“If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?”- William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
Scoff…if you must. Tip your nose to the sky, if you are inclined. Close your eyes to the humanity lay bare…but evil and good do exist, and there was no greater stage for the personal play of right versus wrong than that of professional wrestling, when I was growing up.
Those crying fake missed the point behind the prose. It was a weekly story of a struggle for justice and fairness. In a chaotic world where refuge for the weary was sparse, every week…every show…every match was a chance to make sense of it all. Pro wrestling embodied many of the same themes as a Shakespearean play, and of life itself, just with much more color and themed absurdity (my buddy Jimmy Wickes wrote his Masters thesis on Shakespearean language in professional wrestling, or some such, at the University of Chicago. No…I’m not joking.). Haves vs. Have-nots…those who cheat to win…fear of “The Other”…these were the stories told wrapped in the garb of righteous indignation. It wasn’t just blood and guts…and fake head butts, eye gouges, pile drivers, and top turnbuckles…although it was that… but it was also a place to find heroes and villains….a place to cheer for good.
It’s natural to focus on the heroes of a given tale. No one wants to read a comic book on Lex Luthor (Ok…maybe That 70’s Guy @ChadHamby…but no one sane.). Megatron was never supposed to be the center of it all. Georgia Tech should never be National Champion….in anything…ever. But in order to have a hero, you have to have a villain. That guy or gal who is up to no good…the personification of all of the qualities we as a society and a culture abhor…the person we love to hate. It is from the challenge of this evil that we find our heroes emerge to save the day…to vanquish bad in favor of the good…to represent us when we can’t do it ourselves. Now, the villain has to be worthy, or it gets boring, and the drama flames out, and every now and then, we find a villain so heinous…so vile…so contemptible…that that a true rivalry emerges. Pro Wrestling was no different, and this was the fuel that fired up the masses and matches. Without this yin and yang, Pro Wrestling would have been nothing more than “Saved by the Bell”. So, the question begs…what were the greatest rivalries in the history of professional wrestling (only up to 2000…everything else is weak sauce.)?
Hulk Hogan vs. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. On January 23, 1984, “Hulkamania” was ushered in when Hulk Hogan beat the Iron Sheik for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship belt. This was an epic event that transcended wrestling and actually moved the needle, as it were, in pop culture. Within a couple of months, Hogan was everywhere…cartoons, lunchboxes (remember those), T-shirts, etc. The problem was that once the story had popped, as they say in the business, there was a vacuum. You see, the Iron Sheik hailed from Iran (truly) and for years had played up the Iran Hostage crises to rile up fans. He’d approach the ring waiving the Iranian flag, demand they stand for the Iranian National Anthem, and the crowd would go nuts. But once he lost, who could be the anti-Hogan? Enter Roddy Piper. He was as good on the mic as just about anyone and had chops in the ring. He had the ability to insult anyone… at any time… in any city… about anything. There was a sense that he really was kind of crazy…and he cheated….always. For over two years, any time Piper would get in trouble, Cowboy “Ace” Bob Orton would always sneak in with his cast and cheat Hogan, and it made fans crazy. Piper never won the belt, but Hogan always had to win by default. It was maddening…and perfect.
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin vs. the Rock. This was the perfect rivalry at the perfect time for the sport. Austin had been around for a while, and the Rock was a relative newcomer. One “kicked butts and took names” and the other was the best at calling people names. Aside from the obvious fact that these guys are still two of the biggest personas in the business, they are included because of their rivalry’s uniqueness. You see, neither was really good or bad. They were both…kind of both…and convinced fans to love them anyway…and for different reasons. Usually there is only one star…with others trying to supplant, but they truly were equals in terms of draw…and when they both showed up, the place went crazy. If they fought tomorrow, they could sell out any arena in the country.
Bruiser Brody vs. Abdullah “The Butcher.” Now I know what you’re thinking…he’s going “old school obscure” to prove he knows something. Well, I am doing that, but not for that reason. This really is one of the greatest rivalries of all time. Before the advent of today’s monolith WWE, wrestling was run and dominated by regional territories. Each territory was run by a promoter (read: mafia boss). Each had its own champions, heroes, and villains. Most wrestlers stayed in an area for a while, hoping to carve out a name, but these two guys were different. Each roamed all territories, and they usually followed one another. Meaning, when an area needed a good heated story they brought these guys in. Brody was huge, had a feral air and feral hair about him, and was kind of loquacious. Abdullah “The Madman from the Sudan” never spoke…ever. He just looked crazy…and he was the cheater of all cheaters. He carried a taped up foreign object always, and rarely got caught.
Consequently, when he showed up, it was going to be bloody (that part of wrestling is long gone). These two wrestled all over the globe in long, brutal, exhausting matches and it never got old. If one showed up to harass a local/hero villain, the other wasn’t many weeks behind to gin the story. It was classic.
The Fabulous Freebirds vs. the Von Erichs. There has never been a more heated rivalry than the one between these six men. Always vying for “The 6 Man Tag Team Tiltle” in the WCCW, crowds would be in a frenzy out in the parking lot. The Freebirds, led by Michael “P.S.” Hayes, was one of the most ridiculous, yet fun to watch, groups to enter the squared circle. They hailed from “Bad Street U.S.A, Atlanta, Ga”. They cheated, they lied, they stole, they did anything and everything without remorse. Whereas, the Von Erichs were four real life brothers who prayed like Mother Teresa and looked like Adonis. They were good, old fashioned, wholesome, local boys who loved family. The height of this rivalry was reached when the Freebirds attached Fritz Von Erich, the dad, and induced a heart attack. The entire state of Texas wanted them dead. This would be number one, if it weren’t for…
The Four Horsemen vs. Dusty Rhodes. Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes, by themselves, could be considered the greatest rivalry of all time, frankly. But to leave it there would be to discount history. You see, for nearly a decade, it seemed that the only thing that stood in the way of world domination by the Four Horsemen (Ric Flair, Ole and Arn Andersen, and Tully Blanchard) was the “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes. Never before and never since, had four dudes been so brash and so evil. They had the money, cars, clothes, women, and the belts, and they told you about it. They cheated and never got caught. They always won. For years. If you fought one, you had to always look for another to sneak up and cheat you…and they would…and they would get away with it. It was disgusting, infuriating, and…awesome. Rhodes…”the son of a plumber” “265 lbs of blue eyed soul”, who “wined and dined with kings and queens, and slept in alleys eating pork ‘n beans.” was the man of the people. For close to 10 years, he was the only mainstay against the hated Horsemen. His battles with Flair and Blanchard are legendary… and you believed that maybe he could win this one…even though you knew…you knew…he would get cheated. And he did. But we loved him anyway…and hated them…and with good reason. It was the ultimate good versus evil…and it meant something.
I write this column with my father in mind. From the time that I can remember, he and I have laughed at the absurdity and profundity of this thing called wrastlin’. Dad had a heart attack this past Saturday, and is scheduled for bypass surgery Friday. When these things happen, we start thinking of all of the laughs and stories and smiles and memories. One of my favorites was with him in the Omni in Atlanta on a Sunday night back in the early 80’s. It was awesome. Dad has met a new rival this week. But this time the good guy will win. I believe it.
W. Michael Lawson is an alumnus of Lee University and University of Richmond. Mr. Lawson currently hosts a weekly radio show “The Strong Sauce Hour” and co-hosts a daily sports show “The Sports Drive” on 101.3 FM/1570 AM. You can follow him on twitter @thestrongsauce.