Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Mufi remembers 50th State Wrestling

As I was flying from Maui to Honolulu recently, I picked up on a great tip from my bud Lester Kodama. A manager in Star-Advertiser’s circulation department, Lester and I were attending the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association general membership meeting at Wailea Marriott, and during a break he mentioned there was a “can’t miss” article about Ed Francis in the Hawaiian Airlines in-flight magazine spotlighting 50th State Wrestling.

For anyone who has followed wrestling in Hawaii, Francis is a household name. As a wrestler and promoter, he presided over a sport — some say entertainment — scene that drew thousands of fans every week, first to Civic Auditorium on King Street and then to HIC, which eventually became Neal Blaisdell Center.  The added bonus was the televised wrestling special broadcasts “live” from a studio on a Saturday afternoon that was staged to promote and hype the upcoming weekly matches. It had a huge and devoted following and enjoyed quite a run.

As a rabid grappling fan growing up in Kalihi, I wasted no time when I settled into my seat to immediately peruse photos, reading about Francis and reminiscing about the good ol’ days brought back a lot of memories. I wasn’t into wrestling as much as I was into the locker-room interviews that Francis and Lord “Tallyho” Blears would host. I enjoyed the dialogue and theatrics that ensued. They were comical and entertaining — seeing King Ripper Collins, with his valet Beauregard in tow, proclaim himself the monarch of the islands (he pronounced Kauai “Kwa”) while lecturing us (his subjects) to get off our couches cus "your kind is talking to you.” Pampero Firpo, the Wild Bull of the Pampas aka The Missing Link, had everyone imitating his inimitable “Oohhh yeaahhh.”

Handsome Johnny Barend was a hoot masquerading as Batman with the theme song playing in the background and a cigar in his mouth, and whose standard response when Francis would ask how he was feeling, would reply: “Just wonderful, Mr. Francis, just wonderful. I love those wonderful Filipinos and they just love me.”

Then there was my favorite, Curtis "Da Bull" Iaukea, who would unabashedly talk about how proud he was of being Hawaiian and his Papakolea roots. Who could forget his classic pose in front of the television cameras sitting on a bench with his back to the audience and wearing his trademark dark glasses? And when Lord Blears would approach and query, “How are you feeling today, Bull?” he would shout out, “You know, Lord, I’m feeling so good today and the sun is shining over Diamond Head."

No one was a better storyteller than Iaukea. He had me riveted to the screen every time he appeared. For instance, he would brag about being a big tipper at local dining places, and how nice he was to his upcoming opponent Chief Billy White Wolf when he first moved to the Islands. Now they were slated to do battle “at the Civic on Wednesday night with the Hawaiian championship belt at stake.”

He recalled an incident after he treated the Chief to dinner at Matteo's.  Specifically, as they were leaving the restaurant, after Da Bull had laid "a few hundred dollars on the table,” which he “customarily does,” Chief Billy White Wolf said he needed to “go back into Matteo’s to use the restroom.” Instead, he witnessed Chief go back in to “steal the money off the table.” Then, without missing a beat, he removed his dark glasses and stared into the camera and asked the statewide viewing audience, “Is this the kind of man you want representing Hawaii as its champion?”

I never forgot it was Iaukea who introduced me to the words “magna cum laude.” In this particular segment, he was boasting about the fact that he “graduated magna cum laude from Punahou and Blears and UC-Berkeley."  He turned to Blears and asked, “Lord, do you know what magna cum laude means?” Naturally, he doesn’t give Blears any time to respond, as he blurted out the answer, “With high honors, Lord.”

Imagine the reaction of my sixth-grade teacher Ms. Thelma Takemoto when I said to her at Fern School on Monday morning that my goal was to graduate from school and college magna cum laude. She gave me this quizzical look yet commended me, but had to ask, “Who taught you those words, Muliufi?"

To her astonishment, I beamed and smiled, "Curtis Da Bull Iaukea."

I last met up with Da Bull after he had long retired and I was working for Gov. George Ariyoshi as an administrative assistant. I was given the choice assignment to help him with his beach concession permit. I took the opportunity to unveil my impersonation of his fabled locker room interviews, which made him chuckle and marvel that I remembered so many of his lines.

Members of my family were some of the biggest fans of wrestling. My grandfather, Paramount Chief Pinemua Soliai, religiously followed those wrestlers of Samoan ancestry: Al Lolotai, Neff Maiava and Gil Ane. He would be driven in all the way from Laie to go to the Civic, and if he was staying with us in Kalihi, well, you knew what some in my family would be doing Wednesday night.

One of the hilarious memories of our clan occurred after a match that Lolotai lost. No one had noticed that my grandpa had left his seat. So here we are looking for him, and lo and behold, we see that he had found his way ringside and was scolding Lolotai for being on the losing end.

Grandpa rejected the notion that wins and losses are predetermined in the world of professional wrestling, so there was no sense of even trying to convince him otherwise.

Mahalo, Gentleman Ed Francis, Lord Blears and the scores of wrestlers for the legacy and indelible imprint they have left behind.

-- Mufi Hannemann, Midweek, October 28, 2015

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