Dr. Mike tells the truth behind the fakery that is pro-wrestling.
From Gorgeous George in the ’40s to the seemingly ageless Hulk Hogan of today, the characters inhabiting the world of pro wrestling have always had to be larger than life to attract an audience. Alameda dentist Mike Lano, who has spent 40 years documenting this parade, now writes about wrestling and introduces and arranges the grappler interviews on the nationally syndicated Opie and Anthony radio show heard locally on 106.9 Free FM. His latest gig is as the backstage interviewer on MTV’s new show Wrestling Society X. I put word out through my handlers that I wanted to engage in a little smackdown with Lano on the current state of wrestling, and, after putting the screws to him, he agreed to meet one-on-one over the phone.
Paul Kilduff: This intense interest in pro wrestling—where does it come from?
Mike Lano: My uncles were both pro wrestlers. They were big wrestlers. No one [will] have heard of them, but they wrestled for Vince McMahon, Sr. in the ’50s and ’60s. And they were huge in that era. I did have sort of a showbiz background. I had a problem with my parents, and actor Richard Dawson from Hogan’s Heroes and Family Feud basically took me in. I was best friends with his kids in grade school.
PK: So, what—you got kicked out of the house?
ML: It was a bad situation. My mom was divorced. I have MS. I’m in remission, but my mom had it [too; she] was taking an awful lot of pain meds and making a lot of bad decisions with boyfriends. One of them was abusing my brother and [me], so Richard . . . and another guy that he was on with at Laugh In, Dennis Allen, came and basically got me out of the house. I was living at the Dawson house and we were going to boxing and wrestling at the Olympic Auditorium in LA in the mid-’60s. I had been shooting [pictures of] other stuff, music concerts, and they needed a photographer. I was just a snot-nosed little punk kid. I just started shooting ringside and behind the scenes.
PK: But at the same time, you’re a dentist.
ML: Wrestling photojournalism put me through dental school.
PK: Right, so you’re a health professional. Wrestling doesn’t seem so healthy. Does that ever come up?
ML: It’s an avocation or a hobby. I get a lot of free vacations out of it and with the MS I basically started dropping fine dental instruments like endodontic tools, so I stopped after 18 years. At the time I was treating quite a few wrestlers and boxers. I made mouth guards for world champion boxers like Alexis Arguello, Aaron Pryor [and] Wilfred Benitez because they already knew me so I was able to blend the two. At another point I lectured various wrestlers in the locker room about the dangers of steroids—they don’t listen, of course.
PK: But are you ever criticized by your fellow dental professionals for having an interest in wrestling? It just seems like that would be looked down upon in those circles.
ML: They kind of get a kick out of it. As tough as pro wrestlers are, they’re complete little babies and lot of them are afraid—boxers, too—of going to the dentist. So I never had anybody criticize me—at least that I was aware of. You would have thought I would probably have gotten somebody along the way saying, “Well, do one thing or the other,” or, “Maybe this is a little bit odd for a dentist to be involved with pro wrestling, or boxing or these brutal, barbaric sports.” Oddly, I never did.
PK: Is it a conflict of interest?
ML: I’m giving them health advice, telling them, “These meds are deadly and a great majority of you in this room are going to die before the age 40, and it’s an unnecessary career choice.”
PK: When you say “meds,” you’re talking about steroids?
ML: I’m talking steroids. It’s the British bulldog daily regimen. All of these pills to wake up. To get up physically. To go to sleep. For pain. One of them, Louie Spicolli, was found dead after ingesting 157 somas with alcohol just so he could get rest. His body was killing him from the pain of taking these bumps. Pro wrestling, even though there’s obviously a scripted finish and it’s all choreographed, these guys suffer tremendous pain. They’ve been paralyzed doing this stuff. Like a rock star named Droz who was a wrestler for about a year with WWE. A move screwed up and he broke his neck. He’s a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic.
PK: I’m sure you remember the incident involving ABC News’ John “Give me a break” Stossel in the ’80s where he asked a pro wrestler about the fact that the matches were rehearsed and the guy belted him. What was that all about?
ML: Dr. Dave Schultz is the guy that, wham! hit ’im in the ear. He actually thought it was going to score him points with Vince McMahon, Jr. because wrestling was still “kayfabe,” meaning you would never let outsiders know that it was completely worked.
