Ed Kuehnel writes,
Christmas, 1985 – I’m thirteen years old and while I’m a hundred percent convinced Santa isn’t real, professional wrestling is another story.
In my defense, this was before wrestling let us peek behind the curtain – back then we were all “marks” and wrestlers doggedly protected its facade of authenticity. Good guys and bad guys didn’t travel together, wrestlers stayed in character when in public and asking a performer if wrestling was fake would likely get your ass kicked (as 20/20 reporter John Stossel found out just one year before, courtesy of “Dr. Death” David Schultz).
So I had plausible deniability whenever I watched Pacific Northwest Wrestling on my little black and white television, courtesy of a local Portland network and with the silent permission of my father, who had to formally disapprove for the benefit of my mother but never seemed to catch me staying up way past my bedtime on Saturday nights to watch.
On this particular Saturday it’s nearly Christmas, and Pacific Northwest Wrestling promoter Don Owens has given the fans the greatest gift they could possibly ask for (outside of matching pastel loungewear) the return of BILLY. JACK. HAYNES.
If you didn’t just make Chris Platt’s “Oh, snap!” expression from Parks and Recreation, you could easily be forgiven. Wrestling back then was not the national spectacle it is today – it would be another couple of years before the WWE (nee WWF) would swallow up every regional wrestling promotion and make household names out of guys who bounced at roadhouses on weekdays to make ends meet. So while Billy Jack Haynes liked to refer to himself (not inaccurately) as the “Hulk Hogan of the Pacific Northwest” he was not quite, well… Hulk Hogan.
Still, for Portlanders in the 80’s, he was a BIG deal. Outside of the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers he was about the only thing that put us on the map (no one was standing in line for donuts yet). He wrestled in exotic locales like Florida, Texas and Calgary. He toured Japan, he wrestled world champs – he even appeared on cable once in awhile, but no matter where went, he always billed himself as being from “Portland, Oregon” – and tonight, the pride of the Pacific Northwest had taken a break from the road and come home for the holidays.
So there I was, a loner of a thirteen year old, awkward, overweight, watching grown men bodyslam, dropkick and clothesline their way through some forgettable matches (though I always threw down for “Playboy” Buddy Rose, an obese wrestler who had moves like a cat and always came to the ring with a girl on each arm) – all the while keeping an anxious eye on the basement stairs for fear I’ll be sent to my room before the main event and Hayne’s return.
I remember feeling the energy from the crowd at the Salem Armory coming through the TV screen that night – I remember how festively decorated the normally staid stadium was (they even had a Santa Claus to hand out candy canes at ringside). I remember how happy and excited everyone looked and how I wished I was there.
I was thirteen – it’d be another year before my parents would stop fighting and blessedly make the decision to divorce, but that all I could think about was Christmas and that Portland’s own Billy Jack Haynes was back to rid the northwest of wrestling’s ne’er do wells and that all was right with the world. That was until Santa Claus (okay, maybe I was closer to NINETY percent sure Santa wasn’t real) climbed the top turnbuckle in the middle of Billy Jack’s match, pulled a tire iron out from his festive red coat, leaped atop of Haynes and beat him bloody.
NOW you can make the Chris Pratt face, if you want to.
Any thoughts that Father Christmas had turned wrestling heel were to put to rest, thankfully, when the costumed cretin revealed himself (in true Scooby Doo fashion) to be none other than Rip “the Crippler” Oliver – as man as reviled amongst wrestling fans in the Pacific Northwest as Billy Jack Haynes was beloved. A heel who, like Billy, spent long stretches of time making a name for himself across the country in between stints in Oregon. I watched, crestfallen, as Oliver gloated to hapless announcer Don Coss after the beating, laying out his plans for the reign of terror to come.
I could barely hear a word – the whole of his rant was swallowed by the pit in my stomach. I’d come out of my trance only after Don Coss’s deadpan delivery put to words what us fans were feeling.
“Not only is Rip Oliver an insult to professional wrestling, he’s an insult to Santa Claus and the spirit of Christmas.”
THAT my friends, is good freakin’ television, whether you like wrestling or not.
Wrestling kept me sane, safe (I once avoided having my head thrust into a concrete wall by putting my foot against it first, as I’d seen wrestlers do when having their noggins pounded onto the steel post behind the turnbuckles) and even sober at times. My early love of pro wrestling video games is partly responsible for why I have one of the coolest day jobs in the world – writing for games. It’s also why (along with my co-writer Matt Entin) I have spent years of my life working towards the recent release of our first comic book, Invasion from Planet Wrestletopia, an action/comedy and a loving ode to the professional wrestling of our youths.
If it entertains you half as much as a redneck Santa with a tire iron, I’ll consider all of it time well spent.
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