(Note to readers: This is a sample extract from the second of the book's three travel journals. It begins in Memphis in 1997.)
Friday 14th February
One advantage to being the only guests at hotels during the quiet season is our soon to be favourite words, "complimentary continental breakfast." I'm not exactly which continent chooses unlimited doughnuts and Danish pastries to start the day, but we certainly weren't complaining. The snow had finally disappeared to be replaced by glorious sunshine, and it was a far more pleasant Memphis that we caught the bus back to (passing a shop named "The King's Court" and an "NWO Mail" van.)
We couldn't possibly miss out on Gracelands, so the morning was spent with every amusing Honky Tonk Man, Colonel Parker and Flash Funk reference you could imagine. The house itself wasn't quite the mammoth mansion you'd imagine, and the tour managed to stay just the right side of tackiness. Unfortunately we'd arrived on Valentine's Day, meaning the floral tributes at Elvis' grave were at ridiculous levels. Even worse, I think a few devotees took offence as we glanced through the King's collection of jump-suits, eagerly speculating 'wasn't that the one he wore at SummerSlam '89'?
Cleverly leaving too little time for lunch, we caught the Greyhound bus across the river into Arkansas, heading for Forrest City. We greeted West Memphis (looking like a Wild West-style dust strip rather than an actual town) with the boos its native Sid Eudy deserved, before arriving at our destination a little over an hour later.
Underwhelmed is barely the word. We pulled in next to a liquor store between two motels and, assuming it was just a rest stop for the driver, began moaning that this would have been the perfect place to get off. Then we spotted a rusty Greyhound sign hanging from the side of the store. We were in the city centre.
Assuming we'd missed something, we checked in to the Comfort Inn where we were greeted by a noticeboard proclaiming, and I swear I'm not making this up,: "Y'ALL COME BACK REAL SOON, Y'HEAR." We should have realised something was amiss when it became apparent that the elderly lady on the desk was totally thrown at the concept of a long-haired male.
Glancing through the visitor's information in our (pleasantly spacious) room, we soon found that aside from a Chinese restaurant, a branch of Wendy's and two (count 'em) banks, we had already seen most of Forrest City. The brochure also included a What's On guide. Craft Fair, August. That was it. For the year.
The literature also included a town history which, from memory, ran along these lines:
1872 - Bunch of people building a railway sit down for lunch and can?t be arsed to move.
1873 - The boss decides to establish a town.
Nothing to do then but phone up the USWA hotline. This consisted solely of Randy Hales reading out the dates and venues of a week's shows in a manner aimed directly at cretins. Admittedly it was for dates a fortnight earlier, but that may just have been Arkansas. We also called the UTC Arena in Chattanooga, where staff refused to accept Matt's credit card without a US phone number, but told us there'd be additional tickets released on the day.
Then it was a quick flick through the telly stations, where we soon found former USWA announcer Dave Brown presenting the weather! He somehow manager to resist the temptation to say "rain tomorrow, Sunday will be brighter, and on Monday, Jerry `the King' Lawler takes on Austin Idol," so we grabbed a meal at Wendy's (yup, another hamburger and fries). Listening and observing, we soon realised we were right in the middle of Henry Godwinn country, right down to a framed photo of a pig captioned "Soooeeey!" Honestly. Meanwhile, out in the car park, a quick survey revealed just under half the vehicles on hand were pick-up trucks.
With about thirty-five minutes until the show was meant to start, we began walking to the community centre which, we were informed, was "just up the road." Repeating the mud/dark/fast cars experience, we soon realised where the phrase `a country mile' originated. It was more by accident than design that, forty minutes later, we arrived at a meagre village hall and paid our $8 for ringside seats, and walked in midway through the opening match.
After all the troubles we'd faced over the last three days, we truly learned to appreciate wrestling. The ring was abysmal, there were no crowd barriers, there was no ring music, the ring announcer was sat on the stage, the faces and heels came out of different dressing rooms, Downtown Bruno was reffing, and we were watching Ken Wayne fight Tony Myers. This was wrestling at its most basic and pure.
The heel Wayne took the win with a handful of tights, but we were too busy getting into the atmosphere to pass judgement on the match. The crowd of about 300 made more noise than I've ever experienced at a wrestling show, and it's worth bearing in mind that it probably consisted of about 10% of the town's population, a proportion no other promotion today could match. One word of advice: don't joke about inbred people and funny looking eyes until you've actually sat in a crowd of them. One man in particular had chosen to sit next to us and spend his evening dressed in overalls, punching the air and repeatedly chanting "Go (insert face's name) go" for the entire evening. Arkansas is weird.
So, I think we've pretty much established this was a million miles away from a WWF tour at, for example, Wembley Arena. So we couldn't believe who walked out next...
2) Brooklyn Brawler vs Bobby Bolton
I guess you can never beat the mystery of just who will appear on an independent show. Believe it or not, this proved a greatly entertaining match. Steve Lombardi might be a nobody, but you don't job for a decade without getting the hang of selling and taking bumps, and this was anything but a Tatanka squash. Fast paced exchanges, no horrible restholds, the odd highspot; this sure beat the hell out of the WrestleMania main event. After a great series of close falls, Bolton got the win with a reversed small package.
