Wrestling's first cross-over superstar carved out a career that reached from the earliest days of television to the consolidation of all the local leagues under the banner of World Wrestling. As a wrestler he stood unbeaten in every major championship and he continued his winning streak even after injuries forced his retirement, managing may wrestling stars including Hollywood Hulk Hogan and Jesse "The Body" Ventura. A larger-than-life personality, he was as recognizable on the streets of Los Angeles as any movie star. This tale of success epitomizes the lifestyle every modern wrestling star aspires to.
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Keith Eliot Greenberg has written on popular culture throughout his career.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
ONE: IT HAPPENED IN ST. LOUIS
"Blassie, you ain't worth a bucket of cold piss!"
I scowled at the crowd squeezed into Jersey City's Roosevelt Stadium, a decaying ballpark in a grimy city. Once, the Brooklyn Dodgers used to come across the Hudson River and play a couple of home games here every year. But that was a long time ago. Now, it was 1964, the Dodgers were in sunny California, and everything about Jersey City seemed hopeless. Unless you were Italian, and loved Bruno Sammartino.
"Go back to California, you bleached blond piece of shit!"
Bruno was a bear of a man with a busted nose and cauliflower ears. Like a lot of the crowd, he was from Italy, and even worked the same lousy jobs they did when he came to America. But Bruno wasn't hauling bricks or pouring concrete anymore. He was the champion of the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF), the company that later became World Wrestling Federation and then World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). When Bruno won a match, the people in Roosevelt Stadium felt like champions, too. And when someone like me beat the shit out of him, they wanted to hang me upside down from a gas station, just like the Italian partisans did when they finally got their hands on Mussolini.
"You're a no-good bastard, Blassie!"
I kicked at the ropes, and waved my arms forward, dismissing the crowd and everything they believed in.
"Sit down, spaghetti bender!" I yelled at the entire front section.
I was the heel, the bad guy in the match, and I was doing what a heel was supposed to do, "get heat" from the fans. Good heat was when they got engaged in the action, jumping up and booing. This was bad heat, the kind that could get you killed.
I didn't care. I pounded on Bruno, but he got behind me, took me down, and had me in a sitting position on the mat, his knee digging into my spine, his fingers clamped around my face in a chinlock.
Garbage was flying around everywhere, and there was no security that I could see. Fourteen thousand people swarmed forward, like the mosquitoes coming off Newark Bay. Then, some big fat Italian woman -- who was probably fifty but looked like she was eighty -- came running all the way up to the edge of the ring. She was straight off the boat, wearing a dress they wouldn't even sell you in America.
"Bruno!" she yelled, beating on the ring apron. "Kill-a the son of a bitch! Kill-a the son of a bitch!"
Sammartino was pulling my head back, but I looked down, over Bruno's stubby fingers, and blurted out the two words that summed up my attitude about her, and my philosophy about everything else in life.
I had to wait eighty-five years before someone asked me to write a book, which is really incredible, since I've done things that no ordinary human would do. I was the most obnoxious wrestler who ever lived. That's why I was stabbed twenty-one times by crazy fans, and had acid thrown on me in Los Angeles. I used to bite my opponents 'til they bled, and file my teeth on interviews. When my knees gave out on me, and I began a second career as a manager in the World Wrestling Federation, I'd regularly break my cane over the head of whomever my protégé was wrestling.
During my first tour of Japan, twenty-five people dropped dead from heart attacks, just watching me on TV. Over my entire career, ninety-two people died because of "Classy" Freddie Blassie. But I've always said that was a disappointment. My ambition in life was to get one hundred.
Even now, women do a double-take when they walk by me on the street. And you should have seen me fifty years ago! I had thirty different ring robes, with sequins and everything. That's why I was called The Hollywood Fashion Plate. Even when I wasn't dressed up, I looked like I stepped out of the pages of Esquire.
Women used to drag their pencil-neck husbands to the arena just to see what I'd be wearing that night. I used to enjoy teasing these women, calling them frustrated housewives, and reminding them that one second with Blassie was equivalent to two hours with an ordinary layman.
I remember taking my mother to the arena once, after I'd become one of the most notorious heels in the business.
"They hate you like this all over?" she asked me.
"I don't understand it. Why do you have to call the fans names? Why don't you be nice like you used to be?"
