Late on a rainy and gloomy Saturday afternoon, Husband and I are driving to Bessemer, Ala. It’s coal mining country just southwest of Birmingham. It’s a place that once flourished because of the steel and railroad industry. Now it’s dying. Nearly dead, really. Our destination is the Bessemer Civic Center which on this very night is hosting Wrestle Birmingham (WB).
You heard it right, Wrestle Birmingham. Now this isn’t your high school or college wrestling where civilized young men assume a Greco-Roman stance and attempt to best each other through a series of throws, pins, and holds. Naw…this is wrasslin’ where grown men assume personas and attempt to best each other through a series of throws, pins, and holds as well as some slapping, kicking, hair pulling, smack talking, and spitting. Yes, there was spitting.
There are to be six matches on this particular Saturday night, but let’s don’t get ahead of ourselves. First, there’s a meet and greet. You can’t miss the meet and greet. That’s why we’re here at the Civic Center at 5:30 when the wrasslin’ doesn’t start until 7.
We show our tickets to the folks at the door, and they tell us that the meet and greet has already started in the arena. We go from the dark entry hallway into a cavernous room. It’s brightly lit. Very brightly lit. There’s a ring about a third of the way from the stage that’s on the left end. There are four sections of chairs, one on each side of the ring. We find our seats — second row, on the end, right by where the announcers will sit.
There are a series of folding tables in an arc around the back of the room, one for each wrestler who wants one. The first guy already has a long line of people at his table. We quickly realize that he’s The Cowboy James Storm who’s fighting for tonight’s WB Heavyweight Championship. Husband and I stand at the end of the line. A middle-aged lady wearing a huge hot pink t-shirt and jeans and a whole lot of perfume is walking by us. She catches a glimpse of The Cowboy at his table and stops stock still right by us. She audibly gasps and clutches at her throat.
“He takes your breath away, don’t he?” I say.
“Oh, honey, yes,” she says. She’s star-struck and still clutching. She stares a while and then goes on off to wherever it was she was heading to in the first place.
The line moves slowly because just about every person wants their picture made with The Cowboy. Dutifully and politely, The Cowboy moves from behind his table over in front of the cinder block wall to smile for the camera.There are people here who still use cameras too, the disposable kind with actual film that has be be taken to the drug store and developed. The line also moves slowly because The Cowboy is not only taking pictures, shaking hands, and kissing babies, he’s also selling his own merch — t-shirts, his signature plain black trucker hat, pictures which he’ll autograph for you. Hugs, his handwritten sign says, are sold out, but that’s a lie because when my turn came, I got me one.
There’s a skinny, nervous kid standing in front of me. He’s probably 20. He’s alone in the line. His black t-shirt hangs from his shoulders like its on a coat hanger. He shifts from foot to foot, hands jammed down deep into his pockets. A good stiff wind might blow him over. When he gets about two people away from the table, he turns around to me.
“Ma’am, would you make my picture?”
I barely hear him he’s so soft-spoken.
“Sure I will!”
He hands me his phone. I take it. It’s warm from his pocket.
When it’s his turn, he buys a t-shirt and an autographed picture. He shyly asks The Cowboy if he can get his picture made with him. They stand in front of the cinder block wall and as soon as I lift his phone to take the picture, the kid stands up a little bit straighter and a big smile takes over his face. The Cowboy puts his big, beefy arm around the kid’s bony shoulders, they shake hands like you see people do when they get an award, and freeze in their picture pose.
Then it’s my turn. We get a t-shirt that says “Bearded Outlaw” at the top and “Sooner or Later I’m Going to Cut You Down” on the bottom for Husband and an autographed picture for me. I ask The Cowboy if he’ll take a picture with me too, and get a warm smile and an enthusiastic “Yes, ma’am!” I appreciate his enthusiasm and admire how he keeps it up for every single person in line all while looking for shirts in a particular size and hunting for his autograph Sharpie.
