Apter’s mat memoir funny, poignant; Remembering the great Nick Bockwinkel
– Mike Mooneyham
Leave it to Bill Apter to come up with a title like “Is Wrestling Fixed: I Didn’t Know It Was Broken!”
For nearly 50 years Apter has been at the forefront of pro wrestling journalism. As well known and influential as many of the top stars he has covered over that half century, Apter has solidified his spot among wrestling’s hierarchy.
Personable and sometimes even zany, which might explain his affinity for comedy legend Jerry Lewis, the man affectionately known as “Wonderful Willie” has long been a favorite of the wrestling crowd.
Although he will readily tell you that he was just one of a number of staffers at the Stanley Weston-run wrestling publications that he is synonymous with, there’s no denying that Apter was the face of what would become known as the “Apter Mags.”
Before newsletters, dirt sheets and the Internet, magazines drove the wrestling business, and anyone who was anyone in the industry craved the coverage and notoriety that those monthly publications could deliver. A highly sought-after magazine cover translated into ticket sales for stars who were lucky enough to be showcased. And Bill Apter was the connection.
Apter, a native of New York who now lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia, came up with the catchy title for his memoir from a simple question posed by a youth following a match between Mr. Wrestling No. 2 and Abdullah The Butcher in Georgia back in the 1970s.
“Mister, is that fixed? the inquisitive lad asked Apter, who had been taking photos of the matches that evening. “I didn’t know it was broken,” replied the quick-witted journalist.
“Well, you can’t fix something that’s not broken,” the boy’s father responded.
Forty years later, it would become the title of Apter’s book, published by ECW Press.
Poignant and funny, “Is Wrestling Fixed?” is chock-full of entertaining tales about the venerable Apter’s start in the business and his interaction with many of the biggest names in the industry.
Apter has been around for some of the most pivotal moments in the modern era of pro wrestling. And he seems to have a story about everyone.
From Bruno Sammartino’s stunning 1973 loss at Madison Square Garden to Ivan Koloff, to the birth of Wrestlemania, all the way up to today’s WWE Network, Apter has been in the middle of the mat mix.
He witnessed the prime of Antonino Rocca, the height of wrestling territories in the 1970s, Hulk Hogan becoming a mega-star and the fall of the territories in the 1980s, the Monday Night wars in the 1990s, and what the wrestling business has become today.
His popular group of wrestling publications would eventually give way to his 1wrestling.com website and appearances on the WWE Network.
Apter wore many hats during his time with the magazines. Among his many duties were selecting and purchasing photos for publication. His contributors included future wrestling greats Jim Cornette, Paul Heyman and Tammy Sytch (Sunny).
“To this day, Jim Cornette still contends I owe him about $30 for three photos,” laughs Apter. He was the guy we depended on for years in Memphis.”
Paul Heyman was a photographer in the WWWF area during the early 1980s. Pushy but with a contagious personality, the future Paul E. Dangerously didn’t care if he was paid or not, recalls Apter.
“I just love seeing my photos in the magazine,” he used to say. “I’ll give them to you for free if it will make it easier to make a name for myself as a photographer.”
Heyman, says Cornette, was treated the same as the other photographers — $10 per shot.
Apter met Sytch in the early ‘90s as she was traveling with boyfriend Chris Candido and documenting him breaking into the business, and suggested that she submit some of her photos.
“A few of her photos became centerfolds, and some were used for stories,” notes Apter. “She credits this time period as her first real job in the pro wrestling business. She made a whopping $10 per photo and eventually became our main source of photography at Ohio Valley Wrestling.”
And while Apter never bought a photo from this person since she wasn’t shooting for the magazines, he persuaded Vince McMahon Sr. to allow future supermodel Christie Brinkley to shoot a few matches at Madison Square Garden — but only the prelims, since she was moved from the ringside area once the main matches began.
“Mr. McMahon did not feel it was a safe place for a woman to be. I met Christie when I was shooting boxing matches, and we worked together many times.”
In addition to tending to much of the work in the office, which actually was the residence of longtime publisher Stanley Weston, Apter wrote pieces and took photos for the family of magazines that consisted of such newsstand favorites as The Wrestler, Inside Wrestling and Pro Wrestling Illustrated.
