Past Times

A front row seat to the excitement of the wrestling ring

An evening of professional wrestling at Dorton Arena on December 29, 1993, ends in a 20-man Battle Royal.
An evening of professional wrestling at Dorton Arena on December 29, 1993, ends in a 20-man Battle Royal. N&O Photo

People who are not pro wrestling fans have a hard time understanding the mania that goes along with it. In 1994, N&O writer Chuck Salter gave readers a front row seat to the excitement of the ring.

On this night, there are more than the usual reasons not to go to Dorton Arena and watch professional wrestling.

Outside, it’s freezing and blustery. The weather folks on TV and radio have been warning against driving, since an ice storm was on the way.

Inside, it’s not much better. The arena is as warm as an igloo. Ringside seats are chilliest, as the metal chairs rest on inch-think boards covering the IceCaps’ ice rink.

Compared to Starrcade, a World Championship Wrestling extravaganza held two nights earlier in Charlotte, the Raleigh bouts are meaningless. At Starrcade, several titles, including the heavyweight world championship (well, champion of this particular wrestling fiefdom) was on the line in front of a near-capacity crowd of about 9,000. Ric Flair, who became champ for the 12th time, isn’t even on the card in Raleigh.

But none of this matters to about 1,500 loyal fans who make the pilgrimage to Dorton, once again the area’s lone outpost of grappledom. For years, there were weekly professional wrestling bouts in the arena. Since those were discontinued several years ago, however, the five or so wrestling events held here throughout the year have become more important to fans.

They need their wrestlemania fix. One wacky night of lowbrow high drama. One night to see the unbelievably rough action live instead of on TV. One night of slapping, kicking and bad-mouthing. Not to mention what the wrestlers do.

The gawkers line the wall overlooking the tunnel to the dressing room. The wrestlers come and go, giving occasional high-fives and autographs.

Robert Fisher, 19, likes being this close to the celebrities. He spots a new face and elbows his buddy.

Chris Strickland, 19, nods in awe. “Not an ounce of fat,” he says.

It’s not Flair or Sting (the wrestler, not the singer) that catches their eye. It’s voluptuous Angela Cooper, one of the Hooters Girls who escorts wrestlers into the arena. She takes off her full-length coat to reveal her uniform for the night, clinging short shorts and clinging T-shirt, as tight as anything the wrestlers are wearing. She hops up and down to keep warm.

With the brute force of a tag-team duo, Fisher and Strickland, both from Zebulon, tear themselves away to join their other buddies in time for the first bout between Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat and “All American” Ron Simmons.

“We know it’s fake,” says Strickland, a freshman at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, who is home for the holidays. “We come for the entertainment.”

They act as if they’re at a comedy club instead of a wrestling match, keeping a running commentary that sounds like something from “Mystery Science Theater.”

As Steamboat and Simmons circle the ring, grabbing each other’s hands to make a move, Fisher says: “I’m going to tell you one more time, Ricky. Let’s shake hands and go out to my limo. I got a video we can watch.”

Simmons flips Steamboat, who winces as if his back is broken.

“My back! My back!” mocks Fisher, whose friends crack up, anticipating what happens next.

Steamboat miraculously recovers.

Helen Simmons is a believer. The 41-year-old teacher assistant from Smithfield knows that the rasslers, as she calls them, sometimes overreact. But most of the action is real, she says. She can see it. And hear it.

Stunning Steve Austin corners Flyin’ Brian Pillman on the ropes.

Simmons, or should we say Hyper Helen Simmons, winces.

“Did you hear how he slapped him?” she says, her voice filled with indignation.

She’s one of those incongruities of professional wrestling, a matronly middle-aged woman who’s also a wrestling fanatic. Before the match, she sits calmly in a blue coat, brown scarf and pink pants, like a dutiful PTA member. But once the action starts, she loses control. She kicks and slaps the air, as though she could reach the goons from the cheap seats.

If she sat any closer, she says matter-of-factly, “I might throw a chair at them. And they might throw me out.”

While Stunning Steve distracts the dumbfounded referee in the ring, his manager, Col. Parker, a character who looks like a cross between Col. Sanders and Mark Twain, sneaks up behind Flyin’ Brian to strangle him.

Simmons leaps to her feet. “That’s not fair!” she shrieks.

Flyin’ Brian momentarily grounded, Stunning Steve goes for the pin.

“Get up! Get up!” she pleads.

The referee slaps the mat, counting, “One ... two ... THREE!” It’s over.

Simmons slumps in her seat and slaps her knees. “He cheated, he cheated, he cheated.”

Such emotional outbursts are common for Simmons, who started following wrestling as a little girl. Her parents were avid fans. Now she comes with her husband Steve, a building inspector for Wake County, and 10-year-old daughter Jennifer, a Sting admirer.

“I love Ric,” Simmons says demurely. “Ric Flair.”

The family likes the good guys, who tend to have white-blond hair, better manners and flatter stomachs.…

“It’s good against evil,” Steve Simmons says.

“Hey, big, fat ‘n’ ugly!”

“You’re a loser!”

“Get outta here, ya bum!”

