Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Ready to rumble!
UVA alum pens a unique history of pro wrestling

published in the CVILLE Weekly

Local author Steven Johnson has an impressive resumé. He has a PhD from UVA in government and foreign affairs. He wrote about politics for The Daily Progress for many years. And he’s interviewed corporate heavyweight Jack Welsh, religious conservative Jerry Falwell, former Secretary of State Alexander Haig and...Abdula the Butcher.

Johnson, like a true “smart mark,” makes a perfect “call” in mentioning his last interviewee so nonchalantly. A call in pro wrestling parlance is a hidden gesture or muttered comment that a wrestler uses to tell his opponent what kind of move he’s about to make. This keeps the match from appearing scripted. A smart mark is a fan who views wrestling from more of an inside perspective than a regular fan’s perspective. Johnson is letting me know that he considers pro wrestling a legitimate subject to write about, but a humorous one as well.

“People always ask me, ‘How can you lower your standards like that?’,” Johnson says. “‘You wrote about politics and got your PhD. Now you go and write a book about tag team wrestling?’”

The book is The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams, written by Johnson and co-author Greg Oliver, a Canadian journalist who has written about pro wresting for more than 20 years. It is an exhaustive history of tag-team wrestling from the 1950s to the 1990s that delves into every facet of the “kayfabe” or “work” of pro wrestling, terms used to describe the set of rules and codes that pro wrestlers have lived by for decades. In wrestling terms, of which there are so many that the sport has a kind of language all its own, Johnson and Oliver have broken kayfabe by revealing the trade secrets of a sport that has managed so successfully to blur the line between truth and fiction for so long.

Indeed, there is a faint hint of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff here (without the airplanes, of course) in that it tells the story of a small, elite group of men whom the general public previously knew little or nothing about. As Johnson puts it, “The reporter in me believed that there was a real piece of Americana here that needed to be preserved.”

If you’re looking for in-depth, glossy bios of The Rock or Stone Cold Steve Austin, you won’t find them here. Tag Teams is more concerned with the history and origins of pro wrestling. For instance, there is plenty of evidence in Tag Teams that pro wrestling wasn’t always as noticeably fake as it is today.

For example, a 1957 bout in New York’s Madison Square Garden that pitted Dr. Jerry Graham and Dick the Bruiser against Edouard Carpentier and Antonino Rocca ended in a fan riot that made national news. “I’ll never forget this—it happened right over me,” wrote a sports writer for The New York Times. “Rocca...put his (Graham’s) head in a lock...and he ran him all the way across the ring and slammed the top of his skull into the ringpost...he got up...but he was bleeding like a stuck pig. There was blood all over the place, blood on me...blood everywhere.” At the sight of the blood—called “hardway juice” by the biz—fans rushed the ring and began throwing bottles, wooden chairs, umbrellas, anything they could get their hands on. The wrestlers were forced to throw fans out of the ring. It finally took about 30 New York City cops and the Garden’s security detail to restore order.

Tag Teams also shows that wrestling in the early days was practiced as much for love as money. For example, 1940s wrestling legend Jackie Fargo used to ride a Greyhound bus all night from North Carolina to Atlanta, living like a homeless person along the way just to make $7.50 a bout. But he loved the spotlight. “I had long blond hair and wore a bone in my hair and would do anything goofy,” says Fargo. “[I’d] pick up a big black lady, and sit in her lap and kiss her, stuff like that. Just a wild man.”

What’s interesting about Tag Teams is the way Johnson and Oliver have presented a scholarly history of the wrestling game without passing judgment on its legitimacy as a sport. Part violence, part harmless vaudeville, part skilled athleticism, and part real-life comic strip, pro wrestling in Johnson and Oliver’s hands becomes a kind of living American folktale.

So how did a political journalist end up writing a book about tag team duos like The Fabulous Kangaroos, Rip Hawk & Swede Hanson, The Love Brothers and The Dusek Riot Squad?

“There’s a lot of similarities between pro wrestling and politics,” says Johnson. “There’s a lot of hyperbole. Everything is painted in black and white, the good guys against the bad guys. I’ve seen speeches on the floor of Congress that would be perfect for a crowd of screaming fans. Likewise, I’ve seen wrestling promos that would play well at political conventions.”

Johnson agrees that it’s no accident that former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura and muscle man (though not a pro wrestler) Arnold Schwarzenegger made successful transitions into politics. Like NASCAR, pro wrestling is a cultural phenomenon born in the 1950s and its popularity grew under the radar of “educated” middle-class Americans, becoming a multimillion-dollar per year business whose audiences are now catered to by major corporations and political parties alike.

However, Johnson’s motives for writing Tag Teams run deeper than mere scholarly interest. Like a sophisticated theater critic admitting he likes to watch “SpongeBob SquarePants,” Johnson says he’s always had a child-like interest in pro wrestling.

“When I was 17, the first byline I had as a writer,” Johnson admits, “was a piece about pro wrestler Killer Tim Brooks.

