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WRESTLING WITH WRESTLEMANIA, OR THE DAY I (ALMOST) LASSOED A COWBOY
Those of you from a younger generation will find this hard to comprehend but there was a time in America when people did not get along and accept each other as fellow citizens despite their differences of opinion. It was a time of uncertainty about the future and upheavals in the culture. The people's fear about what might happen next caused them uncertainty about their identity. Many looked to champions to defend their way of life. These champions typically were strong men. They were great athletes capable of amazing feats of strength in the arena.
And they were full of bravado and self confidence. When they disagreed with each other, they would challenge each other to matches to prove who was right and who was wrong. These matches would be preceded by long arguments in public about who was right. There was no middle ground to be found. Compromise was thought to be a dirty word. Those whom your tribe agreed with you called a hero, one of the good guys. Nicknames were developed that described their virtues. "Babyface" was a common descriptor that declared the innocence and purity of some champions.
The other side, those your tribe was at odds with, likewise were given monikers that painted them as evil. They were called villains, heels, diabolical minions of the devil himself.
The results of these matches were often in dispute. No tribe would ever concede that their champion had lost. If your side lost it was because the other side had cheated. Their declarations of victory were fake news.
Before long both sides had taken up a continual mantra of claiming the other side always cheated. The system was rigged was a common belief on both sides. The culture lost its belief that the rules of competition were being followed. Certain champions made it their identity to cheat without shame. They relished the title of villain. They brought other villains into their corner during the matches to help them cheat. Sometimes these villians would jump into the arena and join the fight directly. This was against the rules, but the referees seemed to have lost the will to try to enforce rules, no one seemed to care. Winning was all that mattered. It was a dark and dangerous time.
And despite this, the matches between the champions became even more popular. Artists and musicians found they could multiply their public image and their profitability by aligning with one of the champions. Corporations found they could sell their goods more easily by aligning with a champion, even if it meant the tribe of another champion would no longer buy their wares. The television networks of the day discovered that the matches were so popular that masses of people would pay large fees just to watch them. And then came the cultural moment when all of these forces collided to create the apex of this era of champions.
I am speaking of course, about The Brawl to End It All, the main event in the series of matches that has gone down in the history of professional wrestling as the watershed event that took professional wrestling from a kind of backwater sporting event that was the hobby of a few to the center of the pop culture universe and entertainment megaproduction. I speak of Wrestlemania I, the first of a superhyped synthesis of the pop culture's two most important elements- sports and music. A magical mix of celebrity, sex and violence that produced the pay per view event watched by over a million people
Most of you living in those dramatic days of 1985 will undoubtedly remember this iconic clash of the titans. But for the benefit of the younger generation whose wrestling remembrances aren't quite as long, let me refresh you. The top billing for Wrestlemania I featured none other than Hulk Hogan, the blond All-American hero and then #1 attraction of the WWF. Indeed, the Hulkster would eventually go on to win 5 WWF championships and pursue a Hollywood film and TV career that in the pre-Dwayne Johnson era was unprecedented. Coupled with the Hulk in the hero role was his tag team partner Mr. T ! Yes, I speak of that iconic African American movie actor turned boxer and star of Rocky II. His famous byline "I Pity the Fool '' would grace many a tee shirt and farmer's hat throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. No one wore a mohawk haircut and multilayers of gold bling better than the real star of television's A Team.
Pitted against the heroes in this ring war were two of the most diabolical of the WWF's gang of heels. Recall if you will that wrestler's live in a very binary universe where one is either very very good or one is downright evil. One was either a hero or a heel. And of the heels,none were more diabolically evil than Rowdy Roddy Piper and his tag team partner Paul Orndorff, aka "Mr. Wonderful." Every team of unscrupulous heels needs a mastermind to plot out their dastardly deeds and the Piper/Orndorff squad had none other than the trickiest of all heels plotting their nasty plot line from their corner; none other than Cowboy Bob Orton Jr.
The Cowboy, or "Ace" as he would later come to be known, was a WWF megastar of his own accord who had milked an unfortunate circumstance into his own personal bag of tricks toward stardom. I speak of course, of the fact that by the 1985 showdown, the Cowboy had been wearing a cast on his arm for well over 2 years, even though most claimed his arm injury was well past the final point of healing. This prop had become his signature in the ring, and he used it with regularity to bash the skull of many opponents.
