08 The Job
Joe continued to have his normal scam as the week went on, but Timmy and I were suddenly refocused on promoting Steamer Vs. Johnson. Joe was left to his own devices on making as much money as he could by tossing around the locals in that small dirt ring while I was learning the ropes of promoting a show.
At the time I didn’t understand what we were doing, but now in hindsight it is the same thing that professional wrestling does today. It is the same thing the movie industry does with trailers or television with commercials.
Leaving the site of the carnival Timmy and I went to downtown where he showed me how to spread rumors. It largely consisted of going to saloons and talking about wrestling and boxing matches. We would talk about Gottlieb versus Stepanchikov from a few years back and whether Stepanchikov would ever get a rematch. We would talk the boxing match between Johnson and Jeffries. But the moment Timmy realized that someone at a nearby table was listening he would start talking about Dr. Jesse Steamer the Pacific Coast Champion and his opponent from over in the east. Then he would go into great detail about Joe Johnson and how he has been traveling the country looking for a great opponent. He told me stories of him serving years in prison for strangling men to their deaths in the ring giving him his nickname, The Strangler. And every time we did this, someone would come over to us and ask where the fight was going to be.
By the end of the week he had every bar tender within two miles of the fairgrounds talking up the fight. He stopped by the L.A. Times office and talked up the match to their sports reporters. Before you knew it the match was promoted in the paper both the early and late editions.
This idea of promotion is something that I ended up making a living on years later. The idea is that you present a story with no definite ending in such a cliffhanger fashion that everyone must know what is going to happen. In the sense of good versus evil Timmy was setting up the story of the local hero that is stepping up to the challenge of foreign brute that threatens to murder their hero.
I was still so enthralled with being on the road and somewhat involved with grappling, although involved might be a vast overstatement, that I didn’t understand what Timmy was doing. I didn’t see that Joe was being set up as a villain. I didn’t see that he was pushing the locals to put pride in their local champion.
I was excited to see a real match with two wrestlers. I couldn’t wait for Joe to prove how much better he was than this skinny doctor. But, it was my childish infatuation with the show. I wasn’t yet smartened up to what the professional wrestling world really was.
I remember the day my perfect vision of professional wrestling died. Some might say that it was a shame that I had left home and set out on a life in this fictional world, but I think it is a blessing. If I had that heart wrenching moment before I vowed to become a grappler, I never would have left. I would have spent my life in Texas learning to be a cattle rancher. I wouldn’t have had any adventure in my life and I wouldn’t have learned how great it is to love what you do.
The day my fantasy world of wrestling died was that Sunday. Dr. Jesse Steamer and Joe Johnson were prepared to put on the fight of the century as far as Los Angeles wrestling was concerned. The plan was to charge a dollar a head, but once the crowds started gathering Radisson realized that he had a sold out fight on his hands.
He knew his tent held three hundred people and he could see there were easily five hundred who showed up. When we were within an hour of the fight Radisson took to his podium in front of the tent flap and announced it was three dollars a head. And started to take money. Both Timmy and Billy Mulders were there counting heads as they entered the tent. Radisson had promised fifty percent of the gate to the winner as a fighter’s purse. Billy and Timmy were going to be sure that it was an actual fifty percent.
I ran around back of the tent, winded between random tents and stalls until I found the costuming tents where Joe was preparing for his match. I intended to inform him that the price per ticket was three dollars and we may be in for much more than the hundred bucks we were hoping for.
When I slid into the tent moving way faster than I should’ve been. I slid across the dirt almost slamming into Joe. He was sitting down having a drink of rum. The image always stood out in my mind as funny. There is something about an oversized super muscular man sitting in a small metal chair that made it look like he was playing some kind of dress up game. Almost like a little girl playing princess.
“The crowd is huge. And Radisson upped the ticket price to three.” I stopped mid-sentence when I realized a couple feet to my left was Dr. Jesse Steamer and Frank Bell also seated having a drink of rum.
I thought it was an ambush, they were going to take out Joe before the match. I walked backwards slowly trying to figure out who to call for. As I did Frank jumped to his feet nearly spilling his drink, pointing at Joe.
Joe waved his hand and shook his head, “Don’t worry about him. He is a part of my crew.” He turned to me without a care in the world, “Thanks Squirt hopefully Timmy is keeping track of the headcount.”
I didn’t know what to think. These men were supposed to be at each other’s throats. They were supposed to be enemies. They were supposed to be ready to take one another out. I shook my head in confirmation of Timmy keeping track of the crowd.
“Good. Head back out there. We have to clear up a few loose ends before the match.” And with that Joe turned back to his rivals and continued to drink his rum.
I stumbled out of the tent in a daze. It didn’t leave me for weeks. I walked back to the big tent without really understanding what was happening but knowing that it wasn’t right. I tried to reason out what I saw, why they would be friendly and what they had to discuss. I ended up standing between the bleachers next to Timmy when the fight started.
I looked up at Timmy who was jotting down numbers on the back of a torn poster. He was calculating his take of the gate. Then I looked out and watch the match. It started as I thought with a collar and elbow tie up. But, when Joe should have easily overpowered the much weaker doctor he instead took a step to the left throwing him off balance.
I had watched Joe take on men of all shapes and sizes and had never seen him side step during a lockup.
Then Dr. Steamer followed up with an Indian death lock which wrapped Joe’s legs into a small triangle held down by the doctor’s full body weight.
Joe overpowered the moved and sent Jess flying. I felt my heart lift a bit, but when Joe lunged back at the doctor reaching with both hands for his neck I knew that he was playing a character. He was trying to be The Strangler and convince all the people in the audience that he was going to strangle his opponent, their hero, the Pacific Coast Champion.
I didn’t watch the rest of the fight with my mind. I saw it with my eyes, but my dreams were so perfectly shattered that none of it entered my memory bank. I have no memory of what the end of that match looked like. All I know is what I knew then, Joe Johnson was taking a fall and losing to Dr. Jesse Steamer.