Mark Wineka column It was easy to figure out good guys from bad guys in wrestling
The wrestling fraternity referred to the good guys as baby faces.
Bad guys were heels.
Johnny Weaver was one of the all-time baby faces.
His signature move was the Sleeper hold. His muscled left forearm would come from behind, snake under the chin, link to the right forearm and encase his adversary’s head in a human vise.
You were doomed to pass out in the Sleeper hold and could only beg Weaver not to snap your head off.
Mike Cline knows Weaver was too nice of a guy to ever do that.
Growing up in Statesville, Cline reserved many of his Saturday afternoons for watching WBTV’s Championship Wrestling. It was on his family’s television that Cline first saw Weaver and felt the charisma pouring through the 21-inch, black-and-white screen.
He liked the way Weaver conducted himself in interviews with Big Bill Ward and, later, Charlie Harville on Channel 8. When the Statesville Jaycees sponsored a wrestling event every summer at the old semi-pro ballpark, Cline was there and never disappointed.
In person, Weaver gladly signed autographs and talked with his wrestling fans.
The road to the tag-team wrestling championship in those days had to go through Weaver and his veteran partner George Becker. Cline watched in a trance as they took on opponents such as the Masked Red Demons, the Alaskan and the Beast and the toughest heels of all, Rip “The Profile” Hawk and Swede Hanson.
Cline figured out sometime in the 1960s that the wrestling matches were scripted, but he also realized it didn’t matter to him.
Spending those Saturday afternoons with Jim Crockett Promotions’ Championship Wrestling was like watching old western movies. It was easy to figure out the good guys and bad guys, and Cline appreciated even then that he was watching some pretty good athletes.
In 1971, about the time George Becker was retiring, Johnny Weaver set off on an individual quest to win the NWA World Heavyweight Championship from Dory Funk Jr.
The wrestling storyline that year ó the most prestigious program of Weaver’s career ó was like a soap opera, always fresh with new twists and turns.
Funk’s father offered a bounty to any wrestler who could put Weaver out of commission in the ring. And leading up to the big Labor Day match at the Charlotte Coliseum, media reports showed Weaver running up and down Independence Boulevard as part of his training, and playing handball at the YMCA with race car driver Bobby Isaac.
He was Rocky before there was “Rocky.”
Cline was there for the big Labor Day match, but the script’s last twist didn’t turn out in Weaver’s favor.
Cline was writing a feature for Mid-Atlantic Gateway on that 1971 program when he learned of Weaver’s death last Friday in Charlotte.
Incredibly, Weaver had wrestled from 1955 to 1988. When he was 52, he became one of the oldest men ever to take the basic law enforcement test and was hired as a Mecklenburg County sheriff’s deputy. He spent many of the next 19 years transporting prisoners for the department.
During one trip, a prisoner had managed to free himself of his handcuffs and leg braces. When Weaver reached his destination and moved to the back of the van, the prisoner broke through the doors toward him and attempted to escape.
Weaver knocked him out.
Three years ago, Cline finally met Weaver and his longtime nemesis Rip Hawk over breakfast. Some mutual friends arranged it at the 2005 Mid-Atlantic Fanfest in Charlotte.
Cline almost cried when he saw Weaver and Hawk give each other a bear hug in the Bob Evans parking lot. The men then kept Cline spellbound with fabulous stories about all the wrestlers Cline had loved and hated as a kid ó guys such as the Great Bolo, Brute Bernard, the Missouri Mauler and Haystacks Calhoun.
Cline learned that a wrestler named Sonny Myers in St. Louis, where Weaver was from, had taught him the Sleeper hold. Weaver’s car still had a personalized license plate that said, “SLPERMAN.”
After that, Weaver sent Christmas cards to Cline, and they met again later over dinner. They traveled together last November to an independent wrestling event in Rocky Mount, Va., where Weaver was being honored.
It was on that trip that friends held a surprise 72nd birthday party for Weaver, who was less than a year away from logging his 20 years with the Sheriff’s Department and retiring.
When Weaver had to be recertified as a deputy last summer, he passed all the requirements, including a mile-and-a-half run.
Cline sat at the funeral Wednesday next to famed wrestler Ivan Koloff, the “Russian Bear.” The day was overwhelming for Cline and just reinforced everything he had believed about Weaver since he was young.
At least 75 deputies were in the audience. The Charlotte Observer’s obituary guest book for Weaver went on for 18 pages.
“Somebody at the funeral said that people from 3 to 103 liked Johnny,” Cline said.
It seems he had a hold on everyone.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mwineka @salisburypost.com.