When I reflect on Father’s Day, several wrestling thoughts arise. During his life, my father probably watched more live wrestling than anyone I knew, until I took the family mantle. Now, that he’s been gone for 21 years, to remember all of the cards brings me solace in his absence.
I grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. In the early 80s, the WWF contained itself to the Interstate 95 Northeast corridor. As a result, they would return to Hartford every six weeks or so. More importantly, they’d perform close. Cities like New York, New Haven, Philly, Springfield, Boston, and Providence became destinations. So, there I went, packed with a magazine, headed out. Since my father worked as a trucker, those tickets fell to him from his union. Appreciate the Teamsters, y’all.
Territorial wrestling did not enjoy the bright lights as the industry did later. Back then, the WWF lit the ringside area. Entrance music did not exist. The only way you knew who walked down the aisle was either Howard Finkel and initial reaction. In a sea of large wrestlers, Bob Backlund held the title, Backlund, the late 70s, early 80 precursor to Daniel Bryan served as the underdog champion. Challengers would beat the pasty grappler for 20-30 minutes, then he’d mount a rally and win. Formulaic, simple, and effective.
When not attending the matches, I’d be glued to the TV. From the Von Erichs in Texas to Flair in Charlotte or Bockwinkel in Minnesota, the sport had our attention. We’d sit at my father’s favorite local bar and I’d watch TV. In the background, they’d play cards but I would sit with my grinder (New England word for sub) and enjoy. After, we’d go on long drives to discuss the matches. In hindsight, my father knew wrestling fell into the scripted category. However, he entertained my wildassed theories with an attentive interest. From five, I was hooked on the sport.
Late one winter night, my father drives home, a bit intoxicated. Calls for me, says that he grabbed to tickets for this card in New York. For weeks, I watch vignettes and matches for weeks. Sunday March 31, 1985, we drove down to New York to catch the first Wrestlemania. Barely able to contain my excitement, we made it to the city. The Garden buzzed with a big moment electricity. I could not hear myself think.
As mentioned, my father and I watched other feds as well. Yet, Thanksgiving night 1990, we saw a slightly familiar face in a new role. Still full from turkey and cornbread, we hit the Civic Center. Remember, Hulk Hogan captivated audiences long before his true slimy self emerged. Anyway, watching red-haired figure walk down the aisle with Brother Love, Kane the Undertaker entered the history books. I remember looking at my father and shaking my head. “ Wait, that’s Mean Mark Callous” My father said “ Not anymore” To hear the oohs and ahhs that night will always overshadow the WWF hatched an egg at the event.
The Monday Night War
As the 90s progressed, I attended more shows alone. From catching Sting in Baltimore or seeing what Eastern Championship Wrestling evolved into, my course became clear. Yet, I’d still make it over to my father’s for Raw and Nitro. Thanks to the magic of the black box ( the illegal cable box that allowed you to view every PPV for free), we watched the all of the big shows.
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When Nitro debuted on September 4, 1995, my father remained skeptical. “They can do well if they don’t get stupid with the booking. If they do, they will be out of business within 10 years” I laughed it off. Whoops. Seeing Lex Luger enter WCW surprised me. A before, he competed at Summerslam.
By this point, we stopped attending matches. Esophageal cancer from a three pack per day smoking habit finally caught up to my father. Forced to retire, we still watched from his house. When I went to cards, he also asked for a t-shirt. Imagine a lanky cancer patient with a black tshirt that reads “ ECFNW”. Before my father lost his voice, he mentioned why we logged thousands of miles, ate at greasy spoons and consumed popcorn and soda like madmen.
“The matches were fun. It was a good time. I wouldn’t trade all of this time with you, boy.”
On February 4, 1998, my father succumbed to cancer. The following Saturday, during his funeral, I walked to the open casket. In my hand, ticket stubs from five random cards that I saved from the 80s. These stubs reside in his suit pocket, as a reminder of the industry that we grew to love together. From Pedro Morales to Bret Hart, my formative fan years were spent in the right place.