With all the venom that has been flying around the net over the last couple of months, I have begun to actively miss kay-fabe. Between the Calgary Screw-Job, the falling glass from the broken WWF ceiling, Triple H's political ligaments and being told that I needed a life, (strange, I've never needed one before) I am actually longing for the days that I was a simple mark and liked it. And I've come to wonder, would I be marking out even more for the Canadian Cripplin' Chrises, if I was still innocent of the business?
I remember a time when kayfabe ruled the land. A time before ECW. A time before WCW. A time when VKM was just a promoter's son. When it said wrestling on the marquee, not sports entertainment. When there were baby faces and heels and no tweeners at all. When men were men and sheep were nervous. A time in short: When We Were Marks.
I am your host, Llakor, Guardian of Useless Knowledge. Join me, won't you, as I crack open the vault to tell you a tale torn from the ghosts of the locker-rooms. A tale I call: Leo Burke & the Three Heels.
WHEN WE WERE MARKS
Fall, 1980. Harley Race's year-long stranglehold on the NWA Title was about to be interrupted by Shohei Baba's third one week title run (second time in a year he had taken the strap from Race only to hand it straight back). Bob Backlund was your WWF Champion. Verne Gagne was in the midst of his retirement tour with his AWA title. And in the school ground of Oxford Elementary in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, none of that mattered, because the center of our wrestling universe was the Halifax Forum, our promotion was the Atlantic Grand Prix, and our champion, our hero was Leo Burke.
The 'War of 84' was still four years away, so North America was still dotted with quirky regional federations whose promoters monopolized wrestling in their territories like mafia dons. Emil Dupre was the Godfather of Maritimes Wrestling and his promotion was quirkier than most. Mat wrestling was the order of the day, being thrown over the top rope was an automatic DQ, referees enforced the no punching rule and all non-gimmick matches were decided by best of two out of three falls. Atlantic Grand Prix Wrestling had a weekly one hour TV show on Saturday afternoons on ATV, but the promotion only ran live shows during the summer. In practice, this meant that the promotion ran a big kick-off show at the Halifax Forum in late May or early June, toured the Maritimes and Newfoundland all summer long, and concluded with a blow-off show back at the Halifax Forum in September. The effect on booking was profound, as title runs and feuds were focused on the summer months. After winning the titles in the fall, the baby faces settled in for a long winter of TV defences. Each week, the heels would plot ever more complicated schemes to win the titles, only to be foiled time and time again like Wile E. Coyote or Boris & Natasha. Finally, in the spring, the heels would hit upon a winning formula just in time for the new season of live wrestling. The faces would chase the heels, (and the titles), from town to town, all summer long, before finally recapturing the gold in the fall.
The predictability and the short season of Maritimes wrestling might seem to be have been a disadvantage, but it had its benefits as well. The heels got to run wild in all the small towns, all summer long, and no-one really minded because they knew, that come September in Halifax, the heels would get theirs. And, of course, if a wrestling fan from Sydney or Charlottetown or Dalhousie wanted to see the baby faces get revenge, he had to make the pilgrimage to the Halifax Forum. The off-time winter months also gave Emil Dupre plenty of time to plan the next season and cherry-pick the best feuds, gimmicks and programs running everywhere else. The promotion he 'borrowed' from the most was, of course, Stu Hart's Calgary Stampede. We heard occasional references to Calgary which usually confused the hell out of us. For one thing, there was apparently a dungeon in Calgary run by a maniac called Stu Hart. The only thing we knew about that dungeon for sure was that all of the wrestlers who survived it were amazing, and ironically, they were all good guys. It was a given in the Maritimes, that all baby faces were graduates of the Hart Dungeon (whether they were or not).
Just as Calgary Stampede had the Hart family, Atlantic Grand Prix had the Cormier family. There were differences. The Cormiers lacked a patriarch like Stu and they didn't even use their real names. In fact, working out that they were one family required a certain amount of detective work for young fans. Rudy Kay and Bobby Kay were obviously related and their older brother was the Beast, who was also the older brother of Leo Burke. Why Leo had a different last name than Rudy and Bobby, and why the Beast had no last name at all, was the subject of a great deal of speculation on our parts.
