Thursday, July 18, 2013



     While growing up in the 70’s and 80’s in Southern California, even if you had never met me before, you’d still be able to pick me out of the very few group photos our family took.  I was the one who always had that look on his face as if he’d rather be somewhere else.  ANYWHERE else would do, whether it was the principal’s office, standing in a busload of people for whom deodorant was an afterthought, in a steam room with the Village People… Okay, scratch that last one.

     The one exception to that rule however, the one situation that without fail always yielded a fun family experience, where we would not only tolerate each other but bond over the spectacle that we would see (and in some ways be a part of) and talk about for weeks afterward, was when we attended the live wrestling events at the Los Angeles Olympic Auditorium.

     We weren’t a family that had much money and there were time periods that were tougher than others, when I’m sure that my parent’s biggest concern was finding a way to put food on the table for the day. Paying the phone bill would’ve been a little further down the list, and the suggestion of paid entertainment would’ve gotten me five across the eyes.  Yet there were times when our financial situation not only allowed us to buy name brand soda but also move my stepfather to stand magnanimously as if he was a Roman Emperor about to grant freedom to a slave and announce: “Friday we’re going to go see wrestling.”

     These announcements would always take place on the weekend prior to the coming week’s live event, at some point while we were watching “Wrestling from the Olympic Auditorium” on UHF channel 52.  The announcement always seemed to come out of the blue and looking back on it I guess he would be simultaneously analyzing the upcoming card that Jeff Walton was excitedly talking about and figuring out how much money he had left over from his paycheck after bills.  The announcement always came during a commercial and I would immediately drop the pliers that we used to change the channel on our television set, and I’d run to the phone to dial the most sacred series of numbers known to man: RI9-5171.  That was the phone number to the Olympic Auditorium ticket line and as Los Angeles Wrestling announcer Jeff Walton would always say, “The number to call.”

     The ensuing week would never pass soon enough and the one leading up to the evening of February 22, 1980 was no exception.  For years the Los Angeles wrestling promotion run by the Eaton/LeBelle family had been a hotbed for professional wrestling, and while it had been in a gradual decline from the mid-70’s onward, they still had some talents on the roster and would occasionally host big name visitors.  And the main event of this particular evening would include two such visitors, men who were already being referred to as two of the greatest performers in the history of professional wrestling.  They were both former NWA World Heavyweight Champions as well as the current NWA World Tag Team champions, and they just happened to be brothers.  That’s right, straight from the Double Cross Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, the Funk brothers, Dory Jr. and Terry, had invaded Southern California.

Bad Forecast for the Local Talent

     The Funks were certainly no strangers to the Southern Californian wrestling territory as they had been stopping in for years, defending their Championship titles against local heroes like Chavo Guerrero or on their way to or from tours of Japan.  In January and February of 1980 the brothers were on a whirlwind tour, having recently finished a tour of Japan and now hitting territories like Georgia, Kansas, and Florida, and like a tornado from their home state, they also touched down in Los Angeles, looking to wreak havoc on the local scene.  They started off by showing up on the biggest card of the year on January 11th, the night of the annual Los Angeles Battle Royal, and promptly defeated the Twin Devils for the NWA World tag team titles.  They didn’t make many appearances in L.A. over the next several weeks as they were still bouncing all over the country, but when they did appear, they made an indelible impression.  Two things about them that were immediately apparent were that they were a force to be reckoned with and if they slapped their patented spinning toe hold on their opponents, they were going to get their hands raised in victory.

     After their initial title victory on Battle Royal night, they stormed back into town 3 weeks later and successfully defended their belts against Chavo Guerrero and a newcomer to the territory, Chief Running Hill.  On that same night Chavo’s brother Mando along with his tag partner Al Madril would lose their America’s tag team titles to another “brother” team, newcomers “Bomber” Ray Evans and his kayfabe sibling “Dynamite” Jack Evans.  And now I was excited as I would get to see both championship tag teams defend their belts on the same night against some of my favorite wrestlers.

