Most all wrestlers have a crazy story or two about where they’ve wrestled and under what conditions. It’s the nature of the business we chose. I’ve wrestled a lot of places under a lot of adverse conditions, but the one you’ll read below is one that I’ll never forget. This story takes place in Atlanta, Ga. I’d only been in the wrestling business for a year or so at the most and it was summer time…and it was one of the hottest summers that I can ever remember. Since that time, I’ve been in Puerto Rico and South America and their heat paled in comparison to a good old Georgia summer heat wave that combined heat with humidity…which is my idea of a heat spell. This is my story and it’s 100 percent true.
I was proud of the fact I was working for such a company with a high level of respect within the wrestling business. Back in those days, before the big sports teams became so prevalent, wrestlers were more or less rock stars. Everybody knew who the wrestlers were. Everybody. There’s actually no way to avoid it…because wrestlers were on TV 52 weeks a year. I would go to the grocery store and a fan would ask for an autograph. Or standing in line waiting to buy a ticket for a movie, and a fan would walk up to me to ask for an autograph. From me!!! I couldn’t believe it. Here I was, a young kid fresh out of the USArmy, the 25th Infantry Brigade, who just six months earlier had been rolling in dirt, firing M-16 rifles and .50 caliber machine guns…and now, I was being asked for my autograph. Before, I was just a serial number on a U.S. Government payroll with the first name Wayne Now, I was somebody. Or at least, I thought I was until I found out one day that I was to wrestle at an outside show at 2 p.m. the following Saturday afternoon at a car dealership.
When I was first starting out in the wrestling biz, I was working for the NWA office in Atlanta, which at the time was considered one of the more prestigious companies to work for. There were about 25 or 30 NWA offices around the country and the Georgia franchise was very high on the list of respected offices. I didn’t know it at the time but I was even lucky to be there. The other guys were always marveling at the fact I had even landed a job in that company due to my lack of experience at the time.
WHOA!!! Hey, hold on a second. A car dealership, I thought? I thought I was a big-time wrestler. I should be wrestling in big arenas with screaming fans surrounding me and asking me for my autograph as I actually got pretty good with signing my name. I was still Wayne Cowan in those days and I was a good 2 years away from that promoter in Knoxville who gave me the name Dutch Mantell. But no matter the name, certainly I was above wrestling in a lowly car dealership, wasn’t I?
I thought maybe there had been a slight mistake which I’m sure would be rectified if I merely brought up my concerns to the booker of the company. The booker, at the time, was Tom Renesto, who had been the founding member of the world famous Assassins tag team, who was considered one of the sharpest minds in the business at the time. I approached Tom one night at a show and spoke to him about my concern over working such a low-rent event. Except, I didn’t use the term ‘low rent,’ but I carefully treaded the a thin line between concern and being considered a prima donna.
Tom wore glasses because he was as blind as a bat without them. As I spoke to him in my most diplomatic tone, Tom nodded his head as if to say, “I’m hearing you kid” and without looking me in the face, he began to speak. In a low voice, Tom said very calmly that it would be in my best interests, not only for my career but also my job, if I made the show. To make his point, he said I had two options.
The date for the car dealership appearance rolled around. Being the good soldier I was, I showed up at the dealership the next Saturday around 1 p.m. ready to wrestle along with the other lucky guys that had been chosen. On these type cards, I found out that only the lower wrestlers on the company’s hierarchy list are booked. This was the start of where I began to realize where I really was on the company’s “shit” list.
The first option was pretty clear and straight forward, as he said if I didn’t want to make the show, I could merely ‘buy’ the company and cancel my appearance. His second point was also pretty clear. Tom stated, as clearly as he could, that if I did not make the show, I could go find another place to work preferably the McDonalds across the street. All of this was delivered as dead pan as he could say it. Neither option appealed to me. Since he spelled it out so succinctly, I began to see the benefit of making the show. As he peered over at me, he asked what I wanted to do. I replied that I would make the show and slinked off.
