Natalya and I have something very unusual in common – we were both raised in a dungeon. The impact of this can’t be overstated and it obviously impacted our passageway to adulthood. As a member of the legendary Hart Family, Natalya was raised in Stu Hart’s dungeon. As a kid growing up in York, PA, I was raised in my dad’s living room. Both featured a lot of screaming and foul language. Both featured a lot of stretching. Both were probably not the cleanest places in the world. And in the end, both were places we were happy to escape from. Natalya graduated to the next phase of her career as a professional wrestler, and I graduated high school. These stories are so similar there are times I think I am actually an honorary Hart brother (and I have been known to wear pink…just not in my hair.) Natalya and I were both finally free to pursue our dreams.
Why was my dad’s living room similar to a dungeon? Well, when I started falling in love with pro wrestling, I had to beg, and plead, and beg, and plead, and beg some more for my parents to take me to nearby Hershey Park Arena to see the touring WWF shows. Neither parent was thrilled that I was starting to love wrestling (that “fake stuff” as they called it) which was probably because I was ripping off my t-shirts and calling everybody “brother” (you can’t deny Hulk Hogan’s impact on a generation of kids). But my dad was even less thrilled because I wanted to watch the WWF on TV each week… and our one TV was his. It wasn’t for the family. It wasn’t for the parents. His. His TV. I can’t stress that enough. I had to beg him to watch ‘Wrestling Challenge’ and ‘Prime Time Wrestling’ each week. Thank God he was asleep by the time Saturday Night’s Main Event came on the air. I felt trapped because I could feel something inside of me changing… I was becoming a huge wrestling fan and I wanted to jump in with both feet.
I remember the day when my dad reluctantly bought our first VCR. He looked at that thing like it contained plutonium that would blow up the house if we used it. He reluctantly agreed to buy it because my mom is a dancer and she wanted to watch some dance videos. I was a brainy kid so I tried to learn how to program it to tape my WWF shows (remember when programming a VCR took 43 steps?) and Lord have mercy if I screwed up and accidentally changed his channel by accident. “Time to learn the ankle lock, kid!” AHHHHH. (PS – I’m not a psychology major, but Freud would probably find a correlation between this story and the fact that I now own two giant TiVos, one for my family and one just for me. No one is telling me what I can tape now!)
WWF TV would always advertise the local house shows and I would get so excited. I needed to go to each show. I absolutely NEEDED to go because “Wrestler X” was in the main event versus “Wrestler Y” and it was a very important match. I didn’t really understand the business back then, i.e. that the same house show (with the same results) was running all over the east coast and if it “didn’t happen on TV it didn’t happen.” For the WWF, Hershey house shows were a chance to earn some money and pick up some steroids (read about that sometime… Hershey was the main distribution center) but for me they were much more important. In fairness, house shows WERE more important in the 80’s because there weren’t as many big matches on free television back then. Now with Raw and SmackDown, as well as monthly (not quarterly) PPVs, the top guys routinely wrestle each other. Back then the weekly TV shows were used to sell house show tickets. The promotion certainly worked on me.
As hard as it was to convince my dad to let me watch the WWF on TV, it was almost impossible to convince him to buy tickets for the live events. “But dad, you don’t understand! The British Bulldogs are defending their Tag Team Championship… I HAVE to be there!” He wouldn’t budge. No way was he wasting his time driving us there (not to mention the cost of the tickets). Fortunately my friend’s father would occasionally offer to take a group of us. We were still a few years away from getting our driver’s licenses so that was the coolest thing ever. But I was frustrated because I hated relying on others to take me. Let me out of the dungeon! “Not yet, kid, time to learn the chickenwing arm lock!” AHHHHH!
I should probably mention that my dad looked an awful lot like Mike Knox: barrel-chested with a large beard… and a little too sweaty. Apparently showering was optional. So, yes, I was scared of him. From what I have read, Stu ran the Hart dungeon the same way. Fear is a great motivator.