I told my mother to look at the kind of people sitting in the audience. "As far as these idiots are concerned, I'm not nice and I don't want to be nice. Do you see anybody with any intelligence, any brains? They're not fit to travel in Freddie Blassie's company."
My mother stared at me, a little bewildered. She wasn't sure if I was being myself, or living my gimmick.
To tell you the truth, neither was I.
In the town where my mother, Anna Sind, came from in what was then Austro-Hungary, you measured a person's wealth by how many geese he owned. Her father had a big flock of geese, but this one mischievous kid, this rotten bastard, would always trespass on the property. He'd run at the geese and chase them toward the edge of this cliff. Some of them couldn't stay airborne, and they'd hit the ground and die.
Nobody could do anything to stop this kid. His father would beat his brains out, but the kid kept coming back and killing those geese. He was a mean son of a bitch.
Looking back on it, I'd say my mother wasn't dealing with a full deck because she married this ding-a-ling. His name was Jacob Blassie -- or Yacob, as they said in German -- and he moved her across the Atlantic Ocean, from her little village to south St. Louis, Missouri.
That was probably the only good thing he ever did. By the time I was born, on February 8, 1918, the Old Country was being torn apart by World War I.
I didn't come into the world lightly. I weighed fifteen pounds. My mother would have had an easier time giving birth to an elephant, and she never had another kid again. I don't know if that was because her labor was so difficult or she simply realized that once you have a Freddie Blassie, there's no point in trying again.
My mother had been a frail woman, but, once I was born, she began putting on weight. She got heavier and heavier until she hit the two-hundred-pound mark. Still, her bulk didn't slow her down. She worked in a cotton mill when I was a kid, operating a machine. I remember my grandmother taking me to visit her at the mill at lunchtime, and knowing that I was the reason she got up and worked so hard every day. If there ever was a god on earth, it was my mother. She was a magnificent woman.
My father -- who was called "Jake" in America -- was a completely different story. He was a big, sturdy bastard who worked as a hod carrier, hauling around buckets of cement dangling from a stick over his shoulders, at construction sites. He did his job well enough. But when he got paid on Friday, he'd start drinking, and sometimes wouldn't come out of his idiotic stupor until Monday afternoon.
What was even worse was the way he'd mistreat my mother. He'd call her terrible names, slap his hand across her flesh, and pound on her with his fists. I still hate him for doing that, and when the fighting started, I'd run a mile and a half to his parents' house, and tell them, "Dad hit Mom again."
My grandfather would tell my grandmother to get dressed, and then they'd hurry to my parents' house, raging the whole way. "You're a bum," my grandfather would scream at my father. "You have a wonderful wife, and this is how you treat her? You don't deserve your wife and son! You don't deserve anything." But my father didn't care.
My parents were always breaking up, and getting back together, and I'd stay with my grandparents for long periods of time. Even when I was away from my father, I'd hear about his drunken calamities. He had this feud going with this other moron, a saloon owner, and they'd beat the hell out of each other whenever they could. Unfortunately for my family, and the rest of the city of St. Louis, they never killed each other. The police would come and lock them both up, and then they'd meet somewhere else the next week for a rematch.
When I was about thirteen, I reached my limit. My father hit my mother, and I picked up a baseball bat, got behind him, and lifted it up. I wanted to smash it over his head as hard as I could, open his skull, and put an end to all the bullshit he'd done to our family. But he turned around, and gave me a look with those mean, drunken eyes, and I got scared. I dropped the bat and ran to my aunt's house and told her what happened. Even when I calmed down, she wouldn't let me go back. I lived there for about six months, until, finally, my mother came around and said, "There's no sense in me staying with him if you're not there. I'd rather be with you."
Somewhere in the back of her mind, she'd thought that I would come home because I wanted to have a father. But he wasn't worth a damn.
My mother and I now struggled together. At one point, we were living over a store, and felt so hungry that my mother rigged up some apparatus so she could pull potatoes into our apartment through a hole in the floor. No matter how bad it was, though, my grandparents always came through for us.
Like my parents, my grandparents were named Anna and Jacob Blassie. They were decent, proud, honest people who would have gone to war for me. I remember when I first started wrestling, my grandfather came to the arena, and grabbed a chair when he saw my opponent torturing me on the mat. He was moving toward the ring when the security people grabbed him and threw him out into the street. My mother was there, and explained that the old man's grandson was one of the wrestlers. But when the security guards invited him back in, my grandfather said in his German accent, "The hell with you. You put me out, and I'm going to stay out."
