During the most recent episode of Monday Night RAW (recap here), ringside color commentator "JBL" slipped in his quick condolences over the loss of Douglas "Ox" Baker, 80, who passed away earlier this week from heart-related issues.
After which my kid asked, "Who?"
I'm sure a lot of folks were asking that same question, which is to be expected when referring to a performer who was popular before most of today's pro wrestling fans were even born. But when you talk about the glory days on the regional circuit, you would be hard-pressed to find a more frightening heel.
Baker, who worked alongside some of the all-time greats like Gorilla Monsoon, Carlos Colon, and "Superstar" Billy Graham, had a terrifying disposition, and wasn't built like bodybuilder, or some idealized version of what Vince McMahon Jr. thought a wrassler should be.
With his long, scraggly beard and "Ming the Merciless" eyebrows, the towering bruiser could have very easily passed for Great Grandpa Wyatt.
I had a chance to meet the big galoot in summer of 2013, when I was invited to cover a Fitness and Martial Arts Expo on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I had no idea that Baker would be in attendance, alongside fellow elder statesman, Tony Atlas.
As "special guests," they had their tables set up with stacks of 8x10 photos to sign for any and all interested parties. Unfortunately, there weren't any. And most of the people who did show up were auditioning for a non-UFC mixed martial arts (MMA) reality show that was a cross between The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) and Survivor, complete with remote, tropical island.
Not surprisingly, that project never got off the ground.
Nevertheless, I spent the day dutifully marching up-and-down the boardwalk, armed with my press pass and actively searching for something to write about, since losing $50 at the blackjack table and getting sick from the casino buffet was hardly a front page story. When I got to Baker's table, I instantly recognized him.
Then drew a complete blank.
We've all done that from time-to-time. You know who they are but shit, what was their name again? And it was too late, because I had already committed, and now had eye contact.
Holland: "Hi ... uh ..."
Holland: "Uh ... sorry, uh..."
Then he stood up and came around the table. I figured he was going to shake hands and introduce himself, so I smiled and extended my arm. He grabbed it, then used his other hand to choke me. Like a real, legitimate vice-grip-around-the-neck-strangulation type of choke.
As I stood there, frozen and gurgling, he screamed at me.
"I WAS IN 'ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK,' DAMMIT!"
He was, but that was irrelevant at the time, since I was being strangled to death amid the smell of funnel cake and pigeon poop. Then out of nowhere, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa swooped in to break it up. He was wearing a dark, charcoal-grey gi and looked like a total badass.
Think Dark Ryu, with a shaved head.
So as he pried me loose from this rampaging madman, all I could think was, Holy shit it's Shang Tsung! He calmed Baker down and guided me away from the table. I started walking away, pretty shaken up, and I came face-to-face with Tony Atlas.
And that guy is fucking huge.
Atlas looked at me and started shaking his head in disappointment. "I told you not to say anything," he muttered. I nearly lost my shit and fired right back: "What the fuck are you talking about? I didn't even say anything to him, let alone you!" He just stood there, unfazed, then walked away, still shaking his head.
"You should have just let it go," were his parting words.
By now, I was as much confused as I was enraged. Was I in crazy town? What the hell was happening? Shang Tsung came back over to me and put his arm around me. "You okay?" So I started dumping on him about how I'm just a dumb reporter trying to get a story for my website and now I'm being choked to death and Tony Atlas is mad at me and wah, wah, wah.
Tagawa smiled and told me everything would be okay, and that I just needed to breathe.
"Breeeathe," he said.
He then pointed out that my shoelace was untied on my right side, likely from my brief scuffle, and offered to tie it. So I figured shit, why not? I could at least go home and brag about that. Hey guys, Shang Tsung tied my shoes! Afterward, he suggested I leave before the expo was over, just to be safe.
Okay, now I was starting to worry.
In the early 70s, Baker was tied to a pair of untimely deaths on the local wrestling circuit after his opponents succumbed to his finishing move, the dreaded "heart punch." He wasn't responsible, of course, but even then they turned a shoot into a work, if the return was good enough.
Or maybe that was a cover story? I wasn't about to offer up my ticker to find out.
Especially if those guys were going to be waiting for me in the parking garage. I'm a pretty big fella myself and I have a background in martial arts, but A) I'm not Superman and can't fight off a group of people, even if they are senior citizens, and B) do I need to get arrested for brawling on assignment?
I was pacing up and down the boardwalk, trying to figure out what to do.
That's when I ran into the event organizer, and she asked me how the day was going. "Uh ... some of the guys have been ... confrontational," I whimpered. She looked surprised. "That's weird," she replied. "I told them you were coming." That left me even more confused.
Then I thought, Shit ... had I unknowingly written something negative about them in a past column?
I wasn't sticking around for the answer.
After scampering away to the parking garage, I fired up the Holland-mobile and got the heck out of Dodge. And when I got to the first stoplight right outside the casino, there was Baker and Atlas crossing the street, right in front of me, with their bags full of unsigned memorabilia.
I just stared at them, the same way Butch Coolidge stared at Marsellus Wallace prior to running him over.
Lo and behold, there it was, ironed onto the back of his white T-shirt in big, black letters: OX. Just as I finally remembered his name, the one-and-only Ox Baker turned around and looked directly at me, and without breaking stride, flashed me a half-grin and winked. That's when it hit me like a ton of "Garden State" bricks.
I'd been had.
I just sat there and shook my head, repeating to myself over and over: That son of a bitch got me.
They worked me, and they worked me stiff like a couple of old-school pros. It was actually kind of flattering, though I don't think I stopped shaking my head the entire drive home. When I eventually got there, I couldn't get my right shoe untied, and just stared at it like a complex math problem.
Turns out Shang Tsung had pulled off a time-release rib, intentionally looping it up in some sort of secret kung-fu knot that forced me to cut the laces.