A couple or so months ago, David Cranmer told the story on his blog (Education of a Pulp Writer – http://davidcranmer.blgospot.com) about briefly encountering a wild bear during a camping trip. He then asked if anyone else had any bear-encounter stories and I responded that, while I'd never run across one in the wild, I had wrestled one once upon a time when I was young and obviously lacking in good sense. It got a couple follow-up comments and I figured that was that.
Now, after my recent interview with writer/mixed martial arts competitor/strongman contestant Thomas Pluck, the subject popped up again when Zak Mucha commented on a Facebook posting about the interview that Thomas and I looked like a couple guys who could and would wrestle a carnival bear for the right cause.
So what the heck … I'm going to share my bear-wrestling story.
The year was either 1976 or '77. I wasn't yet 30. I had recently made 2nd Shift foreman at the factory where I worked. So, having not yet gotten softened up by a desk job, I was still in pretty good shape. 6'1", about 260-265, strong upper body and even fairly agile for a big guy. Hardly slim and trim, but still carrying it pretty good—managing to keep my shoulders wider than my ass, as they say.
The Cherryvale Shopping Mall, just outside of nearby Rockford, where I lived, was the second largest indoor mall in the state at that time and at its center there was a large sunken arena where they held various publicity events throughout the year. The area all around the arena was open so crowds could gather and observe whatever was taking place; above, on the second level, more people could stand at surrounding railings and look down. In other words, it was sort of like a scaled-down coliseum.
One such event they decided to hold (I don't remember to promote what) was a 3-day appearance by Victor the Wrestling Bear. Victor was an Alaskan brown bear, although actually more black in color, owned and trained by a former pro wrestler and alligator wrangler named Tuffy Truesdale. They toured the country putting on their show at fairs, other malls, grand openings, etc., and every so often showed up on AWA Wrestling where Victor would raise hell with one of the popular bad guys of the moment who was wreaking havoc on the babyfaces. At Cheryvale, they put on two or three shows a day during which Victor would roughhouse with Tuffy a little bit, then do some tricks like riding a bike and bouncing some balls, drink copious amounts of soda pop from a bottle, etc. And then, for the big finale, Victor would wrestle volunteers from the audience—five matches per show.
So wouldn't you know, in a classic open-yap/insert-foot moment, I mentioned at work one night that it might be fun to mix it up with a bear like that, have something to tell the grandkids. Boom, just like that I was locked in. Too many people heard me say it, word spread too fast—I had to back up what I'd said.
Due to a misunderstanding, the first time I went to wrestle Victor I found out I wasn't on the schedule, they had me down for the following day. So that gave me the opportunity to watch a set of matches and I thought I saw something worthwhile. What I saw was that, when each match started, Victor would stand upright on his hind legs and come aggressively toward his opponent making a guttural noise that really wasn't a growl or roar, but more like bleating sound. Didn't matter, it was still intimidating as hell inasmuch as ol' Vic was advertised at the time as being nearly seven tall when standing up like that and weighing in at close to 700 pounds. Anyway, what each opponent would do was try to lock up with the bear and then proceed to get driven backward until they were taken to the mat. After that, Victor would lower down to his natural four-footed stance and just walk all over the guys, smothering them, hardly ever giving any of them a chance to get back up.
Aha! What I would do, I decided, would be not to try and immediately lock up with ol' Victor but rather dance around behind him and then make my move from there. That'd show him.
So the next day arrived and there I was in line for my turn in the arena. I was third for the afternoon show. It was a Sunday afternoon, the place was packed, there were easily 500 people gathered high and low for the show and it felt like it must have been a hundred degrees in the midst of it all.
The guy who went ahead of me was a college wrestler and he was ready to rock and roll with that bear. He had on a singlet, headgear, the whole works. He was taking all of this serious as hell and he did a pretty good job out there—for a while. He dropped and rolled and bridged, managed a few nice escapes. But after a couple minutes he ended flattened just like everybody else.
Then it was my turn. The "referee" gave a few simple instructions: The bear had a muzzle on so he couldn't nip you. You, in turn, were not to gouge his eyes, pull his ears or tail. "That might annoy Victor," the ref said, "but it for sure will piss off Tuffy, and that wouldn't be a good idea." Tuffy was right there on the perimeter, coaching Victor. He wasn't real tall, but he was barrel-chested with powerful arms and lots of agility as demonstrated when he did his roughhousing-with-Victor part of the show—not somebody you'd want to mess with.