Once, while I was attending St. Peter and Paul Grammar School, we were taking a test and I accidentally broke the point of my pencil. I asked the nun whether I could sharpen the pencil again and, for some reason, she refused. So I went home and told my grandmother about it, and she flew into a frenzy. She was a stocky woman, built more or less like a man, and the next morning, she put on her shawls from the Old Country and marched into the school.
"That's my number-one grandson," she told the nun. "The next time you don't let him sharpen his pencil, I'll pull your arms out of their sockets."
Believe it or not, I sang in the church choir as a kid, and enjoyed it very much. I guess the priests saw something in me because they asked if I wanted to become an altar boy. That was a little too much for me, waking up earlier than everyone else, putting on a black cassock, getting the holy water and the wine ready, and standing there, looking serious, as I handed the chalices to the priest during mass. I guess I didn't want to make that much of a commitment to my Catholic faith.
I remember before I had my First Holy Communion, I was told to go up to the front of the church, kneel down, stick my tongue out, and receive the host. Now, the nuns impressed upon me that I couldn't touch the wafer with my fingers. But how the hell could I stop it from falling out of my mouth if I couldn't touch it? I felt like a jackass, with the priest standing in front of me while I stuck my tongue in and out to keep the host from falling, lapping at it like a fuckin' cat.
At Christmastime, at St. Peter and Paul, they'd have St. Nicholas visit the school. But instead of giving out presents like a regular Santa Claus, this guy -- probably a demented priest in a costume -- would pick out all the boys who'd done something wrong -- playing hookey, hitting other kids -- and whip their asses.
One year, I heard him coming up the stairs, in his red suit and fake beard, screaming, "Blassie! Blassie!" And I said, "Fuck, I don't have to put up with this," and darted out of the classroom. Then, he told the kids to run into the hall after me.
"Get him! Get him!" St. Nicholas hollered.
Swinging his strap, he chased after my so-called buddies, urging them to block my escape.
"Watch the steps! Don't let him get down the steps! Or you'll receive his punishment instead!"
Everyone was screaming and running and bumping into each other, and my friends grabbed me and threw me back at St. Nicholas. And he had a merry fuckin' Christmas that year, slapping my daylights out with his big strap.
Occasionally, during my wrestling career, I told people that I'd graduated high school in St. Louis, and attended two years of college. I always made an effort to stay well read, so nobody really questioned me; it's not like I claimed to have a doctorate from Oxford or anything. But I was just blowing hot air. I enrolled at McKinley High School, went for a week or two, and dropped out. High school was a big deal back then, and I didn't feel comfortable going to classes in my old, ratty clothing. My grandparents were largely raising me at that point, and I didn't expect them to come up with the money for my lunches. They'd been taking care of me for too long. It was time for me to go to work and earn my own money.
By then, my mother was no longer in the cotton mill. She was working in a restaurant, where she asked around to see if anyone could find me a job. The woman who ran the restaurant bought her meat from this place called the Lynn Meat Company, and she talked to the owner and found out that they needed a kid to help out. I'd clean up, trim all the bones, and do anything else the meatcutters wanted. I wasn't a cutter, though -- that's a trade in itself. At the end of the week, my salary was eight dollars.
St. Louis was a wild town back then, full of pool halls and speakeasies and mayhem. In the north side, there were shoe factories. The south side was loaded with breweries. The biggest was Griesedieck Brothers, and it remained that way until the 1960s, when Anheuser-Busch overtook them. The kids played "bottle caps," a form of baseball with bottle caps and broomsticks, and a game called "cork ball" with barrel corks from the breweries.
The St. Louis Browns didn't make it to the World Series until 1944, so the city's motto for a long time was, "First in booze. First in shoes. Last in the American League."
Criminals ran the show in the neighborhoods where I traveled. I remember walking to the movies with my mother, and seeing glass all over the place because some gangsters had pulled up in front of a saloon with machine guns blasting.
If you drifted a few blocks in the wrong direction, you were in a fight. There were Italian gangs, German gangs, Irish gangs, Hungarian gangs, fighting with knives, brass knuckles, and, occasionally, guns.
Because my father was so violent, I knew how to handle myself with my fists, and there were few fights I remember losing. My father saw me punching it out with some kid one time, then beat me up for fighting. I thought that was pretty strange, since he was getting locked up for doing...
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