My girlfriend is a reporter in Raleigh. And that's how I found myself in a converted basketball gym Saturday night in Clayton, North Carolina, watching wrestling matches with about 400 people and talking to a couple of professional wrestling icons.
For more than 30 years, Ivan Koloff was a scary guy that the crowds shouted down. He and his tag team partners wore the evil red of the Soviet Union.
But "The Russian Bear" is from Canada. His real name is James Perras. The Bear is a 60-something-year-old man living in North Carolina. He's more than a full head shorter than me and walks with one of the worst hitches I've ever seen.
He has an embracing smile. But there must be nights when his body is a knot of pain.
I met him Saturday night. And I heard other names I vaguely remembered from when I was a kid and my grandfather loved Saturday night wrestling. I saw faces that had to be worn out wrestlers I never recognized.
Even for the famous ones, the crowds had gotten smaller.
Jake "The Snake" Roberts was there. He looked the way you'd imagine. Large. The stringy, curly hair. The big, bushy mustache now gray. He had a middle-aged woman with him selling DVDs and pictures that were clearly printed from a home computer.
He was balding on the top. But, then again, he was always balding on the top. He was friendly, like an uncle. He smiled and had eight different markers with him for autographs. His T-shirt had a picture of a snake with a big, open, purple mouth on the front.
A line formed quickly when Roberts arrived. The first picture he took with a guy, he stood up and put his arm around him. And with a smile under that big bushy mustache he said, "Somebody's touching my but."
The woman to his side, the one accounting for the money, had glasses and a mullet. A newspaper reporter who had written a story about Jake years ago brought a copy of the article.
"I didn't know he'd make it back then," the reporter said. "You never know which ones are going to make it. You never know which ones want to make it."
The woman smiled. "They all want to," she said. "Let me just clear that up for you. They all want to make it."
Roberts was charming. He tried to guess kids names and asked them questions. He was cool. He should have been. It was $10 to have your picture taken with him.
The woman said he actually hates snakes. He has bite marks up and down his arms. His famous snake, Damien? There were more than 40 of them, she said, always bought or rented by the wrestling federation.
The crowd was something to behold. There was this massive fat guy. He must have weighed 450 pounds. All he did was sit in a chair against the wall and call people over to say hello and shake his hand. He seemed to know half the people there. I never saw him stand up in nearly 3 hours.
There was a guy there in Pitsburgh Steelers jersey. I noticed because it was a Kendrell Bell jersey. It looked like the guy's right hip was half-displaced the way he walked, and his right shoulder dipped far below his left. He had two young blond kids with him and a massive beer gut. He got to shake The Russian Bear's hand.
One of the women taking money at the door (the sign said $10 for adults, but they were taking $5) said her grandson is a local wrestler named "Sudden Impact" Louis Moore. It's his dream to go pro, she said.
Moore challenged The Bear to a match during one of the intermissions. The Bear had a better idea. He said Jake The Snake would handle this upstart.
"No," said Moore. "Anyone but that."
It was theater. A guy with a big black afro came out wearing a ripped American flag like a cape. He wore American flag shorts and American flag boots that said "Creed" on them. Like Apollo in Rocky IV, he came to the ring to James Brown's "Living in America."
Creed and his partner put on a high-flying act. It was legitimately impressive. A little different, I figured, than what "The Snake" had in store later on. Hell, he's in his 50s now.
We left before Roberts made it to the ring. My girlfriend had a deadline. Two no-name young guys were wrestling when we left. As I walked to the car, I could still hear the rumbling on the mat, and the roar of the crowd inside, loud through the gym's brown brick wall.
"The Russian Bear" Ivan Koloff.
Jake "The Snake" Roberts.
I didn't get his name. His partner was an old Indian guy people called "The Chief."
UPDATE: My uncle, whose father was a huge wrestling fan, just sent this note: "Don't you know you should consult your uncle before putting a picture of a wrestler in your blog and referring to him as unknown? Hell, everybody that's anybody knows The Barbarian."
You can buy Jake "The Snake" Roberts merchandise here. I don't think it's his own site, but Ivan "The Russian Bear" Koloff photos and DVDs are available here.
It seems like I've met an inordinate number of professional wrestlers over the years. This was a piece I did on Lex Luger.