     The night felt electric as we piled into the family car and headed to the world famous Olympic Auditorium.  From the night lights of the downtown area and the traffic noise of the street and nearby freeway, to the painting of the boxer on the front of the building, to the pictures of some of wrestling’s and boxing’s luminaries on the inside walls, to the cigarette smoke suspended above the ring, to the smell of dank urine emanating from the men’s room, these were all familiar and essential elements of that unique building located on 1801 S. Grand Avenue.

     And adding to the excitement was the fact that we were seated only 5 or 6 rows from the ring!  Although there really wasn’t a bad seat in that building we had never sat so close before and I was overwhelmed that we would have such a great vantage point from which to view all the exciting action. And my Stepfather never let us forget it.

     For while The Olympic Auditorium had Jeff Walton for a publicist, my Stepfather was his very own. “Man, look at these great seats! We have better seats than almost everyone! The other kids’ Dads didn’t get them seats like this!”  Even Superstar Billy Graham would have a hard time putting himself over more than my stepfather did.

     The only thing that night that made him more impressed with himself took place during the intermission. Sitting in front of us were two other Latinos who were about 16 years old, and at one point they both turned around, and one of them asked my Stepfather, “Who are you?” Apparently, they thought he was a wrestler who had decided to get a closer look at the matches. “Him?!” I thought incredulously. While my Stepfather was a little bigger than lots of Latinos at that time, I hardly thought that he looked like a professional wrestler.

     But that amusing interaction would come a little later, because first, the house lights would dim, contrasting with the bright lights that illuminated the ring, and with great anticipation, I awaited the distinct sound of the Olympic Auditorium’s timekeepers bell, a sound that was unique to one made from a tire rim.  When it came, a chill ran up and down my spine, and then a smile grew across my face as I heard those cherished words from legendary ring announcer Jimmy Lennon: “Okay Ladies and Gentlemen…Here we go!”

And So It Begins…

     He was undefeated and would remain so for several months.  He was smooth in the ring and he was the possessor of the Jules Strongbow Scientific Wrestling trophy.  He was relatively new to the territory and everyone wondered who he might be under his very unique looking mask.  He was known as “the Hood” and while he was announced as being from “Parts Unknown”, most area fans seemed to think they knew his identity under the mask, and my stepfather was no exception.  “That’s Roddy Piper.  You see that guy? That’s Roddy Piper under the mask.”  Thoughts of “I heard you the first 5 times” briefly entered my mind but I was much more focused on what was going on in the ring.  It would be a few months before the Hood would win the America’s Heavyweight title or the World’s tag team titles with Ron Starr, but I was already impressed with his ring work and Arias Romero would become one more victim of the dreaded “Hood Driver”, which was the Hood’s version of the pile driver and the finishing move which earned him the victory in the opening match.

     That opening match accomplished what was the goal of wrestling promoters in that day, to set the tone for the rest of the wrestling card, providing excitement and a gradual buildup to the main event of the evening.

     Victor Rivera had apparently recovered from the thunderous tomahawk chops that Chief Wahoo McDaniel had delivered several weeks before at the Olympic and was able to gain a victory over the always smiling Carlos Mata.  And it seemed like there was a game of musical chairs going on when it came to tag team partners because after Al Madril and Chavo had failed in their bid to take the World tag titles from the Funks two weeks earlier, Madril would get a new partner in Chief Running Hill to challenge the Funks on this night.  Chavo would now be teaming up with his brother Mando to challenge the Evans brothers for the America’s tag team titles.  Mando had himself been part of the team that lost the titles to Dynamite Jack and Bomber Ray, and of course, his partner had been Al Madril.

     But none of that mattered to me as all I was focused on for the moment was watching my favorite L.A. area wrestler, the great Chavo Guerrero in action with his also talented younger brother.  The Evans brothers hadn’t been in the area long but with their bleached blond hair and their smugness and air of arrogance, they quickly became the team that fans wanted to see have their asses handed to them.  The Guerreros soon had the Evans brothers on their heels backing up until they strategically exited the ring for a breather and a break from the onslaught.  When they eventually re-entered the ring the pace momentarily slowed and then gradually built up to some fast and furious action.  Unfortunately the heels found a way to retain their titles and defeated the Guerreros.

