Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Layin' the Smack Down

By Rodney Knox

FEBRUARY 15, 1999:  It’s 7 p.m. Monday night at the Wolfchase Galleria and 28-year-old Allen Keel is joining a stream of men heading for the exit doors. These men are on a mission. There’s no set pattern as to who they are. Age and economic standing aren’t a factor in their flight to the parking lot. Nevertheless, for millions of them – an average of 35 to 40 million each week – Monday night has become a holy pilgrimage to the altar of the cathode-ray tube. They entrench themselves into the security of their La-Z-Boys, affix their eyes to the screen, and tightly grip the remote. Then as the last commercial fades, a streak of pyrotechnic fire blazes across the screen, quickly followed by an explosion and pulsing music. Added to the hypnotic display are strobing lights, wildly ecstatic fans, and the obligatory scantily clad women. Then it begins – a spectacle of grandiose proportions.

Welcome to wrestling. Once the coveted property of everything redneck and hickish, it now rivets the attention – and pocketbooks – of even the most aristocratic viewers.

For years, Memphis was the hotbed of wrestling. Everyone who was anyone in wrestling had to do time in the Mid-South to be considered worthy of national prominence. Then cable television came on the scene and changed all the rules. This Valentine’s Day the mythology of Memphis will begin all over again. On February 14th the biggest ticket in “Sports Entertainment” – the World Wrestling Federation – will roll into town, pitch its circus tent in The Pyramid, and put on a show titled “The Valentine’s Day Massacre,” for an estimated 3 million viewers. The event will be broadcast via pay-per-view, bringing worldwide attention to the Mid-South, much to the delight of Allen Keel and his friends.

“You never know what to expect but you gotta watch, or the guys at work won’t have anything to talk to you about,” Keel manages to tell me as he checks his watch. “If I don’t leave right now, I’ll miss the opening matches.” I stand and watch as he climbs into his BMW and cruises from the lot toward Collierville. Oh, did I mention Keel is a family practice doctor in East Memphis?

“Wrestling is hotter now than ever before,” says Power Pro Wrestling announcer and local meteorologist Dave Brown. Brown has been calling the action in the squared circle for more than 30 years in Memphis.

Power Pro Wrestling began its run on WMC-TV in April 1998. During that relatively short length of time, Power Pro has aligned itself with the monolithic World Wrestling Federation. That partnership has catapulted the local promotion to the top of the local weekend ratings. It also helped to bring the big event to the Bluff City.

Bruce Prichard of the WWF explains why Memphis was chosen to host the event. “It had been too long since we were in Memphis. We had the opportunity to put on a premier event in The Pyramid – Memphis’s premier building – and the fans had been asking us back. We feel it worked out very well.” Based on ticket sales, the WWF made the right choice. The Pyramid sold out the event in two days.

“The event is sold out,” says Prichard, “but we will have WWF superstars also in Memphis on February 12th for a joint event with Power Pro Wresting on Beale Street.” Start time for that event is 8 p.m. and tickets are available at the New Daisy or Ticketmaster.

Translated into eight different languages and broadcast into 19 countries, the WWF is a mega entertainment success story. It has spawned action figures, computer games, videocassettes, music albums, bed sheets, posters, and T-shirts. T-shirts that each week rake in an estimated $400,000 – a feat ’70s T-shirt queen Farrah Fawcett could not match on her best day. And whose face is gracing those shirts – you may ask? It’s not some Barbie-doll-perfect pitch woman – it’s a beer-swigging, finger-flipping, and jaw-jacking bald guy in black boots and shorts. His name is Stone Cold Steve Austin and he’s the hottest thing going in professional wrestling.

“I’ve worked my ass off for nine years to get to where I am today and it was worth every bump and bruise I suffered,” says Austin. The bumps and bruises he is talking about include over 200 stitches, a blown-out knee, and an almost catastrophic spinal injury, which occurred in November 1997 during a pay-per-view event, when his opponent drove Austin head-first into the mat. The maneuver is called a “Pile Driver” and was made famous by Jerry Lawler when he used it to injure Andy Kaufman more than 15 years ago. Austin lay momentarily paralyzed on the mat before regaining feeling in his arms and legs enough to finish the match.

When asked about his recovery, Austin says, “I feel almost 100 percent. Will I ever be 100 percent? Well, hell no. When someone bends your damn spine nearly in half, things change.”

Some viewers thought the incident was fake, but wrestling professionals know injuries and accidents in the ring are all too real. Unfortunately, that realism is lost on most children between the ages of 8 and 13, who represent one-third of all wrestling viewers. In December a teenage boy died when a friend who applied the “pile driver” to him broke his neck. That kind of violence has many critics raising concerns over the effect wrestling has on its target audience, young males between the ages of 10 and 30 years old.

“They put on a show full of sex and violence and want our children to watch it. I feel, and so do many other responsible, moral parents, that it doesn’t belong on television,” says Boston’s New Methodist pastor Susan Gramher.

Over the past two months, outrage over some of the antics has reached a fever pitch. During a recently taped show, one WWF wrestler was seen receiving “simulated” oral sex. On the same show another female WWF wrestler was blinded by powder and then had her breasts fondled by two officials. In both cases, digital masking obscured the television audience’s view, but live audiences who were at the event witnessed the spectacle without benefit of such censorship.

The owner of the WWF, Vince McMahon, is unapologetic. “I will unabashedly use whatever is necessary to entertain our fans. Everything is there for us to use in terms of the fiction we write.” He continues by saying, “I believe in pushing the limits. They’re going to tell us [what they want] and we’re gonna listen.”

During the Super Bowl this year, the WWF paid over $1 million to air a controversial commercial spoofing its detractors. The aim of the commercial was to show that wrestling is just good old-fashioned fun, with the catch line of the spot being, “…get it?” Apparently the audience did. The commercial was one of the most popular aired during the Super Bowl.

“We try to do family entertainment,” says Dave Brown, “but you have to realize it is wrestling. We want to make sure that kids know not to try this at home.”

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