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Old-school wrestling at the South Broadway Athletic Club

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(Jay Fram)
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Johnny Courageous puts the hurt on Waco.

By Adam Allington, KWMU

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/kwmu/local-kwmu-709689.mp3

SAINT LOUIS, MO –

SLIDESHOW: See a slideshow of some of the personalities who take the ring at the South Broadway Athletic Club. (Courtesy St. Louis photographer Jay Fram and Weekend America.)

Additional Jay Fram photos on Flickr:
South Broadway Portraits
South Broadway Athletic Club action and crowd shots

On Wednesday we heard about the golden age of professional wrestling in St. Louis, back when the sport was still a major local draw. Well, wrestling is still local, just on a smaller scale. Wrestlers and fans at the South Broadway Athletic Club are spearheading a revival of sorts, for the lost art of performance wrestling.

Just about a beer bottles throw from the Mississippi River is a tiny brick building called the South Broadway Athletic Club. It's Saturday night, and the first thing you see when you walk through the door is a tall middle-aged black wrestler in a leather trench coat lifting some poor guy over his head just before the inevitable slam to the mat. The guy issuing the smackdown goes simply by the name "Shaft".

But, this isn't your standard pay-per-view, wrestlemania type affair. Shaft's is 50 years old and works in an automotive parts warehouse.

"I'm pretty much an old school wrassler," says Shaft.

When Shaft says "old-school", he doesn't mean, Hulk Hogan old-school, he's talking about guys like 1959 N.W.A. World Heavyweight Champion Pat O'Connor.

"I do the standing toe hold that Pat O'Connor used to do. My two finishing moves are the "ankle lock" and the "bulldog off the rope". Basically all I do is grab 'em by the head and I run toward the ropes and bounce off the ropes and turn around and slam their head down on the mat."

Got that? He slams their head on the floor, not exactly Greco-Roman wrestling, but this isn't some W.W.E knockoff either.

Founded in 1904, the South Broadway is one of the first places where the idea of spectacle and sport got together, a kind of vaudeville for the working class.

If you ask fans whether they think the sport is real or fake you better be prepared to duck. Jerry Bouillon credits raising hell and watching wrestling as his two hobbies.

"If you say it's fake I'm going to hit you. Because you cannot cover up getting thrown over a rope and landing on a wooden floor," says Bouillon.

The issue of real or fake is a question South Broadway fans never ask themselves. To them its just entertainment, like going to the theater or movies, the real trick is to create characters and plots that people respond to. That's where Herb Simmons comes in.

"I can take you and in a course of two matches I can turn you from the good guy to a bad guy and vice versa," says Simmons.

Simmons has been a St. Louis wrestling promoter for over 40 years. Behind every match there's a guy like Herb. Someone with a vision of how to build drama, hype rivalries and create controversy, anything to keep people coming back for more.

"If you're a bad guy now and I want to change you over the next month or two into a good guy that the crowd's gonna love and gonna want your autographs...I put you in there against somebody that is hated just as much as you are and let you beat the tar out of him."

Even though St. Louis wrestling is no longer the big ticket item it once was, the scene didn't completely die out. For the old-school fans some of the original grit and honesty is still there.

Alexis Lightfoot isn't just the current Missouri-Illinois lady's champion, she's also a mom.

"Well it's really hard because I'm a wife, I'm a mom, I'm a wrestler and you tie everything into one and sometimes when your 3 year old gets a little out of line you just want to body slam him on the ground," says Lightfoot.

Of course she doesn't really body slam him. But Alexis' husband, Jeremy, who's also a wrestler, says being a wrestling family means they'll probably have to have a few family discussions most of us won't.

"You know when he gets a little bit older I need to explain to him that you don't take mommy and daddy's job to school," says Jeremy.

"I don't need to be getting a call from preschool saying that he body slammed a student or he's doing an elbow drop off the top of the money bars."

It's hard to imagine most of the current W.W.E. wrestlers as mommies or daddies. But maybe that is what's so special about places like the South Broadway. The idea that even real people, who aren't paid millions dollars, might know a thing or two about pile driver.

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