The WAWLI Papers, page 1


Professor Says He Just Got Tired of Making a Fool Out of the Public
by Richard Hoffer, Times Staff Writer

Sometime in the late 1970s, Roy Shire burned out.   Suddenly one of the best bookers on the West Coast couldn't think of a single finish for his wrestlers, even bad finishes for bad wrestlers.   In 20 years of promoting, he'd worked all his angles, exhausted every gimmick, overused every gotta-be-a- rematch flourish.   Even if the public was stupid, of which he was sure after his years in the business, he had finally grown tired trying to fool it.   So when Bob Roop, one of his stars that year, came to him with an angle, Shire was ready.   "Roop, he wrestled on the Olympic team once, not only a 'shooter' but a good worker," Shire says.   "So he has this idea.   Bring this guy from Florida that he knows out to San Francisco's Cow Palace.   Build him up.   The gimmick is this: Let Roop take the title, get a feud going, make people think they couldn't stand each other.   Story'd be Roop hurt this guy in Florida and he's chased him here."

Well, in pro wrestling, this is not considered a real fresh angle.   A feud?   Couldn't stand each other?   It had come to this?   But as we said, he was tired choreographing all this nonsense.   "I just ran out," he says.   So Shire let it ride and allowed the boys to work their own angle.   "Roop finally announces he'll wrestle the babyface, whose name is Kevin Sullivan," Shire says, "but only on the condition it's not for the title.   If he beats him, then he'll put the title up.   Been done a thousand times.   OK.   Now here's the part I wasn't so sure about.   Kevin's been talking about his poor old dad on TV during his buildup, how he's doing it all for dad, that kind of thing.   Flies him all the way in from Boston for his match with Roop.   And there he is, this old gray-headed guy, I'd say about 57, sitting at ringside, cheering his son, proud and everything.”

"Kevin beats Roop, big upset.   Then the father gets into the ring to raise Kevin's hand.   Well, Roop comes up behind Kevin and hits him a good one and knocks him out of the ring and then, this was hard for me to believe , he does a knee break on the old guy."   Shire pauses here, still awed by the memory.   "Then it really got wild.   I had to send all the guys in to chase Roop, and he runs.   Meanwhile they're carrying the old guy out, and the word spread through the Cow Palace -- you never have to announce anything, the word just spreads -- that he's been taken to the hospital."

All in all, one of the most satisfyingly spectacular evenings in pro wrestling, ever.   "We put a cast on the old guy's shoulder the next day and got some pictures taken," Shire says.   "Billed the rematch for a month, packed the Cow Palace to the gills.   We brought it back five times.   Course, Roop and Kevin were the best of friends."   What follows is the colorful confession of a con man, a guy who made a pretty good living fooling people although the work, as we've just seen, wasn't alway that hard.   Roy Shire, known to you as Professor Shire in the 50s when he strutted into rings wearing a gown and mortarboard, wrestling those poor little babyfaces in all the big territories, has also been both a booker and promoter on the West Coast.   What he hasn't seen in pro wrestling hasn't happened.

Until Shire, a stocky man of 59 whose trademark bleached-blond hair has turned a natural white, came along with a chip on his shoulder, mad at the game, there haven't been a lot of promoters willing to describe their tricks.   Oh, we knew the game wasn't exactly on the up and up ("Up and up' Are you kidding?   Even when it was supposed to be real 40 years ago it wasn't on the up and up!").   We knew the wrestlers weren't real, mortal enemies, that they weren't in as much pain a they appeared to be, that some of the holds were more theatrical than athletic that the blood wasn't real, that -- "Hold on," says Shire, off and running, "the blood, a least, is real."   Real?   "We'd all have little razor blades wrapped in adhesive tape, except for a little corner.   We'd get thrown into a ring post, say, we'd fumble around and blade ourselves.   Just a nick really, but if you stuck it in your forehead right, you could get a lot of blood.   Didn't hurt at all.   Really."

When Shire was wrestling in the Texas territories there was a big call for blood.   "They love blood in Texas," he says, "One week, I had to blade myself ever night, just worked across my forehead, left to right.I used to tell people I had 487 stitches.   I didn't.   I had 70, but most of those were from when a fan hit me with chair."   Shire says there's hardly a wrestler alive who doesn carry his own blade, hidden in his trunks, in a wrapped finger, anywhere.   "I used to hide mine in my mouth," he says, "but one night I almost swallowed it.You can get hurt in wrestling, you know.   But only by accident."   Besides blood, there is not much that is real in pro wrestling, you will not be shocked to hear.   The holds are real, true.   But their effects are so exaggerated that, nobody really bothers to insist that anything like wrestling is going on in there.

