A valet carries a silver tray into the ring at the arena’s center, places it in a corner and sprays the ring with a perfumed disinfectant.
As “Pomp and Circumstance” plays, another man walks slowly down the aisle, taunting already enraged fans as “beneath contempt” before haughtily entering the ring, allowing the valet to remove his spun-gold helmet, loosening his flowing locks of white hair.
Carefully removing his Liberace-esque sequined fur-trimmed robe, getting sprayed with more disinfectant perfume and further antagonizing the crowd, he finally is ready to wrestle.
When the bell sounds, he launches into action — a gouging, biting villain subduing opponents with his signature move, the “flying side headlock,” before leaving the ring to a cascade of boos.
He was Gorgeous George, the man who in the 1940s and ’50s invented professional wrestling as we know it today.
“His shtick was the thing that made wrestling on TV,” said Nebraska sports historian and wrestling fan Mike Babcock. “He kind of launched wrestling as we know it today.”
And “The Human Orchid” was from Nebraska. But like his entire story, even his origin has been shrouded in uncertainty.
“No subject, it seems, was too trivial to be shucked or jived,” John Capouya wrote in the biography “Gorgeous George.” “George insisted he was born in Seward, Nebraska, while his birth certificate makes clear George Raymond Wagner first stepped between the worldly ropes in Butte, Nebraska, on March 24, 1915.”
Wagner did live in Seward for a while before the family moved to Houston when George was 10. Dropping out of school at 14, Wagner hit the wrestling circuit, becoming a Pacific Coast champion in 1939. Two years later, he changed the game, unveiling the Gorgeous George persona.
“The character itself was so outlandish,” said Donnie Dodge, Omaha wrestler and the founder of the Omaha Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame. “You didn’t see anybody doing that before him. … When he came out through the curtains with the feathers and the mink, nobody had seen that before, done it before. He was a hit.”
Here’s how the Lincoln Journal’s Jim Raglin saw Gorgeous George, writing about him before a 1956 match that was to bring him to the State Fairgrounds:
“George is a native Nebraskan, although he doesn’t brag about it now that he is the social leader of the grunt and groan fraternity. His real name is George Wagner.
“Gorgeous is the delight of peroxide manufacturers since it keeps them busy supplying him with enough of the liquid. George’s hair is as white as the driven snow. His perfume is supposedly as aromatic as conditions permit. … George’s original ring garb would make dacron blush, it’s so up-to-date. …
“George, just mean and gorgeous, cringes at the mention of his Midwest background. He’s cosmopolitan, you know.”
An adequate wrestler and great showman, George, who died of a heart attack in 1963, not only forever changed the wrestling game, he influenced — get this — Muhammad Ali, who took George’s flamboyance into the boxing ring; James Brown, who copped the gorgeous one’s sequined capes and robes and valet; and a kid in Minnesota named Robert Zimmerman who saw him wrestle and reinvented himself as a folk troubadour with a new name, a la George, Bob Dylan.
Gorgeous George, by the way, was 5-foot-9 and 210 pounds, pretty similar in size to Daniel Bryan (5-8, 210), AJ Styles (5-11, 218), and even Kofi Kingston (6-foot, 212), who are among those slated to appear at Tuesday’s "WWE Smackdown" show at Pinnacle Bank Arena. But he was far smaller than Randy Orton (6-5, 250) and lighter than Big E (5-11, 285).
Gorgeous George, however, wasn’t the first Nebraskan to come to wrestling prominence.
In 1915, Joe Stecher, a Dodge native, became the first world heavyweight champion after winning a unification match held in Omaha. John “The Nebraska Tiger Man” Pesek of Ravenna earned his reputation as the most intense of the early wrestlers, losing only about 20 matches in his entire career.
“Tiger John was known as a shooter,” Babcock said. “He was a legit guy. He could hurt you. There’s this fallacy that’s been enhanced over the years that pro wrestling became a facade with Gorgeous George. Wrestling had predetermined outcomes since the beginning.
“There were some matches that were pretty legit. They lasted a long time. They’d get in there and just lean on each other for hours. So they changed the process. The predetermined outcomes were much better for the promoters, and the fall guys were willing to lose to pick up a few bucks."
Nebraska’s most famous wrestling family spanned the pre-and-post televised wrestling eras. The four Omaha brothers — Emil, Rudy, Joe and Ernie — were known as the Dirty Duseks during their wrestling careers, which spanned four decades. They chose Dusek as the family stage name because their real name, Hason, was similar to that of another wrestler.