Vic and I went to our opposite "corners". When the referee slapped the mat (in place of a ring bell) we went at each other. I can honestly say that the only time I felt nervous about the whole thing was for those few seconds waiting for the mat-slap. I looked around at all those people and then across at Victor and I remember thinking: What the hell am I doing here? But, in addition to my wife (who had been questioning my sanity regularly during the days leading up to this), I knew there were a handful of co-workers watching from somewhere in the crowd so I sure as hell couldn't back out now.
As soon as the ref's hand hit the mat, Victor was up on his hind legs, rising to his imposing seven feet, and came straight for me, making that strange bleating sound. I moved to meet him and, as we got close, I attempted my idea of scooting around behind him. Maybe somebody else had thought of that before me, because Vic seemed ready for it. He reached out and hooked me with a thick arm as I tried to slip past him, made a sweeping motion with the arm, and very handily dumped me on my ass right in the middle of the mat. When I put my hands down to break my fall, I jammed my right thumb and felt the ball joint slide out of place. It hurt for a second but I really didn't have time to worry much about it. I had a bigger problem—about 700 pounds bigger—to deal with.
Victor swarmed over me for a little bit after he had me down, but I managed to roll out and get away from him and then—at last—made it around behind him.
Right where I wanted to be.
What I quickly discovered, though, was that when dealing with a critter that big, it really doesn't make a hell of a lot of difference which side you're coming at him from. He was too high and wide to get my arms around or try to put any kind of nelson lock on. And, even if I hadn't been warned against it, pulling his ears or tail or yanking on his fur simply didn't seem like a smart idea.
So for a few seconds we did what must have been a comical-looking kind of dance, him switching first to his left and then to his right, me hopping opposite of whichever way he turned to try and keep behind him … Seeing the futility in this and seriously beginning to run low on gas, I ended up in front of him once again and this time when he knocked me down and swarmed over me I was pretty much done. I was sweating profusely by then and sucking wind big-time so when I finally quit struggling and just sort of collapsed under him, Victor calmly began licking the sweat off the side of my face (the muzzle holding his jaws shut, but clearly not so tight he couldn't still get his tongue out). I hadn't noticed him do that with anybody else and for a moment there I feared he might be taking a romantic interest in me. I was hoping like hell I could catch a second wind if it came to that when Tuffy and the referee started pulling us apart.
My wife had timed it and said I lasted to just under two minutes. To me, it seemed more like two hours. I stumbled out of the arena and made it to where she was waiting, still sweating like a pig and feeling exhausted to the point of fearing I was going to get the dry heaves. People were clapping me on the shoulder and congratulating me and another match was starting to get underway but all I wanted was to get the hell out of there and get some fresh air. And, for the first time, I got the chance to take a good look at my thumb. The ball joint was dislocated, rolled part way up onto the back of my hand and starting to swell. And, now that I had time to think about it, it hurt more than a little bit.
Pam had taken some pictures with an old Polaroid, but unfortunately it had a weak battery so the shots that came out were so dim they were barely discernable. The clearest of the bunch was one where Victor was yanking me toward him so that I was bent at the waist with my shirt pulled up to my shoulders and about six inches of bright white plumber's crack showing above my drooping beltline. Real proud showpiece for the grandkids. We also got a signed photo from Tuffy before the match started that said something like "Wayne – Take it easy on Victor". Both that photo and the snapshot of my prominently displayed posterior have been lost to the mists of time and many subsequent moves of household goods.
Out in the parking lot, as Pam and I were getting into our car (an old Plymouth beater with a full-width front seat) I put my injured hand down on the seat between us to get myself situated behind the wheel just as she was sliding in from the opposite side. She inadvertently plopped her fanny right on my hand! Amazingly, the act of jerking the hand back out from under her caused the dislocated thumb joint to slide back into place. The soreness was gone almost immediately and in a matter of minutes most of the swelling had gone down, too. By the time we got home the darn thing was fine.
So there's my bear-wrestling tale. In the 1980s, various animal rights groups effectively stopped public bear wrestling. Tuffy and Victor returned to Florida where Victor became pretty much just another display animal in a cage and Tuffy went back to wrangling gators. They've both since passed away. You can Google "Victor the Wrestling Bear" and find a handful of articles, some pictures, and even a few old videos of Victor in action.
But I don't need videos … or pictures either, for that matter.
I saw ol' Vic in action. First hand. And I remember it just fine.
Persevere — WD