Reed Road is the first street on the left past the high school. It winds out of Dalton through a few miles of those tall, old Georgia pine trees and past empty fields with old gray barns falling down. At night, some wild animal might run through your headlights. It’s one of those roads you drive on when you have no idea where you’re going. You just want to go.
If you’re not careful, you’ll pass a gray cinderblock building with a gravel parking lot. It’s on the left, on the corner of Reed Road and some smaller, nameless road. On Saturday nights, a woman will be smoking a cigarette under the dim light above the door. It’s quiet out there. It’s the night and landscape that inspired the best and most lonesome Hank Williams songs. Crickets chirp and whippoorwills cry. A stray dog might be traveling through the field across the street or an old possum might be crawling through the ditch. Soon the woman will flip her cigarette away and open the door. A bright light will spill out when she opens it.
Inside, the music is as loud as it is in “da club,” but the crowd’s a bit different. There’s a man with his hair painted neon green to match his skintight shirt and black spandex. Another is dressed in what resembles a Superman outfit. A man old enough to be the grandfather of most of the other people in the room stands alone in a corner wearing a black-and-white-striped referee’s outfit. A younger man, maybe 30, walks around in Speedos and a bright red, unbuttoned nylon shirt with tassels hanging from the arms.
A man called Hollywood chides him: “Where’d you get those tassels? You ain’t been in the business long enough to be wearing tassels.” The young man laughs him off and talks quietly to his wife, then kneels down to kiss his young daughter on the forehead. Other children run in circles, too fast to count. Hollywood and a man called Widow Maker hug the children that run up to them to pull on their costumes. Young ladies dance with themselves and the specter of 50 Cent, near the speakers, and laugh. People are everywhere. It’s a capacity crowd in the old building.
An American flag hangs from the ceiling. The walls are spray-painted floor to ceiling with carousel carnival portraits of long-haired men with names like Jimmy Sharpe, Mad Jack, Sheik and Suicidal Talon. There’s a long line at a concession stand in the corner.
Suddenly, a snub-tailed bulldog appears, chasing a chewed-up and empty two-liter Coke bottle through the crowd. The uncountable children roar and every one of them parade together and run in shrieking circles after the dog. If dogs can laugh, this one does.
In the center of the room, three spotlights shine down on an empty wrestling ring.
Drew Germain was in the dressing room backstage. He was being chided by the older guys for carrying his wrestling outfit in a kid’s Sesame Street backpack. “I paid 75 cents for it,” he said. “It holds everything I need. And I bought it for these old guys, anyway. I knew they’d get a kick out of it.”
When Drew isn’t wrestling, he is a business/marketing major and is on the dean’s list at Dalton State College. He also knows all there is to know about the history of professional wrestling. Pro wrestling, he explained, rose out of old carnival sideshows.
There was a time when circuses and carnivals traveled through our rural countrysides. These traveling shows included magicians, burlesque and vaudeville shows, magic lantern shows, games of chance and games for children. With the traveling carnival came the sideshow. The sideshow usually required an extra fee and was in a tent separate from the carnival.
These sideshows were often set up in two parts, the freak show and the thrill act. The freak show would include people with multiple arms or legs, midgets and tattooed people. The thrill acts included the fire eaters, sword swallowers and knife throwers. Straddling the two of these was the Strong Man.
The Strong Man’s act would often begin with displays of strength such as lifting anvils over his head, bending steel or breaking chains. Later, he’d often challenge members of the audience to a wrestling match. Promoters would invent names for the Strong Man and dress him in flashy clothing to draw crowds. There was always some tough guy in the audience who would take him on. Trash talking and gambling became involved and, over time, some of the matches became staged.
When television arrived and all the bizarre and fantastic things a person could ever imagine were at their fingertips, the traveling shows faded away.
Pro wrestling, however, did not. With names like Lou Thesz and Ed “The Strangler” Harris, these types of professional wrestling shows endured. They eventually found their way onto television and with new names like Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and others, pro wrestling rose to become the huge, multi-million-dollar industry it is now.
The Tri-State Wrestling Alliance (TWA) proves every weekend that the old shows haven’t completely faded away. In the block building in the Dalton countryside, the strongmen and their fans still come every weekend to watch and to perform in the grand old tradition.
But now, with the curtains raised and the in-ring rivalries and antics known by everyone to be staged, what is the allure? And why do these men still dress up and perform?
“It’s the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, like Coleridge said,” Drew explains. “You can put these outfits on and walk out there to the ring and for 15 or 20 minutes you’re a superstar. You’re somebody else. And the fans know what’s going on, but they’re just as much a part of the show as we are. Really, they’re the whole show. What’s the point in a staged fight if nobody’s there to watch it? It’s a show. Though it never ceases to amaze me how many people think it’s real and take it seriously. I’ve had them come up after a show and want to fight me over something that happened in the ring.