When I finally got my driver’s license I had a new-found freedom to scoot up to Hershey myself. I also got a part-time job at a local bookstore to earn money for tickets. However, living at home, I still needed my parents’ permission. Occasionally when they did say yes, my best friend Jamie and I (yes, the same guy who 20 years later went to WrestleMania 26 with me… I think that’s cool) would drive to Hershey, hang out at the amusement park all day, and then go to the wrestling show at night. Hershey Park, better known as Chocolate Town, is a nice little park located right next to the arena, which was perfect for professional wrestling because it wasn’t very large and it had the “old school” feel similar to the original Boston Garden. Although we saw mostly house shows there, we did see 3 tapings of Saturday Night’s Main Event which were awesome (mostly notably when the “Madness Met the Mania” and Honky pushed Miss Elizabeth to the canvas. The crowd reacted like a British soccer crowd, throwing things, yelling. It was nuts.) These are some of the sweetest, happiest childhood memories I have.
Random note – my most disappointing Hershey memory? At one house show in 1992, Hulk Hogan wrestled Ric Flair in the main event and the match put everybody to sleep. I believe Hogan won by count-out. There was no “buzz” in the building at all. In general, Hogan and Flair’s WWF program was a huge letdown after fans dreamed of seeing them in the same ring for years. Weren’t they supposed to meet in the main event of WrestleMania 8 but neither man would lie down for the other? Thanks guys… appreciate the selfishness. I will now choke myself with my Papa Shango action figure.
A lot has changed since I escaped from the dungeon. For one thing, Hershey built a new arena, the GIANT Center, which is where the WWE now books their shows. The GIANT Center is fine but it feels like every other modern day facility. Newer doesn’t always mean better. I moved to the Washington, DC area in 1995 which makes it easy to go to shows in Philadelphia, Richmond, DC, and Baltimore. And now that I have a full-time job I no longer have to ask permission (well, except from my wife… but I wanted to refrain from another dungeon joke). As a result I have been fortunate to see a lot of WWE and WCW live events over the years, everything from WrestleMania to Starrcade to Raw to Nitro. Although I have enjoyed going to each type of event, I will always have a soft spot for regular, standard “run-of-the-mill” house shows. (By the way, Raw is by far the worst show to attend because it is live and contains lots of commercial breaks and interview segments. Feels very choppy when you are there. You’ve been warned.)
The biggest change for me though is now I have my own family. I have a little boy who will be 6 in July and he is turning into quite a wrestling fan. He likes watching the TV shows. He likes playing inferno matches on “Raw vs. SmackDown 2010”. And you’re not going to believe this, but his favorite wrestler is Beth Phoenix (or so I thought…more on that in a bit). He looked cute as John Cena this past Halloween. Yes, I would have preferred someone like Chris Jericho or Bret Hart, but – gasp – WWE.com offers a “limited” selection of Halloween costumes (let’s see… HHH, Undertaker, Rey Rey, and Cena…am I forgetting anybody? Did I hit all the usuals? And before you holler that I could have made him a costume you should know my wife was pregnant at the time so I was lucky to find time to feed myself… reason #2092 why pregnancy is fun for the whole family). By the way, he also likes the Dallas Cowboys and Boston Red Sox, and he will attend the University of North Carolina when it is time for college. It’s amazing how much control we have over their little minds. Oh settle down, my wife and I give him a choice of vegetable each night for dinner… as long as it’s green.
We had a little girl this past January and promptly named her Baby Glamazon. Hey, we’re proud to be a Glamafamily. As the old expression goes, “Families that are fabulous firebirds together, stay together.” The neighbors think we’re a little strange walking around in custom-made Glamasuits and tiaras but that’s okay. Truthfully, the hardest part is finding baby clothes made of spandex and sequins. (PS – When I met Beth this past spring I didn’t tell her our little girl was named after her because I was afraid of the word “SECURITY!”)
