Found: A wrestling treasure from the 1960s
Those of us who grew up watching TV in the “baby boomer era” surely remember these names: Jackie and Tojo.
Jackie Fargo was one of our first TV superstars. Yes, we had cowboys, but they were on film and lived far away. It was a pleasure then, to tune in “Live Wrestling” on Saturday afternoons, because there was a good chance that Jackie would be tangling with the evil Tojo Yamamoto.
Early in his career, Jackie started out as a “heel,” a bad guy. By the 1960s, Jackie had evidently seen the light, and turned into a good guy with a hint of mischief. His usual opponents were introduced as Japanese or German, and we fans were happy to see Jackie cheat a little to beat them, as payback for World War II.
Tojo was a scowling, scheming presence. Nice-guy Jackie would be doing a friendly interview with TV host Harry Thornton when Tojo would wage a sneak attack with a wooden shoe. Jackie, caught by surprise, would wipe away blood (or something that looked like it) and vow revenge. Harry would set up a grudge match between the two, but not for TV. This match was so big, it would have to be staged in front of 5,000 screaming fans at the local auditorium, all of whom would cough up five bucks to see it.
Jackie was in big demand in cities like Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville, Atlanta and Birmingham. His fans will always remember his charismatic personality and “The Fargo Strut,” his signature stride after defeating a rival. It was often imitated by adoring 10-year-olds.
As I got older, my big-city friends revealed a shocking secret. After the matches, they said, Jackie, Tojo, and the other wrestlers would go out to eat at the same restaurant. “Impossible,” I would reply. “They hate each other!” No, they would assure me, these guys understood their roles, and how not to seriously hurt each other. They traveled together, they roomed together, and they ate together. This finally solved a mystery to me, of how wrestlers could seemingly beat the daylights out of each other every night, while boxers like Muhammad Ali would take several months between matches. I had not been able to understand why boxers got so much attention, when they only fought three or four times a year.
Still, the passion they inspired was fierce, and their athleticism was real. Saturday wrestling was my original Must-See-TV, and I wasn’t alone. Jackie and his fellow grapplers inspired countless kids to roll around on the playground pinning each other in our own little role-playing games.
While I was looking through my memorabilia boxes, I found a fairly well-preserved wrestling autograph book that was published and distributed in the 1960s. It turns out that sometime during my wrestlingobsessed childhood, I met Jackie and got his autograph. How could I have forgotten that?
I used to have great sympathy for guys who seemed to be wrestling on TV each week, and lose every single time. An older guy billed as “Rowdy Red Roberts” comes to mind. If he was wrestling in the opening match, I knew he would lose. It turns out he was called a “jobber” in the wrestling trade, and his job was to make his opponent look good. The winning wrestler was always younger, and usually more handsome and fit than the jobber. He would build up enough wins to eventually become a headliner. Thanks to the hard-luck jobber, the fair-haired opponent would build a loyal following.
A few years ago, I looked up Jackie Fargo, and learned that he was living his retirement years in North Carolina, still making a few personal appearances. He’s not that far away, I thought. I figured that one day, I would track him down, make a visit and tell him how much I appreciated his style and showmanship. I’d tell him it couldn’t have been easy, choreographed or not, to take those hits, make those falls and flips, and deal with us rabid fans. I’d thank him for entertaining folks from 4 to 104, getting their minds off their own problems for a couple of hours each week.
I would also tell him how rich someone would be, if they had figured out a way to videotape and re-sell those 1960s wrestling shows a half-century later. At that time, they had no way of knowing their weekly slugfests would be in demand in the 21st century.
I waited too late. Jackie died in 2013, at the age of 82. I hope that somewhere, in that big Southern diner in the sky, Jackie, Tojo, Rowdy Red, and the others are laughing heartily as they swap stories about those wild nights in the wrestling ring.
David Carroll, a Chattanooga news anchor, is the author of “Volunteer Bama Dawg,” available for $23 on his website, ChattanoogaRadioTV.com, or by mail. You may contact him at 900 Whitehall Road, Chattanooga, TN 37405 or email@example.com.