Today, everyone knows that professional wrestling is a predetermined stage show -- Vince McMahon himself publicly admitted it 23 years ago. However, for most of the last century, wrestling fans believed every storyline and bit of pageantry as the God's honest truth, and if you made your living as a wrestler, it was your sworn duty to protect the illusion at all costs. Some went a little further than others, though. And some went a lot further ...
In October 1975, a Cessna 310 plane crashed while transporting a promoter and four wrestlers to a match in North Carolina. One of the wrestlers on board was Tim Woods, also known as Mr. Wrestling (presumably because he spent all his imagination on "Mr.").
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And on picking the color scheme for his costume.
Woods suffered a concussion, bruised ribs and a compression fracture in his back. But all he could think about as he lay in the wreckage was "This could lead someone to find out that wrestling is fake!"
You see, another wrestler, his archnemesis and scheduled opponent for the evening, Johnny Valentine, was also on the plane. He suffered a back injury so severe that he was paralyzed for life. But what really matters here is that the crash could mean that people might find out they had been traveling together.
"But it says 'versus'. They're legally obligated to hate each other forever."
Tim Woods was one of the industry's most popular good guys at the time, while Johnny Valentine was a reviled villain. Good guys can't chum around with bad guys -- that would be like Skeletor pedaling a tandem bike with Prince Adam. So while Woods was being rushed to the hospital after surviving a plane crash that killed one man and paralyzed another, the first thing he did was give a different name and lie about who he was (he pretended he was a promoter instead of a wrestler) so as not to ruin the illusion. And that wasn't all.
You see, despite this, rumors still began to circulate that Mr. Wrestling had in fact been in a plane crash with Johnny Valentine, so Woods did the only logical thing: He wrestled two weeks after the crash and acted like his back wasn't broken. You know, to prove he hadn't been on that plane.
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"And my back is so not-broken, it's insane."
Again, two of the four wrestlers on the plane (including Johnny Valentine) were so badly hurt that they never wrestled again, the pilot was fucking killed and the fourth wrestler (who was actually Ric Flair) didn't do another match for six months. Tim Woods had no business doing what basically equates to stunt work before he had completely recovered from the crash, but damn it, the mythology of Mr. Wrestling had to be protected at all costs.
When Nelson Scott Simpson first broke into the wrestling business in 1984, he was told that his new character was going to be named "The Russian Nightmare" Nikita Koloff, because by the mid-'80s hating Russians was at a career-making high. Since Simpson had very little wrestling training to speak of, he decided to overcompensate by completely immersing himself in his character, including legally changing his name. Sort of like if Dolph Lundgren actually changed his name to Ivan Drago and actively tried to kill Carl Weathers whenever he spotted him at social events.
He honestly looks terrified over what his life is about to become.
So, Simpson legally changed his name to Nikita Koloff, actually learned to speak Russian and pretty much refused to say more than 11 words of Boris Badenov-strangled English in any situation. That's right -- for an entire year he didn't speak anything but Russian, because he wanted wrestling fans to believe that he was a newly arrived Russian immigrant still getting a handle on how to sputter out enough English to earn a chorus of boos.
So, to be clear, he was pretending to be fluent in a language he was still learning, while pretending to be learning a language in which he was fluent:
He didn't drop the act once the cameras were off, either -- Simpson refused to speak English in public under any circumstance, not even in his normal day-to-day life. Instead, he had someone pretend to act as his interpreter for anything that required him to interact with other people, including renting his goddamned apartment.
It's like The Departed, man ... you're in too deep.
As American-Soviet relations improved, Nikita Koloff actually became a beloved good guy by the end of the 1980s. But Simpson still never broke character, right up until his retirement in 1992. By that time, Simpson was so immersed in Nikita Koloff that he didn't stop speaking with a Russian accent for two more years, and even had his own birthplace listed as Lithuania on his child's birth certificate.
Intelligent, well-spoken James Myers worked as a physical education teacher at a high school in Madison Heights, Michigan. During the summers, however, he worked another job to supplement his income: He would travel to New York and wrestle as George "The Animal" Steele.
Where "intelligent" and "well-spoken" take a back seat to "the body hair of a caterpillar."
"The Animal," as his name suggests, was a crazy, unpredictable wild man who would tear apart turnbuckles with his teeth and grunt monosyllabically. He went on to have a very successful career in the WWF and even earned himself a role alongside Johnny Depp in Tim Burton's Ed Wood.
Presumably because Helena Bonham Carter was not quite hairy enough.
And as far as anyone else was concerned, James Myers and George "The Animal" Steele were two completely separate individuals. That's right -- for 20 years, Myers never once acknowledged that he was "The Animal," and nobody around him knew he was a famous wrestler in his off hours.
"We always assumed he spent his summers temping as a boulder."
This wouldn't be possible today, obviously -- the Internet would track him down within 30 seconds. However, back in the 1970s, the Internet didn't exist, and the wrestling business was divided into separate territories. Detroit had its own territory, and so did New York, which is where Myers would make all his appearances as "The Animal." The only way anyone in his home state could ever see him as George "The Animal" Steele would be in a wrestling magazine. Or, you know, if they drove to New York.
Occasionally, one of his students would mention the suspicious resemblance between "The Animal" and their PE teacher. To shut them up, Myers would retort, "Do you really think I'm that ugly?"