I promised myself that I would be a hands-on father when I had a family someday. I would get involved in school activities. I would help with homework. I would shoot hoops with my kids in the park. And most importantly, I would shuttle them to WWE live events. This past November the SmackDown brand was coming to Upper Marlboro, MD for a house show so I convinced my wife it was important that we all go and enjoy the show. Time to start our own little family tradition! She wouldn’t agree until we put the following language into the contract: 1) “Husband will buy dinner beforehand” and 2) “Family will leave immediately when wife says so.” Again, she was pregnant at the time so I was afraid of all kinds of legal action. I quickly agreed with these terms and conditions.
The day of the event we went to dinner (as instructed) and headed to the arena. My son was excited but also a little skeptical because he wasn’t sure these “wrestlers” he saw on TV were real people. He was also a little scared because for some reason he thought he was going to have to wrestle that night. I assured him he would not. (Kids say the strangest things…) I was a little anxious because I was hoping Beth would be on the show. My wife was just hoping that her water didn’t break. We settled into our seats after I bought my kiddo the required souvenir (a Rey Rey mask he promptly broke 10 minutes later. Surprisingly there were no Divas items for sale… I know, unbelievable right? Not even an ugly neon pink t-shirt.) And then the show began.
The differences between a televised event and a house show are startling. The first thing I noticed were the dramatically different lighting and sound systems. There were two light extensions attached to opposite turnbuckle posts that provided all the illumination for the ring, which was about 10% as bright as a Monday Night Raw. I wondered how this would impact the wrestlers with their timing and feel in the ring. There was a very small entrance ramp, far different than the WWE Titantron, and there were only about 2000 people there. A small crowd. Truthfully, I couldn’t have been happier. Turns out Beth was on the card that night after all; which was cool except my son was very confused why we were the only 3 people cheering for her. She and Mickie wrestled a solid match that saw James pick up the victory with her DDT (grumble, grumble). Despite the loss I thought it would be the highlight of the night for me, but it turns out I was wrong. Another Diva was about to steal the show.
When I heard the Hart Dynasty’s music, I said to my wife: “Oh God, if they wrestle Cryme Tyme, we’ve seen this match 10,950 times already…boring!” Sure enough, Natalya and the Harts were wrestling JTG and Shad, but then something very unexpected happened. The crowd was HOT for the match. The crowd was REALLY fired up and Cryme Tyme was getting a lot of support. Granted, all four guys are world-class athletes and fine wrestlers, but this match was way over with the crowd for one reason – Natalya. She was unbelievable. She was mesmerizing. I don’t remember much about the actual match itself because I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. Trust me, neither could anybody else. Why? Because she played the heel manager as well as anybody I have ever seen. I grew up with Bobby Heenan and Jimmy Hart, two Hall of Famers, and she was every bit as good. She worked the crowd, she sold the action, she got involved at the right spots, she yelled support to Tyson and David, she became the emotion of the match. Frankly, I was blown away.
“Daddy, I think Natalya is my favorite now because I like her pink hair.” I turned and stared at my kid. What?! But, we’re a Glamafamily? I tried to suppress my concern. Then my wife said, “I’m surprised you don’t like her more… she is a combination of your favorites, Beth and the Harts. Strong, sexy, and wearing pink.” Mutiny on the Bounty! My family was turning against me! I was afraid we would all be struck by lightning from Mount Glamazon on the way home! But I have to admit, I did gain a real appreciation for Natalya that night. I had always liked her because she was The Anvil’s daughter and she was very solid in the ring, but that show in tiny Upper Marlboro forever changed my opinion of her. You could tell she loved what she did. You could tell she understood the wrestling business. And you could tell, from her time spent in Calgary and smaller promotions, that the size of the crowd didn’t matter, the performances were all just as important. She made an impression on my family that night and to this day I thank her for that.
