"Double-Think at Madison Square Garden"
For the first cop Mrs. Henry has a Tomahawk Chop like Chief Billy White Wolf's, which should fix a guy in a fat city like this. But the copy just keeps grinning and tries to belly her back up the aisle. Mrs. Henry spins off him, yelling:
"You big bums, you're killing him!"
And now the only thing between her and the ring is a cop in a powder blue uniform, which rises up in front of her as just another big blue belly. He is a house cop and so anything goes and Mrs. Henry lets fly a karate jab to the windpipe. The trouble is, however, that she is only four feet eleven and has little toy arms. The karate jab lands at about his sixth rib. He starts bellying, too, and she yells:
"Get out of my way, you big bum! That Killer -- I've gotta -- you let me -- the referee, that bum!"
But she is partly successful. She has diverted two cops from the southwest corner of the ring, and now a kid in a yellow Zorro shirt, screaming, makes his move. He is flying down a side aisle. Cops rise up at all four corners, facing the crowd, ready for a mass charge, looking out for the likes of Hatpin Mary, who goes after fat wrestlers with a hatpin. All over Madison Square Garden, tier upon tier, 14,764 people are standing up with their fists in the air, or their thumbs down, screaming, booing, stomping, wailing, ululating, calling on Divine intervention to aid in the painful and total dismemberment of Gorilla Monsoon, the 355-pound bearded Manchurian, and Killer Kowalski, 255 pounds, the roughhouser from Detroit.
There in one corner, the corner where Mrs. Henry made her sortie, Monsoon has Vittorio Apollo pinned up against the ropes. Apollo is a clean-cut little guy with wavy hair, no fat and no shoes, only six feet tall, only 221 pounds. He comes from Argentina and fights barefooted after the manner of the greatest Argentinian of all time, Antonino Rocca.
Monsoon is holding him there, helpless, gouging his eyes and slugging his solar plexus, while Kowalski, standing on the outside of the ropes and not supposed to be in the fight, has a thug's garrote around his neck and is slowly winding up his esophagus like a licorice twist, to judge by the agony on Apollo's face.
The referee? The referee, the blind creep, is off on the other side of the ring with his back turned, remonstrating with Apollo's partner in this tag-team match, Bobo Brazil, a 275- pound Negro. Bobo has honest outrage written all over his face. He knows he is not supposed to go into the ring until his partner, Apollo, touches him, but for godsake, Mr. Referee, turn around. Bobo's arms are spread out and his great hands are open, imploring. Look at that illegal mayhem they are annihilating his partner, Apollo, with.
In other towns, in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, the Mrs. Henrys, the Hatpin Marys, the Zorro kids might already be at ringside trying to clout Killer Kowalski with a folding chair. In Paris they might be heaving oranges, tomatoes, bananas and whole heads of cabbage from the galleries the way they did the night the Masked Man went after the White Angel with a camera he snatched from a photographer at ringside. But in Madison Square Garden there is no room to unload the heavy weapon. The place, as usual, is jammed, on a Monday night. As usual the cops are wrestling the inspired and the inflamed away from the apron of the ring. They are trying to belly back the most curious, the most maniacal, the most enduring breed of fans in America, wrestling fans. But down the aisles they keep on coming, with all that passionate indignation.
It has been like that in Madison Square Garden for 10 years. It is the kind of thing the rest of the public hears about only once in awhile, as in August of 1959 when 20,250 came to see Antonino Rocca in the main event. They practically had to hang them up on the walls that night. Or on June 22, 1962, when there was a crowd of 20,777 and 6,000 people had to be turned away. Last year the crowds averaged 17,000 a night. They pay $1.50 to $5 per ticket, with the receipts figuring out to slightly more than $3 per person. And all this is for a sport that is not a sport but, as it is termed in New York, officially, an exhibition. It goes on out in a curious limbo between sport and theater.
Practically every week wrestling fans can turn on television three or four nights and see wrestlers in action: Gorilla Monsoon, Killer Kowalski, Bobo Brazil, Argentina Apollo; Bruno Sammartino, of Italy, the world's champion and strongest man; Dr. Jerry Graham the Psychologist, with the lethal Sleeper hold he learned in the Orient; the Kangaroos, the tag team from Australia, who carry wooden boomerangs into the ring and toss paper boomerangs to the crowd. All the while, an announcer with an inevitably urbane and world-weary voice relates the whole pageant, passing along all the anthropological scholarship of the promoters, the controversy over whether Science should classify a shaggy fellow called The Brute as "a man" or an animal, which might disqualify him, or the latest obiter dicta of the much- hated Von Brauner Twins, of Germany, who goosestep around the ring and say of American female wrestling fans.: "They should have their faces on magazine covers -- such as Farmer's World or Dog's Life."
