Holding Court With a King I'm alone with King Kong Bundy.

Just me and 457 pounds of him, in an otherwise empty locker room at Woodbridge High School. In about a half-hour, I'll have to share him with the 500 or so other fans who have also come to see him wrestle. But, for now, Bundy's all mine.

Never, in my entire life, have I been this close to anybody this big. Bundy could have his way with me, and there's nothing I could do to stop him. Hell, he could have his way with all of Woodbridge. But all he asks is that I call him Chris. So I call him Chris. He calls me Brother.

I like him. But I liked King Kong Bundy long before this night. So did every other aficionado of mid-'80s pro wrestling, the golden age of the sport, or whatever you want to call it. All these years later, I'm on a bench, listening to the guy bark out his life's story. I'm fascinated. God has smiled on me....

Some 18 years ago, a really big bartender and part-time community college student from South Jersey named Christopher Pallies took a phone call from a pro wrestling recruiter who, the wrestler swears, had dialed a wrong number. Soon enough, Pallies was trying on tights and ring names—Crippler Canyon, Man Mountain Cannon Jr., Chris Cannon, and Boom Boom Bundy were early rejects. His first real work in the business came with World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW), a promotional group based in Texas, which at that time ruled the Southwest. In the beginning, he was Big Daddy Bundy, an oversized good fella—or, in rasslin' parlance, a "face."

But with the ill-fated Von Erich family—five brothers and father Fritz, the head of WCCW, all but one of whom are now dead—garnering so much face time, Bundy saw no future in goodness.

"Brother, I had to go bad," he says.

And the first step in going bad, or becoming a "heel," was to adopt a more heelish moniker. King Kong Bundy was born. Genes and calories gave him plenty to work with: "He has love handles on his ears," a buddy of mine says of Bundy. Throw in an ominous finishing move, the Avalanche, and this quarter-ton of fun was ready for the big time.

And the big time was ready for Bundy. He moved back east to the much more powerful World Wrestling Federation (WWF). He starred in the early WrestleManias, those annual pay-per-view events that made Vince McMahon's group king of the ring and changed pro wrestling from a regional novelty to an international phenomenon. In the first WrestleMania, held in 1985 at Madison Square Garden before a live audience that included Muhammad Ali, the bad Bundy pinned good guy S.D. "Special Delivery" Jones in 9 seconds, still a record. His cage match with champion Hulk Hogan headlined WrestleMania II. (Hogan won.) And in WrestleMania III, still regarded as the biggest wrestling event of all time, Bundy body-slammed a 4-foot-4, 60-pound, 52-year-old midget wrestling under the name Little Beaver in front of more than 93,000 fans at the Pontiac Silverdome. As color announcer and former tag-team partner Jesse Ventura egged Bundy on with screams of "Smash him, Bundy! Smash him!" the King then gave the dazed little man a mammoth elbow drop. Little Beaver never wrestled again, claiming a bad back injury. He probably wasn't faking. Bundy picked on people his own size, too: He once KO'd Andre the Giant and shaved his fallen opponent's head in the ring. Now that's wrestling.

Bundy quickly got his own action figure. He had a sitcom family named in his honor: The Bundys of Married With Children fame got their handles because series creators Ron Leavitt and Michael G. Moye were huge King Kong Bundy fans. (The Bundys' next-door neighbors, the Rhoads, were a tribute to Dusty "American Dream" Rhodes; Al's night-owl shoe-selling partner, Luke Ventura, was named after, well, figure it out....)

But Bundy's glory days, like the sitcom's, passed a long, long time ago. He began what was supposed to be just a one-year sabbatical around 1990, when pro wrestling was slumping. He did some acting, including a few cameos on Married.... Then the real world, in the form of a nasty divorce and other, unspecified "personal" problems, kept him from jumping back into the ring. While Bundy was away, wrestling enjoyed another boom in popularity. Shows produced by the WWF and its Ted Turner-inspired rival, World Championship Wrestling (WCW), now dominate the cable ratings week after week. Once again, there's a lot of money to be had.

And once again, Bundy's got the leotard on. Now 41, he'll book about 150 matches this year. He still possesses all the name recognition, interview skills, and physical presence—he weighs the same, and he didn't have a step to lose—he had during his WrestleMania heyday. But, for whatever reason, Bundy hasn't been invited back to the bigs. There are no TV or pay-per-view appearances anymore. The football stadiums and downtown arenas he toiled in with the WWF have given way to crummy old armories and dusty fairgrounds and other low-rent venues that host so-called independent wrestling shows. In Baltimore, that means the Dundalk Teamsters Hall for cards put on about once a month by Maryland Championship Wrestling. In the D.C. area, he works with the Independent Professional Wrestling Alliance (IPWA), an Alexandria-based indy that produces about four shows a year, including tonight's Woodbridge gig. According to the wrestlers, IPWA has a reputation for paying its bills on time. Among the indies, that's big. Bundy doesn't fear getting hurt; he does worry about getting stiffed.

Bundy, essentially, is a hall-of-famer playing on the sandlots.

His new wife travels with him and handles merchandising, which includes autographed Polaroids for $5 and reissues of old Bundy action figures—regular or blood-splattered—for $10. Sales in Woodbridge are brisk. These people remember.

"It's a job to me. And I need a job," he says. "That's why I'm still in wrestling. Not 'cause I love it."

Nobody else in IPWA's employ has his own action figure, but there's no jealousy bubbling up from the undercard. Quite the contrary. Murray Happer, a 26-year-old North Carolina native who played football and studied theology at Georgetown (Class of 1995), also wrestles the mid-Atlantic indy circuit. In the ring, he's Otto "the German Beef" Schwanz, whose hilarious shtick includes anti-American rants and constant boasts about the size of his penis. Schwanz's paydays hit as low as $10, so it makes sense that he aches for the WWF and WCW even more than Bundy does these days. So when their paths cross, the young wannabe studies the old pro.

"The guy's a legend, and he deserves to be," says Happer, with a thick Southern drawl and no hint of Teutonic leanings. "Physically, there's really nothing about wrestling I need to learn from him. But this is all about creating a character, and for the psychological part, he's amazing. Bundy still knows how to get a crowd going against him and to keep it against him. And, in the back, he's a really nice guy to everybody."

Of course, I don't need Happer to tell me how Bundy acts "in the back." (In Rasslerspeak, that means "in the locker room.") I'm seeing it all for myself. Alas, my one-on-one with the big fella ends when Tom Brandi, a face who will soon tangle with Bundy for the IPWA title in the headline bout of the Woodbridge card, stops by his locker. Brandi asks Bundy if he can have a reissued action figure. Bundy, touched and maybe even a tad embarrassed by the request, gives him a doll. A blood-splattered version. No charge.

"You take care of that, now," Bundy growls. "That's a limited-edition doll. Limited to how many I can sell."

Bundy laughs at his own joke and looks at me. Of course I'm laughing along. Not just 'cause I have to, either.—Dave McKenna

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