Winnipeg, Canada, sometime in 1968.
The arena stinks of sweat and ambient testosterone. Hundreds of fans pack ringside, eager to feast on pro wrestling's rich, yet simple, pleasures.
They're here to see closed fists smash temples.
Folding chairs crack skulls.
Legs pretzel until joints crackle like campfires.
Feuds, heels, heroes. Foreign objects. Skullduggery and vengeance and betrayal.
Hardly a place for a boy in a plaid skirt.
And yet, there he is. A fresh-faced piece of fresh meat walks down the aisle, sporting a tartan kilt. The kid can't be more than 16. Larry Hennig waits in the ring. Hennig's signature move is "The Axe." For him, this teenager's kilt just giftwraps another paycheck.
The kid carries a basket of dandelions, throwing them to the crowd. The revolted crowd throws them back. A small troupe of bagpipers, all in kilts, walks with him.
The kid is Roderick Toombs, runaway son of a Canadian railroad cop, just crazy and desperate enough to trade a grand royal ass-kicking for 25 Canadian dollars.
By the end of the night, he'll be on his way to becoming a legend.
Eugene, Ore., May 11, 2001.
Three thousand wrestling fanatics shriek, bellow, taunt and cajole in the MAC Court, the University of Oregon's athletic arena, as "Anarchy in Piper's Pit," the biggest wrestling event in Oregon in a decade, unfolds.
Six solid matches of vicious theater pass before a feeling of exhausted anticipation settles on the arena. The night's parade of high-flying offensives, down-and-dirty grappling, evil Canadians, heroic Americans, dog collars and blood has done little to fill the void everyone feels. Where's the man of the hour?
"Rowdy" Roddy Piper, né Toombs, is Oregon's resident wrestling legend and tonight's headline attraction. The University of Oregon's student cultural committee convinced him to come down from his mountaintop retreat outside Hillsboro for a night of "Anarchy."
"They say the word 'anarchy' is real big in Eugene," Piper says.
The crowd's question remains unanswered throughout the entire Main Event. Though the fans are on their feet when U of O graduate Josh Wilcox survives a 20-Man Battle Royal to claim a $5,000 purse, there's a sense of deflated enthusiasm in the air. But as Wilcox, a former Duck tight end, soaks in the hometown applause, his final opponent, still in the ring, steals the bag of spoils.
Then, finally, it happens.
Piper rushes into the ring. Infuriated, he demands the money be returned to the rightful victor. The crowd, momentarily caught off-guard, explodes in thunderous approval at the sight of its hero.
The kilt is gone, but underneath his black suit, Piper wears a heather-gray pocket T-shirt. The wrestler-turned-organizer has not lost his Everyman appeal, nor his hard-knock touch. Piper unleashes a lightning battery of punches to the villain's head. Overcome, Curt Hennig, son of the man who awaited the teenage Rod Toombs in that Winnipeg ring, surrenders his ill-gotten gains.
In less than two minutes, Roddy Piper has re-established everything he ever was, and ever hopes to be. Despite the event's nihilistic name, the message of the MAC Court chaos couldn't be more clear: When it comes to pro wrestling in Oregon, the Piper is king.
Sometimes, it seems every thick-necked mook in America wears a World Wrestling Federation T-shirt.
The WWF, Piper's old employer, pimp-slaps Monday Night Football in TV's ratings war and trades on Wall Street. Wrestlers strut in Hollywood blockbusters and at the Republican National Convention. One ex-wrestler is the actual governor of a real American state.
Roddy Piper helped make all this happen.
In the 30 years since that night in Winnipeg, Piper distinguished himself as one of the greatest ever to kick a leg into the squared circle. In wrestling's musclebound melodrama, he's played trash-talking villain, blue-collar hero and elder statesman. In the mid-'80s, he was key to wrestling's transformation from flea-bitten sideshow to cable TV cash-spinner, wielding a sly sneer, rapier tongue and a deep capacity for punishment.
"Piper began when wrestling had a semblance of integrity," says Marvin Levich, a retired Reed College philosophy professor who used to make a study of wrestling. "He is a very verbal person, and very articulate, and that made him what he was."
"He could work the mic, talk to the crowd, improvise--and he could wrestle," says Rose City Rudo, editor of the Portland wrestling 'zine Polar Bear Vixen.
Serious grappling fans revere Piper as one of the last of the old school. The man himself, however, is unwilling to drift quietly into past tense. "There's this mystique that old wrestlers just fade away," says Piper. "Well, I'm just going to peak."