The crowd, which was ready to storm the ring and annihilate the two brutes, now leaps up and down, wailing with screams, laughs, cheers, exultation. The noise is unbelievable. The contortions, the flailing fists, are unbelievable. There is nothing in the whole world of sport that approaches the complete visceral satisfaction of this exultation.
No doubt there are many fans on hand who remember another, October night in this same Madison Square Garden. Half the same cast was there. Killer Kowalski and Buddy Rogers, the much-hated Buddy Rogers, were the villains that night. Bobo Brazil and Edouard Carpentier were the suffering right guys. And that night ended with Bobo and Edouard looking on, bug-eyed and unbelieving, while Kowalski and Rogers got mad at each other and kayoed each other with simultaneous sore-arm barrelhouse rights. Even the size of the crowd was almost the same, 14, 180.
Everyone remembers -- and everyone choose not to remember. Professional wrestling is an intriguing piece of double-think. It requires what Coleridge called "willing suspension of disbelief." Wrestling crowds are neither scholarly, like horse racing fans, nor technically minded, like stock car racing fans, nor cynical like boxing fans -- but they are not so guileless as to believe that the spectacle they watch is real combat. Everybody in the house knows that no man, not even crafty Argentina Apollo, could take eight straight clouts to the base of the skull from a giant like Killer Kowalski, plus eye gouges and solar plexus slugs from a bigger giant like Gorilla Monsoon, and just walk away shaking his head a little. And in something like the main event, Bruno Sammartino, 260, versus Baba the Giant of Tokyo, seven feet tall, 319 pounds, anybody within 50 yards of the ring can actually see the solicitous care with which they pull their punches.
Especially Baba the Giant. Baba is supposed to be the villain, who uses vicious judo and karate blows against the most popular hero in New York wrestling, Bruno of Italy. But the people in the five-dollar seats can see the look on Baba's great prognathous face which conveys nothing but the solicitude and embarrassment of a young man who has grown up a mile too big for the rest of the world. Baba is a bona fide giant, but he slips in his dread karate blows to Bruno's throat with all the vicious hack of a high school mooncalf passing love notes to the seat behind him. Baba has to add a sound effect with his voice every time. He says "whack" out loud every time he wafts the ddge of his hand in toward Bruno's throat.
Yet Frank Rorsky, of Bayonne, N.J., who is sitting in the 10th row with his wife Rachel, lets out a groan every time.
"Aggghhh!" he says. "Those karate chops are murder!" He looks around and says it to everybody who will look at him. "Those karate chops are murder!" And pretty soon half a dozen guys in the five-dollar seats are saying, "Those karate chops are murder! That's not wrestling, that's murder!"
And now Rachel, a plump mild-looking woman in her placid moments, is on her feet, screaming toward the ring:
"Hey, Ref! What is he, a karate or a wrestler! What is he, a karate or a wrestler! No karate, Ref!"
Now Baba has Bruno by the neck. He is twisting on way with one hand and the other way with the other, as if he were unscrewing a garden hose. The referee appears not to see this.
"He's choking him!" yells Mrs. Rorsky. "He's choking him, choking him, choking him!" She keeps it up like that, like a chant.
Everybody is standing up again and screaming. Suddenly Bruno turns the tables. Now he has the giant by the throat. "Choke him, Bruno!" yells Mrs. Rorsky. "Choke him choke him choke him choke him choke him!"
Four seats a way a woman in a yellow turtle neck sweater and a babushka is on her feet, yelling, "Kill him!" Now Bruno is ready for the kill. He drags the giant across the ring and hangs him up on the ropes in the corner like a side of ham. He starts slamming the giant in the face with the Italian Knee Slam.
With each Italian Knee Slam, Mr. Rorsky says, "Ea-a-a-a- h!", and begins twisting in his seat, from one side to the other, with his elbows out. Every time he swings around to the left, he drives his elbow into the arm of the guy sitting next to him, a guy slumped down in his seat with a chocolate-brown Borsalino hat on.
The guy looks up and says, "Hey, is he really hitting him with his knee like that?"
"Are you kidding?" says Mr. rorsky. "He'll finish him off."
"What about the karate?" the guy says. "Was Baba really hitting him with the karate?"
