Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mark My Words...

Earlier this week, I received a large gift. Now, I’d known about its impending arrival for several days; but still, until I actually took possession, the 50 pounds of old pro wrestling magazines, newsletters and what-not that dropped into my lap couldn’t have been anticipated.

To be clear, I need to give a short history of how this sudden wealth came my way. As I’ve mentioned from time-to-time, minutes (and sometimes hours) of an average day for me are spent at the message board of Wrestling Not only does it feature a repository of information by and for wrestling fans, historians and other reprobates, but there are some mighty fine (and often mighty rare) DVDs available for purchase at the site’s online store.

Owned and operated by former pro wrestling announcer Mark Nulty, Wrestling Classics is a beacon of light in a sometimes dank webosphere. Beyond some of the brightest minds to ever grace the wrestling business (and others), you’ll find moderators who ensure that exchanges adhere to a higher standard of expression. You won’t encounter nasty flame-wars on this message board.

Disagreements, sure … there are plenty of ‘em. But “Head Mod,” Crimson Mask, is vigilant in his role. As well as being one of the most intellectually gifted individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading (on almost any subject … the man is scary-smart), he keeps potential miscreants from pushing the boundaries of behavior from crossing the line. Fair but as stern as necessary, CM is a large part of the reason for the success of Wrestling

Anyway, about the magazines … one of the most beloved members of the WCMB community was Mark Markley. (That was his legitimate name, even though it smacks of something created by a brain-weary wrestling booker). While there is a goodly number of writers, artists, joke-tellers and show biz types to be found at the message board (along with professionals of every stripe), Mark was unique. It’s said that only once in his many years as a contributor did he get genuinely angry about someone’s ill-advised and personally directed post. And, true to Mark’s nature, that was resolved quickly and cleanly.

Otherwise, we all enjoyed his frequently funny input. Whether it was about wrestling (he’d grown up enthralled with the Portland, OR promotion), some of his favorite bands from the ‘70s (someone may correct me on this, but I think Grand Funk Railroad topped ‘em all), his beloved son and daughter, or his thoughts on life in general, he inevitably made us smile, chuckle or outright guffaw. Odd though it may seem, the visitor invariably left WCMB feeling better than when he’d arrived. The way he could connect with just about anybody, courtesy of an unexpectedly clever turn of phrase, pithy comment or posted photo, Mark had a positive influence on us all.

In the fall of 2007, when we learned the shocking news of Mark’s sudden passing soon after his 50th birthday, many of us tried to put our feelings into words. A large number of pages (with 39 posts per page) were devoted to tributes, memories and heartfelt goodbyes to our friend. Many of them induced tears among those that had enjoyed the time they’d spent with Mr. Markley.

Those of us living in the Pacific Northwest felt especially aggrieved; we had finally agreed on a time and place not too far outside of Seattle where we all might gather and hoist a cold one. It’s no lie when I state that everybody planning to attend the event was looking forward to meeting the man behind the humor that graced the message board. Sadly, he died just a matter of weeks before the scheduled date. So, Mark’s daughter and her boyfriend showed up. As a couple, they were lovely, delightful people. But nothing could make up for the empty chair, the one where Mark Markley should have been sitting.

Some 10 days ago, I received an e-mail from a woman I didn’t know. It turned out she was the boyfriend’s (now fiancĂ©e’s) mother. As it so happened, she was planning on driving up from Washington State to Vancouver to attend a show. Mark’s daughter thought that since I lived in that Canadian city, it might be a good idea to contact me and find out if I’d be interested in acquiring Mark’s wrestling possessions. So, when she made the inquiry, I was perfectly happy to offer a home to my online friend’s collection. We made the arrangements and needless to say, I was pleased when she pulled up right in front of my building with the five large, heavy boxes.

One minor backache later, they were upstairs in my condo. I’ve only just started to weed through them. So far, the oldest magazines I’ve found are from the early ‘70s; the most current date back to the early ‘90s. And as I thumb my way through them, chuckling occasionally at some of the bald-faced fabrications found within, I also feel a slight twinge of sadness.

The man who’d originally purchased them must have known hours of joy thumbing through this literary landscape, one which ranges from the thoughtful to the preposterous. The photos are fun, and the stories, many of which claim to be insider stuff not known to the average wrestling fan, frequently strain credibility to the breaking point. No matter. As a long-time writer on the topic of wrestling, what I’m finding leads me to question and research areas and territories I doubt I would have otherwise considered. One can never gain too much knowledge, can one?

And so, I carry on reading these colorful tales, taking my time to absorb and test them against what I’ve learned and come to believe from the years I’ve worked in the business. But it goes without saying that it would have been so much more preferable to have Mark Markley alive and well, keeping us laughing and regaling us with some of the “whacked-out” stories from these very same publications.

I will continue to miss his presence at the Wrestling Classics Message Board, but will consider the magazines as a personal gift from the man himself. They are now safe and secure in an area I’ve dubbed “The Mark Markley Reading Library.”

It’s the least I can do.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Gene Kiniski

When the sad news came early this morning that Gene "Big Thunder" Kiniski, “Canada’s Greatest Athlete,” had passed away during the night, I felt a numbness wash over me. Not that it came as a surprise … the former world champion had been diagnosed with cancer years before. And while it was in remission and under control for a substantial period of time, the disease had come back with a vengeance over the past year.

My introduction to Gene Kiniski, other than through the mark magazines of the 1960s, was on a Friday night in November, 1968. At that time, he was the NWA heavyweight titlist, and for the first time in more than a decade, he was appearing in Los Angeles. That evening, Kiniski was defending the belt against the equally large and rugged Bobo Brazil. The match was 2-out-of-3-falls, and the two men fought to a 60-minute draw before a sell-out crowd at the Olympic Auditorium.

While the match itself was relatively slow-moving (some would actually call it ponderous), it was not boring. Yes, it can be said there were more than a few spots that saw each man clamp on a leg hold, a body scissors or a side headlock and work it for minutes on end. We didn’t mind watching with growing interest and tension, waiting to see how much damage had been done in this wearing down process.

It’s the type of wrestling you won’t find much in 2010. In today’s pro wrestling climate, such an exhibition wouldn’t be tolerated by those expecting constant movement and acrobatics. But then, bouts that emphasized tests of strength, endurance and ring psychology mattered to the fans. A crowd appreciated the grueling exchange of holds and counter-holds every bit as much as the faster-paced wild brawls.

Gene Kiniski was recognized by the vast majority of wrestling promotions as the legitimate world heavyweight champion, and he received the respect accorded that lofty title. It meant something! So, on that night in ‘68, with the majority of fans pulling for Bobo Brazil, the champion was also given his due. Even though there was no winner or loser (each man having won a single fall), both competitors were loudly cheered when the final bell rang.

Well, that may not be exactly accurate. Today, a solitary bell is ringing everywhere wrestling fans gather. The memories of the man are bright and vivid, with plenty of stories to be found about Gene’s remarkable skill, both in the ring and when manipulating the media. Many of his interviews are the stuff of legend, whether they were conducted as part of a wrestling program or a mainstream radio show.

And while one can always question Gene’s declaration of being “Canada’s greatest athlete,” there’s no doubting his legitimacy as a top rank pro wrestler and genuine character. The final bell may have indeed tolled, but Gene Kiniski will be with us for a long time to come.

On behalf of the wrestling community everywhere, I offer my sincere condolences to Gene’s family and friends. And a heartfelt thank you to Big Thunder, for providing so many of us with so many nights of excitement. Gene Kiniski was not only a professional wrestler ... he was a true professional in every aspect of the word.