The surprisingly profound impact 80s wrestling icon Sgt. Slaughter has had on my life.
Even though I was only six, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. I was with my Dad and two older brothers at Madison Square Garden. And although I had been there before to see the Knicks or Rangers, this would prove to be something quite different. On this visit we were there to see people pummel each other inside a roped ring. No, it wasn’t a boxing match, it was something much more exciting: professional wrestling. The WWF to be exact, when it still was the WWF, before the World Wildlife people threw a hissy fit over their acronym. And although I’m sure it was a long night of body slams and clotheslines, the only match I really remember was the one between Sgt. Slaughter and the Iron Sheik.
Growing up, my brothers and I were big wrestling fans. We had the action figures and stickers, and always tried to catch that Saturday morning wrestling cartoon. But while Russ was a Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka fan and Matt had his own varying personal favorites, I was always partial to Slaughter.
And that night at the Garden had a lot to do with that. I’m sure all the greats were there — Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, etc. — but for me, the Slaughter-Sheik match was the premiere event. Of course the Sarge was the crowd favorite, how could he not be? Here was a military man fighting someone in a white robe and headdress with a thick black mustache (but a foreign one, not like the Sarge’s purely American ‘stache). The political connotations were lost on me but I still knew the match was about good versus evil.
I can’t say I remember too much of their battle (I do recall at one point the Sheik just getting pounded against the ropes), and I don’t even remember who won, though I’m pretty sure the Sarge did, but the energy from the crowd, and particularly the presence of Sgt. Slaughter lingered with me.
Professional wrestling in the 1980s was great. With characters like Captain Lou Albano, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, and King Kong Bundy, it was fun and didn’t take itself nearly as seriously as it seems to today.
My brothers would have their own “matches” in our backyard, moving down to the damp basement when it rained. Their friends would come over and everybody would be somebody (I remember “Rowdy Roddy Piper” using a towel as a kilt) and the battles, complete with figure-four leg locks, full-nelsons, and the sleeper hold would commence. I was too young to join in — or so my brothers told me — but they let me watch. Once someone brought over some fake blood and I can recall it all over his mouth and shirt. Often these matches would end in harsh words or real injuries (both Matt and Russ say they were bitten by each other, and once the lone girl in the group was hit over the head by a piece of sheetrock), but those who might have been offended or hurt would inevitably return for more.
And then it happened, an event that would change my life: a chance to meet Sgt. Slaughter. We found out that he would be making an appearance at Blue Star, a mall in my town in central New Jersey. Why he would be there still remains a mystery as this wasn’t a typical shopping mall with name-brand shops and big department stores. I’m not even sure there were regular stores; vendors just seemed to set up their (mostly cheap) wares in various alcoves and corners of the large building.
My Mom really disliked Blue Star Mall and looking back I can see why. The only word I can think of to describe it is skeezy, the delightful combination of “sleazy” and “scuzzy.” Questionable people hung out there. One time in the parking lot we saw a woman try to get into a car only to have the man behind the wheel quickly drive away, causing her to fall hard to the pavement.
But, no doubt reluctantly, my Mom dropped us off there (just Matt and me, I’m not sure where Russ was) so we could see our hero. We must have arrived late because there was no trace of him. We raced around the mall, desperately searching for a sign, a line of people, anything. But there was nothing. Where was the Sarge?
Resigned to the fact that we’d missed him, Matt and I glumly made our way to the exit. But then a commotion made us turn around, and there coming down the hallway, flanked by a few guys on either side, was Sgt. Slaughter. Unsure of what to do we backed up and out of the way. Just as he approached us, he held out his large hand. We did the same and he slapped them as he went by. It was glorious, and to this day remains one of the most exciting things that has happened to me.
As my brothers and I grew up, we lost interest in pro wrestling and moved on to other things. Truthfully I probably hadn’t given much thought to wrestling in years, but then something occurred that quickly brought all those fun memories back.
Not long ago when I was living in Asheville, North Carolina, (Matt lives here too as well as our parents, while Russ is now in Taiwan) I just happened to pick up a schedule of the local minor league baseball team, the Asheville Tourists. To my joy and amazement, I saw that none other than Sgt. Slaughter would be at one of their upcoming game. Of course I immediately cleared my schedule for that night and told anyone who was willing to listen that I would be going to see the Sarge.
My parents were semi-avid Tourists fans and I went to the game with them; Dad and I again reminisced about that night at the Garden. My wife, who thought my whole Slaughter obsession was curious, joined us later. I was hoping Matt could come so we could recreate our Jersey mall adventure but alas he couldn’t make it. Rain threatened the game and as we sat in the car to wait it out, I became anxious. But finally the sun pushed its way through the clouds and we made our way up to the stadium.
I couldn’t see him as we went in and I immediately felt like that little kid again. Where was he? Did the rain keep him away? But when we went for food a short time later, suddenly there he was, standing under a small blue tent, wearing his usual military garb with the large hat and sunglasses. And although this was over two decades later from the first time I had seen him in person, to me he looked exactly the same. I suddenly got a little nervous though I didn’t think I would. After watching a few people get autographs and pose for pictures, I grabbed a game program and approached him.
As a kid I remember him being massive, but don’t you seem to remember everything that way? But the Sarge was massive. I’m 6’1” and he stood at least a few inches taller and that hat gave him a few more. And he has this huge, jutting jaw (my wife later said he looked like he was all chin and hat).
“Hi, Sarge,” I said.
Without saying anything he held out his hand, the same hand I had slapped five all those years ago, and I shook it. I handed him the program and he opened it to a page near the back that listed the various theme days at the ballpark. With a marker he drew an arrow from his listing and then signed his name. He put me in a faux headlock for my photo (which sadly didn’t come out), said it was nice to meet me, and that was it. There I was, a grown man, twenty-plus years removed from caring about the WWF, but, I have to say, it was rather thrilling.
Back in the stands, watching Sgt. Slaughter take pictures with little leaguers out on the field, I was filled with nostalgia. I felt like I could almost be one of those kids playing for the Blue Ridge Funeral Service Yankees. Sitting next to my Mom and Dad and hearing Quiet Riot’s Come on Feel the Noise blaring from the stadium speakers made it feel like the mid-80s all over again.
But it wasn’t long before those pessimistic adult thoughts crept in. I couldn’t help but wonder if those kids on the field knew who they were taking pictures with (I heard a young teen sitting in front of us say his father told him he “used to be a wrestler.”) And further, I thought about the Sarge and wondered if he enjoyed what he was doing — making an appearance at a tiny minor league ballpark, and probably scheduled to appear at another one (or mall perhaps) the next day or next week. But his wide grin under that mustache and above that huge chin said, well, he just might.
The Sarge threw out the first pitch, looking a little awkward and bouncing it to the plate (hey, give him a break, he’s a wrestler, not a baseball player), and later on climbed the stairs to the makeshift booth to be interviewed by a broadcaster.
As we headed towards the exit in the seventh inning, Slaughter stepped onto the roof of the dugout while someone answered wrestling trivia questions (what was Brian Heenan’s nickname? Please.), and that was the last I saw of him. It was quite an evening and I walked back to the car — autographed program firmly in hand — with a smile on my face.
My twin boys are only four, so other than occasionally pummeling each other, they’re not into wrestling. But if they do get into it, and if one day they ask me to take them to a match, whether I’d really want to go or not (probably just like my Dad), I’m sure I’ll take them. And twenty years from now if I happen to see that Sgt. Slaughter will be making an appearance somewhere nearby, I think I might just take them there too.