Nashville wrestling fans, rejoice — it's the return of Jerry Lawler, Bill Dundee and the fabulous Jackie Fargo 

Lords of the Ring

Lords of the Ring

There was a time when true titans fought each other every week in Nashville, mighty men who clashed muscle, flesh and sinew in epic battles of good against evil. When fist-shaking grandmas, red-faced truckers and families trailing wide-eyed kids would stream into the Fairgrounds, clutching tickets they'd bought at the old Sam Davis Hotel. When matters of honor were settled not with pistols but with cowboy boots, elbow smashes and a folding chair to the skull. When Chief Bald Eagle and Chief Thunder Cloud would wage war on Rock Riddle and the Purple Terror, and nothing loomed larger for weeknight entertainment than a Midget Man/Grown Lady/Grown Man Six-Man Tag Battle.

Four decades ago, such matches would have been held (cue announcer's voice) every WEDNESDAY-Y-Y! at the FAIRGROUNDS ARENA-A-A! And after settling their scores in Nashville, the superstars of "Wrestling — The King of Sports!" would move on to other fairground arenas, high school gyms and VFW halls across the South. Now, thanks to former pro wrestler George Gulas, generations of local kids who grew up watching wrestling matches between kung fu flicks on Saturday mornings can revisit the flesh-and-blood action figures of their youth.

The venue for this Saturday's event — the NWA Arena in East Nashville — is a long way from the Fairgrounds, which has been fighting its own elimination match of late. It's also a different age for pro wrestling, now a billion-dollar industry instead of a carnivalesque circuit. But the card will include three of the biggest stars of old-school wrestling, men who inspired playground injuries for more than 30 years — Jerry "The King" Lawler, "Superstar" Bill Dundee, and above all, the flamboyant "Fabulous One" himself, Jackie Fargo.

The one-and-only, often imitated but never duplicated Jackie Fargo (as he still bills himself today) was one of the most successful and popular professional wrestlers of all time. By the late 1950s, Fargo and his "brother" Don were the first wrestling attraction to sell out Madison Square Garden. When they relocated from New York to Tennessee, Fargo became a superstar with his helmet of ice-blond hair, his patented "atomic drop" headbuster, and his signature, the famed Fargo Strut — a lumbering stomp accompanied by a gesture like swinging imaginary bowling balls. Even today, the rascally octogenarian boasts in the wrestling documentary Memphis Heat that he's "meaner than a damn rattlesnake and tougher than a two-dollar steak."

Now 83, the fabulous Fargo is more a guest than a participant in Saturday's "A Night to Remember Chapter 2," a tribute from promoter Gulas to his late father, legendary Nashville wrestling promoter Nick Gulas. But he's as much a cornerstone of the Gulas renown as the 2001 fanfare that once introduced the promoter's televised wrestling matches.

For more than four decades, Nick Gulas promoted wrestling events in Nashville and built the "Mid-South" territory into one of the most successful wrestling franchises in the U.S. He learned the basics of wrestling promotion in his native Birmingham, Ala., before moving to Nashville in the late 1930s. He quickly found employment as a booker for the old Hippodrome Arena on Centennial Avenue, interspersing wrestling matches with the likes of Benny Goodman's big band, before building a postwar wrestling empire with partner Roy Welch.

Gulas was a polarizing and controversial figure in the wrestling world. His detractors say he underpaid talent — one story cites a reported payoff of $12.50 — and that he shamelessly boosted his son's wrestling career. Memphis Heat covers these matters in detail. But if there is one thing true about the wrestling world, every story has as many sides as a free-for-all cage match. Many people still have fond memories of working with Gulas, including Jackie Fargo. Their relationship outside the ring, as Fargo remembers, was full of good-natured joshing, mostly at the promoter's expense.

"I was the kidder and ribber," Fargo tells the Scene, "and he didn't like that too much, but I did it to him anyway. I used to call him Nicky and he hated that. Nobody else could do it, but I could get by with it. I loved to bust his little onion.

