RAVEN MACK is a mystic poet-philosopher-artist of the Greater Appalachian unorthodox tradition. He does have an amazing PATREON, but also *normal* ARTIST WEBSITE too.

Friday, February 3

Re-Analyzing Smoky Mountain Wrestling in the Era of President Trump - February 1992/2017

[Trash Culture Anthropology series are me doing whatever the fuck it is I do. These are supported by the Patreon I have set up. Feel free to contribute, but don’t feel obligated in order to read further. Thank you Ben and Paul.]

So President Trump has become a reality, which is a more obviously uncomfortable reality than most all of us were accustomed to previously. Whether he is the ugliest boil of empire’s disease festering to the surface of our shared American experience, or he is a political anomaly that will change things forever, pushing all of us worldwide closer to doom.
Of course, I should clarify, a bunch of motherfuckers voted for him, in order for this to become reality. And much sociological ballyhoo was made after the election about these people. Were they working class whites who had finally had too much with our economic downturn away from manufacturing? Or were they out-and-out racists hell-bent on making America white again? Even within those two questions, there are sub-categories: were they for-real working class whites, living in abandoned towns, suffering from self-medication and hopelessness; or were they polo shirted suburban “working class” people, with shiny new truck that never once gets dirty, even on Saturdays? With the racists, were they old-fashioned Easy Rider/Billy Jack small town secret Klansmen racists; or were they new-fangled alt-right gay meme sport coat wearers?
I don’t plan on adding any insight to those non-degreed digital sociology projects. I, in fact, could give a fuck less about such things, because generally it’s someone from position of comfort attempting to “scientifically” judge those below them on the socio-economic and internet gentrification scales. I would much rather watch wrestling.

As a kid, I loved wrestling. It was very different then, as I am old, and professional wrestling had not yet been fully globalized into a corporate entity at the top. Wrestling throughout a lot of the country (and most of the south) was carved up in a cartel-like fashion by a collective of promoters that called themselves the National Wrestling Alliance. Territories were agreed upon by the (almost exclusively white) men in power, and labor was forced to accept conditions of pay and expectations or else be blacklisted. Despite those draconian work conditions, there were a number of professional promotions – far more active on a regular basis, than there are now.
I grew up in the territory of Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, so spent Saturday afternoons inside for an hour, watching Bob Caudle call the action on their main television show, and if my parents were partying enough for me to be lost in the fog, I could fight to stay awake late enough into Saturday night to catch their second hour called Worldwide Wrestling. I fucking loved it.
But I got older, and even though it was openly acknowledged as a worked event back then, you knew. You just shut the fuck up about it, playing along yourself, like a 12-year-old still hoping for presents from Santa. Sure, I bet some people thought it was real, but those people were stupid (this was before fans self-identified as “smarts” and “marks”). And yet, we all were enjoying the same spectacle.
I went to college in 1991 – first-generation college student before that was even a thing they really talked about, and left behind most of the trash culture I grew up with, in the hopes of becoming educated and receiving salvation unto successful society. Except I still secretly enjoyed wrestling.
In the early ‘90s though, wrestling was far different. Vince McMahon had bought up most of the best wrestling talent from any rival promotions, and started to run his own programming against local promotions in their own television markets. He had gone national. What had been the Mid-Atlantic I grew up on had been consolidated with other southern NWA territories into World Championship Wrestling, and eventually was purchased by Ted Turner. The early ‘90s was the point of these two competing national brands of wrestling, neither of which offered the same morality plays that old school wrestling did.

In early 1992 – 25 years ago – Jim Cornette began airing Smoky Mountain Wrestling on local television stations in the middle Appalachian region, attempting to recreate that feeling of old school wrestling. Bob Caudle, the commentator from my childhood viewing, was actually the on-air host for SMW as well, and they touted themselves as “professional wrestling like it used to be, and like you like it.”
Thus as we enter the uncharted territory of The President Trump Era, and we hit the silver anniversary of Smoky Mountain Wrestling TV having existed, let us (meaning me in the active sense; you are sort of passively reading along, but maybe go outside afterwards, walk for seven miles, preferably somewhere with crows) re-analyze Smoky Mountain Wrestling, on a monthly basis, in this dark new era.
If we were to do the digital sociology, we would assume these areas where Smoky Mountain aired are the same regions that went for Trump in the election. These are the places, a quarter century back, that were convinced we needed to make America great again.

