Plaza Hotel, Las Vegas,
April 15th-17th, 2004
Where do old wrestlers go? Not a question that’s exactly been on your lips, I imagine, and perhaps that’s no surprise. Whether you feel wrestling is sport or entertainment (my position would be that it is a sublime and unique mix of the two), it’s an industry that has never given its veterans the respect they deserve. The Cauliflower Alley Club, established in 1965, is trying to rectify that, as part of its mission to celebrate and recognise fellowship within the wrestling world.
When CC Starr, commissioner of the IZW federation here in Phoenix, told us they were having a reunion in Las Vegas, we were intrigued enough to sign up and make the six-hour drive from Arizona. [It’d have been less, but the construction work and security checks at the Hoover Dam made for much idling in traffic] Besides, it was a perfect excuse to hit Las Vegas for my thirty-fnghrrmmmth birthday. 🙂
We were a little apprehensive; while both Chris and I are wrestling fans, we are some way short of being all-knowing on the topic. I grew up in Britain, and while familiar with names like Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks [pause for all UK readers of a certain age to sigh nostalgically!], the only American wrestling we got to see was occasional WWF bouts. Thus, beyond the household names like Andre the Giant, I’d be the first to admit my experience was limited, and we were thus concerned about looking like the total greenhorns we actually were.
We needn’t have worried, largely because a more friendly, warm-hearted bunch of people you couldn’t hope to find. Which is kinda ironic, given their “day jobs” in most cases involved beating the living daylights out of each other. But now, they seemed genuinely delighted by our interest, signing autographs, taking photos and talking to us in an incredibly gracious manner which soon put us at ease – and from which a lot of ‘famous’ people could learn.
A couple stood out in particular, both women wrestlers. Ida Mae Martinez, won the Mexican Women’s Championship in 1952, and is now a yodelling star(!), as well as featuring in an upcoming documentary with the intriguing title, Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling. Equally as fascinating to talk to, was Ann Casey, who wrestled into her fifties, then became a truck driver. With a life that also includes meeting Elvis, a degree in criminal justice, bounty hunting, poetry and getting shot five times in 1972 while sitting in her car, Hollywood really should do a bio-pic of her – Madeleine Stowe would be Ann’s personal choice to play her role.
Speaking of films, we actually recognised some attendees, less from the ring and more their work in movies. There was George ‘The Animal’ Steele, for example, who played Tor Johnson in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Ox Baker, who famously beat up on Kurt Russell during Escape From New York, whose extrovert personality was still capable of filling an entire room [and going by his loud rendition of Happy Birthday, shares mine!] And we’d only just missed Hard Boiled Haggerty, from Micki and Maude, a stalwart of the CAC, who’d died less than three months before.
This was, sadly, another feature of the event: at Saturday’s night banquet, they named the wrestlers who had died in the past year. It was a lengthy list, led by Stu Hart, patriarch of the Hart dynasty which included his sons Bret and Owen. Hard Boiled Haggerty’s daughter also sang God Bless America, her voice cracking with emotion, and even I – who doesn’t believe in God and isn’t American – had to admit it was a moving moment.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom at the banquet, with the guest of honor Japanese superstar Antonio Inoki, best known for his bout against Muhammad Ali in 1976. What stood out for us, however, was co-host Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan, one of the most famous managers in wrestling history. The Academy need to hire this guy for the Oscars, and forget Billy or Whoopi. He kept the event moving along with unfailing good humour, even when some of the recipients let their acceptance speeches get away from them. However, even he wasn’t fast enough to stop one recipient from referring to Vince McMahon Jr, the owner of WWE, as a “cunt”. Oops – next year’s ceremony will be on a 7-second delay.
Though it has to be said, crowd disapproval seemed limited to the inappropriate word, rather than any actual argument with the sentiment. The general feeling appeared to be that the antics of the WWE overshadowed the good work being done by independent promoters, that wrestling was going through one of its downturns, and that things were better in the good old days. However, I noticed a prominent phrase on one of the old promo cards which was part of the silent auction, and probably dated from the 50’s: “Huge reserved section for coloreds”. Not everything about the old days was good…
Another notable exhibit was a cast made of Andre the Giant’s arm and foot (right – the hand rattling around inside, feeling very lonely, is Chris’s for comparison). I’d seen footage of the 7’4″, 520 lb man in action, but apart from The Princess Bride, only with other wrestlers, and didn’t realise how big he truly was. Also ongoing was a Cribbage tournament, which may seem like an odd inclusion at the event, but CC told us that it was a favourite pastime of wrestlers backstage, while waiting to go on. Maurice ‘Mad Dog’ Vachon was defending his title – much like baseball players, it seems that wrestlers had much cooler nicknames in the golden days. Though, having said that, I guess there’s still the odd one around who’s old-school in this regard, such as Chris ‘The Rabid Wolverine’ Benoit!
All this, and I haven’t even mentioned the show on Saturday, where up-and-coming wrestlers got to do their thing for promoters, bookers and everyone else – difficult to think of a tougher crowd to perform in front of than this one! No folding chairs; no pyrotechnics; no lingerie matches; just traditional wrestling. One yearns for the days when this again becomes the normal perception of the sport, rather than a sputtering flame, barely kept alive by a bunch of die-hards.
We left on Sunday with a whole new appreciation for the wrestling industry, and those who are part of it, using their skill to put their health on the line for our entertainment, day-in and day-out for years on end. In most cases, they don’t do it for glory or riches, but because they love the sport, and a comment from one of the speeches on Saturday really brings this home. Someone once asked a wrestler what he’d do if he had a million dollars; he replied, “Put it in the bank, and wrestle until it’s all gone.” The knowing laughter which greeted this anecdote was proof of truth, and is why we’ll be back in Las Vegas for the 2005 reunion. We’re already brushing up on our cribbage skills.
[Visit the Cauliflower Alley Club website.]