Wrestling legends muscle their way into hall of fame MONSTERS OF THE MAT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If someone has to explain to you about the Cocobutt, or if you think Chief Jay Strongbow was a contemporary of Cochise and Gorilla Monsoon is some Far Eastern weather phenomenon, then steer clear -- way clear -- of the Omni Hotel tomorrow night.

But if you know all about Bobo Brazil and his devastating Cocobutt, a maneuver that was somewhat akin to having a redwood tree slammed into your head, then Mobtown is the place to be. For tomorrow night, Brazil, Monsoon and Strongbow, as well as Classy Freddy Blassie, Arnold Skaaland, "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers and James Dudley are to be honored at a formal banquet right here in Mobtown as inductees to the World Wrestling Federation Hall of Fame.

Not that today's crop of grapplers is being overlooked. Current WWF champion Bret "The Hit Man" Hart will also be in town to help honor his forebears in the ring. He'll be joined by "Macho Man" Randy Savage, "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase, Lex Luger and Shawn Michaels. Regis Philbin -- Regis Philbin? -- is also scheduled to show up.

But the night will clearly belong to the old-timers, who will be joining the late Andre the Giant in the as-yet-unbuilt hall. A reception starts at 6:30 p.m., followed by dinner and the &L; induction ceremonies themselves. For those lucky enough to already have tickets -- they were on sale through Monday -- elegant business attire is suggested.

Yes sir, the Golden Age of Wrestling is returning to one of its favorite cities -- a town where wrassling (as some newspapers used to refer to professional wrestling on their sports pages) retains a strong grip, as witnessed by the pay-per-view extravaganza scheduled for Father's Day at the Baltimore Arena.

"Baltimore's been a great place for wrestling for years," says Monsoon, who estimates he grappled here hundreds of times before retiring in 1980. "It was definitely a place where you wrestled every other week or at least once a month."

Those hundreds of matches included one in 1967 where he seemingly won the heavyweight crown, only to have the title withheld when it was discovered he had braced his foot against the ropes while pinning champ Bruno Sammartino. Sammartino won a rematch two months later, when Monsoon was disqualified for trying to clobber his opponent with a chair.

Of such things are wrestling legends made. And there will be plenty of legends on display at the Omni tomorrow night.

Like Classy Freddy Blassie, 76, whose wrestling career spanned seven decades. Blassie was undoubtedly one of wrestling's greatest villains. In a sport where the stars are either revered or vilified, with little room for shades of emotion, Blassie wears his reputation like a badge.

"I am proud to say I never cared about anyone," Blassie says over the phone from his home in Hartsdale, N.Y. "The only one I cared about was Freddy Blassie and having my arm raised in a token of victory."

Recalling the annual polls of who wrestling fans loved and hated the most, Blassie notes that he consistently was ranked atop the latter.

"If I didn't wrestle somebody that they thought would kill me, they wouldn't come out," Blassie says of his fans. "I was the most hated fella. If I didn't win as the most hated, I'd felt like I failed in my mission in life.

"They ask me, 'Who was the roughest?' " Blassie snarls. "I say, 'Every time I look in the mirror.' "

Wrestling's ambassador

Only in professional wrestling could such a man be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Which, depending on your own point of view, helps explain why you love it or hate it.

"I was cut and stabbed 21 times," says Blassie, recalling -- with considerable pride and not a shred of regret -- the life of a wrestling villain. "I had eggs thrown at me. I had acid thrown in my face, lost 80 percent of the sight in my right eye."

No one ever said Classy Freddy Blassie lacked color. And in the late '50s and early '60s, an era when wrestling may well have been the most popular sport on television, Blassie was one of its leading ambassadors. He parlayed his ring reputation into guest appearances on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" (in the episode where everyone is dancing "The Twizzle" at a local bowling alley, he's the wrestler who shows up at the end), "My Friend Irma" and "Dragnet" (how much you wanna bet he played a bad guy?).

Blassie followed his career inside the ring with a stint on its perimeter that was just as notorious. He and the late comedian Andy Kaufman appeared together often, and Blassie speaks with genuine fondness of the man who helped keep him in the spotlight long after many of his contemporaries had drifted into quiet retirement. "He had many more things

in mind for he and I to do," Blassie says. "We became the best of friends."

Prosperous cheater

As a manager who never hesitated to use his cane -- or for that matter, his forearm -- to help a client, Blassie helped guide the careers of Victor Rivera, Spiros Arion, the Iron Shiek and Nikolai Volkoff.

His biggest contribution? He taught them how to cheat.

"Anybody can get out there and pull trunks, pull hair, that sort of thing," Blassie says. "The idea is to do it without the referee seeing you. That was what I was so good at, being able to do things I wasn't caught at."

Gorilla Monsoon, at 6-foot-6 and more than 400 pounds, also started his wrestling life as a villain. But that changed when he came to the aide of the legendary Sammartino during a match -- he stopped the evil Dr. Jerry Graham from smashing Bruno with a 2-by-4 and became, in his words, "the greatest thing since sliced bread."

Monsoon season

Monsoon, 57, never became the champ himself, although probably no one wrestled for the title more often. But he was a four-time tag-team champion, teaming with the equally legendary Killer Kowalski. His "Giant Swing," a modified airplane spin that sent many an opponent crashing to the canvas, was imitated by wrestling fans everywhere. He fought Muhammad Ali in an exhibition.

He also has one of the all-time great wrestling names -- much better than his given moniker of Robert Morella.

Gorilla Monsoon, he says, was born when Bob Morella first came to New York to wrestle in 1963.

"They really didn't know what to expect before I got there. I think Vince McMahon Sr. [father of current WWF major domo Vince McMahon] found the name in an old boxing fight book.

"They didn't even have a picture of me," he remembers with a laugh. "They found pictures of a gorilla from the old Chicago Zoo and made posters saying, 'Gorilla is coming.' "

Slamming nonbelievers

Gorilla came all right, and kept mauling opponents in the ring until retiring in 1980. He still works for the WWF as a broadcaster.

Monsoon says he has little patience for people who put down wrestling by insisting it's nothing but an exhibition, a sham where all the matches are choreographed and the results fixed. He has the aches, pains and injuries to suggest otherwise, but has given up trying to convert nonfans.

"There's showmanship in every sport," Monsoon says. "For those who believe in our sport, no explanation is necessary. For those who disbelieve, no explanation is satisfactory."

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