The youngest of the Cormiers was Rudy Kay. In later years, all of his opponents would go out of their way to praise Rudy as the most talented of the brothers. To a young fan, Rudy resembled a human punching bag, as heel after heel turned him into mincemeat. Rudy and Bobby were many time Tag Team champions, but their title defences were horrifying. It was almost painful to watch Rudy get thrown around like a rag-doll. Fortunately, most of the heels made the mistake of pulling Rudy off the mat on a sure three-count to inflict more damage, a tactic that always backfired. We admired Rudy for his resiliency, but he was not our hero. Bobby was not only not our hero, we hated him. At the best, he was a complete git for being unable to master the seemingly simple skill of rescuing your partner from a double-team beat down; at the worst he was a sadist who got off on watching his brother and tag-team partner get pummeled. In any case, if Rudy was really in trouble, the man making the save wasn't Bobby, it was everyone's favourite older brother, the Beast.
In any other promotion, the Beast, a walking carpet of DOOM, was an automatic heel. Unlike all the other baby faces, you didn't have to beg the Beast to throw a punch or pull out a foreign object or throw a low blow. In fact, the Beast sometimes didn't even wait for the heels to throw the first punch. Like all the Cormiers, the Beast was a graduate of the Hart Dungeon, but as good at technical wrestling as he was, he wasn't enthusiastic about mat wrestling. To the Beast, normal matches were dull, lumberjack matches were for wusses, and No DQ matches were for people afraid to commit. The only way to really resolve a dispute was with a chain. There are those who insist that the Beast viewed dragging a heel from pillar to post with a metal chain acting as leash, noose, whip, lasso, jump-rope and deadly weapon as an unfortunate necessity. We knew better. The Beast didn't like chain matches, he loved chain matches. Years before Y2J-Kane insta-feuds over insta-coffee, we joked over how little it took for the Beast to call for the chain. Beat up his brother Rudy, chain match. Hit on his girlfriend, chain match. Steal his parking space, chain match. For years afterward, it was our code for borderline behaviour, "You took the last slice of pizza! Man you're lucky I'm not the Beast, cause otherwise it'd be a chain match baby!" Whenever the bullies swarmed, we wished that the Beast was our older brother, but he was not our hero.
Our hero was Leo Burke, best known today as the trainer of Edge, Christian and Test. At the time, in Calgary, Leo was the token non-Hart baby-face, winning multiple tag-team and single titles. In the Maritimes, Leo was (still is) GOD. Older wrestling fans told us in hushed tones of Terry Funk nearly losing his NWA title to Leo, that he had to resort to throwing Leo over the top rope after 58 minutes to save his belt. Like all the Cormier brothers, Leo was a great technical wrestler, but he had more charisma than the rest of the family put together. Unlike Rudy, he could hold his own against any heel in the promotion. Unlike Bobby, he wasn't a git. While he could brawl if he had to, unlike the Beast it wasn't his first instinct. He had a way of making the audience feel that he would only start to throw punches if every fan in attendance gave permission. In the Halifax Forum, he could bring 10,000 fans to their feet just by clenching his fist. His finishing move was the Sleeper and he succeeded in making that hold look convincing and exciting. About as big as Bret Hart, Leo always looked bigger to us as kids because all the other wrestlers were his size or smaller. I'm sure that this was partly because Emile Dupre couldn't afford the really big wrestlers but the effect was to protect Leo. His only blemish, really, was that he had an awkward habit of losing tag-team partners, going through more partners than Spinal Tap did drummers.
Any great hero needs villains, and that Leo had, accumulating a Rogues Gallery that was only rivaled by that of Central City or Gotham. The Destroyer, the Super Destroyer, Sweet Daddy Siki, Ron Bass, Rotten Ron Starr, The Spoiler, Rick Valentine, Dr. D (David Schultz), Bad News Allen, Macho Man Randy Savage, the Bolsheviks, the Quebeckers all passed through Atlantic Grand Prix Wrestling and all fell victim to the Sleeper. But the three main heels, the guys who gave Leo fits, the bad guys who kept coming and coming were the guys we referred to by the nicknames that we swiped from the Wizard of Oz: the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man. We used these code names partly to disguise the fact that we were talking about wrestling, but mostly because the Lion was a craven coward, the Scarecrow was a brainless idiot, and the Tin Man was a heartless monster.