In fact, Piper's involved in a dizzying array of enterprises. His website, a well-developed look at all things Roddy, flogs videos, advice and goofy jokes. He plans to publish a memoir, with the boss working title If You're Gonna Die, Kid, Die in the Ring. Continuing his career-long rabble-rousing, he's suing TimeWarner/AOL, former owners of World Championship Wrestling, for breach of contract.
The WWF's recent buyout of WCW, its Ted Turner-founded rival, has made big-time wrestling a monopoly--ironically perhaps opening the door for independent operators with guts and drawing power to take the sport back to its grass roots.
"For a someone like Roddy Piper, now is the perfect time to flash his name," opines Rose City Rudo.
If you could have foretold the future to that snarling crowd in Winnipeg '68, young Roderick Toombs would have been the single most stunned boy/man in the house. Before facing Hennig and his Axe, he'd never so much as seen a pro-wrestling match.
After splitting home at 13, he bounced around the shady side of Canada, hitchhiking, heisting food from hotels and crashing in hostels. Somehow, he kept up with two boyhood loves: playing bagpipes (his mother was born in Belfast, his father in Glasgow) and fighting on amateur boxing and wrestling circuits.
Despite his ignorance of the sport, saying yes to pro wrestling didn't absorb a lot of thought.
"Somebody just didn't show up," he explains now. "My amateur wrestling coach at the time--a police officer--says, 'Rod, I can get you 25 bucks to fight this guy, but you'll lose your amateur status.' Well, it wasn't paying a lot."
He asked some guys from a pipe band he played with to accompany him to the ring ("They were proud I was doing something honest," he says). After Toombs' unusual entrance, Hennig clobbered the neophyte, broke his nose, slammed him and pinned him--all within 10 seconds. His face resembling the back of a butcher shop, Roderick retired to the locker room in shame.
"I'm sitting on a bench in the dressing room with my head down," he remembers. "I remember seeing the promoter's penny loafers coming over. I thought he was going to duke me out of my $25. But he said, 'Kid, you did great! How'd you like to go to Kansas City?' That night, they snuck me over the border. I was a renegade in the U.S. and Mexico 'til I was 19."
As Portland's tumescence over Benicio Del Toro reminds us, Oregon starves for celebrity. It is somewhat odd, then, that Roddy Piper, star of kitsch classics like They Live and Hell Comes to Frogtown ("I still tell people that one was my evil twin," he says), mostly flies under local radar. Dwight Jaynes used to name-check him in his old Oregonian sports column, and wrestling cognoscenti surely know he's around. Mention Piper to most Portlanders, though, and they're likely to look at you with unexpected delight: "You mean, he lives around here?"
This is probably due, in part, to a certain reticence on Piper's part. Beyond starting Piper's Pit Stop Transmission Center, an auto repair shop on Southeast Division Street, he hasn't really milked local notoriety. Piper's 10-acre spread hides way the hell back in the Hillsboro farm country. Dirt roads twist up a small mountain, past old orchards and new houses. The place with the stone gargoyle in the front yard, that's Piper's.
Kitty Toombs, Piper's wife, opens the door. Piper once described her like so: "She's 4 foot 11...and she's the only thing I'm afraid of." Kitty wears her hair cropped into a spike with one long, narrow braid trailing from the back. Next to her stands Falon, 5 years old with golden hair and a braid like her mom's. Falon radiates almost frightening maturity, polite and precisely articulate as she leads the way through the rambling house, with a detour to inspect a closet flooded with board games.
At the back of the house, there's Rod's Lodge, a cavernous study plastered with wrestling memorabilia. To the right, stairs lead up to a loft office, where Roddy Piper sits at his computer, working the phone.
The smile hits you first. The warm grin contains just a hint of the mischief that made Piper, at various stages of his career, one of wrestling's most effective villains and most charismatic heroes. His voice is a volcanic rumble.
Then you notice the ears, ham-pink and gnarled with calcium deposits.
Piper's arms and torso, while not what they were in his pumped-up prime, are massive. One wrist takes a nasty and unnatural twist, an arm bone protruding beneath the skin. Piper rises from his office chair with noticeable effort.
"I was the first person ever to wrestle with a titanium hip," he says with a laugh. "Shows you how desperate a guy can get."
