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Believability, storytelling made pro wrestling great

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Regarded by many as the greatest wrestling performer of all time, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair lived his gimmick. Provided photo

Perhaps the late Johnny Valentine said it best.

“I can’t make them believe wrestling is real, but I sure can make them believe I am real,” he declared.

Perhaps no one ever did a better job of conveying believability and realism in pro wrestling than Valentine. It was his raw strength and stiff style that captivated audiences; he readily admitted that he never threw an easy punch.

That concept of “making it real,” or at least making it look real, sadly is a concept that’s really no longer valid in today’s brand of sports entertainment.

This generation’s production values are glossy and glitz. Many of the athletes are world class. It truly is a multidimensional world, full of colors, sights and sounds.

But creative, logical storytelling seems to be at a premium these days.

As for violence, no less than WWE executive vice president Paul “Triple H” Levesque once called today’s choreographed mayhem “very Wile E. Coyote-ish.” He obviously remembers when things were different.

For many longtime fans who remember those days, the suspension of disbelief played a major role in their appreciation of the business. There was an ever-present element of spontaneity and suspense surrounding the performers who danced to the music the crowd demanded.

Raw emotion

Sometimes reality is played out in the most unlikely of places — a pro wrestling ring — as was the case when Ric Flair turned a real-life situation into a dynamic, emotional story on a Monday Nitro in Greenville on Sept. 14, 1998.

Flair’s return to WCW and a Four Horsemen reunion, before a sellout crowd of 16,000 and millions of others watching on television, was one of the greatest moments of the Monday Night Wars. It would become known as the “Fire me! I’m already fired” speech aimed at then WCW boss Eric Bischoff.

“You are a liar, you’re a cheat, you’re a scam, you are a no good SOB,” Flair screamed at Bischoff. “Abuse of power … abuse of power!”

“That moment was phenomenal. It was very heartfelt,” recalled Flair.

The emotion in Flair’s eyes, as announcers Mike Tenay and Bobby Heenan put it, told the whole story. “Words just do not do this moment justice,” said Tenay, an avid follower of the business since the ‘60s.

“That was the greatest moment in the history of this television program — bar none; bar none!” added veteran announcer Tony Schiavone.

The late MLB and pro wrestling broadcaster Lee Marshall called it “the single greatest moment in the history of our sport.”

“It rivals, emotionally, some other great sports moments: Lou Gehrig saying he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth, the retirement of Mike Schmidt,” said Marshall. “What Ric Flair told everybody, and I mean everybody, standing on their feet, standing on their feet in their living room, was the single most emotional moment in the history of professional wrestling.”

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Johnny Valentine earned his respect with blood, sweat and tears. Provided photo

Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross has called the lost art of telling a story in and out of the ring the most important aspect of professional wrestling.

“I think that we have to understand that our storytelling is the most important thing that we do,” Ross recently told Sportskeeda Wrestling. “Episodic television has got certain elements that come along with it, part of the package … It’s amazing to me that I’ve gone on TV on Raw back in the day without even a completed format.”

Believability and storytelling have always been vital elements of the trade. Wrestlers like Valentine and Wahoo McDaniel were masters at both.

Sixteen-time world champion Flair said he still flinches when recalling those torrid Valentine-Wahoo bloodbaths.

“They made believers out of everybody.”

When it operates on a high level, pro wrestling is where reality and fantasy merge. After all, it was Shakespeare who said all the world’s a stage.

Element of surprise

A recent column on Don Kernodle generated hearty discussion among readers who expressed their heartfelt love and appreciation for the late Mid-Atlantic star.

Kernodle, who passed away last month at the age of 71, was an example of an underdog who defied the odds and, through hard work and dogged determination, achieved his dream of being a headliner in the wrestling business.

The North Carolina native was a product of an era where believability and realistic, coherent storylines were key in the presentation of a product that was more “sport” than “entertainment,” at least by that generation’s standards.

Kernodle lived by those principles throughout his career.

A standout high school and collegiate wrestler, Kernodle’s first “official” match in a pro ring was a legitimate “shoot” against former Olympian Bob Roop. Kernodle hadn’t even been trained as a pro when he met Roop on Raleigh TV in a contest where the promotion would award $2,000 to anyone who could last 10 minutes with Roop. While Roop had defeated other challengers in less than 20 seconds, it took him nearly nine minutes to submit Kernodle.

Before the year was over, Kernodle would become an established pro who never failed to deliver in putting over the stars of the Mid-Atlantic territory.

