Saturday, July 6, 2013

Mat Magic

A 1937 magazine called Ace Sports Monthly contains a "wrestling novella" called "The Mat Magician" by Alexis Rossoff. The cover art by Rafael M. de Soto, which first caught my eye, is in near-perfect condition, but the pulp pages inside are corroded and brown, fragile to the touch. A blogger more ambitious than I might attempt to copy the entire 20-page double-columned story, to preserve it for posterity (another day, perhaps, but probably not), but I felt driven at least to summarize it here on this blog, directly quoting some of the more colorful (and, I think, revealing) passages.

This issue (January 1937) contains five sport novellas (or novelettes), the others pertaining to ice hockey, basketball, football, and auto racing. The back cover is a full-page ad for a book, which advertises itself, asking, "What Diseases are caused by PILES and other Rectal Afflictions?" The inside cover features the now-archetypal Charles Atlas ad ("In just seven days, I can make you a ma-a-a-a-an," The Rocky Horror Show lyric being nearly identical to the original ad, except even more memorable). Other ads interspersed in the crumbly pages offer advice on finding U.S. Government Jobs ("START $1260 to $2100 a YEAR"), air cushions ("STOP Your Rupture Worries!"), a $2.48 postage-free telescope ("Can Be Used As a Microscope ..."), and a "Sensational Sale" on handguns ($5.95-$7.95).

A four-line teaser introduces "The Mat Magician": 
The bronco-busting gladiator, Marmaduke Nolan, was so straight that he wouldn't even pin a rival grappler to the canvas when he had the advantage. So it was up to Manager Porky and the lovely Peggy to double-cross Marmaduke into the championship. 
Already I am drawn into the tale, perhaps instinctively sensing (or just wanting to sense) a fellow kinkster in the author. It sounds like a love story of sorts.

The story is told in first-person by Porky Green, a "washed up mat artist" turned manager, whose ring career was cut short when he accidentally crossed some racketeers by unexpectedly winning a bout against one "Slammer" Coy:
How? I still don't know for sure. But when the referee tapped me on the back, my right arm was lovingly wrapped around the unconscious Slammer's muffin ears, and I was still squeezing.
Porky literally collides with his first real prospect, a super-sized rodeo cowboy, while standing outside a sports arena:
"Gosh all hemlock, but I am sorry, mister," he sheepishly apologizes. "I got so all-fired interested in the pictures of them wrestling fellas outside the Sports Garden, I plumb forgot to look where I was a-going." 
The behemoth's mention of his being interested in wrestlers starts my alleged brain to perking proper once more. Believe me, brother, he is a whole lot of man crowded into one of them mail-order catalogue suits. He continues to stand in front of me, uncomfortably fumbling with two sets of fingers that are like frankfurters. The size of his lunch-hooks intrigues me. He shapes up like the answer to my prayers.
Porky finds out about Marmaduke's past ("used to be one of them gay buckeroos who wear fur pants and ride the range") and signs him to an exclusive contract on the spot.

Porky rushes Marmaduke to a nearby training gym, where the wannabe wrestler's massiveness intimidates all the other wrestlers, so Porky has to don some tights and step into the ring with his protege, in order to find out what the giant knows about the "ancient pastime of bone-breaking and muscle-mauling." He quickly finds out that his recruit knows nothing about wrestling holds, yet, more hopefully, also seems impervious to any of the many holds Porky tries to use against him.

Even more encouraging is the discovery that Marmaduke is a fast learner and that, while ignorant of scientific wrestling skills, his bronco-busting past offers the new wrestler some decided advantages in the ring:
The next thing I know, my head and heels swap ends, and Marmaduke's smothering bulk lovingly blankets itself all over the top of me. It seemed like a week before he got up and helped two anxious spectators peel me off the dirty canvas.
The smothering bulk's impressive workout gets him a $200 booking for the following Saturday, which poses the next problem our enterprising narrator has to solve: what the bulk's ring name will be in the publicity for the event.
"That Marmaduke tag of yours is out," I break the news to him. "The fans would razz you right out of the ring for wearing a sissy handle like that."
Peggy, a "pert little redhead" who works the cigar counter in the hotel where Marmaduke and Porky are holing up, lends a helping hand, telling Porky to dub the fighter "Cavalier" Nolan. Nolan and Peggy fall in love at first sight, but he doesn't realize that it is she who has given him his new name, a critical point in the story. 