Wrestling's muse is notoriously fickle, and many who tether their fortunes to the sport end up flat busted. Beyond the Mat, a 1999 documentary, captured '80s star Jake "The Snake" Roberts smoking crack in a motel room; last year, Playboy Buddy Rose served 104 days in Clark County jail for unlawfully imprisoning his wife during a saga of divorce, suicide threats and alleged drug binges.
In contrast, Piper is on solid ground. He free-associates a bit, but his life's epic spills out in a weaving torrent of enthusiastic storytelling.
When he started, wrestling was a patchwork of small-time regional outfits operating at the outermost edge of respectability. Wrestlers comprised a wooly alternative world, descended from carnivals, vaudeville and circus culture. They lived out of suitcases, cars and hotel rooms, throwing down wherever a paycheck might be hiding, speaking a cryptic old carnie dialect amongst themselves. They meted out their own justice.
"My whole education is based on this very brutal world," Piper says. "Every night it was something different. I've been stabbed three times. All my original frat brothers are dead."
The wrestling netherworld eventually would make Piper rich and famous. For a teenager who'd lived on the streets for two years, though, the most immediate payoff came in the form of tough love at the hands of old-timers like Chick Garibaldi and Lord Alfred Hayes.
"I was handy," he recalls. "I had no real family, so if something happened to me, it didn't really matter. If they wanted to whip things up in a new town, they'd have me date the sheriff's daughter.
"What I found, though, was that these guys cared about me in the strangest ways. If I did something wrong, they'd smack me right in the face. But they were right--it was just brutal justice. As dysfunctional as it was, it was better than what I had been doing."
Today, pro-wrestling academies dot the country, teaching hopefuls how to take falls and throw holds. Piper learned the trade in a different fashion.
"They'd beat me up for about an hour and a half solid," he says of the seasoned hands who schooled him. "They didn't want anyone who wasn't capable, so they really tried to deter you. I needed to eat, so I figured I'd take the pain."
Piper proved himself, becoming a young star on the rise. He also learned to live by wrestling's wild kingdom code.
"You can pretty much strip me naked, drop me off in any city and I'll find my way out," Piper says. "I learned the rules--like, never carry a dull knife or an empty gun, 'cause both'll get you in trouble and neither will do you any good. Never break bread with a promoter; that gives them a psychological advantage. Those kinds of rules."
Come the late '70s, Piper was a guaranteed draw. He did especially well in the Northwest, forging relationships in the region's independent wrestling scene that prompted his move here 16 years ago.
Piper could make a splash in a given territory within weeks, drumming up big crowds. He was in demand and sometimes fought twice a night.
"By that time," Piper says, "I was living it and breathing it."
Besides popularity and a crunching workload, the other mainstay of Piper's early career was conflict with promoters. Through the National Wrestling Alliance, the various regional hucksters maintained an uneasy peace and kept wrestlers in line. Wrestlers who tried to buck authority could find themselves blackballed, frozen out of all the territories for transgressing in one.
According to Piper, his first run-in with wrestling's powers-that-were came when he was 19 and distributed a newsletter urging solidarity to other grapplers.
"I took the NWA's circular crest and changed the words to No Wrestlers Allowed," Piper says. "I had a picture of a promoter with his arm around a wrestler. In his left hand, the promoter had a bag of money. In his right hand, he had the wrestler by the nuts. They were both smiling."
One night, when he had two engagements booked in Southern cities hundreds of miles apart, Piper showed up late for the second. The NWA blackballed him. Piper turned to chaotic Third World gigs to make ends meet. He remembers hiding out in a bunkerlike locker room while half the Dominican Republic chucked bricks outside. Then there was the bout in Kuwait, before a heavily armed audience of thousands and many of their camels.
In the midst of this madness, Piper got a call from Vince McMahon Sr. McMahon was a longtime promoter, operator of something called the World-Wide Wrestling Federation. He and his son, he explained, were putting together a new effort to use cable and videotape to transcend the old regional boundaries. Because they were breaking from the NWA, they needed wrestlers just desperate enough to take a risk. Wrestlers, in other words, like Piper.
"He called all the lone wolves," Piper says. "Now you've got 30 of us in a room. You've got George 'The Animal' Steel, André the Giant. You gotta understand, these guys don't care about nothin'."
The WWF soared to national prominence, riding savvy cable deals and the salesmanship of Vince McMahon Jr. It was the early '80s, and the younger McMahon was the first to see the potential of hitching wrestling to other rising pop-culture forces, specifically MTV. Singer Cindi Lauper plunged into wrestling at the height of her brief fame.
