"Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad."
---Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird
With first a best-selling novel, then a classic Hollywood movie which after 60 years is still replayed several times a year on TV, To Kill A Mockingbird stands as one of the all-time classic pieces of American literature. I don't know where it rates in the UK, so perhaps I'd better synopsize a wee bit to make you understand why I will forever associate this legendary work of small-town Southern family and race relations, a novel so complex and heart-rending the real-life Truman Capote served as an inspiration for one of the two children at the center of the piece, with an uncouth, loudmouthed pro wrestler from New Jersey.
One of the main subplots, which provides the tension and excitement at the finish with a shocking reveal, revolves around Scout and Dill, the children of attorney Atticus Finch, and their fear of their unseen neighbor, Boo Radley. Stories are whispered that Boo is a monster, a giant who preys on children who, in the darkness, may wander too close to the spooky old Radley place. The children begin finding gifts being left for them in the knothole of an old tree, and start to understand that not all with Boo is as it seems. That point is driven home when, in the climax, the children's lives are saved from an attack by an enemy of their father by Boo himself, who, it is found, is not a monster at all but a gentle, silent brute victimized by his "difference" from the other townspeople, and the stigma of mental retardation in the old South.
When John Rechner passed away on April 12 at the age of 44, most of the wrestling world lost a hardcore, chair-swinging wrestler named Balls Mahoney, but I, and a lot of old-school Smoky Mountain Wrestling fans from the mid 1990's, lost a guy named Boo Bradley, who didn't need to be "hardcore" to get over.
It was summer 1994, and as booker of Smoky Mountain Wrestling, I had a problem. "Prime Time" Brian Lee, who along with "Suicide Blonde" Chris Candido and their manager Tammy Fytch comprised my top heel tag team, was finishing up to go to WWF fulltime as the "Evil Twin Undertaker". Of course, in hindsight we now know that was cancelled and was never gone through with, but we thought it was going to happen at the time, and I was trying to figure out who could replace Lee as Chris' partner when I first heard the name John Rechner. I heard that name from Chris himself, right after he said "My best friend works in Jersey as Abbuda Dein", and I countered with "What the fuck is that?"
It turned out John Rechner was just like Chris, a teenage prodigy who loved wrestling above everything else in life and had developed an ability to work, at least the moves if not the psychology, at an early age. He was much bigger than Chris, though--a little over six feet tall and at that time well north of 300 pounds with a horrible physique just beginning to be covered up with tattoos--but he could move, even fly, incredibly well for a big man, and both took bumps and went up for other guys very easily and safely. His offense was fairly light but looked like it killed you. Of course, I didn't know this when I basically, sight unseen, told Chris to have him come to TV. I trusted Chris' instincts and opinion, knew I would see the guy at TV before we did too much damage, and made no promises about the length of his run. Beggars couldn't be choosers, but I hoped he was good, because the angle I thought of was growing on me.
Especially the name.
Chris and Tammy would soon debut their new partner on SMW television, Chris' childhood friend, Boo Bradley. Apparently, throughout their lives, Chris had been the loudmouthed smartass who pissed people off, and Boo had been his huge, powerful but simpleminded friend who protected him when the fighting started. Tammy and Chris kept everyone away from Boo, allowing no one to get close enough to him to smarten him up that they were using him. He had no other friends, except, we later found out, a cat named Boots. Tammy and Chris pushed Boo around, browbeat him verbally and even slapped him in the face when he wasn't quick enough to do what they wanted. And of course, the fans soon enough started wanting to see him hit back.
At first, Boo wore cut off jeans and T-Shirts as the brawler from Chris' Jersey neighborhood, and I had given him the above description of Boo as food for thought, but he started taking it and running with it. He had a great "Aw, Shucks" face when he was being abused, and a disappointed whine that you really felt sorry for. He was entirely believable as a big, asskicking brute in his matches, but he could portray enough "big kid" body language in the angles to get sympathy.
This angle is as old as the hills in wrestling, but we "researched" a little NWA Varsity Club-era Kevin Sullivan and Rick Steiner for their interaction, and Boo ended up, after his eventual babyface turn, even dressing a little like a cross between a mental patient and the Mighty Igor from the late 1960's, complete with stuffed animals. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Now that Brian Lee was staying in SMW after all, we switched him babyface, and he took a number of partners, including Lance Storm, the Mongolian Stomper, and finally Cactus Jack to battle Candido and Boo over a few month period. Chris and Boo were an exciting tag team, because--as mentioned before--Boo loved wrestling, and loved being in the ring. He had brawling matches in SMW, especially after turning on Chris, but he didn't have to rely on, nor did he really get to do, "hardcore" wrestling.
Balls Mahoney would later become known in ECW as a "chair-swinging freak", a "hardcore" specialist who bled constantly, hit guys with chairshots to the head with brain-scrambling force (and took the same in return), took incredible bumps and shots with furniture, even in a few instances was set on fire. He never did any of that in SMW, obviously, because no one would have TAKEN one of those unprotected, real chair shots, and I don't think anyone would have GIVEN one on purpose either. I never even asked him to get that much juice, as I was afraid it would be bad heat to have a guy who was "obviously" mentally impaired bleeding a lot. Boo Bradley didn't need to do the hardcore stuff, he could genuinely work, and once he, like Chris when he had come in the year before, learned to slow down from the Northeast style, he got over with the fans.