“But when we get back here in the dressing room, it’s nothing but respect. That’s another important thing about it. You got guys back here who are brand new and guys that have been at it for years. Big Doug over there has been in the business for 38 years, and his father and grandfather were in it. That’s going a long way back. But we all treat each other with the same respect. It’s like that big sign over there says, ‘It’s A Work’. Work means a show, and that’s to remind us not to take anything personally. It’s a show.”
Some of the older guys started chiding Drew again about his backpack and for thinking he knows so much. They poked at him with a cane prop and one of them grabbed at his feet. “Big Doug’s up next,” he laughed. “He knows how to put on a show.”
The showroom’s in darkness now and a loud, growling electric guitar blasts out of the sound system.
Big Doug charges from behind the red velvet curtains, bald, goateed, tattooed and angry. At more than six feet tall and surely 300 pounds, he has a stomping strut that carries him into the crowd. He’s wearing a black leotard and spits angry curses at everyone he sees. Ted Nugent starts screaming through the room:
Here I come again now, Baby!
Like a dog in heat
Tell it’s me by the clamor now, Baby!
One of the women in the crowd begins telling Big Doug what she thinks of him. The crowd cheers her on and he stops to search out her face in the dark and says, “You shut up, old lady.”
“You call me old lady!” she screams and raises up. “You come over here and I’ll show you old lady!” Big Doug points his finger at her and she bows her head quickly back down and begins typing angrily into her cell phone.
Big Doug stomps on and dares anyone to try to slow him down. He reaches the ring and jumps in. Hot Rod Roberts, his opponent, is already waiting for him. Senior referee CJ, the man who stood alone before the shows started, instructs Big Doug to back into the corner so he can be checked for weapons. Big Doug mocks him and Referee CJ points his finger and tells him to do what he’s been told.
“You shut your mouth, Brokeback Mountain!”
A voice from a dark corner of the crowd hollers, “Bend him over, Hot Rod!”
Big Doug doesn’t care who it was. He runs to the corner of the ring near where the voice came from, holds onto the ropes with one hand and points into the darkness with the other. “I ain’t your mule and I ain’t your wife,” he shouts. “You shut up, too!”
He paces the ring like an angry bull, stomping and shouting curses at the jeering crowd. The referee chases after him, trying to get Big Doug to submit to the weapons check. Big Doug refuses. He walks toward Hot Rod and the referee jumps in between them. Big Doug points over the referee’s shoulder toward Hot Rod and says, “Let me tell you something, boy.” Hot Rod looks truly scared. “I heard you say you’re gonna slam me. You ain’t gonna slam me. And if you do you’re gonna take the biggest ass-whooping you ever got in your life!”
With that he backs into his corner, his eyeballs remaining on Hot Rod. He submits to the weapons check and the announcer says it’s begun.
For 20 minutes, Hot Rod gives it all he’s got. Despite being slung and slammed around in and even outside the ring, he gets up every time and tries to carry out his promise to Big Doug. But he couldn’t even lift the man. They go back and forth until Big Doug picks the younger guy up and hits him with his signature slam for victory.
Hot Rod never stood a chance.
Back in the dressing room, after the show, all the guys are rowdy and still pumped up. Some of them were changing into their regular clothes and getting ready to go home. Some of them weren’t ready yet. Big Doug was one of them.
“Look here,” he hollers over the noise. “I’ve been at this longer than any of them. My grandaddy had a ring in his garage. He said if I wanted to get in it I had to fall backwards on my back on the concrete. I did it and knocked myself out, but he let me in there.”
“That’s what’s wrong with him now,” a younger guy yells back.
Big Doug ignores him. “I’ve trained with the best of them. We used to practice our falls on glass and rocks, son. I’ve been at it for 38 years on my birthday, April 17. But don’t tell anybody how old I am, dammit.”
“He’s 105!” Drew yells, and they started going at it.
Old senior referee CJ was staying behind with them, but he was shying away from their rowdy games and they left him alone. He finally spoke up, but a lot softer than the ruckus going on around him.
“I drive a truck for a living,” he said. “I’m in the National Guard. When I’m not on active duty or driving the truck this is what I do. I don’t drink or do drugs. This is what I do. I’ve been doing it for a long time and I’ve been at TWA the whole time. I’ve never been anywhere else.”
He holds his arms out over a chair in front of him like he was warming his hands over a fire. His forehead shines with sweat from being under the ring’s spotlights all night.
“My brother drove a truck, too. He died in his this week. We just brought him home to Dalton yesterday and I was out seeing him all day.”
He stares at a picture on the wall, an old promo of some long-ago local wrestling legend, then at all the other guys still raising hell around him.
“I’ve been here a long time,” he says again. “I had to come tonight to get away for a little while. I wasn’t going to miss a show. This is home.”