Some pro wrestlers, like Shire, really were wrestlers, "shooters" in the trade.   Shire was a big school and AAU champion in the 1940s.   It's nice to be able to wrestle, but it's hardly a qualification.   "Nowadays you just have to be good with the stick (microphone) -- and be able to take the bumps," he say with some disdain for the new breed.

Shire's introduction to the game was probably the traditional one in his day, He walked into Al Haft's office back in Columbus and applied.   Haft told him to strip down.   Shire, who lifted weights, revealed an impressive physique.   Haft wondered whether he could wrestle , so sent him upstairs to the gym for some live tussling punches.He was a real wrestler, all right.   But not yet a big-time wrestler.   So he spent 2½ hours every day learning to perform fly off drop kicks and assorted other basics, the kind of self-defense stuff that doesn't work as well in a dark alleys as it does before the camera.   These are important skills in pro wrestling, but not moneymaking skills.

Haft had Shire wrestling in the prelims, making about $175 a week in 1950, a nice living but a long way from top billing or financial security.   After about nine months, Haft sensed potential.   Noticing that Shire always seemed to be reading this same textbook on "psycho-semantics," Haft hit on an angle.   "How'd you like to make some real money, Roy?"   Haft asked, somewhat unnecessarily.   "What I'll do is make you a professor, get you a gown and a mortarboard.   What's more, you're not a 'babyface' (good guy) anymore, you're a heel (you guessed it, bad guy).   And I'll make you the junior-heavyweight champion."

So Shire learned to strut.   "You ever strut?   It's not easy."   Got his mortarboard and gown and made his debut in Dayton.   "I didn't think I was ready," he says.   "And I was begging guys to take my place.   They were laughing at me.   So there I am, my first main event, and on TV, and I'm strutting into the ring.   I'm trying to make people hate me and they're laughing like hell.   I was so embarrassed I could hardly wrestle."

Not too embarrassed to collect his $1,000 a week paycheck, though.   And this was in 1951.   He became a popular attraction during wrestling's heyday, when TV was so starved for programming it put the game on in prime time.   His cockiness was infuriating.   He always made his opponent look better than him, but he always got his hand raised.   However, it was about this time that Shire discovered that only person to really hold the upper hand was the promoter.   Shortly after Shire "won" his championship, Haft approached him with the news that, from now on, they would be splitting Shire's pay after the first $500.   If Shire didn't like it, his belt was gone.   It was extortion of the highest, yet most routine, order.   "Well," sighs Shire, with no apparent malice, "he did give me the break."

Shire had about 10 more productive years on the circuit, moving from territory to territory as he exhausted both the promoter's and public's tolerance of his villainy.   This was amazing, as he could be very difficult to get along with.   He says be once tried to defect from Haft's stable but found himself blackballed across the U.S.   They managed a compromise.   And he nearly got himself kicked out of the Texas territory where he tried-this is about the worst thing a pro wrestler can do-to actually wrestle.

What happened there was that Baron Leone (Shire snorts, "He was no baron"), the world junior heavyweight champion came to the state to "go over" the state champion, Shire.   The Baron would have to win, of course.   But Shire should look decent in the loss, for the pride of the territory.   "I have to put him over, which I don't mind," be says, "But the Baron says, 'I beat him in two falls.' He don't even want to Iet me have one fall.   I say this isn't very good.   I'm the Texas champion and I don't even get one fall?   That hurts the whole territory."

The Baron took the first fall as planned, then went for the second, as planned.   Shire was mad, though.   "I've decided you're going through," he told the Baron.   Shire wasn't going for it.   "Now the Baron gets mad, but he don't know a hammerlock from a padlock.   He tried to kick me but I bar-armed him and almost broke his arm."   Texas' pride was saved, but Shire was nearly kicked out of the territory for one of the few recorded instances of real wrestling.

