Wrestling's popularity was at an all-time high, and I was there to cover the show for a local paper. It was my first behind-the-scenes look at pro wrestling, and watching these larger-than-life characters get ready for a day's work was surreal.
There was Hulk Hogan, his ballooned biceps exposed by a sleeveless shirt, scooping food onto his plate in a buffet line. "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair sat at a table with his legs crossed, nonchalantly reading the newspaper. "The Macho Man" Randy Savage was engaged in an uncharacteristically subdued conversation with an average-looking Joe.
The scenario quickly gave evidence that these over-the-top grapplers were indeed human, and that night I wondered what everyday life must be like for a wrestler. The daily grind, the bumps, the bruises, the endless string of hotel rooms and plane flights. And what about the day they're no longer climbing into the ring?
Wrestling and Atlanta go way back. In the '70s and '80s, live broadcasts of Georgia Championship Wrestling matches were one of TBS Channel 17's programming staples. And when Ted Turner launched World Championship Wrestling in the late '80s, Atlanta became a wrestling hotbed. As a result, the city became a popular home base for many pro wrestlers.
In 2001, big-time wrestling said goodbye to Atlanta. Vince McMahon and the WWE bought WCW. But many wrestlers still call metro Atlanta home. Some are still in the business full time, either working for WWE or various independent promotions, but others semi-retired from the ring and have since joined the world of mere mortals.
Abdullah the Butcher
"The Madman from Sudan," who's actually Canadian, has spent the past 42 years of his life shocking wrestling fans all over the world and scaring them shitless. With his trademark curled-toe wrestling boots and a huge gut hanging over martial arts pants, Abdullah popularized what's now referred to as hardcore wrestling. Using chairs, forks or just about anything else he could get his hands on, Abdullah liked to draw blood in the ring. By the end of his matches, the faces of both he and his opponents would often be covered in what announcer Gordon Solie described as "crimson masks." Creepily, Abdullah never uttered a word on TV, leaving that to a typically loud-mouthed manager.
On this particular afternoon, he's chomping on a cigar and sitting at a table inside Abdullah the Butcher's House of Ribs & Chinese Food, the restaurant he opened nine years ago in Ben Hill. Abdullah doesn't cook, but dreamed for years of opening a place featuring two of his favorite foods -- barbecue and egg rolls. Why? "Because I'm different," he says. "When I'm in the ring, I use a fork, a spoon, chopsticks, whatever. So that's why I put the two together."
It's lunch time and customers are beginning to file in. In fact, it's starting to get crowded in the main dining room where the walls are lined with photos of Abdullah and a virtual Who's Who of wrestlers from the past several decades. A large oil painting of the wrestler wearing a suit and cigar in hand hangs behind the cash register. A fan-made diorama of an Abdullah the Butcher action figure standing in a tiny wrestling ring is on display in the corner.
Today, Abdullah's biggest challenge isn't punishing opponents. It's finding good help. Over the years, he's dispatched employees like incompetent tag team partners. He's fired four nephews, his sister and his own son. "If you ain't got the right help, you got nothing going," he says. "Your help can mess you up faster than anything else."
He talks a bit about his next two ventures, a sandwich shop and a clothing store, which he plans to open in the Ben Hill area. But the conversation invariably turns back to wrestling.
He still wrestles about 10 times a month and represents Atlanta-based wrestlers like Iceberg Slim and Ben Peacock overseas. He plans to promote independent wrestling shows in the future.
Abdullah declines to reveal his age, but if you do the math, it's clear he's still dropping elbows while most people his age are probably eligible for the senior's discount at Piccadilly. Wrestling is something he says he'll do until the day he dies. "I can still draw people," he says. "People want to see me. It's like an entertainer. If you give people what they want to see, they'll still come and see you. I don't care if you're 100 as long as you keep producing."