The man we called the Cowardly Lion was Texas Outlaw Robert Bass or at least that is what he wanted us to call him. After back-dropping a midget through a hanging light, Ed Whelan dubbed him as 'No Class Bobby Bass' and to Bobby's horror the name stuck. Nothing gave us greater pleasure than starting a chant of No-Class, No-Class, No-Class, because we knew that it drove Bobby nuts. An advanced graduate of the Ric Flair school for cowardly heels, Bobby did everything. He managed his own stable, he did heel colour commentary, he was a frequent tag-team champion and he wrestled in singles matches. He talked like Bobby Heenan, he ran like Lou Albano, he hit low-blows like Ric Flair. In fact, for an extended period we were convinced that the low blow was Bobby's finishing move because that was how all of his matches seemed to end. The frequent butt of the commentators jokes especially after he made the mistake of boasting of his amateur career ("Yeah Bobby had a great amateur career: In track", "Bobby's the only amateur wrestler ever to win a gold medal in the 100 yard dash", "I came to a fight and a track meet broke out"), Bobby could more than hold his own on the mike, cutting famous promos explaining why he was the only wrestler in his stable not to hold a title belt ("Those idiots have ME in their corner, I have those idiots in MY corner") or explaining why defending the tag titles with a roll of quarters wasn't a cheap victory ("Are you kidding? That cost me ten bucks when the roll broke. It was my most expensive title defence EVER!") or explaining how he turned a foreign object match into a handicap match ("He said bring a foreign object. The Cuban Assassin is foreign." "But he's not an object" "Are you kidding? I have brass knuckles smarter than him.")
The Cuban Assassin was of course the Scarecrow. There were many heels that we considered idiots starting with Bobby's idiot brother Ron Bass, but only one wrestler that we called the Scarecrow. First of all, he looked (still looks) like a scarecrow. Only the Beast had more body-hair, but even the Beast lacked the Cuban Assassin's unique hair-cut. On a good hair day, the Cuban Assassin had worse hair than Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. On a bad hair day, Mick Foley has better hair than the Cuban Assassin ever had. Secondly, the Assassin bumped like a scarecrow, taking man-sized bumps that he somehow always got up from. Like an čber-Mick Foley or a twisted Popeye, the Assassin seemed to draw strength from his own blood. Finally, just as the Scarecrow on the Wizard of Oz always seemed to be pulling straw out or tucking straw away, so the Assassin always seemed to be pulling out foreign objects or tucking them away. The Cuban Assassin's ring career mirrored Jesse Ventura's promo, "Win if you can. Lose if you must. But always cheat!" He could stuff more deadly objects into his tights than Raven can fit into a shopping cart. His manager, Bobby Bass, once cracked that he preferred it when the referee found and confiscated a foreign object because otherwise "The Cuban Assassin gets confused because he has too many choices!" The shortest match we ever saw was between Bobby Kay and the Cuban Assassin in a mini-tournament to find a number one contender for Leo Burke's title. At Bobby's insistence, the referee checked the Assassin and found a pair of brass knuckles, when the referee turned to show them to the crowd, the Assassin blew powder into Danny's face and gave him the low-blow for the 1-2-3. As Bobby regained his vision for the second fall, he asked the referee to check the Assassin again. The referee found a roll of quarters, turned to show them to the crowd and when Bobby turned his back on the Cuban Assassin, he pulled his boot off, smacked Bobby upside the head with it and then threw his boot to Bobby Bass as he covered Bobby Kay for the 1-2-3. Neatly confirming our belief that Bobby Kay was a git, and that the referees were completely blind! The Cuban Assassin usually let his manager and frequent tag-team partner Bobby Bass cut the promos, but when he did take the mike, he gave the most surreal promos we had ever heard. Like giving a full public service announcement for Red Cross asking fans to donate blood with the address, the telephone number, the time you could donate, all the information and then announcing that the fans HAD to go because when "I'm finished with Rudy Kay he'll need all the blood you can give!" Or explaining that he was taking up photography as a hobby and he was specializing in portraits of Leo Burke so that "the doctors will know how to put his face back together when I've finished with him!" Unlike Bobby Bass, the Cuban Assassin was no coward. Bobby would say that "the Cuban is too dumb to run!" Ironically, for a guy that we all considered an idiot, the Cuban Assassin had the biggest move-set in the promotion busting out new moves almost every month.