Billboards of Nolan and his opponent, a similarly "big muscle-bag named Joe 'Gripper' Horton," the "home-town favorite," pop up all over the city. Marmaduke hates his new ring name ... with a passion, for some reason. When the wrestlers' names are announced, Nolan goes inexplicably berserk upon hearing himself called "Cavalier." He tosses the announcer out of the ring and into a fan's lap. Bedlam ensues, but the cops quell the riot, and the two wrestlers are left facing each other on the mat.
Gripper sets off the fireworks with a flying tackle that promptly deposits the Cavalier on the seat of his nice new satin panties. But even as his opponent is catapulting over top of him, Marmaduke twines a lariat of brawny arms over the Gripper's rock-hard top-piece. Kicking like a half-roped steer, the mat veteran eventually manages to free his badly abused noggin from Cavalier's loving embrace.
They surge back up on their feet, glare at each other for an instant, and go charging in to meet in a head-on collision that shook the ring posts. It is every man for himself now. I couldn't blame the referee when he scuttled into a neutral corner and remained crouched there like an undecided monkey. 
Gripper, fully aroused and enjoying the rough party, clamps a half dozen different punishing holds on various parts of Cavalier's anatomy. But the only good he derives from that is the exercise. Cavalier, thinking and behaving like a locoed horse, bucks himself out of danger. The customers in the seats get smart right then and there that the Gripper-Cavalier brawl is not one of those "in-the-bag" fracases, and they voice their awakened appreciation accordingly. 
Cavalier grows more rambunctious as the bout grows older. He's heartily in favor of taking his opponent apart. But how to go about the job is another problem. He lacks Gripper's experience, and [...] Gripper not only has the answer for all holds, but he also knows his way around a wrestling mat. 
Having matched his strength against Cavalier's and finding his own wanting, Gripper falls back on guile and strategy. His plan is to wear my green protege down to his size. A stealthily-applied, cruel Japanese wrist-lock takes a lot out of Cavalier. Naturally I'm fretting. 
Great beads of perspiration standing out on his pain-twisted face, Nolan breaks the wrist-lock with sheer brute strength alone. It is only a breather though, because Gripper comes right back with a leg-spread that must have had its origination back in the days of the Spanish Inquisition.
Porky considers stopping the fight, valuing his protege's safety over the $200 paycheck. But before he can take action, Gripper "abandons the leg-spread and grabs for a full crotch hold." The veteran tries to lift Cavalier for a body slam, but the cowboy "is harder to handle than a cake of wet soap." Gripper complains to the ref, "This palooka won't rassle according to Hoyle."
Cavalier suddenly plants his foot among his opponent's whiskers and shoves, putting Gripper into a surprise tailspin. It is a golden opportunity for the kid to pin the sprawled-out veteran. But before he can decide on the proper hold, Horton saves himself by rolling off the mat. 
Slowly, Gripper climbs the ropes and when he turns, there is the dangerous look of a stalking tiger about him. [... Gripper and Cavalier] tangled and went to the mat in a welter of flying legs and arms. Gripper is like a crazy man. He cracks the kid with a jarring forearm blow across the back of his neck and continues the assault with a nasty thigh-grinding that is little short of murder.
The crowd goes wild, and Gripper makes the mistake of mocking the new wrestler's detested ring name. Enraged, Nolan "grabs hold of Gripper and swings him ceilingwards." A fan calls out the name "Cavalier" again, and the kid angrily hurls the veteran into the fan's lap. "Gripper is out colder than a dead fish on ice." Nolan stomps back to his corner, swearing to kill whoever thought up the name "Cavalier" for him. Back at the hotel, Porky splits the $200 with his fighter and gives him the good news that this unconventional victory has pulled in six more bookings, "three hundred and fifty simoleons per show." With money like that coming in, Nolan contemplates proposing to "Miss Peggy."
"Take a tip from a pal and steer clear of that matrimonial hold," I seriously advise. "Nine times out of ten it's the guy who ends up with his shoulders pinned to the mat."
Entirely ignorant of the fact that Peggy is the one who named him "Cavalier," Nolan defends Peggy as different from other women and predicts, "With her inspiring me, I'd be champion of the world in no time at all." Meanwhile, Porky finds himself wrestling with his hidden feelings for Nolan: "Miss Peggy is the tops. But, to use the idiom of the sophisticates, Marmaduke has gotten under my skin too. Aw nuts! What I have been trying to say is, I'm mighty fond of the big, likable lad, and I'm anxious to see that he keeps his mind entirely on rassling." A telegram from Peggy the next morning assures Nolan that she is interested in him too and is rooting for him as his wrestling career blossoms.

