Joe Scarpa never planned on sticking around the rough Depression-era Philadelphia streets where he was born. Because how much fun is it stealing apples from blind men and slathering them in Cheez-Whiz? He headed south as a teenager and spent decades navigating the murky waters of regional wrestling leagues under various names, but didn’t get his first big break until 1973, when he donned some Native American drag and showed up at that year’s Oscars to collect Marlon Brando’s statuette for The Godfather. Well, actually he rejected the award on Marlon’s behalf and gave a 25 minute speech on why it was wrong to litter. Then he shed a single tear that remains an iconic American image to this day. A young Vince McMahon saw the genius there, and brought him aboard the good ship WWF. Sacheen Littlefeather was never seen again and a man named Chief Jay Strongbow emerged as an instant fan favorite in a wrestling league that was about to take over the entire industry.
A fascinating background for sure, but let’s not forget the reason Chief Jay eventually received an obit in the New York Times. He simply had one of the coolest dances in history and I don’t mean just wrestling history but pop culture history. You can keep your Disco Duck and Macarena, I’ll take Strongbow’s War Dance any day of the week including Sunday. You can batter him, kick him, flip him over the ropes onto the concrete, but once those buckskin-clad feet started shuffling and those shoulders started rocking back and forth, every person watching knew the tide had turned. Tomahawk Chops would start flying in and then an expert application of the Sleeper Hold would leave his opponent crumpled on the canvas like, well, like a sack of stolen apples covered in Cheez-Whiz.
By the time I started watching him, the guy was already 54 years old. That’s a dedication and a commitment to craft anyone would be proud of. Did I mention he got an obit in the New York Times?? Junkyard Dog and Big John Studd were lucky to get two sentences over the AP wire.
In the early 80s, few sights were more electrifying than the spectacle of Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka perched atop a turnbuckle about to live up to his name and, seemingly, break the bonds of gravity. The one time I saw him live, in some run-down high school gymnasium on a bible black and freezing Tuesday night in February of 1982, I rushed home and re-wrote Tennyson’s “The Eagle” in a spiral notebook I still have to this day.
He grasps the ‘buckle with crooked hands
Undisputed hero of the minor market lands
Ring’d with the faces of yahoos he stands
The injured opponent beneath him crawls
While the haughty climber nods to our calls
And like a thunderbolt he falls
I took a picture of him that night, too, from about five feet away as he strode back to the dingy locker room that served as a dressing room. It’s a bit blurry, but there’s no mistaking his power and charisma–he looks larger than life—and in the background you can see rows of people going absolutely apeshit as he moves past. It didn’t matter who the belt-holder was at that time–some lame-ass doughboy named Bob Backlund, I think–Jimmy Snuka was the people’s champ, and it was because he was doing things all the rest of us could only dream of. He really did fly.
Alas, everything that flies must at some point return to earth and it turned out that Jimmy was no better than the next palooka, and maybe a bit worse. He loved to drink and snort coke and he had some anger management problems that were no doubt exacerbated by the chemicals he was taking to keep that bronze physique so chiseled. He played a solo game of handball one night with some young woman’s head against the walls of a $29.99 Allentown, Pennsylvania motel room and she ended up dying from it. He managed to “wrestle free” of any legal consequences, and indeed, the upstanding people who run pro wrestling managed to keep a pretty tight lid on the whole abhorrent affair, but it’s not exactly the kind of thing that keeps you in a guy’s corner once you find out about it.
He hasn’t done much wrestling-wise since the mid 90s, but he still puts on an occasional show in sleepy rat-hole towns here and there. If you look at the fairly recently-taken pictures that accompany his Wikipedia page, you can pretty much see exactly what Glenn Danzig is going to look like in a decade or so. It ain’t pretty. But hey, professional wrestling is a tough racket and so is punk rock.
A tiny dynamo who captured hearts like a—well, like a relentless, heart-capturing butterfly net, Mary Lou Retton remains unrivaled as the preeminent figure in American sporting lore. Bouncy, wholesome, and every bit as patriotic as any Founding Father you’d like to name, even hardened killers in prison wept when she won the gold. She represented us all. The larger question is, as always, what happens to these petite contortionists, these breakers of the bounds of gravity, these flexible yet delicate dolls, once their time in the Olympic sun has passed them by? Some, like Olga Korbut, keep training and go to the next Games and win another gold before disappearing for decades only to resurface in Norcross, Georgia, of all places, on trumped-up shoplifting charges. Others, like Nadia Comaneci, “grow up” into a very fine-looking adult woman indeed, even if at least two of her parts seem to have been placed in their prominent position by a surgeon.
In Mary Lou’s case, she did what she could—and always with a positive attitude. The last three decades have found her perching on Ronald Reagan’s shoulder during a National Convention, hanging out with Leslie Nielsen in a zany movie about a bumbling police detective, and even doing her best to help revive the flagging fortunes of a universally-beloved drug store chain. She wasn’t always a success in these post-Olympic endeavors, but she always had (and still has, I would reckon) a smile on her face and that is a wonderful quality to possess. So salute her as you would the flag, because for a brief moment in 1984 she was the flag—a flesh and blood Stars and Stripes, floating in the air, yet untethered to any pole. Pure magic, I tell ya!