Much ado has been made about a comment from a certain wrestling executive about how wrestling only took place in tiny bars before the WWF came along. Today I decided to share a few programs I have from one of those tiny bars: The Jefferson County Armory, now known as Louisville Gardens.
The first program is from way back in 1952. This tiny bar program saw World Champion Lou Thesz defend his title against Enrique Torres with former champ Ed “Strangler” Lewis in Thesz’s corner. Ray Eckert, Stu Gibson, Ethel Johnson, and Bill Longson were also on the card held in front of a meager 9281 fans in this tiny bar.
A year later, the same bar wrestling promotion, the Allen Athletic Club, presented this card:
Baron Leone was the victor in the main event that night, defeating Gentleman Jim Doby. Other stars included the Great Zorro (pictured), Mae Young, Bill Longson, Stu Gibson, and Gloria Barratini. The bar was really packed that night, with a new record attendance of 9384 reported in the newspaper.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited to see some of the changes this innovative WWE executive is already bringing to television. But if we’re really going to go all the way, perhaps we should drop the company line that pro wrestling was irrelevant before WWF at the same time we drop the word Superstar in favor of Wrestler.
My kids are seven and nine. They are not allowed to watch wrestling, but because of their dad, they’ve met three major wrestling personalities from the 80s. All three of them were heels in their day; they could not have been nicer to my children. They shook hands, asked their names, took time to listen to them, gave autographs when asked, and share some stories. They were incredibly kind to my kids.
All three of these encounters happened away from the ring. Far away. Had they happened at ring side, my kids know these nice gentlemen would not have been nice at all. The men who smiled and took the time to get to know my kids would have insulted them in every way possible. They would have scowled at them, scared them, and made my kids hate them. Why? Because that’s their job.
The world needs more Kevin Owens. We need more wrestlers who don’t care about people’s feelings, even kids. We need fewer independent wrestlers playing the heel and then selling T-shirts and smiling for pictures. (Props to Aaron Williams, who I saw forego his usual gimmick table at a recent even where he was working heel.) We need more of the old Dutch Mantell “Don’t buy my photo and rip it up in front of me,” like the time the Lovely Lylah sold a bunch of cake pops for charity by saying, “Don’t buy these just to throw them at me during my match!” We need men and women willing to live the heel life in the ring, in the arena, and yes, even on social media.
We don’t need Triple H comforting kids at ringside after playing the heel. We need more Kevin Owens.
It’s two days until the biggest event of the year in sports entertainment, and a well-placed source in the WWE has just confirmed, John Cena will return at Wrestlemania!
That’s right, Cenation, Superman is back, and he’s coming to make himself a hero to those dreading the inevitable rise of the Roman Empire.
Or is he?
Cena will be inserted into the WWE World Heavyweight Championship match against Triple H and Roman Reigns, but he will not be doing so as a babyface! The long-awaited heel turn will happen Sunday night, and after Shane McMahon expels Triple H from Monday Night Raw, Cena will be the guy paired with the man Vince McMahon still hopes to make into the next Cena!
But wait, how in the world will the WWE get the fans to cheer Reigns over Cena, especially heel Cena? Cena was the most hated man in Louisville when he was at OVW. He was exceptionally good at working the mic when he was a heel, and it’s not too far-fetched to think that a “smark” Wrestlemania and post-Mania Raw audience will fall in love with heel Cena. To make sure that the fans boo Cena like never before, the WWE has paired Cena up with an advocate, a blast from the past, an ace in the hole sure to make him the biggest heel since the Iron Sheik!
You are not dreaming, wrestling fans. John Cena will be paired up with his former manager, the man who helped launch him to superstardom, Kenny “Starmaker” Bolin. Under Bolin’s tutelage, Cena became hands down the most hated man in Louisville when he was at OVW. Now that he has reunited with his old protege, Bolin will not only turn fans pro-Reigns and anti-Cena, he will make Cena the top heel for years to come, extending his career in a way not seen since Hulk Hogan became “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan.
Doubt me if you will, wrestling fans, but some Sunday night, April 3, in front of the largest audience ever assembled for a live wrestling event, John Cena will steal the spotlight and the title from Roman Reigns, and Bolin Services will finally begin its long overdue WWE run at the Showcase of the Immortals!