The next Tuesday Nolan faces a big, ear-biting brute named Buzz-saw Benotti. To avoid another pre-fight debacle, Porky warns the announcer not to call the young fighter "Cavalier." The bell sounds, and the "pair of ponderous pachyderms go down in the center of the mat, more tangled up than a bowl of spaghetti." Benotti rides the gentle giant "like a centaur." Nolan escapes a scissors hold by rolling over, but he shows no interest in beating up his opponent:
The conviction has been steadily growing upon me that my bucking behemoth lacks the championship qualities of initiative and combativeness. Instead of going into his matches with the definite purpose of ironing out each antagonist, he's quite content to play the part of the stooge. His idea of a victory is when the other fella fails to throw him. Jim Londos, the great Greek, had a word for that kind of rassler--"mat-mop."
Benotti wins the match by decision. Porky chews Nolan out, but Nolan is so easygoing and so lovestruck with Peggy that Porky's verbal abuse rolls right off him. Four days later, Nolan loses again, again by decision, this time more embarrassingly against a "fat, blubbery old" has-been named "Chowderhead" Cohn. Porky reads Nolan the riot act once again, but Nolan is wrapped up in his latest love letter from Peggy. "If it wasn't that it is a crime to do so, I'd waylay her daily letters to him and destroy them without compunction," our narrator confesses.

After two more ignominious defeats in ten days, the promoter terminates Porky's and Nolan's contract, no surprise to Porky. He explains the situation to Nolan, telling him he should go back to the rodeo, and determines to become a truck driver himself. He's moved by the hurt expression in Nolan's eyes and by his uncomplaining acceptance of his change in fortune. Nolan accepts the termination, but doesn't understand its reason, because, even though he's lost all but his first match by decision, he's never submitted and never been pinned. The next morning Marmaduke disappears. Neither Porky nor Peggy hears from him for a month. When at last they get word of him, it is that Nolan "is working in a rival road show's wrestling tent. One of those take-on-all-comers acts." It's a crooked outfit, organized and run by "hoods, gamblers and shills."

That summer, Porky travels 150 miles just to see Marmaduke wrestle on the carnival circuit. Before the match, a "horsefaced" yokel accepts the challenge of wrestling Marmaduke in the show that evening. Porky strongly suspects that the yokel is not really a yokel at all, too citified-looking for one thing. Then he spots an old connection from his past in wrestling, Bib Moody, and he gathers that Moody is trying out his new prize wrestler, the phony yokel, before debuting him in the big city.

