It’s been well over 30 years, and I still can’t believe that Ben Justice turned on The Stomper. Or that The Sheik threw fire in Johnny Valentine’s eyes. And how heavy WAS Haystacks Calhoun, anyway?
The images filled my television screen on Saturday mornings, taking place inside Cobo Arena the night before. Channel 62, I believe, was the outlet. It was a time when BTW didn’t stand for “By the way”, as it does in today’s Internet world.
Big Time Wrestling. Just saying the words, even today, makes me want to chuck someone into a turnbuckle. Maybe even apply a Sleeper Hold.
The Sleeper – that was The Stomper’s signature move. There was the Camel Clutch of The Sheik’s, and Bobo Brazil’s Cocoa Butt. Pampero Firpo had El Garfio. The Mighty Igor mainly just walked around with a silly grin on his face and let his opponents bounce off him.
Some things use up their Statute of Limitations when it comes to embarrassment. So I won’t sugarcoat it. You got me, fair and square. For I would bounce around the family room in our Livonia tri-level, before the parental units awakened, watching the wrestling and using whatever I could find as my “opponent” – an old stuffed animal, a pillow. Sometimes the other combatant was nothing but air. Down I would go, on my back, fending off the dreaded three count, fighting my imaginary attacker, to avoid defeat. Then it was up on the couch to jump down onto my poor invisible victim, as if from the top rope, elbow cocked and ready to drive into his chest – just like the pros on TV.
Oh, how they thrilled me, those Big Time Wrestlers. They showed bouts during the week, too, but those were in studios before a sparse audience and the atmosphere was practically non-existent. It was like watching pro football played on a sandlot field. But the matches from Cobo were electric. The crowds were large and loud, and the ring was the only thing lit, like a Broadway stage. You’d see the occasional flash bulbs. It was pretty exciting stuff, especially for a 10-year-old.
I’ll never forgive Ben Justice.
He paired with The Stomper to make a formidable tag-team tandem. And there they were, in a struggle with the “bad guys”, or “heels”, as George “The Animal” Steele told me a year ago July in an interview.
So the match is going along, and The Stomper is in trouble. But he manages to make it to the corner and tag Justice, who leaps into the fray. Then it happened, and I’d still like to ask Ben – WHY?
Justice looks at the heel who’s beating up on The Stomper, then suddenly turns against his partner and starts pounding on him, too! Now it’s three against one, and the crowd – not to mention the excitable announcer Chuck Allen – is aghast.
“He turned on The Stomper! Ben Justice has turned on The Stomper!” Allen screamed into his microphone as a young lad in Livonia watched, mouth agape.
So, from that point on, Ben Justice was a heel. Shame on him!
But nothing can beat the moment I saw The Sheik hurl flames.
Wrestling’s greatest heel: The Sheik (note the pointy boots)
I’m sure it was a cheap special effects trick, but all I know is, I’m watching The Sheik – surely the best heel in wrestling history, with his prayers to Allah before each match and his headdress and his crazed, faraway gaze – and he’s taking on Johnny Valentine, and the blond good guy is giving him quite a battle. The Sheik’s in trouble, and The Sheik NEVER loses. So he does what any self-respecting heel would do in a similar situation: he throws freaking fire. One moment, Valentine is giving him the business, and the next, The Sheik is fiddling around near his waist, and a flash of yellow-white appears, and it’s near Valentine’s face.
Naturally, the acting drama is played to the hilt. Valentine stomps around the ring, convulsing, his hands pressed against his “burned” face. Attendants enter the ring and wrap his face with a towel. The crowd boos and howls. And, of course, the referee doesn’t see a thing, and awards The Sheik the victory because of forfeit.
Oh, so much more to tell you. Cage matches. “Loser leaves town.” Wrestlers who hailed from “Parts unknown.” Firpo, who was billed as the Wild Bull of the Pampas. The “air-conditioned Cobo Arena.” There was a tag-team, supposedly from Australia, named the Kangaroos. They were Al Costello and Don Kent. They used to beat up on their opponents with cleverly hidden boomerangs. Once, my father took me to pro wrestling at a local high school and I saw Costello near an exit. I approached him, program in hand, and managed to ask for an autograph, all by my lonesome. In character (the Kangaroos were heels), he gives me – a kid – a sneer, then scrawls his name. It scared the hell out of me. But I got the autograph.
Then there was big Bobo Brazil, from Benton Harbor. His thing was to bang his forehead against yours – the Cocoa Butt. He was a good guy, and I remember a classic match between him and The Sheik. As usual, The Sheik came out on top, but not before Bobo dished out some cocoas.
Bobo Brazil (left) giving it to The Sheik
(check out the ref! It’s Joe Louis)
None of this really matters anymore, of course. It’s all just random memory, zooming through my brain as I tap feverishly on my keyboard. But it was a thrilling time to be a wide-eyed kid who believed absolutely everything he saw happen inside the squared circle was on the up-and-up. It never occurred to me that the action I saw played out was anything less than real and unscripted. Honestly. I was late on the Santa Claus thing, too – to show you.
Some kids had their cartoons on Saturday mornings. Good for them. But I had my pro wrestling. Better for me.
But damn you, Ben Justice.