CHARLOTTE -- Tony Atlas is sitting at the bar, and Ox Baker is just a few feet away. If that sentence gives you a thrill, we would probably get along.
Tony Atlas and Ox Baker are professional wrestlers -- or were, back in the 1970s and '80s. They have come to the University Hilton for the Mid-Atlantic Fanfest, a four-day celebration of the old Mid-Atlantic Wrestling promotion based in the Carolinas and Virginia. Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Ricky Steamboat, Wahoo McDaniel and Lex Luger all wrestled for Mid-Atlantic in their primes. In the opinion of a lot of fans -- including this one -- Mid-Atlantic put together the best collection of wrestling talent there ever was.
They are old men now. The ones still alive, that is.
Wrestling legend Ox Baker is wearing a T-shirt that says WRESTLING LEGEND OX BAKER. He still has the shaved head, the devil's-horn eyebrows, the thick black Fu Manchu. In the early '70s, two wrestlers died after matches with Ox. In real life, neither death had anything to do with him. But he claimed he had killed them both with his dreaded heart punch. He caused a riot in Cleveland one night. When I was a kid, every time I saw him on TV, I thought he might kill again.
Ox is 79 now. A fan buys him a bottle of Bud, and he carefully pours half into a cup to give to a friend.
Tony Atlas flexes at the top of the escalator. He's 59 now (although sometimes he claims to be 10 years older), and has struggled with drugs over the years, but you can still see the rough outline of the physique that won him titles as a bodybuilder. He comes over and pretends to kiss Ox on the head. Ox pretends to push him away. "Is it because I'm black?" Atlas says. "You go to hell," Ox says, and everybody's laughing.
Fans flutter around the edges, most of them too timid to ask for a handshake or an autograph. There's Jim Cornette, one of wrestling's great talkers, manager of the heel tag team The Midnight Express. There's Ricky Morton, star of the rival Rock 'n' Roll Express. Morton was so skilled at playing the "face in peril" -- the good guy who takes a beating in a tag match -- that insiders call that role "playing Ricky Morton." Morton is 56 now. His platinum-blond mullet is intact.
These guys entertained me on many a Saturday night. But they're not why I'm here. I'm here to see the man in the neat blue blazer heading downstairs, and the man in black over there, riding through the lobby on a Segway with a seat, his right arm hanging loose.
They're about to relive the I Quit match, and what came after.
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On Thanksgiving night 1985, at the Greensboro Coliseum, Tully Blanchard faced Magnum T.A.* in the I Quit match at a National Wrestling Alliance pay-per-view called Starrcade. Most people who know wrestling consider it one of the best matches of all time. It wasn't the sweaty ballet you normally see in a great wrestling match. There were no graceful moves or daring stunts. There was just the dark drama of two guys full of hate beating the hell out of each other. The I Quit match is great because, after a while, it felt real.
*The T.A. stands for Terry Allen, Magnum's real name. He got his wrestling name from Andre the Giant, who decided at breakfast one day on the road that Allen looked like Tom Selleck from "Magnum, P.I."
Magnum is the good guy. Tully is the bad guy. They have been feuding for months. Now they're inside a steel cage with nothing but a referee and a microphone. The point is to make your opponent say "I quit" out loud. They hurl each other into the cage and both start bleeding from the forehead. Blanchard has a gash on his arm. The microphone amplifies the pain. They pound each other with it and the THUNK THUNK THUNK echoes in the arena. "SAY IT!" Tully says, and Magnum lets out a primal scream -- UHHHHHAAAAHH -- but refuses to quit.
They stop even attempting wrestling holds. They roll around on the mat, yanking at each other's hair. It looks like a brawl in a parking lot. For a minute or two the crowd goes nearly silent. This isn't what they're used to.
The end begins when Blanchard's valet, Baby Doll, throws a wooden chair into the ring. Blanchard slams it on the mat and a piece breaks off into a stake. He tries to stab Magnum in the eye with it and now the crowd is shrieking. Magnum knocks the stake loose, grabs it, and grinds it into Blanchard's face. (Remember -- Magnum is the good guy.) The ref asks Blanchard if he wants to quit, and he screams "YES YES YES." Magnum stands over him, considering even worse. Blanchard begs for mercy. Magnum walks away. The feud is over.
They haven't talked about the match together in public in the 28 years since. But now they sit up on the stage together. Tully in his sharp blue blazer. Magnum with his Segway parked off to the side.
Even now, they don't quite seem to grasp how they made the I Quit match so memorable. Like most matches, the bulk of it was improvised. "It was one of those journeys where you kept going and going," Magnum says. "I didn't think about where we were going."
"That was so … " Blanchard says, and it takes him a few seconds to finish the sentence, "intense."
