With all of the coverage of the baseball “scandal” in the news recently, it made me think of a story from a few years ago that I thought I would share.
I believe it was around the summer of 1999. I was added to a wrestling card at the last minute as a referee. This was a Friday night and the show was the following day at a casino in Menominee, WI. At this point, all of the cars were full. Even if I was crazy enough to ride in a trunk, there wasn’t any room with all the gear.
I gave the promoter Eddie Sharkey a call to see who else was going to be on the card, hoping I would get another lead on a ride. He told me that Billy Blaze was on there and to give him a call and see if he had room. I had a work number for Bill that I could try. Now, here’s the thing about my experience in the wrestling business- it didn’t matter how many years I had known you, the chances are that I have no idea what your real name is. Most of the time you referred to the other wrestlers by their ring name. Didn’t matter whether we worked together in training camp every other day or not. If you knew them really well, you might actually know their real first name and use occasionally (esp. if you’re not at a wrestling event).
As a side note, I remember seeing some discussions about the 1998 documentary “Wrestling with Shadows“, and whether the screwjob on Bret Hart was real or not. One thing that people pointed out as evidence that it wasn’t real was that Bret’s wife called Triple H “Hunter” in their conversation, rather than his real name. From my experience, if anything it adds more credibility to the dialog. The only ones that use a wrestler’s real name are the marks that try to show they’re smart, or reporters that think it somehow adds to the story (e.g. …Hulk Hogan, whose real name is Terry Gene Bollea, …).
I call Bill’s work phone and found what I expected- there was more than one Bill there. Dammit! The person on the phone asked if I wanted Bill Xyz or Bill Yxx (to this day I don’t know what his last name is). I said, “Uhh… I think the second one. Is he the wrestler guy?“.
I got Bill’s number, but it turned out he had left a day early. I then called Eddie back to tell him I was out of ideas.
“Give Jim Brunzell a call.“, Eddie says.
Loooong pause. “Uh… what?“, I say.
“He’s heading out there.“, Eddie says. “Here’s his number…“.
“Wait… Jim BRUNZELL?!? ‘Jumping’ Jim Brunzell? AWA Jim Brunzell? WWF Jim Brunzell? Killer Bees Jim Brunzell?“.
“You want me to call him out of the blue and ask him for a ride?”
To Eddie, we were all workers. So what if one of us had been a tag team champion in several major promotions?
I met Brunzell at a Perkins near White Bear Lake, MN. The trip to the casino was about 320 miles one way. If you are a member of law enforcement, I would tell you that it took us about (320 mi / 55 mph = ) 5.8 hrs to get there. If you’re not, let’s just say we got there a little quicker than that. But regardless, I was spending a full day in the car with the legend Jim Brunzell.
Although much of the conversation I forgot, and the majority of what I remember I wouldn’t repeat in a public forum, there are a few highlights I could touch on without revealing too much information:
- The Road: Compared to what these wrestling pioneers went through, we had it incredibly easy. These guys would be on a schedule where they were expected to be in Winnipeg one day and Chicago the next. Since they were responsible for their own transportation, they would pile into cars to save money. Spending all that time cooped up in vehicles cut down on the amount of training you could do, which led to the use of performance enhancement for some people.
- Reptilian Roommate: Spending your own money on travel and lodging means that you are also sharing rooms. You get exposed to people’s “habits” (performance-enhancing or otherwise), extramarital activities, enlistment of services from those in the “people industry”, and exotic pets (snakes, for example). Sometimes one individual covers all of the above, and would describe them in a documentary a decade or so later.
- Stylin’ and Profilin’: Stories about a certain multi-time heavyweight champion showing that he didn’t just “talk the talk”. Strutting around in the hotel pool area with a couple of beauties, wearing only a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and a smile. Whooooooo!
- Hey, Someone’s In Here!: We’ve all heard about some of the downsides of celebrity. Paparazzi, stalkers, invasion of privacy. What’s one of the biggest issues for a wrestling celebrity at a local show? People trying to get an autograph while you’re in a bathroom stall. Seriously, people (mostly kids) would crawl under the stall just to get you to scribble your name on something. The takeaway from Jim was that if you had to take a dump, do it before you get to the venue (we stopped at a Wendy’s- not sure if that was an endorsement for the cleanliness of their bathrooms or not).
Overall, Jim Brunzell struck me as a very humble, down-to-earth person. He called a jabroni like me back, gave be a ride across the state, and refused any payment for gas. He was willing to talk about the wrestling business of the past and present and share stories that most of us will never get to hear. One of the most surprising things, however, is that he actually seemed envious of my day job. Here I’m intently listening to his stories and experiences and all the while he’s saying, “Man, I wish I could do what you’re doing. Why would you want to get involved with this? You’re crazy!”
I saw him a couple more times at some wrestling cards we were on shortly before he was going to have shoulder surgery and “retire”. I don’t know if he ever wrestled again after surgery (I suspect he may have). I’d like to publicly thank him for being so nice to me and for treating me as an equal.
What happened in between the actual driving? You mean the wrestling show? That’s actually what I thought of with the recent baseball news. There is kind of a funny story here that I haven’t gotten to yet, but I thought the drive itself deserved it’s own post. I’ll cover that part in the next one. Stay tuned.