That evening the horsefaced challenger enters the ring "in a pair of much-too-small borrowed tights." Marmaduke is the same as always: a mop-mat. Determined to make a big name for himself, the challenger begins to fight dirty:
Right under the bell's echo he fells Nolan with a savage head butt to the point of the jaw. He's astraddle of his back in an instant and treating the kid's face to a rasping mat massage against the rough canvas.
In disgust and in embarrassment for Nolan, Porky gets up and starts to leave, but a sudden commotion in the crowd turns his attention back to the ring.
Jeepers Creepers! Marmaduke is doing a swell job of kicking the ringer's noggin off with his free foot. Even while I am still turning my head, the kid's groping foot plants itself against horseface's surprised mush again--and shoves. There is the explosive power of a mustang's hind leg in back of Nolan's driving push. It spins the ringer onto his ear, and he rolls over and comes up whining and singing the blues to the referee. 
True to form, though, Marmaduke fails to take the offensive and go for the pin, now that his opponent is vulnerable. Suddenly something snaps in Porky, and he cups his hands to his mouth and shouts from the back of the tent, "Of all the pastel-shaded sissies, you are the sweetest, Cavalier!"

In a sudden rage triggered by the insult, Nolan grabs his opponent by the wrist and the foot and starts swinging him in circles, faster and faster, until he lets go and the horsefaced challenger lands against the main support pole, and the tent collapses on customers, carnies, and wrestlers alike. Porky escapes the uproar of the carnival and rushes home to Peggy, urging her to write a letter to Nolan which he suspects will force him to "act like a regular he-man and not a horse." She agrees to do it, but Porky is struck with remorse, fearing that the contents of the letter may end forever the chance of a reunion between Nolan and "a grand girl like Peggy."

Three days later, Porky goes to a gym to watch the world champion wrestler Jim Burdick work out. Burdick triple-crossed the double-crossing pro-wrestling trust by defeating their appointed champion fair and square to win the title. Now he has a lawyer for a manager and a couple of bodyguards shielding him from the vengeful trust's team of hired thugs. While contemplating Burdick's tricky rise to the top, Porky hears a familiar voice call his name. It's Marmaduke. Nolan tells Porky about the letter from Peggy, who admitted to him that she had suggested "that pansy Cavalier name" because, she said, she thought of him as a "milk-fed softie," whom she only took an interest in because she felt sorry for him. According to the letter, she's currently very happy with "her new boy friend, Jim Burdick, the champ!" Now Nolan is desperate to get back into the wrestling game and willing to play it any way Porky tells him to ... so long as Porky can get him a match with Burdick. "I'll show her," Nolan exclaims, "which one of us is a cavalier!"

Through mutual acquaintances, Porky is able to invite Burdick out for drinks and dining on the town. Red-haired Peggy shows up, too, all part of the plan.
Peggy puts a lot of "it" behind a smile and tosses it to [Burdick], thereby sending the big churlish oaf into a complete tailspin.
Burdick "rushes" Peggy for the next six nights, having fallen head over heels in love with her. Meanwhile, Nolan's in strict training under Porky's watchful eye.
The kid is getting in shape with a vengeance. And the screwy part of it all is, he's only burned up at Peggy on account of her having thought up that Cavalier name for him.
As the introducer of Burdick to his new girlfriend, Porky calls in a favor, asking the champ to wrestle Porky's new wrestler. Burdick is on the verge of granting this favor when he hears that the wrestler in question is Nolan. Burdick's heard all about Nolan from Peggy, who's told him that Nolan made her fall in love with him, only to abandon her without a word of warning. Now Burdick is all fired up to fight Nolan ... and not just as a favor to Porky.