It’s interesting to note that nearly a decade later, Kernodle would win his first major title, but one that took him completely by surprise.

“We had a finish that we thought we were going to lose,” Kernodle told the Mid-Atlantic Gateway. It was a tag-team bout pitting Kernodle and Jim Nelson, later to be dubbed “The Privates,” challenging Jay Youngblood and Porkchop Cash for the Mid-Atlantic tag-team belts.

“All of a sudden we were going into our deal and we thought we were going to lose and I covered Youngblood. The referee counted one, two, and I thought Jay was gonna kick out, and then three.”

The result surprised not only the crowd, but the underdogs as well.

“They did it as a joke,” said Kernodle. “We won the damn belts when we thought we were losing.”

It might have been a rib, but it would mark the start of an amazing run for the local hero from Burlington, N.C.

Russian heel angle

Kernodle made a big splash when he joined forces with Ivan Koloff in 1984, and the two went on to win the NWA world tag-team title. Although Kernodle had already established himself as a credible heel, teaming with the “Russian Bear” moved him to the next level as a “bad guy” who billed himself as “The Pride of the Carolinas.”

Although booking logic might have dictated that he go the route of “Russian sympathizer,” Kernodle instead played the role of a patriotic American who simply found a strong partner in Koloff.

“I did accept the flag, and Ivan accepted mine … but I didn’t turn on the country,” Kernodle said in an interview on the Mid-Atlantic Gateway site.

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Known as The Pride of the Carolinas, Don Kernodle was a product of an era where believability and realistic storylines were key in the presentation of pro wrestling. Eddie Cheslock/Provided

“An American turning on his damn country? I never really turned on the country. I just said, ‘What do you get when you get the greatest American wrestler and the greatest Russian wrestler and you team them up? You get the world tag-team champions!”

Longtime fan and producer Richard O’Sullivan of New York lauded the psychology behind the unholy alliance.

“I don’t think there was ever a ‘Russian sympathizer’ aspect to his teaming with Ivan,’ says O’Sullivan. “Remember, Don and Ivan gifted each other with flags of their own countries in the buildup, and each wore headbands of their own nations (Ivan’s read ‘USSR’ or ‘CCCP’ and Don’s read ‘USA’). It was if they were building to the split from the beginning. Don always played the ‘patriotic American’ role. He was just teaming with a Russian.”

O’Sullivan also noted the creative brilliance of Gary Hart, who managed Kernodle and Koloff, and had created the same psychological spin for others in his stable.

“Gary Hart was their manager (and part of Dory Funk’s booking committee at the time) and he was such a proponent of the notion that ‘every heel sees himself as the babyface.’ Spoiler (Don Jardine) wasn’t a villain, just a superhero working for a bad man; Kabuki had been psychologically damaged by having his face burned by hot coals, and so on. In Don’s (Kernodle) character’s mind, he was acting as a diplomat and an American ambassador for world peace. But Ivan was a hardliner (a Russian John Kreese). It also kind of informed Nikita’s babyface turn later. He went along with injuring Don because he was young and impressionable. But then, after seeing the real world, and gaining respect for people like Magnum and Dusty while battling them, he stood up for what was right.”

“Even went further when Dick Murdoch turned on Dusty for choosing Nikita over him,” continued O’Sullivan. “Captain Redneck hated the idea of Dusty embracing Nikita (which mirrored Reagan embracing Gorbachev and the fall of communism) so much, he turned around and teamed with Ivan (which also actually happened in real life, with American isolationists throwing in with Russian oligarchs). Pro wrestling at its best always resembles reality somewhat. Very little of what we see nowadays even comes close to representing the human condition, which is either the result or the cause of how frayed the performer/audience connection has become.”

Jonathan Lynn Schwartz of Toronto, Canada, agreed.

“The best villains always think they’re in the right, and even attract a measure of sympathy from the audience. Milton recognized that all the way back in Paradise Lost, where Satan is portrayed as an attractive figure with a clear viewpoint. He has to be appealing, otherwise how does he tempt so many? My favorite example is a bit later ... but Bret Hart’s heel run where he was basically a good guy everywhere else in the world was amazing, and I still cheered him as a fellow Canadian.”

Remembering ‘Noodle’

Longtime fan Peggy Lathan of Liberty passed along a fond remembrance of Kernodle, whom she first met in 1973 and had been good friends with ever since.

She related in a recent story on the Mid-Atlantic Gateway site that she had been introduced to Kernodle by Johnny Weaver, her all-time favorite wrestler.

