Thursday, May 10, 2012

Memories (And Memorabilia) Of The Territorial Wrestling Heroes

It's a lot easier to be immortal in pro wrestling these days.  Any wrestler that's made any kind of stride in WWE or TNA will have any combination of a trading card, action figure, or video game rendering.  Being captured in any of those forms guarantees immortality, but does it necessarily equate a remembrance?

Sure we all remember stars of years gone by who had the immense WWF marketing machine behind them, but what about the gladiators that came before them?  The true regional heroes of the mat that, while they may have had some small national exposure, largely stayed confined to just a few areas.  To be remembered today by both fans who saw their battles up close and personal as well as those of us who were not yet even born is a true testament to their talent.  It's also the stuff of which legends are made.

One of these men will be celebrating his 80th year this Sunday, May 13th.  That man would be the one and only Danny Hodge.  An absolute God in amateur wrestling, Hodge beat out Kurt Angle as the first Olympic wrestler to make a successful transition into pro wrestling.  Hodge also beat out Hulk Hogan as the first pro wrestler to make the cover of Sport Illustrated, although after reading the SI article it is apparent that the NCAA champion had no intention of going pro at the time.

Ask any wrestler over the age of fifty as to who the toughest grappler of the golden era was and they will most assuredly answer with Hodge's name.  His feats of strength were often demonstrated by crushing an apple in his fist and swiftly turning it in applesauce.  Now nearly an octogenarian, Hodge is still fully capable of this amazing skill.

A perennial holder of various forms of the NWA Junior Heavyweight Championship, Hodge's career was ended after a car accident in the mid-1970s.  Despite not being active in the ring for almost forty years, Hodge's name is still widely bandied about when the all-time greats are discussed.  Although he is a member of many Hall of Fame's, Danny Hodge's name is one that many feel should be in the WWE Hall of Fame.  This is an opinion shared by fellow Oklahoma native Jim Ross who had the honor of inducting Hodge into the NWA Hall of Heroes in 2010.

Hodge stays active as chairman of the sports commission in Oklahoma as well as by making appearances at events such as NWA Fanfest.  The former champion often seems to have as much fun at the event as the fans.  A gentleman in every sense of the word, his handshake shared with fans is much more forgiving than the grips which he uses on apples.

While getting a handshake and photo with Mr. Hodge would be enough to thrill any true wrestling fan, it's actually the fact that I've met another territorial great that seems to surprise most people in conversation.  Maybe it's because this star made almost a second wrestling career out of being a menacing, scheming manager in the NWA.  The man in question would be none other than "Number One" Paul Jones.

Classic wrestling fans from Florida to the Carolinas remember Jones as one of the best ring technicians of the day.  Fans who were largely unexposed to the territories and instead grew up watching Jim Crockett Promotions' World Championship Wrestling will remember Jones as the conniving manager of stars such as The Powers of Pain, Rick Rude & Manny Fernandez, and others while constantly feuding with "Boogie Woogie Man" Jimmy Valiant.

Although all memories of Jones are valid, it's his wrestling years where he truly shines as a superstar.  Combined with ring technique that would match up to any current star was a flare for controversy that would fit right in with today's "sports entertainment" tastes.  From throwing title belts off of bridges to turning on various "babyface" tag team partners such as a young Ricky Steamboat, (to hear Jones tell it, they turned on him) Jones was a true athlete, entertainer and, in many ways, ahead of his time.

Speaking of those ahead of their time, imagine an accomplished wrestling star from the 1960's and 1970's who went on to design and create so many of the championship wrestling belts that we've dreamed of winning?  That would be Reggie Parks.

Even if you've never seen Reggie Parks wrestle, you have still seen his work.  Creating most of the memorable championships for the WWF, NWA, AWA, WCW, and more, Mr. Parks carved out a legacy in pro wrestling that will never be matched.  Now imagine all of that on top of a fantastic wrestling career.

Originally trained by Stu Hart, Parks' career was largely on the west coast where he wrestled under both his own name and as the masked Avenger.  Capturing many regional titles, word spread of Parks' talents for creating titles as well which began his second career in wrestling.  Since then, Parks' name has been synonymous with the highest honors in the sport that he devoted his life to.

This is just three great examples of men whose blood, sweat, and tears built a territorial industry into a global pastime.  There are many more like them, some more celebrated and some less, that I hope to be able to talk about in these pages in the future.  While memories fade and memorabilia deteriorates, stories can be passed down continually until the end of time, thus providing immortality for these legends that no other medium can.

Here we have three men that devoted their careers to a sport that they loved.  Three men who, without the aid of an action figure or video game appearance, are remembered by the fans who cheered them in smoke-filled arenas around the country.  Three men that paved the way for the stars of today and, even if just because of this article, are now known to the fans of today and hopefully thus will be remembered by the wrestlers and fans of tomorrow.

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