ML: Kayfabe. That’s the wrestling term dating back to the late 1880s. It’s a carny term. When non-wrestling people come by you say “kayfabe” and that means clam up. So he thought by hitting Stossel in the ear—and sadly, he hurt the guy’s hearing—he’d score points because Stossel had said something to the effect of, “Oh, come on, Dave. What do you say to people who say wrestling is fake?” And so I think he said, “Oh, is this fake?” and hit him, which was really stupid. Of course, it was a huge negative PR backlash because Vince had just gotten Sports Illustrated to put [Hulk] Hogan on the front cover. This was when good ol’ Cindy Lauper’s rockin’ wrestling was taking off in early ’84 and so Vince had to fire Schultz so he wouldn’t get his ass sued off by ABC, etc.
PK: Of course, Stossel did sue and did win a lot of money, but now he’s a conservative and says he shouldn’t have sued or won. He’s come full circle. Give me a break.
ML: He should have sued just like [Richard] Belzer with Hogan did, if you remember that incident?
PK: No, I don’t remember that one.
ML: Belzer had a show and he had Hogan on right after Wrestlemania One in the summer of ’84. He asked Hogan to put him in a headlock and then Hogan did but Belzer passed out, fell and got a concussion and he sued for big money and got it. A big settlement.
PK: What about Andy Kaufman and his whole wrestling thing. Will we ever see anything that bizarre again?
ML: I thought, wouldn’t it be kind of cool to have an Andy Kaufman wrestling action figure . . . so I contacted the world’s largest maker of these things, Jack’s Pacific in Malibu and I suggested an Andy Kaufman wrestling action figure maybe with Jerry Lawler to recreate that little thing on the Letterman show. And they thought it was a great idea so I contacted Zmuda [Kaufman’s comedy cohort] and they’re going to make an Andy Kaufman wrestling action figure. So in the course of that I asked him, “Don’t you think Sasha Baron Cohen doing Borat is basically an homage to Kaufman? He’s staying in character, he’s doing foreign man.”
PK: Well, Cohen’s actually speaking Yiddish. Kaufman’s foreign man character really was spouting gibberish. So you’re saying that Borat is derivative of Andy Kaufman’s foreign man?
ML: I think so.
PK: And wrestling with his naked obese cameraman sidekick in the hotel room? Is that doing a service or disservice to the image of wrestling?
ML: Well, it’s a disservice to wrestling but it’s a service to make people think about Andy Kaufman. What has it been, almost 25 years since Andy died?
PK: Playing with the whole gay theme seems like a recurring one for Cohen—he did the same thing in The Legend of Ricky Bobby with Will Ferrell. But I think people can draw the distinction between Borat face-to-face with the fat guy’s asshole and balls versus what goes on in professional wrestling. Even as a kid I knew that pro wrestling was fake, but I didn’t care. Do you think the average adult fan cares about that now? I mean does anybody still believe that this isn’t all choreographed?
ML: I think they do now. The reason for that was McMahon came out publicly, I think it was ’91, ’92, and he had literally everybody there. It was a huge press conference and the reason for it was so that he could get rid of the commission. He didn’t want to pay commission fees. He didn’t want to have to pay a ring doctor so he said, “This is a complete work. It’s nothing more than Barnum and Bailey Circus. We don’t have to have doctors at ringside.” And that’s what he got, but in the advent he began calling it “sports entertainment.” He came right out and exposed it to the general public. It was in all the papers. There aren’t riots as there were in my day when it looked more real. Everybody knew it was a work, but the guys like Ray Stevens here locally or Pat Patterson or whomever, they made it look so real . . . then there were people that believed. There would be riots. Riots were common at the Cow Palace or at the Chicago Amphitheater. In ’74 at the Amphitheater a guy had a gun and tried to shoot the bad guy and he ended up hitting people at ringside. And that was the stuff Andy Kaufman loved—the people that still believe it’s real. There are only two places left in the world, Memphis and Puerto Rico, where they have people that still believe it’s real because they have localized promotions. There’ll be an occasional riot. Andy Kaufman caused several riots with Jerry Lawler there [in Memphis]. He was insulting people. Really insulting ’em.
PK: He did a lot of redneck baiting, didn’t he?
PK: He was such an anti-hero, unathletic nerd. Are we going to ever see that again in wrestling?
