Thursday, October 15, 2009
Captain Lou Albano, who died Wednesday, might not have been your prototypical sports personality. His sports career, such as it was, was built hopscotching from arena to arena, night after night, with a barnstorming troupe of athletes who defined a sport that had as many critics as it had devotees. Captain Lou’s sport was wrestling – the professional kind and not the torturous grind of sweat and pluck and grit that goes into Greco-Roman or freestyle wrestling. Captain Lou’s wrestling was borne of showmanship, an artful illusion that turned sleight-of-hand maneuvers inside the squared circle into entertainment. In his world, reality was what people made of it. If you believed what you saw unfold on TV or in those steamy arenas, pro wrestling meant something. But even if you didn’t believe what you saw, you could find elements of the sport that appealed to you. For no sport defined good and evil as clearly as pro wrestling did. Inching toward its high point, wrestling filled arenas with grudge matches that left audiences drained from all the emotion they poured into it. Not a single sports event in my journalism career has matched the electricity inside the Pontiac Silverdome for Wrestlemania III. It was the night the sport was at its zenith – the talk of sportscasters and sports reporters, even those who loathed the sport. But no one could ignore the 93,173 fans who crammed the Silverdome in March 1987 or not appreciate the men who turned pro wrestling into what it blossomed into after that night. Few people played a bigger role in the sport’s assent than Captain Lou, the fat, charismatic personality who spoke the language of wrestling as well as anybody in its history. He wrestled during some of the darker days of the sport, back in the ’50s and 1960s when no one paid the sport much mind. But the sport kept men like Captain Lou in its fold, men who could no more wash the musty smells of small-town gyms off their bodies than a NASCAR driver could ditch his love of speed. The essence of niche sports like these gets into a person’s blood, twisting itself around his DNA. Men in the wrestling trade know this better than anybody. What else can explain their endless days of travel, match after match in small towns with their neon-lit hotels? Win in Peoria, then off to Omaha and lose to the man you beat the night before. Captain Lou Albano, the scion of Italian immigrants, knew life on the road as well as most men who earned their livelihood inside the wrestling ring. He figured better times were ahead. So Captain Lou spent the years building his persona: his colorful Hawaii shirts, his salt-and-pepper goatee and his rubber bands. In wrestling, personas change. So do reputations. A wrestler can be a good guy one week, and the next he finds himself the darling of fans who favor men who bend the rules. Captain Lou’s career proved as much. Earlier in his career, he earned notoriety as a member of The Sicilians, but most of what you remembered about Captain Lou was his work as the dastardly, double-dealing manager for renegade tag teams like The Wild Samoans, The Moondogs, The Blackjacks and The Executioners. Perhaps his greatest contribution to pro wrestling, a contribution, I would argue, that earned him his place in wrestling’s Hall of Fame, was serving as the bridge that brought rock and wrestling together in the 1980s. By the end of the decade, he and Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper and Andre the Giant and Jake the Snake and Jesse "The Body" Ventura and Macho Man Savage and Superfly Snuka had become nationwide celebrities. Captain Lou’s star never shined as brightly as theirs, but his footprint has remained on a sport that, even today, has its legion of followers. In a world where fads fade to black, pro wrestling hangs on, awaiting its next galaxy of superstars – looking hard for the next Captain Lou, the rotund face of a sport that has had many faces. None, however, like his.