The same year Boo debuted, I remember a wrestler from the Northeast visiting the SMW locker room, and showing us pictures of Tommy Dreamer's back after Sandman caned him, and pics of others involved in the early ECW angles. The ECW wrestlers in Philly were really, actually, hitting each other full force with weapons, taking risky and wild bumps with furniture, and all the stuff that would come to be known as "hardcore" wrestling. We all laughed at them, stared at the pictures in disbelief, and expressed a lot of relief that this type of behavior would be restricted to Philadelphia, which was a long way from Knoxville. Little did we know that this type of shit wasn't going to be restricted long, and it was going to get worse, with the side effects being what everyone in that locker room could have predicted.
But at the time, Boo Bradley didn't need "hardcore", he was getting over with talent. The fans were finally so ready to see Boo break free of his tormentors by Christmas 1994 that, at the Christmas Chaos event, the publicity leading up to Candido & Bradley with Tammy Fytch taking on Brian Lee & Cactus Jack in a Falls Count Anywhere match saw it revealed that Chris and Tammy had STOLEN Boots the Cat, Boo's only friend. They had basically made the statement that if Boo didn't make sure they won this match, they were going to kill Boots.
On Christmas night, in Knoxville's Civic Coliseum, the faces triumphed and Chris and Tammy went to make good on their threat. They placed Boots in a burlap sack, but Boo began chasing them around the arena, trying to recapture his friend. In one split-second duck behind a curtain, I handed off a NEW bag to Tammy, one NOT containing the cat she had placed in the bag in front of thousands of fans just moments before. Returning to ringside, she pitched the bag into the ring and Candido came off the top with a flying assdrop to squish the bag flat, and the place reacted much how they did when Koloff pinned Sammartino in the Garden. The last seen of Boo Bradley on Christmas night was the sight of him crying over the bag containing his only friend, flatter than a pancake.
Cactus Jack took Boo under his wing, even bestowing upon Boo a pair of his "lucky" tights on a memorable TV promo taped in the East Tennessee countryside, where Boo and Cactus walked into the sunset to the strains of "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother". Half the fun of Boo's matches was his entrance to the ring, where Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" would blare from the PA, and Boo would wander joyfully around the arena, laughing and waving, with fans young and old giving him stuffed toys like bears and rabbits. After each nights' events, we would have anywhere up to 20 stuffed animals to donate to Toys For Tots, that the fans had given to Boo because, well, they knew he loved animals. He got over with them and they liked him because, preposterous gimmick or not, it was HIM! Boo, or John, or whatever, was a big kid, full of energy, who liked to laugh, and would do anything to please. When you walked into the locker room, if he was there, you knew it. It was like having a giant fifth grader on a sugar rush around.
After Boo beat Candido in a loser leaves SMW match, so Chris could begin his WWE run in the "Bodydonnas", Boo stayed with SMW as an undercard babyface until just before we closed up in November 1995, when I finished him up as he was scheduled to become Ted DiBiase's evil Santa Claus, "Xanta Claus", in the WWF. This was a Vince McMahon pet gimmick that no one else understood, or "got", but it was rendered moot when Boo showed up, ate a big free meal at catering, and went to sleep in the locker room. We who knew Boo, loved Boo, but he WAS a little much unless you had the time and energy to invest in him.
As I mentioned earlier, soon after SMW, Boo became Balls and ECW became his home. I seldom saw him from this period until just a few years ago, when I began periodically running into him at a few fanfests in the Northeast. Balls had gotten really over in ECW, but at the expense of his body, and it only got worse after ECW closed down and he had nowhere to go save indy shows with even fewer restrictions. He had gotten a ride on the ECW revival WWE had produced, but when it closed, he was done there. When I saw him in recent years, he had lost a lot of weight from his younger days, and it caused him to look gaunt, even unwell. An innumerable amount of concussions that added brain damage to an already over-the-top personality, bumps through unyielding furniture that took a toll on his back and joints, scars from innumerable juice jobs and barbed wire crisscrossing his head and arms, and almost no remaining teeth from God knows what completed the picture of Balls over the last few years. He was not a good-looking, or healthy-looking man.
He didn't have to be talked into doing all that stuff. He loved wrestling, he loved the business, he wanted to single handedly get ECW or whatever company over and have a job doing what he loved and he would pay any price. Wrestling was his life, and even if he had to make sacrifices, what would he have if he didn't have wrestling? He did it all voluntarily. Where he was wronged is that there was no one to talk him out of it, or just flat out tell him no. That's where wrestling failed him. This type of thing didn't get out of hand until promoters began allowing it. That's a debate for another time, but in previous eras, the hardcore stuff that helped destroy Balls' body wouldn't have been allowed--even if he had wanted to do it, almost no one would have cooperated. But in the late 1990's, there was no one to save John Rechner from himself. Twenty years later, he had just worn his body and mind out.
Boo Bradley had put the soap dolls, the broken watch, the good-luck pennies in the tree. He had given us the only gifts he could, the only ones he had--wrestling matches that destroyed his body--and we had never put anything back. He had given us everything he had until he couldn't give any more, and we had been bad neighbors, because we hadn't put anything back in the tree. And it makes me sad.
"Why do you reckon Boo Radley's never run off?"
Dill sighed a long sigh and turned away from me.
"Maybe he doesn't have anywhere to run off to."
---Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird