“It’s Tough at the Top”
By Keith Elliot Greenberg
The matches were long over. An hour earlier, the fans, still charged up from a night at the arena, had all piled into their cars and—excitedly recounting the action in the ring—disappeared down the highway.
Now the ring crew was dismantling the gladiator pit in the empty 20,000-seat building. The clanging of steel echoed up towards the domed ceiling as the workers let a ring post fall to the ground. The food and souvenir stands were dark and gated; the concessionaires drained from an exceptionally busy event, were virtually all home in bed.
Only a skeletal security staff remained. After searching the building and ensuring that the outside doors were locked, the guard wandered into the dressing room. He hoped it would be vacant but he was never sure. Once, some fans had hidden in a shower in hopes of surprising the next day’s headliners when they arrived at the building. Another time a wrestler—angry at what he perceived as a fast count by a referee—had positioned himself beneath some equipment and confronted the startled official as he exited. “It’s been a long night” the guard said to himself. “I hope the coast is clear.”
Slowly, he started down the corridor, peeking into each office and changing room. When he reached the end of the hall, he stuck his head into a shower and started to turn off the light. What he saw startled him. Still clad in his ring trunks, the Texas Tornado, sweating, rippling and breathing slowly sat on a small bench, the WWF intercontinental belt draped over his lap.
“Sorry to scare you sir,” the titlist said in his Texas drawl. “I’ll be out of your way in a minute. This is just the first chance I’ve had to be alone and relax since Summer Slam.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. The Tornado had come to the World Wrestling Federation with high hopes and realized them most immediately. With only a handful of matches behind him, he won the Intercontinental Championship from Mr. Perfect at Summer Slam and was quickly trust into wrestling’s spotlight. Every day, there was another city—another plane ride, another strange gym, another horde of reporters to ask if the pressure had gotten to him yet. And then, instead of being able to rest, the pressure on him increased. He would thrown into the squared circle, the arena rocking, the lights glaring, another muscular opponent gritting his teeth across from him, ready to stoop to any depth to pinch the coveted belt.
Recalls the guard, “I could see the Tornado deep in thought so I excused myself and said I’d make my rounds, then come back in a little while. But he stood up, apologized for being in the way and told me that he just needed the time to collect himself. Then he thanked me for doing my job so efficiently and said he wanted to do his job just as well. “I hope I never let any of the people down’ were his exact words. “I hope they never cheer me in vain.”
Tito Santana, a former Intercontinental Champion, knows exactly what Tornado is feeling. “We’ve discussed it a little bit, and I was truthful to him,” Santana recalls.
“I said, ‘Stay tough, brother, cause it ain’t getting any easier.’ All your career, you follow a dream, and when you reach it, then the heat is really on. You have to do anything you can to hold onto your belt, while the challengers—and, pretty often, their managers—are throwing everything they have into not just beating you, but crushing you. You never realize how many enemies you have until you walk to the ring with that strap around your waist. Then everybody wants a piece of you.”
Even the Honky Tonk Man, who sits on the opposite side of the attitude spectrum from men like Santana, empathizes with what the Texan is experiencing. “Hey, baby, you don’t go into professional wrestling to be a nice person,” says the man who has the longest—reigning Intercontinental Champion in the WWF history.
“You get involved for the glory, brother, the star-studded fame. Oh, and when you have that fame, people don’t like you anymore. You’ve got something they want, and they hate you for it. It ain’t easy going day to day, when just about everyone else wants to drive you into the ground. The secret is to break the rules first—get them before they get you.”
The Tornado is not ready to follow the Honky Tonk Man’s advice. “Everyone has his own reasons for competing in the ring,” he says. “You may call me old-fashioned, but my reasons have a lot to do with honor. When you wear the belt, as far as I’m concerned, you become a symbol of the people’s wishes. When they buy their tickets and stand on their seats and cheer for you, they’re putting a little bit of themselves into you. That’s an awful a lot of responsibility to bear, but that’s why I trained so hard in the first place. You see, wen you give the people what they want—when they’ve cheered for you during the ups and downs of your match, and you stand in the middle of the ring with your hand raised for them—there’s no better feeling in the world. That’s the absolute truth.”
Of course, that means that the Tornado also goes to the ring worried that he won’t be able to realize his supporter’s dreams. But, as time passes, he has translated his worry into steel-like determination—a technique he learned from his friend, World Wrestling Federation Champion Ultimate Warrior.
“I was lucky enough to team with the Warrior and I’m a richer man for the experience,” the Tornado claims. “Here’s a fellow who performed the ultimate goal of winning the WWF Championship from the Immortal Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania VI. After the match, Hogan gave the Warrior his blessing to carry on the good fight for all the good people out there. Warrior and I have spent a lot of time together, talking about just what a fight is all about. From those conversations and watching the Warrior triumph for his values again and again in the ring, I feel I’m better equipped to handle the challenges a WWF Intercontinental Champion must face.
But Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, manager of the former titlist and top contender, Mr. Perfect, believes that the Tornado’s positive thinking rhetoric is simply a device to mask his terror over the possibility of being dethroned.
“Even the stupidest humanoid in the nose bleed section at any arena knows that the Texas Tornado’s win was the fluke of the century. Mr. Perfect outclasses the Tornado as a person, and he runs circles around him as a wrestler. It doesn’t matter how many pep talks that dumb Texan gets from the Ultimate Warrior or anybody else. Mr. Perfect is absolutely, positively perfect, and by the time Survivor Series takes place, it’s very possible he will have scored the perfect victory over that bonehead.”
Mr. Perfect’s hot breath is a constant presence on the Intercontinental Champion’s neck, but the Texas Tornado is not about to be intimidated. “I know what Bobby Heenan and Mr. Perfect are saying—that I got too much too soon,” the Tornado says. “Well, I’ve had this belt for a couple of months now, and I don’t think you can call it a fluke anymore. Yeah it’s tough at the top. It’s a strain, and the battle never seems to end. But I have the Intercontinental Championship in my possession, and the fans are behind me 100 percent. And so that makes the battle a little less treacherous. In fact, I’m actually starting to like it."