Wrestling "Not Fake"

By James Dunlap
From the Dallas Morning News, circa March 1975
(via J. Michael Kenyon's WAWLI Papers)

The sign in front of the vast, corrugated metal structure at Cadiz and Industrial bore the ominous inscription "TEXAS DEATH MATCH," appropriately spelled out in blood-red letters.

Inside, all eyes were riveted on a spotlighted American flag while a tinny recording of the national anthem played. As it ended, a great cheer went up, launching another Tuesday night of wrestling at the Sportatorium.

For most people, wrestling is just something that appears momentarily on the screen as they absently flip through the television channels on a slow Saturday night.

But for the folks of all ages and colors who pay $2 to $4.50 to pack the Sportatorium’s wooden bleachers each week, it’s a basic social institution that rivals going to church.

Wrestling provides its hard-core fans with fast-moving entertainment and a bizarre, colorful collection of stars. And on a different, more complex level, it achieves a violence, somewhere between fantasy and reality, that relieves pent-up anger and frustration in its viewers.

"Everybody gets their kicks somehow," explained truck driver Morris Oliver.

"It’s not fake," said his brother, Tommy. "It’s acting, just like in the movies." Tommy, who is big enough to be a wrestler himself, winked and added, "Besides, I’ve been coming since 1950, and there’s no sense stopping now."

Under the bleachers between matches, the smell of popcorn, cotton candy, tacos and French fries mingles with body odor as people jockey for position at the concession stands. Sweat pours off the besieged men behind the counter as they serve thousands of cold beers.

Like groupies hovering near a rock star, kids jam around the dressing room door to touch their favorite wrestler as he strides by.

Beside that door, 72-year-old Walter McDaniel has been shining shoes every Tuesday night since 1938. "Sometimes it’s full up and sometimes it’s not, but the crowd’s not any different," McDaniel said.

Loyally denying there is anything fake about it, McDaniel explained the Sportatorium’s attraction with "fans like the wrestling matches, and that’s all it is."

In the arena, another clutter of kids, with heads thrust under the ring’s lowest rope, vibrate with excitement as they clutch their programs and hope for their hero’s autograph.

To warm up the crowd for the main event, gladiators like Kim Duk, Big Jos LeDuc, the Great Dane, and Alberto Madril brutally embrace in short matches of concentrated combat that seemingly would leave ordinary mortals maimed for life.

Between events, 28-year-old R.C. Williams said he comes for the excitement. "I just like to sit here and drink beer and holler."

Williams, who works on a loading dock, and his friend, Richard Rogers, come every Tuesday and bet a beer on every match.

"I remember when we used to be kids sitting up in general admission sneaking beers," he recalled. Pointing to a vendor walking up the aisle, Williams said, "See that old buzzard there, he used to sell it to us."

Although Williams and Rogers kept their hollering on a relatively calm level, some of the other people got caught up in the drama from time to time and yelled themselves hoarse. Occasionally, beer-fueled fights break out among the more emotional members of the audience.

"Don’t get no blood until the main event," Williams said, "and then everybody is so drunk they don’t know what it is."

Considering the level of violence in the ring, blood is relatively scarce. But sometimes, a swung fist or chair draws a red liquid of questionable origin. The fans don’t seem to care whether it flows from veins or gelatin capsules.

"Everybody is waiting for blood in this one," confided a young man with long blond hair as Fritz Von Erich and Black Jack Lanza, the opponents in the "TEXAS DEATH MATCH," made their appearance.

In a death match, the program explained, "No falls count, there are no disqualifications, no time limit, almost anything is legal and it continues until one man can’t defend himself."

Judging from the cheers and applause, Fritz, a hulking form in red briefs, was clearly favored by the crowd.

Looking like the evil gunslinger in a thousand "B" westerns, Black Jack, dressed in black hat, vest, boots, briefs and a leather guard on his right hand, was greeted by almost universal booing and hissing.

As if to justify the people’s choice, he grabbed Fritz from behind as he politely scrawled autographs for his admiring, young fans. Nobody asked Black Jack for his autograph.

From the first bell, everybody knew it was going to be a deadly duel with the infamous "claw" hold as the chosen weapon.

Besides the claw, they kicked, punched, gouged, strangled, pulled hair and bounced off the ropes onto each other, and the folks in the bleachers went wild.

Jumping to their feet, with screams that reached a deafening pitch, the audience completely disregarded the mundane issue of whether what they were watching was real or not.

"Go, Fritz, go!" they chanted as Fritz won the first fall and laid Black Jack out on the mat like a dead fish.

Apparently, the trainer who massaged Black Jack’s ravaged brow during the rest period did some good, because Fritz took some heavy punishment and lost the second fall.

The battle between the almost larger than life grapplers went back and forth for a while, and then Gran Marcus, a masked wrestler, came down and talked to Black Jack.

From the shouts, it was evident that the crowd was convinced that Gran Marcus had slipped Black Jack something that he put in his claw hand.

"It’s in his glove," they pleaded. "Check his glove!" But their cry failed to impress the referee, and Fritz went down for the count.

Gloom hung heavy in the air. The hero was on the mat, defeated. The villain, with his sinister, leather-covered fist held aloft, strutted around the ring.

Black Jack withdrew and disappeared into the bowels of the Sportatorium, and Fritz was still down.

Slowly, he rose and limped up the aisle. A cheer echoed in the arena, and the hands of the faithful stretched out and gave him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder as he passed.

They knew he’d be back. And next Tuesday night, so would they.

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