A blond surfer dude named Hulk Hogan became the first mega-hero of the rock 'n' wrestling era. In wrestling, of course, every hero needs an antihero, a foil. Hogan found his in Piper.
"Hogan, he was billed as American-made, but he wasn't blue-collar," says Rose City Rudo. "He was from Venice Beach, y'know? Piper was someone you hoped you didn't run into behind the pub after nine Guinnesses. He was a more realistic, blue-collar brawler."
The pair became inescapable; there were lunchboxes, dolls, cartoons. Hogan was the popular favorite, while Piper nurtured a classic "heel" image with his zest for belittling interviewers. Wrestling attained an unprecedented pop-culture saturation level.
"Geraldine Ferraro was running for vice president, and she was going, 'Rowdy Piper, why don't you fight like a man!'" Piper recalls. "Cindi Lauper wins Female Vocalist of the Year, and finishes her speech saying, 'Roddy Piper, you are going to get yours.' I walk into Madison Square Garden, and there are the Rockettes, there's Liberace--and what's wrong with that picture, eh? Little Richard's handing out Bibles. It's a circus."
That circus reached its highly lucrative crescendo in the spring of 1985 with the first Wrestlemania, an extravaganza billed as the wrestling equivalent of the Super Bowl. Piper's hilariously vitriolic feud with Hogan and Mr. T, at the time a bona-fide TV star, came to a head in the Main Event. Though Piper and his tag-team partner Paul Orndorff lost the showdown, wrestling's new gold standard had been set.
"Hogan and I were the original lab rats," says Piper of his old rival, now friend. "If somebody recognizes me, it's like, 'That is the guy who started Wrestlemania.' For kids who aren't even 19 yet, that's like saying, 'Oh yeah, he started the Super Bowl.'"
Piper says he sometimes barely recognizes the sex-fueled beast wrestling has become, with its stadium-rock pyrotechnics and invitations to "suck it."
In Piper's opinion, McMahon's operation has deliberately shifted its emphasis away from the talents of wrestlers in favor of a monolithic corporate identity.
"Back in the old days, the marquee would say 'HOGAN VS. PIPER,'" he says. "Now it just says 'WWF'. People get the spectacle, but they don't get the wrestling.
"I watched RAW the other night," Piper says, referring to the WWF's flagship weekly show. "One wrestler comes out and starts telling a story. Another wrestler comes out and picks up the same story. Soon there are six wrestlers out there, just talking. I think 27 minutes went by, and they didn't even think about having a match.
"That's not what I do for a living."
The marketing of big-time wrestling is not likely to change any time soon. Last month, Vince McMahon bought out World Championship Wrestling, winning a long-running commercial cage match. (WCW was the last major promotion to have Piper under contract; hence his pending lawsuit.) Though the two leagues will still compete for dramatic purposes, wrestling is now effectively a monopoly.
Which, to the thinking of some, leaves the iron hot for indie events like "Anarchy in Piper's Pit."
"With Vince holding all the purse strings, pay is gonna go down, and you're going to start to see top wrestlers looking for other opportunities," says Rose City Rudo. "Someone like Piper has the street cred, and he's smart enough, to take advantage."
Sitting across from Roddy, you realize that the real Roddy, self-deprecating and gentle, couldn't be more different from his grandstanding ring persona. When the cameras turn on, where does it come from?
The wall in Rod's Lodge provides a clue. There hangs a picture of Bret "The Hitman" Hart, a wrestler a full generation younger than Piper. In silver ink, the inscription thanks Piper for teaching Hart the ropes, so to speak. It ends with a line from Flaubert, perhaps a clue to what makes a life like Piper's work: Be quiet and humble in your ordinary life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.
On the other hand, there may be no need to look to dead French poets for a summation of Piper's still-evolving career. The wrestler himself, while he offers no pretensions to great meaning in his life, says his success is a testament to luck, hard work and devotion to his craft.
"I come from a long line of fighters," he says. "You do get tired of getting beaten up, but my career has been serendipity from the beginning--'I know, I'll wear a kilt and play the bagpipes!' It has evolved into a strange place, but I take it in stride.
"I am wrestling. Wrestling's me. It's all I've ever done."
Live Action Heroes
The glory days of the '80s, when legions of wrestling fans flocked to events promoted by Portland Wrestling, have long passed. Since then, due in part to strict state regulations imposed on wrestlers, scripted squared-circle antics have sputtered along in the River City.