It was the Cowboy's lack of ring ethics and personal responsibility that would bring about the ending to Wrestlemania I. Though he was not technically on the bill, from his position as the cornerman for Rowdy Roddy and Mr. Wonderful, he managed to bring this central event in the history of the nation's grandest spectacle to a rather ignominious ending. One that had little to do with the actual more glamorous and well known participants. But before we get to that, I must answer the burning question which by now is about to burst from the minds and out the mouths of all of you dear readers- what in the wide, wide world of sports does this have to do with Logan County Circuit Court?
I'm glad you asked. You see but for the wisdom and judicial discretion of one Associate Circuit Judge sitting on the case of the People of the State of Illinois v. Robert Orton Jr. and one young inexperienced prosecutor, there may never have been such an abrupt ending to Wrestlemania I. Cowboy Bob Orton may not have been able to be the Cornerman for Rowdy Roddy "Hot Rod" Piper that night.
The Cowboy may have been an innovator in wrestling with his use of the ropes to finish off his opponents, but he was not quite so adept at knowing the ropes of the criminal legal system of the state of Illinois. For you see, the wrestler soon to be known as "Ace" had managed to get himself arrested in Logan County Illinois for Driving Under the Influence and had a court date shortly before Wrestlemania was to take place.
The Cowboy made things worse when on the day scheduled for his first court appearance he failed to appear. That young prosecutor, who happened to be me, without missing a beat did what I always did when someone failed to appear in Court. I asked for a warrant to be issued.
Judge Coogan advised he had received a call from an attorney representing the Cowboy, apologizing for his absence, and asking that another court date be set. The warrant request was denied and the Court moved on to its next case. The 10-15 young Cowboy Bob fans who had made their way into the back of the courtroom breathed a sign of relief , got up and made their way out.
Later a reporter for the Lincoln Courier approached me and asked what would happen if Cowboy Bob missed his next court date. I shot right back at him that if he missed another court date then "we'll have to get us a rope and lasso that Cowboy."
The reporter was a friend of mine and I did not think what I said would end up in the paper. It did. My boss, then running a campaign for a judgeship, wasn't very happy about that. He advised me in the future to send the reporters in to see him if they wanted a comment on a pending case.
Long story short, Cowboy Bob made his next court date, pleaded guilty and paid his debt to society. The Cowboy moved on to a long career that culminated in his election to the WWF Hall of Fame.
Looking back, I wondered what would have happened if that warrant would have been issued. What if Cowboy Bob had been arrested, and consistent with his ring personality, had fought off the arresting officers? What if he would have claimed the charge was politically motivated, punched them in the gut and ran? What if when the police caught up with him three states later, he was charged with multiple felonies and the next judge had refused to set a bond because he represented a "flight risk?" What if he was still sitting in jail that night when Madison Square Garden was hosting Wrestlemania I?
Older readers will undoubtedly recall that The Brawl To End it All came to an abrupt end when Cowboy Bob, seeing that Mr. T had the best of Mr. Wonderful jumped up on the ropes and took a wild swing at Mr. T. Bob's driving skills apparently weren't the only thing that was impaired around that time because he missed Mr. T completely. Instead, his cast-covered forearm landed squarely on Mr. Wonderful's face, knocking him flat on his back, dazed and confused. All that remained of the match was for the Hulkster to stroll over and pin him to the mat while the ref counted out the time for a pin. Thus ended the greatest match in the history of the WWF.
But what if the Cowboy wasn't there to land the errant blow? What if Ordendorff had rallied and beat Mr. T back? What if Rowdy had rallied and crushed the Hulkster with his famous "Sleeper Hold?" What if the villains had won that match and then, fueled by the momentum of this grand scale victory, villain status became the dominant force in the WWF?
Could it have been that acting the villain without shame for breaking the rules or cheating would have then become the dominant force in our culture? Imagine the horror if young boys across the land then took pride in acting the villain. How terrible if wrestling fans began claiming that not only wrestling but all manner of systems of rules were rigged? That the results of all manner of contests were scripted and fake. The NFL and the NBA, Wall Street and corporate competition, Capital Hill and the White House? Think of the disaster that might have insued if Cowboy Bob's wild swing had not dropped Mr. Wonderful to the mat.
Is it going too far to say that one lone judge's wise discretion in not lassoing the Cowboy saved Western Civilization from a wayward course? Perhaps, but I'd like to think in some small way what happened here made a difference.
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