There were three matches scheduled that day…all of them single matches. That was all. That totaled six wrestlers and one referee. The dealership was right in downtown Atlanta on one of Atlanta’s busiest and most famous streets, Peachtree Street. The dealership was one of those car places that advertise all the time on TV situated not far from the Channel 17 WTBS studios where we did our weekly TV show. I drove to the dealership from my apartment south of Atlanta with all my wrestling gear on because I figured most car dealerships didn’t have dressing rooms for wrestlers. Or every time I had ever been in a showroom, I had never seen any signs saying ‘WRESTLER DRESSING ROOM.’
Wrestlers, in those days, all lived in the same general area no matter what territory they were working in. Wrestlers in Tampa, Charlotte, Dallas and Nashville all lived within 10 miles of each other it seemed, and most of the time, the areas were convenient to interstates and airports. The reason wrestlers lived close to the interstates was simple…wrestlers spent a large amount of time driving and if most of them lived in the same area, it was convenient for car pooling and traveling. I really didn’t know why wrestlers lived close to the airport though. We hardly ever flew in those days.
I still remember the name of the apartments that I lived in. It was called Falcon’s Rest. WTF did that mean? I always thought it was a stupid name then and after remembering it, it still is. There weren’t any falcons around to speak of and for the rest part….there was no getting any rest in that place because it bordered one of the major runways at Atlanta’s International Airport. Since Atlanta was well on its way to becoming the busiest airport in the country at the time, planes were always landing and taking off at all hours of the day and night. There was no down time and you had to learn to sleep through all the noise because those huge L10-11’s made a helluva lot of noise. The only thing that could block the sound was a lot of alcohol and even then, it wasn’t guaranteed that it would work. But every night, I made a valiant effort to kill my senses long enough to be deemed unconscious.
Wrestler’s apartments would never be on the cover of “Decorating Today” magazine. I was never one for fashion but the apartment complex I lived in had a theme or a ‘motif’ to their furnished units. I called it Early American Ghetto. My apartment consisted of some beat-up furniture and a bed which had seen its better days. The refrigerator didn’t work properly and the stove was…well it filled in a nice spot between the cabinets. I called my stove, Halftime. My stove worked half the time and half the time, it didn’t. The rent was $150 per month with utilities furnished and even with that, I thought I was being overcharged. But it was HOME. I even got on a first-name basis with some of the cockroaches. Or the ones who didn’t commit suicide.
It was mid-July in Georgia and the summer temperatures in Atlanta that year were hitting 100-plus degrees during the day. In other words, folks, it was friggin’ hot. The 6 p.m. news every day had reports of local hospitals being overrun with heat stroke victims. The humidity was so high and the air was so heavy, it was hard to breathe. It was the type of summer that at midnight, it was still 90 degrees. It made Hell seem like a vacation spot. If you’ve ever lived through a scorching summer down south, you would certainly remember it. I sure have.
When I pulled into the car dealership, I parked my car and got out. I had a great air conditioner in my car but when I opened the door to exit, it was like opening the door to a sauna. F**k, it was HOT!!! The Georgia heat engulfed me. Not only was the sun beating down but the parking lot asphalt held the heat and sent it back upward. It was the kind of heat that when you looked out over the parking lot, you saw heat waves floating in the distance. I grabbed my bag and immediately sought out an air-conditioned room inside the car dealership.
As I waited for my match in the comfort of an air-conditioned office, every now and then, I would walk out to the showroom windows to look at the ring. I could see fans lining up around the ring in the middle of the car lot to watch the matches. There were probably 100 to 150 ordinary looking blue-collar types surrounding the ring. These people were one of two things. Extremely hard-core wrestling fans, who apparently didn’t have anything better to do on a Saturday afternoon than to stand around a wrestling ring and pass out from heat exhaustion, or, the second option, they possessed a death wish. There was clearly a difference between them and I. I had been forced to come here under threat of unemployment by that evil booker person. The fans, however, had voluntarily shown up.
