One of the last remaining celebrities of my childhood has died, and it hurts. I am in mourning.
Growing up in Milwaukee in the 1970’s, “All Star Wrestling,” was a weekly local TV institution that had ratings higher than any other program with the possible exception of anything related to bowling and/or polka music. It was part of the local culture and the wrestlers were iconic figures.
In Milwaukee there was a hometown hero known as “The Crusher.” Legend had it he “trained” for his matches by running up and down Wisconsin Avenue (Milwaukee’s main drag) carrying a beer keg on his shoulder and smoking cigars. He’d dance a few polkas to work on his cardio too.
Everybody loved The Crusher in Milwaukee. No wait, that’s not correct. They ADORED him to the point of bordering on flat out worship. Crusher’s legendary interviews on TV were what I lived for as a kid, as he promised to rid Milwaukee and the world of “bums,” and “turkey necks.”
The Crusher was revered as highly, and probably higher than any other “athlete,” and nobody doubted he was able to beat anyone up who crossed his path, including Muhammad Ali himself. Had he chosen to play for the Green Bay Packers, we had no doubt he would stomp on all those nasty Bears, Vikings and Lions and lay them out with his infamous “Crusher Bolo” super punch.
He was always announced as having “100 Megaton Biceps,” even though nobody ever had any idea what exactly that meant. How many megatons are needed in a bicep? Was there a standard requirement from the government on how many were needed to constitute wrestling toughness?
One of The Crusher’s most bitter rivals in the ring was the underhanded dastardly and conniving super villain, the universally despised “Wicked” Nick Bockwinkel.
Billed as being from Beverly Hills, California along with his oily manager and perpetual shadow Bobby “The Brain” (but constantly referred to by fans as “The Weasel”) Heenan, Bockwinkel held the AWA world’s championship belt for what seemed like forever – much to the chagrin of everyone possessing moral values.
Bockwinkel’s arrogant swagger, perpetual sneer and slicked back golden locks infuriated fans to the boiling point. In his condescendingly articulate pre-match interviews he would rarely raise his voice yet thoroughly insult Milwaukee’s blue collar working class population by referring to them as “humanoids,” then boast smugly of what terror he would inflict on his next opponent in the upcoming matches at the Milwaukee Auditorium. His disrespect was borderline blasphemy.
Tickets always just happened to be available, and I frequently spent the last of my paper route money as did my childhood best friend Timbo, with the specific mission to boo him loudly and see our hero The Crusher leave the ring wearing that championship gold around his thick waist.
Once inside the actual ring, Bockwinkel’s rooster like cocky bravado immediately shrunk into blatant cowardice and he and his partner in crime Heenan had all they could handle to keep from getting their heads ripped off their shoulders and handed to them by The Crusher or Verne Gagne or any one of a number of virtuous crusading good guys who fought by the rules and played fair.
But somehow, someway just when the referee happened to turn his head for only a few seconds Bockwinkel or Heenan would pull some deviously sinister stunt to turn the tide of the match and the evil reptile would slither from the ring beaten to within an inch of his life – but still champ.
This process consistently happened over and over, but I always knew the next time he’d finally get his comeuppance and have to forfeit his ill-gotten championship belt to an upstanding citizen who deserved it – maybe even my hero The Crusher. I was bound and determined to witness it if it was the last vision my eyes ever saw. The price of a ticket was but a tiny obstacle to overcome.
Eventually, like when the hammer drops about Santa, I found out the ugly truth…that the matches were all prearranged, and the wrestlers didn’t really hate each other. It rocked my world, but only for a short while. I loved it all the more when I found out it was all a show and I learned to really appreciate a terrific performance when I saw one. Those guys were able to make a crowd POP.
Years later as I started in standup comedy I also found part time work as a ring announcer for a local Milwaukee wrestling promotion that featured wrestlers who had worked as human chum to get beaten by the AWA wrestlers in Minneapolis. They were the stars of their own organization.
