By Dr. Curtis Varnell
Watch out! Watch out! Break his arm! He’s sneaking up on you! A chorus of voices accompanied by pounding, grunts, and screams poured from my friend’s house. Expecting nothing short of mayhem and death, I rushed into the living room only to find several men and kids glued to the television set watching WCW wrestling. Not even realizing I had entered, they were totally engrossed in watching the great Danny Hodge of Perry, Oklahoma wrestle one of the Russian nemesis he faced each week. Eyes glazed over and breathing hard, they were fighting evil and helping old Danny. One of my friend’s father was down on the floor pounding the rug and alternating giving advice to Hodges and threats to his opponent.
Watching wrestling was a favorite past-time in communities that had only recently been introduced to T.V. Everyone knew the big names in wrestling; Andre the Giant, the Hillbillies tag team, and the 600-pound Haystack Calhoun. Everyone loved the good guy Danny Hodge and hated his rival Gorgeous George. Hodge represented everything good about America. A local guy, he was a 1956 Olympic champion strong enough to squeeze apple juice and pulp an apple with his bare-hands. George was just the opposite: an egotistical, bleached-blond, Hollywood star who scorned and ridiculed the common man.
Not only that, as my neighbor would say, he was a crook and a hated cheater. My dad and a group of men would go to Fort Smith or Russellville to watch the wrestling live. I was never allowed to go so I don’t know the mischief they got into but one of my uncles had to be restrained from offering his considerable help in the ring when some villain hit Hodges with a chair.
Later, wrestling came right to our hometowns of Paris, Dardanelle, Booneville, Charleston, and Ozark. Wild Bill Ash and his family moved to Paris and started a wrestling boot factory. A wrestling star, he was on television weekly. Jake the Snake Roberts fought his first match against Wild Bill and Ash fought a famous duel with heart-throb Rickey Morton, copies of which can still be seen on YouTube. His career win and loss record was about fifty percent but it was one-hundred percent when he got you in his famous Arkansas Whiplash.
Wild Bill was anything but Wild around home. A super-nice guy, he set up local wrestling matches to benefit the Boys and Girls Club, helped with Civic Club events, and raised his two daughters. He brought Jerry Lawler, Coco B Ware, and the Junkyard Dog to local areas for benefit bouts. Many evenings, he set up an arena at the Boys Club and taught wrestling techniques to young guys, including my son Jamie, that were addicted to the WWF.
Professional wrestling requires strength, agility, and wrestling techniques. Acting is a big part of modern professional wrestling. No human body could withstand the brutal punishment dealt out in the arena or being thrown bodily out of the ring onto a concrete floor. For those who were doubters, Wild Bill would invite anyone in the audience into the ring with him. There were few takers and the ones that did survived with a knowledge that he was a powerful and trained individual best left alone.
Fake or real? I don’t know, but there is one thing for sure; I wasn’t getting into that ring with “Wild Bill” to find out.