That first month of SMW came from Greenville, SC, Morristown, TN, and Knoxville, TN.
  • Greenville is a relatively prosperous sizeable Southern city, which – like many in the area – had previously been built on the textile industry. Unlike many other cities in the region, when textiles went bust (moving overseas in most cases), Greenville was able to rebrand itself (thank to tax benefits) and bring in new corporate investment, including many automotive plants, which in fact were fleeing higher union-wage locations further north. Economic success makes it perhaps more progressive than stereotypical South Carolina.
  • Knoxville is a college town, and the University of Tennessee looms over everything. There is a level of progressiveness, it being a university and all, but not as deeply altering to the area as one might expect. East Tennessee all around Knoxville remains hardscrabble in places and polished in others. This is simultaneously the land of Southern Living cover shoots as well as Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree. But Knoxville is certainly not a go-nowhere shithole.
  • Morristown might be one. I don’t say this as a hard cultural ethering; I was born in a go-nowhere shithole and raised in one as well – a place so small and unknown that I have to refer to the large town 15 miles away when people ask where I’m from (lolol and that large town is literally named “Farmville”). I am guessing that Morristown is Farmville-esque.

As The Era of President Trump is being hyped as a heelish time, let us focus this first month of SMW upon the bad guys, as this simple, old-fashioned Smoky Mountain Wrestling makes it very clear to us there are good guys and bad guys, clearly. There are no tweeners, and they are not trying to sell you cartoons or action figures. Bob Caudle drives the point home constantly. It should be noted that at this time, and indeed always, wrestling programming has essentially been an infomercial, attempting to convince “fans” to go to live shows. SMW is no different, although they had no live shows to tout the first few weeks of TV. In fact, the first two weeks of TV from February of 1992 were actually filmed in late 1991. These were the episodes from Greenville, and the reason this is interesting is because the main event bad guy of those first two weeks was a pretend Soviet called Ivan Koloff (along with his pretend nephew, Vladimir).

Ivan Koloff, “The Russian Bear”, had made a long career as a bastard Soviet Russian come to America to fuck up our freedom as seen in pro wrestling. He once had been WWE champion, and had started to age out of relevance as a longtime heel in the Carolinas region, and likely wasn’t built for national travel of corporate wrestling any more, nor was he – as an old, gravel-voiced Cold War caricature – necessarily marketable to 1990s corporate wrestling fans. Thus, he was available to be the top bad hombre (word to Trump) in SMW’s first few weeks.
However, between the time these first few episodes were taped in Oct-Nov 1991, and when they aired in February 1992, the Soviet Union sort of disintegrated back into 15 separate nations in December. Thus, the hammer and sickle designs of Ivan and his nephew Vladimir’s wrestling singlets suddenly lost some of its terror. The Cold War was literally done. In fact, Vladimir was missing from the fourth week main event, where Ivan was teaming with longtime east Tennessee region wrestler Jimmy Golden – a hulking but normal-looking Southern man with traditional fu Manchu and shaggy mane of Simple Man who didn’t give a fuck, when the bad guy color commentator Dutch Mantel remarked how Vladimir was not present because he had to go back to Russia to help with some further coups taking place.

Let us talk about these commentators for a minute… Bob Caudle was a longtime wrestling TV sportscaster personality, but also had long been a loyal staff member to infamous right wing North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. Ideologically, when Bob Caudle said “professional wrestling like it used to be, and like you like it,” there is a definite Make America Great Again quality to it. Wrestling at this point has become culturally known for how sordid it is, and certainly it was no different back then. But Bob Caudle – a devout Christian fundamentalist working in service of this hardest right Senator known to American politics at that time – still had a place in it. (And I guess that is no different either, as Linda McMahon, wife of corporate wrestling’s mad genius Vince, was nominated for a cabinet position by President Trump. But the sordidness is no longer kayfabed away behind the appearance of Christian beliefs. The morality no longer seems real, like it used to appear.)

Dutch Mantel, as dastardly foil to Bob Caudle’s uprightness, is absolutely great, but never at the expense of the other wrestlers. He is clever, but keeps the commentary respecting the feigned authenticity of the event. And his wit is relevant to the audience. Example: as Robert Gibson, half of the former Rock-n-Roll Express, has a match, Dutch says they had a record which “went plywood, sold 75 copies, and was on the verge of going sheetrock!” Just as professional wrestling went corporate, so did hardware, and your local mom-and-pop Ace has been replaced for the most part by the chain Lowes or Home Depot big boxes on outskirts of whatever mini-metropolis of suburban sprawl is closest to you now. The quality of tools and products is not as good always, as many tools now are made for weekend warriors rather than daily laborers, geared for the Do-It-Yourselfer backyarder, but even in that brave new world, “plywood” and “sheetrock” suggests real labor. (And I’m not even sure about where the class/cultural differences between using “sheetrock” or “drywall” come from? I always knew it as sheetrock growing up, but had many a not-like-what-I-grew-up-around type look at me funny for saying that. “You mean drywall?” I mean help me hold this heavy fuckin’ shit up, bitch, so I can screw it in.)