We stand over by the cinder block wall and he puts his arm around my shoulders, and I put my arm around his waist. His back is slightly damp with sweat. We look at the camera and smile. I wish him good luck in his bout tonight. He says, “Thank you, ma’am” and goes back to his table to meet the next fan.
This scenario plays out at all the tables. There’s the heavyweight opponent, The Natural Chase Stevens. He’s got a lady friend helping him sell his merch. She’s wearing black suede boots that are thigh-high and a shorty jumpsuit that’s cut clear to there. There’s not much line at The Natural’s table, but he is selling shot glasses, so Husband and I wait a few minutes to get one. We get an autographed picture too. Again I ask, like everyone does, to pose with the wrestler, this time in front of a concrete support pillar.
There’s a table for Col. Robert Parker, a.k.a. Robert Fuller. He’s a white-haired older gentleman wearing a gray suit with tails and white tennis shoes. He’s selling pictures from his glory days as a manager in the WCW — that’s World Championship Wrestling for all you uninitiated — where he worked with, among others, Stunning Steve Austin. Y’all might know him as Stone Cold Steve Austin. There’s a lot of remembering the glory days of wrasslin’ on this night out here in Bessemer.
On around the arena, there’s Mike “Action” Jackson. He’s got his belt on display because he’s the WB Junior Champion. “Junior” must be a relative term in WB, because later on, after his match, Action takes to the mic and talks about how he’s been wrestling for 48 years, and he’ll sell you the pictures of him and Ric Flair to prove it. He’s also been saved by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That’s the only thing more important to him than wrasslin’.
And yes, they all refer to it as “wrasslin’.”
The crowd builds up. People move from table to table. As the seats fill, people circulate around, hugging necks, greeting old friends. They find their places. We find ours. The concession stand opens and the smell of popcorn and hotdogs and nacho cheese wafts through the arena. The bar opens. There are two choices — beer or Jack Daniels. They do have a drink special, The Headlock. It’s Jack Daniels with lime and ginger beer. Of course we get one. How could you not?
Our seats face the stage end of the arena. The maroon velvet curtain is a few inches from touching the ground. We can see feet walking around on stage. Boots actually. Wrestling boots. We see a few folding chairs back there. The stage must be the holding area, a green room of sorts.
Shortly after 7, a slouchy man in a slouchy black corduroy jacket, slouchy black pants, and a slouchy black shirt sporting a Flash superhero tie climbs into the ring. He takes a deep breath and gives us his best “Are you ready to rumble???!!!” He introduces the color commentators who’ll be sitting right in front of Husband and me because this whole event is going to be televised. Somewhere. I don’t know where. Then he introduces the man who’ll sing the National Anthem.
On the very first notes, 250 people rise to their feet, take their hats off, and turn to face the stage. That’s where the American flag is and the flag of Alabama too. Most everybody sings along in earnest, hands over their hearts. There’s a big cheer when we get to the “home of the brave” part.
Then before we’re hardly seated again, with a clang of the bell, the first match commences.
Now Wrasslin’ plays out life’s themes like a muscled up, greased up Shakespeare in spangly tights, a luchador mask, and sparkly boots. There’s the clash of good and evil (the faces and the heels in wrasslin’ lingo), there’s a chorus of hecklers, there’s trickery, there’s blood oath-sworn loyalty between men who are brothers by choice not blood, there’s heartbreaking betrayal of that blood oath. There’s also a good amount of writhing about on the ground in pain so great most mortals would die at the very thought of it, but our hero — our mighty, mighty warrior hero — always manages to summon some hidden strength from the gods of Spandex to grasp for the bottom rope, then the second rope, and then drag himself up to the third rope so he can rise up one last time and pin his opponent’s shoulders to the mat for a count of One, Two, THREE!!!
