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The Last Rassler

George South remembers when Charlotte ruled the ring

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Crockett promoted everything in Charlotte. He brought in the big bands of the 1930s and 1940s and rock and country in the 1950s and 1960s. He was friends with Gene Autry and James Brown. Popular musicals such as My Fair Lady came through town because of him. Even though he struggled to make money with the musicals, it didn't matter. He thought Charlotteans should have a chance to see them. Paul Buck, a manager of the old Charlotte Coliseum during wrestling's early-1970s heyday, credited Crockett alone with keeping the place in business.

But Big Jim's passion was for the men whose fates he controlled as if he were a god. He obsessed over his wrestling league. He answered most calls that came into his Morehead Street office. If a fan called in to talk to a wrestler, Crockett knew which wrestler he should push harder.

On Jan. 11, 1958, his first televised match aired live from WBTV's 40-by-60-foot studio. Big Jim gave his show to the CBS affiliate for free. In return, the hour-long program served as an advertisement for bigger Monday night events at the Park Center, the cramped auditorium that hosted wrestling well into the 1980s. The Park Center's low ceiling stood only 10 feet above the top rope of the ring, and the rare times a wrestler climbed up to the turnbuckles to leap off, it looked as if he might fly right through the ceiling.

Before the TV broadcasts, Crockett, usually in a navy blue suit that could carpet a den, would approach production manager Virgil Torrance to tell him how many chairs he should set up for the segregated black audience. The wrestlers took pleasure in scaring the black children, and Torrance tried to get them to stop. Almost every week he had to clean a small pool of urine the terrified tykes would leave behind.

The show never went a second over the time cap. Crockett sat on a platform perched over his wrestlers and when he felt the match had gone on long enough, he would raise his hand slightly above his head, like a Roman emperor. Within seconds someone was down for a three count.

In the early days there were less gimmicks and less muscles. There were good guys and bad guys, and maybe an Indian. To set off a crowd, all it took was an illegal yank of the hair or a tug of the trunks.

In the old days in Charlotte we did not have to decide whether the Hornets should trade Rex Chapmen (they should not) or if J.R. Reid was big enough to play center in the NBA (he is, but only sometimes). In the old days our heroes were as superficial as we were -- but we knew that -- and their struggles were exaggerated versions of our own.

Wrestling wasn't born in Charlotte, but it flourished here. Before Vince McMahon won the race to syndicate his promotion nationally, before there even was a race, promoters protected their territories like the Bloods and Crips. Professional sports teams were few and far between south of the Mason-Dixon, and wrestling's squared circle filled the void. In the 1970s, the general consensus was that up north, wrestling was fake, but down here, rasslin' was for real.

Among Southern territories, Crockett's Mid-Atlantic became the center of activity. Other territories had their moments. In the earlier 1970s, the Brisco brothers, Paul Jones and announcer Gordon Solie (the Walter Cronkite of wrestling) propelled Championship Wrestling from Florida to the center of the wrestling world. Memphis had Jerry Lawler. Fritz Von Erich, a Texan wrestling as a Nazi, started a Reich out of wrestling's most famous venue, the Sportatorium, in Dallas. Fritz' World Championship Wrestling used six cameras, three more than any other promotion at the time. He sold his show to Japan and Israel, becoming the first promoter to syndicate internationally. Fans of Georgia Championship Wrestling stood up to McMahon on Black Saturday, when without warning one evening in 1984, McMahon's northeastern-based World Wrestling Federation replaced the good ol' Georgia boys on TBS. The fans' letter-writing campaign and boycott convinced network owner Ted Turner to change his mind and keep the local product.

But Charlotte was the capital of Southern rasslin'. Other territories were too small for many wrestlers to make it big; only a few at the top could rake in the money. In Crockett's Mid-Atlantic territory there were plenty of shows, all within a reasonable driving distance from each other. Big-name wrestlers were on a waiting list to get into the Charlotte-based territory. The Mid-Atlantic stretched from Charleston in the south to Richmond up north, from Toccoa, GA, to the west and east to the ocean. In the Mid-Atlantic, according to Boogie Woogie Man Jimmy Valiant, Crockett had his boys working nine times a week (twice on Saturday and Sunday). On a good night, three shows employing up to 50 wrestlers ran across his vast region.

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