I am on a nine-week road trip to drive approximately 16,000 miles around the country for my next book, The Six Pack, to be published by Hachette in 2024, about myth vs. reality in pro wrestling and 1980s WWF wrestlers.
Inverness, IL (Population: 7,959)/Cook County (2020 Election Results: +50 Biden)
Miles Driven: 448.14 (2,786.02 total)/Top Speed: 74.9 mph/Cups of Coffee: 3 (26 total)/Lowest Gas Price: $4.79/Number of States Visited: 9
Lodging: My dad's house (but he's not home).
At the front desk of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Waterloo, Iowa, there is a small sign in a wooden frame that reads, "365 New days, 365 New chances."
It's a good motto for wrestlers of the 1970s and '80s. They were larger than life comic-book characters given the keys to the kingdom, ex-athletes bursting with strength and machismo, celebrities hounded by crazed fans desperate to know exactly how much of their fiction might be real. Bill Eadie, who portrayed the Masked Superstar, would actually keep his mask on for the car ride home after the matches to protect his identity from the fans who camped out in the parking lot to tail him. Many of them made bad decisions; a few isolated themselves enough from the fraternity; but none of them emerged from this subculture truly unscathed.
Wrestling today, notably WWE (and up-and-coming AEW) is a much cleaner business. The former is a publicly traded billion-dollar enterprise with a staff of Hollywood writers and abundant wellness programs to help its performers live balanced, healthy lives (although they are still classified as independent contractors and lack many common worker protections). The road schedule is nothing like it was in the 1980s, and many wrestlers cross over into other forms of entertainment.
But in the Kayfabe era I am covering (Kayfabe is the culture of pretending wrestling is not pre-determined), the largely blue collar wrestlers had no other options. They were a carnival troupe, best of friends, traveling from town to town and frequenting the strip clubs and bars along the way.
So it seemed fitting when I pulled up to the Hall of Fame today under oppressive heat and spotted the establishment next door: Flirt's Gentleman's Club.
The man crouched behind the sign at the front desk looked like a wrestler himself, a burly ginger with a thick beard who seemed extra concerned about my health on such a sweltering day: "You make sure to drink lots of water out there," he said.
A green "JESSE" sign by the entrance had just been donated to the museum, a souvenir of Jesse Ventura's political campaign over two decades ago. I toured the walls decorated with old singlets and championship banners, educating myself on the sport of amateur wrestling, to which most of the space is dedicated.
In the back corner I found the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, a wing commemorating the very different realm of sports entertainment. Unlike some museums where the artifacts are kept at a distance in highly controlled circumstances, I could get close to these pieces of memorabilia. I was able to inspect Bret "The Hitman" Hart's ring jacket, touch the boots worn by Bob Roop. Up close and personal with these things, two thoughts struck me--one,
the magic of TV. Through the tube, cheap plastic purple beads on a robe often looked like lavendar gems. The second realization was how stiff the boots were. The soles were made of a hard rubber material, which, even if pulled, couldn't have felt good when smacking against flesh. Yes, match outcomes were pre-determined, but the wrestlers of this era were mostly alpha athletes expected by promoters to make the blows look as real as possible.
"Fucking lay it in," Ken Patera would tell Hulk Hogan when Hulk's kicks or punches were a little too light.