’t have much use for Sweet Daddy Siki who I thought was a preening jack-ass. I despised Bobby Bass even if I respected his talents. I had an underdog appreciation for Bobby Bass’ brother Ron. I loved the Cuban Assassin and Killer Karl Krupp was my shit-kicking, take-no-prisoners idol.
Even stranger to my Williams Street Gang was that I had arcane knowledge that you were only supposed to know after having the info whispered to you by senior citizens after trips, pilgrimages really, to the Halifax Forum to see the Atlantic Grand Prix live. Wrestling was an oral history in those days and somehow I had tapped into those whispers. I knew that Killer Karl Krupp had once KO’d Andre the Giant with the Klaw, but had lost the match because Andre had landed on Krupp when he fell and pinned the German in the process. I knew that Leo Burke had once lost a chance at winning the NWA title from Terry Funk because a desperate Funk had thrown Leo over the top rope. And, strangest of all, I knew that Rudy Kay, Bobby Kay, Leo Burke and the Beast were all brothers.
It was the equivalent to inducting someone into the Free Masons and having the recruit break out the secret handshake and the password and the secrets and mysteries that only the highest level Mason was supposed to know completely. To make it worse, I knew all of these things, but I had no idea how I knew them. Like the legend of Athena, who emerged fully grown from her father’s Zeus’ head, already a Goddess in full possession of her powers, so I emerged, mysteriously, already a wrestling fan.
(Not to digress, too much... too late... the whole bit about Athena emerging fully grown from his head, might explain why Zeus is perhaps the dumbest of all of the Gods at the head of their respective pantheons. As William Messner-Loebs has pointed out in his Epicurus the Sage books, it sometimes seems that all Zeus does is change his shape, run around raping and impregnating Greek maidens and then desperately trying to hide the evidence of his misdeeds from his wife, Hera, when it was plainly obvious to the dumbest Greek peasant who was responsible. “Heard that Princess Europa was kidnapped by a giant white bull last night.” “Yup.” “Reckon that’d be Zeus then?” “Reckon so.”)
I have a good memory, but it’s quirky. I remember odd things. I once recited at a family gathering, a recollection of another gathering that took place when I was very young, right down to the placement of the ornaments. Most of my family were suitably impressed. My Dad, however, shot me down by explaining that what I was remembering was not the event but the picture of the event, proving this by finding the equally old photograph, just as I had described it. As my father pointed out, I had described it from the photographer’s point of view, that is to say his point of view. The proof that I was describing the photograph was that I was clearly in the picture as a small child.
I might blame my father for my wrestling memories. While he sometimes jokes in horror about my obsession in wrestling, as a child he was a wrestling fan as well. I know this because when they turned the old Montreal Forum from a hockey and concert venue, into a *shudder* shopping center and movie theater complex, they hung a series of photographs of performers who had made the Forum great: Richard and Lafleur; Dion and Elton John; included in the photos was a wrestler that I didn’t recognize. He wasn’t one of the Rougeaus, he wasn’t Killer Kowalski, he might have been Yvon Robert. I pointed out the picture to my Dad commentating on the irony that I was the wrestling expert but couldn’t identify the wrestler. Without skipping a beat, my Dad said, “Oh. That’s Whipper Billy Watson.” Busted.
But it wasn’t from my Dad that I learned about the Atlantic Grand Prix. He could have told me about the wrestlers of Quebec, but not those of the Maritimes. There was a certain amount of exchange naturally, but Leo Burke, for instance, was a mid-carder outside of the Maritimes and frequently a heel. In the Maritimes, he was a God, and the few times that they tried to turn him heel, they invariably ended up accidentally turning his opponent heel in the process, most famously with Big Stephen Petitpas.
Wrestling and Memory is a funny thing. For decades, and even today, wrestling’s history is an oral history. They say that history is a tale told by the victors. In wrestling, history is a tale told by the talkers. And the talkers are almost invariably the heels. They are the ones who seek to justify their actions; they are the ones who seek to explain. The fact that the fans reject these justifications don’t really matter. The boos and catcalls fade, the explanations remain. The faces on the other hand don’t explain so much. To counter the heels point by point would sound like whining. The heroes, the faces counter words with deeds.
There are exceptions of course, but even these exceptions are almost invariably a build-up to a non-verbal action that dramatizes the point - Mick Foley tearing off his shirt to reveal Cactus Jack, Ric Flair losing it in the ring in North Carolina, Sting standing in the ring with a baseball bat surrounded with unconscious foes. At the end of the day, faces don’t - shouldn’t - need to talk.
