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A Glimpse Into The Golden Age Of Wrestling In North Texas

Cirrus Bonneau
Ushers leading Kevin Von Erich to the ring through a crowd of exuberant fans.

In the 1980s, North Texas was a professional wrestling hot spot. World Class Championship Wrestling was televised to fans across the globe from Dallas-Fort Worth.A new exhibit at UT Arlington shows off the group’s outrageous outfits, the high drama, and the loud crowds that gathered to take it all in. 

Interplay between crowd and wrestlers  

The Arlington library has been transformed into a wrestling showcase, featuring 34 black-and-white photos taken in the 1980s by Cirrus Bonneau. He’s a photographer who wasn’t really interested in wrestling, but he lived near the Will Rogers Coliseum in Fort Worth.

A friend convinced him to go.

"And when he was taking photos, because he wasn't really interested in pro-wrestling, he became interested in the interplay between the crowd and the wrestlers," said Oliver Bateman, a professor at UT Arlington and curator of the exhibit "Ringside: Memories of World Class Championship Wrestling." "When he took all the photos in this exhibit, he tried to take them so that you could see both what the wrestlers are doing in the ring and what the crowd was doing."

A popular TV show featured WCCW wrestlers weekly in the 1980s.

Video: Watch World Class Championship Wresting

The Von Erichs: Wrestling superstars

Photos from the Arlington exhibit show grandmas screaming at wrestlers, kids cheering for their favorites, and one competitor wearing a cowboy hat and a whip. This mix of crowd interaction and show biz helped build the championship wrestling organization based in Dallas-Fort Worth.

"For people in the Metroplex, World Class Championship Wrestling was synonymous with the Von Erich family," Bateman said. "They produced three of the brightest stars in 1980s wrestling: Kerry Von Erich, who was an extremely muscular wrestler in the mold of the ultimate warrior. David Von Erich was 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7 and touted as a future world champion. And Kevin Von Erich was very muscular. [He] had played football at North Texas and was known for wrestling barefoot."

The Von Erichs owned World Class Championship Wrestling. Photos of the family fill the Arlington exhibit. But it wasn’t just the Von Erichs that made the group popular with the fans.

Wrestling: Good vs. bad; screams and kisses

Cowboy Johnny Mantell dropped by to check out the exhibit. 

"My name is John Lusk; my real name is John Lusk," he said. "But I wrestled for many years as Johnny Mantell."

Professor Oliver Bateman and John Lusk in front of the exhibit entrance at UT Arlington.

He duked it out in the World Class Championship ring for years. Over time, he’s gotten used to people asking if wrestling is real.

"Well, let me see -- 10 knee surgeries, they've rebuilt my shoulder, my ankle," Mantell said. "Concussions? I can't even tell you how many concussions I've had."

The rings back then were more personal, Mantell says. They didn’t have any rails or staff members to keep back the fans, he said. It was a more intimate level of audience interaction that some say is missing from today’s wrestling.

"Wrestling was a sport, good versus bad; it was a great release for people," Mantell said. "They would come and they could yell and scream and scream at the ones they hated and blow kisses to the ones they loved."

Video: Explore the photos from the exhibit

World Class Championship Wrestling’s glory days are long gone. The Sportatorium in Dallas where many of the matches were held was demolished in 2003. The organization’s video rights were sold off in 2006.

But the heroes, the villains, and the drama are in Arlington, preserved in pictures.

The wrestling exhibit is on display at UT-Arlington until Jan. 16.Bateman and several wrestlers from the era plan on holding a get-together at the library in November.  

Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.