Indy event at Jaffa displays wrestling’s positive side

While waiting to see his hero, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, on Saturday afternoon outside the Jaffa Shrine, a young fan fell and hit his head, causing a seizure.

When Duggan was told, he took an autographed photo and sat with the boy until the ambulance arrived.

In a day and age where so many of the stories that come out about pro wrestling are negative, Duggans act showed there are real good guys in the ring, too.

“So many people see the movie, ‘The Wrestler,’ and they assume we’re all Mickey Rourke. We’re all destitute degenerates,” Duggan said. “It’s been a successful business for me. I’ve been with my wife 28 years. My kids go to school. I’m active in the community. I live a normal life. A lot of guys do. People like Roddy Piper and Tito Santana. But everybody wants to hear the Jake ‘the Snake’ [Roberts] stories or the Scott Hall stories.

“There’s a lot of success stories in our business, too.”

That, as much as anything, was a theme of Big Time Wrestling’s autograph session and card in Altoona. Nationally-known stars like Duggan, Kevin Nash, Axl Rotten, Tommy Dreamer and Shane Douglas converged on a small city that seldom gets to see performers of their stature anymore so they could give back to their sport and to their fans.

Indiana’s John Rougeaux and James Sparks had their photo taken with Duggan as he gave his trademark thumbs-up sign.

“I’m his biggest fan. I watched him all the time,” Sparks said.

Since pro wrestlings territorial system died out in the 1980s, big venues like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia typically are the only places to see the current stars. The less-populated areas are supported by independent federations that often don’t even have television shows.

That’s not to say they don’t mean a lot.

“You have an opportunity to interact with the people,” said Duggan, a New York state native who has wrestled country-wide and world wide over the last 30-plus years. “This is kind of the background I came from, the small-time wrestling. It’s cool to come back to my roots and see the young guys who might be the stars of tomorrow.”

Fourteen hundred fans reportedly attended Big Time Wrestling’s fan-fest with Bret Hart along with matches back in December. A reported 800 bought advance tickets for this show.

“It’s neat to meet the guys you grew up watching,” Rougeaux added.

The first two events have been so successful that another is already in the works for sometime this summer. Ric Flair, who couldnt attend this weekend because of the death of his son on Friday, already is committed to appear, promoter Cory Newman said.

“This is a great wrestling town,” said Dreamer, who has wrestled in the Jaffa a number of times in the past 15 years.

Candy Shaffer came with a group of nine friends and family members from Homer City just to see Nash, the nearly 7-foot 53-year-old former Tennessee basketball player who has headlined some of World Wrestling Entertainment’s top pay-per-views.

“I’ve always been a Kevin Nash fan since back when he was [known as] Diesel,” Shaffer said, sporting a Nash t-shirt. Ive seen him in person once. I’ve never met him.”

Shaffer got her chance, along with a long stream of fans lining the Jaffa stage and winding out into the aisles. Nash came all the way from Florida to give her the opportunity.

“It’s a lot more intimate,” said Nash, now 53. “I’ll spend hour with the fans tonight instead of walking into an arena and seeing a couple of people for two seconds, doing my show and going to the next town. Because of the amount of DVDs the WWE has put out in the last few years, a lot of 6-, 7-, 8-year-old kids know who you are and are happy to see you.”

The fans aren’t the only ones. Most of the wrestlers on cards like Saturday’s are young athletes cutting their teeth and hoping to one day be where Nash and Duggan have been over the last 25 years or so.

“I love being in front of a crowd and to be part of the same roster with guys I watched as a kid. It’s surreal. To be part of something like that, you’ll travel from anyway,” BTW champion Flex Armstrong, who traveled from Boston, said. “When people like that are willing to open up and take you under their wing, that’s a great feeling. It’s a privilege to talk to people one-on-one like Bret Hart and Kevin Nash.”

Working with the legends has other benefits. Nash still has strong connections with WWE and has passed along names of performers who have impressed him; a couple of them even have gotten developmental deals — essentially the Class AAA minor league of what people watch on television Mondays and Fridays.

“This gives me a chance to see people who maybe wouldn’t be seen. If I see a diamond in the rough, I bring it to their attention,” Nash said. “It’s nice if I can help a guy.”

There is a commercial side to events like this. The wrestlers sold autographs and photos for $10-20. T-shirts, DVDs and toys also were on the market.

“It’s the way I pay my bills. It’s my business,” Duggan said. “I have one daughter in college and another in high school.”

Cards like Saturdays are a throw-back to the times when Duggan, after having his NFL career ended by a knee injury, would put 3,000 miles per week on to his odometer driving from Thibodeaux, La. to Tulsa, Okla. — “We weren’t like a sports team; we were like a rock and roll band,” Duggan said. Nash came in when the system was changing. His first match was on television in front of 9,000 people.

“I never did independent shows. I never got to see this side of it. I’m doing things backward at the end of my career,” Nash said.

Hastings’ Gail Boring, who used to work for long-time Altoona promoter Gene Dargan, brought Nash and Duggan a jacket to sign. Nash seemed touched by the fans and the chance to work at a place like the Jaffa Shrine.

“There’s not many buildings like this left. There’s not many guys from our era left. It’s like an old-time wrestling building. When I got into the business, this was the kind of buildings we ran,” Nash said.

“For me, to wrestled [Friday night], drive 100 miles, get up, drive 195 miles, then turn around and drive that again to catch a flight is a lot to ask for an old war horse. I just thank God I can still do it.”