"I used to say to him there's not but one Fabulous Jackie Fargo, and you're sitting here talking to him, and he'd say, 'I don't want to hear it!' But I would say, what would you do without him? He'd sit and look a little bit and say, 'I don't know what I'd do without you. Besides being my friend, you're the best draw card I have in Tennessee.' At the end of every week he would hand me five $100 bills as a bonus. No one ever knew that but him and I."

Scott Teal, the owner of Crowbar Press, which specializes in books on pro-wrestling history, has equally pleasant memories of the late promoter. In 1974, Teal was a 21-year-old Trevecca student who had moved to Nashville from Florida, where he had made a name for himself as a fan and photographer. Gulas enlisted him to create programs for his events, which Teal parlayed into a kind of merch table.

"If you could put 'Wrestling — King of Sports' on it, then we had it for sale — ashtrays, keychains, pencils, pens, combs, you name it," Teal recalls. "Nick never asked me for one dime, he let me keep everything I made."

But in the competitive sport that is wrestling promotion, Nick Gulas wore the championship belt.

"He was the ultimate promoter," remembers WSMV-Channel 4 sports director Rudy Kalis, who met Gulas just after he moved to the Nashville area in 1974. "He had a way of making you do stuff for him, and I thought that was cool. He would call, he would suggest things ... he had this aggressive — in a positive way — [style] of making you feel like you had to either do him a favor or see what he's talking about, because he could paint a picture that was bigger than life."

"Nick brought wrestling to the South," Jackie Fargo says. "He came up the hard way. Nick put up posters, handed out handbills — he was a hustler. He got out and did it himself. He didn't wait for someone else to do his job." The way he tells it, the Fargo Brothers were looking for a change. When Gulas started booking them into the Hippodrome, they had sold-out matches every week.

"The people hated us so much," Fargo said. "It just felt so good."

That's because Nick Gulas' real talent lay in his ability to build drama through feuds, grudges and other (mostly) manufactured conflicts. To this end, he featured a cast of outsized personalities: the swaggering Lawler and Fargo; the late, great heavy Tojo Yamamoto, the unsurpassed master of the dirty trick; the irresistibly underhanded manager "Gentleman" Saul Weingeroff.

But Gulas' masterstroke was to use local TV to build anticipation for live matches. Like a grand, grappling soap opera, as soon as one storyline would be settled in the ring — a squabble between wrestler and manager, a dirty deed committed in tag-team conspiracy, usually when the ref was looking elsewhere — another was already building to take its place. And Gulas always had fresh talent ready to challenge his biggest stars.

This was the era when pro wrestling was divided into "territories" controlled by promoters who would swap local stars with outside promoters to keep the field fresh. As George Gulas recalls, "My dad would get on the phone and call Paul Boesch in Houston: 'You got someone to send to me for two weeks? I got someone to send to you for two weeks.' And you would send and exchange talent. You'd call California. You'd call Maryland. You'd call Dusty Rhodes or Eddie Graham. You say, 'I got three guys who want to come to Florida for two weeks; you send me two.' It was a business, but it was also a family."

In the late 1970s, though, Gulas' control of wrestling began to slip away. His business partner, Roy Welch, died in 1977, and Jerry Jarrett, a former wrestler who had moved more into the business side in Memphis, began to take over Gulas' territory. Gulas dropped out of wrestling in the mid 1980s, but before his death in 1991 he would see the business he built undergo even bigger changes.

With the popularity boom of pro wrestling on Ted Turner's TBS, and the success of Vince McMahon's New York-based World Wrestling Federation on network television, pro wrestling changed from a territory-based business into a mega-dollar media phenomenon. As the 1980s rolled on, the territories collapsed as top stars were lured away to national franchises by enormous paychecks — which put an ever-widening gulf between fans and stars.

"Back in the day, you come into Shoney's and Tojo and I would be sitting there, or Jackie Fargo — you could rub elbows with people," George Gulas says. "You felt a part of it."