3) Super Hysteria vs Steven Dunn
It's quite a bizarre sight to see 300 people cheering in unison for somebody who used to be in Well Dunn. I won't try and pretend this was Misawa vs Kobashi, but it was all good fun, with Dunn initially getting a top rope disqualification win but then demanding the match continue and winning with a sunset flip.
During the interval I took a walk over to the concession stand where they seemed to have all bases covered. There was everything from a USWA sweatshirt to a Brian Christopher photo album, with an incredible amount of photographs for sale. It's all very well the WWF turning up once a year and taking $10 for a piece of foam, but when you're visiting a venue anything up to once a week, and your audience is largely farmers, you have to play to the market, and with dozens of pictures sold at $2 a time you can see how the USWA stays in business.
Meanwhile Matt picked up the main snack on offer, a giant pickle. I repeat, Arkansas is weird.
4) PG-13 vs Flash Flannagan & Bill Dundee
It's worth pointing out here that the previous evening PG-13 (and Lawler) had appeared in Massachusetts, around 1,000 miles away, and had travelled to appear on an Arkansas spot show. That says something to me about the dedication some of the guys in the business possess. This was by far the match of the night, with over 20 minutes of constant action spanning the spectrum from dastardly double-teaming to hilarious comedy. Ice and D, complete with Nation of Domination hubcaps, put on one of the most entertaining performances I've seen.
The main storyline had Dundee trying to get hold of his son (with the inevitable spanking getting a great crowd reaction), while the comeuppances of the heels had us in tears. What with Wolfie selling a low blow by announcing in a squeak that he had to nip to the toilets, and Jamie Dundee threatening to tell his mother of Bill hitting him (think about it), there wasn't a quiet moment. Taking the inevitable style differences into account, I don't think it would be an exaggeration to call PG-13 the new Eddy Guerrero and Love Machine. Of course, in the best heel tradition, they lost the non-title match when Curt Hennig look-a-like Flannagan pinned Wolfie with a cross-body.
5) Billy Travis vs Brian Christopher
Being a spot show, this led to a confusing situation with the USWA title. Christopher had actually lost the title to the NOD's Elijah the previous Sunday in Memphis, but the switch hadn't aired yet. This somehow led to him appearing without the belt, conveniently making this a non-title match. Confused? Well, this is the USWA remember.
Quite simply, Brian Christopher will be atop the USWA for decades to come. As well as inheriting every ounce of crowd-working ability his father possessed, Christopher has developed a 1990's ring style. With his cocky babyface role he is reminiscent of the 1994 model Shawn Michaels, with astounding charisma. The merest hint of a superkick had us all shouting ourselves stupid.
One sign of how the USWA protects its territory came during this match when a group of children started discussing a rumour that Christopher was actually Lawler's son. I don't think anyone here will be picking up on wrestling being worked any time soon.
After snatching victory from fellow babyface Travis with a handful of tights (very sneaky, but he's a nice lad really), Christopher signed autographs for a good twenty minutes. McMahon and Bischoff can only dream of having people this over.
6) Unified Champion Jerry Lawler vs Mike Samples
An amusing pre-match angle had Steve Lombardi announcing that he had been personally sent by Vince McMahon to take care of Jerry Lawler and that his expert guidance would help Sample destroy `the King'. Yeah, right.
This main event consisted solely of Samples digging out every variation on the heel cheating behind the ref's back routine, with everything from brass knuckles to pulling the hair, to Lombardi laying in the chair shots. The difference is that this was so well done it was enthralling. The best piece of crowd manipulation came when somebody realised there was no back entrance to the building and Lawler had to work a spot to distract the crowd from seeing PG-13 sneaking out the front door. Meanwhile, I'm not ashamed to say we popped like never before when Lawler pulled down his strap. It sure as hell beats the Hulk-up. The Brawler's interference finally backfired and Lawler took the win with a roll-up.
After the show we hung around in the crowd waiting for autographs and tried not to crack up when Brian Christopher had to ask his dad for the keys to the car. Lawler chatted with the fans, with one little toddler telling him that Samples had been holding a chain: "Was he? I'm glad you didn't tell me or I'd have run!" `The King' then posed for a photo but not without taking the piss out of my accent and asking "Are you guys from Mississippi?" And like a fool I answered.
You'll hear a lot of tales of how abysmal the USWA's product is. This show saw a crowd heavily into the storylines and creating immense heat, yet never threatening actual unrest. The matches were all entertaining, without a resthold or deadspot in sight. Everything that happened meant something. Everybody took bumps, even referee Bruno. Nothing stretched credibility and none of the spots required suspension of disbelief. At just £5 for nearly three hours of action and fun, I'll take this `crap' any day.
It's also worth making clear that, despite my account, Forrest City was in some ways a perfect town. It literally had nothing to offer besides somewhere to sleep, somewhere to eat and somewhere to watch wrestling. So that's retirement sorted out.