     Another newcomer, the undefeated Tom Pritchard, was engaging in a memorable feud with the Hood and would months later challenge Tatsumi Fujinami for the World Junior Heavyweight title, but for this night he contented himself with a victory over Professor Hiro Ota.

     And now it was time for the main event.  It was a to be a 2 out of 3 fall event for the World Tag Team titles and it had an unheard of 2 hour time limit!  The setting of such a long time limit impressed all the more on my mind that I was to witness an epic battle! And while I was most definitely rooting for the team of Madril and Running Hill, to some extent they seemed like big underdogs against a formidable team like the Funks.  And it seemed as if my worst fears would be realized, as the Funks took the first fall.  Madril and Running Hill had their backs against the wall but to the delight of the fans in the arena, they were able to secure a fall to even things at one fall a piece.

     There have been very few times in my life when I have experienced such a strong case of focused tunnel vision as I would when watching the matches at the Olympic.  And the 3rd and final fall of this particular match was one of the more extreme cases for me.  While during the live wrestling events there might be an occasion when my attention would drift to the digital clock to see how much time was left in the match, or my eyes might wander to some of the back rows of the first level to see if I could spot Jeff Walton watching the matches, or towards the snack bars to see if one of the wrestlers was sneaking a peek, in this case, my eyes were riveted to the ring and there was no world outside of it. 

     The momentum of the match switched back and forth and several times the audience let out a collective gasp as either Terry or Dory would move in to apply the dreaded spinning toe hold.  Because in the days when a finisher was truly a finisher, when a maneuver like that actually meant something, we all knew it would be curtains for their opponents if they slapped that hold on.  And they teased the move several times, heightening the tension for the fans until it was almost unbearable.  And every time that the baby faces were in trouble, the fans would go to work, clapping and even more importantly stomping our feet on those metal floors of the Olympic Auditorium, causing a thunderous roar that our heroes would respond to and cause them to make their comeback.

     And that was another thing that was special about wrestling in those days.  There was a collaboration that existed between the in-ring participants and there was also a collaboration between the fans and the performers.  We were participants as well, and it was very much an interactive experience.  Unlike “sports entertainment” of today where most of what goes on is carefully scripted, much of what wrestlers did in the past was “done on the fly” and adjustments were made in the performance based on crowd reaction.  Today, performers won’t deviate from the script regardless of the responsiveness or unresponsiveness of the fans.  In the past, it was different, as if how the fans responded actually made a difference.  We were able to make an impact and we were more emotionally invested and the wrestlers of the day made it easier for us to feel that way.  The victories of our favorite wrestlers were our victories too just as we shared in their defeats.  What we did mattered.

     And somehow, some way, against all odds, the impossible happened.  The good guys won and we had new champions!  The arena erupted and with fans having the access to the wrestlers that you just don’t see today with all of the barricades and the security, my siblings and I along with dozens of other kids swarmed Al Madril and Chief Running Hill to touch them, to touch the title belts, to get their autographs, to share in the victory.

     It would be the last live wrestling event that I would attend at the Olympic Auditorium as the promotion’s best days were behind them, the better performers would soon leave for other territories, and less than 3 years later the promotion would close its doors for good.  That night was one that I will never forget.  I saw performers and performances that I will always remember.  While I didn’t know the word for it back then, the Funks had put on a masterful display of “match psychology”.  In the ensuing months whenever my siblings and I took our mattresses of our bed and tossed them on the floor to make a makeshift wrestling ring, I would eventually attempt to apply the spinning toe hold.  Only I would always be unsuccessful in my first several attempts.  While most kids wrestled with the aim of always being on the offensive, looking to “put themselves over”, just as many of today’s professional wrestlers do, somehow I had learned from the Funks that the true art was to gradually build the tension, delay the gratification, and that a finisher really only meant something when it actually finished something.

     That night my stepfather would boast that we had some of the best seats in the house.  What I really discovered that night was that every seat is the best seat in the house when the performance leaves you sitting on the edge of it. - RR

A special "thank you" goes out to "GoPatGo" (you know who you are) for generously providing me with the program from that February 22, 1980 wrestling event that was so memorable for me and the subject of this piece.


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