Good almost always wins — almost. On this particular night, the tag team favorites, a father/son duo, lost their match after their manager, the aforementioned Col. Robert Parker, switched his allegiance, in the ring right before the bell no less, to their opponents. It seems the Col. felt shunned because the father chose his son to be his partner and not the Col. He and the father had battled together before, a tag team to end all tag teams, but never again. Not now. Not ever. The Col. is 67 now and is still willing to take on any opponent at any time even though just manning his table seemed physically taxing. He walks slowly and with a limp, undoubtedly from years and years of pins and kick-outs.
Age apparently makes no difference in the WB. Action Jackson, who I figure must be nearly 70 as well, body slammed his much younger opponent from the top of the ropes and took his pile drivers like a man, a man who’s still making his living selling autographs and t-shirts in a small town arena on a rainy Saturday night. A man who still spends as much time in the tanning bed as he does doing push-ups. A man who wears the championship belt again. At least for today.
Crowd participation, heckling you might call it, is an integral part of wrasslin’. And it goes both ways — from the crowd to the ring and from the ring right back to the crowd. “You old cheater!” “If you think you’re man enough…” “I ain’t skeered of you!” “Put the old fashioned wrasslin’ on him!” “Teach him a lesson!” “Pull his mask off!” People who could barely walk into the arena are somehow on their feet waving their fists and yelling. Little kids are electric, jumping up and down. “Git ‘im! Git ‘im!” they holler. There’s a whole row of people who led in a chant by two little girls with great big bows on the tops of their heads. “Go, Daddy go! Go, Daddy, go!” That’s Cody Windham’s family. He’s the local favorite from Oakmont, Ala. When his family leaves at the intermission after seeing him win his bout, Cody comes out from backstage. He shakes the hands of the men in the group. He kisses two of the women, I think they are his wife and this mother. He gives a special hug and kiss to a white-haired woman. I know she’s his granny.
After 2 and a half hours, the final match of the night is about to begin. It’s the fight for the Heavyweight Championship between The Cowboy James Storm and The Natural Chase Stevens. They both come out from behind the stage to loud music. They both climb through the ropes. They immediately start fighting. The bell rings after the fact, I guess on the principle of the matter. There’s a piledriver. There’s lots of bouncing off the ropes and clotheslining. At one point The Cowboy throws The Natural out of the ring and into the crowd. People scramble. Popcorn flies. Two women jump up yelling at The Cowboy “Don’t you hurt him!!” Somehow the referee gets hurt in the melee and writhes on the concrete floor. A female referee is summoned from the back. She runs out to take charge, but just when she’s about to call a foul on The Natural, he takes a big swig of beer and spits it in her face, blinding her so that she can’t see him wedge a folding chair into the corner. The sneaky so-and-so. You know his plan is to drive The Cowboy’s head into that metal chair, but it backfires when the chair falls out and The Cowboy hits him with it.
When all is said and done, The Cowboy pins The Natural and takes the belt. He stands on the ropes and holds it high, sweaty, victorious, and panting. He’s the Champion. The Natural is defeated because, as we all know, cheaters never win. Nevertheless, he takes the mic from the announcer to say that his loss don’t matter none because he and The Cowboy are like brothers — brothers in the fight of their lives. No matter what, he says, they’ll always have this bond. The Cowboy takes the mic and agrees saying that he and The Natural kick each other’s asses for the love of the show, man, and to bring good clean entertainment to nice folks like the ones right here in Bessemer, nice folks like you. He extends his hand to The Natural, who reaches for it as if to accept this offering of peace and brotherly love, only to sucker punch The Cowboy and high-tail it to the dressing room.
Slowly the room begins to empty out. Parents carry sleeping children who have been exhausted from the excitement and too much sugar. The lady behind us gathers up all the granny squares she’s crocheted during the matches and puts them in a plastic grocery sack. You see the wrestlers headed out the side door, wheeling their suitcases of merch and costumes behind them. They’re off to the next little town. The big match. The next huge victory. There’ll be another line of fans, more hands to shake, more babies to kiss. They’ll fight the good fight, and put on a good show for the good people.
They’ll be wrasslin’.