Now let me be clear (as our President would say). Each member of the roster seemed to give a great effort that night. I am not implying the others did anything less than their best. There was just something about Natalya that stood out to me. Talk to someone else and maybe they’ll tell you how much they enjoyed the opening battle royal. Or how R-Truth got every kid to sing and dance (mine included). Or how John Morrison got every female to drool all over themselves (Note to self: wife is no longer invited to WWE shows…). I’d like to say that every match was exciting, but I didn’t see the last two because we were on our way home – again, in fairness to my wife, she was pregnant and very tired. Plus, Morrison was done for the night so she felt like we should “beat the traffic.”
Over the next several months, I started to warm up to the new Hart Dynasty. Initially I wasn’t very enthusiastic about David Hart Smith and Tyson Kidd because of my affection for the original Hart Foundation. I thought they looked cool (except for Tyson’s hair, which I am still not crazy about), and I thought Natalya was a good valet, but they would have to seriously win me over. When Bret came back in January I thought the most important thing he could do was put over the new Dynasty. We knew Bret was finished as a wrestler. If he could help the new Harts become stars his return would be a success. The prominence of the Hit Man’s return helped elevate the Dynasty, and after their beatdown of Vince McMahon at WrestleMania 26, the Harts started to become crowd favorites. They seemed to find a cooler vibe and more self-confidence in the ring. Overall I have been very pleased with their improvement as a team. I love their “Hart Attack 2.0” finisher and right now I think they are deserving champions. I’m also happy for Nattie because although she is not wrestling very often, she is on TV each week as part of a good storyline. I do wonder how long she will be employed primarily as a valet. It seems she and Tamina could wrestle a great program together. Or maybe we will even see a dream team of Beth and Natalya someday.
At this year’s WWE Art Auction I was fortunate enough to meet each member of the Hart Dynasty and they were all very nice (I couldn’t believe how big David Hart Smith was when I was standing next to him. I looked like Hornswoggle.) When I got a chance to speak with Natalya I told her how much her performance that night in Upper Marlboro meant to me. How it impacted my son and how she was now his favorite Diva (he even laughs like Jim Neidhart now, just for her). She seemed genuinely touched and then signed an autograph for him. When I got back home I showed it to him and he was so excited that he ran downstairs and immediately started playing her character on “SmackDown vs. Raw 2010”. His opponent? Gail Kim. (Hey, nobody is beating up Beth in this house…)
One final Nattie story. At a WM 26 Axxess session this past March, the Hart Dynasty wrestled Cryme Tyme for the live audience. Instead of feeling irritated because this was now their 23,000th match against each other, I was excited because I would get to see Natalya again. She didn’t disappoint. She was all over the place and worked the crowd beautifully. Several times throughout the match she even abused poor ring announcer Justin Roberts, who was sitting ringside, to the point that people started feeling sorry for him. After the match was over Justin looked over at me, rolled his eyes, and shrugged. Nothing he could do. I knew exactly what he was thinking: “Natalya is just that damn good.”
— Mr. Glamazon
PS – I’m gearing up for a big column next week. I’m going to need your help though, because we are finally going to rename Gail Kim’s finisher. “Eat Defeat” isn’t working. The final straw? I made a funny joke on Twitter about how my daughter should be renamed “Gail” because all she does is “eat d’feet”. I loved this joke. Apparently Twitter crashed that day because I got zero responses about it. Not one. I got grumpy that my comedic brilliance was lost somewhere in cyber space. So next week we’re going to band together and suggest a better name for her finisher (which I love). Any preliminary ideas?
PPS – Thank you to all the readers who are calling in to “Diva Dirt LIVE”. We have been on the air 3 weeks now and seem to be gaining momentum. I think we are getting ready for even bigger and better shows! But we at DD owe it all to you, the callers. Besos!
PPPS – Follow me on Twitter @dlb19338 – and remember follower #1000 gets a special prize! (Right now we’re on #53. Hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day!)