The press plays up the grudge angle for the upcoming fight. Before the match, Porky tenderly expresses his concern for Nolan's safety against a more experienced and bigger wrestler like Burdick. "Thanks, Porky," the cowboy replies. "I think a heap of you too." Nolan assures Porky that he doesn't feel that he was pushed into this fight, absolving Porky of all his guilt. Nolan strips for his pre-fight physical examination, and one of the Athletic Commission deputies gushes, "You are in A-number-one shape, Nolan. I have never examined a better-conditioned athlete." The crowd roars as Nolan and Burdick enter the ring. As a final word of encouragement, Porky tells Nolan that Peggy still loves him. Nolan scoffs, thinking his friend is simply trying to boost his confidence. Then Porky tells him to just look at Peggy in the crowd from time to time and find out for himself.
A moment later the bell sounds its brassy call to arms. A breathless hush. Then the two Titans of the mat clashed with a thudding impact of flesh against flesh. Locked. They struggle and strain for an instant in a terrific test of strength. [...] 
They break as if by mutual consent and back away. Expecting to vent his spleen on another passive pushover, the champ gives every indication that he is not pleased about this unknown's dogged resistance. [...] 
Glaring hate out of his small, round, monkey eyes, he rises to the occasion. Savage and tricky as a wounded rhino, he stalks his foe at bay. Feinting deceptively with his bullet head, he crouches and weaves, suddenly darting in under Nolan's guarding hands. His long powerful arms close viselike around Marmaduke's knees, crashing him over backwards onto the mat. It looks like a fall, but even as he tumbles, Nolan curves his back, places a knee against Burdick's corrugated stomach and continues the roll, executing a backwards somersault that deposits the champ on the back of his neck. 
Effortlessly Nolan surges to his feet and stares out into the audience. A hard, bitter smile is on his face. I could have brained him for passing up such a chance to make Burdick's life more miserable. "Mat-mop!" I yelped at him. 
Enraged and goaded on by the jeers of his fickle admirers, the champ slowly got to his feet. There's murder in his heart, and a dark scowl on his blue-black jowls. Reverting to type, he's the caveman now. Mere flesh and bone was never made to withstand such berserk fury as that generated by Burdick. Muttering to himself, he snags one of Nolan's sinewy wrists with a powerful paw. His free hand pressing against the elbow of the captured arm, he spins Nolan to the mat with a heavy body slam that raises a cloud of dust. The kid had to go down or else end up with a broken arm. 
But the champ doesn't leave off there. Maintaining the punishing hold, he forces his opponent up on his feet and over again, with a sickening thud. Burdick is pounding the life out of the kid, and loving the job. Take it from me, I'm suffering too, and how! The memory of Marmaduke's white, tortured face will be haunting me for months. [...] 
Half stunned, Nolan is lying on his side while Burdick, still applying the pressure, is preparing to smash him into the mat with a final body slam. Too game for his own good, the kid weakly begins to fight back. A wiggle, a squirm and a feeble kick move him closer to the edge of the mat, and he gets a reprieve from the pain of the terrible wrist-lock. A contemptuous sneer fixes itself on the champ's pan. I know what is going on inside that warped gorilla brain of his. He's going to allow Nolan to fight his weary way within inches of the saving mat edge, then drag him back at the last second and flatten him. 
I'm swearing, but I am not cussing the champ out for his cruel cat-and-mouse tactics. What Burdick is doing is fair in wrestling, and wrestling is a he-man's sport. If you can't take it, you just don't belong. [...] 
Another crablike scuttle wins another precious inch for Nolan. The champ isn't making it any too easy for him. 
The Sports Garden is a madhouse by now. [...] 
As though finally subdued by his last great crawling effort, Nolan quivers and sprawls out on the canvas. [...] 
My heart aches for the kid. 
The champ is getting ready to put an end to his day's work. Figuring that he only has to play pat-a-cake to flatten out his thoroughly cowed opponent, Burdick abandons his winning wrist-lock and bends at the knees, about to drop his dead weight on top of his prostrate foe. The champ dropped all right, but Marmaduke wasn't beneath him when he landed. How did that happen? Just chalk it up as another example of my rodeo rassler's horse sense. He rolled to the left, raised to his knees, then dived back again to land atop of the floundering champ. 
"Ride him cowboy!" I find my voice and sound the old battle cry of the round-up. 
Desperate, the champ bucks and kicks like nobody's business. He's raving, crazy mad. He pitches and rolls like a fiend. But every time he stops for a breather, the ex-bronco-buster is still astraddle of him. The hectic tumblebug battler rolls across the mat to my side of the ring. 
"Pin him, you fool, while you have the chance!" I screech like a Comanche Indian. Marmaduke though, just shakes his head. "I'm not mad at him," he pants. "I'm riding him till he bucks himself out and quits." 
All I can do is groan. [...] 
Careful to steer the frantic champ away from the edges of the mat, he triumphantly rides around the ring once more. Then something happens. One second I am standing alone on the ring steps and the next, Peggy is beside me. She is crying and laughing all at the same time. 
"Come on, you Cavalier," she sings out, her voice ringing bell-like and clear above the roar and hubbub of the seething crowd. "Come on, you Cavalier!" [...] 
I saw Marmaduke turn red behind his ears. His legs crushing the champ's middle, he suddenly lets go. The two rasslers go into a savage, scrambling tangle. They are animals now, with the thin husk of civilization stripped off. 
The champ hangs his pet holds on Nolan one after the other. The infuriated kid breaks them like so many cotton threads. [...] A rippling of the kid's muscles, a tremendous heave. [...] Supporting the champ's weight on top of his head while maintaining a firm grip fore and aft, Nolan, begins the waltz-me-around-again-Willie business. [...] 
I'm expecting Marmaduke to heave his opponent out towards center field, but I'll be sideswiped if the maddened mat mustang doesn't cross me up, just like a crazy horse would do. Satisfied that he has spun the champ into a lovely, synthetic state of delirium tremens, he steps out from under his badly muddled-up burden. Burdick flops down to the mat all spread out like a busted bale of hay. Marmaduke quickly pins his shoulders. And it is all over but the shouting. The champ is dead--long live the champ.
In the end, it turns out that all this time Nolan thought the word "cavalier" refers to the pendant charm girls hang around their neck (lavalliere). Porky tries his best to explain the difference, but the problem is instantly solved when Peggy jumps into the new champion's victorious arms.