[As another heel cultural aside relevant to the area, in the third week – February 15, 1992 – Robert Gibson faces a masked “jobber”, or television wrestler guaranteed to lose. This man was announced as, “from Up North, The Mighty Yankee!” This simple announcement, even before Robert Gibson’s music started, was enough to make him the bad guy with the east Tennessee crowd.]

But the heel character from that first month of Smoky Mountain that really drives home all these changes – from local wrestling to corporate wrestling, from “Simple Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd times to pablum pop country squeezed out of spreadsheets times, is Mr. Ron Wright.
Historically, Ron Wright was a longtime heel star of that east Tennessee region, billed as the King of Kingsport and The Number One Hillbilly, and was known for his realistic-fight wrestling style (it might’ve been worked, in the sense it was planned, but they laid it on thick, and certainly not entirely fake, because real hillbillies knew real fights and expected them to look a certain way), and was one of the greatest shit talkers the region ever produced, without ever losing that mountain accent. As the world went global, once the Soviet resistance against worldwide capitalism was gone, had Ron Wright been a younger man, with those verbal and physical skills, he likely could’ve learned to talk more “normal” and become a Wrestling Superstar™. But that isn’t the world he lived, and who is to say that is an improvement, because Ron Wright was a superstar throughout the region, famous for having a pilot’s license that allowed him to fly between towns, but equally as famous for being a total shithead in an entirely different era, when you had to answer for being a shithead to fans sometimes, which for Wright meant getting a 100-stitch gash across his head from a knife-wielding fan fighting the good fight, and having his plane actually destroyed in Kentucky by a fan who threw dynamite under it. They weren’t exactly hanging around to take selfies with the bad guys back then.
Regional promotions back then would play in the big cities weekly or monthly, and generally do spot shows a few times a year in all the smaller towns, so that everybody would get the opportunity to experience it live, even if they couldn’t afford a tank of gas and ticket prices to go to Knoxville (or Atlanta, or Dallas, or Greensboro, or Memphis or New Orleans, so on and so forth). They made it a point to keep their territory covered, so regional wrestlers were small town superstars.
But Ron Wright was an old man by the time 1992 rolled around, and on SMW TV, he was wheelchair bound, claiming to be up to nothing but good, just trying to find a good man to manage in order to make some money to get the knee and hip replacement surgeries he so badly needed after a life of wrestling which Medicaid and Medicare wouldn’t cover. (It is nearly impossible to wonder how Affordable Care Act would've changed that situation, and how it might be reverting to something else. But there is an appearance here of Mr. Wright attempting to take advantage of the situation, even if those surgeries were legitimate or not.)

Before the great Wal-Martinizing homogenization of American society, one of the absolute strongest southern anthems – more so than even “Freebird” in many circles – was “Longhaired Country Boy” by the Charlie Daniels Band. A line from that song goes “and I ain’t askin’ nobody for nothing, if I can’t get it on my own.” In other words, Ron Wright’s getting no automatic sympathy for not being able to afford his hip and knee surgeries.

Wright’s feeble old man in wheelchair gimmick is so perfectly managed, by him just being a simple old guy acting like he’s just scouting wrestlers, combined with the gloss given to him by color commentators Mantel and Jim Cornette (another wonderfully quick-witted fucker on the mic), painted as decent old feller.
The problem with this is all these longtime wrestling fans know what a lifelong shithead he is, and if they don’t, do-gooder Bob Caudle is quick to remind them. So though he might be wheeling himself out ringside with an afghan over his lap to protect himself from catching the flu (THE MOTHERFUCKER ACTUALLY HAD A LAP BLANKET IN A WHEELCHAIR RINGSIDE… A FUCKING LAP BLANKET… that’s deep dedication to gimmick, seeing details corporate wrestling would never notice), he kept getting involved, grabbing a fan favorite’s leg, or handing off a foreign object to the bad dude involved in the match.
Corporate wrestling is about pop, and “pop” is literally  the definition used by faux-carney business-oriented “smart” “fans” of wrestling now to describe the sound burst made by the crowd when a character that is loved appears. Corporate wrestling moves through pops rapidly, and there is generally a plethora of merchandise attached to all these pops, cheaply made (overseas in all likelihood), mass produced and distributed, and even if it doesn’t sell out immediately (to the fault of the wrestling character, not the promoter, or so it is viewed usually) the item will trickle down through retail from first- to second-tier until you find a whole shelf of The Undertaker and John Cena thumb wrestler figures at the local dollar store by chance.
A character like Mr. Ron Wright in his wheelchair is never going to pop a crowd, for good or bad. It is a slow boil, built off a level of belief corporate wrestling lacks. All wrestling lacks it now, but in 1992, Smoky Mountain was trying to make another run at it. You could think of it in terms of churches – big megachurches like what have become more popular in the past decade, with really corny “cool” Christian people preaching about Jesus shit to you, versus old school small town or back country roads churches, attendance lucky to get to 150. It’s the same religion, same wrestling, but the experience and environment is 100% different, opposite ends of the spectrum, where one end is passive viewing consumption while the other wants you to feel like you’re still part of it.
This is driven home in how they hyped Smoky Mountain too – “Something you can bring your children to without shame, at an affordable price.” “ We want your cards and letters.” Even Jim Cornette, hated as he was, explained why he was there during the second week’s episode: “An international superstar, what are you doing in a nowhere place like Greenville? Big corporations turned wrestling into a side show, and it’s not whether you can wrestle but whether you can sell a doll steroids. Nobody ever gave us anything, but we wouldn’t turn around and do no favors.” It sounds like “Longhaired Country Boy” again.
But Ron Wright, famous wrestler in the region, is sitting there in his wheelchair, talking of his much-needed surgeries, “because folks, Medicare and Medicaid won’t pay hardly nothing on it.” Corporate wrestling had no place for Mr. Ron Wright’s old balding wheelchair-bound ass with deep mountain accent.