Yet it wasn't just the local connection to stars that was lost. Gone was the middle ground where a "contender" could make a living wrestling while working his way up the ladder. At the same time, a tremendous income gap opened between the remaining local promotions (as wrestling franchises are called) and the national wrestling federations.

That wasn't the biggest change, however. Professional wrestling was always a strange brew of genuine athleticism, showmanship and hype, complete with its own language dating back to its carny roots. That includes the term "kayfabe" — which refers to the public "story" of wrestling, but goes far beyond simple concepts of "real" or "fake." While every feud might not have been real, and details, moves and outcomes might have been worked out in advance, that didn't stop a good promoter from exploiting actual grudges, fights and injuries.

The term "kayfabe" itself was once taboo, as promoters like Gulas went to great lengths to protect the illusory conflicts they'd created. The ultimate example was the national hoodwinking Lawler engineered in 1982 with the late comic Andy Kaufman on David Letterman's show. But as pro wrestling grew to national popularity, its focus shifted from maintaining a suspension of disbelief to a cynical nod and a wink of irony, often at a cost to the real athletic talent on display.

"It's gotten away from actual wrestling," Scott Teal says. "The wrestlers don't know how to tell a story in the ring, they have to do it all as a skit. Nobody believes now, and they don't care if you believe. Two guys can wrestle and then they're at Hardee's together. That would have never happened back in the day. If you were a bad guy, or what we called a 'heel,' you were not to be seen with one of the good guys, or 'babyfaces.' If you were, you'd be kicked out of the territory."

The always opinionated Jackie Fargo cares even less for the new breed. "They try to be acrobats," he says, as if using the term interchangeably with "wusses." "I could beat three of them guys at one time. I'm not kidding. They know how to cut a flip and jump over the rope and all that, but they do not know wrestling. They don't know a wristlock from a wristwatch. They're just trying to put on a show."

Thus the main goal of George Gulas' promotion, Gulas Old School Wrestling, is to bring back more of the spirit that stars like Jackie Fargo embodied. As Ron Sisk, president of Gulas Old School Wrestling explains, "Not only are we bringing the old-school people back, but we're mixing them with younger people to build that chemistry. We're trying to bring a mixture of the old and the new and recreate wrestling the way it was."

That appeals to tradition-minded up-and-comers such as Shane Williams, the "King of Nashville," who'll be on the bill Saturday night. "I think the thing that is missing now from wrestling is the connection with the past," Williams says. "Anything that had to do with wrestling came through Nashville. It's time to bring back some of that old-school spirit and the old-school names and mix it in with the new school."

But even though Williams may respect his elders, he has a message for them. "I'm not gonna let any old-school guys prevent me from getting to my No. 1 goal," he says, hyping his match in the classic wrestling way. "This is my time to shine."

There are two guys, however, who just might take exception to that. One of them is named Jerry "The King" Lawler, and the other is "Superstar" Bill Dundee — both now in their 60s. And in tandem, the old lions will do their damnedest to flatten the young pups when they square off Saturday against Williams and his tag-team partner "The Natural" Chase Stevens. Sure, there will be other matches on the card — including an MLW (Magnificent Ladies of Wrestling) championship match between champion Veronica Fairchild and challenger "Million Dollar Baby." They'll even have Rudy Kalis appearing as a special guest referee.

But that's not what this headline match is about. It's about athletic showmen reclaiming their territory from sullen steroid cases. It's about the time-honored clash between babyface and heel, and Nick Gulas' belief that the beef that gets started in this match will make the next one even better. Most of all, it's about giving the likes of The Fabulous One another chance to strut.

"When I step in that ring, I feel more at home than I do in my living room," Jackie Fargo says. "I just want to take everybody and hug 'em. You can't hug everybody, but I hug most of the girls, anyhow. What a life I've had in wrestling. I've had broke arms, broke shoulders, broke wrists, but I wouldn't trade it for a pair of blue-nosed mules."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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