End of story.

Forget the corny storyline. Forget the overt homophobia (just a dodge as far as I'm concerned). Forget even the heinous wrong done to Jim Burdick, who's only mistake was to fall in love with Peggy (and to run afoul of the wrestling trust by refusing to throw a fight). Forget all that because Alexis Rossof's handling of the fight scenes is terrific, with the right balance of weird but eye-catching analogies, strong action verbs, and tired old cliches. And as for the homophobia, it looks suspiciously like veiled homoeroticism to me, though it's interesting to see that, back in 1937, a writer was associating wrestling action with a passionate repudiation of man-for-man desire. I take it that the author's repeated use of "loving" and "lovingly" in reference to wrestling holds is meant to be ironic, but I suspect it reveals a very real subtext to the story. Being a pervy gay guy, I suspect even Miss Peggy is a beard, concealing the story's actual love story ... between an aging Porky and his muscly "kid," Marmaduke. It only helps my case when it turns out that Peggy is just as big a con artist as Porky--and can it be a coincidence that "Peggy" and "Porky" sound a lot alike? Or that Porky knows what a lavalliere is?


  1. I love summer vacation! My favorite blogger can devote most of his free time inducing cynics like me to read, albeit by proxy, a trashy wrestling pulp throwaway. Effortlessly.

    94/100. V. Good.

    1. I'm glad you liked my SparkNotes take on a 75-year-old wrestling fantasy. The "wrestling novella" is a literary form that needs reviving.

  2. I have experience taking apart Manga and Comics and scanning them. If you were interested, I'd be willing to try and record the book for prosperity. Go ahead and email me if you are interested.

  3. Fascinating stuff, Joe. The library I work at (U of Iowa) has one of the largest collections of fanzines and pulp fiction in the US and you happened across an amazing specimen. Thanks very much for passing this along and, if Nelio is able to scan it fully, it would make for an entertaining read and further scholarship. Yes, homophobic, but I always consider the context of the times in which fiction is written. The 'phobia seems to serve simply as cover to make other passages palatable. Great find!

  4. "Forget even the heinous wrong done to Jim Burdick, who's only mistake was to fall in love with Peggy (and to run afoul of the wrestling trust by refusing to throw a fight)."

    Thank you! That whole aspect seriously bugged me...

  5. Really interesting… thanks for sharing this. (…and great cover art for the time!)

  6. Thanks for the supportive responses, everyone. I enjoyed sharing this with you.



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