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Don Kernodle (front) provided a memorable storyline when he teamed with “Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff. Eddie Cheslock/Provided

“Johnny was my favorite and while chatting, I told him about our three generations attending the matches. One night in 1973, Johnny told Don about the three of us, and Don wanted to meet my family. He was fascinated about three generations all attending the matches together, the same seats, every week. That was the beginning of a longtime friendship.”

Fast-forward 35 years later.

“Noodle rode with me to Johnny Weaver’s funeral and one thing he said will always stick with me:

“Weave’s up there in Heaven and we’re stuck down here in Charlotte.”

“Now I can say ‘Don’s up there in Heaven and we’re stuck down here in (insert city).”

Reach Mike Mooneyham at bymikemooneyham@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham. His latest book — “Final Bell” — is now available at https://evepostbooks.com and on Amazon.com

Did you know …

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Ted DiBiase. WWE Photo

Years before he reappeared in the WWF under a new guise as the devious Million Dollar Man, Ted DiBiase was introduced to fans of the promotion in 1979 as the young inaugural North American champion. DiBiase, an easygoing fan favorite, spent much of his run in a program with veteran heel Pat Patterson as they battled for the title. Through use of a foreign object during an especially contentious showdown, Patterson was able to win the belt, which was soon renamed the Intercontinental championship. DiBiase was unable to win back the crown in a series of rematches, and left the company before the end of the year.

— Kenneth Mihalik, a retired educator living in Charleston, can be reached on Twitter @HoldBackTheNite

Blast from the Past

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Superstar Billy Graham. WWE Photo

Eldridge Wayne Coleman from Arizona, an accomplished body-builder, was trained for a mat career in western Canada by the legendary Stu Hart. Coleman, a spiritually minded and charismatic personality, took on the ring identity of Superstar Billy Graham, a name possessing obvious meaning in religious circles yet also in the wrestling realm given the famous Graham family. He spent the early 1970s for the NWA in San Francisco, often teaming with veteran “bad guy” Pat Patterson against tremendous combinations usually consisting of stars like Rocky Johnson, Peter Maivia and Ray Stevens. After establishing himself as a credible presence, he set out for other territories. He was a fast-rising hit in the Midwestern-stronghold AWA where he displayed great flamboyance and entertaining skill on the microphone in addition to asserting his stature as a blond powerhouse.

Graham was a hot and colorful commodity, in demand by promoters everywhere. Because of the clamor, he worked several territories concurrently. In the mid-‘70s, he challenged Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF world title. After a series of setbacks, Graham, seconded by The Grand Wizard (Ernie Roth), reached his career pinnacle, finally seizing the prize in Baltimore (with a typically heelish-tainted win) one May evening during 1977. The victory changed the dynamic of the promotion in that fan favorites would be contending for the belt. Not only did Superstar reckon with top mainstays Gorilla Monsoon, Tony Garea and Ivan Putski, several big names such as Dusty Rhodes and Mil Mascaras invaded the Federation for their opportunities against Graham. After a year of defending the championship against tough veteran opponents, up-and-coming Bob Backlund upended Graham at Madison Square Garden in 1978. This match, too, had its moment of controversy.

Graham was unsuccessful in his initial series of return bouts and soon left to compete in assorted regions. But he returned in 1982 with a trimmer and entirely different look (shaved head, dark mustache, karate pants, etc.) to battle Backlund again in a lengthy program. Much of the following year was spent warring with not only Backlund, but also longtime West Coast rival Johnson. After that run, Graham surfaced in Jim Crockett Promotions for a tour of the Mid-Atlantic where he sided with Paul Jones in a feud against Jimmy Valiant. But Graham, who’d always had a following despite a rule-breaking style, opted to embrace his popularity with fans. He was also cheered while appearing in Florida. Meanwhile, as Graham revived his former tie-dyed persona, the wear and tear of in-ring conflict necessitated a hip replacement just as the Superstar prepped for a WWF comeback.

Alas, the final run was curtailed by injuries while Graham was embroiled in a mid-card series versus Butch Reed in 1987. Graham then served as manager to Don Muraco and as a TV commentator. In 2004, he was inducted in the WWE’s Hall of Fame, and he followed that by writing an autobiography. Despite various health concerns, the 78-year-old who inspired many young grapplers continues to monitor developments in the business.

— Kenneth Mihalik, a retired educator living in Charleston, can be reached on Twitter @HoldBackTheNite

Photo of the Week

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Roddy Piper works over a bloody Wahoo McDaniel. Provided photo

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