“People are always surprised when I tell them I learned to write by reading wrestling magazines in the early ’60s and late ’70s,” Johnson explains. “They mixed truth and fiction in ways that were very sophisticated and entertaining at the same time. I learned how to set a scene from reading those magazines.”—Dave McNair

Thursday, June 02, 2005

My Two Ways To Play Hooky in Charlottesville
published in the C-Ville Weekly

Richmond is the land of the free, home of the Braves

Sometimes the only sure way for us Charlottesvillians to go unseen is to get out of town. Think about it: Where can you go here and be absolutely sure you won’t see anyone you know? (Like your boss or an ex).

Well, if you’re a baseball fan (or even if you’re not) there’s an afternoon cure for your ubiquity. Put on a baseball hat and a pair of dark sunglasses, head east down Route 64 for about an hour, and catch a 2, 4, or 7pm Richmond Braves game at “The Diamond.” A day trip to The Diamond is a great seventh inning stretch from life in Charlottesville. Plus, you’ll still make it back to town for dinner or a nightcap.

Once seated, just grab a hot dog or a grilled sausage from Dominic’s of New York, hail a beer vendor and disappear into the 12,000-plus-seat stadium. Even if you do see someone you know, losing him or her is easy. Just wander around the stadium or duck into The Diamond Bar & Grill, which has a glass wall with a great view of the field from the first base side of the stadium. At only $6 for general admission and $9 for a box seat, it’s a pretty cheap way to play hooky for a day. Plus, you can yell as loud as you want! And the baseball’s not bad either. Former major leaguers hungry to get back to The Show and younger players only a good hitting streak away from being called up make for some competitive, exciting baseball.

The Richmond Braves also offer up some fun promotions all season long. Every-thing from teacher and military appreciation days, to live music and a Star Wars night, as well as a salute to the Negro Leagues, with former league players on hand and both teams wearing throwback Negro League uniforms.

If you’re looking to escape small-town reality for a few hours and bask in anonymity, getting away to see the Richmond Braves just might be a good call.—Dave McNair

To get to The Diamond: Take Route 64 East toward Richmond, merge with I-95, take Exit 78 (Boulevard Exit). Stadium is two blocks south after exiting. To find out about the Braves’ ‘05 schedule, special promotions and ticket information, visit http://rbraves.com, or call (804) 359-4444 or (800) 849-4627.

Hooky’s twice as nice with a margarita or three

Whether there’s a woman to blame (or man), an unreasonable boss, or you know it’s your own damn fault, sometimes the best cure-all for an aching heart or a bruised ego is a good margarita at 3 in the afternoon. Hell, a good margarita in the afternoon is a great idea even if you’re as happy as a clam at a beach party! Lucky for you, Charlottesville boasts a trio of top-notch tequila stations ready to serve you a cool, salty one before the sun goes down. So stop looking for that lost shaker of salt—and hand over your car keys to a friend!

Two Corner landmarks, Baja Bean and St. Maarten’s Café, load the rails at 11am and stay open straight through last call at 1:30am. The Bean has 20 kinds of tequila to choose from and a secret ingredient in their homemade sour mix that owner Ron Morse won’t reveal. The Bean’s signature margarita, the “Ronrita” (named for Morse), features Two Fingers Gold, their classified sour mix, and a knockout version of Grand Gala. Frozen margaritas with fresh fruit are also available. Large margaritas come in a 27-ounce bulb glass and smaller ones in a standard pint glass. Five years ago, Morse told me, they used to serve the Ronrita in real fish bowls they bought out at Wal-Mart, but the Virginia ABC board banned the practice.

Just a short walk away, St. Maarten’s Cafe serves up a long list of tequila and sour mix favorites, including its famous Gulf Stream blue margarita, fueled with Cuervo Gold and Blue Curaco. Like the Bean, Maarten’s offers up an assortment of frozen margs with fresh fruit, including a specialty fruit flavored marg called a “Rasberrita.” After 4pm on Thursdays, Maarten’s hosts Cheeseburger in Paradise Night with margs not much more expensive than a gallon of gas.

As if that weren’t enough to get you pleasantly schnockered in the middle of the day, Joe Deluce and his family just moved up to Charlottesville from South Florida (where the margarita is more than just a drink, it’s a way of life) in January to open Sharky’s on Grady Avenue. When I told Deluce’s sister Julieanna that I was searching for the best margarita in Charlottesville, she didn’t hesitate. “That’s us,” she said confidently. According to rumors, that’s not false bravado. Restaurateurs from South Florida claiming they make a pretty good margarita are like winemakers from the southeastern coast of France claiming they make a pretty good Bordeaux.—Dave McNair

Sharky’s Bar & Grill is located at 946 Grady Ave., and can be reached at 293-3473. St. Maarten’s Café is at 1400 Wertland St.; call 293-2233. And Baja Bean sprouts at 1327 W. Main St. Call 293-4507.