In his cover story in this week’s issue of the Weekly Standard, writer Paul Cantor argues that proof that “America has lost its sense of national direction” exists in the professional wrestling realm. All the characters who stirred xenophobic and patriotic feelings have “disappeared,” according to the magazine. Departed heels cited by Cantor include Cold Warriors Nikolai Volkoff and Ivan Koloff, and the Iron Sheik, whose pro-Iranian schtick proved such a hoot back when the U.S. embassy in Tehran was overrun. Local promoter Bill Stone could quibble with the evidence.
This Sunday, Koloff, Volkoff, and the Sheik will all be taking part in “The Heroes of Wrestling,” a card made up of aged, but hardly disappeared, ring heroes put together by Stone. The event will be held in a casino in Bay St. Louis, Miss. Stone’s Herndon-based firm, Fosstone Productions, will handle the pay-per-view. The company currently produces Friday night Ivy League basketball for DirecTV (the conference’s first athletic programming deal) and MEAC football for syndication, but this is the first pay-per-view and the first wrestling show (not counting real wrestling, that is).
Stone says he liked pro wrestling throughout his youth in Louisville but had lost touch with the sport, or whatever you want to call it, over the years. As a producer, he was well aware that essentially every other form of entertainment was capitalizing on Americans’ weakness for nostalgia; the ’70s are particularly hot on sitcoms and in rock arenas right now. The idea of an evening of stars from the past coming together to settle old feuds just sort of grew on him. After all, golfing codgers and former greats were pulling in big dough and major viewers. Why not rasslin’? He decided to go ahead with it.
And, he says, all indications are that it will do quite well. Wrestling has never been bigger, with the programming put on by Vince McMahon’s WWF and Ted Turner’s WCW continuing to dominate the cable television and pay-per-view ratings, and 12 million Americans a day logging on to wrestling Web sites. Stone, 35, thinks there’s still room for growth. Many of his peers, he says, aren’t yet a part of the boom. He thinks a lot of guys who, like him, loved the relatively innocent brand that they watched as kids don’t identify with today’s far glitzier, far more vulgar version. And he’s banking that enough of them will spend $19.95 for an evening of old-school ringwork to make all the effort worthwhile.
“We’re not going to resort to the tactics that so many of the modern programs do, the way women are treated, and the vulgarity,” says Stone, who moved to D.C. to play basketball for American University and never left the area. “We’ll do it with class.”
When he began recruiting talent for the event, Stone’s wish list was headed by Bob Backlund, the good-guy champion and face of wrestling throughout the ’70s. But Backlund is currently running for a seat in Congress from Connecticut, and the run will prevent his participation. Another huge draw, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who appears eager to map a path from the squared circle to the Oval Office, has shown he’ll make time for wrestling, but he’s contractually committed to McMahon’s WWF and therefore ineligible for Stone’s promotion.
Most wrestlers, after leaving the ring, don’t go on to lofty second careers as have Backlund and Ventura, however. In fact, most wrestlers don’t leave the ring. An incredible number of the biggest names and bodies from the ’70s and ’80s—including Koloff, Volkoff, and the Sheik—still make ends meet by piledriving younger unknown wrestlers for pay in high school gyms, union halls, and whatever venues will host a card. So even without the politicos, Stone says, he was amazed at the people who were available and willing to fill out the all-oldies, all-the-time lineup he was assembling.
“I got almost all the guys I used to watch when I was a kid,” he says. “And most of them are still very active.”
Among the big-name, and big-middle-name, talent on the bill: George “the Animal” Steele will take on Greg “the Hammer” Valentine, and Jake “the Snake” Roberts (and his pet python) will meet Jim “the Anvil” Neidhart. Superfly Snuka will go against Cowboy Bob Orton. The biggest will be saved for last: King Kong Bundy vs. Yokozuna in “The Thousand Pound War.”
Lou Albano, the ponytailed bohemian valet known as much for his cameos in Cyndi Lauper videos as for rousing rabble at ringside, has also signed on to stir things up.
“Wrestling has changed, but not for the better,” says Albano, who turns 70 this fall. “This is going to be just like the old days.” (A trivia interlude: Albano was introduced to wrestling in 1952 by Lenny “Bull” Montana, a longtime ring man who went on to play ill-fated mob muscleman Luca Brasi in The Godfather.)
The preproduction phase has gone so swimmingly, says Stone, that he now is figuring that “The Heroes of Wrestling” could turn into more than a one-off extravaganza. If this weekend’s production sells well—100,000 buys would be a big success—a tour for the graybeard grapplers could be launched by next year.
“Today’s wrestling is immensely popular, but mostly it’s being watched alone by 12-year-old kids who are extremely disconnected from their parents. I want fathers and sons to get together on this thing,” says Stone. “And what we’re doing will allow that 12-year-old to watch with his 42-year-old father, and the father can tell him stories about the guys who are wrestling and say, ‘This is why the stuff you watch today is so big, because of all these guys who I used to watch.’”
Kind of like a passing of the torch, from one generation to the next, like American families have done for over a century with baseball?
“Yeah, like with baseball,” says Stone.
Of course, some of the walks down memory lane will take on a different shine. “When I was your age, I really rooted for the Senators!” will become “When I was your age, I really hated that bastard the Sheik!” Hmmm. Maybe the country really is in some trouble….—Dave McKenna