But Shire's time was coming to a close.   He was tired, lonely and hurting.   A missed drop-kick resulted in torn knee ligaments.   As Texas champion, he couldn't very well take time off for surgery-what would that mean to the territory?   So, he shot himself up with novocaine to continue competing.   "If it started to wear off during a match," he remembers, "I'd let the other guy beat on it so a limp would look realistic."   Later, the whole knee had to be reconstructed.   A knife, stuck so firmly in his backside by an irate fan, that doctors had to cut it out, also persuaded him that this was not a gentleman's game.   The future, as Haft had seen a long time ago, was in the promoting, not the wrestling,

You may have seen pro wrestling and acquired an appreciation for the participants' theatrics.   The bombast is not easily learned.   Nor is the dramatic ability.   Let Sir John Gielgud play The Assassin for awhile.   It may be his audience is not, uh, real tough, but then his shooting script may have some holes in it, too.   Yet these guys perform.   As somebody said, as a wrestler was being hauled out of a ring on a stretcher, the winner savaging the helpless corpse all the way, "Tell me that's not for real."   It's a kind of genius, Buster Keaton style.   The winner's long shinny up the pole where the bag of money is hanging, the loser slowly coming to, recognizing the desperate situation.   And rising, amazingly, to pull his opponent back down.

And what of the cage matches, in which four tag-team wrestlers are put in a pen and the last to crawl out must leave town.   Must leave town!   Imagine the last guy's sad plight as his teammate-his teammate!-is crawling out, leaving this crippled hulk behind.   "I'm hurt!   This isn't a matter of leaving town!   I need help.' Who wouldn't go back.   Whereupon he who was formerly the last guy, beats the new last guy into a bloody submission.   It's exactly like real life!

Still, the real genius belongs to the booker, the man who decides not just who wins, but how.   This is the man who plots the feuds, who develops the story lines, who builds the house.   Who keeps pro wrestling going, in other words.   The personnas are fairly easy to develop.   And the ring action isn't that hard to choreograph.   A good worker knows how to control the crowd, when to take his high spot, to cut meat (punch), and when to relax a little, to lean some.   The wrestlers call it heat and they know when to turn it up and down.”

"The really hard part, the toughest part is figuring the finish," Shire says.   "The problem is figuring what can I do that the fans will buy that will get another rematch.   Say your heel is the champion, wrestling a babyface.   Last fall.   Your champion goes into his finishing hold and slams the baby face into the ring post.   He blades himself, gets some heat up.   Takes the 20-count then comes back to beat the heel, your champion.   Thing is, in my territory, the ref is allowed to stop a fight on cuts.   He had stopped the fight.   Everybody thinks the baby face has won, but here comes the ref to announce he stopped the bout because the baby face was cut too badly to continue.   Almost have a riot."

Shire goes on: "The thing to do in this case is to bring them back for the rematch, bill it: 'No stopping for blood."'

Other finishes: Fight on the floor to a draw, run out the time limit, then come back without a time limit.   "The public buys it," Shire says.   "I could never understand how the public could be so damned stupid."

Then there are the injury finishes, as many of them as there are pages in "Gray's Anatomy."   As a wrestler, Shire used to leave the ring in a coma pretty regularly.   He read a medical text and got all the symptoms down.

"It was easy.   You lie still, then act like you're coming out of it, then go a little nuts, but not quite," he says.   "Depends how bad a concussion you want to have, but you might want to swallow your tongue.   In fact, I was doing that once when I noticed somebody reaching down my throat with a safety pin; he was trying to get my tongue."   Whoever that man is, he should get the Nobel Prize for curing concussions.   Incredibly, Shire came to.

As a booker, Shire sent lots of guys to the hospital with head injuries, but "Not all the time, you don't want a pattern developing in your territory."   As part of the scam, which of course would lead to a rematch, the wrestler would have to stay in the hospital at least a little while, the longer the better, for publicity purposes.   Shire remembers that one of his wrestlers decided, he didn't want to spend time in the hospital, didn't want a concussion after all, and tried to come to in the ring.   Shire leaped in and, in as violent terms as he could articulate, made his wrestler understand the importance of a relapse.   "There's money in our pockets," he tried to explain.

Some men were gifted in this regard, others not.   In Shire's circle, there was a Memphis booker who was regarded as incompetent.   "He was a nice guy, but we thought of him as kind of an idiot.   He had this wrestler that was real, uh, effeminate.   See if you think they'd buy this in California.   Effeminate wrestler puts his finishing hold on the guy, who blades himself.   Effeminate wrestler sees the blood and faints.   The Southern crowds always were the easiest."   But there are heroes in this small and unusual circle.   The booker in Montreal is Shire's hero.   "See if you like this one.   Babyface pins the heel, who happens to be the champ.   Well, this is amazing.   The referee counts one, two and then, this was even more amazing, fell over clutching his heart.   Had to take him out to the hospital, of course.   Sold it out the next time."

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