"Listen," says Mr. Rorsky, "those karate chops are murder. Do you see my hands?" His fingers had these curious, broad flat ends and heavy knuckles. "Karate," he says as he turns them over.
"You can kill a man with that," says the guy.
"Yeah," says Mr. Rorsky.
"Then why don't they get hurt?" says the guy. "If they really hit 'em, they'd kill 'em."
Mr. Rorsky thinks it over a while.
"Well," he says, "it's like this. Sometimes they really hit 'em and sometimes they don't. You know. They do and they don't."
And as Mr. Rorsky talks, between Italian Knee Slams, it comes out that he can sum up his whole vision of professional wrestling that way. He and Rachel -- despite the screams, and the flailing elbows -- believe and don't believe what they see in the ring. The week before, on television, they saw Bruno Sammartino and Baba the Giant at ringside in their street clothes at somebody else's match, and suddenly this big brute, Baba, picked a fight with Bruno, and they started in right there at ringside in front of the television cameras with Baba's manager, Red Berry, who carries a curious little half-cane that is said to be weighted with lead, jumping into the battle, until the police at ringside there broke up the donnybrook. And week by week these collisions of good and evil build up for the Rorskys, on the screen and in the ring, until it becomes a serialized passion play, a drama of good and evil in the simplest, most direct form of conflict.
When Antonino Rocca was king, the Garden found that what looked like half the Latins in town, including thousands of Puerto Ricans, turned out to witness his vanquishments, even though they were no more gulled by it all than anyone else. And today there are also Negroes, Italians, Irishmen, Poles -- every kind of hero. And there are Gestapo villains, Russian villains, Manchurian villains, even an effeminate Bohemian villain, the Magnificent Maurice, who arrived in a blue beret and pink cape to figtht Irish Jim McClarity (sic) and waved a pink handkerchief at the crowd and crawled into a corner and wouldn't come out whenever Irish Jim hurt hijm, while the crowd rose to its feet and gave derisive wolf whistles and turned thumbs down.
Even Mrs. Henry had mastered double-think and exulted in wrestling with the vision that outsiders cannot comprehend. By and by, Bruno Sammartino has picked up Baba the Giant, and hoisted his 319-pound carcass up over his shoulders and started spinning him around until Baba gives up and the fight is over. Afterward, about 400 fans are outside waiting for the athletes to dress and come out on the street, and Mrs. Henry is one of them.
A preliminary fighter named Klondike Bill comes out first, wearing his beard, a sport shirt and black boots and carrying a vinyl-covered suitcase. Klondike has lost to Cowboy Bill Watts, and about a dozen kids rush him, jeering and yelling things like, "Hey, fat stuff, don't catch pneumonia out here" and "What does it look like flat on your back, you bum?", until Klondike Bill turns around as he gets in a cab and says, "That's O.K., boys, just keep pumping the money in the box office, that's all."
Then Dr. Jerry Graham, a 300-pound round man, comes out, with his platinum hair combed back in a Tarzan ducktail, smoking a cigar. Dr. Graham defeated Tony Marino, with the dread Sleeper hold. The kids rush him and ask for his autograph, and one of them says, "He takes a shower and combs his hair and he looks real cool." After a long while Gorilla Monsoon comes out a side entrance, wearing a big leather jacket and carrying a vinyl-covered suitcase like Klondike Bill's. He is by himself and the kids don't notice him until he reaches the corner at Eighth Ave. and 49th St., waiting for the light. Then the rush starts, and the kids and even a few old guys are screaming at Gorilla Monsoon, holding up their hands in twisted shapes like an ape. Then the light changes and Gorilla Monsoon starts walking across Eighth Ave., away from the Garden, and all of a sudden the rush and the screaming stop, as if a curtain has come down.
Mrs. Henry stops short and bumps into this same guy with the chocolate-brown hat.
"Is that the guy?" he says.
"Yes," says Mrs. Henry. Then she laughs to herself. "Oh, it wasn't him," she says, "I just get excited. I always do that. Do you know what the policeman told me? He told me, 'Lady, when you do like that, your heart is going like this, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam,' that was what he said. He was never nice. You know, they could throw me out of there every time."
And Gorilla Monsoon just keeps pounding on down Eighth Ave. Nobody follows him and nobody seems to notice him, despite his size. He just keeps walking until he gets to 42nd St. and heads on over toward Ninth Ave. and walks into the Holland Hotel, by himself, with his vinyl-covered suitcase.