Tuffy Truesdell, who says he was the last middleweight wrestling champion of the United States and the first man ever to go into the water to wrestle alligators for a living, took the martini from his wife, who was mixing them in the seat behind him, and sipped from it. As befits a man of patience and serenity, one who has traveled the breadth of the land for years, Tuffy drives at a leisurely pace. Lee Truesdell occasionally bids him go just a bit faster, but she has herself learned to be comfortable on the road as long as there is a guaranteed booking ahead.
Before she met Tuffy, Lee toured as a professional square dancer with Midwestern Hayride and for a time served as one of those girls on a spinning board whose job it is to get narrowly missed by a blindfolded knife-thrower. After many years of crisscrossing the North American continent, there is contentment in both their lives whenever Tuffy's stubby little legs reach the accelerator and carry them along somewhere.
At this time they were headed out of Green River, on the martini leg of the day's journey, bound for Price, Utah, where they expected to find a good meal and lodging for the evening. If Victor, a huge Canadian black bear who rides in the back of the elongated, airport-type limousine, should express interest in some hors d'oeuvres for himself during cocktail hour, he will be provided with peppermint candy. It is a high level of civilization that Tuffy presides over. The man who has his wife, a redhead, mixing martinis in the middle seat of his limousine and a contented bear who responds quickly to his orders domiciled behind her may be said to have found law and order.
The drive through the dark, slow and silent, produces a sensation almost of stealth. There is no notification that there is a live bear inside the limousine, for if there were Victor would have no peace, suffering instead the adoring harassment of bear admirers. Victor is a celebrity, having been in the film Paint Your Wagon and on television many times, ranging from The Ed Sullivan Show and Hollywood Palace to What's My Line, To Tell the Truth and, periodically, Truth or Consequences. Victor is typecast.
On a regular basis, though, Victor works as a wrestling bear. This particular evening the group in the limousine is on its way to Salt Lake City, where both Tuffy and Victor will wrestle the next night. That is, they will wrestle different people. At sports shows and fairs, after Victor has taken on all comers, he squares off against Tuffy. When they work the wrestling circuit, however, Tuffy returns to his former profession and takes a regular people match, while Victor goes against the most despised resident villain.
Tuffy will not wrestle alligators anymore, though. He could be the first person to work both bears and gators on the same bill, but Tuffy is not interested in that distinction. "I'm not greedy," he says. "It was only a few years ago Lee and I are in Canada with the alligator farm, raising Victor, and we actually don't know if we can make it through the winter to open up in the spring. It was just bad business, trying to make that alligator farm go."
"For 200 alligators in Canada, you got to keep the heat up in the winter," Lee explains.
Having bears fight professionally in public places is nothing new. In the past a whole hungry dog pack would be loosed on a trapped bear, an exercise so savage that vestiges of bearbaiting statutes remain on the books and harass Tuffy Truesdell. Early this month Victor nearly was benched in Chicago by an Illinois law calling for fines up to $200 for everyone who watches the fighting or baiting of a bear. But 9,200 risked it during the halftime of a Chicago Bulls-San Francisco Warriors game and Victor defeated Bulls General Manager Pat Williams, among others. Officials of the Anti-Cruelty Society observed closely and decided Victor was hardly the one being baited. Only twice has Victor legally been prohibited from wrestling. This occurred in Lewiston, Me. and Pasadena, Calif., two animal-loving cities that have distinguished themselves by sanctioning other atrocities: the second Ali-Liston fight and the annual Rose Bowl parade.
Brave men have often taken on bears head to head. Paul Bryant, the football coach, earned his nickname that way. Tuffy himself recalls challenging a transient wrestling bear while he was still in his teens. Wrestling bears were not uncommon then, especially for what in the fair and circus business is called a "concert." That is the act you have to pay an extra two bits to see once you get talked inside the tent for an original quarter to see the whole show. Traditionally, hermaphrodites and wrestling bears have been the most popular concerts.
"It was mostly the huge European brown bears you saw in the days I was growing up," Tuffy says. "The first time the guy just told me that if he gets me down be sure to pull in my head so that all the blows would get me on the shoulder. They could hurt you easy. You couldn't get away with that now. There's too many people walking around looking for lawsuits."