Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Hairy Ape








This 1960s match (it starts here and finishes here) is slow and sloppy by today's wrestling standards. Both competitors would have been in their forties at this point in their careers. Both move  a little stiffly, in fact. Neither looks like he does a whole lot more than backyard calisthenics to get in shape for a show. But I want to take this match as an example of a character type I find interesting. Bob Geigel, future three-time president of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), is big (5'11", 230#), bald, and hairy, with a mean disposition. He hardly ever smiles and speaks gruffly and tersely when interviewed. He doesn't take to apple-polishing ... and seems to pay no attention to the crowd. But the crowd loves him. The ringside commentator tells us that the fans call him "The Hairy Ape," adding that Geigel himself hates the nickname, which alludes to the hair on his shoulders and back and perhaps partly to the jungle-justice of his actions in the ring. We're told that he's a brute who doesn't mind tossing out the rulebook if (1) that's the way his opponent wants to play it and (2) the ref isn't effective at enforcing it.

In this match against Johnny Ramirez, Geigel looks at first willing enough to play fair and square by the rules. But Ramirez wastes no time sneaking in some rabbit punches and other illegal tactics, which the ref seems unable to spot and stop. So if Ramirez is going to punch, Geigel is going to punch back, both wrestlers taking care to do so out of sight of the referee (though we see it all, as do the fans at the arena). If Ramirez pulls Geigel's ear, which he does right off, Geigel doesn't feel compelled to take the high road, yanking his opponent's curly hair every chance he gets--and ultimately making illegal (or at best borderline) use of the ropes too. The crowd excitedly eats this up, costing security some effort in keeping them in their seats and away from the ring apron. Geigel's violent tactics seem entirely fitting to them, and even if the Ape does nothing to encourage their love of him, they are clearly in his corner. Geigel, physically the kind of wrestler I find inexplicably attractive at times, is a businesslike wrestler with no qualms about using heel moves to put a heel in his place, when flagrant rule-bending is unchecked by the ref.

Looking elsewhere for information about these wrestlers, I found this quote taken from a 1955 Iowa newspaper article, describing Geigel as "as mild and gentlemanly outside of the ring as he is brawling and brutal in it." My brief interactions with pro wrestlers at merch tables and over the Internet would suggest that this compliment bears out with a majority of wrestlers besides Geigel. What interests me most about Geigel's ring persona is not so much his Dirty Harry sense of justice--though, of course, I am thrilled every time he gives Ramirez a taste of his own medicine--but more his curmudgeonly take on the wrestling "hero." He doesn't beg to be liked. He doesn't even seem to care whether anybody likes him or not. He's a grouch, but he's the people's grouch--and Ramirez realizes too late that he has tangled himself in razor wire in taking advantage of Geigel's presumed esteem for sportsmanship.

Here's a gimmick I like. Stone Cold Steve Austin and CM Punk probably took a few notes on tapes of Geigel's matches. I can see the gimmick working in the underground wrestling scene, too. Krush seems to be its closest approximation so far. But it would suit others, too, if they wanted to push in that direction. I could see wrestlers like Jonny Firestorm or Eli Black or Austin Cooper or Braden Charron taking up Geigel's mantle down the road. Brusque and plain-spoken, with no particular ax to grind ethics-wise, willing to be as straight-arrow as circumstances permit, but having no scruples about fighting fire with fire if a poorly advised heel decides to push his luck too far and if four knuckles pressed white to the skin are the only forces for "law and order" left in the ring.

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