Professional wrestling has lost its credibility.
That premise may sound ludicrous, but it was the conclusion I -- along with several patrons of a local bar -- came to after talking about the glory days of wrestling.
We talked about Cowboy Bill Watts, and I told them how I once saw him fight Bruno Sammartino for the world championship in the old Madison Square Garden, sharing a truly nostalgic memory that only another wrestling fan could appreciate.
We spent some time reminiscing about others wrestlers who found a place in the hearts and mind of our youth -- Killer Kowalski, who once tore the ear off Yukon Eric in match; Dick the Bruiser, who fought Alex Karras in a bar the night before they were to meet in the ring; the Sheik, the mysterious Arab who shot fire out of his fingers; and Wild Red Berry, the cane-wielding manager who wore a jacket with the words on the back "I Am Right!"
Today, these men of legend have been replaced by a circus of clowns -- steroid-pumped body-builders with animals as props, go-go girls as managers and music videos and toys to merchandise this sham.
Scoff if you will. Scratch your head and say, 'What credibility?' " Go ahead. But those of you who remember the chants of "Crazy Luke, Crazy Luke," or know where Parts Unknown, USA, was, you understand.
This is not a defense of wrestling as a sport. Some fans obviously believe what they see is real, and for them, it's like a religion -- no explanation is necessary, they just believe. I was not one of the believers.
But that didn't dull my enthusiasm. I could still get a kick out of pulling for the baby-faces to knock off the villians, spending some emotional energy in a relatively predictable world where the outcome meant nothing.
I can look back at some fond memories from my passion for wrestling. I can remember my tenth birthday and my father taking me to the Garden to see Sammartino against Watts. I can remember seeing the sign saying that no one under 14 years old was admitted. I can remember my father's disappointment -- and my own -- and then his going from doorway to doorway until he found an usher to bribe to get us in, and we were there. No other memory of the tenth year of my life is as vivid as that night.
I can remember seeing shows at the Allentown, Pa., Palestra, where a friend and I got Gentleman Joe Turco so angry at us that he stopped in the middle of a match and ran over to the ropes and spit on us. It was our mucous badge of courage. I also poked 600-pound Haystacks Calhoun in the stomach the same night to see if he was real.
I can remember being about 13 years old, sitting ringside with my brother-in-law at a raucous match in the Miami Beach Auditorium. He was a big guy and could pass for a wrestler himself. By the time the main event -- Hans Mortier vs. Joe Scarpa -- came around, my brother-in-law had a tankful. The place was packed, the match was hot, and at one point, both wrestlers purportedly knocked each other out.
Hans Mortier fell near the corner of the ring, a few steps away from where we were sitting. For some reason, my brother-in-law jumped up, ran over to the corner and slammed a penny as hard as he could on the mat, yelling "Here, that's all the match was worth."
All hell broke loose. The fans though he was some kind of wrestler entering the fight, the police pounced on both of us, and it was a near riot. We were thrown out of the auditorium, but my brother-in-law hung around and waited for Mortier to leave, because he was going to take him out. Luckily for both of us, we never saw him. But it was an excellent adventure for a 13-year-old.
Yes, wrestling has been very good to me.
But then came the new era, when wrestling changed from an exhibition to a circus. It started with the crowning of Hulk Hogan as champion. Then the script changed from a pulp novel to a comic book, with wrestlers managed by rock stars, music albums by wrestlers, closed-circuit extravaganzas and finally, of all horrors, network television. Can you imagine how low wrestling had to sink to be worthy of network television?
Wrestling may be more popular and profitable than it was in times past, but it has lost its, pardon me, innocence. Being a fan before was like being in on a secret that most people didn't have the vision to see. Now they sell dolls called "wrestling buddies" on television. Wrestlers take time off for their film careers, actors, for God's sake. Lou Thesz, 6-time world champion, is 73 years old and wrestling in Japan, and these pencil-neck geeks are taking screen tests.
Years from now, when they write about the decline of Western civilization, they may say it started with "Wrestlemania I."
Thom Loverro is a reporter for The Sun.