This is what L.B. Council, 64, assistant chief in charge of security, hears as he escorts the bad guys to and from the ring. Bad guys tend to have lousy haircuts, stubble and colorful tatoos to go with their colorful vocabularies.…

At 6-feet-2 and 185 pounds, Council, who prefers basketball to wrestling, looks like a rugged and lean drill sergeant. However, next to 450-pound Vader, the biggest, baddest meanie in the WCW, he looks puny.

But no matter. Council and his 11-man force are here to handle the fans, not the wrestlers. That’s twice as many public safety officers than at the IceCaps games – not because the fans are unruly, he says, but because they’re spread out on the floor.

“Throwing things is a no-no. Grabbing wrestlers is a no-no,” he says.

Heaping vocal abuse is encouraged – to a point.

“You suck, Vader!” a teen screams.

“Shut up!” Vader belches back, leaning over the ropes, which stretch against his considerable girth like year-old rubber bands.

“We let them say whatever they want, within reason. As long as it doesn’t get filthy-mouthed,” Council says, keeping an eye and ear on the rowdies. “The more they holler, the better it gets.”

He was the first officer to work at the Dorton Arena matches back in the ’50s. Been doing it ever since. The bigger-than-life theatrics, the fake-or-not-fake debate, the zealous, vociferous fans – none of it has changed, he says.

Once, he had to confiscate an outraged fan’s purse, shoes and knife. While he was subduing her, he noticed someone behind him dart toward the ring. Council lunged, grabbing the fellow by the cuff of his pants.

“It was another wrestler,” he says, shaking his head gravely. “It was quite embarrassing. I didn’t know the script.”

Backstage with the good guys. Guys like Ricky Steamboat, Sting and Road Warrior Hawk. It’s minutes before the night’s grand finale, the “20 Man Over the Top Rope Battle Royal.” The good guys are being their polite selves, waiting quietly in an orderly single-file line, as if they’re at the bank.

At the bottom of the stairs is Dustin Rhodes, as the backside of his snug blue shorts proclaims. He has agreed to a brief interview.

Rhodes is the Kyle Petty of wrestling, having grown up watching his father, longtime champ Dusty Rhodes, bounce around the ring.

“When I was really little, if he was getting beaten up, I’d be really worried and start crying and all that,” says Rhodes, who jumped from his high school wrestling team in Texas to the pro circuit several years ago.

Now 23, Rhodes looks like a younger, boyish version of his father, who was known as “The American Dream.” Same too-white blond hair, same heavy brow, same love handles. The younger Rhodes stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 265 pounds. Calls himself “The Natural.”

Though he seems mild-mannered and has a gentle handshake, it’s not easy asking him if the action is fake or not. A reporter for “20/20” once asked another wrestler that question. Got his ears boxed. Comedian Richard Belzer also asked. He passed out moments later in a sleeper hold. Andy Kaufman wanted proof and wound up in a neck brace.

So, um, what does The Natural tell wrestling’s non-believers (whoever they are)?

Rhodes furrows his brow, his massive hands on his hips.

“I tell them that it’s a hard life to live. That we’re in the entertainment business but it’s also a sport,” he says. “As far as it being fake, I’ve got an injured knee right now I’m going to have to get scoped as soon as I get home.”

In pro wrestling, everyone breaks the rules. Even the fans.

When Ric Flair finally appears, escorting another wrestler to the ring, the crowd goes nuts and Anthony Chase Wilson gets in position by the gawkers’ wall.

He has been a fan of Flair’s since he was 5. He once tried dying his hair to look like Flair; it came out orange. Flair’s pictures lined Wilson’s bedroom walls until he got married and his wife made him take them down. Waiting anxiously for Flair to return to the dressing room, Wilson cradles his camera and hopes for the impossible. He has one exposure left. One shot at a picture with Flair.

Ask any wrestler, any promoter. A desperate wrestling fan is harder to stop than Oprah on a feeding frenzy.

When Flair approaches, Wilson sneaks around the wall, avoids the guards and pleads with his idol. The security guards leave it up to Flair, who gives in. Despite being overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment, Wilson manages to remember to hold four fingers up in the photo. As any fan can tell you, that’s a reverent reference to Flair’s old wrestling gang, “The Four Horsemen.”

Helen Simmons relies on persistence to get Flair, who stands by the dressing room watching “The Battle Royal.” Sandwiched between autograph hounds her daughter’s age, she calls and calls. “Ric! Ric! I love you, Ric! Ric, up here!’

Maybe it’s her motherly voice. Or her protestations of love. Or the fact that the Hooters Girls have been getting an awful lot of attention from his wrestling fans. Whatever, Flair breaks down and looks up.

Simmons hands him a scrap of paper with another wrestler’s autograph on one side. Flair turns it over and signs the back.

At the end of night, Simmons is one of the last to leave the arena. Lingering with her daughter outside the dressing room tunnel for one more glimpse of the wrestlers, she shows off the treasured piece of paper. The side Flair signed appears blank. His pen was broken.

“I can’t see it, but I know it’s there,” Simmons says and slides it into her pocket. The N&O Jan. 4, 1994

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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