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The Last Rassler

George South remembers when Charlotte ruled the ring

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George runs shows for his Exodus Wrestling Alliance anywhere he can. His most regular gig is for mentally ill children at a group home in Morganton. Wheel chairs and beds surround George's ring, and the home doesn't pay. But George takes the job because it's valuable ring experience for his students and he wants to teach them the Christian principle of doing selfless acts. The group home residents are George's most enthusiastic audience.

Sometimes in the same week, George's students will drive to a strip club in Atlanta to perform while surrounded by naked women giving lap dances to men. Unlike the crowd at the group home, here no one pays attention to the wrestling. George also has done free shows in prisons and outside the Speedway during racing weekends. On the road, George's EWA cuts costs by putting up to nine wrestlers in a motel room. Other times they sleep in cars.

At the EWA's church shows, swearing and low blows are prohibited. In an angle George did at a church, one wrestler was about to throw another wrestler through a table, but a third, playing the role of Jesus, stepped into the ring and sacrificed himself to go through the table instead. After these matches, George shares his personal testimony.

Today, old-style wrestling has lost much of its respect. When George prays in locker rooms, his own guys interrupt him by coughing intentionally or unzipping their bags back and forth. With fans, it's even worse. Last year George opened for Puddle of Mudd at a show that also promised midget wrestlers. In the opening bout, while George sparred against a taller opponent, the crowd got impatient. Beer bottles came raining down, and George had to take shelter under the ring. Sometimes, in the middle of matches, fans chant "boring." Other fans walk up to George just to tell him he's a phony.

"My dream in my perfect little world that my wife says I live in is that Jim Crockett is going to come back, start all over and do this again," says George. "I know things have changed and I ain't getting any younger. But who knows? It just can't end like this."

Those were glorious days. Whenever Rockin' Robbie walked into P.J.'s, everybody in the place raised their glasses and pointed their noses at the fake bronze of the ceiling and bayed at the stars we knew spun, only for us, in the high, moony night above Charlotte. Nothing like that happens here anymore. Frankie Belk gathered up all the good and evil in our city and sold it four hours south. These days the illusions we have left are the small ones of our own making, and in the vacuum the wrestlers left behind, those illusions become too easy to see through; we now have to live with ourselves.

Italicized sections are excerpts from Tony Earley's short story "Charlotte," originally published in 1992 in Harper's Magazine. Earley is the author of the collection Here We Are in Paradise, in which this story appears, and the novel Jim the Boy, both available on Amazon.com. He is currently at work on a sequel to Jim the Boy.

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