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Old-School Wrestling, Alive and Well

Adam Allington

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It's all real...
(Jay Fram)
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Wrestling at the South Broadway Athletic Club
(rabid)

MULTIMEDIA SLIDESHOW: See portraits of some of the personalities who take the ring at the South Broadway Athletic Club, and see and hear the action


There's a whole world of professional wrestling outside the stadium-filling personalities and hard-cut bodies of WWE Wrestlemania -- or the TNA, the ECW and the MMA. This weekend, wrestlers from the South Broadway Athletic Club in St. Louis, Mo., will square off against each other in an old-school battlejam. Producer Adam Allington has the story:

Just about a beer bottle's throw from the Mississippi River in St. Louis is a tiny brick building called the South Broadway Athletic Club. It's Saturday night, and the first thing you see when you walk through the door is a tall, middle-aged black wrestler in a leather trench coat, lifting some poor guy over his head just before the inevitable slam to the mat.

The guy issuing the smackdown goes simply by the name Shaft. But this isn't your standard pay-per-view, Wrestlemania type affair. Shaft is 50-years-old and works in an automotive parts warehouse.

"I'm pretty much an old school wrassler," he says. And when Shaft says "old-school," he doesn't mean Hulk Hogan old-school. He's talking about guys like 1959 World Heavyweight Champion Pat O'Connor.

"I do the standing toe-hold that Pat O'Connor used to do," Shaft says. "My two finishing moves are the ankle lock and the bulldog off the rope. When asked what the bulldog off the rope entails, Shaft gave me this clarification:

"Basically, all it is is grab 'em by the head and I run toward the ropes and bounce off the ropes and turn around and slam their head down on the mat.

Not exactly Greco-Roman wrestling, but this isn't some WWE knockoff, either. Founded in 1904, the South Broadway Athletic Club is one of the first places where the idea of spectacle and sport got together, a kind of traveling vaudeville for the working class. By the 1960s, regional wrestling was huge -- matches at the Kiel Auditorium downtown would regularly sell out.

Wayne St. Wayne (his real name remains a mystery) is a former wrestler who grew up in St. Louis going to those matches. "The smell of beer and cigar smoke reminds me of the Kiel Auditorium on Friday night," he says. "You'd go into the building and it would gradually fill up -- and there was Dick the Bruiser."

Wayne saw these wrestlers as comic book characters coming to life. He eventually became one himself, competing under the name Buddy Frankenstein and Dr. Blood in the 1980s. "I have never ever been a sports fan as far as real actual sports, and never will be," he says. "But something about wrestling intrigued me -- witch characters, and larger-than-life humanoids, and hominids...

"There were so many characters -- there was World Champion Gene Kiniski from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The Crusher, the cousin of Dick the Bruiser. Eduard Karpantier, Lou Thesz, King Kong Brody..."

The second match of the evening at the South Broadway Athletic Club is a classic good-guy-versus-bad-guy. In the business they call these "heels and babies" -- a clean-cut blond wrestler in red, white and blue tights going by the name Johnny Courageous, up against a dirty fightin' hippy in a tie-dyed shirt called Boddy D.

"If you get a man who in there who's gonna do anything he can to win, and he'll choke you or kick you or bite you, the people are gonna like him," says Tony Costa, a former wrestler and manager from back in the day.

Costa says wrestling has always been spectacle, but back before steroids and energy-drink sponsorships, wrestling had more heart than it does now. "When I was wrestling, wrestling was wrestling," says Costa. "Today, it's more like a circus in a lot of places."

Costa says professional wrestling started going downhill when a young promoter from the northeast, Vince McMahon Jr., formed the World Wrestling Federation and began broadcasting his matches on cable TV, devastating the market for regional wrestling.

But the scene didn't completely die out in St. Louis. For the old-school fans, some of the original grit is still there. The reason? Most of the wrestlers have real jobs, just like they do.

Alexis Lightfoot isn't just the current Missouri-Illinois lady's champion, she's also a mom. "It's really hard because I'm a wife, I'm a mom, I'm a wrestler, and you tie everything into one. And sometimes when your 3-year-old gets a little out of line, you just want to body slam him on the ground," says Lightfoot.

I think everyone can identify with that sentiment. I mean, who hasn't thought of diving across a conference table and putting your boss in headlock? And maybe that's what the South Broadway Athletic Club is all about -- a place where you don't have to be paid a million dollars to know a thing or two about a piledriver.

  • Music Bridge:
    Loud Pipes
    Artist: Ratatat
    CD: Classics (xl)

Comments

  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Rob Phillips

    From Ballwin, MO, 08/11/2012

    I used to wrestle in the 80's at south broadway against the assassin,big daddy,etc. It was a great time

    By Rob Phillips

    From Ballwin, MO, 08/11/2012

    I used to wrestle in the 80's at south broadway against the assassin,big daddy,etc. It was a great time

    By Lamont Harvey

    From St Louis, MO, 01/22/2009

    I want to be come a wrestler

    By brian mitchell

    From Belleville, IL, 07/25/2008

    i seen a match at the illinois show lightfoot hawkins barbwire around ropes the best match by far that ive seen in reagonal wrestling in a long time.

    By Brian Mitchell

    From Belleville, IL, 05/21/2008

    I was happy to see Jeff Hawkins at the last match he is a great wrestler and is highly uderated I think his come back is a great addition to mmrw and siwa

    By John Doe

    From St. Louis, MO, 05/18/2008

    "This weekend, wrestlers from the South Broadway Athletic Club in St. Louis, Miss."

    Should be St. Louis, Missouri, not Mississippi.

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