Kenny will still be at The Nerdy Planet on Saturday from 3-5 PM, selling books and signing autographs with me and Little Jimmy LeBeaux. We had originally planned on an evening event, starting around 6 PM, but just before we announced the event on Facebook, Kenny called and asked me to move it up earlier in the day. If you’re not buying it, join us Saturday and ask Kenny for yourself. He’ll be happy to neither confirm nor deny what’s about to go down at Wrestlemania 32.
I work in the front office. My friend Frankie works in will call. The two of us talk wrestling almost every day. We talk about the pay-per-views, Raw, NXT (when I can get him to watch), and rumors in the Internet. I keep talking to him about indy wrestling, and one of these days, I will get him to break down and check it out. Frankie and I have talked so much wrestling the last few years that the UPS guy Nick, a former Memphis wrestling/Tojo Yamamoto fan, has started watching again.
It’s nice having co-workers who share your obsession, but when you’re new to a job, a school, or even a new church, it can be hard to figure out who’s a fan. That is, unless you know Pavlov.
Pavlov was not a wrestler. He was a Russian physiologist best known for his work in classical conditioning and a series of experiments he did with dogs. Pavlov rang a bell every time he fed the dogs. After a while, the dogs would begin to salivate at the mere sound of a bell in anticipation of their meal, much like wrestling fans when they hear certain sounds.
The WWE understands Pavlov. Think about your favorite wrestlers and their entrance themes. The drum roll off on Seth Rollins’s theme. The opening power chord from Motorhead’s rendition of “The Game.” The Rock’s “IF YOU SMELLLLLLLL…” introduction. The WWE uses stingers at the start of every major star’s theme to induce a Pavlovian response, and if you are clever, you can use the same strategy to sniff out the wrestling fans in your office, school, or place of worship.
One way to trigger this Pavlovian response is to change the text alert sound on your phone to the sound of glass breaking from the opening of Stone Cold Steve Austin’s entrance theme. No wrestler elicits a response like Austin, and no wrestling fan can help but look up when he or she heads that unmistakable crash.
Another sound guaranteed to cause a reaction is the New Age Outlaws’ theme. If you’re in a cubicle village, this may work better than the Stone Cold crash because it elicits a verbal response. When a diehard hears the opening guitar riff, “Dum-duh-dah-dum,” just listen for the call back, “Oh you didn’t know??” If there’s a fan nearby, the response will be automatic.
But what if you’re in a situation that calls for phones to be on silent? Consider dropping signature phrases into your day to day conversations, the kind your favorite superstars use to get a reaction. Let’s say you’re at church, and the subject of world hunger comes up. Perhaps you speak up and say, “As believers, we can’t sit back and do nothing. We need to do something for the millions–”
Pause. Did someone answer back: “And millions!”
It’s automatic. We’ve all been programmed, and if you’re clever enough, you can use that to your advantage.
Granted all of these examples involve Attitude Era stars and not the stars of today’s PG era, but the same principle should apply to any wrestling sound, song, or catchphrase from any era. Set your ringtone to Roman Reigns’s theme song, and when your Mom calls to tell you about Dad’s last doctor’s appointment, follow the sound of incessant booing. You’ve just found your new best friend.
The best things in professional wrestling are often the things that happen organically. They are not the result of a promoter’s careful planning and execution, but the sum of a dozen or more happy accidents that all fall together. Such is the story of Blue Pants, a woman brought in as enhancement talent at the last minute, who suddenly became a bona fide NXT Superstar.
Like many pro wrestlers, Leva Bates grew up watching wrestling. The daughter of a single mom, she spent a lot of time with the neighbor next door, whose son was a wrestling fan. “We watched it on TV all the time, and we’d occasionally go out to see the matches.” Bates doesn’t recall anyone specific (though her sisters quick to point out one of the highlights was seeing Bill Dundee vs. Jerry Lawler), but she credits those early years will giving her a passion for the sport.
After graduating college with a degree in radio/tv as well as acting, she enrolled at FXC in Florida, where she trained with D-Von Dudley, A.J. Gallant, and Matt Bentley. When D-Von left to start the Team 3D Academy with his tag partner Bubba Ray, Leva followed him. “They both were very hands on and taught everything, but D-Von did a lot of the mat training while Bubba Ray specialized more in match psychology, characters, and mic work.” Bates is a 3-D graduate but still returns to work on things with a personal trainer Dan Carr, who once worked with the American Gladiators.
After leaving school and beginning her wrestling career, Bates did what many wrestlers do: she filled out the application on the WWE’s recruitment page. She got the chance to work a few Raw and Smackdown shows as an extra. Then one day, she got the call that she was going to be on NXT. “It was the day of the show,” she remembers.
