Pro wrestlers won’t tolerate those who step out of line in locker room
The locker room has always been considered a sanctuary for all athletes. These protected areas have provided a mental and physical oasis from the beginning of time … then there was the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin train wreck inside the Miami Dolphins locker room.
First of all, the posturing from the Dolphins’ camp that most were not aware of the unacceptable behavior has about as much merit as pro wrestling becoming an Olympic sport.
Secondly, no locker room has been devoid of sophomoric behavior, which is more often than not intended to be perceived in the spirit of fun.
This brings us to the dynamic inside a pro wrestling locker room. Surely the "barbaric showmen" who inhabit a pro wrestling locker room must raise all kinds of hell and make life for many of their peers unbearable.
No pro wrestling locker room inhabited over the past 40 years could be described like the reports related to South Florida’s NFL team.
It was 1974 when I broke into the showbiz world of pro wrestling, and I entered my first locker room in that business.
It wasn’t what I expected. I was expecting "Animal House," but that’s not what I experienced.
Some men were actually reading hard-cover books, some played cribbage or dominoes, others napped and some were having casual conversations. These small groups of men were in a season-less business and spent more than 300 days a year together on the road, while occupying small locker rooms with few amenities.
These bastions of tranquility were not problem-free. All the wrestlers were independent contractors with no contracts. They had no agents, no assistant coaches, no position coaches, no leadership councils and no union.
The matmen took care of their issues.
"In every locker room that I was ever in, whether it be in college football or in pro wrestling, the ‘boys’ policed themselves," WWE Hall of Famer Stone Cold Steve Austin said. "If someone was screwing things up for everyone else, then that guy was given a chance to right his wrong. If he refused, then other means of correcting the problem were put in play."
So how were wrestlers who conducted themselves like a jackass or a bully persuaded to change their ways? Pete Senercia — better known as Taz, a former wrestler, football player and current TNA broadcaster — said, "The guy would be booked to wrestle one or two certain wrestlers (legit, tough guys generally with amateur wrestling backgrounds) and the offending party would be humbled in front of a live audience in the beloved squared circle. The problem would be fixed … quick."
In the early part of my career, I was earning extra money by donning the striped shirt and refereeing. One of the top villains in the territory was a 300-pound Canadian by the name of "Bruiser" Bob Sweetan. Sweetan, who later served a prison sentence in Texas, was a bully. During matches he "accidentally" bloodied my nose and on another occasion blackened my eye. He was the star villain and I was the rookie who felt that I could not protest. It was all a part of paying my dues … or so I thought.
My regular riding/traveling partner was Danny Hodge, who was away on a tour of Japan when these liberties were being taken by Bruiser Bob. Hodge was a three-time NCAA National Champion wrestler at Oklahoma University, who was never defeated and who in his senior year for the Sooners never gave up a point on the mat. The Perry, Okla., native also represented the USA in two Olympic Games. Dan then took up boxing and he won the National Golden Gloves boxing title. (UFC’s Dana White would have loved Dan Hodge.)
Hodge had been bullied as a kid, and he wasn’t tolerant of such behavior. As fate would have it, Hodge wrestled Sweetan soon after his return. Hodge saw my black eye and was filled in by other wrestlers of Sweetan’s conduct regarding rookies and people the real-life villain could intimidate and bully.
In the match with the 220-pound Hodge, Sweetan was humbled, physically gassed, and punished while being made to look far from invincible in his casting as the territory’s top antagonist. Ironically, the booking that night called for Hodge to lose, which he did.
When all was said and done, though, Sweetan did not look like a winner.
Hodge was verbally reprimanded by management for making the top bad guy look not so bad on that evening in Louisiana. Within a few months, Sweetan was out of the territory because few wanted to work with him, ride with him or associate with him outside of work.
Back to the Martin/Incognito matter, what about the use of the "N-word" in a pro wrestling locker room?
"Nope, can’t recall I heard it much at all in locker rooms in our industry," Taz said.
This was particularly true in the Mid South Wrestling territory as the booker, Ernie Ladd, was African-American, as was the territory’s top star and revenue generator, the Junkyard Dog. "Dog" was so beloved by his peers that anyone using the N-word was ostracized.
"Ribbing" or practical jokes have been around locker rooms seemingly forever, and most perpetrators work diligently to not be exposed. Why? Because they are generally cowards.
One of the most distasteful "ribs" that I can recall was when someone used Jerry Lawler’s crown as a toilet bowl, soon after "The King" first came to the WWE and made his in-ring debut at the 1993 Royal Rumble in Sacramento, Calif. The joke wasn’t funny and Lawler "no sold" it, which surely did not make the offender happy. Someone who previously worked with The King in Memphis, Tenn., obviously held a grudge.
For those fans of "CSI," no DNA testing was performed on the, uh, sample.
Because the wrestlers are together constantly during a touring business that has no offseason, they become each other’s support system and surrogate families. No family is problem-free and an occasional trip to the woodshed is required. However, the irony is that some of today’s spoiled, millionaire athletes have substantially more issues within their locker rooms than the men and women of pro wrestling had.
Perhaps the Richie Incognitos of the world should be required to spend a little more time in a wrestling room with guys like Dan Hodge rather than to seek other PR-friendly means to learn to act like a decent human being.