The local pro-wrestling scene recently suffered a significant loss when Johnny Fairplay tossed in New Dimension Wrestling's towel. As a consistent risk-taker, blood-letter and envelope-pusher, NDW could never catch a break in Portland (see "Busted Wide Open," March 7, 2001). "New Dimension Wrestling was extremely frustrating here in the Pacific Northwest," says Fairplay, who plans on moving to California at the end of the month. "Portland is supposed to be a 'wrestling town.' It isn't. There was lots of back-stabbing, as there always is in wrestling, but even more so here. A lot of the veterans didn't respect the fact that I was bringing wrestling into the 21st century."
Still, despite NDW's demise, one doesn't have to rely on the rare Portland Wrestling show, like last week's anarchy in Eugene, to witness men and women adopting cartoon personalities in the name of athletic absurdism. The scene may be in a holding pattern, but it ain't gone yet. Here's a couple ways to get your fix for live action.
Extreme Canadians: If you're one to wax nostalgic for the old-school days of local big names like Ed "Moondog" Moretti and "Playboy" Buddy Rose or would like a chance to check out a few hot names on the independent wrestling circuit, then you'll have to cross the Columbia River. Extreme Canadian Championship Wrestling out of Vancouver, B.C., has turned the gymnasium of Vancouver, Wash.'s Marshall Community Center into the best regular local wrestling venue.
Attendance at the shows averages in the 250 to 300 range, with Buddy Rose's "homeboy" status cited as something of a star attraction for the 'Couv. Area talents like "Tornado" Tony Kozina, "Smart" Bart Sawyer and Billy Two Eagles bolster a revolving cast of colorful ECCW regulars. Next show: Saturday, May 26, Marshall Community Center (1009 E McLoughlin Blvd., Vancouver).
Organic Panic: From out of the bowels of Portland's underground rock scene it comes: burrito-eating contests, trike races, heavy metal and occasional nudity, not to mention chaotic, unrehearsed brawling that potentially puts both performers and audience in harm's way. And it isn't even "real wrestling" (mostly). It is Portland Organic Wrestling, a kind of high-concept, alcohol-infused art-grappling that uses musicians instead of athletes, spurns the ring for the stage and trades scripted action for on-the-spot inspiration.
Once a month, Satyricon barflies metamorphose into pseudo-wrestlers of appropriately bent character types, taking on names like Harvey Hardcock Hellcat, Doctor Daddy Dotcom and Elvis the Destroyer. Though the physical end of their shtick may constitute nothing more than a series of awkward tumblings, these guys make up what they lack in professional training with cutting-edge personality and flaming mic skills.
That's not to say POW lacks serious action. The meat-and-potatoes wrestling at POW is left to the "real" wrestlers--mostly New Dimension Wrestling refugees who are allowed free rein to interact with the proceedings at hand. Beyond being quick to bash each other with chairs, chains and the odd ladder at hand, these guys can also be serious mic hogs. But who's going to stop them? THEY'RE DRINKING. Next show: Monday, June 11, Satyricon (125 NW 6th Ave., 243-2380).
Rock 'n' wrestling scribe and WW contributor Sam Soule wrote the passage recounting the events of "Anarchy in Piper's Pit."
"Anarchy in Piper's Pit" also featured classic talents "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan and Greg "The Hammer" Valentine, who performed well in a dog-collar match.
Polar Bear Vixen, recently relocated to Portland from Las Vegas, is available at Reading Frenzy, 921 SW Oak St., 274-1449.
Rose City Rudo takes his name from the Mexican wrestling tradition of rival camps of heroic, white-hatted tecnicos and evil-doing, rule-breaking rudos.
Polar Bear Vixen hosts a party each month at Billy Ray's Neighborhood Dive (2216 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 287-7254) in honor of the WWF's big pay-per-view broadcast. The next party is 5 pm Sunday, May 20.
Piper speaks fondly of Don Owens, legendary Portland Wrestling impresario. "Every Thanksgiving, he'd get his wrestlers turkeys," Piper recalls. "The midget wrestlers, he'd give Cornish game hens."
"Roddy has always outworked everyone at everything he's done," says Jeff Kafoury, current operator of Portland Wrestling and promoter of the MAC Court show.
According to Piper, a publication date for If You're Gonna Die, Kid, Die in the Ring has not yet been set, though the manuscript is complete.
This Friday, Piper plans an appearance at the Coeur D'Alene Casino Resort Hotel in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, with Curt Hennig, Maniac Matt Borne and others.