At Madison Square Garden three years ago, ring announcer Howard Finkel stepped to the microphone between bouts to ask fans not to throw things into the ring, at which point a chair went flying past his head. "That moment pretty much summed up the sport for me," longtime fan Taylor Ganz says appreciatively.
Wrestling has always attracted a very special group of fans, many of whom may eventually be eligible for parole. Unlike areas of sports or show biz in which the stars often seem remote from the crowd, wrestling has nurtured a sense of intimacy between participants and fans. The bond is based on mutual respect and a kind of love, if you will. Ganz and brother-in-law Rick Hunnewell, like most of wrestling's diehard followers, take comfort in knowing that the trend will always move in whatever direction the fans want it to.
The wrestlers themselves have a joke that goes, "What has 14 teeth and an IQ of 50?" Answer: "The first 10 rows of any wrestling crowd." They don't mean it, of course. Their affection for the fans is heartfelt. "The thing that scares me most about wrestling fans," says Bobby Heenan, "is that they can vote and they can breed."
Heenan is an example of someone who developed a special rapport with the audience. "One night in Houston," he recalls, "this little old lady at ringside was giving me hell. She had just called me a no-good son of a bitch when her false teeth shot out of her mouth and flew into the ring. I stood there for about a minute with my boot over her plate and just grinned at her. She was pleading with me not to stomp on her teeth because they were the only ones she had. Finally, I just kicked them over to where she was sitting, and she picked them up off the ground, popped them back in her mouth and started up right where she'd left off, calling me a dirty s.o.b."
On another occasion, Heenan was being interviewed by a reporter from an Indianapolis newspaper when the body of a fan who had just died of a heart attack in the stands was brought into the dressing room to await the arrival of the coroner. The reporter asked Heenan how he felt about seeing a fan die under such circumstances. "As far as I'm concerned, it's one less person to spit on me," replied the Weasel.
Spot, one of the Moondogs (Rex is the other; there used to be three but, the story goes, King was killed chasing a car), almost got his tail bobbed one night in Louisiana by an elderly man with a knife who slashed him on the leg and hindquarters. "You don't want to get yourself spayed if you can possibly help it," says Spot.
Despite the much-discussed new demographics, very little has changed in the gouge halls, where the smoke and the smell of beer settle on you like stale sweat. A little more than a month ago at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, about 2,500 fans showed up for a WWF card that featured several members of McMahon's menagerie. An almost continuous fusillade of paper cups—some with the beer still in them—rained down on the ring, where Rocky Johnson and Alexis Smirnoff were working the undercard. During the application of a Smirnoff choke hold so prolonged it would have drained the breath of life from a less worthy opponent, a brawl erupted in the stands. Everyone turned to watch—including Johnson and Smirnoff, who recognized a superior production but who, nonetheless, continued to throttle each other until security arrived and saved the promoters the indignity of having to split the gate.
Taking it all in from the second row was Jay (the Alaskan) York, an off-duty wrestler whose shaved head, neatly trimmed beard and menacing scowl disguise a sterling character. A young man with watery eyes and bad teeth appeared out of nowhere and plopped down into the seat next to the Alaskan. "I know you," the young man said. "Do you know how I know you? My wife cussed you out one time while you were in the ring. Yeah! She called you a dirty no-good faggot. And you told her to come back to your apartment, and you'd prove she was wrong." The Alaskan looks sheepish, but then the young man added, "That was great, man."
York's niece, who was sitting nearby during all this, later explained to an attractive woman who was combing beer out of her hair, "Jay's really sweet. And he really believes in Jesus Christ, Our Lord." Then she turned back to the ring and cheered loudly as Andre the Giant flayed Big John Studd with the chain the Junkyard Dog had attached to Studd's collar. Just outside the ropes, a fan kept insisting that flogging one's opponent with a chain was against the rules.
That was also the way many hardcore wrestling fans began to feel three years ago when McMahon set out to transform the WWF from a small but prospering fiefdom, operating almost exclusively in the Northeast, into an empire. "At that time there were respected territorial boundaries where you operated without fear of reprisal," says McMahon. "We had been very successful in the Northeast, and I felt we could be equally successful elsewhere. Even when I was a kid, my philosophy was basically, if I wanted something and somebody else didn't want me to have it, the worst that could happen was I might get the hell kicked out of me. So we decided to disassociate ourselves from the other promoters and make a lot of enemies all at once. I must say, we've been very successful at that." Even Vince McMahon Sr., from whom Junior—as he is known in the business—had inherited his territory, was opposed to his son's expansionist designs. "Had my dad known at the time I bought him out what my plans were," McMahon says, "he would never have sold his stock to me."