This event is a Q&A, and fans ask questions for two and a half hours. Wrestling conventions are like comic-book conventions: 95 percent of the people are smart and funny and levelheaded, and five percent are True Believers. (Maybe you saw the viral video of the "IT'S STILL REAL TO ME, DAMMIT!" guy.) One man gets up to ask a question, but it's not really a question. He just starts talking about how wrestlers are his heroes and Magnum was his favorite. He says he just wanted to tell Magnum that he would have been the best world champion of all time.
The words hang in the air. Would have been.
Everybody in the room knows why Magnum rides the Segway. Everybody here knows why his right arm hangs limp.
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In October 1986, less than a year after the I Quit match, Magnum wrestled Jimmy Garvin on a card in Greenville, S.C. It was raining when he got back to Charlotte. He was five minutes from home when his Porsche 911 Turbo hydroplaned. He lost control and hit a utility pole. The impact broke his neck.
He was in the hospital for five months. When he got out, he could barely walk -- it was hard just to stand up -- and he had lost the use of his right arm. He'd never wrestle again.
Magnum's wreck made news throughout the South. The promoters couldn't pretend it didn't happen. So real life became a part of the story. Dusty Rhodes -- not just a wrestler but the "booker," or head writer -- crafted a new angle: The accident touched evil Russian wrestler Nikita Koloff * so deeply that he and Rhodes formed a good-guy tag team called the Superpowers.
*Nikita Koloff was born Scott Simpson. He's from Minneapolis.
Blanchard had his own troubles. In 1988, he and Arn Anderson -- two of the original Four Horsemen -- left the National Wrestling Alliance for Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation. (It's now the WWE -- the E is "entertainment"). A year later, they decided to go back to the NWA. But Blanchard tested positive for cocaine, and neither promotion wanted him. At 35, he was basically done as a wrestler. He now runs a prison ministry.
Blanchard is loved now because he was so good at being hated back then. One fan gets up and says: "Twenty-eight years ago, I wouldn't have spit on you if you were on fire." Blanchard grins. It's a compliment.
But Magnum is the draw. He is the unanswerable question: What if? He told how the promoters brought him to New York City to plan his reign as world champion. The world title is a marker of trust. It means your bosses think you can carry the company. Magnum was young and strong, good on the mike and in the ring. He was 27 when he crashed.
Now he's 54. He's a manager for a company that does engineering and construction projects. He and Blanchard have this other weird connection -- Magnum married Blanchard's ex-wife. Two of Tully's kids live with him, the other two with Magnum. Everything appears to be cool. Wrestling has had much stranger storylines.
We are here at the Fanfest to celebrate an unreal sport. We are here to honor two wrestlers who made the unreal seem real. And we are here to mourn what happened in the real world and how it affected the unreal one. Life outperformed the performance and it's all jumbled together.
You can see why some wrestling fans still believe.
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My dad was a believer. He took my sister to a wrestling show when I was still a baby. They sat down in front and a wrestler got thrown from the ring, right on top of them. My dad saw the blood and he saw the wound and he could tell they were real. So he accepted the rest as real, too. He was a smart man in the rest of his life. All of us have blind spots.
I argued with him about it for years, because I was a teenager and so I knew more than anybody. It took a long time to learn about blind spots. It took longer to learn that two people can love the same thing for different reasons. Great wrestling is great storytelling, and I admire a story well told. But I'm mainly drawn to it because my daddy believed. Somewhere in there, between the ropes, is our story.
My dad loved Magnum T.A. and hated Tully Blanchard, as he should have.
It's harder now to believe. You can go on the web and find out every wrestler's real name. You can learn upcoming storylines, which wrestlers got suspended for drugs, who's got a contract about to expire. WWE, the only major promotion left, is a public company. Vince McMahon told investors last week that John Cena, his top babyface, has a line of clothes coming out at Kmart. You can bet John Cena will not turn heel anytime soon.
But any piece of fiction -- a novel, a movie, a wrestling match -- depends on the suspension of disbelief. You know a book has captured you when you forget you're reading a book. To enjoy art to its fullest, you have to believe.
When the Q&A was over, we gave Magnum T.A. and Tully Blanchard a standing ovation for their art. They hugged and stood there for a second so the fans could take pictures. Then Magnum limped to the edge of the stage. There was a chain-link fence there -- to represent the steel cage from the I Quit match -- and he held it tight as he took one long painful step to the floor. Then he climbed on his Segway and worked his way through the crowd. He shook hands with his left.
After a few minutes I went up to the hotel lobby. Atlas and Baker and all the rest were gone. The elevator opened, and Magnum rolled out. The front doors parted for him and he zoomed through to the parking lot. If you watched long enough, and waited until he was far away, you could make yourself believe he was running.
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Questions? Comments? Challenges? Taunts? You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tommytomlinson. No story that mentions Ox Baker would be complete without his appearance on "The Price Is Right."