There aren’t many people in the wrestling business who Apter didn’t meet over the past several decades. And for many years, he earned their respect by keeping the most secretive, sensitive parts of the business behind the curtain. By not exposing the business, wrestlers and promoters felt at ease to confide in Apter and give him all the material he needed for his magazines, knowing that he would use discretion in what he published.
Maintaining the kayfabe of the business, Apter covered wrestling like Sports Illustrated would cover baseball — with a sense of legitimacy.
And while he insisted he “just worked there,” there was never any doubt that he was the face of the magazines.
With the ever-shrinking market for print publications about wrestling, Apter has been a survivor in the business over the years.
While the elder statesman of wrestling journalism recently hit the 70-year mark (“It’s just a number”), he is as energetic and busy as ever, conducting interviews for the WWE Network, hosting his “Apter’s Alley” web show as well as numerous wrestling conventions around the country, and manning his online site.
Chapter highlights features the famous wrestler who threatened him, the dead wrestler who was really alive, and how hanging out with Andy Kaufman led to the comic’s notorious feud with Jerry “The King” Lawler.
Introducing Kaufman to Lawler to set up their rivalry that went from Memphis to the David Letterman show is only one of the many stories Apter tells in the book, in which Lawler wrote the foreword.
“The biggest thing that ever happened in my entire career was the feud I had with Andy Kaufman,” writes Lawler. “Bill was single-handedly responsible for hooking me up with Andy. If it were not for him, that entire classic adventure would never have happened.”
Other high points of the book are Apter’s quest to track down Buddy Rogers, and the tragedies surrounding the Von Erich family. There’s also a great chapter regarding an unpleasant moment with Eric Bischoff (the former WCW head called Apter a “parasite”) and a threat from “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
If you like Bill Apter, and who doesn’t, then you’ll love this book.
Pleasure was ours
Nick Bockwinkel, who passed away last weekend at the age of 80, leaves behind a huge void in the wrestling business that sadly will never be filled.
Truly one of the greatest practitioners of the past half century, the charismatic Bockwinkel brought to the game a touch of class as well as a masterful artistry and respect that was passed down by his father, wrestling great Warren Bockwinkel, and his trainer, the legendary Lou Thesz.
Known for his erudite and finely crafted promos, the suave and sophisticated Bockwinkel always looked as though he had just walked off an Hawaiian beach. Referring to the heckling fans as “cretinous humanoids” or “8-to-5 white sock lifers,” he loved talking down to his mostly blue-collar audience, which quickly catapulted him to the hierarchy of wrestling heeldom.
Adding a little more salt to the wound, the slick-tongued trash-talker with that understated arrogant sneer would end his interviews with the caustic line, “And the pleasure has been all yours.”
That blatant bravado, of course, served a purpose. Fans would fill the arenas in hopes of seeing the cocky Bockwinkel get his comeuppance.
The four-time AWA world heavyweight champion was a master of the microphone who routinely used terms that the fanbase was unlikely to be familiar with. He would later admit that he carried around a small dictionary of big words to embellish his vocabulary and articulate to the masses.
The fact is that Bockwinkel really was one of the most intelligent people in the business. He understood ring psychology like few others, and his claim as “the smartest wrestler alive” could easily have been a shoot.
His former manager and partner in crime, the quick-witted Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, once quipped that if you asked Bockwinkel what time it was, he’d tell you how to build a clock.
Even more impressive, though, is that Bockwinkel could back up all that talk in the ring. He always carried himself like a champion, and was just shy of his 52nd birthday when he battled to a 60-minute draw with Curt Hennig on ESPN in a match that was hailed as one of the greatest of the ‘80s.
I was awed by his cool, commanding presence the first time I saw him on a TV screen. I was just as awed more than 40 years later when I shared the Lou Thesz/George Tragos Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame podium with him six years ago in Waterloo, Iowa. Tanned as always and flashing his million dollar smile, Nick still looked as though he had just walked off the beach.
On that day, the business truly had come full circle for me. From a bright-eyed youngster watching a legend on TV, to sharing a stage with him at a hallowed shrine to mankind’s oldest sport.
And I made sure to tell him that he had been right all along. The pleasure truly was all ours.
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