Somebody asked me last year who my favourite wrestler of all time was. To my surprise, I blurted out the name of the guy we nick-named the Tin Man: Killer Karl Krupp. Your stereotypical evil German wrestler, Krupp had the advantage of actually being Dutch and speaking German which made him the most authentic German Heel ever! With his polished gleaming bald head, polished gleaming black boots, military jacket with polished gleaming medals including the Iron Cross and his riding crop, Krupp really lived his gimmick. He proclaimed himself the "Master of Scientific Wrestling" and he specialized in a kind of one-upmanship of wrestling moves. If someone gave him an Atomic Drop, he would stagger to the ropes, roll out and walk it off, then he would get back in the ring and hit his own absolutely devastating Atomic Drop that hit with such impact that it looked like his opponent would never walk again. Holder of the European title, Killer Karl Krupp NEVER lost a match for his belt. Actually, I lie, he lost plenty to DQ's or count outs, but he was never pinned for the belt. At 6' 2", Krupp was not necessarily always the tallest guy in the promotion, but Andre the Giant was the only guy to pass through that Krupp couldn't look in the eye. Devastating in the ring, Krupp was terrifying on the mike. His promos would always start out calmly, "Miissster McCluck-Cluck" he would say, completely mangling Bill McCullogh's name. With his monocle firmly squeezed in his eye, he would calmly explain his dispute with Rudy or Leo or Steven Petitpas, ticking off why they were ticking him off. Then the monocle would fall out and his voice would start rising as he described in detail exactly how he was going to make them suffer. Usually by the time the interview ended, Bill McCullogh would be covered in Krupp's saliva and cringing in terror as Krupp screamed at him. And there were some classic promos too, like his chicken-bone promo where he snapped chicken bones while naming off the bones that he was going to break. Or the time that he asked Bill McCullogh how many bones there are in the human body and when McCullogh couldn't tell him, Krupp offered to show him by breaking all of Rudy's bones in the ring, "slowly, to give you time to count". Or the time that Leo Burke called him, "a lying no-good double-crossing snake in the grass" and Krupp took offence because he was a man of his word and he proceeded to list all the people that he had promised to injure or put in the hospital and "I kept my word every single time!" Now, just as the Beast was the champion of the chain match, just as Bobby Bass had a flair for low blows and just as the Cuban Assassin was the king of foreign objects, Killer Karl Krupp was the master of the no-DQ match. In fact he specialized in luring unsuspecting baby-faces into challenging him to a no-DQ match which was of course always a HUGE mistake. We called him the Tin Man because Krupp liked hurting people, and he was very, very good at it. In most of his matches when he finally busted out the Big Boot or the Iron Klaw, it was almost to put his opponents out of their misery.
Of course into any paradise, a little rain must fall, and in the case of me and my wrestling-mad friends, it would happen when someone else on the school-ground got wind of the fact that we were talking about wrestling. "Don't you know that wrestling is fake?" That we could ignore, confident in the knowledge that wrestling WAS real. "The Cuban Assassin isn't Cuban or an Assassin & Killer Karl Krupp isn't German or a Killer!" Usually, at this point, my friends would have to hold me back (not an easy feat since I was four feet of fury in those days). I was the only one in the group who cheered for the heels and was the only one who would rush to defend them. "Leo Burke is a wuss!" Well, those were fighting words anywhere in the city (anywhere in the Maritimes, for that matter). Invariably, when the fight had been broken up, our teachers would be baffled over the cause. "Don't you know that wrestling is fake?", they would say separating the combatants. Prying me off the back of some goon, trying desperately to apply the Sleeper or the Iron Klaw (very difficult on a bigger opponent), my teachers would ask me, "Don't you know that wrestling is fake?" As we went to neutral corners of the playground, we knew that nothing had really been resolved and yet the question lingered, "Don't you know that wrestling is fake?"
NEXT WEEK: The OLD SCHOOL Ground Argument