From 1957 into the ’70s, Joe Dusek was the primary promoter in the “hot” Nebraska territory, putting on up to 30 matches a month in Omaha and sending wrestlers to Lincoln, where they worked at Pershing Auditorium, and to city auditoriums and high school gyms across the state.
Later, Nebraska became part of the Midwest territory controlled by the American Wrestling Association, which was run by Verne Gagne, who often wrestled and sold his “Gera-Speed” in Nebraska.
“In this area, if you were going to do a show, you had to go through Verne Gagne,” Dodge said. “I like the global things. But I yearn sometimes for the good old days of territorial promotions.”
The global thing, of course, is the WWE, which came into existence in the 1980s as the World Wrestling Federation, a regional promotion that expanded nationally, then worldwide as its owner, Vince McMahon, bought up the territorial companies or simply stole their wrestlers. The promotion became the WWE — World Wrestling Entertainment — in 2002 after losing a lawsuit to the World Wildlife Fund.
Tiger John Pesek’s son, Jack, followed in his father’s footsteps, wrestling against the likes of Gagne and the Duseks, and promoting local matches. Before he was a wrestler, however, Pesek played football at the University of Nebraska, a punter who held the school record for career average — 41.5 yards — for decades after 1947.
Pesek is listed, along with Mike DiBiase and Wayne Munn, by “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pro Wrestling” as one of three former Nebraska football players who became wrestlers.
There’s another Husker who made it big in the squared circle — even though he didn’t letter at NU. Jim Raschke was on the 1959 Nebraska team that upset Oklahoma. But he was primarily a grappler in college.
“For a guy like Baron Von Raschke, everybody has heard he was from Nebraska, but they don’t know Jim Raschke was a University of Nebraska wrestler and an AAU champion," Dodge said.
In fact, Raschke won the 1958 Class A heavyweight state championship while wrestling at Omaha North High School before lettering for Nebraska from 1960 to 1962, and winning the 1962 Big Eight Conference heavyweight title.
After college, Raschke became the second American to win a medal at the Greco-Roman World Championships when he finished third at heavyweight in 1963. In 1965, he became a worldwide interservice wrestling champion for the United States Army.
Raschke, who got his wrestling start as a referee, didn’t turn “bad” until he’d teamed up with Maurice Vachon. It happened at a match in Vachon’s native Quebec.
“We walked out to the ring and the crowd started hissing and booing,” Raschke told Leo Adam Biga in a piece that appeared in the Omaha Reader. “It was just because of our physical appearance — a big, ugly guy and a little, ugly guy. It wasn’t anything we’d done. Neither of us had appeared in that area for a while. Well, when they reacted that way we just reacted back, and by the end of that first night we were made as villains.”
Taking on the persona of the German Baron Von Raschke and developing a signature move, The Claw, made possible because he had giant hands, Raschke was a title holder — and big draw — in multiple territorial promotions and for nationals World Championship Wrestling and, briefly, the WWF.
“Mad Dog” Vachon, who lived part-time in Omaha, the hometown of his wife Kathie, ended his career in the WWF. In 1988, his right leg amputated after being hit by a car near Altoona, Iowa, in 1987, he appeared to ovations and warm applause at a WWF show at Omaha’s Civic Auditorium.
“I spent 44 years in wrestling trying to get people to hate me, and I failed miserably,” he told the Lincoln Journal before he went out and spoke to the crowd.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the first time I stepped into this ring to wrestle, it took 10 policemen to get me in the right,” he said that night. “It took 20 to get me out. It is true that in the past, I broke a few rules — unintentionally.”
There are plenty of others with Nebraska ties, including Ted DiBiase, aka the Million Dollar Man; Helen Hild; Mike Halac, aka the WWF’s Mantaur; Paul Neu, aka P.N. News; and the Omaha-born Sting (real name Steve Borden).
They, along with Vachon, “Iron Mike” DiBiase, Joe Dusek, Raschke and Gagne, are among the first two classes inducted into the Omaha Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, established last year by Dodge.
“I’m doing this to make sure people don’t forget them,” Dodge said. “They had an influence on the childhoods for so many. We can’t forget what they did, just by going out there and playing the characters.”
Look for, perhaps, announcer "Mean Gene" Okerlund, a University of Nebraska broadcasting graduate who started his radio career at Omaha’s KOIL, to be one of next year's inductees and, almost certainly, Gorgeous George to head the 2020 class. After all, he started it all.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @LJSWolgamott.
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