It all started at Sunday school in 1986.
Some brash fellow 12-year-old was regaling us with tales of pile drivers, suplexes, flying elbows, shoulder breakers, clotheslines, body slams and figure-four leg locks, patented moves served up hot in the ring by a cabal of rogues, supermen and interlopers.
To hear this kid talk, it was Mount Olympus meets The Warriors … and I wanted in.
I had seen pro wrestling on TV a few times, but until that point it resided in the “it’s not a cartoon but there’s nothing else on” viewing category that existed in the pre-internet/pre-24-hour-kids world of broadcast entertainment. That all changed thanks to the charged tales of the mat relayed sotto voce by my Sunday school classmate as Mrs. Mardukis read aloud parables that a carpenter from Galilee had told Philistines more than 2,500 years ago.
A silent Ricky Steamboat marched up from behind and slapped a chokehold on dear old dad.
So began my infatuation with what was then called the WWF. I watched the televised matches religiously every Friday night and Saturday afternoon. I read the magazines, listened to The Wrestling Album and repeatedly watched the inaugural WrestleMania on VHS.
My friends and I practiced our favorite moves at recess, hummed the opening songs of our favorite characters and discussed in great detail, like scholars at the Library of Pergamum, the lore and dramaturgy of the wrestlers we admired. My excitement, therefore, cannot be overstated, when I learned that the WWF was coming to my town: London, Ontario.
Somehow I convinced my father to get tickets. The show was to be held at London Gardens, an arena normally reserved for hockey. I had never been to a wrestling match, or much else live entertainment for that matter, and had no idea what to expect.
As my father and I drove to the arena, I looked over the event flyer and the list of wrestlers performing. For me, the main event was a tag team: Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat and Corporal Kirchner vs. the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff. A street-fighting, fire-breathing martial arts guru and a disgruntled former U.S. Army paratrooper vs. an evil Commie and a villainous sheik who finished off opponents with a move known as the camel clutch.
Forget about it.
I don’t remember a lot about the event. I remember that my throat was hoarse for days after, from yelling and cheering and screaming; I remember the stale smell of sweat that rose from the popcorn-strewn floors. And I remember the event that took place after the show.
“Wanna see if we can meet some wrestlers?”
The matches were over and the house lights went up. Wrestling fans filed out of the arena and into the parking lot. My father, though, had other plans.
He led me around the outside of the building to the back, where a series of tour buses and vans were parked and a small group of boys and their dads were waiting. Before long, the wrestlers started to appear. I couldn’t believe I was standing right next to the gladiators of the ring I had seen so many times on TV. They were signing autographs and chatting with their fans. I moved into the fray and shook hands with Ricky Steamboat and Corporal Kirchner.
I’m not sure when the Iron Sheik appeared, but I remember turning around and coming face to face with him. I was in a jubilant mood, so when the Sheik walked past me, I slapped his shoulder and said, “Better luck next time!”
I guess the Sheik was kind of particular about being touched, because I had barely gotten the words out when he grabbed my wrist and seethed, “No touching!”
And that’s when all hell broke loose.
A weird flash brushed by me and the Sheik was sent, limbs flailing, to the ground. My dad had seen the Sheik grab me and apparently saw red.
“Motherfucker!” the Sheik shouted at my father. “I kill you!” But before the Sheik could get up and get to my dad, someone else did. A silent Ricky Steamboat marched up from behind and slapped a chokehold on dear old dad.
My father passed out within seconds and Ricky gently laid him on the ground.
Several fans and other wrestlers helped the Sheik up as a group of security guards arrived and quickly separated the wrestlers from the rabble. The Sheik cursed me and my father as he stalked to his bus.
An ambulance and the police were called, and my dad was put on a stretcher. I had to answer a few questions from the police, and they talked to the Sheik, who graciously told the cops it had all been a misunderstanding.
I’ll never forget the look on my mother’s face when she arrived to collect me and my dad.
The next day it was all over the schoolyard that someone’s father had knocked down the Iron Sheik and been put to sleep by Ricky Steamboat in the parking lot after the show. I never said a word about it to anyone.
I lost all interest in wrestling after that. A few months later, my parents divorced. It was time to grow up.