Leva showed up in a McChris T-shirt and a pair of blue pants. Prior to the TV taping, they were working out the flow of the show. Enzo and Cass were to come to the ring with Carmella, one of the newest NXT Divas, and when a match with Enzo’s rival Sylvester Lefort didn’t pan out, Enzo would turn to Carmella and ask her if she wanted to wrestle.
“Most of the time, the enhancement workers don’t get an entrance or even their name called. They just appear in the ring after a commercial break, but because of the way this story line was playing out, they had to have a way to bring me out. Triple H was at ringside working with Enzo and Cass. I was backstage with Sara Amato (former indy star Sara Del Ray). Enzo and Cass kept ad libbing different ways of introducing me. I heard Cass say, ‘Hey, you back there with the blue pants! Blue pants, come on down!’ I looked at Sara, and we both laughed. We knew that was it.”
What they did not know was how the fans would respond. “The fans started chanting my name. They started singing the ‘Price is Right’ theme for me. I went along with it and played it up. I was like, ‘Yeah! I wear blue pants! I love my blue pants!’ The fans ate it up, and that was how it took off.”
Blue Pants has become a beloved regular at NXT, facing off with Sasha Banks, Emma, and Dana Brooke. She even got her own theme music – the “Price is Right” theme sung a cappella by Big Cass – and her own Titantron video.
“I was amazed how involved Triple H was, even with that. He was working with the video guy to get just the right image. ‘No, make the pants bigger. No, a little smaller.’ He’s very hands on about everything.”
Being backstage at NXT has been a huge learning and growth experience for Bates. “It’s a completely different level. As a radio/TV grad, it’s really cool seeing the directors and agents and crew who make the show work backstage.”
Bates found the staff at NXT to be especially helpful. She took advantage of every visit to learn from Sara Amato, Albert, Triple H, Michael Hayes, Robby Brookside, and the late Dusty Rhodes.
“The third of fourth time I was there, I was peppering Dusty with questions. I was going on and on, and all of a sudden, Dusty turns and yells, “Shut up, Blue Pants!’ I was like, ‘Dusty??’ He put his arm around me and he said, ‘It’s alright, Blue Pants. It’ll be alright.’”
Bates found a lot in common with Rhodes. “He got yellow polka dots over. I got over with Blue Pants. I don’t know if he ever made the connection, but I did. It was really special.”
Bates is more than just enhancement talent. On the independent scene she is a seasoned veteran and an accomplished main event talent. When I asked her what matches fans should look up to see who Leva Bates is, she pointed to her recent appearance at Resistance Pro Wrestling. “I was against Crazy Mary Dobson, and we were the main event. It was a really great match.”
Bates also talked about her match against Mia Yim during the Shine Women’s Championship. “That was her best,” says her very proud mother.
Bates loves to have fun and has a great sense of humor. That love of fun was especially evident in a match for Shimmer when she faced Marty Bell. Bates is known for cosplay, dressing up as characters from comic books and movies, and on this occasion, she dressed as Pee Wee Herman.
“Before the match, I told the crowd the secret words was Three. Every time the ref would start counting, ‘One, two, three,’ the fans would scream. Marty would twist my arm, the ref would count, and on three, the fans would scream. The coolest thing was the secret word lasted the rest of the night. Any time a ref counted three, the fans screamed!”
Outside the ring, Bates is just as fun-loving and approachable as her in-ring character suggests. After the Girl Fight show in Jeffersonville, Indiana, she was the last of the wrestlers to be at the gimmick tables – no longer selling, but just talking to fans. She only packed up after promoter Madman Pondo fussed at her – three times – to wrap things up. Even then, she delayed Pondo from getting to his post show dinner as she paused to talk and take pictures with fans on her way to the locker room.
As we finished our interview, which took place at a downtown pizza place in Louisville after a show, Crazy Mary Dobson brought a young man over to the table where I was sitting with Bates, her mom, her sister, and nieces. He was an NXT fan, and when he learned who was sitting at the table, he began shouting to the whole restaurant. “It’s Blue Pants! Blue Pants is here! Blue Pants!”
The cheers of Blue Pants led to an “NXT!” chant. Leva blushed at first but began pumping her arms in the air, enjoying the moment just like her alter ego. Yes, she’s an unlikely superstar, but that’s what makes her so darn likable. She’s quirky, she’s fun, and when she hits the ring at NXT, Shimmer, or anywhere else, you’re going to have a good time.