So this was already a forgotten area, already being left behind in many parts by impending globalization. The older George Bush was still President at this time, and he was taking a strong challenge from Pat Buchanan in the February primaries, even as incumbent President (who generally is not going to be challenged too stiffly, to use a carney wrestling term). The Democratic primaries of February 1992 were won scattered one apiece between Jerry Brown, Paul Tsongas, Bob Kerrey, and Tom Harkin, with Bill Clinton not yet having taken over the contest. And February 20, 1992, Ross Perot first suggested on Larry King that he might make a third-party run for President himself. The Soviet Union was dead. Professional had been corporatized, and might fly into Knoxville, TN, or Asheville, NC, or Greenville, SC, once every couple of years. But despite these cultural trends, both economic and political, Smoky Mountain was doubling down on keeping it local. But the changes were inevitable, even when performing in denial. At the end of that first week of SMW, after Bobby Fulton had been double-teamed by Ivan and Vladimir Koloff, and his brother Jackie hung by a chain, when they had a tag match signed for the next week, Bobby said in the show-ending promo, “If the great people of the USA get behind us, we’re gonna do one thing and that’s kick tail, just like we did overseas against Saddam Hussein and those characters.” Even if they wanted to keep it small town and down home-y, making wrestling great again, that consciousness of a much larger more complicated and maybe not necessarily better world was already there.

And with that we end the first month of Re-Analyzing Smoky Mountain Wrestling in the Era of President Trump, so to paraphrase Bob Caudle, that’s it for this month, and until next month fans, so long for now!

[And consider supporting more online trash culture anthropological ridiculousness like this through my Patreon.]


Anonymous said...

This was a tremendous piece. I really loved the first couple years of SMW. I only got to see them once in Beckley WVA because they wouldn't go any further north in West Virginia. They had a really good group of guys, but once they lost the Heavenly Bodies to Vince the writing was on the wall.

Andy Stowell

Raven Mack said...

Thanks man. Yeah, in the context of this theme - the abandonment of rural areas, there's a lot one could parse through this re-watch, including what you mention - when the best opportunities for talented individuals requires them leave where they are. I'm excited to go through it month-by-month.

logicalvoodoo said...

Great work. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.

In the early eighties, where we lived it was the AWA with guys like Jerry Blackwell and Baron Von Raschke. I remember a lot of Saturday afternoons laying around with my dad while he drank tomato beers and we watched what he called the "rasslin." Haven't thought about that in a very long time, thanks for reminding me.

Rosie said...

YO RAVEN! How have you been, man? I really enjoyed this piece. I can tell you that your ideas regarding Morristown are pretty accurate-I worked a few shows there in the late 90's or so. I gave up the rasslin' a few years ago, and took up bagpipes in its stead. Way less rough on the hips and knees. Then I started making the damned things, so now I cough up wood dust a lot. Why do we do this shit to ourselves?

Raven Mack said...

Oh man what's up Rosie! Hit me up at ravenmack at gmail if you see this response. Love to hear from you.
I think we suffer from "DIY syndrome" where whenever you get into anything, it always occurs to you how much easier it would be to just do the entire fucking thing yourself.

William T.Mack said...

an amazing article dude. Thank you However I am experiencing issue with ur rss . Don?t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting identical rss problem? Anyone who knows kindly respond. Thnkx