ML: Well, we have, sadly, and it’s what killed Ted Turner’s wrestling group. Ted Turner had a wrestling group and for two years they were outdrawing Vince’s WWE—World Championship Wrestling out of Atlanta. They had a better product and outbid WWE on talent and brought everybody from Hulk Hogan and all his posse, but they took David Arquette and made him world champion. Courtney Cox’s husband. And it ended up killing the promotion because they didn’t do it right, the way Kaufman did. So Vince picked it up for pennies on the dollar and now has all the rights of all their great footage. Vince bought his competition out.
PK: Why did David Arquette as the king of all wrestling not work?
ML: Well, nobody took it seriously. It was done to be ridiculous. It was laughed at. Here he is going over legitimate athletes and at the time Arquette was just this skinny, nerdy little grade-C actor, which is kind of where he is today. His wife is a superstar.
PK: Mr. Courtney Cox—isn’t that his profession?
ML: Yeah, sort of like the Federline of the upper-tier acting world.
PK: What’s up with McMahon v. Donald Trump?
ML: Well it’s because they need some star power. Hulk Hogan is on the outs with Vince so he’s not going to recreate this 20-year history of Wrestlemania III drawing that record crowd in Michigan. So there’s no Hulk Hogan. The two main events are kind of lackluster, so now the thing that has to draw because of its newsworthiness is Trump against McMahon. They’re not wrestling, though. They’re managing guys. Whoever loses gets their heads shaven. Obviously Trump is not having his head shaved so it’s going to be Vince doing the ultimate sacrifice. And they’re trying to get an old enemy of Vince, Ted Turner, to be the guest referee. So Trump, McMahon and Ted Turner all together. The trades have talked about how low the ratings were. Vince and Donald Trump in the ring talking trash with each other. (Editor’s note: This event will take place April 1.)
PK: Sounds like you’re a traditionalist when it comes to wrestling, right?
ML: I’d have to be, because in my day it looked far more real and was much more exciting and wasn’t boring the way it is now. Wrestling Society X on MTV is kind of exciting. It’s geared towards a different demo—the pierced 18-to-24-year-old set, that’s who they’re trying to appeal to on MTV and it’s guys doing insane stunts like “loser gets thrown into a tank of hungry piranhas.”
PK: So it’s kind of like Jackass, then?
ML: It’s a little bit like Jackass. In fact, MTV is debating whether to air episode four because of the graphic nature. They put up a disclaimer, but one wrestler throws a fireball in the face of another wrestler and MTV got a little bit nervous even though WWE and its nearest competitor on a national level on Spike, they’ve aired similar stunts recently where guys have set other wrestlers on fire.
PK: What do you think of Hulk Hogan’s reality show? Does it make you want to go platinum blond?
ML: The show has done well. The only problem is he’s letting himself go and every week you see him with a ton of Miller Lites in his hand. And basically the show is a vehicle for him to live through his daughter.
PK: It seems like the Mixed Martial Arts craze has taken pro wrestling’s audience.
ML: I’ve been following MMA since 1970. For me it’s just the same stuff. There’s a lot of crossover but pro wrestling’s popularity is cyclical. And we’ve been in kind of a down cycle for a while and the product, at least WWE’s product, is boring. People are gravitating again towards real stuff. There’s MMA all over TV.
PK: Finally, Mike, was the female wrestler Chyna really tight with Anna Nicole Smith? Can you clear that up for us, once and for all?
ML: They weren’t friends. [Chyna] just happened to be invited to one of her Christmas parties that aired on the Anna Nicole variety show and they were all messed up with Andy Dick and all of the usual suspects.
PK: Andy Dick?
ML: Yeah, a real mess. And then they were cast in a really low-grade movie together and honestly, I’m in contact with her publicist in Napa. I don’t know. [Chyna] sort of casually knew [Anna Nicole] but apparently at the end it’s alleged that Anna Nicole didn’t want any part of her and just sort of thought she was a hanger-on/stalker.
PK: Do you think Anna Nicole would’ve made a good pro wrestler?
ML: She actually did something. She was a valet at a Wrestlemania where she came down with the bad guy and Pamela Anderson walked down the aisle with the good guy. That was about the extent of it, though.
PK: Had she been a wrestler, would she have represented good or evil?
ML: I think she was, in my opinion, so brain-dead I don’t think she could have been an acceptable pro wrestler at all. There are basics you have to grasp and she was just sort of like the sloth of the entertainment business so I don’t think she could’ve picked those up.