This entire ‘wrestling-on-a-car-lot’ type promotion or concept was completely new to me. I had never heard of it before. At the time, I was not aware of how car dealerships stage events on their lots as a ‘gimmick’ to sell cars. I’ve seen Ferris wheels or FREE hot dogs or a small circuses to attract people but never a wrestling match. Of course, the car dealership presented the matches as a marketing tool to get potential car buyers on the lot in order to sell cars. As I was gazing out on the bunch of fans that showed up, they didn’t look like they could buy a friggin’ pack of cigarettes, let alone a car.
But as I watched them through the showroom window, I couldn’t determine who were the bigger idiots. The wrestlers who had agreed to wrestle in this friggin’ heat, such as me, or the fans who were actually standing out in the middle of an asphalt parking lot in the middle of the day sweating their asses off in 107-degree weather. This was crazy. Surely, the state legislature in Georgia had state laws prohibiting this type of sports activity. If they didn’t, they should have. I kept waiting for the governor to issue a stay of execution but alas, the governor sat on his fat ass in the air-conditioned Governor’s Mansion all day. Bastard.
As a matter of fact, the car dealership was only about 10 blocks from the gold-domed State Capitol Building and the Governor’s Mansion. You could actually see the gold dome of the State Capitol from the dealership where the matches were being held.
I was on first that day, as I usually was on almost every card I appeared on. As I stepped outside, the heat hit me like a brick. It was straight up 2 p.m. on a steaming, hot, humid Georgia day in mid July. As I stepped out from the comfort of the dealership’s air conditioning, I immediately broke out in a sweat. The actual temperature that day hit 107 degrees Fahrenheit in the sun but it would be nothing compared to what I would feel later on.
As I walked toward the ring, the veteran referee walked by me and told me to be careful, it was really HOT out in the ring. I thought to myself…NO SHIT!!! I wondered how long he had to think to come up with that gem of a weather forecast. Bastard.
I walked to the ring without music, believe it or not. Have I mentioned this before? That we actually, back in the day, were able to get into a ring without music? That is hard to believe in today’s wrestling climate but yes, BY GOD we did it. The only thing signaling the next match on a card was the ringing of a bell. In today’s wrestling environment, a wrestler or ‘performer’ going to the ring without music is unheard of but in earlier years, we had it tough. But even without music, I made the 150-foot trek and suffered the indignity of approaching a ring without musical accompaniment.
On my way to the ring, I noticed the crowd was kind of dead. Quiet. Eerily quiet. Now I know that I wasn’t a main eventer but there should have been a little more chatter coming from this bunch. Or it could have been that most of the crowd was overcome with f’n heat stroke and were borderline incoherent at the time.
For the ones who could still talk, I could hear their individual comments as I made my way to ringside. I heard some redneck guy saying to his wife, “God d**n, Helen, it’s f’n hotter than f**k out here. F this. Git the kids and let’s f’n go.” I think he had a cussing problem.
That was a great idea. Let’s all just call this BS off and let’s go home before some of us die. For a split second, I actually wanted to leave with Helen but that was right before I saw that wild looking witch. She hit the scales at a good 250 and the kids looked like they hadn’t missed a meal call in years. No thanks. I would suffer the heat. At least the heat would kill me quickly.
Since there were only three matches scheduled that day, I had been instructed that my match should cover 10 to 12 minutes. As the ring announcer introduced me, there wasn’t a lot of booing or anything. Hell, it was too hot to boo. As I stepped into the corner to await my opponent, I was already pouring sweat. I sweat a lot anyway but this was embarrassing. But sweating is nature’s way of keeping you alive, especially on days like this one. The sweat was pouring and I was cussing. I never heard that big time pro wrestlers would be in the middle of a used car lot in the heat of a desert.
