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The Last Rassler

George South remembers when Charlotte ruled the ring

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About once a week some guy who's just moved to Charlotte from Kings Mountain or Chester or Gaffney comes up to me where I sit at the bar, on my stool by the waitress station, and says, Hey, man, are you P.J. O'Mulligan? They are never kidding, and whenever it happens I don't know what to say. I wish I could tell them whatever it is they need in their hearts to hear, but P.J. O'Mulligan is fourteen lawyers from Richmond with investment capital. What do you say? New people come to Charlotte from the small towns every day, searching for lives that are bigger than the ones they have known, but what they must settle for, once they get here, are much smaller hopes: that maybe this year the Hornets might really have a shot at the Celtics, if Rex Chapmen has a good game; that maybe there really is somebody named P.J. O'Mulligan, and that maybe that guy at the bar is him. Now that the wrestlers are gone, I wonder about these things. How do you tell somebody how to find what they're looking for when ten years ago you came from the same place and have yet to find it yourself? How do you tell somebody from Polkville or Aliceville or Cliffside, who just saw downtown after sunset for the first time, not to let the beauty of the skyline fool them?

Today, the new people in Charlotte come from bigger towns: Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York. They come here with their new husbands or wives, and if they didn't bring a partner, they find one here. They come to hedge mutual funds and to watch Golden Jake, the quarterback with a decent arm and spastic feet, throw one ball too many to the wrong team.

What killed wrestling in Charlotte? Pick something. Little Jim Crockett couldn't compete with the shrewder Vince McMahon. Instead of staying in the mid-Atlantic region, Jim played Vince's game, invested all his profits in expansion and got burned. Jim also entrusted too much power to his booker, Dusty Rhodes, who cared more about promoting himself than the business. Dusty ran expenses through the roof.

Wrestlers took limos and airplanes everywhere. When Crockett bought a second plane during his expansion, the wrestlers would sometimes fly it just to go from Charlotte to Greensboro. When contracts were introduced in the 1980s, wrestlers for the first time got hefty yearly salaries instead of having to bust their tails every night. The sport lost its shock value. To compete with a blossoming entertainment industry, bookers pulled more and more outlandish angles. Who would believe a piledriver hurt when guys were being set afire?

Charlotte is a place where a crooked TV preacher can steal money and grow like a sore until he collapses from the weight of his own evil by simply promising hope. So don't stare at the NCNB Tower against the dark blue sky; keep your eyes on the road. Don't think that Independence Boulevard is anything more than a street. Most of my waitresses are college girls from UNCC and CPCC, and I can see the hope shining in their faces even as they fill out applications. They look good in their official P.J. O'Mulligan's khaki shorts and white sneakers and green aprons and starched, preppy blouses, but they are still mill-town girls through and through, come to the city to find the answers to their prayers. How do you tell them Charlotte isn't a good place to look?

A sane man would have ridden off into the sunset when the wrestlers left town. They've gone from packed arenas in Greensboro and Charlotte to half-empty armories and recreation centers in Albemarle and Elkin. Shows are cancelled with little warning when promoters realize ticket sales won't cover expenses. Between February and April, wrestling activity flurries as poor promoters become optimistic with tax refunds.

Still, George holds out hope that a renaissance is around the corner. He trains kids with similar dreams who come to Charlotte from all over. David Flair, Ric's son, trains with George. The Guerreros moved here from California when they saw an ad in a wrestling magazine. Bulldog, from Canada, can only stay in the US for three months at a time, and this is his third go-round. Many of these wannabe pros intern with George's partner, Mike Bochicchio, at his Internet wrestling superstore in exchange for a room, a small stipend that doesn't go far beyond fast food and free training with George.

Chief Wahoo McDaniel. - WWW.MIDATLANTICGATEWAY.COM

Vince McMahon's national promotion, WWE, dominates the professional wrestling scene. It's nearly impossible for a wrestler to get noticed, and even then, the WWE tends to take only guys in the mold of the Incredible Hulk. "My main regret for these new guys is they don't really have anywhere to go. It's sad," says Mike Cline, a fan who has followed wrestling in Charlotte since the 1960s.

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