I eventually bought the business from the guy who owned it and wrestled in the AWA as Tom “Rocky” Stone. His real name is Steve Hall and his father Redd Hall was a local radio announcer, and just happened to be the ring announcer for the live matches I attended as a kid. Small world.
I eventually promoted my own live events in the area and got to understand how the wrestling business worked. Without the bad guys or “heels,” there could be no good guys or “baby faces.”
Amazingly, I also saw that the bad guys in the ring always seemed to be the nicest people outside of it and vice versa. I’d trust my wallet with most of villains, but very few of the fan favorites.
I have no idea why this is true, but it absolutely is. Maybe it’s the fun of being able to play the role opposite of what one is in everyday life, but I see this as the rule rather than the exception. It works in real life too. “Good guys” like Bill Cosby often portray a wholesome image to the pubic when in fact a whole lot of “heel” is going on behind the scenes. It’s a trait in the human animal.
After my wrestling promoter adventure days, I eventually got into morning radio and ended up working at a local Milwaukee rock station and we had Nick on for an interview because a cousin of his who lived in town happened to own a car dealership ,and was having a grand opening event and put on matches featuring live appearances by many of the AWA wrestlers of my childhood.
Nick was just as smooth and articulate in his interview on the air as he always was, and he was a huge hit with our listeners. When we were finished I asked him if he would mind coming on weekly to do “Nick’s Picks” where he would do football predictions for the weekend of games.
I told him he could do or say whatever he wanted within reason but the one rule was he had to perpetuate his heel role and pick against the beloved Green Bay Packers each week. The Packers were brutal that year and he riled up the masses beautifully just as he did when he was wrestling.
Years later as luck would have it I happened to be passing through Las Vegas at the same time Steve Hall happened to be in town, and he was pretty good friends with Nick. He asked if I’d like to have lunch with Nick, and he certainly did not have to ask twice. I couldn’t wait to meet him.
Nick showed up right on time, tan and in a sport coat looking like he could still get into the ring that night. He was in his 70’s but his handshake was firm and he smiled like a movie star. He just “had it,” and I was completely in awe before we sat at our table. This was what a star looks like.
He said he fondly remembered the radio bit and how much fun he had because I knew how to lead him. He couldn’t have been nicer, and then proceeded to regale us with an ample supply of super stories about his matches everywhere including some in Milwaukee I’d attended as a kid.
It was like Christmas and an audience with The Pope combined to have the chance to hang out with such an enormous personal icon, and it didn’t hurt that the food was terrific too. But I’d have gladly eaten three giant cans of liver flavored Alpo to have a chance to bask in all that charisma.
I didn’t talk much at first, but as we got going I asked some questions and even made him laugh a couple of times. What a thrill that was! I think I was floating about ten feet above my chair, and the whole time I couldn’t help thinking how surreal it was to be at the same table enjoying a meal with someone who at one time I was sure was the epitome of all things evil. It made me chuckle.
Somewhere well into the conversation after the three of us were very much at ease and having fun I vividly remember blurting out ,”You have NO clue as to how many times I scraped up my last little bit of paper route money to come down to that arena to boo the living hell out of you.”
The great Nick Bockwinkel looked up from his meal staring me straight in the eye and with the exact same understated arrogant sneer he used so effectively on TV all those years, and proudly uttered without a bit of hesitation, “THAT’S the whole idea, son!” And he went back to his meal.
I shall not ever forget that magnificent lunch, nor will I forget the fantastic entertainment Nick gave me, whether I realized it at the time or not. He was playing a role, and I was suckered in just like everybody else who watched All Star Wrestling back in those days – and I love him for it.
Nick Bockwinkel was one of the all-time greats of professional wrestling both in the ring and out. A classier gentleman I have never met, and our lunch will always be a highlight of my life. I’m sure he and The Crusher have already had a few laughs knowing they pulled one over on all of us for all those years. They were true masters of their craft, and they enriched my childhood.
Thanks champ! This particular humanoid will always fondly remember your true greatness.
Dobie Maxwell is a stand up comedian from Milwaukee. To read more of his musings, visit dobiemaxwell.com