In wrestling, the heels act, the heels plot, the heels plan, the heels remember. The faces react, the faces regret, the faces are forced to act. In fact, if you like, the virtu of the heels is that they are the one who remember, who plot, who plan. By “virtu” I don’t mean that if you strip away the layers of a heel’s character that down deep that you eventually find a good man. I mean “virtu” in the Latin sense of the “excellence of man.” The “virtu” of a heel is that he is true to his character. When you peel back his layers, you find that a great heel is an even worse villain underneath.
These memories of wrestling, these traditions of wrestling, until very recently, were passed on behind closed doors, whispered from one wrestler to another. And the histories of the words and the deeds were passed on from one fan to another in much the same way.
I don’t really know who passed on the secret knowledge of wrestling, the oral history of the Atlantic Grand Prix wrestling to me. But I suspect.
Every summer, my whole family, my Mom, my Dad, my three sisters and me would bundle into a beat-up Volkswagen Bug and make the drive from Morin-Heights, tucked high in the mountainous Laurentians of Quebec, to Dalhousie, New Brunswick, my Mom’s home-town. Part of my family’s oral history is that Volkswagen Bug. One year, during Christmas shopping, my Dad got “front-ended” by a delivery truck who wasn’t looking behind him. The Christmas presents got crushed, being in the front trunk of the car, the engine being in the back. The trucking company paid to replace the presents and the insurance company took one look at the Bug and wrote it off as totalled, giving my Dad a few thousand to buy a new car, probably forgetting that the Volkswagen had its engine in the back. Once the insurance company representative was gone, the mechanic of the garage came out with a sledgehammer and offered to fix the Bug for a few hundred dollars. The Bug ran perfectly fine for years, until we moved from the Laurentians and it was donated to a sort-of communal pool of Volkswagens to be cannibalized to keep other Bugs running.
In Dalhousie, I would run around with my slightly older cousin Paul. Paul was everything that I desperately wanted to be - taller, stronger, more athletic. But I was the one put in charge of Paul. I was the one to direct our activities. I was the one, it was made very clear, who would keep Paul out of trouble. Because Paul paid for his athleticism through a terrible price: he was slow, he was retarded. Paul never resented the fact that I was put in charge of him. He was never jealous of my intelligence the way that I was jealous of his height, his strength, his athletic gifts. If anything, he admired me for knowing things that he didn’t. Which is to say that Paul was a better person than I was, than I am; he was a better soul than me.
I say was because Paul died a couple of years from colon cancer. Still strong, he fought his disease with bewildered good humour. Unfortunately, after he got sick, we were never able to link up a visit for him from the Maritimes to Quebec to spend time in the Laurentians that he loved to visit when he was healthy. We were still trying when he died. I would have liked to take him to see one of the wrestling shows that I help organize here in Montreal. Like me, Paul adored wrestling. But Paul could not have been the one who passed to me information about wrestling, about the Atlantic Grand Prix. He was the one who came to me for news, for explanations, when I visited the Maritimes.
No, the person that I suspect, is my Mom’s Mom - Grandma Kingston. She died when I was still very young. I might have been six or seven. Originally an Arsenault, she is the my genealogical link to Derek Arsenault, the Arsenal of the IWS. Whenever I visited the Maritimes, she would draw me aside and teach me Solitaire, Cribbage, Whist, Hearts, Spades, Bridge and any other card game that she could think of. I remember that I was always fascinated by her automatic shuffling machine. She lived in a motor trailer right beside my Uncle Drew’s house, with Drew’s swimming pool separating his house from her trailer. You entered her trailer into her parlour which had a TV which I never remember being on. This parlour was always a little darker than it had any right to be, a bit like a cave in fact.
And yet, my Mom confirms that Grandma Kingston was obsessed about wrestling. That she adored the men of the Atlantic Grand Prix. So, I wonder, was it possible that every summer, that there came a time when she put aside the cards and Paul came over wet and dripping from the pool and the TV came on and as Atlantic Grand Prix wrestling played on the TV that she narrated the action and passed on to me the secrets and mysteries accumulated over her decades as a fan? Did her knitting needles flick in rhythm to the action of the ring as she cackled about sticking the wrestlers she hated at live shows? Is this where I developed my opinions of the roster of the Atlantic Grand Prix? Did she pass on her secrets, her mysteries, her loves, her hatreds, her passions to me?
More importantly, if that is what happened, why can’t I remember her doing it? Why do I remember her gift and not her giving? Why do I remember the message of the Oracle and not the Oracle herself?
I have always watched wrestling knowing that there was an empty chair beside me. A ghost who watched with me and chuckled approval at some wrestlers and clucked disapproval at others.
I have always thought of myself as a heel fan, admiring the actions of Krupp, of the Assassin, of Arn Anderson, of Mr. Perfect, of Rick Rude, of the work of Triple H as a heel, of Kevin Steen. I like to think, that like the great heels I possess the virtu of memory. So to me it is very important that I ask myself, somewhat in despair, when I look at that empty chair...