Take off your hat. TAKE OFF YOUR DAMNED HAT and show some respect.
This week witnessed the passing of two legendary wrestling “heels”, namely William James Myers and Oreal Perras. I’m sure you won’t recognize these names. They harken back to another era, when the WWF was an entertainment empire that flirted with almost being respectable.. when wrestlers would appear in sitcoms, MTV videos, and low budget movies. This was the 1980s Wrestling Entertainment explosion, and it was very much a big thing– commanding the television sets on Friday nights and filling arenas to capacity. I was never a huge fan of any of it– I wrestled in high school and had that snobbish holier than thou attitude about it. Still, it was damned entertaining– with scripted feuds, special effects and exaggerated choreography. I always respected the skill on display– if you could launch yourself from a turnbuckle every night and land without a concussion, make no mistake– you had skill.
So back to Myers and Perras. You might have known them as George “The Animal” Steele and Ivan Koloff. Both of these guys were professional bad guys (or “heels”) in the glory days of the WWF
Both of these men had a long career in the world of WWF Heels. George Steele actually drifted into the sport sideways, after getting a master’s degree at Central Michigan University(!). He drifted into wrestling (from coaching at the college level) in the Detroit area for sensible reasons.. to make a couple of extra bucks. Originally he fought using a mask and calling himself The Student (left). Eventually he was discovered by Bruno SanMartino who recruited him into the big leagues of wrestling entertainment. George Steele developed his “incoherent brain damaged” brute persona mainly at Vince McMahon’s urging. With his bald head, heavy features and literally inches of fur covering his lower body (the man was hairy!), George must have come off as the Missing Link. The irony was that he was quite well spoken, very well educated (in science no less), and took pride in delivering well articulated promotional bits. This irked McMahon, who interrupted his taping one night and told him “he looked like an animal, he should act like one!” Steele, as a joke, drooled and gibbered into the camera shouting “ook ook ACK!”and scampering around like a mutant monstrosity. McMahon, of course, loved it, and thus, George The Animal Steele was born. He earned everlasting respect for playing another wrestler, Tor Johnson, as he appeared in the Ed Wood films in Tim Burton’s ED WOOD.
Ivan Koloff debuted in 1961 as “Red Mcnulty”, an allegedly Irish wrestler from Dublin who sported a beard and an eyepatch (left). He wrestled primarily in the Canadian organizations until 1969, when he started for the World Wide Wrestling Federation, managed by Captain Lou Albano. Koloff’s specialty appears to have been training and developing teams of thematic “heels”.. creating long lasting team called “THE RUSSIANS” with Vladimir Petrov and Nikita Koloff (his “nephew”), and often teaming with “The Iron Sheik”. Since Russians were perennial bad guys in the Cold War era, the heel teams became quite popular and were around for a long time in wrestling’s glory days.
Wrestling isn’t all just crazy choreography and overblown ham acting at the microphone. There’s a dark side to the “sport”. I will always remember an interview Rowdy Roddy Piper (who died two years ago, at 61). gave about the drug abuse, constant pain and loneliness of professional wrestling. You can see a little of it here:
Piper had broken most of the bones in his body (including his back) on multiple occasions. He played through the pain in situations that were downright dangerous. At age 49, he was back in the sport that he frankly detested, because he didn’t have a way of making a living– like so many of his colleagues, the sport had used him in the heyday, chewed him up and spat him out. In the last ten years, we have witnessed a startling amount of early deaths, murders and suicides by current and past wrestlers. I remember watching the entire interview with Roddy Piper on Sports Extra.. and my heart went out to the man. Pro wrestlers are like prostitutes. They use up their bodies and health for the vicarious pleasure of strangers until they can’t any more, and then they (usually) die.
I have to hand it to both Steele and Koloff– they had long and amazing careers in the WWF and successor organizations, and both of them managed to do something that wrestlers rarely do, life past 70.
RIP, George and Ivan. I hope the pain has finally gone away.