I can’t remember who I was wrestling that day. All I can remember is that he was an old timer who was much older than I was. I was about 22, in shape and could go all day. The old timer I was wrestling was in his late 40s I would say and I wondered about him having a heart attack in this heat. He didn’t want to be here anymore than I did but I learned later that old timers don’t trust young greenhorns. Since I was in great shape, the old timer wanted to show me that it would be in my best interests to take it easy.
As we locked up, the old timer taught me a valuable lesson. The lesson was…’old age and treachery will defeat youth and ability any day.’ The first thing he did was back heel me and take me down into a step-over toe hold which, yes, you guessed it, put me flat on my back on the mat in the middle of a ring covered in a heat absorbing canvas that had been absorbing the sun’s rays for at least 90 minutes.
If I had thought it was hot just walking to the ring in the 107-degree heat, I learned firsthand what HOT was. I had NOT even thought about how hot a ring mat could be. Keep in mind that the ring had been sitting in the sun for probably close to 2 hours by this time with the hot Georgia sun heating it up. It was more than hot. It was scorching. If the air temperature was 107 degrees, the friggin’ mat had to be 130. I now know what bacon feels like being cooked for breakfast. All that was missing were the eggs and some hash browns. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like that in my life.
The old timer was just playing around but he wanted me to know that our match would be completely a ‘walk and talk.’ A walk-and-talk match meant exactly that. Walking and talking and not a lot of contact and absolutely no mat contact. He didn’t have to tell me twice. For the rest of the match, the only thing that touched the mat were our boots.
I wish in those days, OSHA, the Occupational and Safety Hazard Agency, had been in existence. The crushing heat and the mat temperature created a hazardous working condition that shouldn’t have been allowed to happen. Today, I doubt it would be tolerated. In those days, wrestling wasn’t even considered a job so therefore it didn’t fall under the State Labor laws, nor do I think it does today either. But where is a government agency when you really need them?
As the match started, I don’t even remember what happened for the next few minutes because all I could think of was the finish. I had long forgotten about the old timer having a heart attack. Screw him, he was on own now. My concern now centered on me having a heart attack.
Since I never won a match in those days, you know, the ‘old paying your dues’ thing, I knew that I would have to lay there, on that monstrously HOT ring mat, for a full three seconds, maybe more, while the wily old veteran pinned me. Think of the hottest beach sand that you’ve ever walked on barefooted and triple it. I’m not kidding. It was brutal.
When it came time for the match to conclude, I told the ref to count fast because three to four seconds on that mat would be an eternity. Thankfully he did. When I heard the thud of the referee’s three count slap the mat, I was gone. Screw this I thought as I literally, and I mean literally, ran back through the car lot to the dealership showroom. As soon as I hit the showroom door, I was in search of any sink that dispensed water. My body was on FIRE. I found a customer bathroom and with my hands, I doused water all over myself making a huge mess in the process. I didn’t give a rat’s ass. I was burning up. In the bathroom, there was a mirror and when I looked into it, I could actually see steam rising off my body.
I made a vow to myself right then and there that I would never work under conditions like that again. Screw that. I was a professional. Never again I said to myself. They could fire me. I would quit. I would stand up to them. I’m not a dog. They wouldn’t even be able to melt me and pour me into another situation like this. I didn’t need this crap I thought.
Two weeks later, we wrestled in Augusta, Ga., and my good friend, Tom the Booker, came up to me again. Nonchalantly, he told me that he had booked me on another car dealership show coming up in two weeks. He waited for my response and when none was forthcoming, he then asked would I have a problem with it?
I looked back at him and remembering his earlier words to me like finding another place to work, and I replied, “No problem boss. Just tell me when, where and what time to be there.” He was a very persuasive person. But to tell the truth, the weather had cooled off quite a bit by then. The temperature was predicted to only hit 95.